Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Sydney Film Festival Viewing Log

This took a while to get up. I think I’ve been suffering from post-festival exhaustion. But now I totally miss it. I skulk past the State Theatre and look longingly inside. I’ve still got my pass in my wallet. It’s all a bit sad, y’all.

Final tally:
Features: 14
Shorts: 8
Documentaries: 8

Best documentaries: Bright Leaves, Control Room.
Best features: Witnesses, Take My Eyes, Somersault.
Best short: Two Cars, One Night, The Scree

Thursday – Day 6

#19 Jesus, You Know (documentary, Austria)
A documentary where people sat down and spoke directly to cameras (set up in different churches or places of worship), recording their conversations with Jesus. Intimate and kind of freaky. If I was Jesus, I’d be backing the hell away from some of these people (ie: the middle aged woman who was running past Jesus whether or not she should poison her unfaithful husband, or possibly herself.) Most memorable – the teenage boy who was apologising to Jesus for all the terrible “fantasies” he has about being a brilliant soccer player, because it means that he wants to be better than Jesus has made him and he should be satisfied with who he is. He also apologised for wanting to watch TV shows for the pretty actresses, and for not cleaning his room. I just wanted to give him a hug, and a shake. It was like he was fretful with guilt over being a seventeen year old guy. It wasn’t that great viewing (like the doco Travelling Birds, after a while, flying ducks or people confessing gets a bit the same) but still pretty fascinating for the insight.

#20 How (not) to make a short film (short, UK)
Hilarious. A writer holds a director hostage. Apparently no fish were harmed in the making of this film. It must have been motorised.

#21 Abjad (The First Letter) (feature, Iran)
A “snapshot of life” kind of film which shows a young boy growing up in a very conservative household in Iran. It’s really well made, and you get an intimate view of everyday life that would be just impossible for most of us to see any other way. It’s one of those films where the parts don’t exceed the value of the whole – it’s the details that charmed, rather than any overall story arc or destination. But it was a great film regardless.

#22 Brown Paper Bag (short, UK)
A fairly average short about alcoholism.

#23 Witnesses (feature, Croatia)
This film deserves way more thought than I have time to devote to it here. It’s a feature set in Croatia during the civil war in the late 1990s. It’s wonderfully made – the tracking shots are to die for, and the structure adds so much to the film. And as the story evolves, you start to get an understanding of the tension at its heart – the deep seated violence, the undercurrent of rage and guilt, the need for someone brave enough to step in and stop the cycle. This film is noteworthy amongst the other “serious” or dark films of this festival, in that it has a real energy. Cannot recommend this highly enough.

Friday – Day 7

#24 Born into Brothels (documentary, India/UK)
A British woman who is working as a photographer in the Brothels begins to teach some of the children of the prostitutes photography. The documentary follows a group of eight children – she gives them cameras, advice and encouragement. The kids have a scary world, and their unique view of it as seen through their photos is really compelling stuff. It’s also fantastic that such powerless kids are given a way to comment or show their world to others, a very unusual way of dealing with subjects in a documentary. The photography of the kids is shown and sold in New York, and the proceeds are to be used to try and get the kids into boarding schools away from the brothels. But the sobering reality is that even an influx of money and the terrific energy of the woman involved aren’t enough to break the pervasive cycle the kids are already in.

#25 JoJo in the Stars (short, UK)
A bizarre little animated tale about little creatures, a strange circus, and a little love story.

#26 Ae Fond Kiss (feature, UK)
Feature by director Ken Loach, basically a star-crossed love story between cultures (Irish and Pakistani) set in the UK. A great film – doesn’t add much to other Romeo and Juliet films of its type, but it does come out ahead of this genre because of the well-rounded characters. A very accessible film (the crowd loved it) and a pleasant way to spend a few hours without changing your life.

#27 Right Hook – A Tall Tale (short, Canada)
Heh. The kind of short that always goes down a treat at a film festival – a fisherman out on a river gets a lot more than he bargained for. Very funny – my favourite part though was that it really did nail the atmosphere of fishing programmes, with elevator lite music and a square jawed, blondish Canadian casting his rod and looking all “down with nature”.

#28 Seducing Doctor Lewis (feature, Canada)
One of those eccentric small town films, but done so well that it doesn’t matter that the territory is a bit familiar. A factory has closed down on an island, and in order to get local industry revitalised, the town needs to lure in a doctor, and keep him signed on a contract for five years. This gimmick does allow for some genuinely hilarious moments – it was a great film to close out the subscription season. The writer is a talented guy, and the cast is very adept at lobbing the jokes without getting hammy or over the top. Very watchable little film.


Thursday, June 24, 2004

Film Festival Viewing Log

Score Card
Features: 10
Shorts: 4
Documentaries: 5
My head: only just staying in one piece
Coffee sold at State Theatre: I'm over it, yet it is my life's blood. Sad.
Coffee sold at Gloria Jean's: I've started drinking it here, because it's an all-important walk around the corner, and I am getting no exercise.
Caramel slice sold at State Theatre: Not recommended. They cover it in gladwrap, and everything sticks to it, then you're sticky, then your programme is sticky, then the whole world is sticky and you want to die.
People told to shut the f*ck up: Still just the one. These days, I'm so jittery that if I start yelling at people I won't stop. ("Stop being so noisy! And you over there! stop blowing your nose every five seconds. Guy in the beret - stop breathing so heavily. You should stop being so tall! and you! your scarf / jacket combination hurts my eyes. Did no one ever tell you that pink and red do not mix? and . . . what? you're kicking me out?")
Worst film: still The Fall of the House.
Best documentary: Very probably Bright Leaves.
Best film: Too close to call. Three main contenders, with two really exciting films coming up in the next two nights.
Best short: It's looking pretty good for the Aussies and New Zealanders.

