Monday, January 24, 2005

Down With Love

Maybe I just wasn't in the mood, but this movie was just too cute for me. Many of the component parts seem cool. Wacky visual style? check. Ewan McGregor? check. Pastiche of cinematic style of bygone age? check.

But somehow, the film was just plain annoying. Sure, I generally always hate Renee Zellweger. But the whole thing just didn't mesh. I wandered out of the room about five minutes before the finale.

Let me know if you think this film is cinematic genius. I have a feeling that I was just in a curmudgeonly mood.

Friday, January 21, 2005

One hour to go

Feeling intensely weird. Everyone's saying goodbye, flowers, exchanging emails, cleaning office, etc - and I still have just this inner conviction that I'll be back here on Monday. I guess that's what force of habit does to your brain.

Or maybe the weird feeling was the wine I've been drinking constantly since about midday. Yeah, it could be that.


Thursday, January 20, 2005


Is Boa vs Python any good? Inquiring minds want to know.

(note the promising IMDB review: "I love snakes and had high hopes for this one. I was only slightly disappointed".)

ETA: well, looks like I'll have to spend my precious $8.50 to answer this question for myself.


Wednesday, January 19, 2005

more listmania

Rod asks if it makes a difference if you use a different list. Challenge accepted.

IMDB is kind of confusing. I think this is the page for best of 2004 as voted by users of the site. Hee - once again, I score 24/100! but the list of films I counted towards this tally are really different. (Alien v Predator! Sadly, still no Anacondas.)

Best of 2003. I lost track a bit towards the middle, but I think I get 37/100. (who votes for LXG?)

Best of 2002. 36/100? (my improved score in part because of cinematic gems including Crossroads, Ghost Ship, and The Scorpion King.)

Anyway. Insofar as you can compare apples with apples (the RT and IMDB best lists by year) my scores don't actually change all that much. The reason for this? Although the classy but underwatched documentaries I see bulk up my RT score and don't count under IMDB, I see enough dodgy horror films to make up for it.

Anyway, this whole exercise has made me feel like a bit of a freak. Moving on.


Tuesday, January 18, 2005

I guess it's all relative
Listmania at www.rottentomatoes.com

Rotten Tomatoes has a great feature where they list the year's top 100 movies as ranked by positive critic reviews. I love these lists. I mean I suck at maths, and would have hated uni statistics, but give me stats on a subject I'm interested in, and I immediately start trying to figure out what they "mean". (How many of the "best" films have I seen? If I break down the films that I've seen in brackets of ten, have I seen more towards the top of the list, or in the middle? Is there an inherent bias towards documentaries? Am I a sad obsessive? Don't answer that last one.)

I have seen 24/100 of the 2004 list. As a comparison, I've seen 34/100 of the 2003 list - which probably works out at about the same, given that many of the 2004 list will be still releasing over here through early 2005. And to answer one of my above questions, the highest proportion of films I've seen is weighted towards the top 10 of each list (I've seen 5/10 of the top films on each). Before you brand me an elitist snob who panders to mainstream critics, I would point out that that sadly, Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid did nothing to bulk up my stats here.

My tally is much less impressive the further you go back. In 2002 I was less obsessed with films, just coming off being an impoverished uni student, and hadn't yet learned the joys of spending most of my disposable income on cinema tickets. I've only seen a pathetic 20/100 from that year, even after taking into account movies I've caught since then on video or TV.

Mind you, how meaningful the RT stats are is another matter. If every critic gives a film a "good but not great" 3/5 rating, these would be taken as "positive" reviews, and enough to catapult that film to a 100% rating, as I understand the way the site works. And needless to say, there are many examples of misunderstood genius which have relatively low RT rankings. Predictably enough, horror is almost unrepresented. (Exception: 28 Days Later).

Anyway. I'm dying for you all to count up, and tell me if I'm a freak, or if you're a freak, or that the exercise is meaningless, or whatever. Don't exaggerate now. This is scientific stuff.


Friday, January 14, 2005

Somersault revisited
. . . at the Open Air Cinema on a glorious summer night

Warning: this assumes you’ve seen Somersault. If you haven’t, slap yourself upside the head for not supporting Australian cinema, go away and watch it, then come back.

