Tuesday, August 31, 2004

One Perfect Day
a.k.a My early pick for tenth place (of ten) for AFI Best Picture

(Belated note: this is not so much a review as an assasination attempt. If you want to watch and experience this film for yourself, you shouldn't read any further. Normally I'd try and withhold important plot information, but this film pissed me off so royally that I actually can't concieve why anyone would want to see it . . .)

Tom is a musician from Melbourne who is over in London. He’s forging new musical territory, which involves wandering around with his recording equipment and recording random noises(with the SONY label visible every single time). A good example of how heavy handed this film is - we hear a discussion between two academics about how the music world "needs a genius to bring music to the people", whilst we see footage of Tommy going round and making his recordings. Instead of trying tell us that Tommy is a genius, why not just convince us, show us?

This question in answered in the first musical “highlight”, where Tommy performs an edgy genre breaking music piece. Well it’s supposed to be edgy, but it’s basically spoken word with flashy lights and a couple of violins, and some piano that sounds like something Michelle Branch would play. Of course it gets a standing ovation. Of course his “rebel” attitude gets him kicked out of the music school. And this scene spells out the central disaster in this film - which is a film about a musical genius, but with no actual talent on display. Imagine 8 Mile with Freddie Prinze Jr in the lead, and you've got this film.

Meanwhile, back in Melbourne, Tom’s kid sister is hanging out with Tom’s annoying girlfriend Elise and experimenting in dance culture and drugs. Kid sister dies after snorting some (evil) drugs she’d mistaken for speed. She passes out on a roundabout in a playground, which is a good illustration of how the imagery in this film is never, ever subtle.

So Tom's sister has died. Like most movie characters, Tom realizes that he should Find Out What Happened; and to that end, he goes into the record store where his sister used to play to ask the resident DJ if he knows anything. The guy draws a blank. But then, hypnotized by set of decks, Tom starts getting into the DJ scene. He learns to DJ, incorporating his usual innovative “the world is my instrument” approach to techno. So within the film’s narrative, her death is just the catalyst for his foray into a new musical genre. It’s such a cheap use of character.

And oh, it gets worse. There’s the soap opera of Elise and Tom (the muse and the musician) – he blames her for the death of his sister after she tells him that she bought the (evil) drugs – and breaks up with her. Elise then falls in with a bad crowd, and starts taking more (evil) drugs herself to ease the pain. She starts taking (evil) drugs at work, which we all know is the height of irresponsibility, and passes out on the floor of the hospital where she works.

Then, there’s the bad guy, who gets with Elise. A lot of music films have an Evil Club Owner. Others might have the Evil Drug Overlord. Others still might have the Evil Guy Signing Up Vulnerable Women to his Record Label Just So He Can Seduce Them. Because this is such a top film, it combines all three of these villains into one completely preposterous character. On top of this, the scriptwriter uses the most high school ridiculous character traits to establish his personality. In one scene, you can see that he’s reading the Penguin classic edition of “The Odessey” by Homer – see, he’s an Evil Club Owner with layers. He’s evil because he speaks really ponderously when he’s making a particularly evil point. In the worst scene in the history of cinema ever, we see that he’s evil because he shaves his chest. Honestly, I would believe in Elmer Fudd before I would ever believe in this guy.

And it gets worse, goddamnit. Tommy and Elise get back together. I don’t care. She goes to Club Evil to tell the evil dude, but of course he already knows, and freaks out and starts beating her up. He tries to rape her, but some Evil Minion stops him. The Minion then disappears (where’s the Saving the Girl follow through?) leaving Evil Overlord to rant for a bit about his dreams, and blah, but then stab Elise in the neck with a syringe. She’s high. Tom thinks she’s a junkie, Evil Overlord is like, yeah dude, your girlfriend is totally a wasted drug fucked loser. Those Evil Overlord Club Owners and their wicked clever plots.

