David Michod’s The Rover (2014) is a film that a lot of people are interested in. Opening over the next few weeks and currently being featured heavily at the Sydney International Film Festival, it is one of the top couple of most anticipated film releases out of this country for 2014. A major reason why people both here and abroad are keen to check the film out is that it is Michod’s first film since Animal Kingdom (2010), the Aussie gangster flick that was seen all around the world and re-launched the career of Jacki Weaver, which so far has gained her a couple of Oscar noms.
I was not totally enamoured with the rather distant first teaser for the film, but I am still very excited to check it out when it opens. I have avoided the second trailer, to try and minimise my knowledge of the film before I see it. However, I am a big fan of these couple of character posters that have been released. I really like the idea of having the same words applying to the close-up shot of both these pretty big name actors. Gives you a flavour of the plot without spoiling anything at all.
First up is Aussie favourite Guy Pearce, who returns to work with Michod after also being seen in Animal Kingdom.
Whatever you think of him, it is great for Michod and Australian film in general that someone with the profile of Robert Pattinson features in one of our features. This look is a long way from Twilight (2008).
Are you fans of these posters? Keen to check out Michod’s new film?
Filmmaker John Pilger is a very important Australian institution. The National Film and Sound Archive once again proved it is the same last week, when it hosted Pilger in Canberra for a screening of his latest film Utopia (2013).
Pilger, an incendiary expat, has been making films about the wrongs of this country, and many others, for around 35 years. I haven’t seen enough of them to say Utopia is the best or most important. But it is one of the best and definitely most important Australian films I have seen for quite some time. Australia has long been a deeply racist country and indeed nothing has changed. This racism manifests itself in many different ways. The horrific deaths in custody and police brutality (normalised and made easier by their new favourite toy the taser). The continued celebration of Australia Day on the offensive date of 26 January, when the British invaded this country (not to mention the widespread incomprehension of why this date is offensive). Also on a much more localised, personal level, the sharing of racist jokes and the like is still far too commonplace, again something only getting worse with the proliferation of social media.
The film opens with one of the all-time great fatcat scumbags of this country Lang Hancock waxing lyrical on what he terms “the Aborigine problem”. His solution is extermination, except for those who have assimilated and taken on ‘white’ values. Yes this is historic footage, but unfortunately the views that Hancock espouses are not too far removed from the views of many today. Before getting into his focus on the plight of Indigenous Australians in remote areas today, Pilger does a good job of sketching out the historical precursors. In particular the continual systematic reduction of Indigenous Australians to sub-human status and the forgotten history of extermination in our past, continued and exacerbated by the continual lack of acknowledgement of the Frontier Wars which were a feature of early European settlement. These wars claimed more indigenous lives in Australia than Native American ones were lost in North America, but which still have no place in our National War Memorial. The title of the film comes from a settlement named (ironically?) Utopia, which is statistically the least advantaged place in all of Australia. Pilger brings us images from Utopia and similar places that are repeated all over central and northern Australia. Remote communities that are neglected by authorities to the point that they are now pockets of third-world poverty in this very first-world country. These regions represent the spiritual and physical home of so many of Australia’s Indigenous population which is why it is imperative that those who wish to, should always be able to live there. Authorities must do more to ensure that this can take place in something other than squalor. Squalor that doctors in the film compare to 19th Century Dickensian England. Squalor that results in one-third of Indigenous Australians dying before the age of 45. Squalor that results in epidemic levels of trachoma, a disease which is entirely preventable and has been eradicated in every single other developed country in the world and of course amongst white Australians. What is termed “the punishing of the Indigenous different” in the film is not restricted to living conditions in remote areas. With around 3% indigenous population, the rate of indigenous incarceration in the country is startling. So much so that Western Australia has just built an Indigenous only prison. So much so that in some parts of the country, Indigenous incarceration rates are up to eight times greater than what they were in apartheid South Africa. As in America today, there are two sets of laws and law enforcement in our country.
Utopia also examines ‘The Intervention’ which was unleashed in 2007 by the conservative Howard government. This involved the use of our military to seize control of remote communities and their rights. It also involved the extraordinary step of Australia temporarily suspending the Racial Discrimination Act. There is only one reason that you suspend a Racial Discrimination Act and that is in order to do something racist. Howard and his cronies (chiefly Mal Brough) justified this by painting horror stories of child sexual abuse in these remote communities. The only problem is that these were based on a lie. A former worked in these remote communities appeared on the ABC Lateline program spinning these tales. As a matter of fact, he was no former worker in the community (he had never spent a night in the community he was apparently an expert in), but rather a worker in Brough’s Department. On another note, the silhouette that his shaded features on Lateline project is the spitting image of Freddy Krueger’s silhouette. Unfortunately apt.
