AICN-Downunder: NOWHERE BOY, THE ROAD, SHERLOCK HOLMES, FANTASTIC MR FOX, AVATAR, THE LOVELY BONES and more!
Basically, there's three grabbers, three taggers, five twig runners, and a player at Whackbat. Center tagger lights a pine cone and chucks it over the basket and the whack-batter tries to hit the cedar stick off the cross rock. Then the twig runners dash back and forth until the pine cone burns out and the umpire calls hotbox. Finally, you count up however many score-downs it adds up to and divide that by nine.
The last regular AICN-Downunder column of 2009! (I'll be back on December 31 with my list of the best films of 2009, of course.) I've filled it with as much text as possible, although, admittedly, most of it's copied from imdb message boards. I've found few people can tell the difference, and it saves me so much typing. Of course, as Australia begins to roll out its new internet censorship laws (the type of draconia we should be making fun of other countries for having from the safety of our free society), it's possible you might not be able to access any of this. Which, as many of you like to opine in the talkbacks below, might be a good thing. Either way, I've reviewed nearly every film that has been made, will be made, or might be made, so you've got a lot to get through before Stephen Conroy pulls the plu-----
Sorry, false alarm. I saw a moth.
I've been trying to get any of my New Zealand source to spill the beans about Peter Jackon's next film (I'm positive one of them knows!), but my passive-agressive psychological tactics may be in vain, and PJ appears to have spilled the beans whilst touring Australia for THE LOVELY BONES. In an interview with ABC's "The 7:30 Report", PJ suggests he's considering his long-mooted project about the Gallipoli campaign of World War I. Personally, I was hoping DAM BUSTERS would be next, but with WWI so under-represented in film, I think a large-scale Gallipoli film would definitely complement Peter Weir's film, which is now twenty-eight years old. Looking forward to hearing more about this one.
In a few decades, when an aging Mark Hartley gets around to making NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD 2: FEDERAL FUNDING FRENZY, it will be difficult for him to avoid the '00s trend of Aussie monster movies. Giant crocs attacked in ROGUE and DEEP WATER, a big shark will appear in THE REEF, and will be accompanied by what I assume to be a big squid in $QUID. As if that wasn't enough to sate our big animal lust in the post-Irwin world we now live, Russell Mulcahy has emerged from his directing-straight-to-video-prequels-to-spinoff-prequels jail to helm BAIT. Screen Australia has given the production an early Christmas present (aka: a late Hanukkah present) by providing cash for the country's first (government agency-funded) 3D feature film. The story? A group of people find themselves trapped in a flooded underground supermarket during a tsunami. AND THEN THE FUCKING TIGER SHARKS ARRIVE. Suggested taglines I'll be emailing to Arclight Productions include "Pasta: Aisle Two. Confectionary: Aisle Four. Terror: Aisle Seven.", "Proceed to this checkout if you have fewer than eight body parts", and "Today's specials include YOU".
I make fun, but the truth is I'm excited by the recent rash of Actual Monster movies. The afore-mentioned $QUID has started its online campaign with a slew of making-of videos. This is a rarity, albeit a welcome one, for an Australian film, so take a look at the film's YouTube channel. It's a good way to whittle the time away whilst I impatiently wait for the announcement of a theatrical release date... *stares pointedly at computer screen*
A recent poll I just made up in my head showed that 100% of all AICN readers are frustrated filmmakers. (I'm looking at you, Ratner.) I was recently shown the website Your Big Break, and immediately thought "Hey, I want a free trip to New Zealand to hang out with Barrie Osborne!". Then I discovered work was involved, and thought I'd let you guys do it. Want afore-mentioned free trip, and to have your film judged by Mr Peter Jackson himself? Then click on the link (here it is once again) and enter. Then, once you've won, tell AICN all about it.
