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AICN-Downunder: BLACK SWAN, ANOTHER YEAR, THE KING'S SPEECH, UNSTOPPABLE and Yasujirō Ozu!

That was me seducing you. It needs to be the other way around.

AICN-DOWNUNDER

I'll resist the temptation to do a big round-up of the year -- for the 2010 edition of the now-legendary AICN-Downunder Annual is but a week away -- and simply wish you all an exceptionally happy Christmas! May your yuletide celebrations include your Christmas movie of choice, be it BAD SANTA, DIE HARD, or BLACK CHRISTMAS. All fine choices, but I will be throwing cliché to the wind and spending my Christmas Eve (as I do every year) in Bedford Falls... or is it Pottersville?!? I won't know until I revisit it. Merry Christmas!

NEWS

The trailer for HANNA starring Australian Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana and non-Australian Saoirse Ronan has debuted online. Directed by Joe Wright (ATONEMENT), the film looks quite insane. And I can't wait to see it. Check out the trailer via the Inside Film website here.

It's very short, but this teaser for upcoming Aussie film SNOWTOWN sets a great mood. Check it out here on the film's official website.

And another trailer for you: take a look at this mood piece teaser for DE(B)T by New Zealand student Simon Long. It's got a nice feel to it, and I'm looking forward to seeing the final product.

Okay, this one isn't technically a trailer for an Australian or New Zealand film, but I had to share it with you. Josh Nelson, the Australian film critic whose website Philmology is one of my essentials, recently created one of the best trailer mashups I've ever seen. I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD is the combination of French New Wave and awful 90s horror we never knew we'd been longing for: watch it here.

AICN-Downunder's Follow Friday: (Drop me a line if there are any upcoming Australian or New Zealand films not mentioned here.) Read about the fascinating journeys Anti-podean films take from production through post-production and into release! Click to follow controversial Uighur documentary 10 CONDITIONS OF LOVE, crime epic ANIMAL KINGDOM, brilliant experimental soundscape DREAMLAND, reality television/terrorism satire ELIMINATED, the self-explanatory GHOST SHARK 2: URBAN JAWS, superhero movie GRIFF THE INVISIBLE, self-described "womantic comedy" JUCY, the based-on-an-old-Australian-joke LITTLE JOHNNY, brilliant Aussie horror film THE LOVED ONES, self-described "graphic novel-style bushranger adventure film" MOONLITE, giant shark movie THE REEF, the dramatic thriller SAY NOTHING, the extraordinary Aussie doco STRANGE BIRDS IN PARADISE, star-studded romantic drama SUMMER CODA, giant squid movie $QUID, the award-winning box office hit TOMORROW, WHEN THE WAR BEGAN, Cannes's closing night film THE TREE, crowdsourcing horror film THE TUNNEL, and genre-defying web series WHERE WERE YOU. And for those still reading, this here is me.

AWARDS, FESTIVALS AND SCREENINGS

2010 Australian Film Institute Awards

The AFIs were held last week over two big nights, and the big winner was ANIMAL KINGDOM, with wins in Best Film, Best Direction (for David Michod), Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Ben Mendelsohn), Best Actress (Jacki Weaver), and Best Supporting Actor (Joel Edgerton). Best Supporting Actress went to Deborah Mailman for BRAN NUE DAE, and Best Feature Length Documentary to CONTACT. The full list of winners can be viewed on the AFI website here.

Berlin International Film Festival

Australian superhero romantic comedy GRIFF THE INVISIBLE will make its European debut in Berlin early next year. The film stars Ryan Kwanten and Maeve Dermody, and will be released in Australia in March 2010.

2010 Documentary Edge Film Festival

New Zealand's premiere documentary film festival has released its line-up, and it looks like a good one. Opening night will premiere THE PEOPLE VS GEORGE LUCAS, the examination of the controversy surrounding George Lucas's recent career. The closing night film is SOUTH OF THE BORDER, in which Oliver Stone travels throughout South America, examining their social and political movements and interviewing seven heads of state. The programme also includes Mark Hartley's MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED!, as well as a ton of fascinating-looking docos from around the world. The festival runs from February 16 to March 6 in Auckland, and March 10 to March 27 in Wellington. Check out the complete programme here.

