So it’s a little later than I had hoped, but episode 2 of the Beermovie Podcast is finally here. I think it is a pretty good chat, so hopefully it is worth the wait.
For this episode I am joined by Briony Kidd, who co-founded and programs the excellent Stranger With My Face horror film festival. As well as that, Briony is also a writer, director and screenwriting teacher amongst a bunch of other things. We have a great chat about all of Briony’s work and finish it off by talking about Allison Anders’ pretty incredible film Grace of My Heart (1996).
Amongst a bunch of random diversions, we manage to cover off on:
0.00 – Introduction & slightly random question, where should we find our next female directed Aussie horror fix
3.40 – Genre distribution in Australia
8.35 – The Stranger With My Face film festival
24.34 – Horror and feminism
31.55 – The difficulties of horror comedies
33.34 – Writing for screen & stage and the art of writing independently
42.14 – Alison Anders’ Grace of My Heart
Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: The Beermovie Podcast Ep 1: Paul Anthony Nelson and Ed Wood and Forgotten Filmcast Episode 22 (featuring me).
John Carpenter is one of the great genre filmmakers of all time with The Thing (1982) sitting alongside Halloween (1978), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Escape from New York (1981) and a bunch of others in his filmography. It is such a shame that he is not really working and as someone called for on Twitter we need a studio to give him a fat wad of money so he can pull a George Miller for us.
The set-up for The Thing is close to classic sci-fi 101, but in no bad way. Kurt Russel with one of cinema’s all time great beards and some other dudes are working in the harsh brutal isolation of the Arctic. Some ancient aliens get dug out of the ice and before you know it people are turning into slathering sorta alien things. But in the Animorphs/Body Snatcher style way where, at least initially, they look totally human. The plot is the classic sci-fi ‘aliens walk among us’ filtered through a proto-slasher structure. It trades nicely in that classical paranoia of who is human, and who is compromised. The lack of trust just totally eats away at people, all the while the audience is straining to guess who will be the next to die or to turn into some slathering bloody semi-human contraption. The opening shots, panning across the ice, establish the dual isolation and claustrophobia of the Arctic setting. As does a humourous early interaction between Russel’s R.J. Macready and a chess computer he derides as a “cheating bitch”. It’s a light and funny moment but it also captures the mental strain of where these men are working. The film does have some issues story-wise. The big bad is never established as well as it should have been and at one point the story seems to devolve into blokes just blowing shit up. However despite not possessing anything approaching the best horror narrative or even delivering the best horror ‘experience’, the film is still deserving of classic status, because the bits that are good are just so damn good.
Two technical aspects of the film elevate The Thing from assured genre film into the realm of classic – the practical effects by and Ennio Morricone’s work on the soundtrack. My notes for the film summed up this shift, with this extract capturing it: “oh yeah, once those effects started flying about, this got kinda awesome”. It did and it pretty much continues for the rest of the film. Indeed prior to the effects work raising up the film, it had been struggling to totally enrapture me. I was being kept at arm’s length by the assured, cool scientific feel to the story and script. The effects here are probably the best practical effects ever onscreen. But if not, then they are certainly the grossest, and yep I’m including The Fly (1986) in that discussion. My mouth literally dropped on a number of occasions, with moments like the autopsy scene or the dog metamorphosis being totally repulsive artistry. The effects are legitimately terrifying, even to this day. This is both on a visceral, gross level but also on an existential, body snatchin’, being absorbed level. As for the soundtrack, as great as Morricone is, I was a little bummed initially when I saw that he, and not Carpenter, was on scoring duties. I needn’t have worried though, because just as with the effects, Morricone’s work is quite simply about as good as it gets. From the very get-go the iconic composer brings gnarly atmospherics, plunging you into the isolated arctic freeze. The result of his score is that everything onscreen is amplified, the isolation or the visual beastly horror for example, without unnecessarily diverting the attention from the imagery at hand.
Verdict: At times The Thing plays like an effects highlight reel scored by Ennio Morricone. Even just by itself that is no bad thing whatsoever, but throw in a little of Carpenter’s expert genre chops and Kurt Russel action leading man presence and beard, and you can easily see why this film is one of the 80s most beloved. A really fun genre experience. Pint of Kilkenny
Related beermovie.net articles for you to check out: Halloween Special: Halloween and A Fortnight of Terror Guest Post: The Evil Dead vs. The Thing.