One of the devices Pilger uses in the film is to compare the footage he shot of same of the same communities that he shot 28 years ago with that he shot in 2012. The contrast is startling, mainly because there is actually very little difference at all. The interviews that Pilger undertook with many of the politicians that oversaw much of this total lack of change, including Brough, Warwick Snowden and Kevin Rudd, are equally startling. Each of them bumbles through, in fear of Pilger’s questions. Not because of the interviewer’s aggression (though his questions are rightfully forceful) but because of the knowledge they all have that they did a great disservice to the country in their treatment of these issues, and their unwillingness to be brave enough to let that show.
Pilger’s focus in Utopia is to not to exhaustively detail the solutions that should be brought about by those in power in this country. As he so rightly pointed out during the Q & A, the solutions have been well known for decades, there is just a refusal to actively engage with the problem. The reasoning behind this is twofold. Firstly, with a racist electorate to placate, there is little political traction to be gained by investing time and resources into actually fixing the issues. Secondly, there is a focus on creating the utterly false perception that Australia is a poor country. We are a very rich country. Any country that can afford to sign a contract for $1.2 billion to jail and oppress people legally seeking asylum (as our Government did this past week) is in no way poor. Imagine the great work that could be done on the issues that Pilger presents for $1.2 billion (or for that matter, the work that could be done re-settling those fleeing oppression in their homelands in Australia).
I initially began this closing paragraph by stating Utopia was a film that all Australians must see. But I think it is important to say that this is a film that I would encourage every single one of you to see, no matter where you live. Australia is my country, but it is one with a shameful past and an equally shameful future. I hope that you can all manage to see this film to learn a little more about that.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Canberra folk, Utopia screens one more time at Arc Cinema at the National Film and Sound Archives on 16 March and also opened at Palace Electric Cinemas in New Acton today.
Ugh, it is so damn hot. This is the third or fourth day in a row over 40 degrees, which is just lame. I whine like this as a way of explaining why this post is a day or two later than I had hoped. I have just not felt like writing after a day at work, especially when our un-air conditioned home is so oppressively hot. I hope you are doing ok if you are in this kind of weather, or the opposite in that crazy cold. Stay safe in these extreme weather times.
Enough of that. Time to celebrate my favourite ten films of 2013. I thought it was a fantastic year of film and spent a huge amount of time narrowing this list down. The reason I expanded it from five to ten is because I have expanded the eligibility to straight to DVD films this year, because I have found that in Australia a lot of really fantastic films are skipping cinemas altogether. There are two films that did not see cinema release on the list and another few in the honourable mentions as well. I saw somewhere around 100-120 films eligible to make this list and there were plenty of crackers. Let’s get into it (once again, titles are hyperlinked if I wrote a full review).
Honourable Mentions: I loved so many films this year. I considered narrowing this list of mentions down. But stuff it, this is meant to be a celebration of film and I loved, loved, loved all of these.
It was a weak year for comedy and I thought The Heat was by far the best of them. Two sorta comedies that really did it for me were the highly original horror-comedy Grabbers and the brilliant coming of age ride The Way Way Back. In arthouse/indie style territory Mud, the beautiful The Loneliest Planet and (shame on me) The Counsellor all wowed me. Plenty of the big name dramas were powerful and engaging stuff including Zero Dark Thirty, Flight, Philomena, Cloud Atlas, Amour and Silver Linings Playbook which I much preferred to the average American Hustle. Whilst there were obvious disappointments, I thought that some of the big blockbusters were fantastic this year and am very surprised not one cracked my top ten. Star Trek into Darkness, Iron Man 3, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug were all a cracking good time on the big screen.
Probably the two strongest sectors of film for me this year were the doco and Australian film, and both feature films below. Other docos I really loved were Chasing Ice and the incredibly powerful West of Memphis about the denial of justice for the West Memphis Three. As an Australian I love to get you interested in the cinema of my own country and The Turning, Satellite Boy, The Great Gatsby (I don’t consider it Australian, but technically it is apparently) and 100 Bloody Acres are all films well and truly worth your time. Finally, a very special honourable mention to my clear number eleven film of the year, which dropped out at the last moment – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I think the most underrated film of the year too.
10. The Conjuring
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – James Wan is the best Australian director working today, no matter the genre. This is probably the scariest film I have ever seen and it kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time. Yeah it is similar to Wan’s Insidious. But it improves immeasurably on that film. I remember not even being able to watch the trailer of this when it showed at the cinema. And Wan has transferred that into an atmosphere which makes the film fist clenchingly terrifying. A masterful update of the old school haunted house flick from a very clever and creative director.
This Australian doco is one of the most affecting films I saw this year. It is simultaneously a portrait of the early (West) Australian hip-hop scene and also of a man facing his own mortality. You get intimate access as Hunter manages to grow and learn as a man, right to the end. But this is no whitewashed picture of a perfect guy. There is a frankness to the film and the depiction of its main subject that is pretty rare. You definitely don’t respect everything that he has done. The film though shows that even someone so imperfect (aren’t we all) can provide us with the template for approaching our whole life.
