AICN-Downunder: MAO'S LAST DANCER, PAPER HEART, WHATEVER WORKS, And Carn The Saints!
Published at: Sept. 23, 2009, 11:02 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
If it wasn't for sexual inadequacy, the NRA would go broke.
I didn't review FUNNY PEOPLE for a variety of reasons; mostly, it was to do with the too-fast turnaround between the media screening I attended and the film's release date, but it also had a lot to do with my inability to put my finger on what I thought of the film. I think I found it to be wonderful and flawed in equal measure, but I'm still thinking about it.
Regardless of the film itself, it did actually contain what may well be my favourite cinematic moment of 2009: Eric Bana sits Adam Sandler and Seth Rogan down on his couch in front of all his Saints memorabilia and widescreen television so they can watch a finals match between the Saints and Collingwood that he'd just got in from the satellite (or something similar).
It's not just that I am a lifelong, third-generation Saints fan myself (hardly an obsessive follower, but a loyal one nonetheless), or that Bana himself was a fan. It was that I was watching this film on September 7. The day beforehand, the Saints had played Collingwood in a finals match. And the Saints had won.
The film could have stopped abruptly at that point and the cinema could have caught on fire and someone could have stolen my wallet and I still would have been beaming ear-to-ear. Aussie Rules isn't well known outside of Australia, and in typical self-depricating fashion, it's not even that popular in most parts of Australia. (In Sydney and Brisbane, for instance, the sport of choice is rugby, with AFL garnering the occasional mention. In Melbourne, where I live, the reverse is true.) The character Eric Bana was playing was, so the story goes, a rugby fan in the original script. Bana had it changed to Australian Rules, and made sure his team of choice was St Kilda.
Tomorrow (depending on when you're reading this), is the Grand Final. The equivalent of the World Cup or the Super Bowl or the World Series or the Tony Awards, the big end-of-season game. The Saints, after what I believe to be their best season ever, play the Geelong Cats. I don't know which way the match will go, but I can guarantee that my fingernails will be chewed down to the quick until the final siren blows. If the Saints do win, it will be our first Grand Final win since 1966. Where we won by a point. Kicked in the final seconds of the game. Against Collingwood.
Kismet? The power of cinema? An extraordinary coincidence? It doesn't matter. CARN THE SAINTS!
The reasons why BALIBO is the most important film of 2009 are many, but there's no denying the most distinctive one. The Australian Federal Police has launched an inquiry into the 1975 deaths of the Balibo Five. As has been suggested (particularly in the recent film), the deaths were no accident, and not the result of crossfire between soldiers, as has been claimed by Australian governments for three decades. There has been much speculation that the Indonesian and Australian governments both played significant roles in the deaths of the journalists. The truth of the matter will hopefully come out in the AFP's inquiry. There is no doubt that the inquiry was spurred on by Robert Connolly's film; I was obviously being facetious above when I said the power of cinema had something to do with the performance of the Saints, but this here is the true demonstration of what a stunningly-made, important film can do.
Below, you'll see my review of Bruce Beresford's MAO'S LAST DANCER, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to a reportedly huge response (the film, not my review -- my review might get into Slamdance, though). Beresford, buoyed by what I suspect will be his best-received film to date, has launched straight into ZEBRAS, written by famed Australian playwright David Williamson (who also worked on the script to BALIBO). The film previously had Chris Noonan (MISS POTTER, BABE) attached (click to see Noonan talking to me about it in 2007!). The film follows the true story of an Australian soccer coach who led a multi-racial South African soccer team in the 1980s. According to Inside Film, production will begin in March of next year.
Rachel Hurd-Wood was the best thing about the uninspiring PETER PAN film from 2003, and so it's wonderful to see that she's been cast in Stuart Beattie's TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN. Hurd-Wood will play Corrie McKenzie, a character I'd like to pretend I know all about even though I haven't read the book since I was in year eight. Hurd-Wood joines Chris Pang, Deniz Akeniz, Andy Ryan, Licoln Lewis, Phoebe Tonkin, Ashleigh Cummings, and Caitlin Stasey, the latter of whom will portray the film's central character Ellie, the only one I actually do remember from the book. I was in a bookshop earlier today and counted nine books in John Marsden's unwavering popular series. I smell a nonalogy!