The Black List is the strangest award I've heard of, but is also the most fascinating. Three hundred and eleven film executives submit their top ten favourite scripts of the year (which have not been filmed-and-released in said year). Aaron Sorkin's THE SOCIAL NETWORK was pipped at the post by Australia's own Christopher Weekes for his Jim Henson biopic THE MUPPET MAN. Weekes, who directed the film BITTER AND TWISTED, is expected to make the film which will be produced by -- drumroll, please -- the Jim Henson Company.
Norwegian-born Australian filmmaker Solrun Hoaas passed away last week on Friday December 11. Solrun was known for films such as AYA, PYONGYANG DIARIES and RUSHING TO SUNSHINE. Our thoughts are with her family and friends.
Australian and New Zealand films currently on Twitter. (Have I missed any? Email me!) Read about their surprisingly-interesting travels from production through post-production! Click to follow the extraordinary BALIBO, reality television/terrorism satire ELIMINATED, superhero movie GRIFF THE INVISIBLE, animated brilliance MARY AND MAX, 1980s action throwback THE NINJA, star-studded romantic drama SUMMER CODA, giant shark movie THE REEF, giant squid movie $QUID, the Charlotte Gainsbourg-starring THE TREE, awards-scooping drama SAMSON AND DELILAH, and left-field sequel THE WOG BOY 2.
2009 Australian Film Industry Awards
The night of nights for the Australian film industry was actually two nights-of-nights, with the technical awards on the Friday, and the glitzy red carpety ones on the second night. The wins went primarily to SAMSON AND DELILAH, which picked up Best Film, Best Direction, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and the Young Actor Award (shared by leads Marissa Gibson and Rowan McNamara). BALIBO, which would have swept in any other year, picked up Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Lead Actor (Anthony LaPaglia), Best Supporting Actor (Oscar Isaac), and Best Editing. Other key awards included Best Original Score for MAO'S LAST DANCER, Best Lead Actress (Frances O'Connor) for BLESSED, Best Supporting Actress (Rachel Griffiths) for BEAUTIFUL KATE, and Best Production Design and Best Costume Design for AUSTRALIA. The complete list of winners can be viewed here.
If I'm to continue my promised thing of pitting Australia and New Zealand against one another based on their box office tallies, New Zealand wins this round. WTWTA is a notch higher, and UNDER THE MOUNTAIN made a showing in the top five, and so the Kiwis get it. As always, you can click on any title with a link to read my objectively-definitive review of said film.
1. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY
2. THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON
3. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
4. CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS
That DOWNFALL viral video goes one step too far, a meal or eight does not make AMELIA ameliorate, JAMES CAMERON ASKED I WRITE HIS ENTRY IN CAPS, the star of "The Office" and the star of "Saturday Night Live" in a comedy about unexpected pregnancy and it's not directed by Shawn Levy?, the Merchant-Ivory film BAND'S LAM gets a teen remake, Pedro Almodovar sees what it's like to work with Penelope Cruz, I really hope the fact that this French film has a character called "Robert Duval" becomes a Kaufmanesque plot point of unbridled hilarity, TriStar Pictures offends the blue inhabitants of Planet 51 by depicting them as green, this Chinese sequel creates another MAD MAX situation by marketing itself internationally as a first film, and Jonathan King trades some homicidal sheep for some Sam Neill.
AWAY WE GO (AUS)
BROKEN EMBRACES (AUS)
THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE (NZ)
PLANET 51 (AUS/NZ)
THE STORM WARRIORS (NZ)
UNDER THE MOUNTAIN (NZ)
Australian release: December 26 // New Zealand release: March 4
I can't fathom why anyone would want to make a biopic of John Lennon, if only because of the high level of scrutiny that would presumably come with it. When you're dealing with someone that famous and beloved and iconic, you're opening yourself up to a world of criticism before you've even shot a frame. There are so many considerations and compromises to be made, it's a long time before "Make a Really Good Film" would even appear on that list.