When I first saw Cuaron’s exceptional film, I thought it would probably end up my number one. This was no doubt the big screen cinema experience of the year. But so much of the film is caught up in the size of the screen, the quality of the sound and the 3D effects. I will never be able to replicate the experience in my home or even my mind. That is not a criticism at all, but it is perhaps why the film has not stayed with me as perhaps it could have. Sorry don’t mean to sound negative, this is such an amazing film, as you already know I would imagine. Visual splendour like you’ve never seen before and a lean narrative with an underrated human story.
You must see this film. A doco that shines a light on a totally neglected and heinous chapter in human history. But through director Josh Oppenheimer, it is turned into an audacious, creative piece of art. By tapping into two active members of the Indonesian genocide’s love of cinema, he is able to first of all challenge his audience and make them constantly examine and rethink what they are seeing. And secondly, in what is genuinely one of the most exceptional moments ever committed to film, we see his approach bring one of the men to the realisation of exactly what he has done. This is a powerful film that you need to see once, but will probably never be able to watch again.
6. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Alex Gibney is probably the highest profile doco director working today and I think this is his best film. In many ways it is an auteur piece and some of his decisions really elevate the shocking story. Some of the deaf men who were abused by priests as children serve as ‘talking heads’. They sign, whilst their words are spoken as voiceover. This is one of a number of really clever decisions that Gibney makes and it allows the emotion and devastation that has been wrought on these victims to come out. Like Oppenheimer’s film, one that you won’t enjoy and that will make your blood boil. But most definitely an essential, shocking and timely film.
Technically Terrence Malick’s newest film did get a cinema release in Australia, but I think it only managed one or two screens. I am not really sure why this has gone under the radar so much, it is in the realm of Tree of Life brilliance from the greatest cinema artist of our time. A somewhat simple love story that was shrouded in Malick’s signature imagery (though it must be noted he challenges himself here, showing the intersection between the urban and the rural) and a very much not in a rush approach to story telling. But I think this is Malick’s simplest narrative with the simplest character motivations which in same ways makes it his purest work. Let’s hope we get to see something new from the maestro in 2014 and if you missed this for whatever reason, go back and see it.
This is like no vampire film I have ever seen. For starters it is oh so pretty, there is almost a sense of Malick in the visual approach. Neil Jordan uses colour, or more specifically a lack of it, to tell us so much. And the narrative builds up such an immersive world of vampire mythology. It is not beholden to any source before it, but it also feels ‘classic’ already. It also features a performance from Saoirse Ronan that is streets ahead of anything else she has ever done whilst also launching Caleb Landry Jones as a supreme talent. I cannot recall a film that combined the classical and the contemporary as well as this film. It also manages to succeed on a number of levels, both as moody atmospheric and very dark horror story as well as a teenage tale of first love. Good luck trying to balance that, but Jordan does in this exceptional and criminally under seen film.
3. Rust and Bone
If you outline the plot of this film in a sentence, it sounds like the biggest pile of pap ever. An orca trainer loses her legs when she is mauled by one of the animals she works with, but finds love and redemption in the arms of a hulking cage fighter. That is an accurate description of what goes down. But this film made me think more deeply about life than any other film on this list. The spectacular of day to day life is contrasted with the aching, crushing pain that it can bring, often in the one scene. Probably the oldest film on this list, but one that still sticks in my mind.
2. Mystery Road
In an awesome year for Australian film this is the pick of the bunch and the highest ranked Aussie film in the history of these lists. A film that engages with and dabbles with both genre and Australian society, it is anchored by the second best performance of the year from Aaron Pederson (hint – the best is still to come in my #1). It looks like a Western – widescreen arid imagery, gunfights, and hats – but it is straight up crime. There is a sense of classic Eastwood in Pederson’s character, the cop against the system, who seems to be the only one interested in solving a vicious murder. Cerebral and action packed, the film also features the most original shootout I have seen in a long long time. Do me a favour and check this one out.
The Fourth Ever Kick-Ass Award for Favourite Film of the Year: Fruitvale Station
This film, based on real life events, is quietly powerful. It is the day in the life of a young African American man, trying to make his life right after a stint in prison and risking it all with his unfaithfulness. The day (and this is revealed at the beginning so not a spoiler) will also be his last. But the entire day sheds such a light on contemporary America that is raw and real, especially the treatment of men of colour and the unchecked power of those who possess it (a theme in a number of these films actually). And it is not just applicable in an American context. I’m not American and this is the film that impacted me the most this year. And the performance of Michael B. Jordan in the main role is the best in not just this year, but a number of years. Full of qualities that so little of cinema possesses, Fruitvale Station is a searing film that you won’t soon forget. It left me in a glazed over haze and may well do the same for you.
