Sunday, 27 September 2009

MIFF : Van Dieman's Land movie review

The camera sweeps around hills and valleys. They are covered in trees and there is no sign of inhabitants. The land is strange and forbidding. The river is wide and deep. On the shore, 8 prisoners stand to attention awaiting orders to swim out to a long boat. They are to spend the day cutting trees and hauling the logs to the river so they can be transported downstream.
Led by Greenhill they attack their overseer and escape inland. They have a few supplies: a billy, an axe, a knife and precious little else. The band of escapees are English, Scots and Irish; little love is lost between them.
We are treated to the thoughts of one of the escapees, Alexander Pearce (Oscar Redding), in his native Irish. Director Johnathan Auf Der Heide said that the purpose of the foreign tongue in a voiceover throughout the film was to alienate an Australian audience, familiar with the landscape, to better identify with the aliens who have escaped into this wilderness.
So strange in fact is that when supplies run out, they do not see anything which they can hunt and eat. Despite all the rivers they cross, there are no fish. Surrounded by trees, they spy no birds.
Tracking through the bush there are no wallabies, wombats or other native animals. I thought I heard the curious cry of a Devil during one night scene however this was short lived and never referred to again. Perhaps it was the devil himself come to judge them.
Four of the escapees decide to sacrifice one of their band for the common good. After clubbing him with an axe they hang him up to bleed. They mean to use him as food. This, they reason, is their only means of survival.
They continue to wander “east” looking for civilisation and settlement but every step leads to another hill to climb, another river to cross. “By this tree, on this rock, in this place … where are we?”
Two retreat and head back for Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour rather than participate in this cannibalism. They are dead either way. It is not long before another is taken for the common good. “Four godless men walk to the devil.”
The palate of the film has all the red, all the warmth, removed from it. The blues, greys and dark greens indicate a hardness and a cold which they cannot overcome.
Pearce becomes quieter the longer the march continues, keeping his own council. Instead of the group surviving, the four become two and what common bond they held has been well and truly rent. The two men walk side by side, many metres apart. Neither has slept for fear what the other might do and are nearly asleep on their feet. Their camp at night is now two fires, at a distance. It is when Greenhill finally sleeps soundly that his fate is sealed.
It is curious to note that the longer he travels, Pearce sheds his boots and does not take advantage of a warm coat from one of his fallen comrades. It is as if he is stoking the fires of damnation within his own belly and no longer has need of outer warmth.
The men that play the convicts all appear wiry and tough. They speak and act with a manly familiarity. The fact that all actors have been friends for some years aids how comfortable they are around each other. Even in the context of the story, they have been transported together, lived under the hardship of the penal colony together and slaved in their work together.
The tension of the film builds with each step as they face extinction, one way or another. The reality of the penal settlements in these remote parts of Australia is that they did not need to be excessively guarded. The real prison was the Southern Ocean on one side and the Tasmanian wilderness on the other. The fact that so few escaped and survived in the whole history of convict Australia demonstrates how effective the location was. This story is based on the real life confessions of Pearce who was captured near Hobart around 1822. His tale of cannibalism and murder were considered so extraordinary that the magistrate refused to believe him, thinking that his fellow escapees were still at large. He was sent back to Macquarie Harbour where a year later he escaped again but was found more quickly with some of the remains of his unfortunate fellow escapee in his pockets.
In this film, Van Dieman’s Land, it turned out that the price of freedom was very steep indeed.

Friday, 18 September 2009

MIFF : $9.99 movie review

Did you know that heaven is just like the Sunshine Coast? This is accoridng to the Angel (voiced by Geoffrey Rush) as he talks with an old man, Albert (Barry Otto).
Tatia Rosenthal offers a whimsical insight into the lives of residents of an apartment block (with architecture typical of Tel Aviv according to Rosenthal) that could in reality be anywhere. She reveals their hopes and disappointments as they each struggle to come to terms with what gives their lives meaning and purpose. The title of the film is the cost of a self-help book, “The Meaning of Life,” for only $9.99 which ironically nobody has time to listen to (there are six meanings in case you were wondering).
The source material is Israeli writer Etgar Keret’s short stories who, with Rosenthal, re-worked his stories so that the narrative threads all complement each other and bring out the themes of longing and yearning. We follow a single father and his two grown sons, one looking for work, the other looking for love; another single father with one young son who loves soccer; a widowed and lonely pensioner; a homeless man desperate for a cup of coffee; and a young couple who can’t commit.
The humour and magical realism of the characters take you beyond the clay models and step-by-step animation where every movement has been painstakingly crafted in front of the camera. The texture and complexion of the models give them character and definition even down to the moisture in their eyes (done with KY Jelly in case, again, you were wondering).
According to Rosenthal very little of the animation was left for post production so virtually everything you see was actually modelled and moved, frame by frame. The water scenes, the lake and the shower, was done via CGI and this takes on a life-like sheen which works well.
But, as always, it is stories that move us and characters we care about. The voices are a veritable who’s who of Australian film : Rush, Otto, Anthony La Paglia, Samuel Johnson, Ben Mendelsohn, Tom Budge and Claudia Karvan with the animation performed in a wharehouse in North Sydney.
Rosenthal has toured this film around all the world’s film festivals and she said that the biggest audience laughs came from this Australian audience (I bet she says that to everyone). But if that’s true, it should not come as a surprise. There is an undeniable Australian wit and charm which the audience did indeed respond very warmly to.
The slightly absurdist and imaginative ‘extra’ characters came in the form of minitature stoner buddies and boneless ex-lovers, used as couches.
The film is cleverly done and economically told, with a running time of just 78 minutes. Note that despite the fact it is an animation, it is not for children, the nude sex scene puts paid to that.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

An Andalousian Dog and Salvador Dali

As part of the Salvador Dali exhibition at NGV, which is finishing soon, is the screening of Luis Buñuel 1929 short film, Un chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) upon which Dali collaborated. You can watch the whole film here.

Some observations about Dali’s influence on Buñuel’s film:


• The prologue for the film is a man stropping a razor. He holds the woman’s head back and slits her eye open. This is an infamous and shocking image designed grab our attention. If the eyes are the window to the soul then by opening the eye we are able to gaze deep into our subconscious and discover what our true motivations are.
• The full orbed moon is often a character in Dali’s work (we are reminded also of the moon which becomes the dancers head in Dali’s Disney animation) – here a substitute for the eye, with the trail of cloud an image of the cut of the razor


• A man’s suit is laid flat on the bed but it is empty. Like the drawings of Dali’s skin : there is no heart or body or brain; only the shell which has no substance within it.
• Does the androgynous figure on the road the represent goodness or morality? When she is run down by a car, the man, staring from the window is overcome with lust.
• He is unable to contain himself. He throws himself upon the woman and fondles her breasts through her dress. We see him as he imagines: the breast uncovered, his eyes rolled back in ecstasy and his mouth drooling.