BOX OFFICE

The populations of Australia and New Zealand did not heed my warning, and TRON LEGACY shot to the top of both box offices. Tut tut. Now don't see it next week, or you get more tuts from me. In the meantime, all AICN-Downunder reviews of films can be discovered by a simple clicking of the links provided, so click away and discover my own (objectively ultimate) opinion!

Australia

1. TRON LEGACY
2. MEGAMIND
3. LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS
4. THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER
5. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART ONE
6. DUE DATE
7. THE KING'S SPEECH
8. DEVIL
9. THE SOCIAL NETWORK
10. FAIR GAME

New Zealand

1. TRON LEGACY
2. THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER
3. MEGAMIND
4. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART ONE
5. EASY A
6. THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS' NEST
7. DUE DATE
8. THE SOCIAL NETWORK
9. DON PASQUALE (MET OPERA)
10. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT

RELEASED THIS PAST FORTNIGHT

The sequel to RED HILL is strange but awesome, this girl keeps doing ill-advised things, I think I was the only one left expecting more of Jack Black than this, cue Hugh Jackman-esque "I Haven't Seen HEARTBREAKER" dance, this should be played in a double with CHLOE, Guy Pearce delivers the best single-word line of the year, Todd Solondz cashes in on a sequel to HAPPINESS, Ben Stiller brings us the artistically-required sequel to MEET THE FOCKERS, this film is about Sarah's key (spent ten minutes on this one, got nothing), Sofia Coppola infuriates critics everywhere by daring to feature a character who isn't poor, this is the most genetically-compelling cast of a movie I haven't wanted to see since MR AND MRS SMITH, and a horrifying "What if?" movie looks at what would happen if Jeff Bridges replaced his blood with Botox.

BLUE VALENTINE (AUS)
THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST (NZ)
GULLIVER'S TRAVELS (AUS/NZ)
HEARTBREAKER (AUS)
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT (NZ)
TRON LEGACYTHE KING'S SPEECH (AUS/NZ)
LIFE DURING WARTIME (AUS)
LITTLE FOCKERS (NZ)
LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS (AUS)
MEET THE PARENTS: LITTLE FOCKERS (AUS)
SARAH'S KEY (AUS)
SOMEWHERE (AUS/NZ)
THE TOURIST (AUS/NZ)
TRON LEGACY (AUS/NZ)

REVIEWS

Did you miss my TRON LEGACY review? If so, you must not have been paying much attention, as it dominated the AICN main page for about a week. Check out my entirely justified and reasonable evisceration of it here.

BLACK SWAN

Australian release: January 13 // New Zealand release: January 27

It is with this film that Darren Aronosfky makes the transition from One of the Best Filmmakers Working Today to One of the Greatest Filmmakers of All Time.

I've been trying to let BLACK SWAN sink in, but it simply refuses to. It's staying at the forefront of my mind, stubbornly resisting any attempt at a considered and tempered analysis. For all its depth and layers, the film is such an incredible visceral assault, you need a machete to carve your way through the instinctive emotive reactions you experience during and after this film.

BLACK SWAN is ostensibly the story of a young ballet dancer (Natalie Portman) trying to make it to the top in the prestigious dance company she is in. The company's director (Vincent Cassell) has decided to stage a production of "Swan Lake" in which the characters of the White Swan and the Black Swan are played by the same dancer. Portman's Nina, she is told, can play the White Swan well, but may never convince as the Black Swan.

What follows is one of the most potent journeys into a character's dark side in the history of storytelling. The parallels between the ballet and the real world are not played down, but operate on every level within reach, especially on the surface. There is tremendous subtlety in this film, but it is hidden under some very overt metaphors, and that overtness is entirely successful: ballet is one of the most theatrical of performances, and so the depiction is the sensory violation you didn't even realise you were hoping for.

Before I descend into a mess of theoretical gibberish, I'll give you a simple, almost reductive cinematic equation, but one I cannot help but present: BLACK SWAN is Powell and Pressburger's THE RED SHOES merged with Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA, and directed by David Lynch. In fact, not since Lynch's masterpiece LOST HIGHWAY have I felt so consistently assailed for a film's entire running time. From frame one, BLACK SWAN knocked me back in my seat, and I sat with mouth agape, my fingernails in the armrests.