It is nice for me that my final review for 2013, a year I intended to focus more on Aussie film, is indeed an Australian film. It is even nicer because Hunter: For the Record (2012) is a low budget independent music documentary that hopefully I can do a little to publicise.
However to simply refer to the film as a music doco is to do it a fair disservice. It is that, the film focuses on Robert Hunter, a pioneer of the pre-Triple J hip-hop scene in Australia and more specifically in Perth. I would consider myself to be a fairly big fan of Australian hip-hop, and I learnt a lot from the early parts of this film about the scene back in the early to mid 90s that I never knew about. After about half an hour of the film though, Hunter reveals that he has been diagnosed with cancer, and that is where the film really begins. It remains a portrait of hip-hop culture, but more importantly becomes a portrait of a man suffering from cancer. The film shows the physical and mental evolution of someone who is dying and who is well aware of that fact, at least for the most part. It is a massive credit to the filmmakers and all those who agreed to participate in the film that they never attempt to gloss over the man that Hunter truly was. It is refreshing to see a portrait of an artist who is not utterly perfect and gifted. Neither does the film stretch to manufacture him into some kind of tortured soul artist as is so often the case. Hunter was an artist like no other really. I have never seem someone who is such an incredible mix of bogan and refined artist. This is a guy who can write fantastic hip-hop songs about being a proud dole bludger, but also the most heart wrenching love song (in hip-hop form) to his father, that will bring a tear to your eye. I think that this tribute to Hunter from a couple of his crew, sums up a lot of him beautifully:
The filmmakers were blessed with a bevy of great material from the video diaries that Hunter began to make for himself and his young son after his cancer diagnosis. Beyond that though Hunter: For the Record has been really well put together by first time director Sam Bodhi Field. Some of the visual touches are nice, especially when a couple of tracks play with the lyrics popping up on the screen graphically. There is something distinctly poetic about the film. Not just from the rhymes of the music, but the film moves and ebbs in a way that for me is reminiscent of poetry. I think that Hunter imbues the film with so much of that as well. As well made as it is and as good as the interview participants involved are, without Robert Hunter telling so much of his story so beautifully, this is not half the film that it ends up being. There is a poetry that emerges from this complicated dude confronting his cancer diagnosis head on as he does and being so open in sharing his struggles. As Hunter’s life winds down, he comes to a place of very insightful awareness of his failings as a man and as a father. Not only that, he also evolves as an artist right to the end, seeing a growing refinement to his work especially lyrically, as his health declined.
I really can’t recommend this film to you enough. Not just for hip-hop fans, the film is a real portrait of life and what it is all about. Not an easy watch, I wept a number of times during this, my second viewing. But despite what it depicts, the life affirming nature of how Robert Hunter lived his last 12 months does give the film a hint of the uplifting.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
If you are keen to get your hands on the film, you can do so (DVD, Blu-ray & digital download) through the official website here.
I have been having a lot of issues with my internet of late, plus I have also been away a lot (and am heading off again tomorrow), so I have been a little quiet with my writing and reading of other folks work, so sorry about that. Seem to have found a small window of slooooow internet though, so thought I would chuck this review up.
Australian horror flick The Tunnel (2011) got a lot of attention both here and internationally during its conception. Whilst it may not appear so innovative now only a few years removed, some of the tactics adopted by the producers of the film to get it off the ground and get it seen by as many people as possible, were pretty groundbreaking. Before crowd-sourcing was really a thing, they attempted to essentially crowd-source this film by selling of each frame of the film for a dollar. Whilst they did not end up selling all the frames they required, this approach got them enough notice to ensure sufficient funding was forthcoming to complete the film. Outside of that, the distribution model that was taken, and that continues to get the film out there, has ensured that the film has been seen by far more people than would have otherwise been the case. The film can be downloaded legally for free through a number of file sharing services, the film’s official website, watched on a number of VOD platforms, or purchased on DVD or Blu-ray (I personally took the Blu-ray option). I think these kind of left of centre approaches are becoming more common, which I think is great to see. I also think that as these approaches are used more and more they will become more refined and hopefully help smaller filmmakers cover the costs of their film and turn enough of a profit to ensure they can make their next one.
Outside of all that though, does The Tunnel actually work as a horror film? I say most definitely. The film starts slowly, struggling early on to get over the top of some of the more average performances and getting sucked into some of the trappings of its chosen mockumentary style. After this flat opening though, the action ramps up and the film turns into one of the more tense and frightening local horror films (or just horror films in general) that I have seen in recent times. The plot sees the NSW government planning to use the abandoned network of tunnels underneath Sydney for a water recycling plant. Suspicions are raised amongst the media however when for some reason, the Government simply drops the idea with no explanation whatsoever. Rumours abound as to the reasons why, including that homeless people who live in the tunnels for shelter have been disappearing at an alarming rate. To investigate, a news crew sets off below ground to investigate what the hell is taking place underneath the train network of Sydney.
