Wednesday, June 21, 2006
I really wasn't sure what to expect going into this film. All I knew was that the director was a woman and that's rare in America, much less China. I was curious to see an Asian film from a female's perspective and thankfully my choice to see Dam Street was a good one.
It is not uncommon for Asian cinema to focus their stories on a main female character, however it is quite uncommon for that female character to only interact with men on a most peripheral level. While there are men in the film, Dam Street chooses to keep its focus on Xiaoyun and the relationships she has with her mother, her sister, and the neighborhood kid 'troublemaker' Xiaoyong.
I prefer to leave the specifics of the narrative out of this review because, not only does the film cover such a long period of time in these characters lives (so much so that the film itself periodically resorts to intertitles to advance the plotline) but it also contains little twists and turns that would be a shame to ruin for anyone who might end up seeing the film. If you're dying to know the specifics of the plot, there is a review by variety.com that seems to go into much greater detail in that regard.
Some would consider the story to be fairly standard fair, but I believe the film is much more about what is going on beneath the surface than what occurs purely from a point by point narrative basis. And again, the types of concerns that are considered in the film may have been done before, but how many people can say that they have seen it done from a woman's perspective?
Overall not only is it an entertaining film that will make you laugh, but it is a highly beautiful film. Beauty can be such a subjective thing, especially when it comes to cinema, but I personally guage beauty on whether or not there are images that will stay ingrained in my mind for life. Dam Street has several of these moments. One particular scene is a long take of Xiaoyun making her way down a street. As she does she passes by a bikecart that has been overturned, leaving all the fish it was carrying strewn across the ground. As Xiaoyun makes her way past two men frantically try and put the fish back in the cart, yet they haven't bothered to set it upright again, ultimately causing a never ending cycle of the fish immediately wiggling back out the cart they had just been thrown into. It is both a funny and touching scene. It is a scene that I think sums up the film.
*** and a half stars.
A Perfect Day, directed by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige 2005.
This film was a special treat for me, since to my knowledge I have never seen a Lebanese film. After seeing A Perfect Day, I hope it won't be the last Lebanese film that I get to see.
It's really weird trying to describe this film, in a sense absolutely nothing happens, and that is not an exaggeration. On the other hand, there is a lot that happens. It really all depends on how you look at it.
The premise of the film is that Malek and his mother Claudia are finally signing the papers conceding that Malek's father, who had been kidnapped 15 years before, is dead. The entire film occurs in approximately a day and basically follows Malek, who suffers from narcolepsy, as he wanders around. Malek switches between dealing with his mother and chasing after Zeina, his on again off again girlfriend who wants to end the relationship.
Now when I say that nothing goes on, I really mean it. If you approach this film from the classical Hollywood narrative tradition, it seems like the film never goes anywhere at all. However, I feel that many of the best films eschew anything remotely close to a traditional narrative and A Perfect Day is no exception to this sentiment.
The film is a highly brooding piece of cinema and the sense of longing practically drips off the screen into the audience seats. From the marked physical absence of Malek's father, to the unshakeable sense of a city, Beirut, that itself seems to have gotten lost along the way loss and longing presents itself in every frame.
There seems to be some heavy commentary about a generation that seems to be directionless, simultaneaously crippled by the absence of parental figures and the overbearing control of tradition that remains with those figures who are still around. It's a safe bet that if you were Lebanese you probably would have a much greater insight into the film, but even without that background there is a lot to mull over.
And throughout this piece, is some beautiful cinematography. Of particular note is a sequence where Malek drives through the dark streets of Beirut wearing Zeina's contacts, all shot in the obstucted vision that one experiences when looking through a prescription that is not meant for your eyes.
Finally, the film ends as abrubtly as any film I have witnessed in a long time. I literally was thinking to myself that if something didn't happend within the next couple minutes then nothing would when the credits just started rolling, illiciting audible mutters and frustrated gasps from an audience that probably was just as unsure as I was about what we had just witnessed. As I walked from the theater down to the bus stop, each step brought the realization that what I had just seen was a type of film that too often never gets to see the light of day and a film that deep down I truly enjoyed.
River Queen, directed by Vincent Ward 2005.
When a film is loaded with acting talents like Kiefer Sutherland and Samantha Morton, you would hope that the finished product would be quite good. Yet, like is too often the case, I left the theater with the sour tinge of being let down.
Perhaps I am being a little too harsh. I did enjoy the film, yet it could have been so much better than what it is. The project was helmed by Vincent Ward, whose last directorial effort was the mediocre What Dreams May Come although he has since been involved with projects such as The Last Samourai. As the movie went on it became more and more obvious to me that Ward was unable to censor himself and as such was crippling the movie by trying to squeeze to many ideas into one film.
Arising loosely from Ward's own experiences with the native Maori tribes of New Zealand, this tale is taken partially from the true story of a woman who was kidnapped as a child only to be discovered decades later.
River Queen is set during the colonial times of New Zealand. A period in which the Maori tribes ended up fighting each other because of differing beliefs on what was the best route to retain their land. Amidst this setting is Samantha Morton's character, Sarah O'Brien, who has a had a child with a Maori man. The Maori man dies, but the grandfather of the child returns to kidnap him, leading Sarah to spend the next eight years of her life trying to find her son. She is eventually successful, but he is not the same son that she knew from years before.
The film fascillates between being a period piece, an attempted epic complete with 'grand' battle sequences, a smaller character drama ending up being ok on all counts but not truly good on any of these levels. What is more surprising is the fact that the special effects are at times painfully bad. A lot of things can be said about What Dreams May Come but one thing that is very notable about that particular film is its visual striking flair. For whatever reason, that is at times completely lost in River Queen.
The acting is on a level of what you would expect from the likes of Morton and Sutherland, but in the end its not enough to save this unfocused collage of a film. Despite all this I did enjoy the film, but its definitely not anything near what I would term as a great film.
** and a half stars.
La Samourai, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville 1967
This year's retrospective at the Sydney International Film Festival was on the famous French director Jean-Pierre Melville. La Samourai, perhaps Melville's most famous film, also happened to be the film from the retrospective I had the chance to see. Being such a classic film I am rather hesitant to say much, since so much has already been written on the director and his films......and honestly do I really need to say more than, "Melville, Alain Delon. See it."