Blah. Whatever. Fight. Elise heads up to the roof. She looks like she’s going to jump. Jump Elise! Damn, she decides not to, but throws the bag of drugs she picked up off the roof as this big symbolic gesture. Oh the profundity! She then collapses. As Tommy hugs her to his chest, we get to hear her heartbeat fading, in a way which would be impossible unless Tommy actually had a stethescope. She dies, he looks stricken, but we know he’s really thinking “awesome! Now if only I could mix this fading heartbeat into some cool breaks, Ministry of Sound would totally sign me up!”

So yes, Elise died because of the DRUGS. And the Kid Sister died because of the DRUGS. It’s a preaching, rabid public service announcement gone wrong. And it suggest that the audience draw stupid uninformed parallels between dance music and drugs – which in a film meant to explore or celebrate dance culture is so unbelievably insane, I don’t know where to begin. On top of which, it’s impossible to convey any coherent or constructive message about the risks of recreational drug use into a film with such a ludicrous plot. (“Don’t do drugs kids! Because if you get involved in that scene, you risk some love crazed club owner sticking you with a syringe of heroin to get back at you and your DJ boyfriend!.”)

God, is it over? No, of course not. We need a showdown; which here is Tommy pretending everything is fine with the Evil Club Owner. Tommy goes on stage at Club Evil, but he’s mixing up the evidence! On the big screen, the ravers see newspaper clippings about the deaths, and sound bites are mixed into the music which implicate Evil Club Owner in the deaths of both Elise and Kid Sister! Evil Club Owner rushes down to kill Tommy (yay!), but is dragged off by some guys (boo!). Are we meant to think they’re the cops? If so, I think it’s great that cops are prepared to let people scratch records to important evidence, just so they can pull off a really great set.

And now that they’ve got the bad guy, we get to hear the ”musical” “climax”. Tommy uses samples from recordings by Elise (it’s their song, dude) and it’s meant to be this grand emotional moment, made achingly sad as we see her image projected on the screen and hear her voice soaring above the dancers . . . and, guess what? Worst. Song. Ever. I can’t think of a more fitting end to the film.

I couldn't agree more with James in his review, which says a lot of what I've just ranted about, but says it a lot more precisely than I could manage.

By contrast, Margaret and David (four stars each??) were clearly on drugs.


Monday, August 30, 2004

It's voting time

No, not that kind of voting. Geez. What do you think I am, political?*

The AFI Awards are coming up. As a (relatively) new member, I'm getting all excited about voting this year. It's like, responsibility, dude. I feel all personally invested. As such, I'm racing around trying to see all the films.

So if you're a member, and you're feeling a bit lethargic, here's my plan. You should register to vote online at www.afi.org.au. Then, you should read this site to find out who to vote for. I'm going to rank all the films, and explain my justifications for the rankings - so you'll be able to decide based on the pros and cons of each film which one you'd be likely to vote for, had you seen all the films. Or you could do whatever I tell you. Because, you know, I'm totally right.

For the record, the feature films eligible this year comprise:
A Cold Summer
One Perfect Day
The Finished People
The Honourable Wally Norman

Love's Brother
The Old Man Who Read Love Stories
Tom White
Under the Radar

And time for a brief poll - how many of these have you seen already? If the box office is any indication, it's not going to be many. Before I got all motivated with the AFI awards, I'd only seen two of these films on my own initiative (Somersault and The Finished People) - and there's two films on this list that I'd never even heard of (Old Man who Read Love Stories and A Cold Summer), despite the fact that I consider myself a pretty active / informed cinema attender. Pretty bad.

The first five listed are the ones I've seen. The others? I'll totally get there over the next few weeks. I have a plan of attack, schedule . . . this AFI voting gig, it's like the military.

*but don't vote for this guy. [/end subliminal message]


Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Disability and the movies

This article from the Guardian is just fascinating – it’s triggered by two films being made in the UK which deal with disabled characters. One concerns two characters in wheelchairs and is made by the people behind Notting Hill, the other is about a family including a girl with Downs Syndrome. The former film has a much larger budget, but it has also hired non-disabled actors to play the major roles. The second smaller film has cast a girl who actually has Downs Syndrome in the role of the sister.

