Sunday, December 27, 2009

Broken Embraces: Almodóvar's Mature Mastery



Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos) is vintage Pedro Almodóvar.

It’s Pedro’s homage to film-making. It features a movie within the movie, a documentary about the making of the movie and a sequel. Moreover, there is a first release of ‘Girls and Suitcases’ plus a director’s cut.

Almodovar is not just one of the world’s foremost auteurs. His works virtually constitute a genre of their own. This venture has all his melodramatic trademarks. Love, jealousy, betrayal and tragedy. A disabled protagonist who has buried his former self. A menacing father and an obsessed gay son who battles his father’s rejection. A very vulnerable femme fatale. A lip reader. A mysterious past. Startling revelations. Several key incidents involve hospitals, which often play a pivotal role in his films. There is even a coma.

This story has a dual time frame. 1994 concerns the shooting of ‘Girls and Suitcases’ and the inevitable love triangle that develops between the producer Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez), his mistress and female lead Lena (Penélope Cruz) and the director Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar). Almodóvar sends up his earlier films such as Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) and Kika mimicking all their colour and zany style. He even uses some of his long serving actors in supporting roles in Suitcases.

2008 brings catharsis for the sole surviving member. Harry Caine, formerly film director Mateo Blanco, confronts his past as he recounts the disastrous events of 1994 to his assistant Diego (Tamar Novas) whose mother Judit (Blanca Portillo) had been his production assistant and is now his agent.

It’s hard to fault the cast who give polished, professional performances. Pedro seems to bring out the best in Penélope Cruz by aiming for restraint rather than hysterics. In fact the whole movie shows a marked maturity with masterly control of its edgy suspense and humour.

This is arguably one of, if not the best Almodóvar to date.

Enjoy!

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Serious Man: MidWestern Woody Allen



The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man is a clever, cute but ultimately disappointing film from this highly creative duo. There is little enlightening or new in this comic tale of Jewish identity crisis except its location.

It’s set in a suburb like St. Louis Park, Minneapolis, Minnesotawhere they grew up. That is its main original feature. It’s 1967 but feels more like 1957, except for sex and pot in the suburbs.

Larry Gopnik, played capably by unknown Michael Stuhlbarg, is a Physics professor who specialises in the Uncertainty Principle. “It proves we can't ever really know... what's going on.” Larry is haunted by his unsatisfactory home and work life. His dreams are even worse than his reality if it’s possible.

No matter how well crafted this movie is, I’m over the Jewish male searching for the meaning of life in his religion and his dysfunctional family. Woody Allen has done it to death. At least we are spared his typical family dysfunctionality where mother or mother-in-law is the prime target of ridicule. This time it’s the wife and children. And the rabbis who give us theology according to Jefferson Airplane .

I’m over stereotypical rabbis who are as helpful as Tony Soprano’s therapist. . Over situation comedy that relies on absurd coincidence or un-empathetic characters. Over lines like, “There’ll be no nose jobs in this family!” Over perving on the sunbaking neighbour. And over the eccentric Uncle Arthurs of this surreal world. The sole representative Goy is the menacing redneck next door. Unless you count the parable of the Goy’s teeth.

There is a self-contained folk tale in Yiddish as a prologue. According to the Coens, it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Just a self-indulgence like much of what follows. The twisted ending calls out for real irony. Perhaps I missed it.

Most fans of Joel and Ethan Coen will enjoy A Serious Man. Go along and share this tortured view of life but don’t expect one of their greats. This strange exposition of Jewish subculture doesn’t break enough new ground.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Boys are Back: Just Say Maybe



Director Scott Hicks’ first Australian movie since Shine is set in his home State of South Australia. Unfortunately The Boys are Back does not live up to that extraordinary film.

Just Say Yes is a great motto for life unless you are a single parent with little experience of taking personal responsibility. The Boys are Back explores this as well as love, loss, grieving and the absentee father.

Clive Owen plays Joe Warr, an English sports journalist who married an Aussie and settled in a rural retreat. It is a true retreat, for he is rarely home while his wife Katy is still alive. This life as a thoroughly modern bread-winner might help to explain the breakdown of his first marriage.

It’s a strong cast. Julia Blake is very professional as mother-in-law Barbara but Chris Haywood’s talent is wasted as her husband Tom. Laura Fraser as Katy and Emma Booth as Laura, the once and future Ms Warrs, don’t miss a beat.

Joe’s six year-old son Artie, played by Nicholas McAnulty, has some of the best lines of the script, if they seem unlikely for his age. George MacKay’s performance as son Harry, is suitably teen-brooding. He understands his father’s immaturity much better than Joe does. For a journalist Joe is a remarkably poor communicator at times.

Some aspects of the plot are too contrived and require too much suspension of disbelief. Others are just too predictable, especially the ending.

Ultimately, The Boys are Back is too soft and too forgiving. The hard edges are blunted too much by Clive Owen’s personable performance. It’s an enjoyable experience but had the feel of telemovie rather than really memorable cinema. If you’re thinking of watching it, I’ll just say maybe.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Soundtrack for a Revolution: Songs of Freedom



Writer/directors Bill Guttentag Dan Sturman have made a masterful documentary. Soundtrack for a Revolution weaves historical footage, recent interviews and music from the time with modern performances of the freedom songs of the United States civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Participants in this moving, often tragic and ultimately triumphal period tell their stories of fighting racism and segregation in America’s South. Congressman John Lewis and UN Ambassador Andrew Young retrace their journey of non-violence with Martin Luther King Jnr.

Lynda Lowery was a 14 year-old when she was brutally attacked at the peaceful march in Selma. Her emotional recollection of that event and those that followed embodies the spirit of the times.

The struggle for black rights was a major part of my teenage television viewing: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycotts; violence in Little Rock Arkansas, the 1961 freedom rides, the 1963 March on Washington, the mid 60s campaign for voting rights; the integration of universities; Bloody Sunday at Selma; King’s assassination in 1968.

Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and North & South Carolina were villains in the ongoing news. Bloodshed in places such as Birmingham and Selma regularly led the bulletins. Bombing, lynching, murders and beatings and intimidation by police and the Ku Klux Klan painted a sorry picture.

Most of the songs are well known to my generation: We shall overcome, Hold on/Keep your eyes on the prize, We shall not be moved, Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round. Other are less familiar.

An array of first class modern artists brings the songs to life: John Legend, The Roots, Wyclef Jean, Joss Stone, Angie Stone, Mary Mary, TV On the Radio, Blind Boys of Alabama, Anthony Hamilton and Richie Havens, plus the inspirational Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir.

A very important story, familiar to many, has been reinvigorated in a way that will make it accessible to new generations. The film ends with the newly elected Barack Obama. Soundtrack for a Revolution is a fitting testament to those whose voices made his journey possible.