Of course I guess that would be cheating. I do have to admit that much to my shame I am not really familiar with Melville's work. Something that I intend on correcting, not only because of my love of French cinema, but because La Samourai is such an excellent film.
I really did not know much about the film other than the title going into the theater and as such I was surprised by how much of a silent film La Samourai actually is. While this isn't a complete rarity, it is something that causes Melville to stand apart from other famous French directors like Truffaut and Godard. In this film Melville seemed less concerned with the dialogue and much more focused on the atmospheric elements and overall ambient quality to the film. The result is leaving the audience to purely contemplate the visual composition of what is being projected rather than have things clouded by the particular plot elements of what amounts to a film noir of the highest order.
I personally really loved this film although I was a little disappointed with the quality of the print they used at the festival. Despite the print showing its age, it did not detract from my experience. Melville was an influence on director's such as Godard(so much so Melville makes an appearance as the writer in Breathless), and for good reason.
*** and half stars.
The Bet, directed by Mark Lee 2006
The Bet was another one of the movies I was required to see. However, unlike Footy Chicks, I was excited to see this film. Marking Mark Lee's(of Gallipoli fame) entrance into the realm of directing feature films, I was interested to see how things would turn out.
Unfortunately the answer would be, not so well. It's not that this film is particularly bad per say, but it's just that it's not particularly good either. Really I would categorize it as a film that might be fun to pick up on netflix, or watch one night if you managed to catch it on television. I wouldn't, however, recommend running out to theater for this one.
The basic premise is two acquaintances make a bet with each other, who can make more money in 90 days. Angus is a banker, so his route will be through those channels while Will, who is a stock trader, will play the market in the hopes of coming out on top.
What follows is an all too standard film about silly games escalating into serious issues that hold potentially life changing ramifications. Predictably, things go to far and all does not end well for either character. Throw in the obligatory problematic side romance between Will and his girlfriend and you have what amounts to a highly formulaic popcorn flick.
It is worth mentioning, that the performances turned in by all involved are excellent. Sadly though, the script is too weak for their performances to elevate the film to the next level. That being said, it still is somewhat entertaining to watch - just not entertaining enough for me to recommend that you spend a couple hours of your life at your local theater just to see it.
Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands, directed by Nicholas Winding Refn 2004.
If you read my earlier review of Pusher I you know that I was a big fan of the first movie. So much so that I made it a point to squeeze in Pusher II even though I had not originally intended to see the film. My only regret now is that my schedule for the festival worked out in such a way that I was not able to see the latest in the series Pusher III.
After going bankrupt making two films after Pusher I, Nicholas Refn decided to go back to the movie that had garnered him so much success in the first place. It turned out to be good choice as each successive Pusher film has been highly successful.
I believe this is in part because Refn made the smart choice of making each film stand on its own rather than make each film a continous linear storyline (which, if you've seen the first film was completely possible due to the manner in which it ended). Instead, Refn decided to make Pusher II about one of the secondary characters from Pusher I, Tonny.
It also helps that Tonny is played by Mads Mikkelsen, who in my estimation is a truly brilliant actor with an incredible range. If you are so inclined, take a look at the picture I posted with this review and then take a look at the photo I included with my review of Adam's Apples. Mikkelsen is the priest in the latter photo, and the actor featured above.
Going into the first Pusher film I knew that there was an actor that had appeared in both features but after watching the movie I had to go back and check with actor it was, so drastically different are the roles that Mikkelsen has played. So going into Pusher II, I was really excited to see what type of performance Mikkelsen would turn in, now that he was the featured character in the film. Needless to say I was not disappointed.
The storyline of Pusher II occurs sometime after the events of the first film. The film starts off with Tonny being released from prison for some unmentioned offense. From this point Tonny goes back to his father, a criminal in his own right, and tries to reintegrate back into daily life. It quickly becomes evident that despite Tonny's large tatoo on his head that says 'RESPECT' he receives little to none from everyone in the film.
The film develops into a something that is less about pushing drugs and more about coming to terms with one's identity and how that might fit into the world around you.
There were particular moments that I found completely devestating, and I appreciated the fact that despite how pathetic the character of Tonny can be, you can't help but like him in the end.
It's hard to say whether or not Pusher II surpasses the original film in quality but I can say without a doubt that it is equally as good. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that Refn has proven a movie about criminals and drugs can be much, much more than the some of its parts.
***Three and half stars
Perhaps Love, directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan 2005.
I'm not really a huge fan of musicals but I was pleasantly surprised by Peter Chan's Perhaps Love. I don't think I've ever actually seen a Chinese musical before, but this film was a great first introduction.
The story revolves around three main characters, big time star Lin Jian-dong, the hugely popular actress Sun Na, and the director of the musical Nie Wen. What follows is a story of a love triangle between the three characters. This is played out through the device of having the musical being made in the film act as a symbolic foil to the actual love story between the three characters. Switching between the musical and the actual film, the story moves through the dynamics of each character's relationship with one another. Not necessarily a highly original idea, but one that was nonetheless executed quite well.
The acting is superb, and it should be since it is filled with major Asian cinema stars. This helps carry the film further than it might otherwise have gone.
Stylistically the set designs are superb, often calling up memories of Moulin Rouge (which in my opinion was only noteworthy for its set design). However, where a film like Moulin Rouge opted purely for a highly stylized motif, Perhaps Love has the benefit of the musical being the film within the film. So while the musical sets are highly stylized, Peter Chan is also able to take maximum advantage of the natural surroundings in which he chose to film. What results is a film that alternates between highly constructed, beautiful set pieces, and inspired natural cinematographic moments.
At times the film became a little overly sappy for me, but overall I felt the story was touching and I was highly engaged with each of the main characters, their history, and what was going on inside their heads.
The ending does seem to drag on a little bit too much at the end, and I felt like the director just didn't want to end the film. What results is one of those films, where I find myself saying, "If he had just ended it at this point it would have been a great movie."
Still, its not everyday that you get to see an Asian musical (at least not for me) and this one is particularly well put together.
No. 2, directed by Toa Fraser 2006
This film took me a little while to really get into. Having the honor of being the first New Zealand film of the festival that I got to see, I initially found it to be slow moving. Thankfully the slow opening pays off, and the foundations that are laid in the first half hour of film, play out in wonderfully surprising ways in last third.