I have seen the film described as a horror film, and it is hard to argue with this. It is a descent into madness, and as such, not a style of horror we are used to seeing. Even the best horrors don't usually delve so triumphantly inward, or with such careful eye to how each and every scare informs character and story and theme. It is symphonic the way the elements are all combined into one perfect whole; if this film is, indeed, a horror, then it may be the finest horror ever made.

Natalie Portman gives the performance of her career, and although it seems trite to say that sentence -- as it is, oddly, the sort of thing we say so often -- it is meant with the full force it should command. Nina is deeply unhappy, and even her moments of happiness seem clouded by the sadness in her eyes. Like Nina preparing to play both White and Black Swans, Portman must play these two opposing emotions in every single moment, maintaining the careful balancing act at every turn, yet infusing her character with enough undulations to keep her from feeling as if she is ever repeating herself. There is both a consistency and a newness to the way she moves Nina through the film, and the way she slowly brings the darkness out is nothing short of perfection.

All the performances in this film are great, but what's more interesting is how the film employs a sort-of meta-casting. Our preconceptions of the actors in these roles are used to maximum effect: Portman's character is replacing Winona Ryder's character, and the fact that Portman has taken all the ingenue roles that would have gone to Ryder ten years earlier makes this all the more potent a relationship. So is the contrast between Portman and Mila Kunis, the up-and-comer gunning for the same parts, waiting for Portman/Nina to slip. It's impossible not to read this near-subversive layer of meaning into the film, particularly given Barbara Hershey is there as Portman's mother. Hershey's character considers herself a has-been, Nina accuses her of being a never-was. Baggage has never been utilised so well.

I could keep typing forever and still never scratch the surface of why or how this film works. It is an absolute watermark in cinema, a masterstroke that works on every conceivable level. Aronofsky is so far ahead of the game it's just not funny, and despite my absolute adoration of THE FOUNTAIN, I can say without hesitation that BLACK SWAN is his finest film.

ANOTHER YEAR

Australian release: January 27 // New Zealand release: April 2011

When I reviewed 2008's HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, it was my first experience with the films of Mike Leigh. Since then, thanks to having a partner obsessed with all things Leigh, I have now seen every single thing the man has directed (save for some of his shorts), from 1971's BLEAK MOMENTS to all of his television plays for the BBC in the 1970s to his crowning masterpiece, 1993's NAKED. Ten years ago I would have balked at the idea of watching so many English realist dramas (unkindly and inaccurately described as "kitchen sink" dramas), but my experiences with Leigh, as well as the likes of Shane Meadows and Andrea Arnold, have turned me completely around on what this sub-genre is capable of. My own preconceived notions were to blame, and I now actively seek out films I would have avoided not that long ago.

My problem stemmed from the belief that these sorts of films are po-faced and depressing, which is largely the opposite of what they are. Leigh takes people in difficult, economically or socially dubious positions and illuminated the deeper human drama, which is usually a mix of the happy and the sad, the kind and the selfish, all contrasted with deft ease. Take ANOTHER YEAR's Tom (Jim Broadbent) and his wife Gerri (Ruth Sheen). These are delightful people, and they centre the entire film. They are the sorts of people who have their own lives pretty much sorted out, and their pragmatic patience with everyone around them, as well as their wry senses of humour make them the sort of people you want to spend two hours with. The rare times they are not on screen feel uncomfortable, such is the nature of their stabilising force. Although very different characters, they feel like the logical progression of two other Mike Leigh couples, Cyril (Phil Davis) and Shirley (Ruth Sheen) from 1988's HIGH HOPES, and Andy (Jim Broadbent) and Wendy (Alison Steadman) from 1990's LIFE IS SWEET. That Broadbent and Sheen should return for this film has a nice symmetry to it, and a real sense of continuity within Leigh's canon.

That's not to suggest they are identical characters. Far from it. What's identical is the sense of reassurance you get from them; they feel like unique creations unto themselves. ANOTHER YEAR is an incredibly apt title, not just because the film is divided into four parts of the year, with a subtitle to inform us of the season we are now in, but it heightens the idea that the more things change, the more things stay the same. It is a film about the cyclical nature of life, and our central characters frequently glimpse their pasts and futures and what might have been in the faces of those around them. A mourner at a funeral, an older brother, a new face, a golfing friend... maybe it's my proximity to Christmas, but I feel that this is Leigh's "A Christmas Carol": you know who you were, you know who you are, but where you go from here is entirely in your hands.