Viewing (and writing) for June was dominated by the weekend dash to the Sydney Film Festival. Despite that, and a busy day job/personal schedule (hence this being so late into July), I still managed to cram a reasonable amount into the month, especially on the TV front. It was a pretty good one quality-wise too, with only a couple of minor duds. Share your thoughts below on these ones.
- The Mule (2014), Tony Mahony & Angus Sampson – Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson write and star in this pretty surprising film. Surprising in the sense that my expectations were low for a film basically about a guy who can’t take a dump. It was sold that way, but the reality is that this is a really cleverly written and well acted crime film. An 80s period piece in which the drama is convincing and, with a few gross exceptions, the humour wry. Worth it just for Whannell, Sampson, Hugo Weaving and Noni Hazelhurst’s performances.
- Whiplash (2014). Damien Chazelle – This is all about the sound. Music shot like a thriller, jazz heavy soundtrack used in a major way, sound design that pops and rehearsals edited to feel like big sporting matches. It is prettily shot and constructed, even if the central conflict is perhaps not enchanting enough to carry the entire film. The film loses its kinetic freneticism for much of the third act too. J.K. Simmons is as good as advertised though and the thematic interest in the notion of artistic perfection, and the contrasting ways to get there is really well drawn.
- Esio Trot (2014), Dearbhla Walsh – This is a breezy, sharp adaptation of one of Roald Dahl’s lesser known, but most charming works that nicely emphasises his more absurd tendencies. The narration could be a lazy approach, but James Corden brings a fair bit of charisma to it. There is nothing too substantial here, but it’s hard to go wrong with a light, sweetly romantic tale starring Dustin Hoffman and Judy Dench.
- Killer’s Kiss (1955), Stanley Kubrick – Super early Kubrick is pretty creative noir focusing on a down and out boxer. Feels very hardboiled, both in look, dialogue and voiceover. It’s structurally funky with a good score too. The shooting is fun as well, first person shots and creative close-ups peppered throughout. A small feeling story that builds both its sense of dread and societal commentary (on rape culture no less) really well.
- Jurassic World (2015), Colin Trevorrow – The original film was a formative movie experience for me. This is a massively flawed effort, but it invokes the original enough to get a pass. Basically just anytime there are massive dinosaurs running rampant to a really good score, I’m on board. Anything else is pretty much rubbish. Pratt’s character is written to suck out basically all of his natural charisma, the story is overly complex with a woeful militarisation subplot, the character building throughout is super weak and the gender politics are bad. But did I mention dinosaurs? They look great and chomp numerous things. When they’re onscreen, this is pure joy. The rest is a poor man’s Spielberg homage.
- Dinosaur 13 (2014), Todd Douglas Miller – Another to feed my inner dinosaur nerd. Starts nicely with the beauty of the surrounds and the scarcity of T-Rex skeletons. Flips to an incredibly emotional tale of the government essentially stealing one of the greatest paleontological finds in history. Some of the interviews are really striking in their emotion. Initially the film reaches for a grand government conspiracy. But it actually finds it in the end. Really well edited, with a score that is surprisingly effective for a doco.
- Friday Night Lights Season 1 (2006), Peter Berg – The concept of high school sports, with the vibe of the whole town so wrapped up in how the team performs, is so foreign to someone from Australia. But this is a supremely well written soapy. At times the game is barely a focus, but the matches are shot really well. You can almost feel the physicality as the camera places you at ground level. The characters are rewardingly written and there’s a great portrait of a marriage at the centre. Kyle Chandler, Connie Britten, Zach Gilford and Taylor Kitsch provide the best of the performances. It’s all very silly and melodramatic, wearing its overt sentimentality on its sleeve. But damn it’s good at it.
- Orphan Black Season 3 (2015), Graeme Manson & John Fawcett – This season feels like it dials everything up –tension and narrative complexity in particular. The dense plotting is hard to follow. Or perhaps it’s because it’s been so long since I watched a show in the traditional manner of an episode a week. But it doesn’t detract from this being really watchable sci-fi, due in large part to Tatiana Maslany giving five or so of the best performances currently on TV. Very little downtime, they really ramp shit up here. I’m talking fingers in wounds, digging up baby corpses and exposed brains. Some really cool and violent action beats too.
