Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979) is based on the iconic Australian novel of the same name written by Miles Franklin in 1901. It is one of those books that you are forced to read for school or uni that you dread, but then end up really quite liking (well at least that’s what happened for me).
This film adaptation may be one of the best reflections of a literary character onscreen that I have come across. The film, like the book, immediately inserts the writer into the action. The film is a character study, never wavering from the focus on Judy Davis’ Sybylla Melvyn, who may literally be in every single scene of the film. Both the writing and the performance of this character beautifully capture her sass and aspirational nature, as well as the rebellious streak and “illusions of grandeur” that she holds as dear to her as any other aspect of her personality. Some of this sounds cliché, but this is a rare idealist character that does not exist solely based on shallow braggartism. Rather that is balanced, undermined and heightened by the really well drawn element of insecurity and uncertainty of a person that age. Sybylla herself refers to herself as a “misfit and a larrikin”, her persona as an artistic dreamer content in her own world, never overwhelms her with an unnecessary self-seriousness. The film is certainly not plot-dense or dripping with incidence. It does have a perfunctory love story going on as well. Perfunctory in the sense that it really exists only to better illuminate the main character and what is most important to her. But it does that very well and the line of “I’m so near loving you … but I’d destroy you” perfectly captures the journey of the character, her coming to realise her shortcomings and how to best interact with those around her. Something she has been experimenting with and often failing at, throughout the film.
The performance of a very young, almost unrecognisable, Judy Davis is essential to the main character and by extension the film. There is a twinkle in her eye that so perfectly reflects how readers would have imagined the character and a cheek to her line delivery that charms no matter what she is saying or how she is behaving. In comparison, everyone else in the film exists solely to be acted upon by Sybylla, to bask in that force of nature. So the good performances of folks such as Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes and Robert Grubb are a little overwhelmed by the central character.
Thematically My Brilliant Career is a distinctly feminist film. Sybylla has a sense of social justice that she is not afraid to share with anyone around her. Perhaps even more than gender though the film is concerned with classism. Sybylla is righteous about the poor and their importance to society. This extends to an exploration of unnecessary class structures and high vs low culture, in particular the stuffiness of the former versus the ingenuity of the latter. Like everything, the thematic exploration serves to embellish the character of Sybylla, to tell the audience something new and interesting about her.
Verdict: My Brilliant Career really is a genuinely exceptional character piece. Sybylla is such a fleshed out and genuine character, whose journey is supported and reflected by a quite decent love story underneath. Pint of Kilkenny
You know I always claim that there are no bad years in film. But I’m beginning to think 2016 may be the year that changes all of that. Again in April there were a couple of critically lauded new releases that I just did not think much of. It was a mixed month overall actually, with nothing reaching great heights, though I did discover some lesser known gems from favourite directors.
- Swamp Thing (1982), Wes Craven – From the outset, feels like a southern bayou set 60s B-movie. Everything contributes to that end – swish pan heavy editing, grouse practical effects, action that looks like it’s from The Power Rangers, schlocky dialogue, POV shots. I love the style of it all, the shooting approach is really varied. Enjoyment of the film does require an acceptance that it’s being deliberately schlocky. And also that this is not Craven’s usual horror fare, but rather a comedy-fantasy hybrid. It’s a totally strange film. A former Bond villain appears, essentially playing a Bond villain. It veers into a pretty philosophical closing section. A fever dream of a film.
- Secret Agent (1936), Alfred Hitchcock– ever wanted to know what a low-budget, Hitchcock James Bond film would look like? This provides the answer. High espionage, faked deaths and all. All those espionage moments are the highlights too as the character beats are not the best. But as with all Hitch films, there are some great stylistic flourishes. Close-ups of mouths, talking into ears, bold & aggressive sound design I like this a lot and it grows on you. Peter Lorre’s performance gains more subtly as the film progresses. Classic Hitchcock themes prevail as well.
- Please Give (2010), Nicole Holofcener – Mr Noah Baumbach seems to have made the privileged ‘New Yorker whining’ subgenre rather popular. This is probably my favourite of those kind of films, which I generally have derision for. It is helped by an excellent cast. Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet reminds you she should be in more, Catherine Keener is excellent in a tough role whilst Oliver Platt is just so damn talented. There is some tiresome dialogue, but it is balanced by other parts which are really sharp. Characters start out as caricatures and I guess they kind of are. But they develop to an extent and the film says some interesting enough things with them. It’s not the most exciting film, more observational than narrative driven. But the cast makes it worth your while.
- A Thousand Acres (1997), Jocelyn Moorhouse – There are some very old fashioned feeling elements – Midwest farming imagery, awful voiceover, motivations so patriarchal they struggle to be believable. But under that surface there is some interesting stuff bubbling away. The film gets a lot darker than I was expecting. The intrigue of the relationships develops nicely which is the main area that the Shakespearean source material comes through, along with the melodramatic moments. So too in scenes where the action and atmosphere is really ramped up – an extended storm sequence especially. Jessica Lange is exceptional as a survivor of sexual abuse, her crushing recollections will make your skin crawl. Pfeiffer is great too. A real shaggy dog of a film.
