Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Week in Review - 27/12/09

  • The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, USA/UK/New Zealand, 2009)
  • Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, UK/Australia/USA, 2009)

  • Network (Sidney Lumet, USA, 1976)
  • L'argent (Robert Bresson, France/Switzerland, 1983)
  • Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, Australia, 1979)
The Lovely Bones
I found this film OK, if not a little disappointing. With Wahlberg in it, it could almost be The Happening in terms of look and feel. I actually didn't mind Wahlberg in The Happening but his acting seems a bit weak here. Weisz and Sarandon don't really do much so it's left to the young actress Saiorse Ronan and Stanley Tucci, who seems to be channeling Bruce Willis (esp. á la The Jackal). Actually Tucci's is the surprise performance in the film and is very creepy.

I do like the metaphysical element and the way it's enmeshed with a slight horror element (much more maturely than most contemporary horror) and yet somehow the film doesn't seem to have the impact that it could. Perhaps it's because the film aims a little low, trying to please the masses with an otherwise difficult subject. It's actually quite conventional with some pretty blatant contrivances.

Heavenly Creatures remains my favourite Jackson film, and there's one scene that makes a nod to a particular scene in that film. The Lovely Bones is worth seeing as part of Jackson's work, but don't expect anything major.

Sherlock Holmes
I had no intention of seeing this film, but taking the kid for a bike ride and ending up at the local cinema, it was either Sherlock Holmes or a two-hour wait. The kid was about as impressed as I was - not very much. I think the film suffers from two major things: firstly there's Ritchie's kinetic style. Some love it, I don't. It appears sporadically, enough to remind you it's a Ritchie film, but not enough to spoil it completely if you're tired of his devices.

Secondly, the film tries to be too many things without focusing on what Sherlock Holmes was always about. It's got a bit of Harry Potter, a bit of Batman and Robin, Starsky and Hutch and so on. In the end, it's just another generic action film with little to distinguish it from all the other bland action films and certainly little that defines it as Sherlock Holmes.

People have raved about the production design. I'd say it's just OK, nothing special you haven't seen before. Mostly, it disguises its flaws by keeping it dark and grimy. A bit more colour would have been nice. And what's become of Robert Downey Jr, that he has to stoop to such bland roles? He may be a good actor, but here he's just playing a generic Robert Downey Jr character, the same as all the other bland comic ones. If you're a fan of his, I suppose you'd swoon to see more of the same, but for me it's all a bit tired and formulaic. Jude Law would have made a better Holmes, rather than the smart-arse Dr. Watson sidekick he plays.

Ultimately, I found the film quite laboured and it was a struggle to stay awake. I nodded off at least four times - and this is an action film! The action is itself completely run-of-the-mill, the humour is bland and the characterisations are bland. Lord Blackwood seems to be modelled on Valdemort, and the the twists surrounding him are predictable. What should distinguish the film from a zillion others like it, is the Holmes character and methodology, which has been mutilated beyond recognition and we're left with mediocrity. I can't recommend this to anyone.

I'd seen clips of Network over the years, it always looked good, and of course it is. I love satire, and this is so understated on one level (ie, the humour) and overstated on another. The anger is what fuels the narrative, whether it's Howard Beale, Maureen Dowd (the female, black communist - what a joke), the Ecumenical Liberation Army or Faye Dunaway's over-the-top television producer character.

Everyone's "mad as hell". You've got the network owner in his mad rant who is actually telling it as it is. Democracy and countries are an illusion. The Russians weren't sitting around a table discussing Marx - they were plotting business the same as the Chinese and the Americans.

Actually, there is so much insight in this film with its analysis of society, politics, money and yes, television networks, that I find it amazing that all this can make it into a mainstream film. I suppose like Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon, it shows how backward we've become (in terms of what can get made in the mainstream). The film pre-empts reality television by two decades, perhaps like the books 1984 and Brave New World, extrapolating into the future and actually being spot on. Where the networks were going all those decades ago was despicable, and yet we have descended much lower into the bowels of television hell. Man, if only we could make raw films for the mainstream like this today.

