Monday, August 27, 2007

Lorna Doone

. . . is a period BBC miniseries made in 2000 based on a British novel, which combines the melodrama of Walter Scott with vague attempts at historical commentary and social realism. In the opening, a boy sees his father by bandits from the Doone family. Naturally, the next time we see him he's older and has sworn to hate the Doones forever. But then! He falls in love with this chick called Lorna! Unbelievably, she turns out to be a Doone. It's already minute thirty, and I'm sure you have no idea where all this is headed.

. . . is not just a BBC miniseries. Go here, and you'll see that this ridiculous story has been made more than ten times, starting way back as a silent film in 1910. There's a prior version from the 90s starring Clive Owen as John Ridd. There's a version from the 70s where Patrick Troughton (the second Doctor!) plays evil Mr Doone. There are more versions of Lorna Doone, than there are of Pride and Prejudice. (That kind of blows my mind.)

. . . is pretty awesome: in 140 minutes you get plots against the king, orphans who turn out to be heiressess, abrupt (and wholly undeserved) grants of knighthood, someone getting shot whilst being married at the altar, and a fabulous final scene where the villian sinks to his death in the bog (pouting his way down to the very end as he refuses the gallant hero's offer of rescue).

. . . is an unlikely Jesse Spencer vehicle! Yes, Chase from House turns up in a smallish part with a bad British accent and a wig - and fops his way around as a second tier villain, until he gets shot whilst trying to stab someone in the back.

. . . is an equally unlikely James McAcoy vehicle! You loved him in Last King of Scotland! watch him in about three scenes (an even smaller part than Spencer), as a pale, freckled military dude. So scrawny and unremarkable looking, that I only realised he was in the film during the closing credits. Either the charisma is all acting, or he's come a long way.

. . . and yes, by "awesome", I mean "hilariously bad". Still. Death by bog!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Trouble With Elvis

I ordered one Elvis DVD at least a year ago off Amazon. It's the western Flaming Star - the only "good" Elvis film, anachronistic in the Elvis canon for many reasons.* Clearly, interest in this film does not mean interest in the entire back catalogue of films in which Elvis chases / is chased by girls, and eventually picks one.

But since buying Flaming Star, Amazon has been emailing me non-stop with Elvis recommendations. My log-in page has become wall to wall Elvis, from The Trouble With Girls to Stay Away, Joe to Clambake. (Clambake?)

I feel misjudged. I feel implicated. As someone said to me once, "it's like, you f*ck one goat . . ."

* Here's a few:
1) There are only two songs in the entire film, and they're played over the opening credits and in the first five minutes of the film (apparently, having songs at all was a studio imposition).

2) Elvis's role is a straight dramatic one, and he shows that if he hadn't been one of the most astoundingly successful singers of all time, he probably could have made it as a fine actor (and thereby avoided starring in films called Girls! Girls! Girls!.)

3) It's a Western (were there any other Elvis westerns? I don't think so. I also refuse to look this up because = lazy.)

4) It's really good.

5) It's probably the only film Elvis has been in where Marlon Brando was the alternate casting suggestion.

6) After making this, Elvis swore he'd never do another film where [redacted for spoiler, but it's an easy guess], because it made his momma cry. And apparently, avoiding this kind of ending became a condition of his involvement in future projects.
AFI Festival - The Shorts

It's that time of year: free screenings of Australian features / documentaries / short films up for AFI awards. Screenings are open to all AFI members (who if my screenings are anything to go by, largely wear cardigans and BYO thermos. Which is to say - I fit right in.) Today's programme included the shorts: 4 animated, 4 live action.

I usually find short films a pretty unsatisfying experience - either there's not much there and I feel it's not worth my attention, or there's too much and I wish it was a feature. Rare exceptions stand out. I still remember how much I loved Green Bush, a short from two years ago about a night at an indigenous radio station (by writer/director Warwick Thornton). I thought after seeing it that Thornton would have queues at his door begging him to do a feature film - but whilst his IMDB page shows he's been working steadily in short subject TV, no other developments as yet.

(Which begs the question: why do shorts? even when your short is fricking genius it seems that it doesn't necessarily get you that break. And a further question: who finances these shorts? given that there is absolutely NO chance of any kind of significant return from exploitation?)