For starters, how bloody amazing is a network of abandoned tunnels as a setting for a horror film? Instant atmosphere right there. The film makes good use of it as well, without ever really being cheap about it. There are some spectacular scares in this film. It is best at creating tension, using atmosphere and action onscreen to have you freaking out a bit at what is to come next. Perhaps through the first half the film is a little better at creating this tension than actually delivering on it. But that changes throughout the latter part of the film, with the conclusion and last 15-20 minutes being especially satisfying. I was concerned that the action and tension would disappear when the true nature of the sinister force below the surface was revealed. The filmmakers though use this to their advantage and if anything make things tenser following the reveal. Whilst I have written before about how tired the mockumentary genre can get, The Tunnel does a pretty good job of keeping it fresh. It is helped by the fact that those taking the footage are a news crew, which is something a little different and it also gives those in the action a reason to comment on it, without having it feel too contrived. There are also interviews with a couple of those who were involved which helps to break up the shaky-cam (which actually isn’t too prevalent in any case). The performances are all good from the main cast members, however none of these performances is the real focus. Rather they are there to serve the creation of tension and fear, and they manage that. First time feature director Carlo Ledesma brings a lot to this film though. It is not a film that is entirely straightforward to marshal and convey, but Ledesma does a very good job.
Insanely tense with some awesome scares The Tunnel is highly recommended for aficionados of low-budget horror. It will perhaps not win over too many from outside that fan base, but as an example of what can be created when driven and innovative people put their mind to it, it is really excellent.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
I have written in passing about the new Australian flick Patrick (2013) a couple of times on the blog recently, predominately focusing on the shabby cinema release it has received. I was lucky enough to catch the film when it played as part of the Canberra International Film Festival and now it is getting a limited run at Arc Cinema here in town, so hopefully more people will get the chance to check it out.
For those of you who are unaware, this is a remake of a 1978 Australian ‘ozploitation’ film of the same name. Patrick is a comatose patient confined to an asylum. One of them old school ones where the main doctor is menacing and does terrifying experiments on all his patients. The film focuses on the rather special mental abilities Patrick possesses that he uses to wreak a little havoc and instil terror in those around him. The asylum is tightly run by Doctor Roget, played by Charles Dance and also by Matron Cassidy, played by Rachel Griffiths. Into this atmosphere comes a new, too nosey for her own good nurse named Kathy, played by Sharni Vinson. Patrick has a somewhat different pedigree to most remakes because of the director. Mark Hartley is best known for directing the documentary Not Quite Hollywood (2008) which is an ode to underappreciated classic ozploitation films. It is a little ironic then that this film looks set to join what I think is a really underappreciated batch of genre films in this country, that are getting nowhere near enough love from local audiences.
There is plenty of the schlockiness the trailer suggested in Patrick. But the film is not content to just rumble along doing that the whole time. It gets dark toward the end and I mean super dark. It is refreshing for an Aussie genre flick to not stay set in its ways the entire way through and to take the main characters some really interesting and unexpected places. One of the major positives for the film is the fact that, for me at least, it was genuinely scary. There were some good jump scares and also occasions of building the tension up to unbearable levels. There are moments of silliness that do break the mood, but looking back on the film, they definitely do not cloud my overall memories of it. Whilst not a haunted house film as such (or at all actually) the film takes place in pretty much a perfect haunted house setting. A majority of the action takes place inside the huge old asylum. It is so old that coupled with the design including costuming, tricks you into thinking this is a period piece for long stretches, when it is actually set in the present day. That sounds kind of awkward in theory, but the reality is that the setting and design really brings you into the world and atmosphere of the film and what it is trying to do. It takes an assured touch to clash elements like this – think iphones and old fashioned credits music – and have it actually deliver something to the film. That is a risk the film takes that pays off. There are other risks the film takes that are not so successful. There is a section involving a hand-job which falls to earth with a decided thud. I guess the intention was to have a big, totally absurd set piece. But unfortunately it was just a big absurd, unintentional laugh from the audience I saw this with. Having said that though, I will always go into a bat for a film that takes risks, even if they affect the overall quality of the film.
Despite being named for the main male character (who spends the entire film flat on his back comatose by the way), this is really Sharni Vinson’s film, with her new nurse at the asylum Kathy being the character whose journey we really go on. Hopefully given the success of You’re Next (2011) which was released this year, the presence of Vinson will ensure the film gets a fair workout on VOD internationally, or perhaps even a limited theatrical release. Just as in You’re Next, Vinson is really good here and she could easily spend the next few years of her career playing these roles very well. All the technical jazz here ranges from good to great. The film is beautifully shot. I am not sure what kind of budget they managed to muster for this, but there are no money deficiencies on show. There are some definite inconsistencies in the script. But most of it is really assured and the clunkiness is minimised. I think Hartley does a really good job with this film. You can tell he has an affection not just for the original film, but the form of old fashioned horror films more broadly and he brings that to bear on this. Importantly, he never lets that reverence get in the way of exploring new ground and his own creative channels. Which is a good thing, because the film could have easily been too stuffy given the narrative is a pretty simple one.