Not Worth Watching:
- Friday Night Lights Season 2 (2007), Peter Berg – Starts off with one of the worst episodes of TV I’ve ever sat through. Basically trashes everything you loved in the first season and then goes with a huge plot point that does not jive with the show’s vibe. Overblown drama not fitting the tenor of the show. There’s some decent stuff throughout – Landry & Tyra’s relationship and Kitsch’s good performance as Tim Riggins, a character with a great arc. But the bad outweighs the good. Show just randomly forgets characters entirely, with no resolution. Which is apt in a way because that’s how this season ends, with the writer’s strike just stopping it abruptly. Daft.
- Camp X-Ray (2014), Peter Sattler – Starts promisingly. Silent impactful shot of a burning twin tower, quickly plunging us straight into Gitmo. But from there, the film cannot overcome the cloying premise– Kirsten Stewart’s rookie guard befriending an inmate. The script is clunky and the illogicalities in process & procedure distractingly huge. Stewart’s performance is excellent, she feels more genuine that on occasions. The film also does a good job of establishing the daily grind of working life at Guantanamo. But these good elements are undercut by the poor story.
If you only have time to watch one Friday Night Lights Season 1
Avoid at all costs Friday Night Lights Season 2
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) got an interesting reception at the Sydney Film Festival. The crowd around me were rapturous. Tears flowed and raucous laughter was commonplace. So it was not surprise that the film took out the audience award. But amongst some of the more ‘hardcore’ festival attendees, the film was pretty much dismissed as a poorly written hipster piece.
Whilst I really like the film, I can respect the latter point of view. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl did not particularly feel like a ‘festival’ film, particularly not a competition entrant, lacking the requisite toying with the form or serious exploration of theme that one expects. There is also little doubt that some aspects of the film scream indie charmer 101, especially early on. A voiceover, some claymation touches and Be Kind Rewind (2008) style remakes make the early sequences overly contrived. But the film quickly settles in and for the most part feels a lot less cloying. The film focuses on Greg and his friendship with the titular dying girl, Rachel. Greg’s mum (played by Connie Britten one half of the greatest cast parents in film history alongside Nick Offerman) forces Greg to reach out when Rachel contracts cancer. Their forced alliance gradually gives way to genuine friendship as Greg manages to provide Rachel with exactly what she needs. Earl is the main supporting character, played by RJ Cyler. Earl is Greg’s best mate who assists him to make a series of comedic, very low budget home movie remakes of arthouse classics. Perhaps more than anything it is this succession of amusingly titled remakes that make the film a good fit for the festival, putting the film’s love of cinema front and centre. The film was also a good fit for the 9:30am timeslot I saw it in. It is uproariously hilarious as well as emotionally resonant. The energy, whilst it shifted, was always there. Helped along by a score which I really dug, that turned out to be from the rather unlikely source of Brian Eno!
The film tells two stories, though both of them are from Greg’s point of view. The first is basically a teen film with him as the protagonist. He goes about trying to remain invisible and just survive the torrid high school years, whilst also attempting not to be too much of a self-centred asshole along the way. The second story is that of Rachel’s battle against illness, which contains the real emotional heart of the film, though still always seen from Greg’s perspective. Greg is a very sharply written character, the script and Thomas Mann’s performance combining to really nail the awkward jokiness of a teenager. The whole film is really well performed. The potential of Britten and Offerman as a couple is wasted a little, but they both do predictably very well with what they have. Cyler is really hilarious as Earl, one of the better best friend sidekicks for a while. But the real star is Olivia Cooke as Rachel. Hers is a really genuine performance, especially in the big emotional moments. Whilst the script occasionally veers toward the manipulative, the performance never feels that way and she is the real heart of the film. The plot suffers when her character disappears for a stretch through the middle of the film, which is one of the few failings of the script. Actually the script also delivered my major issue with the film. I can’t go into specifics without giving away spoilers (can discuss in the comments if you’ve seen the film) but basically I think the script betrays the audience in a very major way. In the immediate aftermath of seeing the film, it actually kind of ruined the experience for me, though that has faded quite a bit and I reflect a lot more positively now.
Verdict: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the kind of film to see in a big crowd. Get swept up in the love of cinema it has and the feelings it draws out of people. Occasionally its indie charm crosses over into insincerity, but when avoiding that the film is a real joy. Pint of Kilkenny
These are the Rules (2014) is a film that was not on my radar heading into the Festival. It just so happened that I had an unexpected gap in my schedule and decided to add another film in… I probably should have just gone and had a couple of beers to be quite honest.