In a film full of perfect central performances (Broadbent, Sheen, Oliver Maltman) and perfect supporting performances (David Bradley, Peter Wight, Phil Davis, Imelda Staunton), it is of no small significance to say that Lesley Manville steals the show. Leigh's regular collaborator (and, I just noticed, a performer in the recent Disney version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL) plays the work colleague of Sheen's Gerry in a role that manages to be heartbreaking and genuinely funny in every single moment. This is arguably the performance of Manville's career, a deeply nuanced character unable to get her life properly on track. Her relationship with Tom and Gerry (yes, the names are remarked upon) and her obvious idolising of their lifestyle is one of the simultaneously beautiful and sad elements that grounds the entire proceedings. If it is "A Christmas Carol", it one in which Marley lived a fulfilled life, Scrooge wants to change from the beginning, and the final moments can not be easily predicted nor comfortably shoeboxed.

For all the changes they go through, this has simply been another year for these characters, and there will be another similar one like it for them the following year. For Mike Leigh, it is another remarkable accomplishment, and a further reminder to us that nobody shines a more subtle, honest or revealing light upon the human condition than the UK's master dramatist.

THE KING'S SPEECH

Australian release: December 26 // New Zealand release: January 20

Although I have lately become aware of my deep problem with biopics and the liberties so many of them seem to take with the truth, I am still a sucker for the high-concept biopic. Yes, taking a fascinating person and telling their life story can make for excellent cinema, but "Here's the story of King George VI" is a far less interesting prospect than "Here's the story of how King George VI overcame an horrific speech impediment with the help of a middle-class irreverent Australian". If this were fiction, it would very much be low concept, but as a real life story, it gets the blood going.

There's also a calmness that comes with historical inevitability. You know that there will be a change of Prime Ministers, you know that England is going to war with Germany, you know that King Edward VIII is going to abdicate in favour of Mrs Simpson, so you can just sit back and enjoy the manner in which these events unfold.

Tom Hooper, who brought us the excellent FILMTHE DAMNED UNITED, makes THE KING'S SPEECH into exactly what it needs to be: a performance feast. Colin Firth expands on the perfect performance he gave in A SINGLE MAN, showing us a King George who is angry, frustrated, fearful and witty. Geoffrey Rush is superb as speech therapist Lionel Logue, and resists the temptation to play up the casualness with which you expect him to greet royalty. There is an irreverence there, but he also recognises the gravity of what he's doing. It's a clever balance that Rush completely nails.

The highlight for me, however, is Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth, whose every facial expression and movement holds within it the best comedic and dramatic performance you've ever seen. She is brilliant in the role, and is so much more than the supporting woman in the background, as many a scriptwriter might have made the mistake of painting her.

The members of the absurdly-engaging supporting cast, including Derek Jacobi, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall, Jennifer Ehle, Claire Bloom, and the hilarious Ramona Marquez (from the must-see UK series "Outnumbered"), don't always have as much to do as you'd like them to, but this is a necessary by-product of filling the cast with such terrific actors.

That inevitability I mentioned at the beginning may be a boon in many areas, but it does present a slight drawback: with no major narrative surprises, THE KING'S SPEECH lacks the opportunity to surprise us. The only problem with the film is that it is too straightforward, but this is something that is easily lived with. It is, all things considered, one of the better royal biopics in a long time, and a must-see for those who like seeing great actors doing great work.

UNSTOPPABLE

Australian/New Zealand release: January 6

Tony Scott's UNSTOPPABLE is a lynchpin of a new type of action movie. It is a sub-genre that has been slowly emerging over the past several years, but the manner in which it has evolved is so subtle that many may not recognise how all-pervading it actually is.

I'm dubbing this sub-genre Scopophiliac Action. It centres around the idea that no heroic accomplishment is of any worth unless an adoring audience is looking on. (It is closely related to the Scopophiliac Romantic Comedy, in which all romantic reunions and declarations of love are meritless unless a large group of onlookers applaud at the end.) In UNSTOPPABLE, multiple news channels cover the action -- the action being a runaway train filled with dangerous materials hurtling towards a populated area -- with helicopters, omni-present reporters, and up-to-the-second information. Across the state, supporting characters watch their televisions with bated breath, seeing every moment unfold before their eyes. Every thrill that we as an audience witness is intensified by the on-screen audience's reaction. It is the cinematic equivalent of the sitcom laugh track.