So, last column I was complaining that Roadshow was relegating Kathryn Bigelow's brilliant THE HURT LOCKER straight-to-DVD, bypassing the cinema altogether. In the words of Gene Wilder: "Wait. Scratch that. Reverse it." Have your champagne corks at the ready: it's coming to the cinema. I heard a rumour that "media pressure" had something to do with it, and though it would be nice to think that we have any sort of power in situations like this, I'd much rather believe that they watched the film and realised it was possibly the best thing they'll release all year. Trust me, Antipodeans, this is a film that needs to be seen BIG!
The great Australian actor Ray Barrett passed away recently aged 82. He won a Best Actor AFI Award for his performance in Fred Schepisi's THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH, but was probably best known for his role opposite John Hargreaves and Graham Kenneddy in DON'S PARTY. He was a reliable mainstay of both television and cinema, appearing in films such as BRILLIANT LIES, HOTEL SORRENTO and AUSTRALIA, as well as the mini-series "After the Deluge". (Personally, I always loved his brilliant performance in the 1964 "Doctor Who" episode "The Rescue"!) He will be missed, but with such an extraordinary list of credits to his name, he will certainly not be forgotten.
AWARDS, FESTIVALS AND SCREENINGS
THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO
I suspect everyone in the Australian film community (assuming, as I am, that there is one) is rooting for THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO. It's hard enough for Australian films to get noticed amongst the glossier US fare and the apparently-more prestigious European/Asian fare, but these guys are working without a distributor. They've begun their release in South Australia at one local cinema chain, and momentum is growing. Apparently, if you look at the per screen national average, FIGARO came in second last week, beaten only by UP. I'd say that's damned impressive. To repeat my previous request, if anyone in Adelaide catches this film, shoot me off a review and I'll publish it in the next column (subject to various conditions I'll make up along the way, of course).
2010 Melbourne International Film Festival Premiere Fund
If there's a film festival trend I love, it's Premiere Funds. In exchange for the world premiere, film festival set you up with a significant amount of funding for your project. It's the best type of bribery in the world today. MIFF is gearing up for 2010, with funding provided for MACHETE MAIDENS & MIDGET MAYHEM, a documentary about Filipino genre filmmaking from NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD director Mark Hartley. I think it might already be my favourite film of next year. Other films in the fund include psychological thriller BLAME, KIN, MATCHING JACK, and documentary BEN LEE: CATCH MY DISEASE from BASTARDY director Amiel Courtin-Wilson.
With CHARLIE AND BOOTS scraping in at number six, we almost had an Aussie film in the top five. Whilst I've got you here, for those interested in interesting articles about box offices results (as opposed to 95% of box office articles, which are usually pap), check out this piece from the blog Grog's Gamut about whether or not BALIBO is a flop or a success. Terrific read.
Ken Loach's new favourite film comes out, a new indie film redefines "summer tentpole", SPINAL TAP gets adapted into a documentary, Ana Kokkinos makes the long-awaited biopic of Brian Blessed, an Australian documentary about Aboriginal resettlement actually does contain aliens and rockets (like its namesake SF film), I couldn't be happier that I've avoided all knowledge about this film, Judd Apatow abandons the comedy form for a drama with funny bits in it, Disney cleverly counter-programs some crap to help UP's box office, Eddie Murphy must surely now be a husk of a human being, Tatia Rosenthal's new favourite film comes out, the Little Film That Could begins rolling out in South Australia, I defer all comments to my review below, Miyazaki makes a beautiful film that looks more at home circa MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO, Chris Evans becomes psychic, the French deliver their version of a superhero story (religious housekeeper by day, nature-loving painter by night), I say so long as Robert Rodriguez is happy we should leave him alone, how did I miss the screenings for this awesome-looking Aboriginal stoner comedy?, noted AICN talkbacker Bruce Willis beats James Cameron to the avatarish punch, Pixar takes my emotions and jumps on them in the most loving way possible, Australian cannibal historic is both good and bad at the same time, and we finally get the fashion-based sequel to Bertolucci's 1987 biography.
500 DAYS OF SUMMER
ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL
LOOKING FOR ERIC
THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO
UP VAN DIEMEN'S LAND
VALENTINO: THE LAST EMPEROR
MAO'S LAST DANCER
Australian release: October 1
Jan Sardi is probably the best-known screenwriter in Australia. Though I find it sad that our film culture doesn't celebrate writers the way it should (What's Wrong With Our Industry Reason #149) I do take comfort in the fact that our most celebrated working scripter is one worth celebrating. SHINE, folks, was not a one-hit wonder.