• The woman escapes and as the man lunges at her, he is weighed down by two ropes which he pulls from the wall. The ropes drag two grand pianos, the carcasses of sheep and two priests. The guilt and shame of his lust drag on his conscience which has become rotten. We see his hand caught in the door, grabbing for the woman. This a similar image to the hand found washed up on the beach. Out of the palm of his hand is another familiar Dali motif: there is a rent in his hand with ants pouring out of it, eating his flesh
• The woman observes the new room but it is laid out like the first room and the film has a jump back in time of 16 years. The younger man becomes the older man against the wall and he chooses to turn and shoot the younger man. As he falls in death we see him fall past the woman he once loved but she is a mirage. She no longer has any love for what this man has become.
• The short film ends with the woman escaping to the beach where she meets the young man and asks him the time. He does not answer but shows her his watch. Is this her memory of a happy day many years in the past? Certainly the sunny beach in spring time is a familiar location for many of Dali’s happiest memories as a young boy on family holidays in Cadaqués on the Spanish coast.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

MIFF : Blessed movie review

My Year 12 English teacher thought long and hard about the one word that in any culture, at any time, would provoke a reaction. That word he came up with was ‘mother.’ And it is this sensibility that Ana Kokkinos (Book of Revelation) uses to underpin her new film, Blessed.
Both the affirming “she’s your mother, of course she loves you,” and the reproving “you’re her mother, you take care of her” are the strands that Kokkinos uses to follow children of different families throughout one day and then start that day again from the perspective of their mothers.
The children are all aged around 15, a testing age for the most functional of families, and we follow them run away from home, skip school, drink and steal. Some feel misunderstood while others have been the victims of neglect and abuse. The mothers, by and large, are single and working hard to provide for their kids and make ends meet. All I think, had they been asked, would have agreed that motherhood came with no instruction manual.
The mothers are played by some of this country’s great actresses : Deborah Lee Furness, Frances O’Connor, Miranda Otto (whom you have heard of) and Victoria Haralabidou (whom you probably haven’t) who all portray their characters so faithfully that you will either respect or despise or pity them from the strength of their performance. The cinematic highlight (simultaneously the tragedy of the story) is the overwhelming scream of one mother– a scream to wake the dead but of course in real life that cannot happen.
The kids likewise display a bravado that is really only skin deep. We do not have to spend very long in their company to recognise their vulnerability and deep desire to be heard, understood and respected.
The film stirred in me a series of questions which every generation wrestles with. How does a parent maintain standards of behaviour when their children start to push past those boundaries? How can parents affirm their children so that they grow up safe, secure in themselves and confident? Certainly the parent must take the responsibility for creating an environment at home safe from harm and they must model the behaviour they want their children to live. The film displays how harshly parents can be judged by their children, even into adulthood and a large dose of grace and forgiveness on all sides will aid in building long term, loving relationships.
The opening of the film is of all the children sleeping contently and safely in their beds. “My kids are a blessing, everyone of them.” This is the hope of the film that each day will see the kids sleeping safely in their beds at nightfall.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Defiance movie questions

Next Friday night (11 Sept), St Marks Mens Group is screening Defiance. You are welcome to come along. Afterwards will be an informal discussion about the film and its themes. I have been asked to kick start the discussions with some questions. I have posted them here.
Have you seen the film? What would you ask a mate, who had just seen the film? What do you think of my questions?


What are the major themes of Defiance?

To what extent is the movie about revenge? Is revenge justified ? What is the cost of revenge ?

In the bible, God says “It is mine to avenge; I will repay.” Also, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Are these sentiments at odds with the characters in the film?

Were the members of the Bielski Otriad justified in comparing themselves to the Jewish warriors of history (“Bar Kokhba’s spear, Samson’s jawbone, Ehud’s sword, David’s slingshot”), “fighting for their freedom”?

Maslow’s hierarchy describes a human’s priority of needs from survival, to safety, to social, to esteem (respect of self and of others) to self actualization (morality, creatively, lack of prejudice). To what extent does the Bielski Otriad develop along this journey from mere survival toward community?

“Everyone sacrifices for the sake of the collective.” Who or what are things we make sacrifices for today? What do you give up for others?

What does the film maker seek to do by inter-cutting the Jewish wedding in the forest with Zus and the Russian partisans attacking a German convoy?

If the actors playing the Belarussian Jews are speaking in their native tongue to each other (but English for the purpose of the film), why is their accent that of a Russian speaking English?

Does actor Daniel Craig (who plays Tuvia) have the bluest eyes of any male actor in the movies today?

Defiance movie review

{With this film's release onto DVD I have re-posted my original review from April - GGBlog}
Defiance is a good story that deserves to be told. It tells of a group of Belarussian Jews who survived in the forest for three years, jammed between Nazis who would kill them and the retreating Russians. The forest is a cold and hard place to survive, especially in the dark of winter. The survivors hold on with a grim desperation knowing that the alternative is worse – the fate of their parents, children, brothers and sisters. The fact that 1200 of their number walked out of the forest, alive, at the end of the war is, frankly, incredible.
Daniel Craig plays Tuvia Bielski, the eldest brother and leader of the refugees. They build a village in the forest where each member, men and women, old and young, must contribute either by working, by fighting or collecting food. The women are married off as ‘forest wives’ and comforters and camp rules must be followed; one troublemaker is summarily shot.
Tuvia’s younger brothers, Zus (Liev Shreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell) help lead the camp until Zus has a falling out with his brother over how the camp should be run. He joins the Russian partisans, fighting the Germans, and comes to the rescue at just the right time in the end.
Holocaust films deserve a certain respect because of their significant storylines. This film avoids the empty, helpless feeling of a lot of similarly themed films however because the protagonists survive their tormentors. As Tuvia says early on, “our revenge is to live.”
Craig plays his role with a rugged sense of purpose (and those still blue eyes made him a shoe-in for Bond) although his dour style lacks charm.
Writer/director Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond) has brought to life a story of an ordinary man who doesn’t give up and proves history wrong. For the many survivors, this film is more than just an entertainment. It is a part of their history. Zwick is quoted as saying that making this film “is a real privilege.”
While the drama kept me engaged for the whole time it was a hard film to love. I found the blue, grey and brown palette of this film wearing and ultimately I didn’t sympathise with the characters enough. 3 out of 5.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Inglourious Basterds movie review

The last line uttered in Tarantino’s latest action pic, Inglourious Basterds, is, “I think this might be my masterpiece.” Is this the film-maker staking his claim? You bet. And is it justified? Absolutely!
Tarantino demonstrates that he is a fine film maker with his latest offering. After the car wreck that was Death Proof, I personally wondered if we had seen all that he had to offer. Undoubtedly the celebrated, pop-infused dialogue of Reservoir Dogs was meritorious and the extended mish-mash of action in Kill Bill 1 enormous fun but it was all recycled and tired by the time we got to Death Proof. What Basterds offers is a “traditional” unfolding of a story, similar to Jackie Brown or Kill Bill 2, only better.
And so the adventure begins with “Once upon a time ...” This is a fairy story, pure and simple, and the story is imbued with a sense of mischievous fun as the characters set about writing their own version of history. Many times, the actors are given time and space to develop the speech and behaviours of their characters – no shaky hand-cam here or two second jump cuts.
Set during “Nazi occupied France” we are introduced to the ultimate in Nazi badness, Colonel Hans Lander, played to perfection by Christoph Waltz. Waltz, a German stage actor not particularly known outside of Europe won Best Actor at Cannes earlier in the year. His nickname is “The Jew Hunter” as his reputation for detective like routing out of hidden Jews is manifest in a ruthless zeal for the job.
As in previous Tarantino outings, the action is punctuated by ‘chapter’ headings. Rather than them just being quirky or in jest, here they contain each episode and like a good novel, have the audience keen to turn just one more page to find out what happens.
Brad Pitt is about the only ‘name’ Hollywood actor hence his picture appears in all the advertising posters. In truth though, he is just one member of a large cast with many French and German actors playing key roles. Pitt is Lt Aldo Raine, the leader of the Basterds, a Jewish-American band of guerrillas dropped behind enemy lines to dispose of as many Nazis as possible. Their Apache style scalping of their victims becomes the stuff of legend amongst the German army and The Bear Jew (Eli Roth) prefers to dispose of his victims in a more patriotic American way.
The story wends its way toward a movie theatre where the four most senior German leaders (Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Bormann) will meet for a film premiere of the latest propaganda feature and the Basterds seek to infiltrate the event and end the war by killing them all. What occurs to whom and when is not easily guessed as the narrative does not let a particular character or celebrity survive where it is not reasonable for them to have done so! The cinema owner’s short film that is inter-cut with the main feature becomes a terrifying angel of destruction as it is projected onto billowing smoke is one of many highlights.
I had read that the violence is extreme in this film and I expected it therefore to be a study in excess à la Kill Bill 1. In truth however what violence exists occurs only in bursts and is necessary for the film to remain true to itself. These were frightening and ruthless times and to somehow sidestep the confrontation would have taken something away from the story.
Tarantino’s geeky film knowledge is extensive and his films are littered with asides, references and homage. I would be fairly certain that the young women in my screening who kept looking at their iPhones, showing each other their latest message and who ended up walking out twice (not just once) would have been lucky to have followed any of the story, let alone known who the heck Emil Jannings, Leni Riefenstahl or Georg Pabst might have been. If only they had stayed out. But Tarantino gives a little bit to each film lover and you wish that such intelligence was evident in more Hollywood, plot driven epics.
5 out of 5.