Day Four - Tuesday

#12 Addicted to Acting (documentary, Germany)
A documentary which follows four aspiring actors who apply to a prestigious German drama school. We see their progress over about five or six years – the period they’re at the school, then what happens to them post-graduation. In the Q&A after the film, the director revealed that he got the idea for this project from his own experiences of studying film making, during which “90% of what we did was criticised.” How demoralising is it to have to take this kind of protracted criticism? What kind of person wants to be an actor? A fascinating look at the process of teaching acting, which strips away the glamour, and leaves only the hard work and the dream of furthering “art”.

#13 Two Cars, One Night (short, New Zealand)
It’s evening. Two cars are parked outside an RSL. Both cars have occupants – kids waiting for their parents to come out. They’re very, very bored. This film is just adorable, and beautifully shot. I did have trouble understanding the dialogue at times, but that just made it more believable as “kidspeak”. A top short.

#14 The Return (feature, Russia)
Two sons live with their grandmother and mother. One day, their father returns after twelve years. He takes them on a fishing trip. We don’t know where he’s been, or why he’s come back. And the kids watch him – suspicious, but at the same time, desperately hungry for the father they have never known. Visually stunning, and an emotional knockout. One of those tales that feels far more like fable or parable, but still works as a very human story.

Day Five - Wednesday

#15 The General (short, The Netherlands)
The sound wasn’t working on this short (and although there was no dialogue, I suspect sound was important), so I’m not going to critique it. But as I did sit through it, I want it for my running tally!

#16 Control Room (documentary, USA/Egypt)
Okay, stop the press. This is a documentary you all have to see. It tells the story of the Arab satellite station Al Jazeera. Critcised by the Bush administration as “the mouthpiece of Osama Bin Laden”, this film is mind-opening in all the best ways, making you see how news is slanted and edited. The depiction of Al Jazeera is a positive one, showing them as dedicated, passionate and highly articulate journalists who are firm supporters of open information. Worth seeing, especially given that the very black reputation Al Jazeera has in the Western media is undeserved – they have their slant, but then so does CNN and Fox News. Directed by Jehane Noujaim – who has been added to my list of “documentary makers I will now stalk”. There are frequent moments in the film where she makes intelligent choices rather than dramatic ones. The Americans (both media and soldiers) are not villains, but protagonists in their own right. Look out for Josh Rushing, the press officer for US central command – although he has to toe the party line, by the end of the film I’d really warmed to him, as he had some moments of real honesty. (It would have been so easy for a documentary like this to demonise the US military and US journalists – but it doesn’t.) Exactly what a documentary about current events should be. This is currently screening in Sydney at the Chauvel – so look out for it at an independent cinema near you sometime in the very near future. Check out the official site here.

#17 James’ Journey to Jerusalem (feature film, Israel)
A great film. James is a young idealistic man who is travelling on a pilgrimage from Africa to Jerusalem. He is pulled over by Customs as an illegal immigrant, and although he is quickly removed from jail, the man who saves him has an ulterior motive. We watch James' idealism get worn down by the capitalism which surrounds him in the “Holy Land”. It’s a surprisingly joyous little film. Although it’s all round very capable, the stand out reason to watch it is the lead performance of Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe as James, which deserves to be star-making.

#18 Untold Scandal (feature film, South Korea)
Another version of Dangerous Liaisons - this time, set in eighteenth century South Korea. Worth seeing, just for the “you’re shitting me, right?” value. A lot of fun for all the double entendres and machinations, and everyone looks very, very pretty. I’m not sure how much this re-telling has to add to the previous versions, as the various outcomes and downfalls are all by the book, with only a few minor differences due to the change in setting. Still, the film makes you take an evil pleasure in the machinations of the sexual manipulators, even whilst you’re waiting to cheer their downfall. Costuming and scenery were also gorgeous.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Film Festival Viewing Log

Score Card:
Features: 7
Shorts: 2
Documentaries: 3
Number of people told to shut the f*ck up: still just the one, although some woman rustling a plastic bag for at least ten godamn minutes was coming close.
I've stopped counting my cups of coffee / cans of coke. It's too depressing.

Day 3 - Monday

#8 Chicken Party (a kind of long short, at 30 mins)
A hilarious little film from the US about a bunch of people forced to do community service. I arrived slightly late and missed the beginning, but was overjoyed to recognised Alison Janney (CJ of TV’s West Wing, amongst too many other things to mention). In one of the film's funnier sequences, Janney’s rich socialite shoplifts from a department store by stashing jewellery in the esky she’d brought to store her face cream. (Well, she started with the esky. Then she stuffed things down her shirt. Pieces of jewellry in her mouth. Random clothes up her skirt and in her pantyhose . . . I was dying.) And that’s only one of the stories – they’re all fantastic. A great series of comic set pieces, tied in to a framing story where the different people are ‘doing their time for the crime’ by picking up rubbish by a highway. Nothing too ground-breaking, but the writer / director Tate Taylor is someone I hope will persevere with the gig.