There is some initial promise as the film sets up its drab, washed out cityscape, all urban sprawl painted in greys. However after the film establishes this nice sense of place, it quickly gives way to a boring few rooms where the action takes place, discarding the cityscape. The film does succeed in painting that overt suburban aspect though. Familial dramas that escalate as the film progresses, at least somewhat. The script lumbers along though, not always feeling real to life, which you suspect is much of the point. Plot wise, the film focuses on a family, a teen returns home after a night out having been bashed. As his condition worsens, his parents attempt to ascertain exactly what happened to him, and to get some people to care about it. It is from this perspective that the film does make some interesting societal points. In particular Croatian bureaucratic institutions – ambulance, police and hospital – are derided in a somewhat effective way.
Stylistically the film is naturalistic on a number of levels. It is shot simply and competently, though it never makes you feel like you are watching something any more cinematic than a run of the mill TV drama. The acting is similarly understated but at least on this front that assists the film meet its goals. In particular the Peter Lorre lookalike Emir Hadzihafizbegovic as a concerned father is very good, managing to convey the emotional torment he is suffering through relatively well. There is a weight hanging over the film, the whole thing has a sad atmosphere to it. Which is in and of itself not a criticism but it never feels meaningful under that weight, not helped by the fact the film is totally humourless. Overall any impact the film manages to have simply comes from that inherent in the situation being depicted. Not the skill of the filmmaking or storytelling.
Verdict: Ultimately, These are the Rules is nothing more than a slow domestic drama, heavy on the domestic and low on the drama. Feels like a million other films you’ve seen before at a film festival and I was simply not at all fussed by the whole thing. Bland. Schooner of Carlton Draught
Director Josh Oppenheimer burst on the scene with The Act of Killing (2012) a devastating and creative documentary that challenged a lot of notions about objectivity in the doco space. Now he returns with The Look of Silence (2014) continuing his cinematic exploration of the horrific and under-told story of the Indonesian genocide.
The Look of Silence, at least on a surface level, takes a more conventional approach to exposing these dark chapters of Indonesia’s past. Oppenheimer focuses on Adi, an optometrist whose brother was murdered during the genocide. Oppenheimer and Adi meet the men who killed his brother and follow the leads up the chain of command. Adi is an incredible character, retaining a quiet resoluteness in the face of revelations that would break pretty much all of us. Adi’s silent stoicism, oozing grace and strength, contrasts starkly with the murderers he confronts. They bluster, trying to intimidate him with swagger and bravado, but in doing so they merely reveal the depths of their cowardice. When he refuses to run away scared, they basically shit themselves, unable to own the sins they committed.
It is interesting to consider the film in relation to how it interacts with the first one. It is focussed on the same genocide and in similarly graphic detail on specific murders. It also retains the horrifying absurdity of the earlier film. Though this time that absurdity comes not from the challengingly playful style of The Act of Killing, but simply thorough the horrific callousness and overwhelming meaninglessness of the crimes. There is something almost muscular about this film and perhaps the most powerful moment of all comes in the closing credits. Just like in The Act of Killing, they are peppered with numerous appearances of ‘Anonymous’ throughout the crew. It speaks to how suppressed and systematically frowned upon any truthful discussion of the genocide remains in Indonesia remains some 60 years after the events took place.
Another exhibition of the pervasiveness of the official narrative comes when Adi lays down a ‘people’s history’ for his son. He subverts the official narrative and you can almost pinpoint the exact moment the little kid’s mind is blown. It feels almost like the moment you found out Santa Claus is not real (spoiler alert), but just on a much more important and weighty matter. This is one of many moments that make The Look of Silence a much more personal film than its predecessor. Much of this is down to the fact that the film focuses so heavily on Adi and the murder of his brother. It is a much more comfortable in for the audience. It is easier to identify with a man who has lost his brother compared to a mass murderer (though I acknowledge we are in no way meant to sympathise with Anwar and co in the first film).
What sets Oppenheimer apart from mere mortal documentarians is his power as a storyteller. He is able to see the facts, see the injustices. But he does not simply put them on screen, he creatively interrogates them and brings out specific points for the audience to be shocked and challenged by. In this film, the themes of violence, the dangers of the concentration of power are greatly enhanced by his phenomenal storytelling nous. It is that skill which allows him to make universal points out of very specific incidents. Not sure that anyone has ever captured pure evil onscreen quite like him, at least not in a very long time.
Verdict: The Look of Silence is the best film I saw at SFF and it is not even a close race. It is a great film, probably the best I have seen yet this year. An incredible companion piece to The Act of Killing, different and yet equally as good. Perhaps even better. This is a film that will affect you in a borderline physical manner. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter