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AICN-Downunder: THE READER, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, And Your Chance To Lick Cate Blanchett!

I am involved in high treason with all means available to me. Can I count you in?



2009 is already a better year for cinema than 2008. I'm two films off completing my Oscar round-up (MILK and DOUBT will be watched in a mini-marathon this weekend), and though there are no contenders for my Best of All-Time list, I've already seen quite a few that may be on the Best of the Year list. And this time last year the only contender I had was WALK HARD. Even VALKYRIE (reviewed below), which certainly won't be on my best list, was really enjoyable, and definitely worth the price of admission (had I paid). The moral is to get out there and go see some good cinema... once you've finished this column. Happy Australia Day!


Oscar nominations are in, and if you haven't read about this elsewhere, then how on Earth did you find this column? Anyway, to give out-shouts to local kids made good, the big news is the posthumous nomination given to Heath Ledger for his role as someone in something. Sorry, I hate doing research. Catherine Martin was given a perplexing nomination for the costumes in AUSTRALIA (how much work does it take to rub dirt into Hugh Jackman's shirt, anyway?). As much as I thought DARK KNIGHT was overrated, where the hell was its costume nomination? And how did Deakins not get a nod for REVOLUTIONARY ROAD? Okay, sorry, off-topic. Australian Lee Smith received a well-deserved nomination for editing DARK KNIGHT, as did compatriot Ben Snow for his work on IRON MAN visual effects.

Prediction: every bit of news about film financing over the next couple of years will begin with "The economic downturn certainly hasn't hurt the film industry...". Film Victoria, Victoria's film funding body responsible for films in Victoria, has just injected seven million dollars into local films and documentaries. Productions include THE LOVED ONES, I LOVE YOU TOO, LOVE AND MORTAR, and PRISON SINGS, which will presumably be renamed PRISON LOVES.

Because it's a slow news day, Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman and Geoffrey Rush have all seen their pictures appear on stamps in Australia. Quoth Blanchett: "I am utterly, deeply humbled and chuffed by the fact that I'm a stamped. I'm going to be licked by millions of Australians and I can't wait." Neither can we, Cate.



My anticipation for MARY AND MAX, Adam Elliot's follow-up to his Oscar-winning animated short HARVIE KRUMPET, is pretty high. Not only was it selected to open the Sundance Film Festival (and has been getting some rave reviews), but it's just been selected to screen in the Generation 14plus section at one of the many festivals that claims the acronym BIFF.


As part of my continued "God, the Adelaide Film Festival looks fucking great this year" series, there are a few updates to report. Last week, we said that Sarah Watts's MY YEAR WITHOUT SEX, her follow-up to LOOK BOTH WAYS, would play at the festival, and now it seems that it will be the opening night film. Perhaps less excitingly (for me, anyway), Stephan Elliot (PRISCILLA) will close out the festival with EASY VIRTUE, starring Colin Firth, Kristin Scott Thomas and Jessica Biel. Additionally, I'm more than a little intrigued by the work of Lynette Wallworth, not so much a filmmaker as a visual artist, whose piece "Duality of Light" will feature in conjunction with the festival at the Samstag Museum of Art. It's an interesting expansion on AFF's part of the typical film festival programme, and Wallwroth is an interesting choice. Her work has been displayed at the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna, the Melbourne International Arts Festival, and this year's Sundance Film Festival.


According to Inside Film, Matthew Newton's THREE BLIND MICE will play at this March's SXSW, before beginning its run on the Independent Film Channel. The film picked up the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize at last November's London Film Festival, and soon after screened at Hollywood's AFI Fest.


I've seen a lot of brilliant films over the past couple of weeks, yet this list contains one film I quite liked (BOLT) and four films whose screenings I studiously avoided. Sigh. Hopefully, next column, things will improve.



You're like Australian audiences in Summer when they're presented with an interesting foreign film: no CLASS! (lolz), Clint Eastwood warbles his way out of an Original Song nomination, Sam Mendes makes another film destined to be misunderstood, Bill Nighy saves the makeup department a lot of money, and then helps Tom Cruise smack Hitler.