Thankfully, someone had highlighted that point, underlined it, and drawn lots of stars next to it. NOWHERE BOY is exceptional.
The film covers a small period of time -- essentially Lennon's latter teenage years -- when he discovered not only his long-lost mother, but an innate musical talent. By irising the story down to such a focused, important point, NOWHERE BOY avoids practically every single cliché of the genre. Hell, it even finds a new take on the Learning To Play An Instrument montage. For that scene alone, someone should give it award.
Aaron Johnson is an absolute revelation as Lennon; Thomas Sangster, who has been going from strength to strength, nails his depiction of a young McCartney; Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff are both perfect, never allowing you to completely love or completely hate their characters. The characterisations are surprisingly nuanced for a film like this, and the frustrating temptation for biopics to set up one of its characters as an arch villain is thankfully avoided. Oh, and David Morrissey's in this, which makes it just that better.
This is apparently the first feature from Sam Taylor Wood, and I hope it's not the last. NOWHERE BOY had a lot of cards stacked against it, and it broke through all of them, thanks to Taylor Wood's brilliant direction and a sensational screenplay fro Matt Greenhalgh, the man who also nailed the Ian Curtis biopic CONTROL. It's one of the best films of 2009; a welcome surprise this late in the year.
Australian release: January 28 // New Zealand release: March 18
John Hillcoat's THE ROAD, perhaps best described as Post-Coital Emmerich, may well be the feel-sad movie of the year. What it lacks in optimism, it sure as hell makes up for in bleakness.
It would be a fallacy to base the entire review on the film's unwavering pessimism, but it's worth stating up front. The story of a father and son trying to stay alive against impossibly insurmountable odds is one that stays with you long after the film has finished.
Viggo Mortensen's dignified desperation makes the film all the more believable and urgent. His whole on-screen persona has long-seemed predicated on moral ambiguity, on inner conflict. Even in the fundamentally Good vs Evil tale of LORD OF THE RINGS, Mortensen seemed eternally conflicted, as if perpetually weighing up greater goods and lesser evils. There was no righteousness on his face, and it's that complexity that serves him so well here. Likewise, Australian Kodi Smit-McPhee, playing his son, seems to be picking up on this vibe; constantly struggling with the right choice, always experiencing frustration that the choice is never clear-cut.
The grim world of Cormac McCarthy, as filtered through the direction of John Hillcoat (not to mention Joe Penhall's screenplay) is one that verges on the sadistic. Its final moments, however, come as a vindication, an assurance that what we have witnessed does, in fact, have a point to it. The ending is not the lazy fairytale that some people I overheard after the screening believed it to be, but nor is it the pessimistic coda that felt predictably inevitable. The film is so much more complex than that.
Hillcoat's worlds are not happy places, be they the dystopian prison of GHOSTS... OF THE CIVIL DEAD, or the barren outback of THE PROPOSITION. Few filmmakers are talented enough to portray gloom without repeatedly hitting the Depress Audience button; for the third time, Hillcoat has proven himself to be the safest hands in which to ponder the worst case scenarios.
Australian/New Zealand release: December 26
There are many filmmakers who make the transition to the land of the big budget, and these transitions are almost always met with lamentations from fans who wish they'd return to their gritty, low budget roots, back when their films felt more real. As someone who always liked Guy Ritchie, but never really connected with his work, I think this is one of those rare moments where I feel the opposite way. Guy Ritchie doing a big tentpoley film? Brilliant. Perfect match. His sensibilities gel so well with the current style of blockbuster (slick, special effects-driven films with brilliant, eccentric, funny characters a la PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and IRON MAN), that if the rest of his career was at this high budget level, I think we'd be in for a treat.
I can respect the opinions of some people who feel that the heritage of Sherlock Holmes has been tarnished, but I've found that most of those opinions are coming from people who (a) haven't read any of Arthur Conan Doyle's books, and (b) haven't seen any other adaptations. It would be implausible to argue that this film version hasn't taken any liberties, but that's what an adaptation is all about. It's not the definitive version that will render all others moot. (I'm already jonesing for the 2010 BBC adaptation by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss -- there's room for all!) It's just another take on the material, and it's a take in which I immersed myself happily and completely.
