AICN-Downunder: WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, THE FRENCH KISSERS, THE STRENGTH OF WATER, BRIGHT STAR, plus more!
Published at: Nov. 27, 2009, 11:21 a.m. CST by merrick
Let the wild rumpus start!
Doing a Best of the Year list is one thing. I actually find it relatively easy, as I keep a year-long file on my computer with all the contenders for best and worst, so really, it's mostly a matter of culling them into a list that, within a month, I'm going to wish I could change. But the best films of the decade? Yikes. I'm not ready for that.
I totally understand the rush to get these lists up and running, given we're weeks away from the decade's end, but it's a list I find too difficult to write. Am I talking my favourite films? Or maybe the most influential ones? AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH is possibly the most influential film of the decade, but it wouldn't enter my "favourites" list. And opinions change with time. It's only now that I'm looking back at the 90s and getting a real sense of what that decade looked like, which films shaped it, and how they did so. I've always felt you needed at least ten years behind you before you could properly assess a decade's impact, and so, by that logic, I'm only now ready to talk about the 1990s... but I'm probably not going to.
There's a good possibility I'm going to completely change my mind and knock together a personal, ultra-subjective top ten. In the meantime, I'm finding the whole instant-nostalgia phenomenon to be really abrupt, but still very interesting.
Filming began this week on ELIMINATED, the new film from Dee McLachlan (writer/director of THE JAMMED). In the history of sharp-left turns for sophomore films, this has got to be a contender: following up a hard-hitting drama about forced prostitution with a satire about reality TV and terrorism. In the film, a group of contestants compete in a television show for the title of Master Terrorist, completing "challenges" that further this goal. Given terrorism and reality TV are, in my mind, two of the biggest banes of the world we live in, I'm looking forward to seeing how they intertwine here.
Australian films currently on Twitter. (Don't have any New Zealand films yet -- if you know of any, please send them in!) Read about their surprisingly-interesting travels from production through post-production! Click to follow the extraordinary BALIBO, reality television/terrorism satire ELIMINATED, superhero movie GRIFF THE INVISIBLE, animated brilliance MARY AND MAX, 1980s action throwback THE NINJA, star-studded romantic drama SUMMER CODA, giant shark movie THE REEF, giant squid movie $QUID, the Charlotte Gainsbourg-starring THE TREE, awards-scooping drama SAMSON AND DELILAH, and left-field sequel THE WOG BOY 2.
SAMSON AND DELILAH (DVD reviewed below) swept this year's IF Awards, picking up Best Feature Film, Best Actor (Rowan McNamara), Best Actress (Marissa Gibson), Best Script, Best Music, and Best Director. Its main rival (in my eyes) for the best Australian film of the year, BALIBO, picked up Best Sound and Best Editing. Best Production Design went to Adam Elliot's MARY AND MAX, and Best Cinematography to BEAUTIFUL KATE. The full list of winners can be viewed here.
2009 Asia Pacific Screen Awards
SAMSON AND DELILAH, this is now getting absurd. Totally justified and well-earned, but absurd. SAMSON AND DELILAH is the first ever Australian film to be nominated in the Best Feature Film category at APSA, and topped that record by then taking out the main prize. APSA then went on to further prove itself to be one of the best awards thingies in the world by giving Best Actress to Kim Hye-ja for her amazing work in MOTHER, Best Documentary to the must-see DEFAMATION , Best Animated Film to MARY AND MAX, and Best Screenplay to Asghar Farhadi for the brilliant ABOUT ELLY, which also shared the Jury Grand Prize with THE TIME THAT REMAINS. APSA, I bow to your wisdom and good taste... and how often can you saw that about an awards ceremony?
2009 Screen Music Awards
These awards were actually held on November 2, but I somehow missed them at the time. Notable awards were Best Soundtrack Album for DEATH DEFYING ACTS, Best Original Song for BALIBO, and Best Feature Film Score for BALIBO. Want a full list of winner? Click here.