I haven’t seen the original Patrick so I cannot really compare the two efforts. But considered on its own terms, this film stands up as part of a growing canon of underappreciated canon of Australian genre work. This is a fun combination of the schlocky and the really well crafted that will appeal to genre fans, or those who loved Vinson’s work in You’re Next.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
The marketing for the Australian film Goddess (2013) was a strange hodgepodge. Highlighting a heartthrob first time actor in Ronan Keating (former member of Boyzone who seems to have taken up residence in these parts), a woman who starts singing to her webcam whilst doing her dishes, numerous musical numbers and a rags to riches tale.
Without being too blunt about things, the one thing Goddess didn’t look was particularly good. Credit to director Mark Lamprell then that he marshals material that is a little all over the shop into a (mostly) satisfying and (mostly) coherent piece. Keating plays an absent husband, off in Antarctica saving the whales or something like that. The former boy band crooner does not stand out as being particularly bad in this acting endeavour, but neither does he truly engage. The same can’t be said for his onscreen wife Elspeth as played by Laura Michelle Kelly who is a firecracker and has a really endearing presence. Whilst Keaton has a bit of star power, and no doubt a help when financing calls were made, this is Kelly’s film. Her ditties in costume over the dirty dishes go viral meaning she jets off to Sydney to meet with an agent interested in making her huge. It is a credit to the script that Kelly has a fair bit to work with. The characterisation of her as a former small time musician who loved playing gigs but now finds herself on house mum duty is definitely not overly original, but it is made to work.
Goddess plays as both a musical and a melodrama with capital M’s. It is quite old school in how much it wears these two attributes on its sleeve. So much so that there is not really all that much effort put into incorporating the songs into the narrative. Like many of the best musicals there is more than a hint of the surreal to proceedings and it generally does not take itself too seriously. The prime attraction is the cast though. The aforementioned Kelly will hopefully be seen again soon. Whilst Magda Szubanski, a name familiar to Aussie readers but quite possibly no one else, is brilliant as always and her solo number is an unmitigated highlight. Also good in a quite hilarious support role is Hugo Johnstone-Bart. For the most part, the film is a light-hearted success. But it is when it attempts to get a little weightier that it falters. Initially the signs are promising. The thematic concerns of both chasing dreams and being wary of selling out are both teased out nicely. But rather than being a nice, mildly feminist jaunt it turns into quite the opposite. Elspeth becomes racked with guilt simply for chasing the dreams that she should be going for. It becomes this kind of absurd ode to the housewife existence and doing the dishes.
Despite my issues with the problematic themes, the charming cast and assured direction mean you could do worse than checking Goddess out if you are in the mood. Sure the film falters a bit in the last act, but Aussie musicals are not particularly common these days, so give this one a go.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
I watched some awesome things in October, outside of my work for A Fortnight of Terror. The month included two of my absolute favourite releases for the year so far. One everyone has been raving about and one barely anyone will have seen. Only one not worth watching this month but it is all kinds of not worth watching. Urgh. Be sure to share your thoughts on all of these in the comments section below.
- Mystery Road (2013), Ivan Sen – There is a bit of Western in this new Australian film in particular the landscape, iconography and main character. But this film is crime, perhaps even a little noir, right down to its bones. The cast are all good, with Hugo Weaving growing into his complex support role. But the lead Aaron Pederson shines through, his ‘man apart’ exuding self-determination and intensity. The film, shot in various outback locations looks amazing. Sen doubles up on DOP duties, so he can take the credit there. If all that is not enough, it closes with the most fantastically original gunfight I have seen in many a year.
- Paranorman (2012), Sam Fell & Chris Butler – Occupying similarish ground and target audience to Burton’s recent Frankenweenie, this film does it much better and with more charm. The claymation is lovingly designed, and the creativity is dripping from every shot. The characters are all very unique and endearing, and it is great to see them all feel so different. The script brings some rather adult sensibility (in a good way) as well as being really quite funny. A very cool film.
- Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013), Mike Lerner & Maxim Pozdorovkin – Excellent doco about the plight of the Russian punk crew. Wisely grounds much of the approach in a legal exploration of the facts of the case, rather than focusing on ideology. Further shows that the imprisonment of the band is a flagrant human rights abuse. The film itself is really well put together and flies by. If anything it could be longer.
- Gravity (2013), Alfonso Cuaron – The hype is justified in this case. What a movie going experience! My jaw literally dropped at the visual splendour on more than one occasion. It is taut, never lagging despite the miniscule number of characters. Bullock is fantastic in carrying the film, Clooney equally so in support. I suspect the science is a touch questionable at times, but who gives a shit. Whilst the film is hyped to all get out, I think it is actually underrated as a human story.
