AICN-DOWNUNDER: Gates of Hell, Happy-Go-Lucky, Spurlock's Osama hunt doco!
How do I say "Don't take me, take the cameraman"?
I can't remember exactly when it was, but a reader commented on one of my Next Week gags at the end of the column, saying it had made their day. That was nice, I thought, but we live in a world where balance is essential, and so I've decided to destroy the days of everybody reading. If at any point today you feel good about the world, just remember that the executive that approved the tagline for GET SMART -- "Saving the world, and loving it!" -- makes more money than you.
Well, it's a new "era" in Australian film as Screen Australia kicks off in conjunction with the new financial year. The new body brings together the Australian Finance Corporation, the Film Finance Corporation, and Film Australia, leading to the question: why did anyone think we needed three different bodies in the first place? The Australian Film Institute, however, remains its own body, as does Megan Gale. I don't know what that means.
It doesn't happen too often, so I was a bit pleased when I was offered a flight up north to attend the Australian premiere of the locally-shot THE RUINS. Due to work commitments, I had to decline, but I remember saying at the time "That's cool, I'll catch its press screening in Melbourne". I think it was maybe a day later that I received an email informing me it would be skipping its theatrical release and going straight to DVD. So, to my large contingent of horror-obsessed readers, I say: hey, Dale.
AWARDS, FESTIVALS AND SCREENINGS
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL 2008
FUGITIVE PIECES, the multi-national film about a child escaping from WWII Poland and heading to Greece and then Canada, picked up the audience award at this year's SFF. The short film favourites included Swedish film FREDERIKKE and the Isabella Rossellini short GREEN PORNO, which appears to be an edited version of the "Dr Tatiana"-esque TV show of the same name.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2008
Tickets are now on sale at www.melbournefilmfestival.com.au. I'm currently frustrated that I'm not able to see everything on the program, but I'm going to be cutting it pretty close. I'll be clogging AICN's servers come late July with another round of MIFF coverage (that's both a warning and a promise, AICN uber-editors), and I cannot, cannot, cannot wait.
FANTASTIC FEST 08
Apparently, there's this place called The Alamo Drafthouse in a town called Austin (somewhere in the south of the USA, I'm told), and they have a film festival that showcases... well, I was going to say genre films, but THERE WILL BE BLOOD premiered there, and that's not a genre piece. So I guess they just showcase really good films (THE FOUNTAIN? WILD BLUE YONDER? PAN'S LABYRINTH? What, they only accept perfect movies?). Good news, then, for Local Boy Made Good Steve Callen whose short film YOU BETTER WATCH OUT (starring the ubiquitous Stephen Curry) has been selected to screen amongst some of the very-promising looking films like THE SUBSTITUTE, EAGLE EYE and DONKEY PUNCH.
5. THE LOVE GURU
RELEASED IN THE LAUGHABLY INORDINATE AMOUNT OF TIME SINCE THIS COLUMN WAS LAST PUBLISHED
Robbie Robertson doesn't go visiting, released film gets description, the prequel to Tim Burton's BATMAN (as is my understanding) finally comes out, Latauro missed this film by this much, far too much money is spent on ensuring Will Smith retains the July 4 opening, Mike Leigh makes yet another feel-good romp, it's clearly been a very long time since the last column if KUNG FU PANDA is on here, Mike Myers in some piece of crap, Meryl Streep in some piece of crap, Eddie Murphy in some piece of crap, Australian film, Australian film, Chinese film, and Adam Sandler in some piece of crap.
THE BAND'S VISIT
CHILDREN OF THE SILK ROAD
THE DARK KNIGHT
FILM 7 WITH LINK
KUNG FU PANDA
THE LOVE GURU
UP THE YANGTZE
YOU DON'T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN
Since my last column, I've reviewed HANCOCK and the brilliant NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD. The NQH review isn't my best writing, but that's because I was so excited by what I'd just seen, I kind of exploded my praise onto the keyboard without thinking about style. And you can count that as yet another recommendation.
GATES OF HELL
If somebody told me that they'd just made a film that's like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE meets BLAIR WITCH 2: BOOK OF SHADOWS, I'd punch them in the groin and set about killing their family members. Not that I don't like the original MASSACRE, but the remake left a nasty taste in my mouth, and BLAIR WITCH 2 was such a laughably misguided film, I couldn't help but wonder if the whole thing was financed by Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel.