It is no surprise that this film is on the short list for the Oscar for best documentary.
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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bright Star: A Joy Forever



Bright Star is an engaging experience. Writer/director Jane Campion has crafted a beautiful film, as lyrical as a Romantic poem. We glide through this tender love story, sharing the passion, despair and sublime joy that the only young can generate. When poet John Keats meets 16 year-old Fanny Brawne, they spark from the beginning. We follow the waves of their romance to its inevitable and final separation. Not even Planet Hollywood could spin this piece of literary history into a happy ending.

The cast give stellar performances. Abby Cornish presents the feisty, independence of Elizabeth Bennet, combined with the obsessiveness of first love. Ben Whishaw is a very credible dying youth. He has the look, as well as delivering a lyric or two with some sensitivity. Janet Frame’s collaboration with Jane Campion began brilliantly in An Angel at My Table. She continues this success with a very spirited portrayal of Mrs Brawne.

Just as John Keats’s poetry isn’t for everyone, this film is not for the action movie crowd or costume soap opera. Its two hours running time moves with a modulated pace that matches the narrative perfectly.

The opening sequence has Fanny sewing her latest fashion creation. Campion’s close-ups, especially of hands and eyes, give the film an added intimacy. With its timeless quality, the film takes us well beyond the usual period piece. Nevertheless, its sets and costumes more than match its rivals and are sure to win awards.

The essential elements of rivalry and jealousy are realised not in other women but in the form of Keats’ close friend Charles Brown, played with suitable intensity by Paul Schneider.

Like a Jane Austen novel, the letter is a vital player in their courtship and his absences. Fittingly there is a letter competition on the website. Nothing beats love letters from a poet. Campion is not afraid to let Keats’ poetry speak for him.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.

However, it’s not just a romance. Keats struggles for everyday survival not just fame. His enemies are poverty and disease not just the critics. Fanny is his brightest star and Jane Campion brings her to life in a masterful way.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story - revolution postponed



It was a sympathetic crowd at the cinema in Melbourne's posh Brighton suburb watching Capitalism: A Love Story. They must have been either chardonnay socialists or from the other side of the tracks. Maybe they lost a bundle on the stock market last year or watched their superannuation shrink. Perhaps some were the kind of Catholic who follows the Sermon on the Mount. Michael Moore's latest documentary has something for all these groups.

Moore is no captive to ideology: the union factory occupation adjourns for mass and communion; a Sheriff refuses to evict people; the credits roll to the strains of the Internationale; the people’s revolt starts with peaceful pressure on their representatives on Capitol Hill over the bailout.

As a filmmaker he is master of the simple visual image: the confrontation at the headquarters of the Fat Cats of Wall Street and industry; the family grieving for lost loved ones or the home from which they are being evicted; the dispossessed moving back as squatters into their houses; the bulldozed factory where his father worked.

True to form, Moore takes on the big end of town in his comic citizen-arrest pieces and mock showdowns. He wraps the crime scene in Manhattan with police tape. It is, of course, the New York Stock Exchange. It could have been the guarded citadels of Citigroup, AIG, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, General Motors or any of the other gangster dens of this documentary. All your humble security guards recognise MM immediately. His tilts at revolving doors have become a cliché for them and us. The drama and the humour have been sapped from this kind of satire. We all know the joke.

Sadly we never find out exactly what 'derivatives' are but it seems to be a synonym for theft. Karl Marx called property theft. Some irony. There appears to have been a lot of property stolen. However, Moore must only be a closet Marxist. He only mentions the other “-ism”. He sees 'democracy' rather than socialism as a solution to capitalism’s evils: worker participation and ownership, unionism, transparency. His website's "Action Plan: 15 Things Every American Can Do Right Now" is not exactly revolutionary stuff.

But it's meeting the victims of the system that has the most impact. Moore is at his best when he talks to ordinary people: those suffering and sometimes fighting evictions, the unemployed, the un-paid families of 'dead peasant' life insurance schemes, workers taking direct action in the workplace. His faith, indeed his roots, is with the powerless.

With god, the union and the law on his side he shouldn’t fail. However, for all its heart wrenching stories of ordinary people and its compelling indictment of Big Capital and High Finance, Capitalism: A Love Story doesn’t nail the culprits. Barack Obama was the great hope when the film was made. It’s revolution postponed. A sequel would paint a sorry picture of free enterprise American style post 2008.

However, it is time to read the big print. See this if you can.



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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Moon: Good Old-fashioned Sci-fi


Moon is a sci-fi film that doesn’t rely on spectacular computer graphic action and aliens for its impact. It’s an entertaining and thought provoking experience.

In a near future, our energy problems have been solved. Earth uses non-polluting fusion reactors powered by Helium-3 mined on the moon. Sam Bell is the sole worker for Lunar Industries on the dark side of the moon. As he nears the end of his 3-year contract, things start to warp badly around him.

He has been out of direct live contact and has to rely on recorded messages. His only companion has been the computer system GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey, a less sinister version of HAL 9000. It is torn between its role of helping him and its instructions from the company.

Director/writer Duncan Jones has created a film with attitude. It’s an old fashioned movie in many ways, which may help to explain some critic’s negativity. The sets have the look and feeling of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien. Model miniatures with CG effects layered on top were used to create this engaging atmosphere.

The pace glides along. There is no video game speed here. Moon is as much about the human condition as it is about technology. Jones is clearly a Ridley Scott fan but rather than Blade Runner’s replicants he uses a more realistic scientific twist to explore what it means to be human.

It took only 33 days to shoot but it’s not a complex story and its minuscule cast hardly needed coordination. Sam Rockwell as his namesake protagonist puts in a first class performance.

Some of the plot is a bit hard to accept. For instance Lunar Industries have spent an extraordinary amount of money on their deception. It’s hard to figure out the cost/benefit.

At the end we hear a radio broadcast from earth complete with a shock-jock airing familiar populist prejudices. It’s a nasty way to bring us back to earth. I really enjoyed the trip.
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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In Search of Beethoven's genius


You don’t have to be a fan of classical music to know and have enjoyed Ludwig van Beethoven’s music. Whether it’s Symphony No.9 in Clockwork Orange or the 5th in Picnic at Hanging Rock or numerous others movie scores, it has popular appeal beyond the concert hall or classic CD collection. Moonlight Sonata, Ode to Joy and many more are generally recognised.

As a follow-up to In Search of Mozart, Phil Grabsky brings us a monumental 139 minute tribute to Ludwig van Beethoven. In Search of Beethoven is detailed, informative, entertaining and thought provoking with a comprehensive, chronological introduction to his life and his works. There are 55 performances from some of the world’s best orchestras and artists.

However, it’s too long for the cinema. Long enough to make a worthy three part TV series. There are too many talking heads. Perhaps Grabsky didn’t want to offend any of the multitudes of experts by leaving them out.