The on-screen audience may, in some films, include strangers and random on-lookers, but in UNSTOPPABLE the cutaways are restricted to three main groups of players. The central characters of the film are Frank (Denzel Washington) and Will (Chris Pine). Frank is, as you would expect, very frank. Will has a strong will. It's the kind of subtle naming practice that also necessitates one sitcom per year to focus on a woman named Grace. Frank is a single father whose daughters work at Hooters to put themselves through college -- allowing us to ogle them as they and their co-workers watch the television in their place of work, though still admiring their higher education ambitions -- and have a strained relationship with Frank. Will's wife has a restraining order against him, and when we are told why, it turns out to be one of those Perfectly Reasonable Explanations that is almost pained in how desperately it shows nobody has acted in the wrong. The inevitable reunion will not have any sort of moral question mark over it, for there are no innately-flawed central characters in movies like this one; just misunderstandings.

Frank and Will are nobodies working the rail line. What they do doesn't matter, not until the TV cameras go on and the news begins updating the rest of the fictitious world in real time. The rail workers who caused this mess watch from their break room, often cheering in a manly rail worker fashion, waiting to be redeemed by Frank and Will. Frank's daughters stand in Hooters, tight tank tops leaving little to the imagination, discovering their father is, in fact, a hero. Will's wife watches the TV and decides she wants her husband back. Personal problems like forgetting your daughter's birthday or acting in an unreasonably jealous manner can be resolved by an outside act of heroism that has no direct relation to any of these issues, but only if these acts are caught on live on TV.

The manner in which cinematic heroics are depicted on television screens within the movie has become increasingly prevalent. In the 80s, a news reporter would not appear until the third act, informing the studio-based anchor that no information was available yet, but it looked like something extraordinary might be happening! How things have changed. It's tempting to see this change as a direct result of twenty-four hour news channels, but they are simply the catalyst. As our society becomes more and more celebrity-obsessed, and the advent of social media and YouTube phenomena and instant fame makes stardom a desirable and reachable goal, we are taught that nothing has worth unless it is being admired by others.

This is the reason why it's not just enough for the cameras to capture the action as it unfolds: they immediately have access to the names and photographs of all the key players the moment they appeared. A picture of Will appears on screen in a box next to the news footage of him climbing along a speeding train, and the reporter's voice over assures us that everybody watching television now knows who he is. Saving lives is good; attaining instant public recognition for it is better.

When a failed helicopter rescue is shown on screen moments after it happens, the reporter describes it with the words "Earlier today..." despite it happening, in a real time sense, only seconds earlier. Our world is one of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, where the past is irrelevant. Anything that happened moments ago is old news, for we cannot help but live in the moment.

When the opening title informs us that the film is "Inspired by true events", I found myself yearning for the addendum that was on the similarly-titled DOMINO, also a Tony Scott film. The qualifier "Sort of" irritated me in DOMINO for it's aren't-I-clever posturing, but at least it was honest. These supposedly-true events are structured in an overtly Hollywood manner: personal problems are resolved by the film's end, everybody gets the girl, and the bad guys are rich white men who worry not about the loss of human life, but about what this disaster will do to their company's stock. They do this on their cell phones whilst -- and I'm not making this up -- playing a round of gold. Subtlety was never Tony Scott's strong suit, but it was never more obvious than here that he's completely lost the pretense.

The occasional moment of mildly-thrilling action does not compensate for a film's worth of lazy characterisation and terrible dialogue. The impact that the "inspired by true events" moniker may bring is completely nullified by the fact that nothing in this film feels remotely real. It is all artifice, but it is artifice admired by others, and in the end it appears that this is the only thing that truly matters.

(Note: If you're not already listening to my podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates, now is the time to subscribe. In our November edition, we took a comprehensive look at the films and career of Tony Scott, and the ensuing debate was pretty passionate! Have a listen via the website or on iTunes!)