Ruby Dee plays the role of Nana Maria, the aging matriarch of a large Fijian/Kiwi family. The film opens up with her complaining that the house is empty and lifeless. As she smokes her cigarette in contemplation she suddenly lights up and anounces to her grandchild that she wants a giant party to be held the next day. Complete with all her grandkids, drinks, and a pig.
After an intial resistance to the idea, one by one, family members come on board with the idea and with each successive family member comes another layer of familial relationships that are underscored by the idea that even the worst fight shows a vibrancy of life that Nana so desperately missed.
The film seems to leave no issue untouched ranging from your typical fueding family members, the black sheep of the family, interracial relationships, and the always unavoidable family favorites. Of course, I would also be remiss in my duties if I did not mention it also contemplates the brevity of our lives on this planet, superstition, and what really should be important.
The film does an great job of lightening the mood at just the right moments but falls prey, in my mind, to going overboard in its attempts to pull your emotional heart strings. I admit that for me personally, I immediately shut down to a film when I feel that the director is trying too hard to make you feel a certain way. To me it's like taking a two by four and hitting someone across the head while shouting, "You will feel sad now!". I felt that this was the case with the end of the film, but in the larger scheme of things it turns out to be a minor complaint of an otherwise great film.
Burke and Wills, directed by Matt Zermes and Oliver Torr 2006
Made in 9 days this film stands as a testiment to what one can accomplish with a good script, a little cash, and access to cameras.
Reportedly making a big splash at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, Burke and Wills made its Australian debut at the Sydney Film Festival.
The title plays on the famous Australian explorers Burke and Wills but don't be fooled, this film is not about exploring anything except for a small amount of time in the lives of two roommates. Shot entirely in black and white due to budget and time constraints, the film's simplicity only serves to strengthen the focus of the film.
The film tends to be funny, which was interesting since both Matt and Oliver said that they had no intention of writing a comedic film and were surprised that audiences were reacting the way they were to the film. Originally starting as a theatrical play, they decided to turn the play into a film when they realized they had the budget to tell the story in the manner they wanted to.
Wills is a slacker/free-loader who doesn't seem to have the motivation to even find a part time job. Burke is a quiet fellow, balancing out Matt's tendency to run on with his mouth. As the film progresses the two characters seem to switch roles as Matt becomes more and more responsible, even getting a job (through an absolutely hilarious interview scene to sell mobile phones). Both characters go through their share of relationship problems whether it is with each other or the girls that move in and out of their lives.
After a mostly light hearted ride, the film takes a rather surprisingly dark turn. ***************Warning potential spoiler alert**************************** After the movie Matt and Oliver informed the audience that Burke was schizophrenic. I personally had absolutely no idea that this was the case, and as such some of Burke's story seemed slightly incredulous to me. However, other people in the audience who had had personal experience with schizophrenia stated they felt the portrayel was highly accurate. Any way my enjoyment of the film would have been increased if I had known that going in, but not everyone seems to agree with me on that******************************************************
In the end I felt it was a entertaining film that was much more impressive simply due to the fact they managed to put together such a well done film in 9 days with completely independent financing.
Monday, June 19, 2006
Footy Chicks, directed by Rebecca Barry 2006
Now admittedly this was not one of my first choices of films to see at the festival, but as part of my coursework we were all required to see certain films and this was one of them.
Footy Chicks is an hour long documentary about women who basically throw themselves at Australian Footy players. For those uninitiated in Australian lingo 'footy' refers to Rugby in all its incarnations and Australian Rules Football.
Even with my rather low expectations going into this documentary I still walked out of the theater rather disappointed. What could have been a serious and informative look at some troubling issues surrounding the sports and the men that play it, the film basically plays out like a VH1 "Behind the Music" episode.
The documentary follows three different girls as they basically do anything they can think of to sleep with Footy players while intermittantly touching on how things sometimes go too far and the players end up taking advantage of women.
The problem is the film really doesn't even consider a solution, nor does it even do anything more than just scratch the surface of its subject material. To make matters worse the film makers seemed to have a shortage of footage and so reused certain shots multiple times. To me, this is inexcusable for a documentary that doesn't even break the hour mark.
By the time the film had finished, I felt like the only thing the film had managed to accomplish was to reinforce every negative stereotype that you can think of for both men and women.
There was one bright spot to the documentary. It featured at moments an elderly woman who was quite a character and she illicited the most laughs of the film.
* One Star
Sunday, June 18, 2006
Little Miss Sunshine, directed by Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris 2006.
Now as a rule I purposely avoided picking films at the Sydney Film Festival that I thought I would be easy to see at home. Little Miss Sunshine was the one film that completely broke my will to follow that mandate and now I have the pleasure of sharing this review with everyone.
I'm an admitted Steve Carrell fan, so when I saw he had a new comedy I immediately wanted to see this film. For those of you who are not huge fans of Steve Carell, never worry. He is only one player amidst an excellent cast. In fact, if I were only allowed to tell you one thing about this film it would be that Alan Arkin absolutely steals the show. I'm not even sure that I realized he was in the movie going in, but I was incredibly impressed by this comedic performance of his as a grandfather with a Heroin addiction.
This film is about a family, a highly dysfunctonaly family. The head of the household is played by Greg Kinnear. Richard is a motivational speaker whose spiels focus on how to be a winner and not a loser, although one begins to wonder who he is trying to convince. Steve Carrell is the uncle who unsuccessfully tries to commit suicide. Kinnear's wife Sheryl is the only normal one of the family that is rounded out by Dwayne, your typical angst riddent teenager who so desperately wants to be an air force pilot that he's taken a vow of silence until he achieves that goal.
From this weird almagation of a family arises an incrediby funny family road film. The entire family up and heads out to California in a beat up VW van because the youngest of the family, Olive has won a beauty pageant by default and now has a chance to compete in the "Little Miss Sunshine" beauty pageant.
I really don't want to say much more than that about the film, because anything I might say would potentially ruin some of the surprises and humor of the film. Perhaps I would be best served by noting that even though I was horribly sick when I went to see this film, I still ended up hacking up a lung in the theater because I couldn't contain my laughter. Easily one of the best American films I've seen this year.