It’s beautifully filmed but relies heavily on the clichés of this documentary genre. It isn’t easy to match the aural majesty with enough visual splendours. Inevitably it falls back on: orchestras in every state of rehearsal or performance; close ups of pianists, cellists and other performers; the rear view of numerous conductors' torsos; paintings interspersed with modern day exteriors of Vienna and similar locales. He also seems to favour chopping off the tops of heads unless they are entrants in the competition for the most disheveled male Beet hairstyle.

Fidelio, Beethoven’s only finished opera, brings some much needed drama and visual engagement.

Juliet Stevenson’s narration is crisp and fresh, perhaps too detached at times given the passionate nature of the subject.

Mercifully Grabsky has steered clear of re-enactments. Nor has the use of David Dawson as Beethoven’s voice been overdone. In fact more of the story in Beethoven's own words might have helped our understanding of his true character. The filmmakers’ claim that it uncovers the myth of the “heroic, tormented figure battling to overcome his tragic fate, struck down by deafness, who searched for his 'immortal beloved' but remained unmarried. It delves beyond the image of the tortured, cantankerous, unhinged personality, to reveal someone quite different and far more interesting.”

However, this search for the real person falls short. We do not really get into Beethoven’s heart or mind. In fact we learn more about his drinking habits than his attitudes to women, marriage or children. There is little revealing material from his own writing or those who were close to him such as his nephew or his romantic interests.

Don’t be put off. Watch this one for the joy of the music.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Greenaway Reconstructs Leonardo's Last Supper


Peter Greenaway's Installation Art Captures Melbourne

Leonardo's Last Supper has come to Melbourne for the International Arts Festival this year. It's one of Peter Greenaway's image technology installation art projects. It follows the success of his multimedia event 'Rembrandt's The Nightwatch at the Rijksmuseum' in Amsterdam in 2006.

Greenaway calls these art forms, "speculative painting-cinema dialogues". Greenaway has reinvented himself as a new Da Vinci. Had Leonardo been alive today, "an investigation into the continuity and correspondence between the language of painting and the language of cinema would have been obligatory for him".

Da Vinci Cloned

Unfortunately it could not be the original masterpiece. However the reproduction is cleverly forged, in both senses of the word. It is claimed to be, "a perfect, three-dimensional sculptural clone of Milan's crumbling, 510-year-old chapel wall and painting."

The half hour show alternates between caressing and interrogating the painting. The micro-accuracy of the the video projections is astounding. Today's audio-visual presentations are certainly light-years ahead of the old slide projectors.

Is Cinema dead?

Ground-breaking film director Greenaway declared cinema dead as early as 2003. This seeming about-face may have been a consequence of his 1999 movie, and perhaps last true cinema production, 8 1/2 Women. It received a drubbing from most reviewers at the time.

His cinema triumphs include the beautiful The Draughtsman's Contract where his early training as a painter brought magnificent scene scapes to this period piece. Drowning by Numbers drew on his skills as a film editor in constructing its elaborate storyline. The Cook, the Thief, his Wife & her Lover became a cult movie very quickly. The Pillow Book is perhaps his best film, as he mixed media to telling effect. It weaves traditional Chinese and Japanese poetry and calligraphy into an exploration of sensuality by its extensive use of body painting.

Last Supper Highlights

There are many highlights during the half-hour with Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles. The exploration of the hands is particularly striking. The opposite wall hosts a cascade of highly detailed close-ups of the painting's grainy texture. It reveals a fascinating perspective that is
usually hidden from an audience. The painting itself started to disintegrate not long after it was finished in the 1490s. Since the effects of numerous restorations have been removed, The Last Supper is now close to the original except of course for its fragmented state.

The audience crowds around a table of food and drink dividing the installation room. Bread and wine are the essentials.

Nine Classic Paintings Revisited

The other art works in the proposed Nine Classic Paintings Revisited series are: Veronese's The Wedding At Cana, Picasso's Guernica, Velasquez's Las Meninas, Seurat's La Grande Jatte, Monet's The Water Lilies - Nympheas, Jackson Pollock's One: Number 31, and Michelangelo's The Last Judgement.

For the multitudes that can't attend one of the original venues, hopefully there will be traveling versions that match the high quality of this Melbourne event.

Peter Greenaway is performing the last rites for the cinema a little prematurely. But it's a performance that's well worth attending.

(This article first appeared on Associated Content)
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Departures Intimate Touch


Departures (Okuribito) is a Japanese film that everyone should see. It is about death and grieving but don't be put off by the subject matter. It's about family, relationships and identity, plus the role of tradition and ritual in everyday lives. The story also explores the role and importance of work in our lives. It does so with a gentle touch and good humour.

This movie has a stellar cast. Masahiro Motoki won the Japan Academy Prize for Best Leading Actor 2008 for his role as cellist turned novice mortician Daigo Kobayashi.

Tsutomu Yamazaki plays his master Ikuei Sasaki. This veteran actor captured the award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. His best-known role outside Japan is probably that of the trucker in the classic noodle film Tampopo. He continues his romance with food in this part.

Ryoko Hirosue as Daigo's somewhat insipid wife Mika, is a previous best supporting actress winner from 2000. Apparently her fame started with a series of cosmetics advertisements. Coincidentally makeup is a skill that Daigo has to acquire in his new job. It's hard to judge her ability, as this role doesn't offer much with its confining stereotype. It is the weakest part of a mainly robust script. The other major blemish is the predictability of the plot. That seems to be inevitable with this kind of soft-centred drama.

When Daigo's orchestra is disbanded he leaves Tokyo for his small hometown Sakata. There he inadvertently applies for a job in "departures". It turns out to be working in decoffination, a funeral ceremony that prepares the deceased for burial. It is normally conducted with the family and close friends present and involved. The story is his journey of self-discovery as he becomes a professional.

Fortunately there is a current of humour that helps to elevate the movie from the potential for melodrama. Motoki's facial expressions are a key element in pitching the right level of levity in a story that has death as a central theme. The departure ceremony is deftly handled, showing both the intimate and touching side of saying goodbye and the potential for explosive behaviour among the mourners. Both actors perform the elaborate rites in an extremely convincing manner.

Another veteran of Japanese cinema, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, plays bathhouse owner Tsuyako. She refuses to sell her business for condominiums despite pressure from her son. Takashi Sasano brings more cinema experience as her best customer and friend Shokichi, whose own occupation takes on significance at the conclusion of the story. This sub plot builds on the theme of traditional Japanese culture that the film is exploring.

Departures is a moving journey into the world of death and funerals. However, its 130 minutes could have been chopped. The first hour and a half flies by, with tight direction from Yojiro Takita. The last thirty minutes or so is sometimes irritatingly slow and repetitive. For example the giving of stones symbolism is overworked. It has become more than obvious that Daigo's father gave him a rough and heavy burden to carry through life.