- Parks and Recreation Season 2 (2009), Greg Daniels & Michael Schur – I don’t recall a show that combined genuinely consistent hilarity with such razor sharp social commentary. Branching out from examining the public service to general quipping at society’s expense, this is a great season. Poehler is a rare talent on both the writing and performing fronts.
- Blancanieves (2012), Pablo Berger – Compared to the much more hyped but not as good The Artist, this manages to feel like a legit silent film rather than jut using the form as a gimmick. I could have done without the focus on bullfighting, but narratively it is a great creative reinterpretation of the Snow White tale. Especially good is the fleshed out relationship between Snow and her father. Unfortunately the ending lacks a little punch, simply because it goes on just a touch too long.
Not Worth Watching:
- The Host (2013), Andrew Niccol – Despite feeling a little derivative of the Animorphs series of kids books, this still has an awesome premise. Shame it sucks so monumentally then. The script is both illogical and terrible while Ronan gives probably her least interesting performance. There is an internal dialogue between the alien and the human host that will make you want to gouge your eyes out and rip your ears off. Comically bad, laugh out loud so at times.
If you only have time to watch one Mystery Road
Avoid at all costs The Host
Given the disappointment of not being able to catch Patrick (2013) during this terrifying fortnight, I thought I should check out a little classic Aussie horror action. Enter Long Weekend (1978).
I always try and keep expectations low when chucking a DVD on. But when the DVD in question has the tagline “their crime was against nature… nature found them guilty” it is quite hard to stop expectations from skyrocketing. Thankfully, Long Weekend more than lived up to the expectation created. The story focuses on Peter and Marcia who escape for a long weekend in the hope of repairing their relationship which has fallen on rocky times. The film begins by contrasting the urban and wilderness landscapes as the couple leaves the city for the weekend. Camping is in some way the intersection between those two worlds, a soft entry into the wild world, so it is notable that is what Peter and Marcia are doing. The fact they cannot leave their city slicker life behind and adjust to the wilderness leads them down some dark paths. Their mistreatment of the environment is an awesomely unsubtle allegory for the treatment of our world, one that still rings as true (truer) now as it did 30 years ago. This is a couple who think nothing of tossing cigarette butts out the window, littering, shooting animals for sport and chopping down trees simply because they have the power. They perpetrate wanton destruction as they focus on themselves and nothing else.
Much of this really fantastic film is not what you would call straight horror. One side of it is an intriguing psychological relationship drama full of secrets, hinted at deception and attempts at controlling behaviour. Then on the other side there are the creepy goings on, with animal attacks, spear guns firing seemingly of their own volition and so on. Both of these would make really taut and fun movies. But combine them, and you have something pretty special I think. The film looks really pretty. The cinematography is first class and the whole visual side of proceedings is helped no end by the fact that the action takes place in some pristine Australian wilderness. Long Weekend is also a delightfully Australian film. As well as looking real pretty, the location serves to create a whole lot of atmosphere. Forests that look stunning lit up in the daytime, take on a positively chilling air at night, lit only by headlights. Then there is the wildlife. Numerous birds, a tassie devil, kangaroos, even a fricking dugong make appearances. It says a lot about the quality of the film’s construction that all of these animals have a menacing presence, yet the film is not particularly over the top or camp. Topical and ahead of its time, this would be an ‘issues film’ if it was not so damn fun to watch.
Before checking it out, I had only ever heard Long Weekend hinted at. But I now consider it to be a bit of a minor Aussie classic. Do your best to track it down if you can (it is distributed on DVD by Umbrella here in Aus) and hopefully you will enjoy it as much as me. A film as atmospheric and taut as this, from a country that supposedly doesn’t make genre films, should be seen by plenty more people.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
Over this fortnight, you have the chance to win an as yet unconfirmed (but definitely choice) prize courtesy of Madman Entertainment, so be sure to get liking and commenting to go into the draw.
The first guest post for this week comes from Jon Fisher, a very good friend of mine. Here he turns his focus onto the fantastic young Australian horror director James Wan.
Horror has always enjoyed a love/hate relationship with movie audiences. Because of their cost-effectiveness and inbuilt audience (hardcore fans and teenagers), in any given year there’s guaranteed to be a dozen or more horror titles. Most of them are made on autopilot, with plots and characters cobbled together from any number of clichés. Some are more memorable, tapping into humans’ natural trepidation with things that fall into the Uncanny Valley – events or beings that confuse our brain as to whether or not danger is present or not. The most enjoyable and interesting horror films try to present the supernatural as living exclusively in the Uncanny Valley. Inanimate objects that appear to move of their own accord, malevolent demons that come from somewhere… else, with dubious motivations; bumps in the night, in short, spook the hell out of us.