The story of Li Cunxin, the boy taken from relative poverty in China and turned into one of the country's best ballet dancers, is clearly a tough one to tell. Based on Cunxin's memoirs, the film jumps about in its timeline in a way that serves the story brilliantly. We see Cunxin's Maoist upbringing juxtaposed with his discovery of American culture, and each strand complements the other in a way that makes the story more than just the sum of its parts. Biopics of late (especially those about artists) have tended to stick to a rigid, yet frustratingly understandable, formula. The ups, the downs, the redemption. It's why such different men as Ray Charles and Johnny Cash can end up with biopics that appear to have used the same shooting script. Life isn't a story, but when you try to compress it down to two hours, the temptation is, of course, to cherry pick the elements that best fit the traditional rags-to-riches plotline, and so we end up with a true life story that looks less believable than the more creative works of fiction playing the adjoining cinema.
MAO'S LAST DANCER avoids this pitfall with change to spare, and though it does flirt with moments of intense mawkishness, these are immediately balanced out with the impressive restraint shown elsewhere. Every performance, particularly including those by all the actors who portray Cunxin, are fantastic.
...with one exception: Bruce Greenwood. I don't mean that Greenwood doesn't hit fantastic; I mean that he exceeds it. He left fantastic a long way back, and hasn't looked back. If you think I'm being hyperbolic, then you probably haven't seen the film yet. I'm calling it now: Bruce Greenwood is picking up a Best Supporting Actor nomination in 2010. Those of us who have enjoyed Greenwood's brilliant performances over the years may have felt it's a long time coming, but it'll be nice to see it finally coincide with his best performance. He has no showy speeches, no over-the-top moments where his emoting is zoomed in on; it's just a consistent, understated performance that grounds the entire film. Between THIRTEEN DAYS and MAO'S LAST DANCER, the lesson is clear: he should continue working with Australian directors wherever possible. They obviously get his best out of him.
Speaking of Australian directors, this is Bruce Beresford's best film in years. His not-inconsiderable skill is matched to a worthy screenplay, a true-life story that has something important to say about the East-West culture clash in a time when the differences between our countries (the US, Australia, New Zealand, etc) and China are becoming all the more highlighted.
Australian release: September 24
There are few genres as complex and interesting and powerful and frequently misused as the mockumentary. There are so many rules that must be adhered to in order for it to work, it's almost like a style of filmmaking designed for obsessive compulsives. For a film so consistently comedic (not just funny, but with clear situational comedy), THIS IS SPINAL TAP never deviates from its clearly-defined parameters of faked reality. If you forget the warping reputation that THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT suffered from, you find a film that it takes its very simple setup and runs with it. Sure, many have mistaken its ramping tension for boredom, but its shocking ending was not shocking because the film broke its conventions, but because it stuck to them so well.
The mockumentary is the only genre that stops working once you start bending and breaking its rules, which is why I'm so surprised that recent films have chosen to do so without any real thought as to the end result. Doing a monster movie as a mockumentary is an inspired idea, but CLOVERFIELD failed because it never really tried to convince you it was real (be it the clumsy explanation of why the filming was taken place, the thinly-drawn characters, the clichéd movie-plot mission, or the dialogue that felt like dialogue). BRUNO didn't even bother pretending it was a mockumentary, content with applying a fake mockumentary (meta-mockumentary?) style -- in which unassuming "real world" people directly acknowledged the presence of the camera -- to a relatively straightforward narrative.
PAPER HEART, a film in which comedienne Charlyne Yi attempts to find out what love actually is, straddles the line more carefully than anything that has come beforehand. The film had an unintentional hire-wire-act feeling in my eyes, as I was unable to stop myself trying to catch them out. It never once breaks the rules, but it does place quite a lot of stress on them.
Yi believes she is unable to love, and during the making of the film, finds herself courted by Michael Cera (who, I'm told, is her real life boyfriend). Where their relationship goes, I shan't spoil, but every time it veers dangerously towards traditional narrative territory, it corrects it course and returns to plausibility.
I know not everybody shares my anal-retentive critique of mockumentaries, so this review may seem unfairly weighted towards the theory behind the genre, but I feel it's key to whether the film works or not. (Really, ever film should be judged purely upon what it sets out to achieve and nothing else.)