It was a unlikely winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars. It is a journey that is well worth taking.

(This post was first published at Associated Content)

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Julie & Julia Film Review: Eating Their Words

A Food Film to Savour

My partner is a food tragic who regularly turns today's exotic TV recipe into tonight's meal. Like Julia Child I'm good at eating, very good. My lack in culinary skills is balanced by my blogging. Between us we have the perfect credentials to review Julie & Julia.

This movie was a must see for us. In addition to the aforementioned interests, we have always been keen followers of that limited but classy genre, food films. Greats like 'La Grande Bouffe', 'Tampopo', and 'Eat Drink, Man Woman' cover a range of cuisines such as Scandinavian, Japanese, Italian and Chinese. 'Julie and Julia' adds a gastronomic tableau of French delights. It's not those who are butter shy.

Writer/director Nora Ephron has a track record of fluffy, feel-goods such as 'Bewitched', 'Michael' and 'Sleepless in Seattle'. Her latest film is a leap forward, perhaps because of the outstanding cast or its irresistible storylines. Meryl Streep is superb as the eccentric and original Julia Child. Amy Adams carries off the stressed joy-germ Julie Powell with seeming ease. They are well matched and perfectly juxtaposed. Only fifty years prevent them from building on their memorable interactions in Doubt. This time superior and novice meet in a virtual world.

The husbands are not an equal pair. Stanley Tucci has the more compelling character in Julia's husband Paul. He thoroughly eclipses Chris Messina's portrayal of Eric Powell. To be fair to Chris, he had little to work with. His one-dimensional character is the weak link in the script. It is ironic that the really moving love story belongs to the older couple.

A highlight is Julia's interactions with sister Dorothy, played with zany gusto by Jane Lynch. They are real gems.

In 1950s Paris, the Child's have the pick of the settings for romantic comedy. Ephron manages to give the overworked city a fresh look in this delicious twist on the American in Paris genre. The Powell's apartment above a pizzeria in Queens, New York, offers a suitably unglamorous contrast to that other great metropolis.

Fans of Julie and/or Julia should try not to bring along too much baggage. The audience is reminded regularly that the movie is based on two "true" stories and two autobiographical books. But in the end this is fiction. It's all too good to be true. Don't expect more than a superficial dip into the lives of these two remarkable celebrities. Their haracters' flaws are the ones we'd all like to have.

Some aspects of the movie are disappointing. Meryl Streep's performance is captivating but it does not escape caricature at times. Amy Adams is the girl-next-door whose antics borrow a bit too much from sit com humour.

In essence the film is fun, not drama. It's a glorious sensual experience in both senses of the word.

Enjoy! Bon appetite!

(This post was first published at Associated Content)
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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Séraphine's unique vision



Séraphine is the 'true' story of Séraphine Louis de Senlis. It is a French language film about art, about sanity, and about class. She is one of the invisible people, a maid, cleaner, clothes washer and odd jobs person. She is also a painter of rare talent, an autodidact who paints because her religious voices tell her to.

This French servant of the Virgin Mary is discovered by a German agnostic, gay art collector, Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur). (Uhde was an early admirer of Picasso.) Two world wars and the depression punctuate their personal and professional association. Wilhelm encourages Séraphine to develop her painting.

This is a slow but moving portrayal of this unique and little known woman. Director and co-writer Martin Provost is clearly mesmerised by her:
Séraphine is a visionary in the powerful sense of the word. She let herself be carried by something that was stronger than she was, that she did not control, at the risk of destroying herself. This moved me deeply.
Director Interview
Provost milks the French rural settings for all their beauty and tranquility. However, the 125 minutes could have been cut back without losing any of the film's emotional and intellectual impact. It's a visual feast. Séraphine's paintings are also a revelation.

The two leads are exceptionally good. Yolande Moreau lives the role in a memorable performance. Her Mary Poppins silhouette of hat, bag and umbrella graces the screen with both pathos and humour.

Her urbane patron is well captured by Tukur, presenting the gentleness and humanity that are central to the character. No Germanic stereotyping here. The supporting cast keep up the high standard.


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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Samson & Delilah: Oz Oscar entry

Great news for Warwick Thornton's Samson & Delilah:
Screen Australia today announced that the feature film Samson & Delilah is Australia’s official entry for nomination consideration for Best Foreign Language Film at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards®.
Screen Australia 29 September 2009

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District 9: aliens love their children too



District 9 could have been just another alien sci-fi movie except for the location and the lead. Johannesburg is an apt place to establish a ghetto for the unwanted, in this case the 'prawns' whose spaceship has been parked over the city for 20 years.

Peter Jackson, of Lord of the Rings fame, produced the film which was directed by Neill Blomkamp. We take the computer assisted special effects for granted these days, but the prawns unusual bodies were cleverly created. Under their hard shells they have soft hearts.

Wikipedia details the parallels with South Africa's District 6, and its forced removals under the apartheid system.

The film has most of the hackneyed plot devices we have come to loathe or love depending on our personal viewing needs. We have the visit, xenophobia, segregation, the experiments, fugitive on the run, the break-in, the chase, the shootout and self sacrifice.

Most of the characters are stereotypes: the greedy capitalists, the Nigerian gang, the misunderstood aliens, the blood thirsty mercenary, even the unlikely hero.

But it is the casting and performance of Sharlto Copley as Afrikaans Wikus Van De Merwe, the dedicated company man from Multi-National United, that saves this otherwise ordinary tale. He carries off the role of the dag (dork) who finds courage, exceptionally well for a very inexperienced cinema actor.

There is an extensive official website that includes games and other fun stuff for those who are that way inclined.

Even if it's not your favourite genre, don't write District 9 off your list of potentials.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

Early Oscars Betting: time to make a killin'

Intrade have opened their first market on the Oscars for next year:

Winner of Best Picture 2010

Like one of the contenders for nomination for an Academy Award, it's very much Up In The Air

As Inglourious Basterds' Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) would say, it's time to make a killin'.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: celluloid assassins



Writer/director Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is more comedy than drama, more suspense than action. That's what makes it worth the effort of a cinema viewing. He rewrites the history of the Third Reich in true comic-book fantasy style. Always the risk-taker, Tarantino teases us with some lengthy dialogue-rich scenes that stand apart from his trademark graphic violence.

The opening sequence,as SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the "Jew Hunter", parries with French farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), is a tingler as they switch between French and English. The 'La Louisiane' bar scene, as actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) meets with English spy Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), accelerates to its inevitable derailment.

There are the usual visual allusions to cinema classics, so beloved by the buffs. IMDb has a list of movie connections. Fittingly the plot's epicentre is a Paris cinema owned by Shosanna Dreyfus/Emmanuelle Mimieux (Mélanie Laurent), a very fatale femme. Laurent and Kruger are highlights, continuing Tarantino's penchant for powerful female leads.