DVD REVIEWS

OZU (November 3, Region 4)

The films: If America has Criterion and the UK has the Masters of Cinema, then Australia has the Directors Suite. Criterion and Masters of Cinema have both put out Ozu box sets, and now DS has countered with its own seven film, nine disc box set set. It's a beautiful and simple red-and-blue design, with "OZU" blazing across the bottom third. They were clearly reading my mind when they put this set together: Ozu has been a filmmaker I've long desired to delve into, and this review copy was the perfect excuse. He is frequently cited as one of cinema's greats, with his TOKYO STORY (included in this set) frequently topping Best Of All Time lists. There are seven films in this box, selectively covering his career from 1949 to 1962, and I dove in eagerly.

1949's LATE SPRING is described as being Ozu's favourite of his own works, and I can definitely see it. Although the story is familiar, the characters are entirely unique, particularly central character Noriko (Setsuko Hara). Immediately, we are drawn to her as she smiles and laughs her way through fairly pedestrian (though deliberately pedestrian) dialogue. It's a surprising contrast, the mundane being filtered through such a happy persona, but it becomes clear the happiness is merely a mask for a deeper sadness. Is Noriko the first bipolar character in cinema history? Most interesting is the way one of her deep sadnesses -- the idea of her father remarrying -- slips through in conversation with her uncle, and the way it is laughed off and often repeated as a familial in-joke. When it is mentioned, we see it cutting deep into Noriko, an element of deep privacy on display for the world to see. It's an amazing film, and further reminder that mid-20th Century Japanese drama was some of the strongest in the world.

1951's EARLY SUMMER feels like a more developed, confident film, and though I think I preferred LATE SPRING, this is a much clearer and assured story. As far as I can tell, it is not a sequel to the previous film in the set, despite also featuring a character named Noriko (also played by Setsuko Hara) who too is a young independent woman wishing not to be married. It is clearly a favourite theme of Ozu's, though this ensemble piece is more interesting if seen through the eyes of Koichi, the closest thing the film has to an antagonist. The question of identity permeates this film, and the spectre of World War Two informs much of this. Koichi is not happy with the changes his society is undergoing, and it's easy to be both sympathetic and judgmental of this attitude. Sympathetic at the lack of respect his children show their elders; judgmental at his dislike of women's independence. This dichotomy is at the heart of the piece, as the family seems simultaneously happy and disappointed when Noriko finally makes her decision. But despite -- or in addition to -- this reading, there is so much more going on here. The influence Ozu has on filmmaking even today is clear: compare EARLY SUMMER to 2009's STILL WALKING, and you can see that the way humour infuses every moment of drama is still a key element in the best of Japanese cinema.

1952's THE FLAVOUR OF GREEN TEA OVER RICE is probably my favourite thus far, and certainly the most affecting. The relationship between the two central characters is beautiful, and the film's key turning point works so well because it is so underplayed. It is really masterful character work, offset by a truly tangible sense of place. Ozu takes his times with tableaus, a tracking shot here, a lingering establishing shot there, to calmly ingratiate us into his world. It's been developing over the first three films in this set, and with THE FLAVOUR OF GREEN TEA, it feels he's finally nailed the effect he's been going for. The somewhat incongruous elements -- characters talking directly into camera, though without breaking the fourth wall -- are a little awkward, but do not detract from the power of Ozu's storytelling. Given they are intentional, I'm tempted to argue they add to the power of Ozu's storytelling, even though they take some getting used to. At this point in the set, fatigue is certainly not setting in; rather the opposite. I cannot wait to delve into the other four films.

1953's TOKYO STORY was one I was anticipating quite a bit. It frequently tops those Best Ever Films lists, coming it at number one in the Halliwell Film Guide as the the best film of all time. Nothing to sneeze at, but also some pretty weighty expectations. TOKYO STORY is, to little surprise, a stunning and gorgeous story of an elderly couple visiting their somewhat selfish children in Tokyo. The themes of mid-century post-war Japanese culture clashes are subtly woven into the background, never explicit but always informing the characters and the action. It is astonishingly well-written, with an unexpected plot turn spinning the last third of the film into a whole new direction. That last third elevates it from a very good film into a great film, with all the unspoken tumult of earlier movie bubbling up, but never quite bubbling over. Ozu was clearly one of the 20th century's superior dramatists, and TOKYO STORY is the clearest evidence yet of this.

