AICN-Downunder: THE BOYS ARE BACK, A SERIOUS MAN, CAPITALISM, AMELIA And 9
I think, really, the Jolly Roger is the appropriate course of action.
The Australian Film Institute Award nominations were announced this week, and it was panacea for the soul of Aussie filmmakers and critics alike (not filmgoers so much, they were busy watching COUPLES RETREAT). This is one of the best lineups we've ever had, with BALIBO, SAMSON AND DELILAH, BEAUTIFUL KATE, MAO'S LAST DANCER and MARY AND MAX all vying for the top awards. Yes, I'm getting a bit hyperbolic. I feel I deserve it.
It's a welcome change from previous years *cough*2004*cough*, where a film which left critics divided swept all the major awards simply because there wasn't any competition. Years like that tend to make our industry into a bit of a joke. 2009 gave us our dignity back.
The real test will be if the trend can continue. There's a sense that it might be a fluke year -- as if Adam Elliott, Rob Connolly, Warwick Thompson and Bruce Beresford just happen to make great films concurrently. If we're singing the praises of the 2010 AFI Awards, then again in 2011, I think we'll know for sure that Australian cinema is on the up-and-up, and this isn't just a flash in the pan.
There's some indication of what next year's makeup will look like, with THE BOYS ARE BACK the earliest contender for 2010. My thoughts on that film, as well as the nominees for this year's ceremony, can be found below.
I really didn't think MAD MAX: FURY ROAD would ever happen. It was one of those too-long-in-development films, oft-rumoured but never any real movement. But, doubters like me be damned, it's happening, and it's looking like Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron are locks, with shooting to begin here in Australia in August 2010. I'm hardly the world's biggest Mel Gibson fan, but I find it odd that he's not been asked back to reprise the role. (I know, Dr Miller, he is getting old, but does Max not age? I don't understand...) That said, Tom Hardy recently tore the screen asunder with his extraordinary performance in BRONSON. Despite his lack of Australian-ness, I think he's a great choice.
I had a lot of problems with VAN DIEMEN'S LAND, but I also had a great deal of respect for it (it's surely one of the best-shot films Australia has ever produced). Either way, I'm still looking forward to what director Jonathan auf der Heide does next. According to Twitch Film, that next film is an Australian western based on the life of bushranger Ben Hall. auf der Heide goes into more detail over on Twitch, but he cited THE PROPOSITION as tonally-similar. I'm already liking the sound of it. He is currently writing the script with VAN DIEMEN co-writer and lead actor Oscar Redding.
Production on SOUTH SOLITARY began this week in Victoria. Never heard of it? It's done a good job of slipping in under the radar. Written and directed by Shirley Barrett (LOVE SERENADE, WALK THE TALK), the film stars Paul Bettany and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and was described earlier this year on Screen Daily as being "a dramatic, windswept romance about the great need for companionship and hope". The film, about a shell-shocked soldier recovering in Tasmania, is fully-financed by Australian funding bodies, meaning this isn't just a foreign production taking advantage of our vast, sweeping tax incentives and financially-prudent landscapes. Will the film feature horrible faux Australian accents that sound closer to cockney than anything else? Sure hope not!
GRIFF THE INVISIBLE began filming recently in Sydney. The romantic comedy is the directorial debut of actor Leon Ford, who describes it as a superhero movie, a comedy, but primarily a love story. The film stars Ryan Kwanten (the Australian actor of "True Blood" fame) and Maeve Dermody (BLACK WATER, BEAUTIFUL KATE), and will be released in late 2010. In the meantime, you can track the film's progress on Twitter by clicking here.
2009 Samsung Mobile Australian Film Institute Awards
All the categories can be viewed by clicking here, but I'll give you a brief rundown of the big ones: the Best Film category includes BALIBO, BEAUTIFUL KATE, BLESSED, MAO'S LAST DANCER, MARY AND MAX, and SAMSON AND DELILAH. My tip? BALIBO takes the prize. I'm predicting a similar result for Best Direction, where I suspect Rob Connolly will narrowly pip Rachel Ward, Bruce Beresford and Warwick Thorton for the prize. Best Adapted Screenplay is likely to go to BALIBO, but I'm tempted to pick MAO'S LAST DANCER for the upset. SAMSON AND DELILAH is probably the favourite for Best Original Screenplay, and it's certainly the one I'd give it to, but I wouldn't rule out MARY AND MAX, or even CEDAR BOYS. The Industry Awards will be on Friday 11 December, with the bigger Awards Ceremony taking place on Saturday 12 December. The winners, of course, will be listed here in this very column.
33rd Ottawa International Animation Festival
Ottawa, proving itself to be of excellent taste, recently awarded Best Animated Feature to Australian animation MARY AND MAX, bringing the film's awards tally officially to A Lot.