Oh and one last little note. There were some brief moments where I felt the film teetered on the edge of being overly sappy with a forced moral message. Thankfully it avoids these pitfalls. That isn't to say there isn't a message or depth to the film, it just means the writing was good enough it didn't need to resort to the cheap emotional string pulling many films degrade into.
***and a half Stars
La Moustache, directed by Emmanuel Carrere 2005.
Moving from one confusing movie to another, La Moustache was not to be outdone in the complexity department. Billed by the festival as a comedy, I personally didn't find it that funny, but I did find the film highly engaging and thought provoking (being a french film that isn't much of a surprise).
Vincent Lindon plays Marc, a man with a moustache. He asks his wife what she would think if he shaved his moustache off and her response is simply, "I don't know, I've never seen you without a moustache." Curousity winning out, Marc shaves his moustache off while his wife, Agnes, is out on an errand. Thinking to surprise her, Marc momentarily hides the fact his moustache is gone, before working up to a grand 'reveal' only to have her not blink an eye. Marc soon discovers that his wife insists he never had a moustache in the first place. So with a loss of a moustache, the loss of reality is soon to follow.
The film does a good job of putting you in Marc's position, so the audience soon find themselves questioning what is real and who is sane just like Marc. If that wasn't enough time soon seems to be wrapping around on itself.
This film again is a rather difficult to write a review on. I can assure you this, if you are fan of French cinema than you will more than likely enjoy this movie. It is filled with the pensive, 'Why do we do what do' nature that seems to a requirement of French cinema. It is also fair to note that like a lot of French cinema, things are left very much unresolved, so if you are the type of person who needs nice neat closure to the stories you embark on, stay far away from this film.
Toying with questions of personal identity and identity construction, La Moustache is a fun look at the subject, while it is sure to intrigue and perhaps infuriate those who are willing to brave its murky waters.
Starfish Hotel, directed by John Williams 2006.
I've been sitting here at the computer for a good 10 minutes without typing a word because I'm really not sure exactly how to go about writing a review for this film. David Lynch meets Donnie Darko is a good way to describe things, but really that doesn't tell you much about the film. The honest truth is that I left the theater in a fairly confused state. I knew that I enjoyed the movie, but I really wasn't sure what I had just seen. I think I'm still not sure exactly what I have seen. If I had the luxury of seeing the film again before writing anything about it, I would jump at the chance, instead your stuck with my convoluted first viewing reactions.
Imagine trying to explain the last 45 minutes of Lynch's Mulholland Drive to someone 15 minutes after you had seen it. That's how I feel about the entirety of Starfish Hotel 6 days after having seen it.
The basic premise of the film is this: Yuichi Arisu is man with a beautiful wife and high paying job. He is also a man with a penchant for the mystery novels of Jo Kuroda. Yuichi has just picked up Kuroda's most newest novel ''The Darkness". Advertisements for it are everywhere, from the television to the walls of the commuter trains, to the man in a twisted rabbit suit. And you thought Donnie Darko had the market cornered on bizzare rabbit suits. Yuichi has a brief run in with the man in the rabbit suit (which becomes evident what the character Mr. Trickster wears in Kuroda's novels) and returns home that evening to find his wife gone. As the next couple days go by, Yuichi begins to panic and things begin to make less and less sense.
Temporal continuity is seemingly taboo for Williams as he jumps back and forth through time with impunity. I like to consider myself pretty film savvy, but I found myself lost again and again. Narrative continuity also seems to be taboo, as the story is broken apart, split, realligned, and then merged to the point where it is impossible to tell whether what you are watching is the actual narrative, one of Kuroda's novels, or if what you think is the actual narrative is really just all one of Kuroda's novels.
Confused yet? I hope so because I think I've managed to confuse myself. The film is extremely atmospheric and parctically dripping with style, so at the very least, while you may completely lost as to what exactly is going on, you get pretty visuals to stare at in the process. Despite all this, I found myself really enjoying the film, I just wished I could have watched it a few more times before posting this review.
Pusher I, directed by Nicholas Winding Refn 1996.
With Nicholas Refn's third Pusher film making its Australian debut at the festival, lucky festival attendees were given the chance to either see the first two films in the trilogy for the first time or simply refresh their memory in prepartion for the third installment of the series. Not that its necessary to refresh your memory. The films do not continue one narrative, rather Refn opted to make each subsequent film feature a different character from the first film.
I never saw Pusher I when it came back and I definitely missed out. To me its the epitomy of how a gritty criminal underworld should be done. Too many films that cover this type of subject matter opt for a super sleek ultra polished feel complete with the overly clever lines and enough gunfights and explosions to last you into next month. Pusher I is none of this, instead its (gasp!) about the characters, everything else being secondary.
If there were any questions about the visual style of the film, those are put to rest immediately in the opening frames. Each character is introduced, name in simple, bold white lettering at the bottom of the screen with the character facing the camera directly. The screen is almost completely dark though, so you can't actually make out any details of their faces, leaving you to glean only the most generic knowledge of what each character looks like.
What follows is an equally dark and gritty film about a low-level drug pusher named Frank and his partner Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen from Adam's Apples). When we are introduced to the two of them things are going well. The camera follows them around as they alternate between making quick drug deals and extended periods of just hanging out and being "guys". This is part of what I really enjoyed about the film. It seemed to feel no pressure to throw action or sex at you to keep you entertained. Instead a good portion of the film is simply spent with Frank and Tonny as they go through their daily routine. It serves to really make you feel like you know and understand each character, and once you come to that realisation is when everything falls apart.
Frank runs into a friend he made while he was in prison and agrees to sell 200g of dope to him. The problem starts with the fact that Frank already owes his supplier 50,000 and this new deal really puts a strain on the relationship. When the actual deal falls apart, leading to Frank's arrest and 200g of dope in the local lake things get become ugly and only get uglier.
The plot is definitely not very original in nature, but in the end its not the plot that makes the film a joy to watch. Its the characters that populate Refn's world that make things interesting and thankfully he is very aware of this. Its rare to find a film of this nature that you can term a 'character piece' but judging from Pusher I its a shame there aren't more films that could fall under that type of category.
Ra Choi, directed by Michael Frank 2005.