Study

In a way it is a surprise and a relief that Study is considered a spiritual discipline in Foster’s ‘Celebration of Discipline’. Having benefited from a good education, to study a book, or a play, or the world around me, has been ingrained as just a normal part of growing up. But Foster continues to challenge us in our Christian living by having us transform and renew our mind.
I am aware that many books or films, for example, that I read or watch are just for that moment. Once finished, I move on to the next (and for the most part, that is quite appropriate and even more than some of them deserve!) If I were intending to create my own film for instance, I would learn my craft by watching a master like Ozu or Hitchcock, scene by scene if necessary and then applying what I’d learnt. In reading Foster’s book, I have read and re-read the same chapters, understanding and interpreting what has been written so that I can better apply his insights into more godly living.
Like all the disciplines, Study is not just an object in and of itself. It is not about storing up great multitudes of knowledge or trying to outsmart the next person. The repetition, concentration, comprehension and reflection of the object of our study merely become the tools to gaining this discipline. The focus remains on knowing who we are through Jesus and living our lives for God. It is through Jesus that we come to know we are saved and are given the grace to live with humility and purpose.

6 The discipline of Confession

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Rachel Getting Married movie review

We are accustomed to seeing Anne Hathaway as a ‘sugar and spice’ sort of actress after The Princess Diaries, Ella Enchanted and ‘Agent 99’ in Get Smart. In Rachel Getting Married she is nominated for a Best Actress Oscar by playing Kym who is anything but ‘all things nice.’
After an extended absence from home, Kym (Hathaway) releases herself from a Sanatorium, 9 months clean from drug abuse. She is home for the weekend for her sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is marrying Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). Rachel is barely in the car to come home when the family rivalries and the imperfect self interest begin to impose themselves on her actions and conversation.
In the context of the story, Kym allows the screenwriter to inject a destabilising catalyst into the dynamics of an ordinary family where the histories are tightly interwoven and certain issues have been overgrown and avoided.
As the family “Sheba the destroyer” (‘black sheep’ doesn’t quite capture it) Kym’s nadir comes in the form of the pre-wedding rehearsal dinner speech where any or all of the guests are welcome to say a few words about the happy couple. Kym’s inability to look beyond her own needs makes for the kind of train-crash wedding speech that is so awkward that you can be content she is not your own sister.
When the characters do finally have an honest and open conversation about their repressed feelings of hurt and disappointment, we know this is the first conversation they have had like this for a long, long time. Free of purely self interest, it allows the characters, and the sisters in particular, to hear and respect each other. It is in many ways the film’s high point as we sense that there is a way forward.
Despite all our imperfections and all our failings, we all need the acceptance, grace and forgiveness of those who love us. When Rachel washes the bruised Kym and helps her into her bridesmaid dress, we know an important transaction has taken place beyond the competition and self-interest of the earlier part of the film.
The film's realism of its characters is impressive – the choice of an unobtrusive camera reinforces this sense of a realistic weekend together.
The wedding itself has moments of great sensitivity and joy. The musician friends are both part of the story and beyond it, as they are both wedding guests and the film’s soundtrack evoking mood and turning points in their playing, practising and jamming.
This is a great character study of a whole family exploring both great hardship and incomparable joy. Hathaway is more than just a pretty face who becomes entirely believable in her role and deserved her nomination. I cannot say however that I enjoyed the first half of this film. I find family drama and conflict (and wedding speeches) a difficult set of topics to confront. This whole drama however is rewarding as is its message. 4 out of 5.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

MIFF : Bran Nue Dae movie review

With its blend of toe tapping tunes, acting and voice talents, and beautiful scenery, Bran Nue Dae is great musical fun.
The story itself is a fairly flimsy excuse for stringing the musical numbers together. Set in 1969, aboriginal student and head boy Willie Johnson (newcomer Rocky McKenzie) runs away from boarding school in Perth, back home to his devoutly Christian mother Theresa (“not the Mother Teresa”) and would be girlfriend Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), in Broome, the far north west of Australia. Along the way they collect hippy tourists, Wolfgang (Tom Budge) and Annie (Missy Higgins); the homeless Tadpole (Ernie Dingo); Kimberley girl Roxanne (Deborah Mailman); and steal from Roadhouse Betty (Magda Szubanski). They are pursued by head teacher Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush) up the highway as he seeks to return Willie to school.
They all meet on the beach in Broome where family relationships are reconnected and restored.
The highlights of the film, without question, are the show tunes. Drawing on the popular stageshow of the same name, the songs are a mixture of 50s rock, show tunes, Negro spirituals, country & western and one Zorba inspired accordion backing to a traditional Aboriginal dance. Casting Mauboy and Higgins ensures that the numbers they are a part of are performed consummately. The other professional actors sing capably and in between times enjoy their comic byplay with each other.
The desert scapes are beautifully shot by Andrew Lesnie making the most of the unique colours of the Australian bush: the deep turquoise of the waterhole, sunburnt orange of the desert sand, the clean white robes of the gospel choir and so on.
The musical high point for me was the breakout, tapdancing
“There is nothing I would rather be
than to be an Aborigine”
by Willie and the boarding house boys, just as they were to feel the full weight of Father Benedictus’ ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’ smacking stick.
Director Rachel Perkins previous credits include the acclaimed TV series First Australians and the Paul Kelly musical, One Night the Moon.
This film was great fun and a great way to finish the Festival.

MIFF : The Matilda Candidate movie review

Curtis Levy is better known as a filmmaker (The President Versus David Hicks) but in his documentary The Matilda Candidate, he becomes the subject in his own film as he runs for a place in the Senate during the last Federal election on a ticket of Waltzing Matilda for the National Anthem. He believes it represents the spirit and history of Australia and wants to re-ignite public debate which will lead Australia to becoming a republic.
It is not surprising therefore that we hear the titular song some 26 different times during the 57 minute running time. It becomes its own highlight as it is presented in a different way each time : by an opera singer, aboriginal women with guitar, on didgeridoo, by Dame Edna, by marching bands, the banjo, a Chinese harp, at a football stadium before a Wallabies game and (my personal favourite) on Levy’s own mobile phone as his ring tone (well, what else would he have)?
The documentary shows Levy campaigning on the streets of Sydney, interviewing some people with a personal story to tell concerning the history of the song, via a re-creation of the events that inspired the song and by utilising old footage (using Dad ‘n Dave’s ‘Rudd for PM’ was a great get). Bruce Petty also chips in with some of his timely cartoons.
Levy said that he was deeply uncomfortable about the potential conflict in making himself the subject of his own documentary (“I broke all my own rules”) and had to make committed promises to his financiers that he would not use their funds for campaign purposes. It is a key reason why his campaign has very little in the way of funds.
The friction and banter between Levy and his friend and volunteer campaign manager, Jo Smith, gives the doco its great sense of fun and mischief even as Levy introduces important ideas and themes about Australia’s identity. His humour is delivered deadpan while the patient Jo endures his criticisms, all the while exposing his own lack of planning and strategy. Her great comeback is that she votes Labour and believes Australia should remain a monarchy!
It is anticipated that this doco will appear on ABC TV later in the year.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