#9 Anthem
An Australian documentary by Helen Newman and Tahir Cambis about the refugee issue in Australia. It had some good footage but there were quite a few flaws. First, they tried to do too much in a short time, and the result just didn’t work in any coherent way. (But you loved the expansive scope of Bright Leaves, I hear you say! Well, the thing about Bright Leaves is that it didn’t really have an agenda. Anthem is trying to convey several specific messages about the refugee crisis, but because it is just too sprawling, too diffuse, the actual point was obscured.) Another significant problem is the place of the filmmakers themselves in their own documentary. There are too many shots of both Newman and Cambis listening / observing / reacting to things – how upset they are, how interesting they found stuff. By the end of it, I just kept thinking “get out of the damn shot already.” I was very disturbed by the inclusion of a sequence in a public meeting room in Afghanistan where men were celebrating, and we see Helen (the only woman present) dancing on a table to their cheers. Not only did her actions seem profoundly stupid, to me it implied that she's some sort of amazing "free spirit" who can connect with these men. When it’s not that women of Afghanistan aren’t free spirits – they’d be publicly condemned or worse if they tried. Having said that, they had great footage of the centres, great interviews with refugees / detainees / activists. But if you’re really interested in knowing more about refugees and the lies or obfuscations of the Australian government, you should read Robert Manne’s great Quarterly essay “Bringing them Home". I should note that a lot of people at the Theatre thought this was awesome – so maybe it’s just me.

#10 Blue Poles (short)
A brief liason between a farm boy (Sam Worthington) and a hippie, on a road trip to Canberra in the 1970s. Slight and not particularly insightful. I enjoyed it, but wasn’t blown away. It was also distinctly from the male perspective – the girl thinks she knows how the world works, but the farm boy tells her like it is – after which she instantly caves and agrees with him. He has a sensitive side, and she’s awed by it – after which she immediately decides to have sex with him. Hello, male writer’s fantasy!

#11 In Your Hands
Geez. This film. It completely messed with my head. It’s from Denmark, largely set in a women’s prison where a theological student (Anna) has just begun work as a priest. She comes into contact with the world of the prison, including the guards, and the female prisons. One prisoner, Kate, is also a new arrival at the prison, and already there are rumours about her strange abilities and miraculous things happening around her. We also become acquainted with Anna’s home life – her husband, their efforts to have a baby. You’re not quite sure where this film is going, but it becomes quite relentlessly dark, suggesting that both coincidences and human choices can have tragic consequences. At the time I found it frustrating, now I think it’s masterful and pretty impossible to summarise, puzzling and intriguing. Central to the film is the role religion plays in their lives – the film unpacks the concept of “forgiveness” in the context of the jail. Although our society and culture claims to be able to forgive – both in a religious sense (absolving of sins) and in a secular one (serving time at prison); such ideals are found wanting here. A film which re-defines thought-provoking, although it’s definitely not for everyone.

Greater Union - Not What I Want

Yesterday, a "source" emailed me this (alleged) internal memo from Greater Union Cinemas. (all emphasis added)

Hi All

Just a quick note congratulating you all on the Shrek Belly Bulge sales to date. We are off to a great start and our continued focus should see our results continue to be of the highest level.

. . . For those locations with ticket box separate from Candybar it has been suggested to put some of the Shrek display stands at the ticketbox to create awareness of the Belly Bulge for those patrons who need an incentive to go to the candybar. Nothing like a little kid saying but mum I want one to get another combo sale. Also if you are happy to write a small number of your stock off having ticket sellers and ticket takers playing with the items is another good way of making kids drag their parents to the candybar not that they should need a reason. Just be careful that the staff don't take them home.

If anyone has any other great ideas I am more than happy to take them onboard.

When we all pull in the same direction we are unbeatable.

Kind Regards
[name removed]
National Film Marketing Manager

This is exactly what Super Size Me was talking about when it criticised advertisements for sugary / junk food which targeted children.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Film Festival viewing log

My eyes are tired.

Score card
Feature films - 5
Documentaries - 2
Shorts - 1
Best film - Bright Leaves, with Somersault as runner up.
Worst film - The Fall of the House. What a waste of time.
Number of caffeinated beverages bought at State Theatre: 7
People I have told to shut the f*ck up: 1

Day 1 – Saturday
#1 Somersault

A bittersweet and perceptive tale of a girl skirting the limits of her sexuality. Set between Canberra and Jindabyne. I was so absorbed at moments, I was leaning forward in my seat to catch every glance and nuance. There’s some unsatisfying elements – I didn’t like the diary that one of the leads carries around with her (lazy shorthand for “deep adolescent”). Sometimes, dizzingly beautiful scenes seemed to be included for no real purpose – as if the film was a bit too much in love with its own reflection. But still an amazing effort from a first time feature director. Both Abbie Cornish (Maxine's daughter from Wildside! who has clearly grown up) and Sam Worthington delivered by far the best performances I’ve seen from either of them. Make sure you catch this when it gets to cinemas later this year.

#2 De-Lovely
This bio-pic tale of Cole Porter stars Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd, and it had both good and bad moments. The Bad – the framing device of the older Cole Porter watching his younger self on a stylized stage really pissed me off. Nothing bugs me more than pretentious stuffing around with timelines / narrators just to be arty. The Good - the intense passion of Porter’s life, a man who loved both men and women and tried to make it work. The real greatness of his music. And how true it is that once you start understanding the balancing act of his love life – a wife he loved, along with various young male lovers – it's impossible not to see all his songs as somehow coded (such as “Anything Goes”, “Experiment”, and “Night and Day” – a song about obsession).

#3 Maria Full of Grace
An amazing story set in Colombia (but filmed in Equador). Young girls are recruited to be “mules” – to carry drugs from Colombia to the USA. Maria’s life is awful – poverty, a terrible job, powerlessness, an unwanted pregnancy. You can see how for her the chance to smuggle the drugs is an opportunity to try for something better, even though you’re screaming for her not to take it. Traveling with Maria becomes a very dark journey, and we are powerless to help her, just as we see that she has no safe options. Not quite as depressing as Lilya 4 Ever (which was about child prostitution in Europe), but up there. I didn’t realise how upset the film made me until the credits were rolling and the people next to me left, and I just started sobbing. Probably it was also being tired and emotional after three films in a row.