Michael Cera may not be the most versatile actor of his generation, but he's got his awkward semi-doltish character down to a fine art, and his fans (of which I count myself) will find a lot to enjoy here. Yi, whom I'd never heard of before this film, is also likable in a deliberately distancing way, with a persona that seems like the logical conclusion of that self-aware Seth Rogan-esque character that the '00s have brought us. Rogan, incidentally, appears briefly as himself, which helps the comparison.
In tackling such a ubiquitous, yet abstract, concept of love, PAPER HEART could be seen as setting itself up for failure. Love is the most over-examined idea of all time, and it's amazing how few pieces of art actually manage to explore it, rather than just repeat it or use it as a central maguffin. PAPER HEART knows this, though. Whilst it doesn't say anything new about the subject itself, it does position itself well from the point of view of someone who seems overwhelmed by a culture that talks about little else but love. No new ground is covered, but it is, at least, not covered from a new angle, and I'll sure as hell take that over another Sandra Bullock rom-com. (Although I do realise those aren't our only options...)
I doubt it will be the zeitgeist-capturing voice of a generation that I suspect it harbours ambitions of being, but then my ability to accurately predict zeitgeists is about as finely-honed as my ability to pick Best Short Documentary Oscar winners. Regardless of all that, it's an occasionally-sweet, frequently-funny, and surprisingly interesting film that doesn't really answer its central question of "What is love?", but does a far better job than LOVE, ACTUALLY or THE NOTEBOOK (both of those, I realise, from writers I otherwise greatly admire) or any other pandering piece of nonsense, and for that alone it earns a recommendation from me.
Australian release: October 15
I think if people more commonly extrapolated the word "fan" to its root, "fanatic", you'd find a lot fewer examples of fannish proclamation. I'm not judging anyone, mind -- I use the word excessively myself. "I'm a huge fan of Ian Cuthbertson" can safely translate to "I saw him in a role once and really enjoyed his performance"; hardly a textbook case of fanaticism. When I'm using the term more sparingly, particularly with directors, I take a moment to consider their worst work. If you still enjoy an artist's style and artistic merit even when they're producing their poorest piece, you know you're a fan. And so, I count myself a fan of Steven Soderbergh, Alfred Hitchcock, Kevin Smith, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick, and so on. All fairly obvious names, particularly in geekdom, but they've all been carefully considered. It's the sort of list notable for who is left out of it rather than who is put in (and, I should stress, the above list is anything but complete).
It was Woody Allen who first led me to this theory of fannishness. I'd just seen ANYTHING ELSE and HOLLYWOOD ENDING, and despite the knowledge that the films probably encapsulated the nadir of the man's career, I still loved them. I enjoy his world, his characters, his poorest gags. I just love them. (And, as I found out recently, I'm certainly not alone in my love -- or, rather, my like -- of ANYTHING ELSE.) Clearly, I'm nuts about Woody, and so any review I write about his films should be taken with a whole truckload of salt. Unless you also consider yourself a fan, in which case, jump in!
I've been absolutely enamoured by the sudden, energetic, unexpected, exciting turn Woody Allen's career has taken, with the revelations that are MATCH POINT and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA. It's like watching a new filmmaker who has just honed their skills being turned loose in the film industry. I can't think of many filmmakers of Allen's generation who displays this sort of energy. At the moment, Scorsese is the only one who jumps to mind.
Despite the wonderful new direction he's gone in, I still yearned for the Woody of old, the one who shows us neurotics and intellectuals in Manhattan, jokes about psychoanalysts and the religious right, who still peppers his scripts with references to Karl Marx and one-liners about the inevitable entropy of the Universe. WHATEVER WORKS, you have sated me. If there was ever a film that proves you can have your cake and eat it too, this is it.
Larry David steps into the Woody role with such ease, the only clear difference in his neurotic rants is a slight change in cadence. He's playing Woody, but not, and is a glorious addition to the gallery of Wood-a-likes. Evan Rachel Wood plays the naive, sexual ingenue role with aplomb, taking a role that could have, in lesser hands, turned into a broad caricature, and humanising it. Combine all of this with the opening song -- one of my all-time favourite scenes from the Marx Bros classic ANIMAL CRACKERS -- and you'd expect I'd have zero problems with this work.
You'd expect it, but you'd be wrong. I still have a critical eye that takes notice when something doesn't quite seem right. In the film's opening scene, Larry David's character turns to address the camera directly as the other characters look around in confusion. It's a bit of a nerve-wracking moment: has Woody really lost it? Will this film school-level moment of fourth wall-breaking sink the film before it's even begun, or is there a point to it? There is a point to it. I won't spoil it, but I was a fool to doubt. 21st Century Woody is a much smarter filmmaker than he's given credit for, and I did not guess at the payoff he'd so brilliantly set up.