Well not to go overboard with praise, I'm moving from my favorite film so far in the festival to by far my least favorite film. In reality it also happens that I saw them in this order as well, so my day began with the amazing Adam's Apples and ended with a bad taste in my mouth that goes by the name of Ra Choi.
More than likely my review of this film could be easily filtered down to one sentence. Just watch Kids, its easy to rent and a far sight better than this knock off. Ra Choi follows a group of kids, some with parents, some without, who deal and use drugs, steal and generally participate in the many facets of the criminal world. Sound familiar?
You know one, if not some of the kids will die. Its just a matter of who and when. You know some will end up in jail. Its just a matter of who and when. About the only original aspect of this film is that it is focused on vietnamese kids here in Sydney. It turns out that this is not nearly enough to salvage a completely uninspired directorial effort by Michael Frank. Its unfortunate because some of the actors and actresses show some promise but instead they simply come across as painfully amatuer.
M. Frank also turns to simply unbelievable and seemingly out of touch character traits for some of his kids. In particular one kid who is probably around 12-14 years old is obsessed with playing with plastic farm animals.....in a manner that is far more suitable to a 4-5 year old boy. Perhaps the director was trying to show that the kids surroundings were so dibilating that he hadn't even developed beyond the state of a 5 year old but you'd really have to stretch to argue that.
I honestly can't think of one reason to recommend that anyone see this film, and there aren't many films I can say that about.
Adam's Apples, directed by Anders Thomas Jensen 2005.
If you get the chance to see this movie don't pass it up. That would just be plain rude.
Criminal versus priest, faith versus cynicism, crows versus Khalid's gun....can it get any more intense than that?
Before I go any further I think its a good idea to let you know that I absolutely love this movie. If you're expecting an objective review you probably can stop reading now. If you read on, hopefully by the end I will have convinced you to see the film....
Adam's Apples starts off with Adam, a hardened criminal of staunch neo-nazi beliefs, being dropped off by a beat up blue bus in the middle of a deserted country road. Nothing but sky and fields can be seen anywhere on the horizon. However, Adam does not have to wait long until he is picked up by the priest Ivan (who is played by the extremely talented Mads Mikkelsen.)
The film wastes no time in setting forth the sort of subtle yet absurd humor that seems to be pervasive in every aspect of the feature. Ivan runs down Adam's convict sheet noting, "It says here that your EVIL. That's just rude. I don't think anyone is evil." After some cursory looks at Adam's file Ivan informs him everyone who lives at the church must set a goal for himself. Trying to be difficult Ivan states he wants to bake a pie. To Adam's surprise Ivan jumps at the idea and informs Adam his goal will be to maintain the church apple tree until August 1st and then bake an apple pie. As Adam is soon to find out, this task proves to be anything but simple.
What follows is a film that at its heart is about personal transformation, having faith, and the powers of perception. What Adam sees as blind stupidity combined with bad luck, Ivan sees as a test from the devil. Who is right? In the end perhaps both are right.
What truly surprised me about this film is how incredibly funny it is throughout its duration. I've seen movies that are funny, those that are serious, and those that alternate between being funny and serious. I can't for the life of me think of a film that managed to simultaneously operate on both a funny and serious level for an entire film. When I laughed I was also registering the serious dramatic gravity of the situation you were laughing at. Adam's Apples is definitely not a fluff film, it has something to say and that is never lost no matter how hard it causes the audience to laugh.
I actually hesitated in writing anything on this particular film because I didn't feel that any words I might put down would do justice to the film. It's hard to describe how you manage to fall in love with everyone of the characters in this film. Ivan is a priest who has completely tuned reality out, Adam is neo-nazi with an attitude, Khalib likes to rob Statoil gas stations, and Gunnar is a failed tennis player who has a penchant for kidnapping and raping women. How do you convince someone that these are endearing characters? All I know is that I would loved to have heard the pitch to get this film financed.
The writing and acting in this film are so expertly executed, that it is easy to lose sight of the quality of the visuals of the film. Jensen manages to make a truly beautiful film that is so consistently simplistic and subtle that the beauty of each scene seems to slip under the radar.
I saw this film in the State Theater which seats approximately 2,000 people. When it ended it received by far the loudest and longest ovation of any film that I have seen at the festival. I noted the film as being by far the best of the festival when I saw that, nothing I have seen since has managed to change the outlook. What else can I say, see it!
World Premiere of Solo, directed by Morgan O'Neill 2006
Solo is a slick crime drama that was created through Project Greenlight Australia. I was immediately interested in this film because as entertaining as Project Greenlight is in America, it has struggled to turn out successful finished projects (so much so I was a little surprised to find out it had even managed to find its way to Australia).
One thing is for sure, the Australian version of Project Greenlight seems to be much more successful in pulling the major stars into the production than the american version. How much of this is due to Australia's smaller (dare I say more friendly) film industry I can only speculate. The main character Jack Barrett is played by the excellent Collin Friels, but that's just scratching the surface of a cast that includes the likes of popular Aussie actors such as Bruce Spence and Vince Colosimo. Even the slightly less known actors such as actress Bojana Novakovic turn exceptional performances, unfortunatey, in the end this may be the best thing I can say about the film.
Morgan O'Neill said that the idea for this movie started with him considering how people reach a point and realize that there life really has been a waste and then what drives them to move forward from that point. Making that character a serial killer for the mob was something that he thought "would be fun". I think that if people are honest with themselves, everyone has had those moments in their own life and in that sense it is easy to relate to the film. The film does not delve deep enough into these issues however and ends up losing focus of that original intention in favor pursuing a more typical criminal genre flick such as any of Guy Ritchie's work.
It should be mentioned that the film was shot in approximately 22 days, so the level of technical quality that was achieved is quite impressive, especially considering first time director O'Neill also had to contend with the cameras from the show while he was filming. Thankfully O'Neill did not rely on mimicing other directors visual style in the genre.
The story itself is entertaining even if its filled with one cliche after another. Barrett has decided he can no longer take being a hitman for the mob, so he demands to be let out. Needless to say this does not make very many people happy. From the corrupt police to the mob itself, no one is willing to let Barrett slip away that easily. Complicating matters is Billie, a nosey girl from Sydney University who has decided to snoop around where she shouldn't in an effort to obtain information that will guarantee her honors on her thesis.