1. Heidi

There are so many things this film does well. Top of the list is the characterisation of Heidi, and how we feel about her throughout the film. The audience's reactions to her probably include all or some of the following list: irritation / frustration at her bad choices. A kind of helpless anger when we watch her being stripped of options, leading towards said bad choices. Frustration with her inability to empower herself. Frustration with the low value she places on her “self”. Anger at those who exploit her because of this low value. And (I think) at the heart of our frustration with her, the way that she asks Joe at the drop of a hat if he loves her, her guilelessness, her vulnerability . . . is a real empathy. There's a bit of Heidi in all of us, the part that falls in love too easily, the part that will do anything for a bit of affection. We can recognise our own eggshell-ego adolesence. And if we're really honest, we can admit that probably, in some ways nothing much has changed since we grew older and "wiser", except that we probably learnt to be less obvious about it.

On a first viewing, I was annoyed with some of the scenes which show her running around the lake, playing games with the red mittens, etc. Now I actually think these scenes are key. When Heidi is around people, she is always trying to impress, pander to what they want, or seduce. Almost everything she says is inarticulate, ill-judged, and you get the impression doesn’t really nail what she’s trying to say. Example – when someone meanly describes her job at the servo as interesting because it’s a “mixed bag” (referring to the packets of lollies), Heidi doesn’t get the dig, and just smiles says “yeah”. But when they laugh at her, you can see her realise that their intentions aren’t kind. Often, she doesn’t react to dialogue in the film, so much as sense people’s emotions or intentions towards her (the interactions with Bianca who works with her at the BP is another example of this).

But when she is by herself, it’s a different story. Think of the silent scenes where she explores the world around her – the lake, the storeroom, and every environment she finds herself in during the film. Even in the smallest ways of noticing fabric or following her cold breath, she is still exploring, interested, active-minded. These scenes are beautifully filmed, and the music is perfect (clear, crisp, playful, optimistic). Where she doesn’t have to negotiate the minefield of human emotions, she has a real openness to experience. The film implies she has a visual sense, and I think the audience is meant to pick up on this as a kind of untapped potential in her. She is interesting, and interested in things . . . it’s her reactions to people that send her into a destructive pattern.

The film is really Heidi’s story, in the sense that we see the beginning (what makes her run away from home), and the end (her return with her mother). But it’s interesting, isn’t it, that at the end, the film doesn’t punch home her emotional reconciliation with her mother. In a different film, this would have been a big deal – a moment, a pause, running into each other’s arms, etc. In this film, Heidi’s mother doesn’t even get out of the car. The focus in the scene where her mother arrives to take her home is actually on the extended moment between Heidi and Joe. For the first time, he reaches out to touch her, and she pulls away. But it’s not all distance. “I think it’s good we met” Heidi tells him before she gets into the car. And the last shots of the film? Heidi, leaning out the window of the car, watching the trees and the lake from a strange oblique angle, and the reflections as they slide along the car. Although with her mother, it’s like those earlier scenes where she’s solitary. Perhaps the film is saying is that this is what Heidi needs – to stop being something that’s used, to stop “pleasing” people. To start being someone who observes, and absorbs, and learns, somehow.

Geez, this is inarticulate. Does this make any sense? I might have another go at this after the weekend.

2. Joe

Then there’s Joe. We know how to read Heidi, Joe’s story is less contained within the film, less linear. We know he sleeps with a lot of girls (implied particularly by Irene), we know that he’s not happy, we know that his relationship with his father is incredibly uncommunicative (that brilliant scene with Joe drunk in the kitchen and his father impassively eating breakfast). In pretty much every scene where Joe is about to sleep with Heidi, or before any conversation where he says anything important, Joe is drinking. Where Heidi’s problem seems to be a scary lack of direction, Joe’s is the opposite – he’s still living with his parents, working for his father; still getting treated like a boy, unable to travel, stuck in the same rut of drinking with the same mates and sleeping with random girls. And I think Joe’s problem is that he knows that he’s unhappy in his life, but he can’t figure out why, or how, or what to do about it. (Feel free to disagree, but although he feels stifled by his parents and his need to work on the family farm, I doubt he would really be able to articulate this, even to himself.)