Similarly, a perceived lag in the middle of the film is merely a breath taken to establish the film's beautiful ending. Even if this is going south, I thought, the first half of the film was so good, I'd be happy to give this film a pass. But no, the film we think we're watching is actually a different one altogether. It's not so much about love as it is about contentedness, and given the excess of films that are -- or at least purport to be -- about love (see the above review of PAPER HEART, for instance), I'll take a film about being content any day. Something new to say from a filmmaker we've been watching for decades upon decades now? How often does that happen?
It's also a good example of how accusations of sexism and classism directed against Allen tend to completely miss the point of his characters. The critics tend to see the flawed "simpleton" characters as being created with a sort of cruel conniving, whereas the flaws they see in the endless Woody avatars are elements they themselves have spotted; mistakes that somehow passed Allen by, as if he considers such flaws to be assets. No film has done more to unwittingly dissuade this notion than WHATEVER WORKS. It's not about the superiority of male over female, of intellectualism over religion, of left over right. It's about two different worlds -- excuse the cliché -- coming together, learning to live not just with the other's flaws, but with their own flaws. Nobody is perfect, says WHATEVER WORKS, so just do what you can to make yourself happy and break some bread with one another. Whatever works.
Although the afore-mentioned ouvre-busting gems like MATCH POINT and VICKY CRISTINA will define '00s-era Woody (and rightly so), it's nice to see that even when he goes back to his ever-so-reliable roots, even when he dusts off scripts from thirty years ago (reputedly scripted with Zero Mostel in mind), he can still make a stunningly-original piece of work that verges on greatness. Yeah, I'd say I'm a pretty big fan.
UNE FEMME MARIÉE (Region 4)
The film: Flipping through the latest titles sent my way by Madman Entertainment, it was hard to go past UNE FEMME MARIÉE. This year's Melbourne International Film Festival had featured a retrospective of Anna Karena, which ended up being more significant as a Jean-Luc Godard retrospective. I'm always surprised when I realise how little French New Wave I've actually seen given I always end up as its fervent defender in late-night beer-fuelled arguments. Those arguments become more tangible with every passing ALPHAVILLE and PIERROT LE FOU, and if any film pushes the extremities of the New Wave aesthetic, it's UN FEMME. Appropriately taglined "fragments of a film", it's a work that's better seen as an experimental work than a narrative. But it's not a random series of tricks for the sake of it, like a camera test put on film; like paintings, the best experimental films are about something. They depict a scene or a moment of life. UNE FEMME MARIÉE follows Charlotte as she navigates her marriage and her affair. The film simultaneously delves deep into her psyche, forcing us to relate to her, whilst simultaneously suggesting inherent duplicitousness in a slightly misogynistic manner. Though it lacks the punch of BREATHLESS and PIERROT's inclining tension, it's Godard at his captivating best, exploiting every visual and aural trick he can muster to give us something that even now feels fresh and dangerous.
The extras: There's a commentary from Dr Adrian Martin, a notorious Australian film critic (he is, I've discovered, generally either loved or loathed). No matter what your feelings towards him are, there's no denying he's an expert on the subject: his commentary is informative, highly-detailed, and, best of all, engaging. The biggest danger of the Critical Commentary is dryness, but Martin knows how to mix the academic with the anecdotal and keep things moving. The subtitles on the disc, however, leave quite a bit to be desired. There are far too many spelling and grammatical errors, which is the sort of frustratingly obvious thing you'd expect them to have checked before authoring. The lack of extras -- besides the commentary, there is a 1964 trailer for the film and a handful of trailers for other Madman titles -- is understandable given the obscurity of the title, and is more than made up for by the excellent quality of the restoration. Seriously, this thing is damned pretty.
Should you buy it: If you don't like French New Wave, this won't change your mind about it. If you do like French New Wave, this is a pretty essential addition to your collection.
- Brian Trenchard-Smith and Nicole Kidman reunite for the Italian neo-realism-inspired sequel BMX THIEVES
- Demi Moore struggles to think of an alternate title for her phallo-centric sequel GI JANE: RISE OF THE COBRA
- Stephanie Myers confesses that the inspiration for TWILIGHT was the idea 'What if "Buffy" was really lame?' and is promptly sued by the producers of "Charmed"