I've only seen a couple of Bresson's films, and they're decades apart. Wow, what an aesthetic! It'd be very hard to get away with this today. There is so little embellishment with fixed cameras and sparse dialogue, and the acting is so raw - at times quite clunky. I had no idea where this film was going, so when it went to where it did, it was a bit of a shock. It seems to have a social message, a critique of the social system and how an innocent person wronged can have disastrous effects. But it's also a meditation on money and its corrupting influence. The camera certainly dwells on the physical transactions of money.

I imagine Bresson is not everyone's cup of tea, but this affected me considerably. I've been discussing Cassavetes recently, and while the two directors' styles are very different, both have some commonality with their raw aesthetics. Cassavetes' films are usually quite volatile and emotional, Bresson the opposite. There is an emotional detachment, underscored by the frequent shots of people's legs as they walk past, devoid of dialogue. I feel I need to work through more of Bresson's work - L'argent was his final film.

Breaker Morant
Yes, it must be Xmas time, because I've watched 3 DVDs so far this week, about as many as I've watched in some years. Anyway, it's a good opportunity to whittle down the number of unseen DVDs in my collection, and I must be one of the last people to see this one. And wow, what a film, for it's day and even for today. A veritable who's who of the Australian film industry, it showcases many who have probably never done finer work since (Bryan Brown anyone? Or even Bud Tingwell perhaps).

This is, of course, an impressive local film and I remember when I was in the US in the 80s, whenever anyone found out I was Australian, they would always say "Oh, I loved Breaker Morant" (and Crocodile Dundee, but we won't go there). It really has a mature aesthetic, not unlike European art cinema, with a strong Australian flavour. I don't know how historically accurate it is, but it really has a lot to say about politics and political expediency, even in the context of current events such as the war in Iraq. It seems this guy Morant and Hancock got badly done by, even if they were scumbags. They were poorly done by by both their superiors and the British and Australian governments.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Week in Review - 20/12/09

  • Precious (Lee Daniels, USA, 2009)
  • Sayat Nova (The Colour of Pomegranates, Sergei Paradjanov, USSR, 1968)
  • Avatar (James Cameron, USA, 2009)
  • Bright Star (Jane Campion, UK/Australia/France, 2009)
  • Planet 51 (Jorge Blanco/Javier Abad/Marcos Martínez, Spain/UK/USA, 2009)
  • The Killers (Robert Siodmak, USA, 1946)


I'm a bit hesitant to write about this film because it's a worthy film, well-made and deserves to be seen. I, however, found it very disturbing and came out of the cinema feeling unwell. For me, it does for bleak social drama what torture porn does for horror. It subjects its audience to increasing levels of depravity, testing one's endurance.

While films like Antichrist and Irreversible challenge with their depictions of physical violence, this one is more about the sexual, emotional and psychological abuse endured by its protagonist, Precious, in an impressive screen debut by Gabourey Sidibe. Mo'Nique also impresses as Precious' obnoxious and foul-mouth mother, and the film features various raw and naturalistic cameos by singers Mariah Carey (as a social worker) and Lenny Kravitz (as a nurse).

All in all, this is a gutsy film, that others seemed to appreciate more than I - most of the audience at the screening I attended were Amnesty International members. Again, I hope it finds an audience, and its recent nominations for various awards may help. But it's not something I'll see again.

The Colour of Pomegranates
This film screened with Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev which, with a running time of 165 minutes, made it impossible for me to stay. My pneumonia earlier in the year has meant I have to overlook such late nights as I focus on staying well. And that's a pity, because that meant my closing Melbourne Cinémathèque film of the year was a disappointment.

The film is without dialogue and seems largely theatrical, and fringe at that. I had trouble staying awake and found it boring as hell. I suppose that makes me a cultural philistine. So be it.

I saw Avatar the first time in 3D and indulged my curiosity by seeing it in 2D. It was a fascinating experience.

First, the visuals are nowhere near as strong. They're relatively flat - and I don't just mean because they're not in 3D. The colours seem somewhat drained of their brightness we see in 3D. It seems that the film was made specifically for 3D and perhaps it's been further processed for 2D to try to get it to look acceptable. It is acceptable, but if this was your only experience of the film, you'd be wondering what all they fuss about this film was about. Yet, I prefer the 2D experience, because there's nothing between me and the screen. As I've written previously, the 3D technology is a distraction.