The mob decides to strike a deal with Barrett. Kill Billie and they will let him go. The only problem, Barrett's done with killing, much less killing a university student.
Sparked by occasional fits of humor and a speedy pace, it is an undeniably fun film if you don't go into it expecting much, but unfortunately it really doesn't branch much from the tried and true formula that has been used so much in the last 10 years. Seeming to sense this, O'Neill includes a ''surprise" ending that just seems to forced and to desperate to yield the response he probably hoped it would receive.
One last little note, the music is also well done, but again over used and unoriginal. It consists mainly of jazz or jazz infused tracks. The type of music that seems to be required for a film of this type, but the type that always feels a little hollow after the perfection of a score that Miles Davis created in Elevator to the Gallows.
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
If you haven't heard about Ten Canoes by now you should have. Directed by Rolf de Heer, the film has been making waves in the industry culminated by a successful showing at Canne that led the special jury prize in ''un Certain Regard". Why is it getting so much attention?
Well largely I feel the film demands the attention it is getting due to its incredibly unique nature. Quick! Name 3 movies featuring a purely indigenous cast.....I'm still waiting....well if you can then you are better than me at your cinema trivia. But as silly as I am being about this there is a serious point to be made here. Even recent films like Malik's The New World feature the native americans after the coming of the white man. Really I think you would have to go back to Nanook of the North to find anything that comes close to Ten Canoes.
The film may have made by a white director but in reality he often served as a facilitator providing the technical know how to a people who have next to no experience with the medium of film.
Featuring an entirely aboriginal cast, and spoken in the aboriginal language (with the exception of some english narration from famous aboriginal actor David Gulpilil) the film is a simple story, yet as David narrates "I'm going to tell you a story, not your story, my story."
Playing with time the film operates in the present, the recent past, and the mythological past. Each time period is represented differently. The present is shown in a certain stylistic color choice, while the recent past is in black and white. Finally the mythological past is shot in vibrant color.
The reason why I included Balanda and the Bark Canoes in the title of this post is it strongly tied to the film. Balanda is a documentary on the Ten Canoes and I think that if it is possible you should watch this film along with the actual feature film. It reveals the trials and hardships that went into making the film reality while also giving you a glimpse of the people and passion that comprised the film itself.
What you are watching when you watch the Ten Canoes is a people and a culture who have been brough to the brink of extinction fighting back and trying to recapture and preserve a small part of who they were and still are....
At times de Heer's visuals rival those found in a Malik film, a perfect compliment to the poetic narrative of the aboriginal people. It is also a surprisingly funny film, driving home the point that no matter how different we may appear to be, there are still striking similarities. In talking with de Heer he mentioned that you can not accurately represent the aboriginal culture if you do not represent the humor, "They love to laugh".
Unfortunately I do not know how widespread of a release the film will get, but if you find the chance to see the film, don't pass it up.
*** and a half stars for the film and the documentary.
This movie is generally regarded as a serious comedy. I would regard it is a highly serious movie with brief moments of humor. This doesn't take away anything from the film in my eyes, I would just caution that anyone preparing to watch this film expecting to laugh a lot might be in for a big surprise.
This film is about death, tragedy, and how our daily lives seemed to be filled with it. If you have ever heard anyone say they don't like to read or watch or the news because its too depressing, well this whole film dwells upon this type of subject matter. A man gets run over by a train, another descovers his body is riddled by cancer, and another finds his on again off again girlfriend is pregnant.
Things are not exactly perfect in this world, yet it is not without its own moments of positive outlooks and hope. And it does take time to approach the humorous aspects of our own fear and paranoia associated with tragedy and death.
Creatively the film is quite unique. The main character Meryl has frequent 'daydreaming' moments that are depicted by artistic animations rather than live action sequences that are frequently used. This is nicely tied in by the fact that Meryl expresses herself artistically in real life as well.
An interesting side note to this film is that the director was diagnosed with breast cancer while making this film. To me this is remarkable and a testament to her dedication to the project. I do not think that I would have the fortitude to forge ahead on a project that essentially dealt with such a significant issue that I was facing simulataneously in real life.
Finally while the film is qutie serious, it is also not all doom and gloom, which often films succomb to in an effort to add dramatic weight to the piece. Overall a well done and enjoyable film.
Better than Sex, directed by Jonathon Teplitzky 2000.
Heed my words at your own cost. Here is a film that everyone in the room seemed to love except for me. Now don't get me wrong. It was entertaining, but it left me far from impressed and overall I found the film quite fleeting.
The premise of the film is that two people, Josh and Cin, meet at a party, take a cab home together, and then decide to have a one night stand that starts to lead to something more even though Josh is leaving in three days time.
While there are some clever moments and the cinematography is undeniably beautiful. The film, to me is ultimately hollow. There is an excessive amount of sex scenes between the two of them and the script itself is mostly non-existent. What dialogue does exist resides mainly in these quick cutting interludes where characters talk directly into the camera as if they are being interviewed. Think the segments with the various couples in When Harry Met Sally and you'll know exactly what I am talking about. The other revolves around a character, a taxi driver, that basically acts an omniscient voice to straighten Josh out and set him on the right path. It took me awhile to figure out what that reminded me off, but it strikes me as very similar to It Could Happen to You.
And that is generally what this movie boils down to for me. A collage of other movies but without any of its own creative twists. The characters are hollow and the events are cliche' .
Like I said the movie does have its own little charm, but I wouldn't rush out and pick it up.
The Castle, directed by Rob Stitch 1997.
The Castle reminded me of british shows like Fawlty Towers. I hestitate to write this, however, because I am not suggesting the two are similar. It's just that like shows such as Fawlty Towers, The Castle manages to perfectly capture the little quirks and nuances of a culture through clever humor and no budget.
The Castle follows the Kerrigan family who have a fabulous house on a prime piece of real estate....right next to the airport runway. The father Darryl is tow truck driver. His wife is 'amazing' at crafts and cooking. Their daughter Tracy is married to a greek Kung Fu specialist played by Eric Bana. As for their sons, Dale is the narrator and perhaps the most 'normal' of the family, Wayne is in prison, and Steve knows how to find a good bargain.
All is not well with the Kerrigan family as they are notified that the airport is seizing the property to expand and build a bigger runway. Daryl, of course, will have none of it and spends the rest of the movie fighting for his 'castle' and home through any means necessary.