2009 DigiSPAA Digital Feature Film Competition
Producer/director Khoa Do won this year's award for MISSING WATER, which he filmed entirely on the Red One HD camera. The film recreated the story of four Vietnamese refugees on a dilapidated boat, but was shot entirely within a clothes-making factory in Sydney. It sounds kind-of awesome, and also previously picked up the CRC Award at the 2009 Sydney Film Festival. The runner-up was Jennifer Ussi's GIRL CLOCK, and will play at the Gold Coast Film Fantastic Festival in November and the La Femme Festival in LA this October.
Sao Paolo International Film Festival
I never would have guessed MAO'S LAST DANCER would divide people, but most critics seem to either love or hate it. Discussing it with friends, I actually doubt we saw the same movie, as our interpretations were not just different, but polar. The film seems to be resonating with audiences, as it's taken AU$12million at the Australian box office, which makes it the twelfth most profitable Australian film of all time at the Aus box office. The other week, it tied for People's Choice Award at SPIFF along with Pedro Almodovar's BROKEN EMBRACES.
Never has the word "saga" been more appropriate... For some reason, I didn't receive an invite to the TWILIGHT sequel, so maybe I shouldn't pass judgment. On the other hand, I saw the first one, so maybe I should. Sparkly emo vampires and popcorn genocide topped both box offices this week, providing us with the most convincing argument for the end of the world that I've heard yet.
One of my favourite spices gets made into a movie, Lars von Trier again pretends to be shocking, these meatballs really need some amreeka, the term "Kaufmanesque" becomes a pejorative, Peter Morgan and David Peace once again toy with the facts, Ricky Gervais becomes everything he once hated, this Australia/Iranian film is meant to be brilliant, the Coen Bros totally blow my mind, middle-aged musical lesbian twins reportedly make for a great doco, and vampires officially become lame.
I'm pretty sure that nobody is expecting this film. I mean, there's a degree to which you can anticipate what happens: Max is unhappy with his real life, he escapes to a fantasy world filled with wild creatures, the creatures all look amazing, etc etc... and if the film hadn't been any deeper than that, I suspect I still would have adored it. What I wasn't expecting was the relationships between Max and the Wild Things to be so complex and complicated and believable.
Most films would have begun with the idea of an unlikely friendship between a kid and a monster that wants to eat him, then built the story around that. WILD THINGS never rests on that concept. The relationships are ever-changing, motives are unclear, individuals are ruled by emotions they don't really understand and can't fully articulate. You know, the way people behave in real life.
It's amazingly complex stuff for what will seem to most people like a kid's film (some friends of mine are taking their two year old, 'cos he wants to see the "raaaarrrs!"). I'm not the first to suggest this is actually a film for adults, but I may be the first to have come to that conclusion based on a new system I worked out after I saw WILD THINGS. The amazing thing about Max is that he acts like a kid. Why, I wondered, does that surprise me? Only a few weeks ago, I marveled at how the kids in THE BOYS ARE BACK behaved like actual children, so Max's behaviour is hardly a revelation. What I realised is that this sort of behaviour only really happens in "grown-up" films. Most of the time, it's films made for kids that contain Little Adults -- thirty-year-olds trapped inside ten-year-old bodies, acting with precociousness and intelligence and capability that doesn't really reflect any kid you've ever met. I've not sorted through every film-with-a-kid to see if this theorem stand up, and even if it does, there are probably myriad exceptions to the rule. It's surprising to find a character such as Max, because I was expecting the precocious kidult necessary for such a fantasy. The fact that Max isn't a good kid or a bad kid or even always a sympathetic kid adds him to the pantheon of the most honest and believable depictions of a child in film.
Spike Jonze is now three-for-three, his place as one of the best directors working today now cemented. Dave Eggers has two screenplays to his name, both of them serious contenders for the best film of 2009. And my home town of Mornington (a ten minute drive from where I'm writing this now) looks brilliant.
It might not be the film you're expecting it to be, but the film it turns out to be is astonishing.
THE FRENCH KISSERS
Australia release: December 26 // NZ release: TBA
I think I've quoted this in a previous review, but it's hard not to think of Matt Groening's "Life In Hell" comic when I see films like THE FRENCH KISSERS: "Don't forget cinema's greatest paradox: the French are funny, sex is funny, and comedies are funny, yet no French sex comedies are funny!"