Secondly, the story stands up quite well on second viewing. In fact, some of the points that slightly bothered me the first time (like the environmental and terror messages) seemed insignificant this time. Perhaps it's because I knew they were coming and when they did they had less impact. It was like this for me with The Matrix also. The first time, the love bit at the end was a bit silly, but on repeat viewings it seemed perfect.

While the story is still nothing special, it is solid and has enough meat on its bones to engage an audience. Bear in mind that I'm not the target audience and I'm seeing it for the second time. At the point where Jake Sully turns up as Taruk-something or other, it even brought tears to my eyes. I love that scene.

Watching it in 2D, I was more conscious of the film being mostly CGI, much like Lord of the Rings, but it wasn't a problem.

As I memtnioned, if you watched this film only in 2D, you'd be wondering what all the fuss was about. If you see it in 3D, you'll know. And I do think it's worth seeing again in 2D. I may even see it again in 3D, just to take more note of the technical aspects.

Bright Star
This is certainly a beautiful looking film, one of the finest for the year, perhaps even more so than The Piano. The music ain't bad either. The narrative is a bit flat for me, certainly no The Piano. But, to its credit, its more emotionally engaging than most period films, especially by the Brits. The French do period much better than the Brits, and this seemed more in that vein and will, I imagine, be well-received in Europe.

Cornish does take centre-stage and rises to the challenge. I was impressed by both her performance and her accent. At times, from certain angles, she looked eerily like a young pre-Botox Nicole Kidman.

All in all, the film is low-key and artistically credible. Some of those outdoors shots are magnificent, and so are the indoors ones. FWIW, the missus loves it as much as The Piano, and I'm thinking maybe it's more of a chick flick than The Piano.

Planet 51
It is amazing to realise that this is a Spanish film, because it looks, sounds and feels like a Hollywood middle-of-the-road kids holiday flick. It's OK, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you're taking kids to a holiday flick. For that, it's enjoyable enough, but otherwise I'd give it a miss.

The Killers
I saw this at the discount shop by the Kino cinema and at $5 I knew I couldn't go wrong. Immensely entertaining, funny, suspenseful and a class film noir. Burt Lancaster gets top billing but his role plays out in the shadows of Edmond O'Brien who seems to be channeling Humphrey Bogart, as an insurance investigator who is attempting to discover why a gas attendant was a target for two hit-men.

The film uses every cliche, but looks fantastic in black and white, using long shadows and tough-guy speak. It's no challenge, just fun.

Monday, December 14, 2009

It was 3 years ago today

It was three years ago today that I had an unexpected knock at the door, just prior to 8am as I was about to leave for work. It was a couple of local police officers who had the unenviable task of informing us that Abhi, my 17 year old son, had in the early hours of that morning taken his life. As I write this, I feel reasonably calm but I have at times been in dread for the last week thinking of this cruel anniversary, and how it might affect me.

I myself have confronted death twice this year, once in a motorcycle accident at the start of the year and again with pneumonia mid-year. I wasn't afraid on either occasion, at least not obviously so. And while I miss Abhi terribly, I feel confident that, as I felt for myself, death is not the end. There are six billion people in this world, and every one of them will die. Billions have come before us and every one of them have also died. It seems the most natural thing in the world, and I think that our fear of death is both natural and yet largely unfounded. Unfounded, because we fear the unknown.

As I lay on the footpath in a crumpled heap earlier in the year, I knew there was immense pain, and yet I felt divorced from it. As I closed my eyes to meditate, thinking that I may be leaving my body, I accepted that this may be the end. I felt thankful that I had kissed my partner and younger son good-bye. But Death spared me another day.

What I'm trying to say is that while we may miss a loved one who has left us - and that leaving could be moving interstate or overseas, and not just by death - I do firmly believe that if it is meant to be, we will be together again. The difference between death and someone moving is that the former is final, complete, irreversible. But we must all be separated at some time.