Robert Downey Jnr plays Holmes as a cross between Bernard Black and Charlie Chaplin. He's a scruffy, roguish figure with a brilliant analytical mind, and I love the way they've presented it here. Rather than Holmes simply knowing all the answers, we get into his mind and really see how he breaks everything down. (On a personal note, this is almost identical to an idea I'd had a while back, but they do it so well here, it's hard to be bitter about the coincidence.)
Jude Law makes for a brilliant Watson, and I'm so relieved that he's no longer the bumbling sidekick he'd become in other adaptations. Here, Watson is Holmes's other half; the ego to his id. The married couple relationship between the two is played big, and the film is the better for it.
The film makes no bones about letting you know there's more to come. As much as tantalising sequel setups seem to piss of a large section of the geek audience, I like that we're living in an age where the inevitable sequel is something that's acknowledged from word go. We know this film is going to make squillions of dollars, and we know there's going to be a sequel, so why not create a throughline that makes the overall world seem all the more complete? The only downside is that the occasional lags in the film instantly create the thought "Well, at leas the next one will be tighter", which is the sort of self-defeating ponderation that takes you right out of what you're watching.
It's a film that does everything it sets out to do. It looks fantastic, it moves along at a cracking-but-not-pandering pace, the performances are all spot-on, and I suspect it will hold up well on repeat viewings.
FANTASTIC MR FOX
Australian release January 1 // New Zealand release: January 7
I love Wes Anderson, and I love Roald Dahl, and I love stop motion, and I love everyone in this cast, yet there was a part of me that was expecting this to be one of Anderson's lesser works. That wasn't necessarily a bad thing; I've got plenty of time for the lesser works of directors I fervently follow. It turns out I was wrong. This is in no way a lesser work. It stands tall alongside the director's best films, of which, I fannishly confess, I include every other film he's made.
There's a scrappy, homemade feeling to the film that fits its ethos perfectly. It almost looks like stop motion animals fit better into the Wes Anderson Universe than his human actors. The not-quite-right attitude of his characters somehow work better in not-quite-right anthropomorphic stop-motion animals.
As I suspected, the film is a lot more Wes Anderson than Roald Dahl, but being fans of both, I didn't mind the adaptation. George Clooney, long overdue for inclusion in an Anderson film, does predictably great voice work, and shares terrific chemistry with the rest of the cast. Jason Schwartzman in particular shines as his strange son suffering from jealousy of his athletic cousin.
It's hard to properly dissect why FANTASTIC MR FOX works so damn well, because most of its brilliance comes in small, left-field moments that don't really work when you try to describe them. Is that a cop-out on my part? Perhaps. But I wouldn't want to provide you with a laundry list of great moments, because by and large, that's what this is. A serious of brilliant, small moments that fit together into a glorious whole.
FANTASTIC MR FOX gives WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, UP and PONYO a serious run for their money as the best "kids" film of the year. Amazing stuff.
Australian/New Zealand release: December 17
Take a good look: it's possible I'm the only film criticky person who didn't have a strong opinion on AVATAR in the months leading up to its release. Wanna get your picture taken with me?
I couldn't understand the unbridled love directed at a film that was such an unknown quantity, and was similarly baffled by the hatred for it. Okay, some of the blame lies at Cameron's door for the promises that were being made months and months before we saw anything, challenging us to love or hate it, and forcing many into the corner of opinion... but even so, why the rush to declare your allegiance so early on?
My feelings on the film was that it was either going to be amazing or terrible; Cameron had aimed so high that completely success or going-down-in-flames were really the only options, and I really respected that. But it wasn't until the Imax screen lit up and the film began that I began to think that he might actually pull it off. It turns out I did have preconceived notions, and they were that in an effort to outdo the un-outdoable TITANIC (in terms of scale), JC would trip over himself and create something large and unwieldy.