Nation's Pride, a fictional Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) propaganda film within a film, is the story of hero Private Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Tarantino's view: “I like that it’s the power of the cinema that fights the Nazis,” he says. “But not just as a metaphor, as a literal reality.” David Bowie's song Cat People (Putting Out Fire) reinforces the message.

Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine, the hillbilly leader of the assassin squad, shows that his comic display in Burn After Reading was no fluke. It's no Oscar winning performance but he carries off the role with a fine touch of Tennessee fun. "We're in the Nazi killin' business and business is a boomin."

Talent packs the screen. The strong cast are too numerous to mention. Eli Roth who plays basterd Donny Donowitz also directed Nation's Pride with his brother Gabriel. Apparently the black and white Stolz der Nation runs for seven minutes, though only parts are shown in the movie.

While Inglourious Basterds is a long way from Tarantino's best, this modern mixture of The Dirty Dozen and Flame and Citron will appeal to lovers of the heroes versus villains genre.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Eden is West's pedestrian offering


Eden is West (Eden à l'Ouest) is a pedestrian offering from director Costa-Gavras and not just because the protagonist is heading across Europe on foot. The film is a far cry from his early greats such as Z. and Missing.

Illegal immigrant Elias is searching for his Eden after washing up at an Aegean resort. He sets off to Paris on a so-called Odyssey. For the most part his temptresses and monsters are a fairly lack lustre bunch. The villains of modern capitalism and consumersim are stereotypes and most of the lessons of this fable lack any subtly. Apart from the occasional rip-off merchant and refugee exploiter, our gallant hero mostly encounters generosity and kindness.

Perhaps the most poignant moments come from the juxtaposition of rich German tourist Christina (Juliane Köhler) and poor Greek peasant Sophia (Dina Mihailidou).

Riccardo Scamarcio as Elias is a real charmer who does innocence very effectively. He's a curly-haired Tony Curtis. He manages to carry off a lot of very ordinary slapstick and revels in non-verbal interactions. Unfortunately his character's naivete is just one of several weaknesses in the screenplay. Elias is a generic refugee from an unnamed country whose religion and other cultural background are not presented. He is implicitly Muslim since he is shocked at first by nudity, alcohol and gratuitous sex. He's a fast learner.

There is a quirky, self-indulgent series of scenes with film crews in the background that adds little to the story or experience.

Despite the seriousness of its underlying themes, we are presented a cheery, optimistic view of humanity. Sadly the plight of refugees becomes submerged in its 'life is beautiful' message.

As an allegory about modern Western society it lacks punch. The film is a confused mix of comedy, drama, social satire and farce. It just isn't going anywhere.

The ending just doesn't do it either. It will take more than magic to change the inequities of modern civilisation or resolve a directionless plot.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Beautiful Kate: Always on their Minds



Director/screenwriter, Rachel Ward has created a very moving experience in Beautiful Kate. It's a story of a dysfunctional bush family, set in the dry but magnificent country around South Australia's Flinders Ranges. Ward's husband Bryan Brown doubles as producer and actor.

The death of his wife left Bruce Kendall to bring up their young children, two boys and two girls. His macho, tough approach to parenting brought nothing but disaster. A explosive mixture of adolescent sexual awakening and outback isolation was compounded by his choice of home schooling through School of the Air. The young twins Ned (Scott O'Donnell)and Kate (Sophie Lowe) were especially close.

When Bruce is dying, forty-year-old Ned (Ben Mendelsohn) returns to their property with his feisty girlfriend Toni (Maeve Dermody). Writer Ned starts to record his memories as a way of burying his ghosts or closet skeletons. When his sister leaves him as carer for several days, all the old wounds are reopened. The film is a journey towards the ubiquitous closure cliché. Bruce and Ned would find much more colourful synonyms for an ending, happy or otherwise.

This is a remarkably talented cast. Brown gives one of his most convincing performances and Mendelsohn impresses throughout. Rachel Griffiths as youngest sibling Sally is rock solid. Lowe does a fine job steering clear of the potential overkill inherent in her very difficult role. Dermody's scenes with Brown leave us with the certainty that there is much more depth to her character than we meet on the surface. Scott O'Donnell is a capable actor though he lacks the cheekiness and charisma of either the young or mature Mendelsohn.

The father/son confrontations are classics. Wall-flies would no doubt have enjoyed the rehearsals and off-screen banter. Rachel brings out the best and worst in both of them.

Kate is a well paced and structured narrative using unfolding flashbacks very effectively. Despite its themes, it is not a dark or brooding film of the kind that has been criticised lately. At one stage the older Ned cries out, "I'm still here!" in despair. As he drives back to the big smoke, these words herald a new opening.

Her feature film debut as director is a triumph for Rachel Ward.



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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Balibo: Tense East Timor Testament



Robert Connolly’s Balibo is a compelling political thriller. It “is a true story” based on Jill Jolliffe’s book, Cover-Up.

It is in fact four stories:
  • The story of five Australian journalists who were murdered at Balibo by the Indonesian forces that invaded East Timor in 1975.
  • Of Roger East, an Australian journalist who sought the truth about their deaths.
  • Of Juliana who testifies as an adult to her experiences in Dili as an eight year old.
  • Of the spirit of the East Timorese people as embodied in their current President José Ramos Horta.
Connolly and playwright David Williamson have constructed a script that has avoided potential pitfalls associated with layers of flashbacks. At times the pace faltered as the context or the suspense was being established.

There is little attempt to present detailed characterisations of the Balibo 5. Damon Gameau as Greg Shackleton is the focus of the group. His re-enactment of Shackleton’s famous TV report from the frontline is impressive. You can compare the two on the website. The rivalry between the Channel 9 and Channel 7 crews continues today, though in a less friendly way.

Anthony LaPaglia gives a very convincing performance as Roger East. He has enough weight both figuratively and literally to carry off the role of a seedy, disillusioned journo.

Oscar Isaac manages the difficult job of the young José Ramos Horta. Fortunately he does not try imitating this distinctive and well-known personality.

Gyton Grantley (Gary Cunningham), Nathan Phillips (Malcolm Rennie), Mark Winter (Tony Stewart) and Thomas Wright (Brian Peters) show the depth of Australian acting talent. As does Simon Stone as ABC journalist Tony Maniaty.

The East Timorese cast are exceptional. Anamaria Barreto meets the high expectations of child actors these days as young Juliana. Her parents are Timorese and she lives in Darwin. Bea Viegas gives an intense, moving portrayal of the adult Juliana. Osme Gonsalves also impresses as Ximenes, a Fretlin soldier. It is difficult to find out the names of many of the actors as they are not listed on the website or IMDb.