2009 Nevada Film Festival
I've only just heard of Australian documentary TIMOR TOUR OF DUTY, but it's one I want to seek out. It tells the story of the secret war between Indonesia and Australian/New Zealand troops in East Timor, and it sounds like it's pretty good. The film has just received the Platinum Reel Award in Nevada, as well as playing at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival this past week. BALIBO raised a lot of awareness about the region this year -- it would be great to see this doco hit screens as soon as possible.
In an effort to cater for the Kiwis more than I do, I'm now including the NZ box office. And I might play the two countries against each other so as to egg them on to see better films and, ultimately, win my approval. This week? New Zealand wins, simply for getting AN EDUCATION into its top five. I think wars should be decided this way. (As always, clicking on the link on the film takes you to my review of it.)
1. COUPLES RETREAT
2. MAO'S LAST DANCER
3. THE FINAL DESTINATION
4. SAW VI
5. JULIE & JULIA
1. JULIE & JULIA
3. THE FINAL DESTINATION
4. COUPLES RETREAT
5. AN EDUCATION
Sandra Bullock proves to be completely untrue to her word, there is no part of this film I don't like, it would be funny if I used "The Box" as a euphemism for something, this is apparently an Australian thriller (never heard of it -- way to promote, guys!), Terry Gilliam shows us his brain, IN SEARCH OF MOZART director Phil Grabsky sure found a niche, an Australian film about Australian films eats itself, three brilliant musicians get together to be brilliant at each other, at first I thought this was JOURNEY TO MACCA and assumed it was an Australian version of HAROLD AND KUMAR, Rebecca Miller proves that Sam Mendes Lite can still be fantastic, this should be called SIX SAW in France, I can't tell you how much I don't care about seeing this film, and Disney's incessant need for unnecessary sequels somehow yields a brief cinema release.
ALL ABOUT STEVE
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR PARNASSUS
IN SEARCH OF BEETHOVEN
INTO THE SHADOWS
IT MIGHT GET LOUD
JOURNEY TO MECCA
PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE
THIS IS IT
TINKERBELL AND THE LOST TREASURE
THE BOYS ARE BACK
Australian release: November 12
It's tempting to imagine that Scott Hicks was desperate for critical redemption after the soppy, though largely inoffensive, NO RESERVATIONS. (His Philip Glass documentary, which I reviewed here, was very good, but hardly counts.) THE BOYS ARE BACK achieves this redemption, and earns those magical, slightly backhanded words that Hicks's backers yearn to hear: "It's his best film since SHINE."
The film is based on a memoir, the true-life story of a man trying to raise a six-year-old son following the death of his wife, whilst all the while painfully aware of the child from a previous marriage waiting back in England. There are no overwrought moments of revelation. There are no easy-to-quote sentimentalities, ten-words-or-less platitudes designed to help the audience out in their own lives. There are no quick fixes. It's a film that so carefully navigates itself away from the sentimental and presents us with something more real.
Clive Owen plays the lead, and delivers one of the best performances of the year. Never overplaying it, never underplaying it, Owen hits the right note every single time. The tightrope of Owen's character is that he makes mistake after mistake, and yet you understand exactly why he's made each one. In fact, you feel like you'd probably do the same thing in his situation, even with the foreknowledge that it was the wrong thing to do. So many dramas are unable to show a character making a mistake without simultaneously judging them, or even just using it as a springboard for the following vindication scene. The point here is that the mistakes look exactly like the ideals, and Owen fundamentally understands this in every single shot. It's a side to him I've not seen on film.
If there's one thing Hicks seems to beat every other director at, it's directing children. The performances of the two sons, played by George MacKay and Nicholas McAnulty, are flawless. There's no precociousness there, no cute adult channelling. These are kids that feel like kids. McAnulty is a revelation. MacKay is a lock for a big career.
There aren't many dramas that treat their audiences like grown-ups, able to handle complexity and character flaws without lazy resolution. Those that do should be sought out. Seek out THE BOYS ARE BACK. The pantheon of great Australian films of 2009 just got a little bigger.
THE TIME-TRAVELER'S WIFE
Australian release: November 5 // NZ release: December 3
If you've never read any science fiction, seen a science fiction film, or, I don't know, happen to chance upon a repeat of "Early Edition" whilst channel surfing, then you'll find a lot to be surprised by in THE TIME-TRAVELER'S WIFE.