Day 2 - Sunday
#4 The Fall of the House
In the 1950s, Eugene Goossens (a renowned and respected director of the Australian Orchestra) was intercepted by Customs with a briefcase full of illegal pornographic photos. Despite his immense contribution to the classical music scene in Sydney, Goossens was run out of the country and died a pauper in disgrace. This is possibly the worst documentary I’ve ever seen. Due to a lack of archival footage, the documentary was bulked up with re-enactments and excerpts from an opera, play and book which are all based on this story. It is not interesting to hear someone read excerpts of a book aloud. Telling the audience about a fact, then showing boringly filmed chunks of a play or opera covering that same fact is nothing more than padding. Sure, it’s interesting that so many people have done adaptations of this compelling story. But the use of the adaptations didn’t add anything substantial. If they’d cut the crap, the documentary could have been tighter and shorter, and maybe it wouldn’t have felt like such a waste of time. Even the name is pointless – I think it’s referring to the Opera House, but as we are constantly reminded throughout the documentary, it wasn’t even built yet at the time of the scandal. Whatever.

#5 Take My Eyes
A Spanish film about domestic violence. Most of the films about this subject matter that I’ve seen have been kind of ‘hero’ quests: Julia Roberts getting beaten by her husband, in a conventional thriller leading up to shit-kicking tables-are-turned finale. Hollywood isn’t brave enough to portray domestic violence more like it really is – an ongoing struggle of a relationship that is difficult to shed, layered with love and memory. The abusive relationship between Pilar and Antonio is complicated. Antonio is an angry insecure man, and Pilar is convinced that love is enough, that he can change, that it would be an unforgivable failure to "give up" on the marriage and be a woman alone. Mixed up in this is Pilar’s sister – shocked and grieved to find out the extent of the abuse. Her mother – who has her own agenda and wants Pilar to stay with her marriage. Her son – caught between his demanding father and his mother. Even though the relationships and personalities of those involved are complicated, the right and wrong of the situation is clear. A real slow burner of a film that stays with you.

#6 The Scree (short)
Paul McDermott’s creepy short tale – an epic poem about five friends stranded on a strange island, who start being eliminated one by one, read by Ruth Cracknell over a fantastic animation and live action sequence. Beautifully done, very creepy and dark. The imagery is the stuff of nightmares. I loved both the poem and the execution of the whole in the film. Paul (who wrote, directed, acted, and I'm sure I heard his voice singing in the closing credits music) appeared on stage briefly after the film to say thanks. It was cool to see him. I miss the early days of Good News Week.

#7 The Green Butchers
I knew cannibalism was the theme du jour. I knew it! This Danish black comedy involves butchers, a freezer door that doesn’t open from this inside, an untimely accident, and a sudden decision to serve up a new kind of meat to a Rotary meeting. “It was an accident.” “So why is his leg missing?” – etc. A funny, very odd film with a tone that oddly hovers around serious, even when it’s completely ridiculous. I’m not entirely sure it was successful – but it was strangely endearing.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Sydney Film Festival

In other news: I am hardcore.

I bought myself a cool pass to see as many films as I can in the evenings at the Sydney Film Festival over the next seven days.

It's like my own version of Super Size Me. Except more fun. And probably involving more tension headaches. Thank god the festival cafe sells good coffee. And beer. (Not New either, this is a swish gig. Stella Artois or nothing!)

According to the terms of the pass, I can only see the films on at the State Theatre. Lucky for me, that's going to include:
De-Lovely (Cole Porter bio-pic starring Kevin Kline)
Somersault (Australian award winning short)
The Green Butchers (black comedy from Denmark)
Take My Eyes (Spanish)
The Return (Russian, nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars)

As well as a billion other shorts, features and documentaries. Will I attain my goal of at least two films a day? (not counting shorts, because that's cheating!) Place your bets and stay tuned.
Bright Leaves
Sydney Film Festival

Bright Leaves is a documentary by a guy called John McElwee. In this rave review, I’m going to call him John. His documentary is like that – even though he’s never met me, I feel like we’re on a first name basis, and I shouldn’t forget to send him a christmas card.

John’s great grandfather was an important figure in the tobacco industry in the South, particularly a blend known as "bright leaf". Due to an old dispute with the Duke family (also tobacco barons), the McElwee clan became nearly bankrupt and their fortunes faded, whilst the Dukes became insanely rich, building a mansion so large it’s now used as a conference centre, and a university.

There’s a real humour in John’s perspective – he pans the camera across the obscenely huge Duke family home and deadpans “I can’t help but think . . . this could have been mine.” But there’s a dark side – all this is based on tobacco. Many of the people in McElwee’s family have died of lung cancer. His family industry was originally furthering the spread and growth of a product that is killing thousands of Americans.

There’s no unifying push, story, or focus – the film effortlessly runs with different thoughts and tangents. We meet John’s son Adrian, a twelve year old who doesn’t care much about the family history. We see footage of John’s father, now dead. John muses that the footage of his father doesn’t help as much as he’d thought it would: it’s just like seeing footage of a character in a film. Is this how Adrian will see John when John has died? How do we actually remember the past?

Other strands - a Hollywood film from the 1930s, also called Bright Leaves, may or may not incorporate aspects of the McElwee v Duke feud. John muses that perhaps this film that could be as informative as watching a documentary – if only he can unlock how “true” the film is. But the film could also hold documentary “truths” for the actors – who at the time it was made, were playing out a real life affair about to go badly. And what do films actually mean? There’s a long philosophical chat with a film critic, who insists on pushing John backwards in a wheelchair for the duration of the interview, because he likes tracking shots. “For that kinetic energy!” Heh.