MIFF : The Loved Ones

The Loved Ones is Australian Sean Byrne’s first full length feature. It is a teen horror / comedy and follows the genre rules faithfully. The MIFF audience I watched with were 1) family & friends of the post production crew (who were sponsoring the screening) and 2) the right age. The end result was many loud and enthusiastic laughs which meant it was exactly the right environment to watch it in.
It opens with Brent (Xavier Samuel) driving and his dad in the passenger seat on a country road. He swerves to avoid a figure standing in the middle of the road and ends up crashing into a tree and killing his father. This theme of ‘loss’ lays the emotional foundation for the film as Brent’s future survival becomes more important to us because of it.
His love interest, Holly (Victoria Thaine) does not have a lot to do but bestows the early teen love scene (check) and, along with Brent’s widowed mother, provides the pull for Brent’s return.
When asked to go the school dance by Lola (Robin McLeavy), Brent turns her down as he is already going with Holly.
Lola looks to be the school loner and odd-ball, not quite fitting in. She keeps a scrap book of her school crushes, dresses in garish pink and listens to Taylor Swift : evidence in the film of her slow emotional maturity (my 10 year old daughter loves Taylor Swift which I think is the point – Lola is 17).
Playing in a similar space to last year’s Aussie teen horror Acolytes, Brent is kidnapped and taken to a remote farm house and tied to a chair. There he meets Lola and her father Eric (John Brumpton) who have arranged their own school dance with Brent the special guest. There are plenty of “squirm” moments when the audience can hardly look at the screen and some first rate shock moments. There is also one of the best pantomime “look out behind you” moments I have seen for a while.
While none of the actual horror is witnessed on screen, Byrne soaks up as much tension as he can in anticipation and with the sound effects amped up, every hit, thump and drill bit allows the audience to feel the experience.
The tension of the farm house is off-set at intervals by the first date between Sac (Richard Wilson) and Mia (Jessica McNamee) at the school dance. Byrne delivers plenty of laughs in between however from both settings. While there is a risk is that the comedy will undermine the horror, for the most part Byrne gets it right and viewed in the right frame of mind, there is plenty of fun to be had.

MIFF : Balkan Experience

This year’s Festival dedicated a section to Balkan Cinema. Unshackled from years of Communism, film makers are expressing a love for their homeland which laments the recent past often accompanied with great humour and irony. Accompanied by Uncle J, we took in two films : Silent Wedding and Zift.
Silent Wedding is an affectionate and funny look back at life before the Communists invaded in rural Romania. The Villagers have their rivalries but all can be forgiven at the local tavern. When Mara and Iancu announced that they’re getting married, the whole village turns out to celebrate. The problem comes when it is announced that the whole country must go into enforced mourning for Stalin’s death. The wedding goes ahead anyway in silence with the larger than life characters and good humour continuing. The tragedy at the end of the film reinforces what was lost. The modern day is portrayed as bleak and dour (and its raining) – the past highlighted by sunshine, vivid colour and a lust for life.
Zift from Bulgaria, hits all the elements of a modern film noir that (I think) is telling us a tall story. The black and white photography is clean and strong (although the white subtitles sometimes hard to read); Ada, a very saucy and fatal femme; the missing diamond, valuable; lead man Moth is tall, strong, handsome and ultimately undone by his loving heart. ‘Zift’ is the word for resin used for sealing roads, or a chewing gum; it is also a slang word for ‘shit’. As in Silent Wedding there is a lot of black-humour although perhaps it would be more accurate to call it (poo) brown-humour. I enjoyed it although Uncle J felt it all amounted to nothing. An illustration of life perhaps? You will have to make up your own mind.

Confession

Confession as a Christian discipline has a bad reputation these days. We acknowledge our right to communicate directly with God : “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Similarly we shun the legalism of confessing either because we have to or as the only means to be forgiven.
Sin is not just doing something ‘bad’ per se. Sin is the thing that breaks the relationship between man and God. Foster, in his book ‘Celebration of Discipline’ constantly reinforces to all Christians the challenge of putting their relationship with Jesus first.
My fears are universal I think: I do not wish to broadcast my failures and shortcomings to others. My brain is very clever however. By remaining mute and unspecific about my actions, I can conveniently forget what I’ve done and justify away any consequences.
Keen to try all aspects of the disciplines Foster writes about, I started with my attitude toward my sinful behaviour. Am I genuinely sorry for having caused a rift in my relationship with God? Am I determined to avoid doing so again?
Then, to a trusted friend and Christian brother, I named specific sins, out loud. Attitudes of the “heart” (such as pride, anger, sloth, gluttony etc) are equal with “things done” when it comes to dealing with sin.
My confessor enunciated that God forgives me (we have the authority : “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven”)
What a wonderful freedom to be set free from guilt and shame. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” To walk more closely with Jesus is to experience life being fully loved and better able to love others. The challenge remains to continually place God first.

5 The discipline of Study
6 The discipline of Fasting

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Anthony La Paglia

Anthonly La Paglia (in town for Balibo) was also on hand at the Australian premiere of $9.99 to answer questions after the screening (he voices Jim Peck). A question asked from the audience was how different it was to voice an animated characer compared to acting a full role. La Paglia answered the question in a roundabout way but took 5 minutes to say it, distracting himself with many other detail. He then wasn’t sure if he’d actually answered the question and asked for it again.
Given the opportunity for a followup, the young questioner took control of the roving microphone and asked : “What chance Melbourne Victory going back to back?”
The staunch Sydney FC supporter and backer, La Paglia, answered : “Not a chance. SFC will kick some serious butt.”

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Milk movie review

Last December, colleague, friend and fellow cine-lover, Mr T and I saw Mickey Rourke tear up the screen in The Wrestler. We both agreed that it was a fine performance and reasoned that he would have to be favoured for the Best Oscar award. A couple of months later, Mr T announced he had just been to see the winner, Sean Penn in Milk. And so it turned out to be.
Penn plays Harvey Milk, gay rights activist and San Francisco councillor from 1977 and 1978. Based, on actual events, Milk became the campaigner for equal rights for gay people in the face of conservative and fearful opposition. He was assassinated in his office on 18 November 1978 and 30,000 people marched silently through the streets of San Francisco holding candles aloft, to mark his passing.
This is a sensitive performance from Penn where never for a moment do we believe he is not gay. His slight lisp and effeminate movements become a part of the character he his playing so that we do not remark on HIS ACTING or his “presence”. Perhaps we are used to Penn’s intensity on screen but here we see his enjoyment of life – laughing freely with his friends, his empathy for those in need and his great vulnerability with the few loves of his life. In this film we see two of them, played by James Franco and Diego Luna.
Harvey Milk typifies what is best observed about the ‘gay lobby group’; they are typically well educated, eloquent and motivated. Their campaign however goes beyond just ‘gay rights’. It was (and remains) about ensuring that equal rights and mutual respect are not put to the sword by prejudice and bigotry; for all oppressed groups : blacks, Asians, young, old, the disabled and so on. Its about hope he says, to make life worth living.
It is a nice touch I think that 3 actors in the film actually play themselves (albeit 30 years older), such as a union man or political script writer.
I found however that the storyline of tracking through Milk’s life and his rise of influence was not that interesting despite Penn’s fine and moving performance. 3 for the film and 1 for Penn : 4 out of 5.