- In A World (2013), Lake Bell – Takes place in a very niche world – film trailer voiceover work, which gives the background to the occurrences a unique feeling. Great cast. Nick Offerman, Demetri Martin and Bell are all great while Rob Cordry dials his usual schtick down in an interesting, successful way. It’s fun and smart, and Lake Bell is clearly a very talented writer and director, in particular the former. There are some really powerfully written moments, especially in the subplot focusing on the marriage between Cordry and Michaela Watkins. Balances dialogue and narrative well. Also shows that Bell is equally adept at writing genuine laugh out loud comedy and meaningful drama. It’s a really nice film and the later plot developments make it one of the better rom-coms I’ve seen in a while.
- Scrotal Recall (2014), Tom Edge – Has a lo-fi feel to it. Hops straight into the framework of the series, which involves a bloke diagnosed with a STD tracking down former flames to inform them. It also, really satisfyingly, weaves in a broader story. This is a fun, really well written show. I found the male lead a little lacking in charisma. But the two other main performances are really excellent. It’s a decently diverse show that sets up the broader emotional stakes really well. They totally crush the last episode too. One of the best pieces of TV I’ve seen in a long time. Certainly was not expecting to shed tears watching a show with this title.
- The Boss (2016), Ben Falcone – On the surface barely noteworthy. It’s only an ok script and the filmmaking is stock standard. But McCarthy is the best cinematic comedian going and she is wonderful as always. Her and Kirsten Bell work really well together and the supports are all quite excellent. Noticeable too that there are barely any dudes in this film which is great. Has some things to say about the selfishness of wealth and showcases some character types that feel new. But most importantly it’s just a really funny comedy.
- Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015), Christopher Landon – This is patchy, as so many horror-comedy films are. There are some fantastically bloody, practical zombie effects. At times laugh out loud funny in either an absurd, or more commonly, crass way. Conforms to a pretty standard teen film template actually. Despite digging the gore, the horror elements are the weakest aspect of the film, in part due to the total lack of mythos.
- Escape from L.A. (1996), John Carpenter – It has some great, simple sci-fi worldbuilding and also a really interesting conclusion that plays into that genre. In the middle is an oh so 90s action flick, but one starring Kurt Russel as one of cinema’s all-time great badasses and directed by an on form Carpenter. The effects veer wildly from those that hold up nicely to the laughably awful. Darkly prophetic of 2016 America – moral crimes, the outlawing of certain religions and voluntary executions. It’s episodic, but full of interesting story choices, like Plissken’s fame preceding him.
Not Worth Watching
- The Ward (2010), John Carpenter – Has a real Horror 101 feel to it. Group of disturbed women in a psychiatric hospital, flickering lights etc. It’s not all bad, but it certainly mostly is. Amber Heard is not the worst, it at some point conveys the fear of unknown of someone in an institution and it looks cool on occasion. But the writing really does not evoke the 60s setting and it has a very cheap feel to it. Certainly lesser Carpenter, with his jump scares and ghostly imagery not having any fright factor to them at all. They fall very flat. I also have a broader issue with the use of electroshock therapy and the like in film’s set in these places, due to their troubling basis in fact. I think that takes the viewer out of the film rather than boosts the horror. Very predictable, derivative and lacking of weight of any kind.
- Lost in Translation (2003), Sofia Coppola – So much potential to examine a foreigner (or two), adrift in a place totally alien. I dunno though. Jokes about the the lengthiness of Japanese language just seen out of place in this kind of film. Actually the interaction with Japanese culture and society is rough throughout. Feel like Coppola has worked through a lot of these same themes later in her career in a much more interesting and succesful way. Though the low-key friendship between the leads is much more satisfying and nuanced than the rest of the film. Scarlett Johannsson is excellent though. She makes you buy into her lonely situation. Murray is good too, but it feels like he is acting in a much sillier film. The tone is all over the shop. Certainly a filmmaker still finding their way.
- The Jungle Book (2016), John Favreau – A real mixed back. It looks totally wondrous, the 3D is immersive and adds a lot. And I think that photorealistic animals not only look great here, but are a really exciting development for a number of reasons. It’s shot quite interestingly as well, though that is really only apparent early in the film and the score is great. But the story is anaemic. There is no epic scale to it and it just feels like a succession of beats being ticked off. The lead kid gives a really spirited performance. It is especially impressive given he’s surrounded by CGI. But the whole film is soulless, lacking any true heart.
- Mr Holmes (2015), Bill Condon – There are occasional moments of brilliance. Old Sherlock Holmes seeing the impact of the Hiroshma atomic blast cuts right through. Impactful. Especially so in light of the fact that this is a character who worships only logic. But moments of inspiration are too far in between, or this may even be the only one. This film is beyond quiet and reserved. So much so that it legitimately barely functiond in being a film. Though Holmes becoming senile is an interesting enough choice. And I’m sure there are themes to dig into. But I’m struggling to stay interested enough to care. Or perhaps it was just a mood thing. The stuff around ageing for example simply did not grab me.