Australian/NZ release: January 22

In a song I've been singing far too often lately, VALKYRIE is a film I liked but didn't love. There isn't anything inherently wrong with liking something, but when all the elements are in place for a true classic, the shortcomings (however intangible) are somewhat obvious. When a film promises greatness and delivers goodness, it's usually more disappointing than when a potentially awful film turns out to be awful. But then, promising greatness and delivering goodness seems to be Singer's modus operandi of late.

VALKYRIE tells the story of the (SPOILER ALERT) failed internal plot to kill Hitler by high-ranking members of the German army, centering on Claus von Stauffenberg, the officer who spearheaded the assassination attempt. Though I consider the events of World War II in particular to contain stories we should continue to tell and retell ("Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," says philosopher George Santayana), there is always an important question that must accompany stories of this nature: what relevance does this hold today?

If the Nazis were the biggest threat (in terms of warring humans) of the 20th Century, then surely this Century's equivalent is terrorism, particularly that of Islamic fundamentalism. Those fearing a disproportionate backlash against anyone even vaguely resembling this threat have rightly pointed out that there is a world of difference between Muslims and those who kill in the name of Islam. As such, when the film makes the point that there is a huge difference between Nazis and Germans, there is a sense that this message is timely, that it holds a huge relevance for today.

That central message -- and it's a shame Tom's already used the title A FEW GOOD MEN -- is not delivered with a massive amount of subtlety, but the parallels drawn with the Biblical story of Babylon are potent. It's this message that elevates the story from a simple retelling of an interesting event to something more profound.

Despite the ending being a matter of public record for a great many decades, there is a surprising amount of tension throughout the film. Singer still directs with more talent than most other directors. Tom Cruise gives another great performance, even if his acting does get overshadowed by tabloid nonsense. The cast is terrific, even if the disparity in styles and accents does distract. (Thankfully, this isn't as bad as, say, THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK, and doesn't detract from the film too much.)

Much like David Fincher's THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, VALKYRIE is a very, very good film that can see Greatness from where it stands. That it doesn't achieve that greatness is somewhat disappointing, but doesn't get in the way of what is a very enjoyable and (hopefully) educational film.


Australian/NZ release: February 19

The day after VALKYRIE, the screening of THE READER was scheduled. Before THE READER? A trailer for Ed Zwick's DEFIANCE. This was clearly the week of Nazi Films.

Although, that's not entirely true. THE READER is hardly a film about Nazis, although the fact that it's set in post-war Germany makes these themes unavoidable. I will confess this: I knew nothing about THE READER before I saw it. I knew the title and I knew who the two leads were. That was it. I know bleat on and on about this, but seeing a film with no expectations is the only way to fly. Had I known the big mid-film plot twist, I would have been waiting it out, looking for clues, treading water until it came. It would have tainted my perception of the film's first half.

As a result, the way the story unfolded was a marvel. Nearly every plot turn was unexpected, and though it isn't exactly a labyrinthian plot of twists and turns, it still contains a certain number of surprises. What has interested me is that this is, more than anything, a character study, and that character studies are as reliant on surprising plot revelations as are strongly narrative-driven films.

Naturally, I'm determined to not talk about any of the story so as to hopefully allow others to replicate my own experience, so I shall merely throw out the highlights: Kate Winslet is unbelievably good, Ralph Fiennes is as perfectly understated as ever, and relative unknown David Kross -- who plays the younger version of Fiennes's character for the majority of the film -- absolutely steals the show. Rather than just sticking to variations on a theme, Kross gives us a real character journey, masterfully portraying the changes that shape his character. Much credit to director Stephen Daldry who, in terms of feature films, is three for three as far as I'm concerned. Between BILLY ELLIOT, THE HOURS and now THE READER, Daldry has cemented himself as one of the most interesting and talented directors working today. Likewise, the masterful screenplay by David Hare is also to be commended.