1959's OHAYO (aka GOOD MORNING) is a bit of a shock. It was his fourth film since TOKYO STORY, and there are two surprising things about it: it's in colour and it's a comedy. There has been an undeniable stream of humour throughout his films, but watching him do an all-out comedy, complete with broad reactions and more fart jokes than a Rob Schneider film (seriously) is a shock to the system. He hasn't lost any of his societal commentary though, and the interactions between the quarreling neighbours are, as always, a treat. Ozu's theme of spoiled brats continues, though with slightly more sympathy than in the past. Our central characters are two boys who refuse to talk until their parents buy them a television; at first, you're annoyed by them, but soon admire the sheer tenacity with which they stick to their goal. Not every joke works, but most do, and this remake of Ozu's own silent I WAS BORN BUT... (1932) seems to, with its ending, contradict the statement I believe he is trying to make. Or, perhaps, enforce it in an unexpectedly dark manner. Either way, I'd be amazed if you didn't come out of his film with a huge smile on your face.

1959's FLOATING WEEDS is arguably -- and I'm preparing to be mauled by TOKYO STORY fans here -- Ozu's finest film. It is a tale of forbidden love, and though that sounds trite and familiar, it is told with such grace, such complexity of character and story, such humour, such originality, that I would cite it as one of the best examples that this sub-genre has to offer. Like OHAYO, FLOATING WEEDS is a remake of one of Ozu's earlier films, though unlike the Criterion release, said earlier film is not included. Still, the time he took to consider his original film has clearly paid off: every element is crystal clear, thematically strong, and perfectly balanced. It also features the beautiful Ayako Wakao, who appeared in many films by Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Ichikawa. A serious contender for my favourite of Ozu's films, and an undeniable masterwork of cinematic drama.

1962's AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON isn't technically a remake, but it sure feels like a thematic remake of LATE SPRING, as both deal with the relationships between fathers and daughters. As with LATE SPRING, AUTUMN features a lonely widower who wants his daughter to find a husband and life of her own. In fact, it feels like LATE SPRING if it had been directed by Billy Wilder; it has not just the pathos of Wilder, but the colour palette, production design, and framing. This was Ozu's last ever film, and it contains more confidence than he'd previously shown. It's a brilliant piece, and even though I consider FLOATING WEEDS to be the superior film, AUTUMN is, in many ways, a step forward for the man. He augments every moment of even slight bleakness with tremendous humour, and even the film's lowest moments -- when, for instance, main character Hirayama sees a potential vision of his future in a pathetic co-worker -- are played for laughs as much as they are drama. The final ten minutes of the film, made all the more poignant knowing these were the final ten minutes of Ozu's career, are among the finest he ever put to film. A superb ending to a superb filmography.

Conclusion: My first experience with Ozu was an intense one, as I devoured seven films in a very short amount of time. But I feel like I've benefited from that: Ozu's style and themes are all the clearer to me following this immersion, and being steeped in so many films at once gives me a view to the thread his talents I might not otherwise have picked up had I watched them months or even years apart. I always go into these legendary films expecting to be astonished by the technique, but never personally moved; it is always a shock, then, when they grip me so deeply, and their greatness becomes something I don't just objectively observe, but subjectively feel. These films touched me deeply, and though I feel I should have seen his films long ago, I can say that the wait was more than worth it.

The extras: Commentaries on four out of seven of the movies by leading Australian film academics; trailers for EARLY SUMMER, TOKYO STORY, OHAYO, FLOATING WEEDS and AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON; a forty minute tribute to Ozu featuring the likes of Claire Denis, Wim Wenders, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and the great Aki Kaurismaki; a rare 1985 documentary by Wim Wenders called TOKYO GA, in which Wenders travels to Japan to find the Tokyo of Ozu's films; deleted scenes from TOKYO GA; some stills galleries; two booklets featuring illustrated essays, one on TOKYO STORY and one on Ozu's career as a whole; and, most notably, a two hour documentary from 1983 looking at the life and career of Ozu.

Should you buy it: It's a pricey item, but the value for money is tremendous. There are few box sets out there that contain this much quality, nor so many of cinema's greatest moments. You absolutely must pick this one up.