Lots of shots place Joe in his parents’ place with its heavy antique style furniture, and Heidi outside exploring the lake and the trees; never vice versa. The other house we see Joe is Richard’s place – it’s a really similar house in terms of style and furniture, but this son is only passing through, he’s selling it, and the furniture, and possibly going back to France. This makes Richard incredibly intriguing to Joe - who you can sense has the inevitable blokey reaction to Richard being gay, but also admires and envies him on other levels.

Joe can admit to Richard something that he can’t confess to a single other person in the film: that there’s something about Heidi he likes. That great little anecdote about how his mother used to spray perfume and walk through it. “She’s like that. You can’t get her out of your skin.” Of course, there’s also that moment when Joe tries to kiss Richard. And the way this scene is acted and played with the direction – there’s no real sexual chemistry here, just Joe confusing his own signals. He doesn’t want to kiss Richard, he wants in some sense to be Richard, and he’s confusing the two. “Mate, you don’t know what you want”, Richard tells him. Mate, you have no idea.

Like Heidi, Joe also has real issues with his self-image. He wants Heidi, but obviously looks down on for sleeping with him so easily. He really seems to approach people on the base assumption that anyone who sees something in him must be worthless, because he also doesn’t value himself that highly. It turns into a sad and awful cycle – he likes Heidi, sleeps with Heidi, despises Heidi for sleeping with him, ignores Heidi, then expects her to fall in his arms every time he turns up (which she does). This culminates in the awful scene with the two boys towards the end of the film. Joe’s reaction is immediately hostile, but he’s also hurt by her “betrayal”. But Worthington is a great actor – hard to articulate how or why, but we know by the end that Joe’s realised that he played some part in bringing Heidi down, rather than making her happy.

3. And generally . . .

This is a film about the difficulty of human relationships – the equally tough tasks of understanding yourself, and understanding others. This point is made most strongly by the character Karl. He’s the young boy with the disorder which means he has no sense of empathy; we see his mother sitting with him in one scene using the cards to try and get him to recognise human emotions. He can’t laugh at jokes until other people do, which signals to him that it’s funny. He’s an obvious reflection of both Heidi and Joe – who even if they don’t have a “disorder” as such, aren’t really that much better at figuring out themselves or each other.

(and the moment we see Karl at his happiest? Heidi on a walk sees him bouncing on a trampoline on his own. Like Heidi, Karl is happiest outside the mess of human interactions which he literally can’t understand.)

Yeah, there are things the film does badly. I think in depicting a lot of the above, the film tends at times to overplay its hand, and get a little to obvious about some of the themes.

But I’m going to use Joe’s perfume metaphor. There’s something about this film that is still lingering on my skin, and I can still hear the music, and that sense of being in the mountains. The things I like best about Heidi’s character were done with such a light touch – the way she holds her beer, the kind of girl who picks out the bright red gloves, and her eternal hopefulness. That sometimes the film verged into being more heavy handed than this (damn that fricking dream journal) I’m prepared to put up with.

So, kudos to everyone involved in Somersault, particularly Cate "first time feature film director? holy shit" Shortland.


Thursday, January 13, 2005

Steamboat Bill Junior
Buster Keaton festival* – part 2

No steamboat chase. Boo! There was however a father/son reunion, a makeover, a love story between two feuding families, a jailbreak, and a hurricane.

This film contains two of the funniest sequences I’ve seen anywhere. One involved Buster, recently reunited with his father, trying on hats in a hat shop. Brilliant direction placed the camera in the scene as the “mirror”, so that the actors face us straight on. During this scene, the comedy is at the expense of both characters . . . and it’s also a real dig at Buster Keaton’s comic persona (that sort of foppish, ineffectual, hopeful character). I know what you’re thinking (hats = whatever) but this is seriously funny.

In the second, Buster is trying to break his father out of jail and has brought a loaf of bread which contains various implements to be used for his escape. This attempt stymied somewhat when Buster’s father proclaims that he doesn’t want any bread. Buster makes lots of convincing gestures, all – yes! you do want this bread! trust me! it’s really good bread! On his father’s adamant refusal, Buster just sits down, telling the warden that he’ll just wait till his Dad gets hungry. When the warden’s back is turned, Buster starts doing the most hilarious mime routine. Completely deadpan throughout, but making surreptitious little sawing movements, and hammering, and then miming with his fingers a little guy walking out of the jail (down the length of the loaf of bread).