I found the whole article really interesting. The points made by the disabled lobby groups (and some of the filmmakers) boil down to two distinct arguments: we need more disabled characters in films or televisions, and we also need more disabled actors getting work. It’s interesting – but completely true – that these two things don’t naturally follow each other. Most of the roles for disabled characters I can think of are snapped up by actors who want something showy to demonstrate their range. Aside from the obvious (American and British) examples the article cites, the only Australian films I can think of with disabled characters are Proof (Hugo Weaving as a blind man), Muriel’s Wedding (Rachel Griffiths in a wheelchair) and The Sum of Us (Jack Thompson is paralysed after a stroke).

And I don’t think this is just an actors equity campaign trying to get more jobs for disabled people. There’s something safer for an audience in identifying with or finding attractive a figure when we know that the person isn’t “really” like that. Perhaps a level of comfort we shouldn’t have – because we know from the publicity or interviews done by those involved that it is on some level an act – after filming is over, the guy gets out of the wheelchair. Giving us a slight space for comfort we wouldn’t ordinarily have.

Sure, there are some things which would be almost impossible to film with disabled actors playing someone with their specific disability. For example – in Rainman, someone with disabilities on the level of Hoffman’s character would probably be unable to “act” or follow script directions. Where the disability is degenerative (such as Griffiths in Muriel’s Wedding), you obviously couldn’t cast someone already in a wheelchair in the role. But what about a character who is blind or in a wheelchair for the entire film? Is it better, or more “true” to cast someone who actually has that disability? My gut says “yes”. My head says a) that this isn’t particularly postmodern of me, and b) we should just be thankful that any of these films are actually getting made; and c) that I should think this through a bit more.

What do you think?

Some assorted kind of relevant, kind of not thoughts: Tom Hanks may have won an Oscar for playing a gay man with AIDS in Philadelphia, but was there really a surge in support or understanding for gay AIDS sufferers, given that Hanks is so identifiably not a part of either group? I wonder.

And more about diversity than disability: one of my favourite films from last year was The Station Agent, a tale about Finbar McBride train enthusiast and dwarf. When they were trying to get funding for the film, the directors kept being asked by possible backers “can’t he just be a really short guy?” Thank god they said no.


Thursday, August 12, 2004

Errol Morris v George W Bush

Documentary maker Errol Morris has joined the long list of directors or film-makers involved in some way or another in getting Bush un-elected. He has created a series of TV ads for www.moveon.org. You can watch the ads here. They're basically pieces direct to camera of "ordinary" people talking about why they won't vote for Bush - all of them are people who voted for Bush last time, but have since become disillusioned. Jeffrey Wells thinks the ads are strong enough that they could make Bush lose the election - a big call. But it's interesting to see Morris getting into this territory. (For Wells' commentary, go here and scroll down to the heading "Brilliant".)

Quoting Wells quoting the ads:

5th grade teacher Anthony Pirro: "In the beginning I thought George Bush
was a pretty likable character...he was very personable and he had a sense of
humor and I thought...you know what?...he seems pretty down to earth. So I voted
for him. Looking back on it, I thoroughly regret it. Fact is, I'm appalled that
I voted for him. I'm embarrassed. He doesn't think things through. We had full
support in 2001 from the world community. And now our country is...a mess."

Financial advisor Kim Mecklenburg: "I've been a lifelong Republican
since I was old enough to vote, and I thought Bush would be a fiscally
conservative individual. I feel betrayed. I don't believe that a government
should be engaged in reckless spending. Recklessly stretching the military to
the point of breaking. Recklessly trying to stretch, alter and amend the
Constitution that this country is based on. And that's why I'm gonna vote for
John Kerry."