Boy, is that not the case. AVATAR knows exactly what it's doing from go to woah. The simplicity of the setup is the film's biggest asset. It allows the story to be told with detail, complexity and nuance, in a way that an overly obfuscated plot would not. Anyone who tells you that story and character have been thrown out the window is being exceptionally kind to every other large-scale adventure made over the past thirty years.
One of my possibly-insincere claims going in to the film was that I didn't really care about the effects, I just wanted to see a great story. What I forgot was that, to Cameron, effects and story are the same thing. This is not a put-down. Too many filmmakers put the story on hold so they can wow you with some cool visuals. Not Cameron. The effects are integral to the story, they are used to tell the story, which is why practically no one else works on his level. The world of Pandora is the most extraordinary vista we have ever seen on screen in the history of, y'know, everything, and it's that sense of wonderment that plays into the themes of the story.
Sam Worthington, whose performances I've always liked, does a terrific vocal impression of Gabriel Byrne's Brooklyn accent (ie: Brooklyn via Ireland via Australia) in a performance that really holds the whole proceedings together. He is topped only by Zoe Saldana, whose bestial, truly alien performance is quite extraordinary, and antithetically believable in its alienness.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give it is that I did not feel drowsy at any moment. Backhanded? No. I'd just had one of the most hectic weeks of my life, and when I sat down to watch the nearly-three hour film, I'd had three hours sleep in the past 36+ hours. I was nodding off in the foyer, yet I barely even blinked when the film began.
It's an amazing piece of work, and even the occasional moment of patchy dialogue, or the pacing issues in the last forty-five minutes, or the silliest maguffin name ever (and yes, I'm aware the term "unobtanium" was not invented for this movie, but even so...), are very easy to forgive. Many modern filmmakers have learned nothing from the likes of David Lean, and seem to think that "epic" simply means "big, CGI crowd shots". James Cameron understands epic, and has made an epic film that will deservedly serve as a navigation point plunged into the sand for the future of cinema.
THE LOVELY BONES
Australian/New Zealand release: December 26
A few columns ago, I suggested that to consider yourself a fan of someone means you find yourself liking even their worst work. If your sensibilities match theirs, you will still hold an appreciation when they come out with something that might be towards the lower end of their own quality scale.
I am a fan of Peter Jackson. As someone who stands by their listing of KING KONG as their favourite film of 2005, even I have to admit that THE LOVELY BONES doesn't quite work.
The biggest problem is that there seems to be no real reason why he made this film. After the screening, some of us commented on what we'd all felt: there was practically no genuine emotion in there. The grief of the family for their lost daughter seems superficial, impenetrable. Susie Salmon herself appears lost in a void of emotional checklists; even if this was deliberate, it's still alienating.
For a story that's all about the emotional journey undertaken by its central characters, there is a surprising lack of momentum. And yet, if you split up the film into its individual elements, I think I actually loved it. The performances are uniformly great, even if most characters appear under-served. The special effects are beautiful, the realisation of Susie's afterlife is amazing. In fact, it seems as if that afterworld depiction might have been the impetus for telling the story, which is possibly where the film falls down.
Despite all the terrific individual elements, I consider this something of a worrying turn for Jackson. The comparison of the original STAR WARS trilogy to the prequels served as a perfect template with which to judge the relative deterioration of a director's "edge". Jackson does not come close to approaching the tailspin of Lucas, but if you compare (somewhat lazily, I'll admit) THE LOVELY BONES to HEAVENLY CREATURES, the difference is notable. The cold, unforgiving telling of a truly emotional story made HEAVENLY CREATURES the film it was; sadly, LOVELY BONES is a direct reversal of that. The harsh elements that would have upped the stakes and made us invest in the story are not there, and consequently neither is the emotion.