Eric Bana plays a guy who time travels, without control or clothing, and has a chronologically-displaced relationship with Rachel McAdams, who, in an exceptionally creepy plot twist, he's known since she was six. It sort-of works and sort-of doesn't. Every time I want to give it credit for an original, well-executed idea, it's immediately followed by a scene of tired cliché (ie: the professor who thinks it's a prank by one of his students, or the person-who-should-know-better-acts-dumb-so-the-slower-members-of-the-audience-can-catch-up).
After the screening, I went into a bookstore to flick through the novel upon which it was based. Everyone had said it was brilliant, and, in the few random pages I read, I could see a great, well-told story in there. It's just a pity it didn't translate to the screen. The direction is fine, and both Bana and McAdams do great work, but there's something lacking. The screenplay just doesn't work. The dialogue is clunky; the film doesn't gel.
It's science fiction designed for people who loved THE NOTEBOOK. I'm not against the whole love story angle, mind. I just like it when it's told parallel to a larger story. This is soap opera with a fantastic twist, and even during its best moments, it still veers towards the sappy.
There's really not a lot to say about it. It all feels terribly samey to me.
Australian release: November 12
There's a website that sounds kind-of crappy, but it's a lot funnier than you're expecting. It's called the Video Game Name Generator, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. You press a button and get "Day of The Midget: The Next Generation". Or "Rad Makeover Revenge". Or "Hitler's Workout Hunt". The best one I've seen is "Unremarkable Mafia Saga". For some reason, that title kept jumping into my head all throughout AMELIA's running time.
You know how companies have a budget set aside for charity? An annual tribute to fulfill a certain obligation? I'm beginning to wonder if movie studios have a similar list, except instead of charities, they must make one biopic per year. They're running through a list of famous people they have to make films about, regardless of any burning desire they have for the source material.
That might be a bit harsh, but it's certainly the feeling I got from watching AMELIA. But here's the thing: there's nothing really wrong with it. Aside from some of Richard Gere's delivery, or the all-too-frequent smatterings of Movie Dialogue that clearly work better as placeholders than lines you actually make actors say, I can't really think of anything wrong with it. Hilary Swank is great. Christopher Eccleston is great. Richard Gere is mostly okay. Ewan Macgregor is wasted. Really, it's hard to find a lot they actually did wrong, but it's also hard to find a compelling reason to tell the story that they did.
It's solid. Not good, not bad, just solid. A decent couple of hours. Inoffensively entertaining. Uninspiring but forgettable. Overly familiar, but not necessarily formulaic. Better than a kick in the crotch.
It's not going to make anyone's Best of 2009 list, but it's not going to make anyone's Worst of 2009 list either. It's right there at the top of that bell curve, watching great movies and terrible movies, and good movies and bad movies all fall on either side of it. It doesn't make me want to give Swank another Oscar, but it does leave me further satisfied that she deserved the two she got.
But I should end with something declarative, so I will: see it.
Or, you know, don't.
CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY
Australian release: November 5
Love or hate Michael Moore, it's hard to argue his role in today's society. Since BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, most people have planted a stake in the ground as to their opinion on Moore, and few opinions have shifted since then. Sure, film critics may argue the relative merits of the individual films, but you tend to either agree with his politics or you don't. The people who come out of the film agreeing with him are the ones who went in agreeing with him, and the ones who can't stand him aren't going to see the film anyway. Essentially, as a social aggregate, he's failed.
There were really only two options left to him at that stage: either genuflect his way into reasoned, multi-sided documentaries that are earnest in their impartiality, or run head-first into the reputation he already had. Part of me is glad he went with the latter. Convincing people he was an objective observer was never going to work; if you're already seen as an impossibly biased propagandist, you may as well own it.
As a film, CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY takes a pretty strong position: capitalism sucks. I'd have thought that the secret message of the film would be that capitalism is good so long as you do it right, but no. Capitalism, at its root, is unjustifiably rotten, making this Moore's most radical treatise yet. And probably the hardest sell he's even attempted.
It's hard not to get angry about the stories he tells. Corporations making millions off the death of their employees? Families routinely turfed out of their homes? Congressmen and Senators vowing to change things for the better whilst receiving financial incentives to do the opposite? Even if you've prepared yourself to resist Moore's manipulations, you'd be a cold bastard if none of the stories moved you.
The film's main downfall is that the opposing point of view is not heard. I wanted to hear someone intelligent describe why capitalism and federal bailouts and, hell, evicting the poor is a good thing. And then I want someone to refute them. If this was a school paper, it would get a failing grade. Shouting your opinion for two hours, no matter how noble or right it may be, simply positions you as a liberal reflection of a Fox News "anchor", and does your cause fewer favours than you think. And yes, he does try to get in touch with Hank Paulson -- on camera -- but the moment he gives his name, Paulson's secretary hangs up on him. The scene is included there for comic effect, but it only serves to illustrate that Moore's reputation works against him as much as it works for him.
