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.