I'm at loathe to compare it to the book, because an adaptation should always stand on its own merits, but a comparison does highlight the road not taken. Although most changes made in the adaptation appear to have a good reason behind them, most gloss over key moments that would have made this film what it set out to be.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I was hoping the ending would be completely changed for the film. Without spoiling too much, the book veers from allegory to supernatural at a key moment towards the end, and almost lost me as a reader. That moment is, unfortunately, kept in the film, but handled so much better in the film, and so for that, I give the screenwriters a lot of credit. That also goes for the fate of George Harvey.
THE LOVELY BONES contains some incredible work on the part of many skilled actors and crewmembers, yet the film is no more than the sum of its parts. It is a good film instead of a great film, which, in terms of the weight of expectations, serves as a sort-of compliment to Peter Jackson's ongoing legacy.
BASTARDY (November 25, Region 4)
The film: As the poster suggests, there are several words that could sum up Jack Charles: heroin addict; cat burglar; feature film star; musician; homosexual; Aboriginal; part of the Stolen Generation. Each of these aspects is deeply fascinating, but to reduce him -- or, indeed, this documentary -- to any of these phrases is to do it a great injustice. Charles is so much more interesting and complex than that. Amiel Courtin-Wilson's film is a also more complex, brilliantly-made, and filled with some extraordinary twists that could in no way have been predicted when filming began. The style is not esoteric, but it doesn't offer a spoon-fed narrative; it commands your attention throughout. It's an astonishing piece; my only regret is that I waited until its DVD release to see it.
The extras: A nice, big cardboard slip case for those of us who care about such grandeur. Tick one. Tick two is a booklet featuring essays about the film, filmographies, photographs, and even court transcripts from one of Charles's arrests. Ticks three-through-seventy are the extras, splashed over two discs, including Courtin-Wilson's terrific short film that played at Cannes earlier this year, a trailer, and three hours of extras I'm yet to delve in to. But I'm looking forward to it.
Should you buy it: No question. It's one of 2009's superior works, documentary or otherwise. An oddly compelling, funny, and rewatchable film.
GHOST IN THE SHELL 2.0 (November 30, Region 4)
The film: Has anyone benefitted from high definition more than animation? It looks absolutely glorious in Blu-Ray, and GHOST IN THE SHELL is further proof of this. Don't be fooled by the "2.0" in the title: this edition isn't so much the sequel as it is the original film with new CGI effects over the top. The CGI stuff looks great, but it doesn't mesh well with the original animation. Somehow, this isn't a problem. The disparity betwen the two sort-of works well for the anime, as if the incongruous styles were deliberately designed to be ill-fitting. The film remains a gloriously complex, BLADE RUNNER-like dystopia; an examination of identity amongst looming cityscapes, loud gun fights, and unprovoked nakedness. Essentially the perfect anime film (discounting the Ghibli output), and a key piece of animation and science fiction history.
The extras: The selling point of this Blu-Ray is how great it looks and sounds, but there are still quite a few extras. For a start, the option is there to watch the film in its original form or in its new CGI form, and both editions can be viewed in either English or Japanese. The extras contain standard filler material like character bios, crew filmographies, and a trailer, but there's a strange making of doco which actually just looks to link back to the film itself. Unless I hit the wrong button. Still figuring out Blu-Ray controls, to be honest.
Should you buy it: This is one of those anime films that even non-anime fans should have in their collection. It will also remind you why you invested so much in your home theatre.
- Clint Eastwood discovers he has a weekend spare and makes a quick Oscar-bait film about Nelson Mandella failing to make his rental payments in EVICTUS
- Ridley Scott announces plans to remake LORD OF THE FLIES, with the role of Piggy rewritten to accommodate Russell Crowe
- Climate change scientists in Copenhagen finally force the world's superpowers to agree that all of their "normal" films be classed under the new Pre-Apocalyptic genre