- Captain America: Civil War (2016), The Russo Brothers – First things first, this is an Avengers film not a Captain America one. Seems trivial but speaks to issues around narrative identify I think. This is the film where Marvel’s storytelling approach finally ate itself. It is so totally bloated and none of it means a thing. Notion of a civil war is totally facile. No battle of ideals as there should be. Just an excuse to have a quip-laden 5 on 5 battle that goes on forever. Boseman’s Black Panther is a huge highlight though. If Marvel get out of Ryan Coogler’s way, they are going to crush that film.
If you only have time to watch one Scrotal Recall
Avoid at all costs The Ward
With minimal changes, Network (1976) could easily apply directly to today’s media landscape. It is shocking just how ahead of its time the film is. Or perhaps it is shocking just how little mainstream news media has evolved over the past 40 years
Network is straight satire, which is a hard genre to pull off. This is true of the film early on. It is a little disjointed, consisting solely of jokes and neglecting to craft any narrative to go along with them. The employees of the network in question have their heads so far up their arse that they basically miss the profession from the protagonist Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch) that he intends to kill himself on air. It’s a funny, but not exactly subtle setup, reminiscent of Wag the Dog (1997) in this and other ways. The jokes often feel too straightforward as does the satire that initially focuses mainly on examining the primacy of business over personal interests. You have to dig a little deeper for the clever satire, concerning the commercialisation of a revolutionary (or anything) that goes so far it eventually cannot be controlled. There are very occasional moments of personal warmth between the characters. However these mainly serve to highlight that the film is very cool and distant, lacking that personal connection or story. Overall it feels in a way that a first viewing of the film (which is what this was for me) is really just to familiarise yourself with the material. It is a truly weird film and I think further viewings will be required to absorb it properly.
Sidney Lumet is considered a master director, and he has a way of shooting films that captures the eye, even if what is being presented is mundane. Here he mixes things up, shooting conversations in a pretty standard way and letting the absurdity of the script grab the attention. But that is contrasted with some really creative cityscapes, canted angles and split screens in other moments. The acting is excellent throughout the film and helps to anchor a script that, whilst brilliant, is quite wild in its construction. Faye Dunaway is marvellous, impassioned and conveying the intelligence of her character. But it is Peter Finch who propels the film. His performance takes you on a surreal psychological journey from downtrodden browbeater to prophetic visionary. This character arc is simultaneously the strangest and most successful aspect of the film.
Verdict: Network is a much weirder film than its reputation would suggest. It is dark and cynical, feeling quite ahead of its time in that regard. Whilst it is a little hard to take it all in on first viewing, the film still works despite being devoid of drama. The work of Peter Finch as Howard Beale is probably worth checking this out for on its own. Also does anyone else feel like Anchorman 2 (2013) is essentially a remake of this film? Stubby of Reschs
Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012) is one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries of the last decade. It is certainly an experimental and quite dense experience. But, at least on first watch, there are some aspects certainly lacking.
Part of the issue with the film is that it is so small scale. What Polley is telling here is essentially a piece of family history. A moderately interesting one sure, but there are similar tales of family secrets in many many families I think. The emotional volume of the film never really reaches any great heights either. The director admits during the film that she started out making this piece just for herself. It shows too, with this feeling almost more like an academic self-reflection rather than a feature doco. This subject matter makes it difficult for the film to really differentiate itself and justify the investment. Much of what is going on is interesting. But it is far too slow in its delivery and too small scale. The film really struggles to exceed feeling like a pretty standard familial tale and I don’t think it ever achieves that. At least on a surface level, there is a big focus on memory, about the differing ways in which people recall the same bents. Similarly Polley reflects on the storytelling process occasionally, but this is not a focus throughout the entirety of the film.
It is easy to point out and discuss the fact that Stories We Tell is a film concerned with notions of storytelling and memory. But the thing is, I’m not so sure those things are really there. The ideas bookend the film, are more of a focus at either end. Through the middle though they seem to be less of a concern, with the film just focusing on a mildly interesting family story. One of the more interesting stylistic choices that Polley makes in the film is revealing the artifice of filmmaking. On occasion we see visible sound recording equipment or cameras, drawing attention to the fact that this is a story being crafted, not an immersive truth. Something borne out even further by a late ‘twist’ concerning some of the footage. The experimentation or toying with form is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film. It starts with the film’s opening stages, featuring talking heads with only first names provided, not context for who the person is or what perspective they are coming to their testimony from. Though whilst interesting, this affectation is unnecessarily oblique, making it too hard to discern the differing relationships.
Verdict: At some point in Stories We Tell, someone remarks that it’s “a great, great story”. Only I’m not so sure it actually is. It’s an ok film, with some interesting ideas around memory and storytelling philosophy that are not enough of a focus. Which serves to make this slow film even more frustrating. These issues are also only amplified by the fact that it is an exceptionally dense film to take in on first watch. Schooner of Carlton Draught