But back to today's films. None of them was earth shattering. Australia has had a great record of getting AFI winning shorts into the Oscars (just from the last three years: Harvie Krumpet won the animated short Oscar, The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello was nominated as an animated short, and that one about the Mormon door knocking guy was nominated in live action). Not to sound too negative, but it's pretty clear none of this year's bunch really has a shot.

Live action:
Boy's Own Story: Bizarre. Highly stylised account of a kid talking of key childhood incidents, leading up to fairly horrific outcomes in his adulthood. Blackly funny, but mostly just plain weird - US accents all round (I wonder why?)
Dugong: probably my pick as the strongest short overall, just because it was so understated and felt real. A long lost brother turns up for a wedding. The great moments are in the details - a scene in a bathroom feels incredibly intimate until the door swings open and people crowd in (bringing with them a blast from the music playing outside) - just really well done. Each scene suggesting acres of backstory without making you feel shortchanged by the brevity.
Spike Up - The longest "short", clocking in at thirty minutes. A few familiar faces in this one - the lead (played by Roy Billing) was instantly recognisable, and I spent most of the short trying to figure out why (answer = he played the mayor in The Dish). A police officer deals with a run of events between the station and his less-than-happy home. Main flaw is that there's enough going on here for a feature - and doesn't really satisfy as a short film.
Swing - A young (Vietnamese?) girl goes to work for a blind vet. A relationship piece, done well - but perhaps a bit long given how little it ends up really giving you.

An Imaginary Life: the Tropfest winner about what happens to imaginary friends when kids stop believing in them. Whilst neat and well put together, it's just not at all surprising. Unfolds exactly as you'd expect. Best touch is the use of family footage interspersed with the animation. But not even close to the quality of Tropfest winners of previous years (remember The Wave - about two homeless guys reminiscing about an amazing moment at the beach? - now there's a short film worth seeing).
The Girl Who Swallowed Bees: Paul McDermott's latest short (his earlier one was The Scree, with a similar narration / animation combination). It's well done, but then, so was The Scree: I mean, how many fairy tale-but-twisted animations will McDermott do before he moves on? Anyway, despite my bitching, this is beautifully done and given the slim field, it's probably my pick.
The Goat That Ate Time - suffered from being very similar in structure to "The Girl Who Swallowed Bees" but with less cool animation. But if "best title" was a category, it would win easily.
The Bat and the Butterfly (Dust Echoes) - an indigenous story. The claymation style animation was pretty cool, but just not all that much there.

Robbed of a nomination?: The Australian contender from the SFF that I'm surprised isn't here is Spider - Nash Edgerton's nasty (but good) little film about a prank gone wrong (and wrong, then wrong some more). Sure, it's a one note film - but it succeeds entirely in mastering that note.

Which is I guess all you're really after in a short film. Who knows? Not me: as soon as I got home, I cleansed myself by watching a 160 minute feature. (Michael Mann's Heat. Ahhhh.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What I've been watching lately:

The Day of Three Movies (aka: last Saturday)

(1) Bride of Frankenstein (1940 . . .ish?)
Title says it all, and yet - there's still so much more! the villains! the hair! the mwah hah hah mad scientists! the bridging story starring Byron in a thunderstorm!

(2) To Sir, With Love (1965 . . . ish?)
Sidney Poitier, inspirational teacher. I can't remember Dangerous Minds or much of Dead Poets, but I bet there's not a scene where the teacher calls the girls of the class "sluts". (Even when one of them is Ethan Hawke).

(3) Straw Dogs (1971)
Dustin Hoffman gets violent in this freaky, freaky film by Sam Peckinpah. nightmares, with interest.

. . . closely followed by: Sunday!

(4) Rio Bravo (195 . .. ish?)
At least I think it was Rio Bravo (and not Rio Grande, Rio Lobo). these westerns get confusing. anyway, indian butt was kicked in a very black/white moral universe. weirdly, there seemed to be a lot of choirs and trumpeters. very musical branch of the army. would love to see their efforts at pantomine.

. . . and Tuesday! (yesterday)

(5) Frankenstein meets the Wolfman (1941? 42?)
Sequel to the excellent Wolfman film starring Lon Chaney. Chaney was back for this effort, but Frankenstein was played by Lugosi (not Karloff). Which is weird, because Lugosi was IN the orginal Wolfman, but played a gypsy guy cursed with lycanthropy who was killed by Chaney's character the first time around. So Lugosi's in this sequel, but this time as the Monster . . . meaning that the title should actually be "Frankenstein's monster meets the Wolfman" but who's keeping score? (me.)