Similarly, Moore's stunts -- though kept to a minimum here -- are wearing thin, and don't really work any more. The weary look on the faces of the security guards, all of whom figure out exactly what's going on the moment they see Moore, make the already-limp jokes a bit sad and backfire onto Moore.
I actually like Michael Moore a lot. I know it doesn't sound like it here, but this is a review of exasperation rather than anger. He's clearly a very smart man and a very good filmmaker, and the issues he raises are incredibly important ones, but all he's doing is preaching to the choir. As a film, it's pretty entertaining. As a social cause -- which is clearly what it aspires to be -- it's pretty ineffective.
Australian release: December 9
Dystopian depictions of the future are not usually designed for kids' movies, and when they are, it's usually the French who are making them. Fitting, then, that 9 should look more like French science fiction/fantasy than anything American. It's a nice change, too. The film is a far cry from pop culture-referencing, catchphrase-dropping, merchandising-based, focus group-tested animated films we've come to expect from Those Who Are Not The Lamp. It actually feels original, and for that fact alone, I want to give it a big round of applause.
That feeling is, I must admit, tempered a little bit by a slight lack of... I don't know, focus? Character? There's an x-factor missing from this film that stopped me from really connecting with it. Since the screening, I've been trying to identify what it is, but to no avail. Much like AMELIA (see above), the film doesn't really do anything wrong, but I am left wanting.
The film is beautiful, but it's also stark. There's practically no organic matter in the film at all, and as the good guys, the bad guys, and the environment they're all in are largely made from the same materials, it does feel a bit visually monotonous. Thankfully, the film's running time is very small, as if this eyestrain was taken into account.
Despite the weight I've given to them in this review, my quibbles are minor. The film is quite good, and there are a lot of frames that are so beautiful, you just want to frame and hang on your wall. Flawed, perhaps, but it's still definitely worth a look.
A SERIOUS MAN
Australian release: February 25
I guarantee that somewhere, in some filing cabinet in the offices of either a distributor or a studio or a production company, there's a sheet of paper referring to A SERIOUS MAN in which an executive or a marketer has scribbled the question: "But who is this film aimed at?" Underneath, it's likely someone answered: "People who watch Coen Bros films."
I'm going to state, right off the bat, that A SERIOUS MAN is, in my eyes, a masterpiece. It's an extraordinary piece of work, destined to be the Coens' most misunderstood work, destined to be loved and hated in equal measures, in ways that make the reactions to their last four films seem positively universal. It's a unique piece, defying critiquing and analysis, playing by no rule book I've ever seen, so what makes it a masterpiece?
I'm not sure. And I'm kind-of afraid of this review, because I don't think I'm fully prepared to discuss the film. Much like my feelings on SYNECHDOCHE, NEW YORK, I suspect that several months of intense thought, study, and re-viewings will put me in a suitable position to discuss the film. Right now, much as I was immediately after the screening, I am at a loss. I am in a state of critical shock.
That's not to say that I'm giving A SERIOUS MAN a big thumbs up because it confused me. Not at all. The story of Larry Gopnik (played to perfection by Michael Stuhlbarg) is a potent one. I'm tempted to call the style Frank Capra via Franz Kafka, as the idillic depiction of late 1960s mid-west America is tainted and offset by the horrors of bureaucratic loops and selfish motivations. Gopnik's story does not fall into the easy "Everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong!" category, as if we're working through a checklist of personal, professional, familial disasters. No, It's much more nuanced than that, and on a purely superficial plot level, you are kept guessing as to where they're taking him.
I want to keep writing about the film, explore every nuance -- from Uncle Arthur's storyline, to the racist neighbour for whom Korean "trumps" Jew, to that astonishing (and seemingly disconnected) opening sequence, to that final shot -- and work out their meaning as I write... but such a task would take up more text than anyone should reasonably be expected to read, and I'm not convinced it would make for great reading.
I'm going to continue to think about it until I see it again. (Criminally, the release date has been pushed to February of 2010, so it'll be a while.) There aren't many films that are as brave and self-assured as this one, which makes A SERIOUS MAN utterly essential viewing.
- Catalina Sandino Moreno to star in the Wayans Bros' bodily function-themed comedy MARIA FULL OF GAS
- Bruce Beresford to direct Christmas-themed communist reindeer movie MAO'S LAST PRANCER
- Ridley Scott, JJ Abrams, and Guillermo Del Toro go on a year-long backpacking tour of Europe, after deciding they don't really have much else to do
If you're a fan of essential Twitter updates such as "Man, I really need a coffee", "Just making a coffee now" and "That was a great coffee, lol", then follow me on Twitter.