That's sort-of apropos of nothing, as THE FRENCH KISSERS is, in fact, very funny. It's only now, days after seeing it, that I realise it's essentially the French AMERICAN PIE: it's all about teens wanting to have sex, being unable to perform when suddenly confronted with it, and having to deal with mortifyingly embarrassing (yet well-meaning) parents. Although I don't mind AMERICAN PIE, THE FRENCH KISSERS clearly has a lot more going on, not because it's French and therefore "artier", but because its characters feel more real. The humour is derived naturally, not from wacky set pieces. And hey, there's room for both, but KISSERS ends up as the better film for it.
There were times where I was afraid it was veering into PRIVATE LESSONS territory, nervously asking if there's a point to it all. It's strange how much the ending affects a film. Despite the fact that every scene had been very funny and the film was holding together really well, it wasn't until the last scene that I knew whether I'd liked it or not. The film's culmination retroactively affects every scene that led to it, and, essentially, tells you what you've just been watching. "Endings are important" is hardly a Biblical revelation, but every so often you get a film that reminds you just how important they are. The ending of FRENCH KISSERS elevates it from "good" to "very, very good". It's a clever, touching, poignant, and unexpectedly uplifting way to end a film that could easily have been either meaningless or pathos-ridden.
If you're after more good news, you can take your arthouse cinema-loving uncle and your sex comedy-obsessed teenaged brother, and they'll both get a kick out of it. And how often does that happen? ( Check out the film's trailer here.)
THE STRENGTH OF WATER
Australian release: December 3 // NZ release: August 27
There is an undeniable barrier made of culture and language and age that will deeply affect your reading of a film. That's a given. Dialogue that might have bothered you in your native tongue (or, more accurately, your native ear), might not bother you if you're reading subtitles, given the subtitles are but representations of the dialogue. With older cinema, you tend to overlook less complex editing and shot structure. (That, incidentally, is not a slight on older films, merely a fact of their evolution.) These barriers don't necessarily make you love something you normally wouldn't have, but they do make it easier to forgive things normally wouldn't have.
During THE STRENGTH OF WATER, I was acutely aware that I would have a lot more problems with this film if it had been made in Australia. The setup of this New Zealand film is, without giving anything away, the story of pre-teen Maori twins living in a remote part of NZ on their family's farm. I want to call it a coming-of-age story, but that's a pretty lazy description, so I won't. But I'll hint at that, because talking about it further would give away a large, early plot point.
So why was I more forgiving than I would be if this had been shot on a sheep farm in western NSW? Broadly, although I felt I'd seen this story before, I hadn't seen a lot of the elements that came together in its telling. The landscapes are, it's impossible to deny, extraordinary, and it transpires that there are a few square kilometres remaining in NZ that Peter Jackson didn't film for LORD OF THE RINGS. I was seeing a new place, and that was important. Secondly, the Maori culture, whilst not instrumental to the film's plot, does colour each and every scene. It's beautiful and subtly handled, and it was nice seeing something we don't usually get to see. Thirdly, good child acting is always worth noting, and this has got some terrific child acting. Some terrific adult acting as well.
And yet, these wonderful elements are all added to a fairly straightforward story. I saw an unrelated short film earlier this year, introduced by its director who said "I wanted to make a film that explored grief". The moment she said that, I had an impulse to explore a little grief of my own. Although there was and is and will always be a place for low-key dramas that don't feign to be more than the character explorations that they are, there is also a tendency for those making cinema forever prefaced with the qualifying adjectives "local" and "arthouse" and "low-budget" and "culturally-relevant" to fall back on the old clichés of the genre, or movement, or mindset. These clichés are no less prevalent than the clichés in a Roland Emmerich film, and yet an unnerving amount of import is given to these stories. Stories we have seen many, many times before.
To be fair, THE STRENGTH OF WATER is one of the best examples of its kind. Its A-to-B story does have a few surprises in it, as well as some beautiful symbolism (as opposed to lazy, obtuse symbolism), and I'll repeat my earlier assertion that the whole thing looks simply beautiful. Days after seeing it, I find myself constantly reminded of the film's sense of place, its beautiful landscapes and strong character. I find my opinion veering towards the positive the more time I spend considering it. Although it has the sensation of being an oft-trodden story, it's largely impossible to fault the quality of the storytelling.