PS: if you're wondering who is the better Frankenstein - Karloff. Karloff. Karloff. Lugosi is so bad, it bears repeating.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sunshine (2007)

I attended a screening plus Q&A with director Danny Boyle in Sydney tonight. (You know . . . Danny Boyle? Trainspotting! 28 Days Later! Danny Boyle, man!)

First up: the film looks amazing.

Sunshine has some of the third act plot problems that sci-fi films often have . . . but the atmosphere, the feel of the film works. Space scenes of recent years have missed the mark in making audiences believe in space, in the majesty of space, it's immensity, the feel of it, the depth. This is a big screen film. And the way it's been put together - there are sequences you lean forward, and breathe through it with the protoganists onscreen.

Danny Boyle is a storyteller, and makes these Q&As a breeze - with an answer for every question, however trivial. He talked at length about the difficulties in making a film as effects heavy as this one - on the actors, and on the other creative types like composers who have to make guesses about the atmosphere of the finished product long before the FX work is complete.

Things I learnt:
- He made the actors live in student acccomodation (cooking for each other) to help get them into the right frame of mind.
- The film cost $40 million, but they tried as best they could to make it look like $100 million. (they've succeeded).
- The script went through 35 drafts.
- Post production took one year. The film tested horribly with test audiences, because the ship and much of the FX weren't finished when the studio tried it out.

Good questions from the audience:
- Sunshine: Why were the gender roles so predictable? Boyle claims that Yeoh was offered her choice of roles and picked the botanist - but admitted that there could have been more women on board.
- Alien Resurrection: Boyle turned the opportunity to direct it down, but talked about how great Joss Whedon's original script was (it was apparently much changed by the time the film was made).
- Boyle's next project?: a bizarre sounding "who want's to be a millionaire" tale involving a street kid, the girl he likes, and the British TV show. Written by the same guy as The Full Monty.

Grading: 3 1/2 out of 5
The big screen experience is compulsory,

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Performance (1970)

Because I was a bit too young to get the whole Stones thing, I've always had this image of Mick Jagger as this vaguely repulsive ancient guy. The lecherous drunk psuedo-uncle who isn't an actual relative, but turns up to family gatherings anyway and gets all handsy with girls a third his age. Someone I know spent a couple of hundred dollars on the last tour the Stones did to Sydney. Our conversation about this went something like: "who wants to see the Stones?" "But I'll see . . . Mick!" "no really, who wants to see the Stones?" etc.

But after watching this flick (apparently, the feature length precursor to the rock video) . . . I get it. Mick Jagger is a sex-on-a-stick, hypnotic, fallen angel. If only I'd gotten this memo earlier, I wouldn't have wasted this last decade trying to talk myself into thinking that appreciating The Beatles on some level was a necessary life goal.

Performance also the closest I've got to understanding why you'd ever cast a singer (not an actor) in a film role. Someone "acting" or inhabiting this role would have been all wrong. Jagger can actually act, and pulls off the small moments, but he also amps it up gloriously in a way that would be difficult to replicate in an actorly way. This role needed his id - but not in a way that's as simple a showcase as say, the Madonna film roles.

And as for what Performance is about, what it means . . . who the fuck knows. On a first viewing, it's all surface baby - I think I need viewings #2 and #3 before I seriously venture a theory. About as deep as I can get: it's clearly about the reflections we have each other: the costumes, the attitudes, the labels, the dressing up, the stripping down - with every possible angle explored. A complete headache of a film.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sydney Film Festival DAY FOURTEEN

Film #23 United 93 (Feature, US)
A film about the September 11 hijacking of the one plane which didn't hit its intended target. A documentary style feature which is hard to watch - such ordinary people, in such a surreal and awful situation.

Interesting questions: what is the purpose of making a film like this? Why the choices in focus on the command centres? What did the director want to achieve - a good film, or some kind of public document / record?

Verdict: regardless, it's a fascinating piece of cinema and I think it would be impossible to watch it and remain unmoved. I never want to see it again, but it's the kind of film that will become a reference point/touchstone for describing a certain kind of film.

Film #24 C.R.A.Z.Y (Feature, Canada)

Canada's entry into the last Oscars for foreign film is a (french language) coming of age film. The film follows Zack as he considers the dire warnings of his brothers and father that he may be "a fairy" and/or "a fag". Everything in Zack's world teaches him that this fate is one to be dreaded - but everything in his head, his heart, his experience of the world suggests something else.