It’s an inclusive, democratic, style Whitman-esque vision of family history that expands rather than narrows down its subject. Don’t worry, John’s narration seemed to keep saying, I’m headed somewhere. And it is a cohesive film – in the end, it’s all about heritage. The things our family passes down that we’re proud of, the things we find hard to understand.

In the Q&A after the film, John was asked how he felt about the more sensationalist headline making documentary makers like Michael Moore, or Morgan Spurlock. John McElwee replied, “insanely jealous”. But he then admitted that although he really admires them both, it’s just not what he was trying to achieve. This film is sort of about tobacco, cancer, history and responsibility. But it’s also far more personal. Messy with loose ends, the way that all our families are.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Zack Snyder: Hello, I’m Zack Snyder, director of the remake Dawn of the Dead. I apparently turned down directing S.W.A.T as my first directing gig, on the basis that they wouldn’t let me do it R rated. So here I am, doing a zombie flick, because zombies are in vogue, man. Zombies are the new Nazis. They’re the terrorists we can show getting the shit kicked out of them, whilst calling it ‘non-confrontational cinema’. If the real news stays as scary as it is now, there’s gonna be a lot more movies about vampires and zombies in the next few years, and this movie is my bid to become a headline director in the new wave of gore. And if this means there’s one less film where Ben Affleck saves America, we all win.
James Gunn: Hey Zack, I’m James Gunn, the scriptwriter. You might know me from my previous feature length work writing the Scooby Doo films.
Zack: Scooby Doo? Seriously?
[checks the IMDB]
Zack: Okay. Wait, no way. Seriously?
[checks Greg’s Previews]
James: Seriously, dude. After live action films with an animatronic dog, zombies were clearly the next step.
Zack: Uh huh.
James: Did I mention that I have my own pretentious website?
Lyn: Well. To be fair, I found your website pretty entertaining. You do have a cool bio. And it turns out, I like your brother, who plays Kirk on Gilmore Girls.
Zack: Who are you?
Lyn: Oh, sorry. Carry on.
[Zack reads James’ script.]
Zack: Surprisingly, I like it. Unlike Wes Craven's latest flicks, the humour doesn’t derive from self-aware characters in a horror movie (the post modern horror flick) – but from straight characters in a film that is conscious of its status as a genre film.
James: I know! The film’s nods to the absurdity are often in the soundtrack, or in other cues direct to the audience. Sneaky – it allows for laughs, even though the action on screen is “serious”.
Zack: Okay, you know this bit with the pregnant woman? We’ve clearly got to do something awful with her. A pregnant woman surviving a zombie film unscathed - such wasted potential!
James: Well, I had this idea. But they’d never let us film it. We could [insert really gross spoiler].
Zack: Dude! genius. We’ll try and make it oddly touching, and I reckon it’ll fly.
James: Cool. I’m not sure about the chainsaw part – that’s about twenty pages further in. I mean, chainsaws. They’re a bit passé in zombie films, no?
Zack: I hear you. But why not have a bit with the chainsaw where the guy slips, and [insert really, really gross spoiler].
[Impressive pause]
James and Zack: Duuuude!
James: And we could make it so that the blood is this cool, contrasting colour with the interior of the –
Zack: No way, man. Those headache inducing colour contrasts really pissed me off in Scooby.
[James scuffs his foot on the ground]
Zack: Oh, don’t be like that. Your script is surprisingly good. Sure, it won’t win over the die-hard enthusiasts of the original. But for everyone else, it’ll be the B-movie zombie ticket they’ve been waiting for years!
James: Since . . . 28 Days Later?
Zack: Well, yeah. Filling the niche that hasn’t been filled for at least a month and a half.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Fun with Bela

A while ago I posted about the original Mummy, the Karloff film that I picked up on the cheap. My (awesome!) friend "Jason" just picked up a whole stack of Lugosi DVDs for me, and issued the following challenge:

Your task is to match up the following Bela Lugosi films with the correct blurbs.

1. The Corpse Vanishes
2. The Devil Bat
3. Bowery at Midnight
4. Dark Eyes of London
5. Scared to Death
6. Invisible Ghost
7. White Zombie

A. "A woman dies of fright. The movie is narrated from the morgue slab by the corpse."
B. "Bela Lugosi is a professor of criminology who operates a soup kitchen on the side."
C. "Millionaire Robert Frazier has been rejected by the lovely Madge Bellamy, a situation he plans to change with the help of Lugosi who casts a voodoo spell over Madge and then resurrects her as his zombie slave"
D. "Bela plays a mad scientist who must extract the bodily fluids of young virgin brides in an attempt to keep his aging wife alive." (this one involves an assistant, "who just happens to be a dwarf")
E. "Single men with no family are accidentally dying in London."
F. "Bela plays a chemist who is extremely aggravated at his partners who have cheated him. To get even he breeds giant bats which he has trained to suck the blood of anyone wearing his special aftershave lotion."
G. "Bela becomes an unwitting murderer when his wife's ghost gives him the spell. An innocent man is executed for the murder."

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Super Size Me Update

I ate a McDonalds burger last weekend. Sometimes, I am incomprehensible to me.

In other news, we finally have a date for Murray Whelan rocking up on the small screen - and it's this Sunday on Ten. I could not be more excited.

Don't worry Douglas. I'll be taping it.

For those who are interested - they've re-released the first two books with really cute pictures of David Wenham as Murray on the cover in honour of the "television event".

Friday, June 11, 2004

Fametracker fun

Look, it's a busy day at work today. I got nothing.

But you should all totally read the latest thing from Fametracker: Judy's Dench's upcoming film schedule.

And while you're at it, my two favourite posts from their archives:

Interview with Vin Diesel's dog, Roman.