Still, I carry the grief of a parent who has lost a child, and I don't know if that will ever go away. There's a place in my heart, it seems, that is empty. I loved Abhi and I love him still. I talk to him sometimes, but I don't think he hears me. Wherever he is, I'm sure he has moved on, to fulfill his destiny, whatever that may be. And now we are left to fulfill ours.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Week in Review - 13/12/09

  • The Intruder (Roger Corman, USA, 1962)
  • The March (James Blue, 30 mins, USA, 1964)
  • Istoriya Asi Klyachinoy, kotoraya lyubila, da ne vyshla zamuzh (Asya's Happiness, Andrei Konchalovsky, USSR, 1966)
  • Katok i skripka (The Steamroller & the Violin, Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1961)
  • Avatar (James Cameron, USA, 2009)
  • American Dreamer (L.M. Kit Carson, Lawrence Schiller, USA, 1971)
  • The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper, USA, 1971)

The Intruder
I'm not familiar with the work of Roger Corman, who I'm told was a prolific B-grade film maker. This piece is pretty much also a B-grade film, but one with a message - one of racial tolerance that highlights the hatefulness of those who opposed racial integration in America in the early 1960s. It's a blast to see a young William Shatner in an early role as a political antagonist, who arrives in a town to fan the flames of racial hatred. The film doesn't feel significant artistically, but fascinating for both the subject, the context within the Hopper season at ACMI, and the casting of Shatner.

The March
This film is notable for including, in its entirety, Martin Luther King's famous "I had a dream" speech outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC in 1968. It is not an exceptional documentary in any way, concerning itself largely with the small details of ordinary people making their way to the Freedom March. It is, however, an excellent companion piece to The Intruder - both films are concerned with charismatic speakers on opposing sides of the race issue. It's also very relevant as part of the Hopper season to setting the scene in terms of the social and political climate at the time of "the New Hollywood". Apparently Hopper also partook in the Freedom March and took many photographs at that time.

Asya's Happiness
Screening as part of the Melbourne Cinémathèque season on dissenting Soviet cinema from the 1960s, this film doesn't seem overly subversive at all. In fact, it pretty much just depicts bleak rural life as it was, and perhaps that is why it was banned for over twenty years. Perhaps anything that depicted the proletariat as anything but happy and satisfied was a threat to the former regime. The film has an almost documentary look and feel, perhaps partly because of the largely non-professional cast.

The Steamroller & the Violin
I don't have much to say about this early Tarkovsky film, other than to say it was of most interest to me to see another piece by this famed director.

This film will do very well, no doubt about it, though it is over-hyped of course. Here's my initial random thoughts, just to get them down in words.

I'll preface my comments by saying that I don't like 3D and watching Avatar confirmed to me that the technology is a distraction. But this is also the best example of 3D that I've seen. The glasses are the lightest and the effects are easily the best. I decided pretty early in the film that I didn't want to focus too closely on the 3D effect, because it kept distracting me. At first it reminded me of the stereoscope glasses we had in our childhood, where something in the foreground appears to be in front of something in the background, much like a cut-out story book. This is especially so for the live action, which probably constitutes 10% or less of the film, which is mostly CGI animation.

All up, I'm glad I saw the film in 3D and it's quite a marvel to see how far it has come, especially with the animation which is of a very high quality. The film obviously toys with the cross-over between live action, animation and gaming. The creation of fantasy creatures is very inventive (though some stereotypes/cliches are obviously there, but I didn't have a problem with it as it comes with the territory). The visuals are both flawed and yet better than I expected. This is a film that needs to be seen on the giant screen at Melbourne Central or similar. I've never been to I-max, but that could be an amazing experience.

The film's blend of action, fantasy and yes, romance, gives it fairly wide appeal. Some of the issues it addresses are a bit overt - like environmentalism, alternative energy and the war on terror - but I didn't want to nitpick over that.

Giovani Ribisi, quite an OK actor in his native tongue, really irritates me in his English language roles, perhaps because he always plays a sleaze as he does in this film. In terms of actors, he is the weakest link. The colonel is an obvious stereotype and you can see where his role is going to go from the start, but it's all in a spirit of fun I suppose.

The film is quite a bit more violent than what I expected and while my 9yo enjoyed it (3.5 stars from him - and I expected he'd give it 4-5), it would be distressing for kids under 6 or 7.