At a running time of over two hours, this film is too long. There have been so many coming of age films, and "how hard it is to come out" films, and although it's well written with a very good cast, this film doesn't add anything really new to that well-trodden subject matter. With one exception - the use of music. Both Zack and his dad listen to a lot of music (particularly Patsy Kline) and the songs played in the film go beyond setting the mood - to being really pivotal moments and keys to character.

Verdict: This film is really likeable if not brilliant - and there's some genius moments - a rendition of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" is hands down one of the best uses of a song in a film, ever.
Sydney Film Festival


Film #21 Brick (Feature, USA)

A film set in an American highschool where everyone talks like they're in a Dashiell Hammett novel (and I should know. I love Dashiell Hammett). Better yet, there is no "joke" to be in on - it's played completely straight with no winks to the audience about the style. Unusual doesn't begin to describe it. Awesome might.

There are scenes when the style just feels stretched too far. I think the greatest criticism you make of this film is to dismiss it as like the cinematic equivalent of someone playing fast scales on a piano: technically proficient, but empty (the guy who sat next to me in another film fell basically within this camp). There are also moments when you reflect on the plot and think: this makes no sense. But:

a) I love Dashiell Hammett.
b) The lead actor is just as awesome here as he was in Mysterious Skin.
c) It's amazing how well all the tropes / styles of the genre/noir film work in a high school - who knew that the fit would be this perfect? On reflection, this probably says something very disturbing about high schools.
d) No one ever cares about plot in Dashiell Hammett novels, and look how awesome he is!
e) In fact, a nonsensical plot is almost a genre requirement.
f) I love this film.
g) Love doesn't need to be rational.
h) But in this case my love is completely rational, because the film rocks.

My advice would be to go into this film resolved to go with (rather than argue with) the mood. You won't be disappointed.

Verdict: Loved it.

Film #22 The Descent (Feature, US/UK?)
I know I was in the same session as SMH critic Gary Maddox, because during one scene (yeah, the bit with the climbing axe) someone behind me said emphatically and loudly: "Man, this film is fucked up." What an accolade!

There are elements of this film that are totally standard "guess who dies first" horror movie tropes we all know (and secretly enjoy). However, The Descent is also more interesting than you'd think . . . [spoilerish discussion ahead]

[wait for it]

. . . my current theory of the film: it's like the lead character drags all the other women into her world of grief - instead of going into a cave, they're moving into part of her psyche (remember, they were going to name the cave after her) - and it destroys them because instead of the calm exterior she's been presenting, her anger/grief/rage has simmered, manifesting into these violent beings "kept out of the light of day" below the surface.

Even at its most graphic and violent, there was always something haiku like about the way the story unfolds: so simple, so final, so hopeless. And as she circles around her own head and can't get out (those memory sequences) - I think we all knew how it would end. The "axe to the leg scene" wasn't a satisfying moment - we understood why she does it, but it's the wrong decision, it's the decision not to let go, not to get out, not to forgive, not to grieve. She's still in the car, she's still blowing out the candles. Chilling.

[end vague spoilers]

Verdict: The entire audience screamed at one point in my session - how can that not be a win? This is one of those rare genre movies that's aiming for something more interesting, and (rarer still) it gets there. Pretty much . . . I loved it. Christ, I need a new review.
Sydney Film Festival


I had plans to see a documentary, but then my work mobile rang all "can you stay back and check this thing?" and I moped, but ended up saying yes.


But I'm also starting to feel the strain by this point.
Sydney Film Festival


Film #20 - Funny Ha Ha (2002)
Sydney Film Festival


Went home and crashed. [/lame]
Sydney Film Festival

Film #18 The Great Game

Film #19 The Pusher III

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Sydney Film Festival


Film #16 Le Doulos (1962)
(Feature, France)

Film #17 Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story
(Documentary, USA)
Sydney Film Festival


Film #14 Mutual Appreciation

Film #15 Perhaps Love
Sydney Film Festival

DAY SIX - The day of shame

A headache and general fatigue made me miss half of The Aura and all of Marock. Boo! I am fading! fading!!

The Aura (feature, Sth America) : I picked this film because it was by a director I liked, it was a thriller, it sounded intiruging, and Sth American films in general have been kicking arse. I can report that the first half was so absorbing - very visually heavy, low on dialogue, and an elusive, absorbing story. I think by the time I left it was becoming a heist movie, but . . . it's going to be more complicated than that.