Australian release: December 26 // NZ release: TBA
This is going to be a very difficult review to write, largely because I'm not completely sure what I thought of this film. My initial reaction when the film ended was one of dislike, but this is also one of those rare instances where I'm distrusting my own reaction.
If you've not heard of it, BRIGHT STAR is the latest film from Australian director Jane Campion (THE PIANO, IN THE CUT) about the romantic poet John Keates and the love affair he had with the girl next door. The story is told from the point of view of Fanny Brawne, the girl, so much so that when Keates is introduced, I thought for a moment the name might be a coincidence.
So, where do my problems lie? For the first half of the film, I thought it was terrific. The dialogue is suitably archaic without being forced or awkward, which is a very difficult thing to achieve. The acting is superb, with Australian actress Abbie Cornish (CANDY) playing Fanny, and Ben Whishaw (I'M NOT THERE) as Keates, plus Kerry Fox, Paul Schneider and Thomas Sangster in solid supporting roles. The cinematography, locations and costumes are all beautifully rendered, so no complaints there.
Although I liked the first half, it's an appreciation that needs to be qualified. I still had a sense that all this will be great... if it's going somewhere. Whilst I don't fault the storytelling ability, I do fault the story being told (can you detect a running theme in these reviews?). Practically nothing happens in the film, and by the ninety minute mark, I was starting to find this very irritating. The ups and downs of the journey are slight, and hardly the emotional rollercoaster needed to sustain a film whose momentum is reliant entirely on how much these two people miss one another when they're not in the same room. The cynical side of me (and by "side of me", I mean "me") suspected that Keates was simply a name to cross off a list, a great writer whose life story hadn't yet been told on film. There's a shortage of literary biopics left, and I wondered if Campion had felt compelled to snatch up one of the last ones before it was too late.
Once the floodgates had opened on my sense of tedium, the realisation that nothing was actually going to really happen, my mood shifted sharply. Every minute that dragged me further away from the ninety minute mark was like nails on a blackboard, and by the time the two hours was up, I was almost angry. Two hours is a long time, and you'd better bloody earn it. BRIGHT STAR doesn't. There's at least an hour that can be dropped without the story, or even the emotional journey of the lead (which is the exact same thing as the plot, in this case) being affected.
So, why don't I trust my own opinions? Because I've been wrong about this sort of thing before. In fact, I had an identical reaction the first time I saw BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, a film I adored on my second viewing. Also, my Girl Friday came to the screening with me, and she adored it. Like, top-ten-of-the-year adored it. And she's hardly a sucker for romantic nonsense, nor are many of my critic colleagues who also seemed to think it was brilliant. So I'm not sure. Will I come to appreciate it on a second viewing? It's possible. It's also possible it'll just reconfirm how I felt the first time.
I thought it best to lay all that out clearly, because, all that said, I'm actually going to recommend you see this. I know, I know, I came out of it angry at the tedium and all that, but I'm getting the impression that mine is a minority opinion, and it would be disingenuous to shout my problems with the film when I don't fully trust my interpretation.
WAKE IN FRIGHT (November 4, Region 4)
The film: I'd somehow missed the cinematic re-release of this classic 1971 Ozploitation film earlier this year, but getting to review the Blu-Ray almost makes it worth the wait. The astonishing restoration job is done full justice in high definition, making this powerful film all the more intense. Englishman Gary Bond plays a teacher relegated to an outback schoolhouse by the education system. The Christmas holidays have hit, and he's got his chance to get out of there, if only for a few weeks. WAKE IN FRIGHT is possibly the best example I've ever seen of what can be done with a B movie. It's visceral, sure, with lashings of uncomfortably violence, dirty sex, menacing undertone, and psychological destruction. But, like the best B movies, it's extraordinarily intelligent, with a message underneath all the grit and grime. For its near-two hour running time, I sat with my mouth agape, shocked at just how damned good this film was. It's easily one of the best films of the year, regardless of which year you care to assign it to.