In both scenes, all that effort turns out to be for nothing – the purchased hat is almost immediately lost, and the jailbreak only briefly successful. Part of Buster’s comic appeal in these films is that a lot of the time, he never gets a break. But of course, this changes for the climax, when Buster rises to the occasion. The little idiosyncratic quirks and abilities which brought him to grief earlier in the film, all come together in helping him to save the day. Importantly, he doesn’t become more heroic, or more adept . . . just somehow, more successful.

The final set piece of the film is the hurricane – and it is so inventively filmed. Buildings fall down, people are blown around, trees are going wild. In one particularly well done scene, a guy is hanging off the front of a car which suddenly lurches crazily backwards dragging him with it down the street. Simple to do (I imagine someone was just ducked down behind the dashboard and started reversing), but it looks so effective. Another great moment – Buster is running past a loaded truck, and a gust of wind suddenly tips the truck and buries him under a pile of boxes. The falling building scenes were amazing – sometimes walls would just fall straight down in one piece, but at other times, houses were convincingly reduced to a pile of loose timber in a matter of seconds.

And all this is covered in seventy minutes. When Keaton has the momentum going, it doesn’t matter that his films are silent, or that they’re eighty years old. He is himself an irresistible force of nature.

If anyone else wants to play their own simultaneous festival, next on the programme is College. After which, it kind of depends on my distributor, but I think it’s going to be Sherlock Jr and Our Hospitality (both of which I’ve seen before, but it’s been a while).

Drinking game suggestion: I really didn't need the film to be spiced up that much, but if you really had to do shots, I would recommend drinking every time someone ends up in the water. But remember, drink responsibly.

*Buster Keaton festival: running throughout January and February 2005, in Lyn's loungeroom.


Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Man on the Train (2003)

I first saw this film back when it had an Australian release (at the Dendy, anyway) about a year ago.

It’s a film about two very different men, strangers who develop a strange kind of friendship / envy / kinship. I’m being deliberately obtuse here, but that’s because when I went into the cinema I knew virtually nothing about the film, except that I loved the poster, and when I looked it up on Rotten Tomatoes, this was the feature quote: “It speaks to the quixotic desire to know what it feels like to be someone else, someone utterly different from ourselves – the reason we talk to strangers, the reason we go to the movies.”

Woah, I thought. And after seeing the film – exactly.

What hit me on a second viewing was just how beautiful this film is – every still is an image which would not look out of place hanging on a wall. There's so much imagery, the full meaning of much of the symbolism only really becoming apparent after you finish watching the entire film and you rewind it in your head. The structure is very clever – although this is also something I can’t elaborate on, because it would give away too much. The music is playing a constant game with the viewer, as each of the men has little motifs and tricks which are playfully used as they dabble in each other’s worlds. (I love the pseudo Western film twang that keeps popping up!) But at its heart are the two central performances, which are just a complete pleasure to watch, and are never predictable or easy.

My housemates (and their Scandanavian guests) were having a fairly noisy, happy evening in the kitchen whilst I was watching this (perfect conditions for a film with subtitles). When it reached the mysterious, sad, triumphant ending there were tears rolling off my nose. Then, that moment after a film when you tune back into the other noise going on around you, and realise that your world is still there, and the small village in France is receding. I love that realisation, of just how far I disappeared into the story. Magical.

Directed by Patrice Leconte. My list of directors whose other films I need to start watching is ever lengthening . . . although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen The Girl on the Bridge, if nothing else.

Apparently Leconte filmed the entire movie in chronological order (as in: production and filming started with scene #1 and ended with the final scene). Which I completely understand for a few reasons, and probably helped with the perfectly realised development of the character interactions.

And if you've seen the film:
There's only a few moments in the film which strike me as oddly discordant. One I remember is the scene where Hallyday's character confronts Rochefort's "friend" (the "he doesn't want to hear about your brat, all he wants is tenderness and sex" scene). This scene really jarred for me, not just because he's being extremely awful. I guess part of the issue is that Hallyday's character doesn't even fully understand why he's attacking her (and I have a theory about why he is attacking her like this). Email me if you've seen it and feel like indulging me with a discussion on this.