Marock (feature, Israel?): A teen romance which looked interesting on paper. Still want to see it. Heard good things about it from some other festival-goers.
Sydney Film Festival


Film # 11 Workingman's Death
(Documentary, Germany/other)
A mindblowing documentary in five parts about workers in different parts of the world. The visuals are extraordinary - welders in the middle east pulling apart massive tanker ships. Men who work in a slaughterhouse in Africa. Miners in Russia who work in mines less than knee-height high. Workers who collect sulphur desposits.

Amazing. I did walk out during the slaughterhouse scene though to get a coffee (seriously, the live slaughter sequences just got a bit much after a while.)

Film #12 Diameter of the Bomb
(Documentary, Canada/Israel/other)

This doco follows the story of a bomb that blew apart a bus a few years ago in Israel. The title indicates the intent: to meet the survivors, the doctors, the emergency workers, the families of both the victims and the suicide bomber . . . and track the repercussions of that act.

I was sold on this description - but as fascinating as this base material was, this documentary didn't quite deliver. A bit repetitive, and some of the interviews just didn't work as much as they needed to (a lack of chemistry between the subjects and the directors might have been the issue, I think.) Anyway - I still cried, a lot - so they clearly got something right.

Film # 13 Girl Shy
(Silent Feature, USA)
It is always worth seeing silent films when they are performed with a live soundtrack. Always.

The lead actor isn't up there with the Keatons and Chaplins, but this was hilarious all the same. I'd love to have clocked the number of pratfalls per minute. The highlight was a very long chase sequence involving cars, bicycles, motorbikes, the mob (I think), a construction worker line, a tram, and at least one horse. Too much fun.
Sydney Film Festival
DAY FOUR : Stimulating

Film #9 Rats in the Ranks (10th anniversary viewing)
(Documentary, Australia)

Rats in the Ranks is the first documentary I ever saw at the cinema. I remember thinking it was hilarious and really well done. On seeing it again - it's not only better than I remember, it clearly deserves to be elevated to the status of bona fide Australian classic. I'd forgotten how much fun it was.

For those who haven't seen it (shame!) it concerns the election of the new mayor of Leichardt in Sydney. Councillors of Leichardt are elected by generally ballot of the community. The councillors then meet to vote on which of them is mayor. In 1994, the charismatic Larry Hand was finishing up his second term as mayor . . . and as the mayoral election looms, the wheeling and dealing for votes begins. The main intrigue centres around the four Labor councillors - if they vote together, their four votes combined could potentially decide the result. But two of them have mayoral ambitions - setting off a disatrous chain of intrigue, misdirection and Shakepsearian levels of angst.

For anyone who loves the film as much as I do, the Q&A after the film was nothing short of monumental. Larry Hand was there - still as charming and glib as ever. Anthony Albanese, a current government minister was also present, even though his only presence in the film was a subtitle informing the audience that he'd refused to be filmed. I was sad that Kate from Labour couldn't make it (she's apparently very ill) - but her faithful sidekick Trevor was present, as was a number of women from Larry's ticket, and one elderly former councillor who'd run as an indepdent (he gets one of the films biggest laughs towards the end when on hearing about a particular piece of backstabbing, breaks out with a gloatingly unholy little chuckle.) Bob Connolly the filmmaker was also present (his partner Robin sadly passed away a few years ago).

Just a few of the points I remember from the Q&A:

Film #10 Hard Candy
(Feature, US)

Very young girl meets up with older man in a cafe, after first getting to know him online. There's flirting - and it's uncomfortable. She suggests going back to his place. He agrees. And you think What is she doing? and more accusingly, He must be a pedophile, because if this is a nice guy, why is he agreeing to this?

This is a thriller which exploits your preconceptions and social norms about sexual (and other behaviour) in order to shock you. That's pretty much its modus operendi - and unless you're particularly hardened, it's going to succeed on some level (challenge accepted, I hear you think).

I'd recommend it - because it's a pretty awesome cinematic experience for all that I watched most of it between my fingers. The two lead actors give it their all. But I think it pushed me beyond that subtle point - to "enjoy' this film, you have to just go for the ride. The moment you think to ask "but why?" (or even more damagingly, "but how?"), the film will lose you a bit because it doesn't offer any answers.

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