Pretty much the funniest thing I've ever read - a one act play based on Entertainment Weekly's 2003 power list.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Super Size Me

Super Size Me is everything the reviews suggest – funny, irreverent, significant, and entertaining. I completely enjoyed it. (Okay, maybe that stomach surgery sequence was a little much for my delicate nerves). Unlike the fast food that it’s critiquing, it is both consumable and has a pleasant mental aftertaste, mostly due to the personable presence of Morgan Spurlock, intrepid eater and filmmaker. Spurlock eats McDonalds, and only McDonalds for a solid month and records the results on his health. In between burgers, he travels around the US to try and understand why we eat fast food, why we don’t exercise, and why diet pills are a more often used alternative than an apple and a walk in the park.

Whilst I thought the film was great, the next day I started wondering how substantial it is. Is its message really is that surprising or new? (Eat McDonalds for a month, and you gain weight! Amazing!)

Ultimately, the answer is 'yes', not least because Spurlock ends up with a fascinating array of health problems the doctors didn’t really anticipate. This is documentary Jackass style (with crazy stunts), but that doesn’t mean it’s done stupid. Between the hilarious outtakes (and vomiting) there are some really substantial arguments – manipulation of kids, school canteens, behavioural problems, diabetes rates, the scaling up of portion sizes, personal and corporate responsibility, the power of food lobby groups, TV advertising and the role parents can play in shaping their kids dietary habits. All of these are sold to the audience through cute visuals and entertaining footage – but the message comes across. Perhaps the only reason I didn’t feel like I was learning anything, was because the process of learning was so straightforward. And fun.

It’s also easy to listen to Spurlock because he’s not attacking us for our habits. He freely admits that he likes a good burger, and as much as he loves his vegan girlfriend, it’s clear that he’s never going to make his body a temple. We don’t feel preached to by someone who has never touched fast food – there’s a real relish to the way he initially chows down the burgers. The film doesn’t criticise us for liking fast food, but it does ask why we eat it. I haven’t eaten McDonalds for years (the last time was on a road trip when I was starving, we stopped at a roadside McDonalds and there was nothing for miles. I ate a quarter pounder, and instantly regretted it.) If I had made this film, I’m sure that I would have included just a touch of incredulousness that people can eat the stuff. Spurlock doesn’t – and his film is better for it.

(And a footnote on Safe: I’m sure no one’s keeping score, but I’ve now re-edited my post on Safe eight times. I also took it down entirely for about an hour this morning when I decided I completely disagreed with it. It’s back up now. I hate you, Todd Haynes.)


Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Safe (1994)
Currently in limited cinematic re-release

[analysis contains spoilers. Insofar as a film where you have no fucking idea what's actually happened can be "spoiled".]

So Beth calls me, and tells me she's seen a film that has changed her life - Safe, an earlier film by Far From Heaven director Todd Haynes. When Beth is excited about a film, book, magazine article, anything - you drop everything, and you do what she says.

Four years ago, I wrote my English honours thesis on illness in relation to a particular Australian poet (the brilliant Philip Hodgins). My thesis concentrated on how the experience of being ill changes not just the quality of life of the ill person - how the world changes. The de-humanising cycle of hospitals and doctors. As Susan Sontag* once brilliantly put it, when you're sick, it's like you get a passport to another world, the world of the ill. This metaphor resonates with the implications - travel, removal from the everyday, and possibly, the inability to cross back into 'the way things were before'.

I really wish I had seen Safe before writing my thesis, because Todd Haynes is puzzling through many of the same dilemmas as both Sontag and Hodgins. The fear of disease and illness, but more greatly, the fear of the unknown. Safe concerns Carol, a housewife with an affluent husband, who develops symptoms no doctor can understand. Convinced she has 20th Century disease, Carol goes to a retreat in the desert to try and come to grips with her illness.

Because there's just too many things to find amazing about this film, I'm going to concentrate on just one aspect: put loosely, how the film messes with our heads.

Interpretation #1: Carol has 20th Century Disease . . .

A coughing fit turns to seizures, seizures where she is fighting for breath. She doesn't understand, no one understands her. The camera emphasise how lost she is by placing her small figure within big, unforgiving environments - even her marital bedroom seems somehow blank and harsh. The idea that it's your world that's killing you, that there's no place you can retreat that will be "safe" anymore. The familiar becoming deadly.

The depiction of the isolating nature of "illness" in this film is second to none. Carol's life is pretty empty at the beginning of the film, but the way people treat her once her illness manifests shows the isolating effect of it on your relationships. Carol literally becomes a hermit by the end of the film. A powerful metaphor for how our society copes with the ill.

Interpretation #2 - . . . but this illness isn't the whole story.

Carol is the focal presence of the film - I don't think there's a single scene without her. But the film makes a real distinction - we see her experience things, but somehow, we don't see them from her perspective. We believe that she believes she's suffering, but for all that, we can't quite understand her. It's hard to articulate how this is achieved, but it's mostly the mercurial presence of Julianne Moore - who gives a real blankness to her portrayal of Carol. When she's in pain, it's palpable -but at most other times, she has a sphinx-like calm.

You're never quite sure what's going through her head. And whilst Carol never expresses doubt about her experiences - no question, she believes she is suffering and worsening - the film is not quite on her side when it comes to deciding how much of her suffering is actual, and how much is psychological, or "suggested" in some way.

The opening scene of the film is Carol having sex with her husband. As he moves on top of her, we see her face, detached, accepting. When he finishes, she runs her hands up his back, kisses him on the cheek. I think this scene is essential to unlock the film - Carol is, however innocuously, a dissembler. She will react, will do, will perform the way she is supposed to. Later in the film in her illness, she will invariably chirp "oh, I'm fine" to anyone who asks, whilst dragging an oxygen tank behind her. Not deliberate lies, but the assumption of a 'socially acceptable' face to present her world.