I've also still got the "explanation" of the end that I emailed out to people I saw the film with, and I'd love to revive that debate . . .


Tuesday, January 11, 2005

For sale: really big tall ship

There’s a few interesting revelations in the extras on the Master and Commander DVD. First, they used the tank built for Titanic to shoot the film. Second, just as they were considering making the film, a tall ship of the type featured in the film was up for sale somewhere in the Maldives. (how did they find this out, sailing classifieds international?) Peter Weir ran out and bought the ship to use it in the glorious long-shot sailing sequences where they actually are all out at sea on a functioning vessel. Most of the close-ups are shot on a second set, which is the ship-like structure built for the film and based in the tank.

But here’s what I was wondering today. What’s happened to the boat they bought, now that filming is over? What does Weir (and/or relevant studio(s)) do with a working tall ship, put it on mothballs? And if they sold it, is there really a market (and/or ascertainable value) for this kind of stuff?

Pet theories:

My lame hilarity aside, I guess this must be a common problem for big fantasy / historical films . . . which end up with big, unwieldy, expensive (unsellable?) props when the film is over . . . except of course when you're Peter Jackson, in which case you can just stick it all in a museum exhibit.


Monday, January 10, 2005

Louis Nowra weighs in on The Motorcycle Diaries

Louis Nowra has weighed in with a rant in the SMH about the use of Che Guevera's face as a symbol. He also describes The Motorcycle Diaries as a "romanticised portrait of the revolutionary Che Guevara before he became a communist. He is shown as handsome, sensitive and caring. There is no hint of the vicious-minded hoodlum he would become."

Sort of fair enough on some of this - as I said in my longer review (below), the focus on the early life of Che allows the film to sidestep all of the political stuff, and any examination of whether Che's actions were good, bad, whatever. Further, the depiction of Ernesto as a charismatic guy with his heart in the right place does leave room for the audience to infer that Che's later actions are justified. (I don't think this isn't the conclusion that your average informed viewer would necessarily draw, but mileage may vary on this point.)

Generally though, I think the "vicious thug" tag is as unconvincing as the "near-divine hero" mythology that Nowra also rejects.

Where Nowra and I totally agree is in our irritation over the mindless appropriation of symbols. My pet hate on this score is the fricking Playboy bunny, which is available on a wide range of female clothing. I get the feeling that girls who wear it do so because they think the bunny is cute and sexy in a vanilla kind of way. When actually, it's a loaded image - the symbol of a media empire based on men objectifying women. If you wouldn't wear a t-shirt emblazoned with "Penthouse" or "FHM", you shouldn't wear a playboy bunny t-shirt. I have no idea why this irritates me this much, but oh, it really does.

And just to balance up the Che coverage on this website: this more complimentary Time article by a Latin American writer is an interesting read, and looks at both Che as icon and Che as South American hero.

(Irrelevant side note: I got a free review copy of Louis Nowra's autobiography The Twelfth of Never and never managed to get through the first chapter. It's still on the bookshelf at my parent's place somewhere. Maybe I should dust it off and take another look, to see if there are any other quality rants at the young t-shirt wearing public.)


Thursday, January 06, 2005

The General

Who’s cool? Buster Keaton. That’s who.

Buster Keaton’s The General is often described as “the best comedy ever made”. So going into the cinema, it's fair to say I had pretty bloated expectations. But whilst as a good postmodernist, I question whether any film can earn this kind of accolade, it is a pretty amazing film.

This is the tale of Johnny (Keaton) a Southerner during the Civil War which is currently raging around the edges of the film. As the first frame informs us, Johnny has two loves in his life: a girl, and the train called “The General”. Pretty quickly, the dastardly machinations of some Northern spies place both train and girl in danger, and Johnny has to act with alacrity to get them to safety.

Where to start? The action sequences – genius. It’s kind of terrifying watching this and knowing that there was no CGI / special effects wizardry, and Keaton did all his own stunts. (I feel like his mother. Buster? was that safe? because it doesn’t look safe, dear. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?) At various points, the train is going pretty bloody fast; and everyone is just running around, jumping between carriages, blowing things up . . . if no one was hurt, it’s a miracle. And it’s not just good action – unlike many action films, the action flows, it’s all logical, and it furthers (rather than distracts from) the plot. I can see why the early Jackie Chan films have been compared to Keaton’s stuff – there’s a bit of the same flavour about what he does, although Keaton does it better.