Fasting

Small Group is a place where I meet up with some mates from my local church. We pray together, read the bible together and encourage each other in our faith. At the moment we are reading a book together, The Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster.
In the chapter on ‘fasting’ we actually tried it out, rather than just read about it. Over the course of a normal work day, none of us ate breakfast or lunch. We met at the end of the day to break the fast; share a meal together and relate our experiences.
The point of fasting of course is not just to go hungry. Nor is there anything wrong with food or with eating. It is after all one of the very tenants of our existence! The challenge of Foster’s book is to put God first; to let nothing come between Him and us. Very easy to say, very hard to do.
During my fast, at times when I would otherwise be eating, I either read my bible or spent the time in prayer. While there was no startling revelation per se, indeed I have read my bible and prayed many times before, just the action of inviting God into times and places where I usually do not, subtly changed my perspective to be more gracious and light of spirit. Inevitably this experience left me wanting to seek God more.
During the day I found my stomach acted as a quiet (rumbly) reminder that this day was a day to seek God. An opportunity to not be distracted by routines and the often selfish living.
Foster says in his book that “fasting reveals the things that control us.” I realised today that I have an obsession with food that is controlling. Jesus says, “hunger and thirst for righteousness, then you will be filled.” I intend to fast again next week.

5 The discipline of Confession

Sunday, 26 July 2009

MIFF : Thirst movie review

Last Christmas, Mrs Blog fell in love with Edward Cullen of Twilight and blogged about it on this site. The great appeal to that story was the unresolved yet undeniable passion Edward and Bella had for each other.
In Thirst, Park Chan-wook’s (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) own take on vampire mythology, we get a blood gurgling and kiss slurping romance between Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) and Tae-joo (Ok-bin Kim). Sang-hyeon, a celibate and faithful Catholic priest, volunteers to be a subject for medical research. He is infected with a bubonic-plague-like illness that kills off all the test cases except for him, who is given a blood transfusion which contains vampire blood. The vampire blood keeps the plague at bay but he now has an unexpected sensorial sensitivity and a taste for blood.
The story is faithful to most elements of vampire lore and plays faithfully as a vampire movie. Sang-hyeon is forced to reconsider his Catholic vows as he contemplates ways to quench his thirst for blood without actually killing anyone (similar to the moral conundrums of Edward in Twilight). He has a passionate romance with Tae-joo (most dis_similar to Twilight), the wife of a childhood friend who is trapped by both her gormless husband Kang-woo (played with hilarious effect by Ha-kyun Shin) and his overprotective mother Lady Ra (Hae-sook Kim).
Chan-wook uses his very black and bloody humour to take the consequences of vampires to their logical conclusion. What happens if you have super-human strength (and can’t die) but you fight another vampire who also has super-human strength ? How do you feed off a victim you’ve killed and their heart is no longer pumping blood around the body? Sang-hyeon leaps from a tall building with Tae-joo in his arms but realises that they might be a little too high to leap back on to – he carries her up the stairs instead.
I won’t tell you what the Tupperware containers are used for except to say that the manufacturers would (probably) be gratified.
The Catholic guilt however underpins Sang-hyeon’s conscience and he is forced to confront the untenable circumstance he finds himself in : he does not want to kill others for the blood that he needs. In what is a rather touching final scene, Sang-hyeon and Tae-joo ride off into the sunrise (but not before some equally comic byplay from Tae-joo). It is interesting to note that Lady Ra, in her catatonic state, plays the all seeing eye to the lovers every move. God and judgement it would seem is always watching.
Kang-ho Song, who plays Sang-hyeon, is a Park Chan-wook regular but might be most recognised for his performance in the 2006 cult hit, The Host. Even though he is a big man, his manner is gentle and his slightly bewildered expression quite appropriate for the role of Priest.
For Chan-wook, there is an awful lot to like for his fans and the packed MIFF cinema is testament to how many of us there are. For those who abhor the “drama” of Twilight, Thirst is for you.
“Vampires are cuter than I thought.” You won’t hear Bella saying that.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Frozen River movie review

Ray and her two sons, 15 year old TJ & little Ricky, have been abandoned by their gambling addicted husband/father a week before Christmas along with the final deposit on their new home, a double-sided trailer home. They live in a much smaller trailer with inadequate insulation, up on the Canadian border of New York State. Despite the hardness of their existence Ray does not give up. She continues to demand good standards from her sons and stretches the contents of her purse as far as it goes. A family cannot live on popcorn and Tang alone however.
A chance encounter with Lily, a native American, on the Mohawk reservation sees Ray driving her car across the frozen river of St Lawrence which divides New York from Quebec, Canada. Lily explains that Mohawk land spans either side of the river and that the local police have no jurisdiction on the reservation which polices itself. Once in Canada, Ray discovers that her pop-up boot can be used to ferry two illegal immigrants into the United States and receive $2,400 for her trouble.
Earning this kind of money in a short period of time is a little too tempting and Ray and Lily’s relationship goes from one of suspicion, to convenience and finally to respect and friendship. Ironically, as it is gambling that has Ray in this predicament, it is the gamble of just “one more run” that sets the story up for a tense finish with not quite the outcome you might expect from an American film.
The heart of the story though is played out in one vignette of a Pakistani immigrant couple who lose their baby on the river. A mother’s grief at the thought of losing a child and her strength to protect are strong emotional foundations for this film. Ray is prepared to do whatever it takes to raise her boys and provide for them while Lily has a grief all of her own concerning her one year old son.
Melissa Leo, who plays Ray, was nominated for Best Actress for this performance. She brings a fierce working class dignity to her role where who you are and what you do counts for so much more than status or possessions. You quietly begin to admire how she raises her kids and understand why she doesn’t pursue her husband who has headed south. Its not for no reason that micro-finance lending operations in the third world lend money to the wives and mothers for start up ventures.
Misty Upham (Lila) likewise brings a simple dignity to her role despite being on the receiving end of many of life’s hardships. Note how she snatches her opportunity in both hands at the end of the film.
This is writer/director Courtney Hunt’s first feature.
A 4 out of 5 film where we care about the characters and what becomes of them.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

MIFF Meet the Programmers

Meet the Programmers – a MIFF Members chance to meet MIFF Executive Director, Richard Moore and Senior Programmer, Michelle Carey, face to face, ask questions and hear their experiences in procuring, programming and funding films for the Festival. My thanks to Paul Martin of the Melbourne Film Blog to attend this event as his guest.
If you have perused the film festival guide which was released in last Friday’s Age, you will have flicked through many, many pages listing the nearly 300 films screening at this year’s festival. Given the breadth of what’s on offer at MIFF, Moore and Carey advertise the opportunity for film fans to create their own mini-MIFF that exactly suits their interests and time.
A question was asked how the schedule was drawn up to attract the ‘core’ fan, that of the MIFF Member, versus the younger film goer. Maintaining a balance of appeal was of key importance said Moore. We can witness the many viewing sections of MIFF : in addition to the Australian films and international Panorama, there is the Backbeat (docos on music) and Next Gen (teenage targeted films) sections that invite a wider viewing public. These, says Moore, will hopefully build a loyal following amongst younger folk who will keep coming back to MIFF as they grow.
Building a viable program and maximising the box office, without losing the core viewing strength of the festival, is an economic necessity. Only 5% of the Festival budget is supplied by the government. The rest is from sponsorship and ticket sales.
To that end, the Festival comes hot on the marketing heels of Cannes which occurs in March. Many Cannes films find their way to Australia because MIFF provides one of many convenient stepping stones for releasing films by sales agents, around the world. Cannes in many ways sets the agenda as to what will be discussed in cinematic circles around the globe and having a large contingent of Cannes films in the MIFF program gives the festival added profile and prestige.
Moore and Carey’s “boundless passion and enthusiasm for film” comes through. So to everyone else, program your choices, grab a buddy and get along to this wonderful Melbourne event.

Monday, 13 July 2009

MIFF viewing schedule

I have locked in my viewing schedule for MIFF and as always you are all more than welcome to join me. Tickets may be booked via their website. If you are thinking of coming then get in fast : the 7pm timeslot is always popular as are the Australian films. Email me for specific dates & times. Precis’ of the films are taken from the MIFF website.

Homegrown Australian films (6)
Blessed Ana Kokkinos – “A haunting and evocative tale about mothers and children, about being lost and finding your way home.”