It's a terrific film, probably the best of the year (thus far), and one you really should rush out and see.


Australian/NZ release: January 22

Sam Mendes is one of my favourite filmmakers, though my adoration of his work seems to be inverse to conventional thinking. There's no opinion you can have on AMERICAN BEAUTY that hasn't been espoused endlessly by others already ("It's brilliant!" "It's terrible!" "It's dated poorly!" "It still holds up!"), and though I've only seen it once, I did thoroughly enjoy JARHEAD... but it's ROAD TO PERDITION that does it for me. I know, it's his least popular film, but in my eyes, it's perfect. There's nothing I don't love about the film. So, it's with that memory of a perfect movie in mind that I eagerly look forward to each of his films.

REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is a very interesting film. It takes a while to figure out what kind of film it's trying to be.

Sam Mendes is at his best when he's at his most subtle. Though many think of him in relation to flowers falling onto Mena Suvari and somewhat overwrought Kevin Spacey narration, he excels when his direction is sleight of hand, when he's showing us things without it being obvious that he's doing so. His approach to REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is far more akin to ROAD TO PERDITION than AMERICAN BEAUTY; it's restrained, tempered, cunning.

Those who have seen REVOLUTIONARY ROAD may tend to disagree, and I understand completely. After all, it's a melodrama. The script, as adapted by Justin Haythe from Richard Yates's novel, is melodramatic. Characters don't just say what they're feeling, they yell it. There's no plot to speak of; it's all about these two people and how they deal with one another. Whilst Sam Mendes is more than capable of handling the melodramatic moments, he largely directs it as if it's a straightforward drama, and therein lies the key to the film's success.

I spoke in my WALL-E review of how Thomas Newman, hands-down my favourite film composer of all time, can be considered an auteur of his work. Usually, the director is the auteur, but in some cases, that unique voice of authorship can belong to the screenwriter (Charlie Kaufman), the editor (Thelma Schoonmaker), or the producer (Jerry Bruckheimer). I consider Newman to be one of the few composers -- or, perhaps, the only one -- who can lay claim to being the author of the films he scores. I believe most people haven't truly assessed the impact his scores have had on the success of the films they accompany. One person who seems to understand this above all others is Mendes. After Newman essentially gave AMERICAN BEAUTY its voice, Mendes used him to brilliant effect ever since. Here, Newman is the key that ties the dramatic elements to the melodramatic ones, so that two styles that would have been otherwise discordant and incompatible fit together seamlessly.

The script's style, it should be said, does not detract at all from its substance. This is a film that could only ever be set in the 1950s, but could never possibly be made in the 1950s. It's a complete and merciless dissemination of the American Dream, perhaps the most cutting criticism of the capitalist system that has ever come from a major Hollywood studio. Its subversiveness is hidden beautifully behind its faux conventionality, and most people who say they've seen all this before clearly haven't been paying attention.

And so, the story of two people who are coming to terms with dreams vs reality, with freedom vs money, with love vs hate, is actually a raging success. What could have been a weepy, a TV movie-of-the-week, a disposable piece of awards-bait, actually becomes a deeply affecting and utterly indisposable work of art. Those elements I spoke of, the script, the direction, the score, are fine as individual pieces, but collaborate to create something more. This film is truly more than the sum of its parts, and even though those parts -- including Roger Deakins's flawless cinematography, Leonardo DiCaprio's continued proof that he's one of the best actors working today, and Kate Winslet solidifying herself (betwen this and THE READER) as being one of the greatest actresses anywhere -- may all be brilliant, they combine into a film that is one of the best dramatic character studies we're likely to see for a long time.


- Ridley Scott to make a series of seafaring biopics about English actors, starting with WHITE SPALL

- Bob Dylan to record the theme for the next Bond film, "Bond on Bond"

- Joss Whedon to create a new TV show about a progressive electronic composer gaining a soul and solving crimes, in "Vangel"

Peace out,


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