The film raises many questions about the political responsibility for what happened and the need for justice to be done. This is a dark part of both Indonesian and Australian history. It does not attempt any definitive answers. That would be another movie. The historical background is analysed in depth and can be accessed through the official website.

Balibo works very effectively as both a political statement and a personal drama.

See it!



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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Bastards: all in a day's work

Melbourne International Film Festival



The Bastards (Los bastardos) is an award winning Mexican film. It’s mostly Spanish language though it’s set in the United States. Fausto (Rubén Sosa) and Jesus (Jesus Moises Rodriguez) are illegal day labourers. They have been hired to murder someone. We follow them on their mission.

In only his second feature length movie, writer/director Amat Escalante clearly worked at using his limited budget by the use of unconventional techniques:
Basically I was looking for a feeling of overwhelming fear. Something that is bigger than us but you cannot define.
Los Bastardos blog
Nina Zavarin gives a disturbing performance as Karen, a lost soul in LA suburbia. Trevor Glen Campbell as her son Trevor does a convincing job of alienated teenager.

The strengths of this very experimental piece are also the roots of its weaknesses:
  • Long takes with little or no panning or use of zoom. Characters occasionally move in and out of frame and there is the odd dolly shot. The lack of variety is irritating and hard to justify in many of the scenes.
  • Action taking place off-camera, sometimes “behind” the camera. It's trite and ineffective.
  • Long silences, that cause us to lose interest as the story does not progress.
  • Sparse dialogue. The characters’ motivation or psychological states remain too clouded.
  • The use of actors with no experience. (Nina Zaravin was an exception.) There are few intense verbal clashes between characters.
It was shot in “five intensive weeks” of filming. A redeeming feature is the absence of the shaky hand-held photography that has been so trendy but is rarely used effectively. Unfortunately the cinematic style adopted does not lead to increased drama.

It would be wrong to classify this as an action movie. Very little happens. Nor does it quite hit the mark as horror or thriller. There is some suspense but it doesn’t provide the tingling tension or build-up we associate with these genre.

It isn’t very nail-biting. You just wish they would get on with it. It’s certainly edgy at times but the snail pace is frustrating. The only surprise is not what happens but when.

Going by the awards The Bastards has received, there is a keen audience for this film. This gives some hope to independent filmmakers with little money. Unfortunately it is unlikely to reach the cult status of films like Robert Rodriguez's el cheapo El mariachi.

There are many other measures of success. A last word from Amat Escalante:
I think the most interesting and amazing thing that I've done with my second feature, on a personal level, is working with two people who are not actors who at first could not believe that they were going to be in a movie and then get to the Cannes festival ... a movie with them is an experience that changes your life, both they and myself.
Los Bastardos blog

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Amreeka: Fresh Off The Boat

Melbourne International Film Festival


Amreeka presents the experiences of Palestinians living in the West Bank and those who migrate to the United States. The word is Arabic for America. It’s about their everyday lives rather than the political situation, though this dictates many aspects of their existence at home and abroad. The impact of 9/11 on work, school, family relationships and normal social interactions underlies this very human story.

Two sisters from Bethlehem of all places are reunited in Illinois: Muna (Nisreen Faour) the optimist who wants a better life for her 16 year old son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) and Raghda (Hiam Abbass) the hardened pessimist who wants her husband Nabeel (Yussuf Abu-Warda) to take them back to Palestine.

Adjusting to American culture is hard enough without the added burdens of prejudice against migrants and the anti-Arab feelings generated by the war on terrorism.

In many ways writer/director Cherien Dabis has created a soft-sell movie. It’s about understanding not retribution and it's executed with lots of humour. We do not see the worst of the occupation. It mostly presents the small humiliations and day-to-day abuse of their rights.

The wall dominates their lives. Its graffiti calls not too subtly to the audience: “ICH BIN EIN BERLINER!” and “BEEN THERE DONE THAT!”

Of course, the anti-Islamic feelings are misdirected as Muna’s family are not Muslims. This is not the first use of this trite device in a film about Middle Eastern migrants. Among others the Lebanese in The Combination are Christians but experience the same kind of racial profiling.

The first two people to befriend Muna are outsiders themselves. Her workmate Matt (Brodie Sanderson) is a high school dropout. Mr. Novatski (Joseph Ziegler), a teacher from Fadi’s school, is a Polish American Jew.

The rest of Muna’s extended family are well portrayed by the strong cast including her three nieces Salma (Alia Shawkat), Rana (Jenna Kawar) and Lamis (Selena Haddad) and her mother.

Amreeka is a gentle persuader that is well worth seeing.

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Bran Nue Dae Blazes

Melbourne International Film Festival



The film of Bran Nue Dae premiered to enthusiastic audiences at MIFF 09. Director Rachel Perkins* and a first class Australian cast have brought the musical to life with energy and fun. Rachel has described the process of bringing this much loved stage musical to the screen as frightening and fun. This indigenous Shakespearean-style comedy is all fun.

Young, star-cross'd lovers are separated. Willie is an aborigine at boarding school in Perth in 1969. He dreams of reuniting with his sweetheart Rosie (Jessica Mauboy) who is back in Broome. He is played by Broome schoolboy, the angel-faced Phillip "Rocky" McKenzie. Geoffrey Rush is the wicked Father Benedictus who wants him to follow in his footsteps into the priesthood. He is determined to stop Willie from getting back home. Willie's unlikely saviour is Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo) a drunk, a conman but a charmer.

Along the way we meet two hippies in a combi wagon (Missy Higgins plays Alice with style), Roadhouse Betty (Magda Szubanski) and the raunchy Roxanne (Deborah Mailman, also stylish).

As befits a classic comedy, many complex relationships are revealed at the finale on the famous Cable Beach. In the words of its theme song:
There's nothing I would rather be
Than to be an Aborigine

* Rachel Perkins directed the indigenous musical film One Night The Moon, which has been turned into a stage production opening in Melbourne’s Malthouse soon.

(Official website is under construction)

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Zift Happens

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009



Zift is film noir set in post-war Bulgaria. Its black and white format works for this historical piece, creating a very appropriate mood. It is gloomy and seedy. It also moderates the ample blood associated with the inevitable violence. The magnificent settings reflect both the pre-war architectural grandeur of Sofia and the grey totalitarianism of the communist state.

The film has many of the classic noir stock features. Following release from prison in the 1960s, the protagonist Moth (Zahary Baharov) narrates his story taking us back to 1944. The mystery revolves around a diamond missing from the original crime scene. The femme fatale Ada or Mantis (Tanya Ilieva) is his school sweetheart. There is lots of suspense and a protracted chase. We meet a range of oddball characters during his one-night fight for life.

Betrayal is an essential part of this genus. The “villain” is his old partner in crime Slug (Vladimir Penev), now a powerful apparatchik who has thrived under the brutal, repressive Stalinist regime. Moth knows that he should trust no one.