Van Diemens Land - Jonathan Auf Der Heide – “In 1822, eight convicts escape the brutal penal settlement of Macquarie Harbour, only to find the wilds of Tasmania a much crueller reality. As the provisions run out and the men fight to stay alive, only one option remains. Delving into Australia's dark heritage, Van Diemen's Land is a retelling of the unsettling tale of our most notorious convict, Alexander Pearce”

$9.99 - Tatia Rosenthal – “This is a striking and entertaining stop-motion animation with elegantly depicted moments of magic realism, artfully interwoven stories and poetically minimalist music.”

The Loved Ones Sean Byrne – “Set to a scorching soundtrack, The Loved Ones is a vivid, sexy, fun, relentlessly attacking rollercoaster that takes the conventions of the genre and then runs them off the rails.”

The Matilda Candidate Curtis Levy – “One candidate in the last Australian Federal election who may well have escaped your attention – as he did everyone else’s – was a man on a mission to change the national anthem to Waltzing Matilda when Australia becomes a republic.”

Bran Nue Dae - Rachel Perkins - Filmed in the desert-scapes of Western Australia’s Broome, this exuberant musical road movie is a unique mix of comedy, dance, music and joy”

Neighbourhood watch - Asian films (5)
Thirst
Park Chan-wook (Korea) – “Dubbed a ‘scandalous vampire melodrama' by Park himself, Thirst sees a priest granted immortality when, through a cruel twist of fate, he becomes a creature of the night.”

Action Boys - Jeong Byeong-gil (Korea) – “An endearing, tongue-in-cheek look at the action behind the action in this documenatary about the unheralded heroes/lunatics of Korean cinema who – at the risk of broken bones, broken egos and even death – make the superstars look oh-so-good."

My Magic Eric Khoo (Singapore) – “Battling alcoholism, portly magician Francis (played by real-life magician Francis Bosco) works at a bar while relying on his young son Rajr to clean up after him, following his regular drunken escapades. As Rajr struggles to better himself Francis decides he has to try and earn more money to support his son.”

Breathless - Yang Ik-june (Korea) – “Dark, brutal and prone to uncontrollable rages, Song-hoon is someone you don't want to run into on the street. His life takes a turn when he meets tough-talking schoolgirl Yeon-hee, with the two forming an unlikely bond that offers the thug a glimpse of redemption.”

Mother Bong joon-ho (Korea) – “Korean film-and-TV icon Kim Hye-ja turns in the performance of her career as a mother on a mission to clear her mentally challenged son of murder; as the investigation deepens, she finds her own past returning to haunt her.”

New Balkan cinema (2)
Silent Wedding - Horatiu Malaele (Romania) - In 1953, a Romanian village has gathered for a wedding; the happy couple, the guests and the banquet are all ready… Just at that moment, the Russian Army arrives. Stalin is dead and the nation must mourn. Under threat of death, the oversexed couple, their vexatious fathers, the entire town and a muted gypsy band continue the celebration in silence.

Zift - Javor Gardev (Bulgaria) - In the opening moments, Moth is hurtled from a soviet jail into a stylised 60s Sofia underworld. He must steer at breakneck pace through the Kafkaesque communism, the severe architecture and the menagerie of bottom feeders. Zift has the wit and style of the best noir with grim Balkan brawn.”

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Reader movie review

The Reader is director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliot) and screenwriter David Hare’s (The Hours) adaption of the German novel "Der Vorleser" by Bernhard Schlink. They capture the very German-ness of the story by filming in Berlin and the German countryside and casting all German actors except for leads Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes (with the film spoken in English). The story is both about the realisation of 50 year old Michael Berg (Fiennes) that he is emotionally reserved and unable or unwilling to share personal experiences, and the collective German guilt surrounding their actions during World War 2.
This guilt is demonstrated in the 1966 trial of former SS, female prison guards who, during the war, rather than let their Jewish prisoners escape, allowed them to burn to death in a country house. The guards are all found guilty with alleged leader Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) to serve the longest prison term. The crowd and judge are perhaps all too willing to focus their ire on these former guards as the ones to blame for the whole tragedy of that war. As one character observes however there were considerably more officers and guards in action during the war with very few arrests and convictions to show for it.
Watching the trial are law students including Berg as a young man (David Kross) and their lecturer (the always excellent veteran Bruno Ganz). “How we feel doesn’t matter,” says the lecturer. “Its what we do” he says.
Starting in 1958, the 15 year old Berg meets by chance the much older and lonely Schmitz. It becomes clear what Berg is to gain from their series of intimate encounters stretched over one summer. The studious young Berg begins to share his high school literature with Schmitz by reading to her. She prefers to be read to, she says. When Schmitz leaves suddenly it is supposed that Berg suffers an emotional withdrawal that is never dealt with until much, much later.
I did enjoy the scene after Berg’s first taste of love with Hanna. Suddenly the world was more vibrant, each sense more acute and Michael barely able to suppress a smile at the family dinner table.
Many years later Michael demonstrates, it seemed to me, a great act of love by sending tape recordings of him reading to the imprisoned Hanna. It seems an unusual thing to describe but in the context of how the story unfolds it is significant. I am sure his guilt toward her plays a part in his actions too but I will leave that for you to ponder.
Winslet won her Best Actress Oscar for this role and while I find it hard to believe it is her best role the Oscar of course rewarded her consistent performance over many roles. Not that Winslet does much wrong. She is contained in her performance and entirely convincing with the character not allowing her to express a great emotional range. Fiennes perhaps is more accustomed to emotional brevity as all his characters exhibit a similar reserve. The young Michael, Kross, is wide eyed and does not look out of place next to Winslet. It is a struggle to see the same man play both 15 year old and 23 year old but it was the least of my complaints. Overall I enjoyed the second half of the film more as the story and characters progressed through the ages. 3 out of 5.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Auskick at Docklands



Am I not the proudest dad on the planet? Both my boys, Curly and Spikes, were invited to play an Auskick game during half time of last night's Collingwood Magpies / Western Bulldogs AFL match. I won't deny that this was my childhood fantasy they were playing out however both of them had an absolute ball playing in front of 52,000 people. Good on you lads!

MIFF 09 Festival Guide

The Melbourne International Film Festival guide was released yesterday and I have had a chance to study it and begin the logistical challenge of working out which films to see and at what time.
At first glance, there are more Australian dramas this year compared to last (a good thing) however they all have only one screening time as opposed to the usual two. This makes being able to see them all somewhat more of a challenge. Perhaps one can console oneself with the likelihood that most will receive a commercial cinematic run later in the year. Certainly some of the directors names will be known to the public : Curtis Levy (previously President versus David Hicks), Alkinos Tsilimidos (Em4Jay), David Caesar (Dirty Deeds), Robert Connolly (The Bank), Ana Kokkinos (Book of Revelation) and "youngest ever sailor solo around the world" Jessie Martin, which will aid their release.
The international drama section is as impressive as it ever was and just as impossible to select a sensible watching program because of its breadth. The Steven Soderbergh / Benicio Del Toro double feature, 260 minute bio-pic on Che Guevara has had good reviews overseas however I can't help but think that DVD release is a preferred way to view. A number of films that screened at Cannes (but none of the winners so far as I can see) and a $50 special event to be in the same 1000 seat stadium with Quentin Tarantino as he waves at the crowd for the Australian premiere of Inglourious Basterds. This film I definitely want to see but as its cinematic release is straight after the festival, I won't "waste" a MIFF selection on it.
A section on the quietly emerging Balkan Cinema looks an intriguing mix of black comedy and irony of life under communism from countries such as Romania, Bosnia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Serbia.
The Asian film section presents an enticing range with a first from North Korea and one-third from powerhouse South Korea, including personal fave Park Chan-wook (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance).
There are many, many other fine films on at the Festival and as always, too many to see and not enough time to see them all. My Festival pass entitles me to 13 screenings only so I will make my selections carefully and post them next week.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Changeling movie review

