Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Accidents Happen

Accidents Happen (Andrew Lancaster, Australia, 2009)
This film is quite an achievement, a very clever dysfunctional family black comedy. Its succeeds on at least two fronts. If you didn't know otherwise, there is almost nothing to suggest the film was made in Australia. It's set in Connecticut (as is the novel it is based on, by American-born author now living in Australia, Brian Carbee) and, other than Geena Davis in the lead role, most of the remaining cast are Australians. While it is relatively easy to recreate the American mid-west (cars, flag-poles, etc), it's the seamless use of accents that I found most impressive.

The Australian kitchen-sink dramas (KSDs) of recent years have usually not failed, but not succeeded either. They kind of sit in this nether region where they look nice, have good performances and handle worthy subjects, but never really get off the ground dramatically. Another success of Accidents Happen is that it has taken a genre that has been done to death, and injected pizzazz or oomph. It's got that wow-factor that US quirky indie comedies (QICs) aspire for, but have done to death as much as we've done our KSDs to death, but with a freshness and darkness the QICs lack. You could say that Accidents Happen takes the best of both KSD and QIC genres and leaves out what's hackneyed, and come up with a really fresh oddball film that works.

Davis plays the mother of an accident-prone family. She's bitter, foul-mouthed with wit and is perfect for the role. I've mentioned recently that English-language films don't seem to offer interesting roles for women - most of the interesting roles have fairly limited appeal and are usually chick-flicks. This character is a joy to behold and a gift to Davis (and vice versa), who injects the film with humour, energy and ultimately, warmth.

While the support cast (including Harry Cook and Joel Tobeck) are strong, special mention also goes to Harrison Gilbertson as the youngest son who is most prominent in the film. He's perfect for his role as the good but damaged and guilt-ridden son who parents the mother and puts up with the taunts of his brother (Cook). There's a pathos to the character that is both endearing and moving.

Like most good comedy, the story works because it has a foundation in reality. It's stylised, but underneath we can believe the scenarios presented. I know I can - I've been in multiple serious accidents (god only knows how I survived) and lost a child. The depictions of a family coming to terms with its various misfortunes ring true and are simultaneously funny and tragic.

The film's recurring theme song is terrific; in fact the music throughout is very good - perhaps unsurprising given the director has a musical background. The visuals are also excellent, with some lovely slo-mo shots of various accidents in close-up. The film has a dreamy look about it with the use of lighting and atmospherics. The whole production design has a lovely feel to it.

I noticed David Stratton on At the Movies questioning why an Australian film, made in Australian with mostly Australian actors should depict an American story. I think this is unnecessarily picky. It's not the first local film to do it. Virtually all of the scenes set in America in Mao's Last Dancer were shot in Sydney, for example. It's also not evident that Happy Feet is an Australian production. The Machinist (starring Christian Bale) and Planet 51 both appear to be American films, but are produced in Spain. For me, Accidents Happen showcases what we are capable of in terms of taking on the Americans at their own game and in our ability to adapt and diversify. Hey, we're doing something different and let's celebrate that!

I think the direction the local film industry is taking is a good thing. I've often said that what the industry needs is a steady number of runs on the board, and with Beneath Hill 60 also currently screening, that's two strong local films that local audiences should have no trouble connecting with and feeling good about what we produce. We need films like this, that audiences will go to because they want some good entertainment, and not because they're feeling charitable and a need to support the local industry. If we can continue to do this over a period of time, perhaps we can do what Germany has achieved over the last decade or so: lifted the percentage of local film attendances from around 5% to the current 25%. It's do-able.

Out of interest, I thought I'd peruse the multiplexes to see how widely the film is being screened. I was more than a little surprised to find that neither Hoyts, Greater Union nor Reading were screening it and Village has it on one screen only - the Rivoli (where I saw it), in their smallest cinema, which only has six rows of seats! I just don't get that at all. This seems to be a clear bias against Australian films, even though the casual viewer would have no idea it's not American and even though it's better than most films of the genre from America. There's clearly shit going down here and I'm not impressed with the distinct disregard of the big muscle players.


Anonymous said...

Jake WIlson form The Age clearly hated the film:


Paul Martin said...

That review is by Jim Schembri.

tumbleweed said...