So what happens when someone with this demeanor gets sick? Haynes agrees with Sontag - sickness takes you out of the world. For Carol, this means that she can no longer participate in the intensely meaningless world she lived in before - buying new couches, picking up the drycleaning, attending baby showers. But unlike other Hollywood films, being sick with a mysterious illness does not give her an ennobling mission or quest to find a cure. Carol is just lost and disoriented, until she finds the "cult" in the wilderness, the "wellness centre" which offers a cure in the form of complete isolation from the 20th Century.

Tracking Carol's progress here, she's not seeking to become "better", but just to become as invisible as she was in her old life. The experience of the retreat does not lead to a recovery, or to any personal insight on Carol's part. A monologue style speech Carol has towards the end of the film, is pitched in a way that in any other film would be the "this is what I learned" moment of insight from the protagonist - but Carol's speech is just incoherent. She says phrases like "I didn't like myself" as if it's a revelation she's had of why she became sick, but even this rings false, and sounds parrotted from another patient in an earlier group therapy session.

Before, "safe" was living in rich suburban anonymity. Now, "safe" is remaining as anonymously sick as possible (and still within a place of privilege - as the cult is a retreat for the very wealthy).

(I have a suspicion that many of Carol's 'symptoms' later in the film are reactive in this way - she mentions an intolerance to cologne, but only after hearing about someone's problems with perfume. She is unable to deal with exhaust from cars, but only after other people have strong reactions to cars around her. She states that her cabin is too close to a highway, but she only suggests her cabin has a problem once she has found the highway - suggesting that it took knowing the road was there for her to suddenly find the cabin insufficient. I'm not sure about all these conclusions - it would take a second fine-tooth comb viewing to be 100% convinced - but I am sure that to some extent, the film increasingly problematises Carol's condition. How much of her illness at this point in the film is Carol being ill, and how much is Carol trying to be "a better sick person"? In my view, it's impossible to tell.)

Interpretation #3: Or, I could have no idea.

The best part of this film, is that you could entirely disagree with every conclusion I've drawn here, and I would have to agree with you that I could be wrong. Carol might well have an environmental illness, that is proving completely devastating to her body. Another possibility is that her condition is 100% in her head - her life is just so meaningless before her illness, it seems conceivable that she becomes ill in a kind of self-defence, to get herself out. I'd put my money on 50/50 as a ration of actual and imagined. Maybe 60/40. God. Who knows? It's certainly a mark of how uncomfortable this film makes me, that I've been editing and re-editing this review for about a week because I'm worried about being unfair to Carol. Who is fictional. I mean, seriously.

At the close of the film, Carol's retreat from the world is complete - she is in isolation in a bare cell, entirely white. She looks in a mirror. And following the advice of an ex-patient, she mouths to her image "I love you, Carol". She has trouble getting the words out. And I have a lot of trouble deciding how to take this ending. Is this a hopeful end? - Carol, stripped to her essentials, trying to build herself up from scratch? Or is this yet another case of Carol borrowing from someone else's agenda and experience, mimicking the way someone else thinks she should try and get better, try to re-establish her "self"? I just don't know. I really don't.

(and what is Haynes saying - when you consider the opening shot of Carol's face staring straight ahead, under her husband's naked back . . . with the closing shot of Carol's face, staring straight ahead into the mirror?)

(oh, you thought I was going to answer that question? - heh. Yeah. I wish.)

It's an evasive film. It's an impossible film. And it's probably the most "important" film I've seen since Fight Club blew my mind a few years back.

*paraphrased. God I hope it was Sontag. It's been a while.

I strongly suggest (nicely, of course!) you go and read Beth's review over at fridaysixpm (under Wed 2 June). I completely agree with her take on the film.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Thir13en Ghosts

Pay TV. You have a lot to answer for.

A recently bereaved family, comprising dad, son, daughter and nanny, inherit a strange uncle’s house. The family lawyer takes them along to show them around. The house itself is pretty cool – all glass walls with cursive script, and strange turning locks. Of course the house has a secret. Of course it’s in the middle of nowhere. Naturally they get trapped inside, and the creepy evil spirits of the title come out to play.

Mind you, not all the ghosts of the title are creepy. Maybe three, tops. But then, there's the 'non evil' ghost, several stupid ghosts, the obligatory half naked female ghost, and most bizarrely, the 'dismembered torso' ghost. (I mean, what's the torso gonna do? Trip you over to death?)

It’s weird watching a grisly horror film that involves a family. With the son (some random kid) and daughter (Shannon Elizabeth) tagging around with their kindly dad, it feels more like a set-up for Caspar: The Friendly Ghost than for a quite explicit horror film. Easily the most entertaining character was Matthew Lillard (Shaggy of Scooby Doo fame) who plays a significant role in the (grisly) prologue, and then turns up at the house later in the film. He chews up scenes like they’re going out of style, but given the quality of the scenes in question, you really want to thank him for it.

Clichés and rip-offs abound. The ghosts appear in the form they had when they died – borrowed from The Sixth Sense. Someone actually says “let’s split up”, acting non-ironically like it’s a great idea (“oh, for fuck’s sake!” I yell at my TV) The son travels around the glass house on his scooter, an obvious steal from the great scenes in The Shining where Danny trundles around on his little pushbike. But other films have since done some borrowing of their own. The lawyer has the best (grisly) death – and I’m pretty sure his death scene is echoed in the (really grisly) opening scene of Ghost Ship, which was released a year after this film. (I’d previously repressed the fact that I’d even seen Ghost Ship. Damn, that was bad).