What unfolds is like a wierd cross between The Beverly Hillbillies and My Cousin Vinny. While there are of course differences, you will find the similar dynamics of the country 'bumpkin' up against modern 'advanced' society. This clash is played for comedic effect and overall the film is highly successful in its goals.
If you want a good glimpse of Australian culture and humor, take a peek at The Castle.
Monday, June 12, 2006
Lantana, directed by Ray Lawrence 2001.
Lantana is a non-native plant in Australia that is considered one of the biggest nuisances the country has. Comprised of twisting vines and sharp thorns it is a menace to the natural fauna of Australia. This background information is good to keep in mind while watching Ray Lawrence's twisting, complex piece of film that is Lantana.
Lantana has an excellent cast of actors comprised of Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, and other famous australian actors such as Vince Colosimo. The story centers around two different couples and their struggles to maintane their marriages. LaPaglia's character Leon is having an affair with fellow dance student Jane. Meanwhile psychaitrist Dr. Valerie Somers(Barbara Hershey) is running into difficulties with a patient while her marriage to John(Rush) is running on fumes since the murder of their daughter two years previous to the events of the film. A distinct lack of trust is everywhere, and things darken noticeably when Valerie Somers disappears after her car breaks down one evening.
On one level Lantana is another murder/suspense film filled with accusations, misleading clues, and repeated dead-ends. On another level, and the main reason I found this film enjoyable, the film is about the levels of dishonesty in current society and what that has done to us and to our communities.
I was prepared to hate this movie, because I felt it was going to be extremely predictable, yet as each moment reached it's point of revelation, I was continually surpised by the result. Slowly the each unfolding event won me over, untily by the end, I found myself appreciating the film as much as I was prepared to hate it just an hour or so earlier. I felt that it was a particularly nice touch that the resolution of the main plot, intially seems closed and complete, but upon consideration you find yourself becoming as distrusting as the characters in the film.
Compared to Ray Lawrence's earlier film Bliss, it interesting to see the progression Lawrence's look on marriage and urban life has taken. Bliss had some harsh commentary to make on these subjects, but it ended on an upbeat and hopeful note. Lantana has shed any pretenses of hope, and any conclusion presented in the film that might be considered hopeful is colored in the possibility of the deception that has run rampant through the rest of the film.
Alvin Purple, directed by Tim Burstall 1973.
My review for Alvin Purple is quite simple. Its hilarious, see it. Hmm, not good enough? Perhaps a little more detail is in order.
The premise for the film is simple. Poor Alvin finds himself in the absolutely difficult position of woman finding him completely irresistable, so while woman throw themselves at him left and right he struggles to achieve a commited relationship with the one woman he loves.
This film basically has everything in it: witty lines, sex, car chases, sky diving, a comical court sequence, and any other general chaotic fun you can think of. The easiest way for me to describe it is What's New Pussycat except much raunchier. So if you are offended by an abundance of nudity (this includes not only the woman but Alvin as well) you would be best served to stay away.
However, if you are simply looking a silly movie that fits nicely in with the likes of Animal House and other no-holds-barred comedy and lunacy than definitely try to get your hands on a copy. If you're looking for high-brow piece of film, than you couldn't be any further off. As such, as much as I laughed and loved this film, I can't give it a great rating since it is not what I would term a 'great film'....
** Two stars, (4****for entertainment)
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
Candy. Directed by Neil Armfield, 2006.
I'm really not sure where to begin this review. I guess I would start by saying that as far as I can recall no movie has ever made me more angry than this one. I walked out of the theater the second the credits started to roll, absolutely fuming. I needed to blow off steam before rejoining the rest of the group as they left the cinema.
Starring Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish, Candy is a film about a love triangle. The love between Candy, Dan, and the love both share for heroin. The film alternates between the two of them having sex and the two of them shooting up. As the film goes on the sex between them becomes less, and the amount of time they spend hopped up on heroin goes up....which is a real shame for Heath because Abbie Cornish is gorgeous.....and that brings me to the first of many issues I had with this film.
No matter how much of a junkie Candy becomes, she never looks worse for wear beyond the minor bags under her eyes that most of us get from our daily lives. The entire experience is glamourized taking away any sense of impact the film struggles so hard to create. Heath at times looks horrendous, but even that lasts for only a shot or two, before there is a cut to a different angle where Heath looks perfectly fine again even though we are still witnessing the same scene, the same conversation.
That alone would not be enough to sink the movie, but it seems the director got so caught up in the physical aspects of Dan and Candy's relationship that he forgot to flesh the characters out beyond the most superficial of characters. Dan is the stereotypical slacker that Candy's father is of course decidedly skeptical about., "How is Dan going to provide for his daughter" is the number one concern on his mind. Candy is the perfect daughter who likes art. All she needed was a childhood passion for ponies and the stereotypical portrait would be complete.
We never get to see how the two meet. We don't even get to see what Candy ever found alluring about Dan in the first place. From the moment he first shows up on screen he is shooting up. There is the eventual revelation that Candy's relationship with her mother has in part driven her to the life she now finds herself living, but even that is barely touched on. Where that would have been an interesting path to delve into, Armfield seems to feel that the audience would be more interested in seeing Dan and Candy sink further into the clutches of drugs.
The result is that there is never anything to anchor either of these characters, leaving the audience hard pressed to find anything in either of them to indentify with or care about. The whole point of this type of tragedy is that in fact it is a tragedy. With Candy the only tragedy that is evident would be the fact that Candy spends less and less time on her art and more time doing drugs. By the last half hour of the film, I was begging for it be over because each successful scene simply made me despise each character exponentially more than I had a few minutes before.
With all this being said, this alone should not have caused me to be as upset as I was when I left the film. And I really had to consider why I had such a personally strong reaction to this movie. What I can come up with is that I have witnessed friends who have completely destroyed their lives through drugs and it is a deeply tragic and saddening thing to see. I don't feel that Candy really got this; instead, I feel Candy is a film that is simply trying to exploit the previous success of films in the 'drug' genre. Candy is quite derivative of films such as Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream, but where those films had a soul and held nothing back in showing the truly ugly nature of chronic drug use, Candy simply felt like a film that was made with no true interest in the subject matter and all the interest in filling seats at your local theater.