This is an entertaining and at times troubling look at what people will do to survive. In keeping with the genre, it has an underlying layer of misogynism. There is little challenge to the view of women as men destroyers. The praying mantis metaphor is indulged both verbally and visually.

Both Baharov and Ilieva have very strong screen presences. He’s a man’s man, muscular and square-jawed. She’s lean and lithe with enticing eyes. The pair ooze sensuality, especially when working off each other.

According to Moth, “zift” means "bitumen" and was used as chewing gum. It’s also slang for “shit”. Very fitting for this dark movie. However, it’s tempered with some humour. Moth’s scrambles through the women’s section of a large bathhouse. He dives into a pool to retrieve a false eye that belonged to Grater (Tzvetan Alexiev) a prison friend. It’s worth seeing just for the gallery of tattoos. There is a sample in the trailer.

Director Javor Gardev and novelist/screenwriter Vladislav Todorov have crafted a tight script within an ample 92 minutes. Lots of other filmmakers could follow this example of brevity.Zift is definitely worth a look.

(The sub-titles on the copy shown at MIFF were less than satisfactory at times, which is very disappointing given its release was nearly a year ago.)

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Silent Wedding: no laughing matter



Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Silent Wedding (Nunta muta) is three films in one. A search for the para-normal. A romantic comedy. A political drama. It’s one too many.

There are many truly comic moments in its village that at times feels like sixteenth century rural Europe. The peasants are struggling to come to terms with the realities of Stalinist Romania in 1953. They treat their small local party cadre with ridicule. The modern day ruins of the giant factory are the legacy of this clash with brutal authoritarianism.

The characters and settings are pure Bruegel. Mara (Meda Andreea Victor) and Iancu (Alexandru Potocean) are a courting couple full of the joy and pleasures of youth. Their feuding families are finally united when a wedding is planned. Three upcoming events determine the date of the celebration and set their fate.

Firstly, the circus is coming. Coincidentally Iancu’s best friend is a dwarf, a seemingly essential element in stories of the supernatural. Secondly, the communist party has arranged a propaganda film night, a challenge in a place without electricity. Finally, Lent is approaching, with its deep significance for these religious people.

Silent Wedding has lots of entertaining and funny parts. There is a very effective three Stooges slapstick routine, a very difficult task at any time. The silent wedding scene is very amusing for the most part. Unfortunately, like the movie itself, it is too long with just too many visual gags and unnecessary detail.

The modern day TV crew’s search for a para-normal story could easily have been omitted to tighten up this production. The supernatural elements could also have been left out.

The unfolding tragedy is apparently based on a true story. If so it doesn't quite do its subject complete justice.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Walter Murch: cinema diamond cutter

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Walter Murch's CV as a filmmaker reads like a Who's Who entry of American cinema: The Conversation, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The English Patient and many more.

In Murch - Walter Murch on Editing he talks about his role as film editor on some of the best known movies of the last forty years. He's a talking head with a difference.

Edie Ichioka and David Ichioka's documentary is not about the technicalities of editing. There is little jargon or complex technique. Its strength is in the exploration of how film is created, in particular the collaboration that brings image, sound and story together.

If you're into filmmaking, put this one high on your list of must sees.

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In the Loop: war of 4-letter words

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

In the Loop is a very enjoyable, well made spin off from the British TV series The Thick of It. Like most top British comedy it relies primarily for its humour on dialogue rather than visual gags.

Leader in this arena is Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker the U.K. government's Head of Communications. He is a foul-mouthed bully whose spew of offensive, sarcastic invective is unparalleled. He's a bully who harasses all around him.

The diminutive British Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) is another Pythonesque character whose droll one liners seem lost on his underlings. His new press officer Toby Wright (Chris Addison) has more than a professional interest in his U.S. opposite number Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky) and slides down a steep learning curve on his first visit to Washington D.C.

It's a simple plot. U.S.President and U.K. PM want to go to war in the Middle East. The man to deliver this is master spinner Assistant Secretary Linton Barwick. David Rasche as Linton gives us some wonderful Donald Rumsfeld moments. In a War Committee meeting he asks the participants to imagine that a glass of water is a shoe. Mimi Kennedy as Karen Clarke does a competent job as his foil.

James Gandolfini, of Sopranos fame, adds his considerable weight to the anti-war forces in the role of General Miller.

When the film was introduced at MIFF 09 it was described as a mixture of Monty Python, The Office and Yes Minister. It certainly lived up to this accolade with lots of laughs throughout.

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Blessed : facing our worst nightmares

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009


According to the producers, Blessed “is a film about mothers and children, about love and beauty, about being lost and finding your way home.” Director Ana Kokkinos, of Head On fame, has given us another disturbing exploration of surviving in the twenty-first century.

It is a very grim, gloomy look at ordinary lives in Melbourne’s western suburbs. They are outsiders: single parent families, migrants, indigenous stolen generation, the old to the very young. A lot of it is not a pretty picture: shoplifting, burglary, child abuse, poker machine addiction, clothing outworkers.

It’s the underclass, the working class who are unemployed or underemployed and exploited. Alienation is a sad, everyday fact of life. they are desperate people in a society that is failing them.

The story uses dual timeframes of a single day. Firstly we see the children’s crises unfold from their perspectives. Later the day is repeated using the parents’ experiences as the focus. The threads are tied together by the use of characters that link the narrative both directly and indirectly.

There are haunting scenes:

Two mothers visit the mortuary. One regains some hope, as the other screams unforgettably in despair.

A mother and father sit in a hospital emergency waiting room, separated by an empty seat and a crowded past.

A man cries for his stolen youth and his lost mother.

A woman cradles the unborn child in her womb, both facing a seemingly hopeless future.

The cast is outstanding, showing the depth of both experienced (Miranda Otto, William McInnes, Frances O’Connor, Deborra-Lee Furness, Monica Maughan, Wayne Blair) and new (Eamon Farren, Sophie Lowe, Harrison Gilbertson, Eva Lazzaro, Reef Ireland ) talent in Australian cinema.

McInnes plays the only father in this patchwork of relationships. He convincingly captures the essence of this lost soul, who is petrified, in both senses of the word, by life. Otto and O’Connor each leaves us with a lasting image as she dances, one of hope and the other of desperation.

Blessed is a dark drama that should touch you to the core.

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Endgame: finishing off apartheid

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009


Michael Young (Jonny Lee Miller) is the invisible man who brings together white South Africa and the African National Congress in the early ‘90s. Endgame is a film about talk. It’s the dying days of apartheid. The government condones clandestine discussions in England as a stalling tactic to try to divide the ANC leadership.