Errol Morris is the guy who directed last years Oscar winning documentary the Fog of War. I read a great interview with Morris in the April 2004 issue of the wonderful US magazine The Believer (the article's not available online, but I have been known to read large chunks of it over the phone to friends). In this article, Morris talks about his contraversial use of footage re-creating actual events in his documentaries, including one of his earlier successes The Thin Blue Line. The documentary is about a man wrongly accused of murder, and because no footage of the murder existed, Morris recreates the scene as described by the witnesses. Not only was the film widely seen, it resulted in an acquittal for the man involved.

Critics argued that the use of "created" rather than archival footage problematised the film's status as documentary (rather than, say, a feature film recreating the same events as fiction). Morris responded that what he was trying to do was show the malleability of "perception" - he wanted people to question his recreation, and realise that it was a constructed narrative from necessarily flawed sources - just as the witnesses themselves proved to be inadequate witnesses even though they were actually there.

Morris sees the very distinction between feature film and documentary as a kind of false (or at least unhelpful) dichotomy. "Say I show you footage of a woman walking her dog across the street", he says. "Is it a film, or a documentary?" The interviewer admitted that it would be impossible to tell, just from that amount of footage. "Exactly" said Morris. Thinking about this later, I started to consider that all "documentary" footage is staged anyway. Even if you were filming a documentary about the life of the woman walking the dog, there's every chance that the shot of her walking your dog across the street was staged by the director, who liked the light, and the street - and thought it would add to the film. Normally you'd consider this to be legitimate footage for a documentary, but if it's directed, and it's posed, it's not really real, is it? Or are these distinctions the problem?

Which brings us back to these documentary spots for US TV that Morris has created. Real? Staged? Heartfelt? I'd love to know more about how they were created, but I can't find much on it. I think it's very clever to make it appear as natural as possible, like people just saying exactly what they feel to camera, making a convincing point. I'm sure they're very effective, more convincing that a more stagey ad could be. But as Morris is one of the people who's made me highly conscious of how images can be used, I'm aware of their status as political advertising. When is a ten second segment of footage a documentary? when is it political advertising? Is it just the use of the footage, rather than the inherent nature of the footage itself, that turns it into advertising? Is it the entire nature of the endeavour?

But how interesting, that such intriguing (and highly effective) ads are made by the guy who enjoys blurring distinctions between fact and fiction . . .

(and where's the Australian Errol Morris who's gonna do this to John Howard?)


Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Bela Lugosi spectacular #1
Scared to Death
a.k.a the one with the corpse narrating the film from the morgue slab

Regular readers (note optimistic use of the plural) may remember when I scored a whole stack of cheap Bela Lugosi DVDs. I started watching one the other night, the one which is narrated by the corpse from the slab in the morgue. I’m about half way through. It’s quite a film – attempting a number of different out-there tactics that I have never seen before. Unfortunately, the net result is not “edgy” so much as “really shit”.

The film opens in the morgue. How do we know it’s the morgue? A ten second shot of the sign saying “city morgue”. (There’s also a long shot of another sign saying something like “keep out, employees only”, but this seems to be completely irrelevant.) A young woman’s body is on the slab, covered up to the neck in a sheet. The morgue attendees banter about it for a bit, and one of them says a Key Line: “if only there was some way we could know what happened to her.” Yes! If only! (although possibly a little something called forensics could also do the job, but whatever.)

Cue swirly stuff, music and retrospective. We see our corpse lying down – but she’s alive! she’s on a doctor’s examining table. Discerning viewers will immediately realise that this is a flashback. Discussions with the doctor reveal the following: she’s his daughter-in-law. Something vague is wrong with her (signalled by a couple of lines where she seems kind of bitchy, I guess). The doctor’s son (her husband) thinks she’s “changed”, then again he also seems to be a bit of a dick, so it’s hard to see where our sympathies are meant to be. Lots of dialogue, and lots of exposition. There’s also a sassy maid who overacts, and some policeman in a bowler hat who seems to just like hanging around.