Mostly, what I think the film achieves - nothing in narrative, of course - is that it has pushed the envelope in terms of technology. It's trying something different and deserves accolades and needs to be seen for that. Not that it has achieved the levels the hype leads us to believe. Maybe it will get credit in time to come as the turning point when it all started, but it's just not there yet.

I'm reading a series of books at the moment, the Books of Pellinor by Alison Croggon, who is the person that got me started at blogging. They're fantasy and very much in the vein of The Lord of the Rings. These books and Avatar have much in common thematically, as does The Matrix.

I might see the film again, but in 2D to see how it compares. Some impressive effects won't be there, but I'd like to just enjoy the film without the distraction.
4 stars from me.

American Dreamer
The American Dreamer highlights how out of it Hopper was at the time of making The Last Movie and it was just as incoherent as he was. It's only value for me was to demonstrate where Hopper was at and where the fringe of society was at, at that time. That's not insignificant, given that it helps to set the scene for the Hopper season of films. But as a film, it's pretty shit, at best.

The Last Movie
Not must-see, that's for sure, though the latter has more to engage one. Apparently Hopper made a cut for the studio for release then Jodorowsky got into his ear and Hopper made a wild director's cut, which is what screened today. I'd like to see the commercial cut, which was hardly distributed anyway, because the director's cut has interesting moments but is incoherent. It could be more watchable if it were put into a less jump cut version.

I have/had a friend who I recently lost to drugs. I say lost, not that he died, but that he's lost in a haze and that haze filters all his interactions and we can no longer relate because I don't take drugs. For me, the devastating effects of substance abuse are obvious, though my friend can't see it at all. Hopper was deep in such a haze when making The Last Movie and seems to have been suffering various delusions of grandeur and had intended profound meanings in the film that aren't obvious to the audience. To me, it's just lost, like Hopper once was.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Week in Review - 6/12/09

  • Vengeance (Johnnie To, Hong Kong/France, 2009)
  • Proshchanie/The Parting/Farewell (to Matiora) (Elem Klimov, Soviet Union, 1983)
  • Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, USA, 2009)
I basically just stumbled on this film by chance when I couldn't find anything worth seeing and starting browsing through yourMovies. I was a bit gobsmacked to find that a new Johnnie To film was screening and that I'd heard nothing about it. Hoyts Melbourne Central regularly screens Asian films, which seem to cater to the large Asian student market, and it was here that I recently saw the Korean film, Haeundae.

We had a To season at Melbourne Cinémathèque last year and I really enjoyed the style of Exiled. Vengeance shares a lot in common with that film - it's a Hong Kong crime action thriller. To does for this genre what Sergio Leone did for the Western, and his clever use of music at key moments (ie, showdowns) conjures up a sense of the spaghetti Western.

I was surprised to find the film opening with French actress Sylvie Testud, and it is Johnny Hallyday who is the main protagonist as her father who arrives from France to wreak vengeance on those who killed the members of his family. Now Johnny Hallyday is not really actor, even though he did OK with Patrice Leconte's L'homme du train (The Man on the Train). But, like that film, it doesn't really matter. He just has to look cool, spout a few lines and let the director take control of the story and the action.

This is, after all, a Hong Kong action flick - not something you take too seriously. There's the usual bunch of crims, who we get attached to. The smart guy, the fat guy and another guy. There's the double crossing and the twists and the impossible escapes. There's a reasonable amount of blood but it never looks real. The humour is just right and all in all it's good entertainment in a genre that generally we don't see enough of. So, if you can, take the opportunity to see this film by a very credible but under-valued film-maker.

The Parting
Asya's Happiness didn't turn up on time at Melbourne Cinémathèque, so this film was selected to replace it at short notice. Hopefully we'll screen Asya's Happiness next week. I didn't know one from the other, but was pretty excited to learn that we were going to see a film by the great Elem Klimov, the director of what is perhaps the most powerful film I've ever seen, and certainly my favourite war film - Come and See - which was made after The Parting.

The Parting was written by Klimov's wife, Larissa Shepitko (The Ascent), and was also to be directed by her. Tragically, she died in a car accident on the first day of shooting and Klimov later took up the project as a tribute to his wife.