Superficially, that's how I'd describe GATES OF HELL. It's about a small group of guys and gals making a horror film on a mysterious site, before they're attacked by something horrific. That description would, however, leave a lot of things out. For starters, it's a low budget Australian film that bumped into the high fences that are the Film Finance Corporation guidelines, and went towards private investment. Secondly, it's a film that understands its horror history, unlike MASSACRE: REDUX and BW2. The scares are genuine. The horror manages to be graphic and gory without disrespecting the characters... by which I mean there are scenes in which the most horrible things happen to people, but the film treats it as horrible, not as semi-pornographic entertainment. It was only when I saw it done like this that I realised how many recent horror films consider flesh fodder to be just that.
The film begins with a man standing at large iron gates. It's raining. It's the 1950s. A pretty blonde woman in black waits in a car, looking pensive. An old woman approaches from the other side of the fence. It's a terrific, moody opening, and it establishes two very important things: this film is very well shot, and has some of the best production design I've seen from this country.
From there, the film takes a slight dip. It's modern day, and our five young leads are in a car approaching their movie location. I grimaced at the put-on American accents. On one hand, I understand the need to appeal to a foreign market; on the other, I feel like we're betraying ourselves every time we pretend we're American to make a sale. But the odds are stacked against low budget local films, so I'm not going to be too hard on this point.
Thankfully, the film picks up when night comes and the horror elements kick in. I don't want to spoil too much, as a lot of my enjoyment of the film -- and yes, I did enjoy it a lot -- came from trying to figure out what was going on. The film would work if the only question raised was "How will they get out of it alive?", but there's more going on. There's actually some mystery to who is after them, and the degree of trouble they're in.
The highlights involve the afore-mentioned cinematography (by Marc Windon), and the production design that looks like it cost ten times more than it actually did. The decrepit house and property are an essential element of the film, and production designer Justin Dix (who worked on episodes II and III of STAR WARS, as well as ROGUE and STORM WARNING) does a brilliant job. Michael Piccirilli, a near-dead-ringer for Guy Pearce, exudes charisma as the director of the film-within-a-film, and Samantha Noble, who was so good in COURT OF LONELY ROYALS, is even better here.
The film is directed by Kelly Dolen, who breaks a long-standing local tradition by making a film for an audience. It's fitting that this film should be about to hit just as the brilliant NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD is beginning to cause a resurgence of the 1970s Ozploitation flicks. Yes, we can make genre films, and Dolen appears to be part of a wave that recognises the dearth of such movies, and is doing something about it.
GATES OF HELL won't be to everyone's taste, but it's light years ahead of most of the horror that's come out in recent years. It's about to hit the festival circuit, so keep an eye out for it. Definitely worth your time.
I know, it's been out for a few weeks, but you've just finished reading your five hundredth DARK KNIGHT REVIEW, so why not talk about something else for a bit?
I'm a bit of a latecomer when it comes to Mike Leigh. If I remember correctly, my first Mike Leigh film was... this one. (Fear not, Mike Leigh fans, this is going to be amended soon.) I wasn't sure what to expect, other than the catchcry of "kitchen sink!", a term frequently and lazily used by reviewers like... well, like me.
I call it a lazy term in reference to this film, because even though you can probably get away with calling HAPPY-GO-LUCKY a kitchen sink film (the same way you could get away with calling LA STORY comedy or STAR WARS science fiction), I think I laughed more during this film than nearly any other I've seen this year. The film is about a girl named Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a thirty-year-old primary school teacher who is happily bubbly, almost to the point of annoyance. And really, that's it.
Well, that's not it. It's very easy to say that nothing happens in this film -- what with the distinct lack of compelling narrative -- but an awful lot happens. It's like Mike Leigh took this incredibly interesting and rich character, and instead of placing her in a contrived or disconnected story, simply showed us a fraction of her life. This fraction involves a handful of driving lessons, a couple of dance lessons, some classes, a back problem, a visit to her pregnant sister... Nothing that would suggest the sort of film Rob McKee would be dying to empty his wallet over. It's a slice of life that's honest in that you don't feel it's any more remarkable than other slices of her life would be. It's just the one we happen to be watching. Still, the film is oddly captivating, and the direction of the film doesn't really become clear until its beautifully understated final scene.