Between scenes, the corpse generally butts in with a narrative comment. This is stupid on so many levels:

Eventually, Bela finally arrives. Yay, Bela! He’s wearing a stagey cape, and he’s part of a circus. As always, he immediately adds class to the film – no small feat since he arrives with Inigo (who is a dwarf) in tow, all Dr Evil and Mini-me. Inigo is immediately subjected to a whole range of really awful prejudiced “jokes”. “Oh sorry”, says one guy, “there’s no tree for the monkey”. Inigo stamps on his foot. Yay! Lugosi’s character explains that you shouldn’t insult Inigo because although he is deaf and mute “he can read lips” (missing out the other compelling reason that such behaviour just sucks). Why is Inigio deaf and mute? there's no apparent reason.

It was around this time that I realise I was so distracted by the dwarf, the corpse, a random secret passage, the swirly screen, and the oooooahhhhooo; that I had no idea what was going on. I plan to re-watch tonight, after having a few beers. I suspect it will all start to make sense.


Tuesday, August 10, 2004

MIFF round up (part one)

Better late than never.
Final tally:
8 Features.
3 Documentaries.
4 Shorts.

1. One Missed Call.
A malignant presence starts killing people via mobile phone. An ominous message is received by victims, which is . . . from their own phone! with the time stamp . . . giving a day and time in the future! and they hear . . . their own voice screaming as they die! The "logic" is that the next victim is someone whos number is saved in the mobile's phonebook. I enjoyed it both as a "bad cinema" and as a "good cinema" experience. On the good side: there’s a fantastic sequence which brings the film into the realm of reality TV (if people knew the exact time they were going to die, don’t you think A Current Affair would be chasing them to do a live-to-air death special?) Effective and scary: in a few scenes, I totally did that time honoured hand over the eyes, peeking through and looking – no – not yet – oh I can’t look – okay, I have to look – ahhh! Bad, but hilarious: a severed arm dials a mobile phone. Bad and disappointing: the female star never stops just being a passive victim. And just inscrutable: there’s about three different endings tacked on, and the last one makes absolutely no sense. Are they dead, victorious, or just on drugs? you tell me.

This is also a perfect example of what Rod was talking about somewhere in the posts (and I think also on his site somewhere?) - most horror films are at their scariest when they're less explicit. Knowing someone is about to die? scary. Knowing something is about to come around the corner, and being unable to look away, waiting for it? scary. Seeing someone's recently severed head bounce across the floor? Probably horrific in real life, but in a film it just comes off as kind of amusing.

2. The Story of Marie and Julien
A Very Long film about French people falling in love. Those crazy French. They’re just not in a hurry – one of the characters repairs clocks, and the recurring shots of him fixing all these stopped clocks became a bit of a metaphor for how time was really not of the essence. And for all the length of this film (which is Very Long), there are a myriad of details which are left as ciphers for the audience to decode. But the build up means that it’s very satisfying when you start hitting the core of the film as the explanations unravel. There's a moment towards the end of the film which resonates - and is far more scary than anything One Missed Call could offer up. No actual violence, just implication. Imagery you'll dream about later.

3. The Corporation
A Very Long documentary about corporations. But it covers the field, and its satisfying, and it sparks off ideas for the audience to chase further in their own time. I agree with Beth that sometimes the editor got a bit too cute with the excerpts from those cheezy black and white info-mercials from the 1950s; but it still worked for me.

4. The Magnificent Three
The plot had something to do with a village in trouble, the kidnapped daughter of the evil judge, and blah and stuff, and whatever. Who cares - it's a kick ass martial arts film. The men are real men, and the blood is so, so fake. Thirty guys will be fighting one guy, but instead of attacking him all at once, they'll run in one at a time (occasionally, three at a time for a particularly well choregraphed bit). My favourite moment was when a woman is widowed, and falls in love with the guy who killed her husband (in the space of thirty minutes after her husband's death). "But I killed your husband!" the guy protests. "It was an accident!" she answers. Love truly knows no barriers. This director's work was featured at MIFF - I only caught the one film, but I'll be looking out for any of these turning up on SBS or at my local snooty independent video store.