Paul I went to this after reading your comments and really liked it. So often such tales are put together with plodding mawkishness milking the emotions til the eyes start rolling back but this pulls it all together in a really funny original and touching way I thought. She was great and though it does get a bit unweildy here and there it managed for me anyway to pull it off. Jim S missed a good show! ****

Paul Martin said...

FWIW, and completely by chance, I saw a film with Jake today and asked him what he thought of Accidents Happen. As it turns out, he didn't like it, but he never gave the impression he hated it like Schembri does.

Glad you liked it Weedster (I presume you don't want me referring to your real name?). What you call unwieldly, I might call the occasional flat spot perhaps. I don't think it's high art by any stretch of the imagination but, rather, populist cinema. For what it aims to achieve and who it's aimed at, I think it does it very well.

Paul Martin said...

If I were to give it a star rating, I'd give it three and a half out of five.

Nicholas Gruen said...

Thanks Paul,

David Stratton's comment that it should have been more 'Australian' is embarrassing.

Paul Martin said...

Have you seen it, Nicholas?

Nicholas Gruen said...

No not yet but I want to.

Last night I saw John Rabe - the first dividend from my closer relationship to this blog. A good movie though hard going on the content :(

(A fairly trivial thing that struck me was the way they had several silly unbelievable bits in it to make it more exciting - like the business of Rabe being separated from his wife by the gangway literally pulling him away from the ship. Hard to believe it happened as they showed it.)

d m k said...

The trailer didn’t look particularly promising, looked like a music video actually. I don't know, might wait for DVD, although some of your comments on the film interested me somewhat.

Anonymous said...

i found the film dull, unbelieveable and formulistic - another dud from an industry that seems to have almost no understanding of dramatic storytelling.

Paul Martin said...

Nicholas, yeah, there's a couple of melodramatic moments that I interpret as appealing to a mainstream audience. In some respects, I turn a blind eye to it unless it overpowers the film, because I understand why those sorts of decisions are made.

Derek, good call re: music video. In my opinion, most of the film's visuals are better than the trailer.

Anon, I don't know if it's meant to be realistic per se. Formulaic? Yes, I think so, too, but not that that's necessarily a bad thing.

Nicholas Gruen said...

Yes, I agree with you - it didn't harm the film in any important way.

tumbleweed said...

Yeah I'm undercover heh

Re Accidents Happen being unweildy, I meant I thought they were going to veer into too much weirdness with the interjection of kooks like the aunt (shades of Lovely Bones ...shudder) and others, won't catalogue them but you know how they just don't know when to stop sometimes and the fabric of the film can't hold the excesses, but I think this did mainly because of the strong performances and it was well written. And it always looked good. I can see now why Margaret got impatient with David going on about its incompatible elements and ignoring its central ones. But 3.5 is probably more realistic, I hadn't been to anything in ages (except Dragon Tattoo - foul cliched tripe that was ) so I was pretty excited to even be at the movies.. I saw Hurt Locker straight after and didn't think all that much of it though - 3.5

Paul Martin said...

Tumbleweed, the problem I have with Quirky Indie Comedies is they tend to showcase or spotlight what you might call kookiness to the nth degree. It's usually very self-conscious and draws too much attention to itself - like the grandfather's foul-mouth in Little Miss Sunshine. To me, that was just inserted to stand-out and didn't feel organic to the story. With Geena Davis' foul-mouth rants, it actually sounded real, blended with a lot of dialogue that would be simultaneously funny, scary and pathetic.

The whole quirkiness factor was kept in check by a sense of pathos, which I suppose has been elsewhere described or marketed as bitter-sweet comedy.

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was tripe for me, but it has a target audience who seem to love it, so it's doing something right.

Hurt Locker is good but not great, which is typical of Oscar-winning films. I think Beaufort, which it appears to have borrowed heavily from, is a considerably better film.

d m k said...

While definitely not a good film, it’s thought-provoking as it makes one wonder what the point of this kind of production is. Who is the audience for such a film? As a narrative, it’s pretty much useless; as a serious drama, as a lampoon – it’s utterly ineffective. As an experiment, is it a triumph? Should we care? There's nothing engaging about this film, there's no reason for its existence. As for the look of the film, It’s only superficially attractive, or not at all. Music Videos have left Saturday morning Television, and are now haunting us on the big screen... I’m not impressed.

Paul Martin said...

Derek, given the type of film, don't you think that's over-intellectualising? I just think it's a bit of entertainment that will appeal to a popcorn-type audience.