There's no massive revelation there, by the way. Don't go in expecting a character piece with a USUAL SUSPECTS ending. No, this is a film that is most definitely about something, it's just up to us whether we want to go diving for it or not. Usually, I do. Usually, I love peeling away the layers of a film like this to get to its chewy centre, but this time I'm actually happier leaving it. At least, until my next viewing. It's quite likely I'll revisit it in the future and get something else out of it, but for now, I'm happy simply being aware of the fact that the film does have deeper meanings without needing to examine what they are. For, superficially, this film is pure enjoyment. It's incredibly realistic, perhaps too much if the reviews are anything to go by (Poppy has been accused of being unrealistic, because we practically never see characters like her in films, despite the fact that they exist in real life a lot).
Though the tone of the film ranges from spontaneous realism bordering-on-documentary, to the occasional moment of contrived dialogue that simply wants to be spontaneous and real, it is a remarkably watchable movie in the way that movies like this usually aren't. Just like THIS IS ENGLAND last year took one of my most despised genres and used it to make one of my favourite films, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY takes a formula that simply shouldn't work, and creates a work that not only leaves you incredibly satisfied, but actually wanting to go and see it again.
WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?
They say all publicity is good publicity. On the other hand, I say never trust anything told to you by a pronoun, so who are you going to believe?
I don't know whose idea it was to leak the rumour that Morgan Spurlock had found Bin Laden and interviewed him for his documentary. If it was someone behind the film, it was the dumbest idea in the history of marketing. If it was someone trying to sabotage the film, then it was a stroke of genius. Most likely, it was a misunderstanding, but that's not nearly as interesting.
See, when that rumour broke, my head nearly exploded. I emailed everyone with this news (something I don't normally do with film-related stuff), partly because I thought that if it were true, it would probably change the documentary form forever, but mostly because I knew it wouldn't be true, and I wanted to ride the high of that news for a little bit longer. Think about it. A documentary maker finding the world's most wanted man. I don't even know where to begin describing what effect that would have had.
On the other hand, I know what effect a false rumour has. When it came out that Spurlock hadn't actually found Bin Laden and was simply looking for him, my interest in the film suddenly dissipated. The reviews published on this very site that described the style of the film suggested one I would pretty much despise. And though I enjoyed SUPER SIZE ME, it didn't leave me with any sort of loyalty to Spurlock that would tilt me one way or the other with his follow-up.
Quite surprising, then, that the film isn't all that bad. I like it quite a bit, and though I dislike it parts of it quite a bit as well, it isn't the film I thought it was going to be.
Yes, it does present the hunt for Bin Laden and the war on terror in a very superficial way. The video game framing is as explicit and heavy-handed as we've heard, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Spurlock isn't trying to present us with a treatise on the War on Terror. In fact, this film isn't really for us.
Making a documentary where the filmmaker is also the star commodity means one thing: defining yourself against Michael Moore. Whereas Moore and his famous political beliefs now appeals to one group only (the people who already agree with him), Spurlock actually attracted a new kind of audience. This was an audience that did not necessarily go out and seek new docos, but wanted to see the spectacle of a man eating nothing but McDonald's for a month. It was trash TV done well and on the big screen, and any "message" was purely coincidental.
He is now, though more overtly, trying to appeal to the same audience. He wants the audience that loves wrestling, plays video games, and would get a kick out of seeing a redneck hunting down the notorious terrorist. That's who he's making the film for, and I actually respect that. He's presenting it as a DIE HARD-esque, RAMBO-like, man-on-a-mission action movie, but instead of kicking ass, he's learning important lessons about how the Middle East actually works.
It's a good device, and does its job. The central message seems to be: hang on a second, not all Muslims hate America! In fact, most of them just want peace, and can't stand Al Qaeda or Bin Laden!
The film's intent is quite obviously to foster understanding, and it's difficult for me to dislike it because of that. Any film -- hell, any thing -- that tries to cultivate understanding where it might not have existed previously gets extra marks in my book. However, it does have its failings.