Clint Eastwood has made a career out of making the most of minimal emotion. His grim jawed cowboys, cops and hard man made famous, single lines of menace but almost always on the side of the right and oppressed. A most masculine of heroes.
Behind the camera however he exudes a calm and a confidence. With the gentlest of motions he start a scene and allows the actor to maintain their character and step into frame. While his steel eyed squint and muscular frame give the impression of ruffian or rogue, he conveys a very real and honest emotion in the stories he tells and the music he writes.
And so it is with Changeling, a film in which he directs, that allows Angelina Jolie to play single mother Christine Collins. The story is a simple one: Set in 1928 Los Angeles, Collins goes off to work one Saturday leaving her 9 year old son Walter at home by himself. When she returns he is gone.
Jolie is a fine actress who successfully communicates a strong but vulnerable woman without overwrought emotion. A good choice for a director like Eastwood. As Collins, Jolie uses her large soulful eyes to convey a pitiable character that we empathise with and urge onwards in her quest to find her son. She wears a cloche hat during most of the film, a fitted bell shaped hat popular in the ‘20s. Jolie said that her costume allowed her to ‘put on’ her shy character and she often looks up at you from under the brim of her hat as though hiding behind it. But this belies her inner strength as she time and again gets back up to fight the bureaucracy that keeps her from learning the truth. She played a similar role in A Mighty Heart, as a wife who waits to hear of news of her reporter husband, kidnapped by terrorists in Pakistan. She was nominated for a Best Actress nomination in Changeling.
What happens to her son is the narrative that drives the story forward. While we observe corrupt and political police officers and hospital attendants there are good men too that both do their job and champion her cause.
We watch in quiet horror as this “true story” is played out before us. Later in the film, during a court case, a prosecutor articulates our disgust and revolution over what has happened. We are gratified to have someone stand up for the injustices that Christine Collins has received. The story keeps returning us to Collins who earns our respect as a woman who endures in this real life suburban horror. 4 out of 5 from me.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Class movie review

Before you realise it in The Class, France’s nomination for this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Film, you are sitting through a French grammar class full of 14 year olds, lead by teacher Francois Marin. And you are asking yourself, how is this film going to take us on a journey from the classroom?
The students represent the many colours and origins of modern Paris : Mali, the Caribbean, China, Morocco and many more. When the teacher uses the every-name “Bill” in a sentence on the blackboard, the students take him to task for not using a name they are familiar with such as Assïata, Fatou or Ahmed.
Director Laurent Cantet and writer Francois Begaudeau (who also plays Marin) have written a broad based script around the relationships between the students in this real life high school and their teacher. By role playing and improvising over the course of one academic year they have refined their ideas and allowed the students to confidently play a version of themselves.
The students are from a poor neighbourhood but the usual school yard experiences apply. Some aspire to a good university; most are struggling with the fact that French is not the language spoken at home; while some appear not to try at all and discipline becomes a problem.
They are a little more outspoken than I recall my classes being but perhaps that is the attitude of the modern student or perhaps they have allowed themselves a little more leeway because they are doing it in front of the camera. One student is reprimanded for a poor attitude. One teacher storms into the tea room, fed up with his students who won’t listen.
The teachers reveal themselves to be concerned about the students welfare, wanting to impart life’s lessons but become frustrated at the students apparent lack of interest. It seems that the school ethos is to respect every voice but this leaves them, to a certain extent, powerless when the students begin to assert their rights by not participating in class, answering back and being undeterred by threats of punishment.
Honestly, who allows 14 year old class reps into a teachers meeting where other students are discussed and are then surprised their motivations are misunderstood? It is from this event that the classroom spins out of control, and events transpire that builds the movie’s tension.
I did wonder a little at the teacher’s handling of the situation who seemed unable to apologise for his actions or better act out the subtlety required. I acknowledge however it is easy to criticise from a distance. Having to actually enter the classroom, impart knowledge and maintain control is a mix of such complex skills that it is a wonder that any attempt the vocation at all, and all the good teachers deserve our respect, thanks and admiration.
But as always, the strength of the story comes from strong characters with whom we identify. We come to realise what these students have going for them and that they have their whole lives ahead of them. We join in the celebration at the end of year because of what they have accomplished. 3½ out of 5.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Doubt movie review

In his play, Doubt, writer John Shanley said that he wanted the last Act to be the conversation that two people had with each other as they left the theatre. “Did he or didn’t he? ... Did you just see the same production as me?”
The expectations of the average cinema goer is I think different to that of the average theatre audience. I don’t know if its an unwillingness to be challenged, more that we expect a resolution, or at least have the film declare its moral viewpoint.
In adapting for the big screen, Shanley (who also directs) has fleshed out the look and feel of the story by developing ancillary characters, such as other students and nuns, and staging the whole production in the very catholic primary school in the Bronx, New York he attended as a child.
School principal and head nun, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the type of school mistress that adheres to the rigid customs of discipline and order, of whom the “students are uniformly terrified.”
Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of inappropriate behaviour with the school’s first and only black student, 12 year old Donald Miller. What she lacks in proof, she makes up for in moral certainty. Sister Aloysius asks Sister James (Amy Adams) to watch for any suspicious behaviour and when Sister James observes young Miller’s unusual actions after returning from a visit to Father’s office, with alcohol on his breath, Sister Aloysius’ suspicions are confirmed.
At the halfway point in this film, all three characters meet in Sister Aloysius’ office. Amy Adams plays wide eyed sweetness and innocence better than most, and her role here of the good hearted, naive Sister James is described by Shanley as “the warm centre between two battling giants.” And what a scene it is. Streep just explodes as her character is able to sharpen the blade of her moral outrage on Seymour Hoffman’s whetstone. Every thrust of hers is met with his parry, and her Oscar nomination is justified from this scene alone.
This leads to Sister Aloysius meeting with the boy’s mother, Mrs Miller (Viola Davis) whose attitude and reaction is entirely unexpected and catches Sister Aloysius unawares.
Sister Aloysius is motivated by care and love, even if it is demonstrated in an austere manner. Her dry humour and sharp observations serve to humanise her away from the spotlight of students and peers. In her bid to “outshine the fox in cleverness,” to force Father Flynn to confess, she calls in to question her own integrity, which is one of many ‘doubts’ one has in the watching, which is perhaps the point.
Father Flynn likewise claims to have the student’s best interest at heart but is at odds with Sister Aloysius in his desire to modernise their Catholic customs, schooling and worship. The film is set in 1964, the year of the Second Vatican Council which relaxed some of the strict customs that had been followed up to then; this provides some context to their backgrounds.
The opening line to the film is the start of Father Flynn’s sermon, “What do you do when you’re not sure?” This question hangs in the balance for the duration of the film. Our emotions are swayed by the calibre of the acting and the small glimpses we think we see. As I stated at the beginning, when watching a film, we are “trained” to look for cues that will assist us in unravelling the film. This film tries to absolve itself of this and leave it up to us to make a decision on what to believe. While this may work well in a stage play, I’m not so sure it works well here. The ending just didn’t quite work for me and a key character’s final scene felt out of touch with the rest of the film.
All four actors, Streep, Seymour Hoffman, Adams and Davis, received Best Acting Oscar nominations which gives the film its force. The set design and the behaviour of the characters is entirely believable and helps tell the story. 3 out of 5 for me.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Socceroos qualify for 2010 World Cup

Well done the Socceroos who have qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Their nil-all draw against Qatar last night earned them the last point they needed to secure a top 2 position in their group to be one of 4 (and a half) Asian region places up for grabs.
Their final qualifying games are against Bahrain and Japan. Japan is the only other country from Asia to have similarly qualified.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