The Tracker. Directed by Rolf de Heer, 2002
Rolf de Heer recently has made headlines with his film The Ten Canoes which won a special jury prize at the Canne Film Festival. While not well known outside Australia he has had a successful film career as an independent director, with 12 films in all.
The Tracker is an excellent film to begin exploring de Heer's work. Set somewhere in Australia in the 1920's the premise is three soldiers are pursuing an Aboriginal man who is accused of murdering a white woman. These three soldiers have employed the services of an aboriginal tracker played by David Gulpilil.
As this group pursues their target across the outback, de Heer uses their journey to explore the saddening relationship between whites and the aboriginal people, but also the difficult situations that at times pit the aboriginal peoples against each other.
There is one particularly moving scene where David Gulpilil's character stands and watches as the soldiers brutally mistreat a group of aboriginal people simply because one of them was wearing an Australian soldier's jacket. The pain is evident in Gulpilil's eyes as he silently returns the looks of these people who are summarily executed at point blank range.
Playing on the now abandoned concept that the aboriginal people are savages at best, de Heer's expert direction slowly turns the tables to reveal that the tracker is more civilized and humane than any of the soldiers in the group.
It is easy to assume that because something is different than what you are used too that it must be inferior. Their is that tendency to think our way is best. In this regard it is amazing to me the distinct parallel's between Australian and American history. The locations and the people may be different but our treatment of Native Americans is no different, and perhaps even worse, than what was done to the aboriginal people of Australia.
While the subject matter is serious it is not without its moments of surprisingly light hearted humor. Add that too the fact that the cinematography alone makes the film worth watching and I'm hard pressed to find anything to really critisize in this film. However, if there was anything to take issue with it would be the music.
While overall the soundtrack is excellent, I found it at times a little bit to over the top. de Heer does such an excellent job showing you what is going on emotionally within and between the characters in the film, the music lack of subtlety sometimes took away from what was otherwise beautifully intense moments.
While intensely Australian in subject matter, there is a stark universality to its themes. Themes that many of us do not like to confront, and should therefore be considered all the more.
Friday, June 02, 2006
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Peter Weir, 1975
Considered a turning point in Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock trumpeted the return of Australian cinema after over 20 years of silence.
This film was not Weir's first feature length. The previous year Weir managed to get his film, The Cars That Ate Paris, into the Canne film festival. However, unlike The Cars That Ate Paris, Picnic at Hanging Rock managed to garner respectable success internationally and signalled the beginning of a highly successful directorial career for Peter Weir. That being said, Picnic at Hanging Rock is a film that is rife with problems.
The basic premise of the story is that three girls from Appleyard college and one teacher disappear while enjoying a picnic at Hanging rock. What starts off as cliche seventies horror film spirals off into the slow deteriating effect that this disappearance has on the college and the surrounding community.
A serious consideration in Australian culture has been their close relationship with Britain, stemming from their foundations as a convict colony and following years of being under the mantle of British colonialism. This takes the form of both the ridiculous British facade that is on display at Appleby college, and the wealthy British family that lives nearby complete with the mandatory British spectacled "nincompoop". With the disappearance of the girls this facade of a British upperclass lifestyle slowly but surely crumbles under the unrelating force of their natural surroundings.
The problem is Weir loses focus during the film, and it becomes a meandering mess that can be at times extremely trying to get through. I got the distinct impression that Weir had watched Kubrick's seminal Barry Lyndon several times before embarking on this project. In his own way, Weir manipulated the pacing of the film to try and emulate a more naturalistic movement and lifestyle much in the way Kubrick perfected in his own film. To carry it even further, not unlike how Kubrick had special lenses developed for Barry Lyndon, Weir's cinematographer used stockings stretched over the lense to achieve a particulary soft lighting and texture to the film. However, while Kubrick was able to achieve a visual style that came across astoundingly naturalistic, Weir's film simply cries out that it is trying to hard to be an "Art" film.
Considering the history of the Australian film industry, it is not surprising that Weir tried to hard to impress upon the international community that his film was to be taken seriously, but that however does not change the fact that Picnic at Hanging Rock falls far short of some the classic films Weir would later go on to make like Witness and Dead Poet's Society.
** Two Stars
Thursday, June 01, 2006
Bliss by Ray Lawrence, 1985 (Director's Cut)
Greeted with a mass walkout at the Canne Film Festival Bliss is a film that proves the pundits at Canne don't always get it right. Often critized for being too long and overly ambitous Bliss can be a bit much to take in if you decide to watch this film at the wrong time. I, however, don't feel this is a negative thing by any means. For example I love The Thin Red Line but I invariably fall asleep if I try to watch it late in the evening.
Coming in at just over 2 hours, the director's cut of Bliss is a sprawling introspective look sociopolitical issues that are still relevant in Australia today. This introspection is played out through a cast of quirky characters and quirky local Australian humor.
The story centers around Harry Joy (Barry Otto), a highly successful man who works in advertising and loves to tell a good story. Almost immediately Harry Joy dies, for four minutes that is, until he is revived. His revival sparks a journey that leads him to believe that he is at turns mad or in hell. Ultimately he realizes he is neither and goes through a transformation of a deeply personal nature.
In some ways I was reminded of Big Fish when I watched this fim. But where Big Fish chose to deal simply with the relationship between father and son, Bliss chooses to shoot for something much bigger in scope. It considers modern urban life and what consequences that brings to our society. Cancer is a major thematic point in the film, and one does not need to be a resident of Australia to realize the cancer maps that insurance companies use are just as prevelant in the United States. Other themes involve personal demonization in the pursuit of money, "In the end, what else is there." and the more complex dynamics of the modern family.
Juxtaposing Harry Joy's utterly corrupt family and hollow relationship between him and his equally hollow wife with the simplistic relationship Harry Joy discovers with Honey Barbara the film also delves into the dynamics of human relationships and what is lost is the hustle of modern life.
Admittedly these are themes that have been explored before in cinema, but it is the uniquely Australian flavor that makes the film particularly interesting. Similar themes are covered, but are looked at in a uniquely different light.
If I had any complaints about the film, it would be that there was a little too much voice over narration for my taste, but all in all that is a minor complaint to have.