For starters, there's a ticking clock device that's meant to give us a sense of heightened tension. Spurlock's partner is about to give birth, and he has to find Bin Laden before the baby comes out! And she's been having contractions! Oh noes! Though I do think that the initial setup of "What kind of world am I bringing a kid into? I need to get rid of this terrorist!" is a good one, absolutely zero sympathy is elicited from the couple being apart. Nothing has compelled him to leave the mother of his unborn child so late into her pregnancy, other than the fact that the thought has suddenly occurred to him. It makes him look pretty irresponsible, and does the film no favours either. A swift edit-out of this storyline would have been a good idea.
Secondly, though it's obvious from the tone of the film that he's not actually going to find Bin Laden -- instead of actively investigating where he could be, he wanders about asking people if they know where OBL is -- it does sort-of end with him copping out. Part of me is glad that he did, as it seemed very much like he'd reached the line where any further and a decapitation was going to happen, but in terms of the film, it does seem a bit... limp. And I don't even mind that he's just asking randoms over and over again whether they know where Osama is, because it isn't so much a serious question as it is a way to start a conversation on the topic of terrorism... though it does get quite repetitive.
Also repetitive is the theme I praised earlier, the whole "Hey, they actually want peace and don't hate us and can't stand Bin Laden!". It tends to get repeated an awful lot, and even though many of the individuals we meet are interesting, they don't tend to offer us much that we didn't get from the last five interviews.
It's a flawed film, and it does begin to get tedious, but again, I don't think I'm its intended audience. And I think it has the capacity to maybe do a little good, so I'm going to let my politics overtake my critical judgment, and give it a reserved recommendation.
HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY
Honest question: was the first film any good?
I remember enjoying it a great deal when it came out, an unexpectedly funny film that was happy to be gross, but also happy to break convention and do something a bit different.
I ask, because the second HAROLD AND KUMAR didn't really do it for me. That's not entirely true... every moment with Neil Patrick Harris is utterly brilliant, and there are a couple of scenes that are pretty funny. John Cho is the best reason to watch the film though, as he seems to elevate the worst material he's given.
It's a film that doesn't inspire the sort of numerous paragraphs that WHERE IN THE WORLD just did, but those in Australia and New Zealand who missed the mini-glut of US reviews when it came out over there may be wondering if it's worth the trouble. That all depends on whether I'm remembering the first film with rose colours or not, and I don't have the inclination to rush out and find out.
Fans of gross-out comedies will get a lot out of this. Those who don't generally enjoy this genre will only find a few moments of amusement amongst the turds of... well, turd jokes.
AND WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER?
Jim Broadbent plays a dying man, who is being cared for by his family. His son, Colin Firth, comes home to help put his affairs in order and reminisce about the highs and lows of his childhood.
If it sounds like a film that's going to be primarily watched by elderly ladies on a Sunday afternoon, that's exactly what it is. Even so, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a character-based drama that's propelled by the performances of its leads, and even though it occasionally starts to wear out its welcome, it's quickly pulled back in by a well-directed scene, or a moment of Broadbent/Firth charisma.
It's also got some of the most disparate cinematography I've ever seen. The interiors are shot so very well, and the metaphor of the broken mirrors is used to full effect. Unfortunately, a lot of the exteriors, mostly at the beginning, are shot quite poorly. I'm not sure why that is, but I'm surprised to see it on a film of this scale.
Particular highlights include the leads, Elaine Cassidy, Carey Mulligan (Sally Sparrow!), and newcomer Matthew Beard, whose performance as the awkward teen version of Colin Firth's character is handled perfectly.
There's not much else to say about the film (particularly if you're burned out after writing so many reviews... sorry), but it's largely inoffensive, though not terribly unforgettable.
- Platinum Dunes hires the director of FEAR.COM to helm their new internet-inspired remake SOMETHING WIKI THIS WAY COMES
- Dreamworks greenlights UNLIKELY ANIMAL THAT ENGAGES IN UNEXPECTED SPORT OR ACTIVITY
- Mike Myers announces plans to literally shit on his fans, by way of cutting down on production costs