I was amazed at how much Klimov's style had developed in the short time between making The Parting and Come and See. I don't think one would appreciate the earlier film quite so much if they hadn't seen the later one. In short, Klimov perfected in Come and See, techniques that he was clearly attempting in The Parting. The most obvious similarity was a forest scene where the camera stalks an elderly member of the village Matiora, whose days are numbered. The village, on an island is to be deserted and flooded to make way for a hydro-electric project.

There's two more weeks of the 60s Soviet Cinema screening before the year's end, and I'd like to catch as many of these as I can. Next week, the first film is not yet confirmed (apparently the print of Heat is not up to scratch), which will be followed by Tarkovsky's The Steamroller and the Violin, followed by Shepitko's Wings.

Where the Wild Things Are
Spike Jonze has always had a wild imagination, having directed such notable films as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. This latest effort doesn't have the benefit of Charlie Kaufman's writing that those films did, but it doesn't really matter as Jonze (with Dave Eggers as co-writer have found their own voice.

Where the Wild Things Are
is an inventive translation of Maurice Sendak's famous book, which I and all my children have grown up on. The book is mostly visual with very little dialogue; Jonze has done similarly, but fleshed out the story with more of Max and his family, and more adventures with The Wild Things. The story has been altered, particularly Max's home life and the nature of his arrival and return from the land of The Wild Things. While I was looking forward to seeing how Jonze depicted Max's leaving home, I wasn't disappointed by the re-interpretation. It all flowed consistent with the source material's sensibilities.

The most fascinating aspect for me is the re-creation of The Wild Things using Jim Henson's Creature Factory. These animatronics/giant puppets are just amazing, a kind of cross between some of Henson's Muppets and the Banana Splits characters (from the 1970s), but on a grand scale. Their detailed reproduction is unmistakably authentic and their facial details, including eye and mouth movements are truly impressive. There's a real charm to this kind of old-fashioned special effects that leaves CGI for dead. I mean, we know these are just puppets, but the physicality, the reality of their existence is very endearing. We know that this action is not taking place in front of a green screen, it's mostly all real.

The variety of scenery (mostly filmed in Victoria) is splendid, adding wonderfully to the visuals. I loved the music, much of which was children singing, giving a sense of playground laughter and frolicking. As a film, Where the Wild Things Are has a real air of originality, a freshness and playfulness that should appeal widely to both children and adults in equal measure.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Cteq and ADG

I just got back from seeing Elem Klimov's Proshchanie (The Parting, aka Farewell, aka Farewell to Matiora, 1983). It was written by Klimov's wife, Larisa Shepitko (The Ascent), who was also going to direct it but was tragically killed in a car accident on the first day of shooting. A grief-stricken Klimov took over the project as a tribute to his wife. I was particularly keen to see it (though it screened as a last-minute replacement for Asya's Happiness, which didn't arrive in time), on the strength of Klimov's Come and See, perhaps the most powerful and certainly one of the most amazing films I have seen.

The Parting is about a village, Matiora, which is being vacated by the authorities so it can be flooded for a hydro-electric plant. While not in the same league as Come and See, it was meaningful to see the parallels with the later work.

On a completely different subject, when I got home there was an email from the Australian Director's Guild asking me to post information about the following that may be of interest. I cut and paste it as follows:
ADG/AFI Meet the Director

When: 11am-12.30pm Saturday 12 December

Where: Kino Cinema
Collins Place
45 Collins St

Meet Australia's Best Directors
a discussion with the Samsung Mobile 2009 AFI Award
Best Director Nominees

Meet Warwick Thornton (Sampson and Delilah), Robert Connolly (Balibo) and Rachel Ward (Beautiful Kate) in this exclusive discussion and screening event.

This unique opportunity to have the directors on the same stage will allow you to gain insight into the directors craft, hear inside stories about filmmaking and catch a glimpse of the films that earned these directors their nominations, only hours before the award winners are announced!

TICKETS: Full $12, Concession (students, pensioners, unemployed, members of MEAA, ACMI & screen guilds) $10, ADG & AFI Members $9. (Plus booking fee)

Tickets available through Moshtix now:, 1300 GET TIX (438 849), on your mobile and all moshtix outlets including Polyester Records and Greville Records. If purchasing concession or member tickets please bring proof of eligibility on the day.