I’m sure it won’t surprise you that there’s a dastardly plan at the centre of the film - a “reason” this particular family was brought to the house. No intense analysis is really required, just one cautious poke will bring it crashing down. The “evil” plan requires a series of remote coincidences in order for it to come to fruition. So whilst the arch villain is doing his “I am the puppetmaster, I control all” act towards the end, I was just thinking “Dude, it’s sheer chance you’ve gotten this far. Don’t kid yourself.”

Worst of all, there are so many showy loose ends that go nowhere. There’s at least two scenes which focus on a glass case full of samurai swords, but these swords are never actually used in the film (the gun from act one not going off in act three). One character has the ability to touch people and see traumatic incidents from their past life, a kind of clairvoyance. This gives the editor the opportunity to have lots of fun doing quick cut montages of (grisly) stuff. It has no other thematic purpose, and does not further the plot in the slightest. Half the time the ghosts are trying to kill everyone, and the other half they’re making canny tactical decisions that further the plot – and not trying to kill everyone. “Be consistent!” I yell at my TV.

Despite the general awfulness, the production design was fantastic. Also there were a few stand up and applaud moments. The semi trailer full of blood (“bait”!) gets mad props from me, and the entire creepy opening prologue quickly kills off at least five times the number of people who end up dying in the rest of the film combined. The "evil zodiac" made me laugh so hard, I thought I was going to break something.

In the end, I was reluctantly entertained (mostly in the 'laughing at the film, not with it' sense) for about the first two thirds of this film. And just admitting that makes me feel dirty.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The Cooler
(A spoiler free review)

The Cooler is a strange, almost winsome little film. Casino boss Shelly Kaplow(Alec Baldwin) employs Bernie (William H Macy) as a “cooler”, since his legendary bad luck “cools” down punters having winning streaks. But when Bernie becomes acquainted with waitress Natalie (Maria Bello), his luck turns – and with it, his ability to do his job. In the background to this personal drama, we see that the world of the casino itself is unravelling. New management and a modern casino style are on the way in. Shelly resists any changes to his little fiefdom. Bernie's strange innocence within the knowing, sordid casino world makes him a pawn in the emerging conflict. . .

Easily the best part of this film is the acting – the three lead characters are all compelling, and each of the three leads delivers a stellar performance. The story itself is occasionally unsettling – as the film morphs between a romantic character piece, a violent mob style drama, and a kind of magic realism. For my money, it doesn’t quite succeed in combining these elements – seen together, the violence is jarring, and the elements of romance and luck become unrealistic. But for all this, it’s still an extremely watchable film.

As a loser, Bernie has strange kind of purity. He wears his heart on his sleeve – as his happiness or unhappiness manifests in the world around him. He is a relic of an old-fashioned casino era – where the managers are superstitious and believe in the unstoppable power of a ‘run of luck’, rather than relying on the law of averages to make sure they turn a profit. But we start to buy it – especially when the life choices of the main characters start seeming more and more like gambling. Bad choices, good choices, whether to trust someone else, betting on certain outcomes, putting all your chips down on one roll of the dice. Casino as microcosm for life.

As I said, the three lead actors are all excellent. But I just have to gush about William H Macy. He’s one of those rare and wonderful actors who always, always makes a film better. Whether the film itself is disappointing (Mystery Men), amazing (Fargo), or awful (Jurassic Park III). Even if he’s part of a big ensemble (Welcome to Collinwood) and there are a number of other actors who could grab your attention. Where his part is tiny (Seabiscuit) he can still swing a fairly ludicrous ‘supporting actor’ globe nomination. It’s just insane how good he is. This film is rare for him as it’s a lead romantic role. He knocks it out of the park - the sex scenes in this film are amongst the most realistic, believable and tender I’ve ever seen.

Finally, a shout out to Joey Fatone, who has a small but important role. Joey Fatone is a member of N’SYNC – I’m not sure if this “boy band” has broken up post Justin Timberlake’s solo career, or if they’re trying to maintain the illusion that "it’s still about the band, dude" (see also: Destiny’s Child). Anyway, Joey seems to be doing his time in a couple of small parts in indie films – his last appearance was in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. His role in The Cooler isn’t a stretch, but he does it well. I was amazed at myself when he came on screen, and a) I recognised him; and b) my first thought was ‘oh cool, Joey Fatone’. I have no idea where this goodwill comes from –but so far, he’s a likeable, competent onscreen presence. Britney Spears and Beyonce, take note.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

I see dead people. Can you pass the tabasco sauce?

Beth, you're totally right. Cannibalism by people is usually kind of gross out humour, these days.

1. Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter.

2. That guy on Oz (SBS) last week. "So. You killed and ate your father and your mother." "No. I ate my father. I was saving my mother for Thanksgiving." "How . . . festive."

3. Ravenous, film with Guy Pearce. Haven't seen it. We should all talk to Sam, who discussed this in the comments section below. I remember hearing this was a really ironic anti-US film, but had no idea it was so twisted!

4. Alive. Ethan Hawke tries to bring the serious to a film involving a plane crash and eating dead bodies to stay alive.

5. Cannibal the Musical. Heh. "Let's build a snowman! We can make a marvellous friend! We can name him Bob. . . or we can call him Beowulf!" - etc.

6. Southpark. The episode where they start eating people only forty five minutes after being snowed in. "What's wrong with you people? Did you miss lunch?"

7. That ridiculous "put the white people in the cooking pot" sequence in King Solomon's Mines. See also: every other bad American film involving "natives" who wave spears and have witch doctors.

(Did the zombies try to eat people in 28 Days Later?)

Theory: even though we don't like being eaten, there's something we find just too unrealistic about people eating people to really get too freaked out - ironic given what's been happening in Germany lately.

Theory #2: just wanted to point out that a significant portion of my list is thanks to the boys from Southpark.

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