The extras: It's a pretty impressive package by any measurement. There's the theatrical trailer, the "7:30 Report" piece on the rediscovery of the film, an hilarious 1971 clip called "Who Needs Art?" about WAKE IN FRIGHT, an extended NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD scene about the film, a piece on the great Chips Rafferty, a commentary with director Ted Kotcheff and editor Anthony Buckley, and, most impressively, a comparison between the original print and the restored print. It's astonishing stuff. There's also a booklet that details the finding of the print and its restoration in detail.
Should you buy it: I'd probably vote this the must-have disc of the year. Both the DVD and Blu-Ray share the same special features (plus that glorious booklet), so either is fine, but watching this film in high definition was pretty mind-blowing. Get your hands on the Blu-Ray if you can.
SAMSON AND DELILAH (November 25, Region 4)
The film: Back when I saw SAMSON AND DELILAH at the start of the year, I was lamenting that such a great film wouldn't get any attention, except, perhaps, maybe at some international festivals. I was so happy to be wrong. This love story between two Aboriginal teenagers has been rightly lauded by audiences and critics as one of the best films of the year, Australian or otherwise, and its Camera d'Or win -- not to mention its other recent triumphs, listed above -- had me punching the air. I'm always pleased when local films do well, but I'm excited when films I love do incredibly. By now, you've definitely heard of the film, and I hope you've seen it.
The extras: When Beck Cole's THE MAKING OF SAMSON AND DELILAH played at the Melbourne International Film Festival, I surmised that it might be the first instance of a DVD extra premiering at a festival. The 55 minute documentary is about a hundred times better than any behind-the-scenes doco you usually get on these things. It's more candid and interesting that your standard talking heads EPK, and is the centrepiece of the extras. Also included on the two disc set are Warwick Thornton's short films NANA, GREN BUSH, MIMI and PAYBACK, plus the trailer and segments from the ABC's "Sunday Arts" and "At the Movies". Usually, I'd lament the lack of a commentary, but the sparsity of dialogue in the film suggests a commentary possibly would have been intrusive. It's a great set; it doesn't overload you with as much material as possible, but it doesn't leave you wanting more.
Should you buy it: I may have shot my wad early when I said WAKE IN FRIGHT was the must-see buy disc of the year. Let's call it a tie. It's a stunningly-brilliant film that's been done justice with this two-disc set. Get it.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD (November 18, Region 4)
The film: I find most action incredibly dull. I'm talking about your standard car chases, gun shoots, and fist fights that are frequently shoe-horned in to, antithetically, make the proceedings more exciting. It's true of any element you've seen a million times before: unless it's new or different, you're going to switch off. THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE WEIRD is the best action film of the year. Seriously. I can't remember the last time I saw action directed this well. The title suggests a Sergio Leone influence, and it's there, but it's filtered through a brilliantly batshit-crazy South Korean aesthetic. The three leads (the ubiquitous Good, Bad and Weird) are played respectively by Woo-sung Jung (THE RESTLESS), Byung-hun Lee (THREE... EXTREMES, HERO, GI JOE), and the great Kang-ho Song (MEMORIES OF MURDER, THE HOST, SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE). A film that furthers my belief that the coolest shit being made in the world today is happening in South Korea.
The extras: A decent package, with a behind-the-scenes piece, some cast and crew interviews, deleted scenes, alternative endings, and the theatrical trailer that originally made me desperate to see the film.
Should you buy it: Totally. It's South Korean insanity at its best. No Hollywood action blockbustery thing has been this exciting in years.
- The Coen Bros continue their left-field series of remakes, giving a nebbish twist to an old Hitchcock film in FAMILY PLOTZ
- The Weinstein Company announces that its forthcoming remake of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR will be remade, as they feel the yet-to-be-filmed version "doesn't quite live up to the spirit of the 2005 remake"
- The ANTICHRIST scissor-shaped vibrator is named Least Successful Merchandising Tie-In of All Time
Here we are at the end of the column, and I totally forgot to mention what I had for breakfast, the unreliability of public transport, and how much work I have to do today. Luckily, this can be amended by simply following me on Twitter.