The civil war in cinema has never looked this seemingly genuine. There were a couple of times where I was sure I was looking at stock footage – except of course there is no footage of the civil war (duh!), and then Keaton would sprint past in the shot, making it clear that you weren’t watching some documentary style recreation. Before I went to see the film, I read a few reviews quoting film historians who claimed no one got the Civil War as accurately as Keaton – not even Gone With the Wind. Strange, but now I've seen it, I believe it.

Keaton’s eye as director is extraordinary – the seething crowd shots, troop movements, the feel of makeshift camps and so on – all feel so real. There’s one incidental scene when the Southerners are mobilising where we see rows of horses and the soldiers running for their mounts; and the camera angle (from above and to one side) gives it this weird perspective which really works. And of course, Keaton as the lead actor has never been so charming. We cheer him on because he’s the hero – but he’s such a hilariously random hero, his major tactical wins during the train chase are mostly through luck or coincidence. And for all the war which is going on around him, he lacks any idealistic zeal – rather, he wants to save the train and his girl. Saving the Southern army to fight another day is kind of a tacked on bonus. He's the kind of hero we love - kind of talentless, a bit of a loser, but with bulldog tenacity.

Seeing all this on the big screen with a really great score (apparently recorded in Tokyo) was the icing on the proverbial cake. The Valhalla at Glebe runs some weird stuff, but I always love their old movies. I mean, if someone can be stuffed to restore a film from the 1920s, brush it off and get it re-distributed, you can generally guarantee that it will be worth seeing. Predictably inspired, I just invested in a mega-cheap 3 disc Keaton set including The General and some other Keaton greats like Steamboat Bill Junior. Steamboat chase sequence ahoy!


Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Motorcycle Diaries

Rating: 8 ½ out of 10

There’s a moment at around the mid-point of this film where four people are sharing a fire by a lonely road somewhere in South America. Ernesto and Alberto are ex-medical students part way through their trip spanning South America. The couple are a husband and wife they have met en route. “Why do you travel?” the woman asks. “We travel to travel”, Ernesto answers. And it’s an uncomfortable moment: between the travellers for pleasure, and the couple who are dispossessed, impoverished, and on the road looking for work.

The story of the film is simple. Two young men set out on the road trip of a lifetime: a dodgy old motorcycle, meagre provisions, and the goal of travelling up the coast of South America covering thousands of kilometres of bad road. It’s a classic road trip movie, chock full with exhilaration and incredible scenery. It’s also a coming of age film, as Ernesto and Alberto have studied hard and are now clearly at points of decision. Do they become doctors? Do they fulfil family expectations? What happens if or when they return home? Their travels become a formative experience, as both men are affected by the poverty and humanity surrounding them during their journey. Like this, the film keeps a dual focus: outwards on the world through which we’re travelling, and inwards on the travellers, changed and challenged by their surroundings.

Our understanding of the characters is also affected by our knowledge outside the margins of the filmed story, as this is based on autobiographical material. Ernesto Guevera de la Serna is the young man who later in life, becomes known as Che Guevera. And so, the film becomes an unusual (but effective) kind-of biography, ignoring historically important actions in favour of an examination of his youth, the beginnings of his ethics.

For a film about such a leftist hero, this is a surprisingly apolitical film . . . although Ernesto is certainly a likeable figure. But the wisdom of Che’s subsequent actions, his legitimacy as revolutionary hero, his death at the hands of the CIA – these are not within the scope of this story, which is not really about “Che” at all. The focus is Ernesto and Alberto - their potential, their youthful idealism, their developing sense of the injustice of the world, their will to work for change. That one of these men went on to burn so brightly only adds resonance to this tale.

I completely adored this film, although I worry that part of the reason is because I was just travelling around so close to where this picture was made, with much of the same carefree “see the world, forget about responsibility” mantra. And this feeling of being on the road is nailed in this film, which is really for all the darkness and poverty, frequently hilarious and joyous. We should travel the world, examine what we see, and feel impassioned to use our lives for change. Such an end is worthwhile of itself, regardless of how history judges the result.



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