In the era before movies (and certainly before the era of modern Western hyper-rationality), ghost stories were widely believed, and even specific locations avoided by communities because of the supernatural mischief-makers supposedly lurking within. (I once stayed in a country town in which seemingly all of the town’s 3,000-strong population would change their route to avoid walking past an old mansion in which they swear any entrant would receive what they called a ‘ghost-massage’).
Rationality, of course, ruins the fun. Every time any thinking person hears a so-called ‘expert’ in a horror movie babble on about the occult as if there was a body of empirical evidence to back up what they’re saying, the illusion is busted. Think of the ghost hunter in Paranormal Activity (2007), who floats in and out of the haunted house with the air of a prize-winning economist. The challenge of making a really good horror movie is to present material that is, innately, completely irrational, and yet still manage to convince audiences that it’s creepy.
The films of James Wan are informed by all of this – a deep familiarity with the Uncanny Valley, an appreciation for the schlock and inherent silliness of the horror genre, as well as an understanding that such subject material, if treated the right way, can engage audiences as well as creep them out. And that is, truly, what Wan’s films try to do – give us the creeps. It’s regrettable that his breakthrough hit Saw (2004) is seen as the film that ushered in the filthy torture-porn renaissance of the middle of last decade, because Saw relied far more on manipulation of the human psyche than on explicit torture.
After a dodgy middle period (including Dead Silence (2007) which bordered on self-parody), James Wan has been active again over the last two years, with Insidious (2011) and The Conjuring (2013) arriving in relatively quick succession. The films act as sort of companion pieces to each other. Both are about a young family moving into a classic haunted house, full of high-ceilinged bedrooms, secret passageways, ominous basements and an endless supply of nooks and crannies. Both movies linger ever-so-slightly on the ‘technical’ gibberish that surrounds ghost whispering and paranormal investigation (the sombre lectures given by Ed and Lorraine Warren in The Conjurer, the humorous squirting machine methodically employed by Leigh Whanell’s character in Insidious). The Conjuring even discloses to us, in the pre-credits, that it is ‘based on the true story’, although it’s not clear if it means that in a Coen Brothers Fargo sense or a Texas Chainsaw Massacre sense.
I’m not aware of whether James Wan believes in ghosts or if he just believes in ghost movies. Regardless, he approaches the material with a plethora of enthusiasm and verve. His manipulation of the Uncanny Valley is first-rate – the weird prologue of The Conjuring about a possessed doll; a game of ‘hide-and-clap’ in which a poltergeist decides to mess with the homeowner.
Occasionally Wan’s work is amusingly derivative (i.e. the toothless crone waiting on top of a dresser), other times it is outstandingly stylish – the final shot of The Conjuring, for instance, is tense, suspenseful, and beautifully timed. Much of the set-up of Insidious is artfully crafted. Sometimes, though, Wan almost ratchets the tension up too high; so high that the scene can’t be resolved satisfactorily. Take, for instance, the slow-burning scene in The Conjuring in which a child wakes up his sibling, insisting that something is standing next to the door. The scene builds and builds beautifully, but how does it end? With nothing more than the slam of a door.
Which highlights another issue with Wan’s films; the repetition. Maybe there just isn’t enough meat on the bones of his screenplays to warrant a two-hour feature. Wan injects both Insidious and The Conjurer with at least the semblance of an emotional arc, but usually the relationships between the characters are suggested rather than explored. We understand the sentiment in The Conjurer when Ed tells Lorraine he can’t let her join him in an exorcism because of the danger posed, but only in an abstract sense. Ditto the pain that Josh Lambert feels in Insidious about his family’s crumbling dynamics, so much so to the point he returns late at night just to avoid them.
In the midst of all that, there are sequences in Insidious and The Conjuring that work on their own terms so well. Are such moments worth the price of admission? Do our expectations of how much movies can achieve emotionally automatically lower simply because they belong to the genre of horror?
Viewers probably know if they are likely to enjoy a James Wan movie. Those who won’t find anything to enjoy in his work are probably the sort of person who hates any sort of horror film. But for those that are willing to suspend some disbelief, to give the material a chance and who have a relatively firm constitution, movies like Insidious and The Conjuring are a breath of fresh air compared to the dreck of horror movies normally shoved down the general public’s collective throat. All else aside, it is fair to state that if you are a squeamish person, James Wan makes movies that are likely to make you squeam.
Jon formerly wrote The Film Brief website and hosted a podcast of the same name (with me as his co-host). You can now find Jon’s latest work at Wide Angle Iris, a site he runs with the talented Rollie Schott. Be sure to check out their stuff over at that site.
Also don’t forget that over this fortnight, you have the chance to win an as yet unconfirmed (but definitely choice) prize courtesy of Madman Entertainment, so be sure to get liking and commenting to go into the draw. Check out all the details here.