NEXT WEEK

- McG to direct the film adaptation of a piece of cardboard he found with some some dominos on it

- International authorities will enter TRON's Grid in search of Julian Assange, rumoured to be running the End of the Line Club

- Sam Worthington promises the third CLASH OF THE TITANS movie will be way better than the sucky one currently in production

Merry Christmas,

Latauro
AICNDownunder@hotmail.com

Readers Talkback
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  • Dec. 24, 2010, 5:37 p.m. CST

    Hanna Looks nuts

    by macheesmo3

    Even though I get this nasty feeling she was "grown" by the agency and Bana's job was to train her in seclusion. In other words, Blanchettes character planned the whole thing to get a super soldier.... But, I could be wrong!

  • Dec. 24, 2010, 7:08 p.m. CST

    "They do this on their cell phones whilst..playing a round of gold"

    by CHRISTIAN_BALE_TRASHED_MY_LIGHTS

    One day, when I'm a multi-millionaire, I too shall play a round of gold.

  • Dec. 25, 2010, 6:37 a.m. CST

    by mwhyntie

    These may be some of the most over the top reviews I’ve ever read. Do you know how many movies have been made? A shitload. And you’re comparing Aronofsky, Helena Bonham Carter and Mike Leigh to the greatest of all time. Look, I’m an Aussie and I’m all for these reviews, and I’m sure they are very good movies, but take it easy on the hyperbole a little. Give some of these movies the time they may need to appreciate rather than praising all to this extent. I mean, from all considerations Black Swan is good, very good, but the last thing it is is subtle. But I don’t want to make assertions before I see it. I mean ‘Tony Scott's UNSTOPPABLE is a lynchpin of a new type of action movie’ is pretty damn over the top. It may be good or bad, but really? Tony Scott? It’s really pretty pointless a movie, I mean give it a year and no one will give a fuck. These are well written reviews though. Enjoyable reading. And I don’t want to pass judgement and I know you’re a critic and all, and I like Aronofsky as much as the next person, but pretty over the top. I just dislike reviews that pertain to be the be all and end all.

  • Dec. 25, 2010, 2:03 p.m. CST

    Black Swan is a overrated piece of shit.

    by Frye777

    "One of the Greatest Filmmakers of All Time"?? You fucking nuts. This Darren guy tries soooo hard to be in the same league as Lynch, Kubrick or Cronenberg but the truth is there is not a single original artistic idea in Black Swan. Blatant symbolism is in there for sure. Plenty. But the whole thing is so superficial that is hard to watch it. Of course it is mysterious and confusing so lets call it a materpiece, right? You snobs make me wanna puke.

  • Dec. 25, 2010, 5:21 p.m. CST

    mrwhyntie

    by DrPepperPHD

    What Latauro probably meant was: "Tony Scott's UNSTOPPABLE is a linchpin of a new SHITTY type of action movie." He was just attempting(& actually succeeding to some degree) to be coy about his mockery of the film. ;) <p> Happy Holidays to All!

  • Dec. 25, 2010, 11:44 p.m. CST

    mwhyntie

    by BadMrWonka

    At first I assumed you must have just stopped at the intro to Latauro's Unstoppable review, since to assume that you read it in its entirety, and still thought he was heaping hyperbolic praise on it is, well, pretty hard to imagine. Then again, you wrote the sentence, "I just dislike reviews that pertain to be the be all and end all." I'm not even sure which word you're attempting to use there. Pretend? Portend? Purport? You ought to write for Sarah Palin, she loves to enviscerate the English language with new words and meanings!

  • Feb. 4, 2011, 10:55 a.m. CST

    Thanks, latauro, for reading my mind so well.

    by _Palmer_Eldritch

    I have rarely read a review that encapsulates my feelings toward a movie as spot-on as your Black Swan review. I watched that film with my girlfriend at a 11pm screening on a workday and was expecting to be asleep after 10 minutes, but man, was I wrong. <p>A true, lasting masterpiece indeed (which, btw, is precisely the reason it will never win Best Picture or Director). Have you read Poe's William Wilson? Freud's writings on narcissism? Kafka? Stevenson? There are so many great, crazy, wild but subtle references, allusions and sparks of genius in this film. And the directing is spot on. Fuck the haters - this is, for once, a film made by a guy who knows his shit and is willing to show it in every single frame. <br> So glad to see this is doing well in various countries, especially the US. people do still have taste.

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