5. Nina
My pick for the worst film of the festival. A film with a lot of style but no heart, and no purpose. James saw it, and is nicer – you should read his review.

Actually, I take it back. Nina is the second worst film. The short that played before it – Beauty Queen – is actually the worst. A film which took the "beauty is skin deep" riff and made it into a ten minute public service announcement with boring direction and pedestrian acting. (I'm being pretty! now, I'm having a sprinkling of self-doubt! Now see me vomiting down a toilet! - this means that beauty has a price. Isn't this profound? Now watch me walk past a mirror, and look less satisfied, and more troubled over my self-image - which is literally, my reflection! woah, this film stuff is deep.)


Thursday, August 05, 2004

Alien v Predator
a.k.a The Care Bears v My Little Pony

That's what Alien v Predator should be called. It's going to have a US PG-13 rating for the cinema release. You can see this on the official site - the rating is towards the bottom of the main screen.

PG-13. When all four Alien films have been rated R, and both Predator films were rated R. Right after several R rated films (Matrix Revolutions, etc) have done fine at the box office. The producers of this film shouldn't be worried about scaring off people who might think it's too violent. It's Alien v Predator, for crying out loud. People who are queasy about violence won't be reassured by a PG-13 rating, they're just going to see the latest Kevin Kline film instead. I think this is a really stupid decision - they're not going to attract new fans to a "watered down" version, and they're certainly not going to thrill those of us who love the genre.

I was already pretty cynical about this project for a number of reasons - I think James said it all here. But now, my anticipation for this project has gone from lukewarm to zero. I couldn't even get excited by this script excerpt that was emailed to me this morning, which appears to belong somewhere in the middle of this soon to be released film.

[Interior. An Alien, Predator, and cowering human are all in some non-descript vault, similar to an airlock. A big neon sign on the vault says "PG-13"]
Alien: I will use the human as an incubator for my spawn! then the human will die!
Predator: But I want to kill the human, and use its skin as a trophy!
Human: [cowers]
Alien: It occurs to me that our goals are not inconsistent.
Predator: True. I can always skin the human after you've finished with it. Human incubates baby alien, human dies, I skin the human. We both win - it' s maximising our villanous potential.
Human: [raises hand] What's in it for me?
Predator: Not much, true. But you're helping to meet the needs of the many over the needs of the few. Two of us, one of you. I think you'll agree that on a cost/benefit analysis, this is really the best result.
Alien: And it's very efficient!
Human: [looks puzzled, but can't deny the logic] Oh. Okay. Well I don't really want this to end in violence, so I guess it's curtains for me.
[Director Paul W.S Anderson enters.]
Anderson: Great guys! now, we need the actual cocooning and skinning to happen off-screen. Let's keep it clean, folks!
Predator [whining]: But the gory skinning scenes were the best part of Predator! Well, that and a really muddy, violent Governor of Florida.
Anderson: Hey, I'm the director here. I call the shots, so keep your trap shut, you scaly ruffian!
[The doors suddenly slam shut. The neon sign changes from PG-13 to R.]
Anderson: Fuck.
The alien belts Anderson across the room to the Predator, who slices him open. The alien then impales him on a handy jagged bit of wood, then rips his head off, and bowls it casually across the floor.
Predator: Also? I fucking hated Resident Evil.

[cue heavy metal music. End scene.]


Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Not dead, just snowed under

Yesterday was my worst day at work, like, ever. Today is better, but in that ominous way where you feel like the crocodile is just lurking in the reeds, waiting.

So in the meantime, what's the best cinematic / TV depiction of a workplace? BBC's The Office? Office Space? Being John Malkovich?

I guess it depends what "work" actually is for you . . .


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