Academic Professor Will Esterhuyse (William Hurt) and future SA President Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lead the two sides. Separate overtures are being made to Nelson Mandela (Clarke Peters) by Dr. Niel Barnard (Mark Strong) head of the SA National Intelligence Service. Esterhuyse becomes an unlikely double agent as his friendship with Mbeki grows.

It’s a chess game whose result is famous so the macro-political level is not the focus of this treatment. Mandela is not the central character of this story. Nor do the director Pete Travis and writer Paula Milne spend much time on the brutality perpetrated by both sides. Two short bombing incidents and a fairly tame car chase will not satisfy action movie fans. Silences and stillness are as important as the dialogue, dramatic as it is. It’s a tight script with few wasted shots.

The extraordinary cast includes Derek Jacobi as the boss of Consolidated Goldfields who are the secret sponsors of the talks and Timothy West as President P.W. Botha. The actors manage the Afrikaans accent extremely well. The decision to cast Clarke Peters as Mandela plays out quite well as he captures the spiritual stature of the man without having his physical size.

The filmmakers also resist the temptation to use clichéd fades into the real people at the end. It's a pity that neither the official website nor IMDb give John Kani a credit for his role as ANC President Oliver Tambo. He is among the profiles on Channel4 which showed the film earlier in the year. Its website has lots of additional information about the end of apartheid as well as the film itself.

Engame proves that talking heads can be much more compelling than computer enhanced action flicks.

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pardon My French: going through the motions

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Pardon My French is a puzzling title for this colourless film. Un chat un chat is the French name of this disappointing comedy/drama.

To call a cat a cat (or spade), Pardon My French is a dud. Célimène aka Nathalie (Chiara Mastroianni) says that she is “unstitching herself” though she denies having depression. She is a well-known novelist, who sometimes refuses to speak even to her psychiatrist. Apart from writer’s block the causes of her emptiness and identity crisis are unclear. Her lack of passion quickly becomes tiresome.

There are four people in her life who are trying to help her overcome her listlessness. Her seven year old son Adam (Mateo Julio Cedron) is suitably precocious but not enough to redeem the movie’s flaws. They are staying with her mother (Dominique Valadié ) while her apartment is renovated. It’s wrapped in plastic like a Christo Art project. Mum regularly interrupts her sleep baking habit.

Her last partner Viorel (Philippe Rebbot) is even less charismatic than his estranged lover.

A seventeen year old girl Anaïs (Agathe Bonitzer) is stalking her in a “friendly” way. She wants to write about her. Their interactions are sometimes bizarre but ultimately boring.

Célimène’s transition back to some kind of normality is so nuanced, it appears seamless. Apart from a not-so-surprising birthday party, there is no dramatic climax. She just floats back into life.

Pardon My French is not comic enough nor does it explore deeply into Célimène’s inner life. Its competent cast had little to work with.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Breathless: a stunning nether world

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009



Breathless (Ddongpari) is a stunning film, in both senses of the word. It leaves you feeling battered around the head and awed by the boldness of its themes.

An unlikely group share a Korean barbeque: a girl in senior High School; a divorce woman and her young son; her father; and a former gangster. Missing is the man who brought them together, Sang-hoon, a gangster who worked as a loan shark debt collector.

So are the schoolgirl’s brother and Vietnam War veteran father. They are just two of the many dysfunctional characters we meet in this broken society.

Yang Ik-june, who stars as hard-man Sang-hoon, also served as the film’s screenwriter, editor and producer. It’s a low budget movie that has won a number of awards. Like its anti-hero, it pulls no punches with large serving of graphic violence and “offensive” language. It must set a record for the most four letters words in two hours of film.

Perhaps the most confronting issue raised in this film is the prevalence of domestic violence with wife bashing a recurring theme. The relentless brutality leaves us breathless and disgusted. There is none of the glamour of action movies such as Chocolate. Sang-hoon routinely bashes people indiscriminately. He’s from the “what are you looking at” school of thuggery.

However, his relationship with schoolgirl Yeon-Hue (Kot-bi Kim) is warm and tender, more sensual rather than sexual. Their arguments bring humour and humanity to their otherwise joyless lives. Kim has a natural gift for the comic moment but also handles fury and fear like a seasoned professional. She has plenty of opportunity to exercise the latter talent.

This dark and gloomy story ends with some hope. However, it is hope tempered with a very large dose of despair.

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A Mother's Nightmare

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009



Madeo (Mother) is a very challenging film from South Korea. Hye-ja Kim as Hye-ja, the over-protective mother of the film’s title, gives an outstanding performance. Director Joon-ho Bong takes us on a tortuous journey that is murder mystery and suspense drama. But most of all it is the tale of a mother-son bond that is stretched beyond the limits.

When her mentally disabled son Do-joon (Won Bin) is jailed, Hye-ja sets out to find the real perpetrator. Her quest brings much more than she could ever have anticipated.

Mom is an unlicenced acupuncturist who believes that she knows a secret point that will help you to forget your worst memories. If only…

There is no classic happy ending. The audience is left to decide if any kind of justice has prevailed.

The touches of humour help to soften an otherwise disturbing look at what happens when a mother goes to extraordinary lengths to protect her vulnerable son.


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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Flame and Citron: when the Nazis arrived

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009



Ole Christian Madsen’s Flame and Citron presents two riveting characters who are fighting for the motherland in Copenhagen, 1944. Their job is assassination, ruthless and usually cold-blooded. Their usual targets, who are chosen for them, are Danish collaborators with the Nazis.

This is a violent, bloody story based on real people and events. The rules, if there are any, do not preclude collateral damage. Women and children are among the innocent victims of their deadly resistance to the occupation. Not shooting first is a dangerous manoeuvre as Flame discovers.

Thure Lindhardt plays Bent Faurschou-Hviid, the red-haired young assassin of the duo, with style and control. His love interest is the brooding Ketty Selmer (Stine Stengade ), a worthy femme fatale and Mata Hari.

Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of the very troubled Jørgen Haagen Schmith, the car mechanic and driver, is superb. The worse his marriage becomes, the more Jørgen becomes involved with the killing, culminating in a colossal Hollywood style confrontation with the German army.

Their network, based on the Holger Danske resistance group, leads a charmed life for the first half of the movie. They meet openly in front of the local Gestapo.

This is a powerful exploration of the lives of these tow national heroes, as personal morality is discarded for patriotism. We are often reminded that this is war. As well as the Nazi war and intelligence machines, they also face divisions, intrigues, political expediency and betrayal in their ranks.

The film’s main weakness is its implausibility. Bent and Jørgen seem invisible to their enemies for most of the story. They are virtually bullet-proof as well. The pair makes several undetected trips to Stockholm for high level resistance meetings. The Nazis can’t have been that stupid or ineffective, though truth is often stranger...

Flame and Citron is part psychological suspense and part action movie. The former works more convincingly than the latter.

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