The Visitor movie review

University professor, Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is living a wasted life in The Visitor. Emotionally he has shut down, he never smiles and has no empathy or interest in others . Walter is called away to New York for a conference where he has long owned an apartment but has not visited in some time. There he meets Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) illegal immigrants from Syria and Senegal who have been living in his apartment thinking they had genuinely rented an empty apartment from ‘Ivan’ - obviously part of some real-estate scam.
Initially intent on throwing them out, Walter allows them to stay until they find a place to stay. Although Zainab is reserved and wary of Walter, Tarek’s zest for life slowly seeps into Walter’s lonely existence. Tarek plays the Djembe, an African drum and the rhythm and beauty of this instrument slowly awakens Walter, as though calling him to life from a long and cold sleep.
The second act, the thawing of Walter comes to an abrupt halt as Tarek is arrested and taken to a correctional facility for illegal refugees. Walter acts as chief go between for his new friend and Zainab, who understandably, does not want to venture inside such a place for fear that she will not be allowed out.
The third act unexpectedly hints at the germination of a new love welling up within Walter as his warming continues. Again, the way the film communicates these experiences for Walter does so economically yet without losing their impact.
The film plays out the harsh reality for refugees in the post-9/11 Western world (where “either you belong or you don’t”). We come to accept many implausible endings from Hollywood productions and it is a testament to writer / director Tom McCarthy that he presents a sensitive film about people and relationships which doesn’t scream MESSAGE MOVIE at any stage.
The film also does not ever tell us what to think or how to feel, another of the typical Hollywood foibles. We do not get a post-film epilogue to let us know that everything turns out alright, for example. The last scene is the most beautiful. Walter takes his drum to an underground railway station and starts playing. The location and the action are significant and it is how Walter plays that gives us the merest glimpse to his (and our) state of mind.
A beautiful and understated film that is all the more welcome as it is unanticipated. Were it not for Richard Jenkins’ Best Actor Oscar nomination it would have passed by altogether. I strongly encourage you to locate it and watch.
4 out of 5.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

The Duchess movie review

The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, desperately wants to be an historic bio-pic that fetes the life of a “modern” woman, repressed by 18th century English culture. “Based on true events,” the real life Duchess was apparently a celebrated beauty and a socialite who gathered around her a large circle of literary and political figures (thank-you Wikipedia).
The film, The Duchess, by way of one or two scenes tries to suggest this great social character. It starts with Keira Knightley as the 17-year old virginal girl, married off to The Duke (Ralph Fiennes) by her mother, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling). His sole goal in marrying her is to breed a son. She naively thinks that her marriage might be one that builds a relationship.
The movie then skips 6 years and low and behold The Duchess has become this socialite who “expresses herself through her dresses.” The development of this outspoken and charismatic woman might have been interesting. Instead the film fails to build any tension of its own. It relies on us identifying with the moral conundrum faced by the women by their miserable husbands : pursue happiness on their own terms or lose access to their children.
The unsympathetic, emotionally-handicapped Duke is well portrayed by Fiennes. It is said that “he is the only man in England who is not in love with his wife” as he chases other young women to be his bed companions. His relations with his wife extends only as long as it takes to sire a son. His conversation is virtually nil, his interest in his wife minimal and then utters the most redundant line in the film, “I’m not particularly adept at expressing myself when it comes to matters of a more personal nature.” Thanks Duke - I think we worked that out. The film failed to tell a cohesive story and this is but one small instance.
The film won Best Oscar for Costume Design and it is perhaps best to enjoy it from this perspective. There’s nothing like a romping period drama with a large budget to go all out with. The backdrop of spacious manor houses and luxuriant living allows Knightley to act with poise and grace as she models these voluminous, multi-layered dresses made of the finest silk, taffeta and satin. Her wigs are the most stupendous creations, with feathers or flowers to accent them impressively. Alternatively a hat and parasol extols her virtue when venturing outside. Her makeup is impeccable : the slightest rouge to highlight her cheekbones, and either a “natural” red for lips that must pucker, or auburn for a subdued expression. Knightley is the perfect model for the artists behind the scenes and the film is a worthy winner.
2 out of 5.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona movie review

Is it just me or is Woody Allen’s latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona a tepid bowl of Match Point leftovers, which wasn’t that good to start with ? I admit I was in a bad mood when I started this film and it didn’t improve as Woody’s fantasy sex-life took over. I concede you would be hard pressed not to like at least Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz or Javier Bardem were they to make a move on you (or all 3 at once), and to finish off with Rebecca Hall for dessert, but really. Come on Woody. Challenge us! Give a story to care about.
Two American friends, Vicky (Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) get away from it all in Barcelona. For Vicky who is writing a thesis on Catalonian culture it is a chance to experience Barcelona first hand : Gaudi’s church, the cobblestone streets, the old carousel, the hidden jewel of Oviedo. What a mysterious place to visit, experience romance and fall in love. For Cristina, she is running away from the pressure of everyday life although as we witness, life can be just as complicated in Spain as in New York and towards the end, she runs off to France. I wonder if life is any different there?
The women meet Juan Antonio (Bardem) who oozes charm and has these girls spinning circles within no time. He speaks with reverence and love about his ex-wife, Maria Elena (Cruz) who is both alluring and dangerous all at once. Thank goodness she turns up. Cruz brings energy, passion and fury to this story and keeps it going. Going that is until Woody capitulates to his fantasies and the actors are forced into the quality of Debbie Does Dallas.
I think Woody is trying to tell us that life is what you make it : the good, the bad, what you do as much as what you don’t do. As one character says, “I’m looking for a magical solution [to my life].” Good luck. I stopped caring.
1 out of 5.

Friday, 29 May 2009

MIFF 2009


The publicity booklet was mailed out this week for Melbourne International Film Festival 2009. There are still 6 weeks to wait before the Festival program is published and another two weeks after that before the Festival begins. The impatient waiting is now on countdown. My season pass has been paid for ... the wait continues.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Waltz With Bashir movie review

Ari Folman, writer, director and producer of this biographical, animated documentary about his experience of the Israel/Lebanon war in 1982, has no memory of what happened to him. Some 24 years later, in 2006, his friend wakes him in the middle of the night. He has been having the same dream over and over again. 26 rabid dogs are chasing him through the streets of Beirut and he can’t escape them. Just as he confronts them, he wakes up. Why can’t he move on with his life?
This sets Folman on his own journey uncovering repressed memories of his own experience. He interviews soldiers he served with and others who were there, asking them, “was I there too?”
His one memory is floating in the sea, looking toward the city, while a massacre of innocents takes place. With the assistance of an analyst he begins to realise that the sea represents his empathy and feelings. His proximity suggests that he saw something horrific or disturbing but was unable to act.
To animate a documentary might seem an unusual choice however it allows us as viewers to be drawn into the story – allowing us to distance ourselves from the immediate horror of war in a way that real footage does not. The conversations between these old friends is relaxed and honest. Two blokes sharing a coffee while the kids play on the floor, for example. Not the usual talking head with a black background.
It will not surprise you to learn that I was reluctant to watch this film. War films can be especially harrowing however it was nominated in the Best Documentary category at the Oscar’s (which was won by Man On Wire) and won a number of other film awards, including a Golden Globe. It is therefore regarded highly.
The tension builds as Folman, and us, move closer and closer to uncovering his memory of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, where a whole refugee camp of men, women, children and animals were killed. And then with less than two minutes to run, the animation flips to real, colour news footage of that time. Women are loudly mourning and strewn about them are bodies left to rot in a bombed out city. What we have been watching is not a dream. It is not an animation. It has been a documentary all along and my blood runs cold. I have been engaged with this story the whole way and am inevitably moved and saddened by these destructive actions and impulses of our fellow humans.
"Whether an eternity or just a minute, there was Frenkel at the junction with bullets flying past him in every direction. Instead of crossing the junction, I saw him dancing, as if in a trance. He cursed the shooters. Like he wanted to stay there forever. As if he wanted to show off his waltz amid the gunfire, with the posters of Bashir above his head. And Bashir’s followers preparing their big revenge just 200 yards away. The Sabra and Shatila massacre."

4 out of 5.