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AICN-Downunder: NINE, Steven Soderbergh's new Australian film, and a John Hillcoat update

Directing a movie is a very overrated job, we all know it. You just have to say yes or no. What else do you do? Nothing. "Maestro, should this be red?" Yes. "Green?" No. "More extras?" Yes. "More lipstick?" No. Yes. No. Yes. No. That's directing.


2010 has a hell of a lot to live up to. Maybe I just happen to see all the great stuff and miss all the bad stuff, but when I came to put my best of list of 2009 together, I couldn't get it down to ten films. I know it's an arbitrary number, which is part of the reason I threw it out the window and listed my fifty favourite films. If you missed that list, here it is.

My first film of 2010 was not the disappointed I was tentatively expecting, which is a pretty good sign. (Check out the reviews section to find out what it was.) My favourite film of 2009 just got treated to an extraordinary Blu-Ray edition. (Check out the DVD reviews section to find out what that is.) All the "2010 Films to Look Forward To" lists have got some intriguing titles on them, and yet one film managed to elude them all, a film that nobody knew had been made until last week. (Check out the news section to see what that is.)

Excited for the new year? Professionally, yes. Personally, yes. As a film geek, definitely.


Steven Soderbergh is a wily man. See, Cate Blanchett managed to get him over to Australia to direct a play for the Sydney Theatre Company. Whilst he was here, he managed to shoot an improvised film with the cast of the play. The film has no connection to the play, actor Rhys Muldoon said to the Sydney Morning Herald. The play, "Tom Mot", features Wayne Blair, Zoe Carides, Darren Gilshenan, Glenn Hazeldine, Genevive Hegney, Damon Herriman, Peter Kowitz, Emma Palmer and Muldoon, all of whom presumably feature in the new SS film. Why is he wily? Well, he managed to shoot this film under all of our noses without us finding out. Soderbergh is, as I've said many times before, my favourite working director, and seeing an Australian film directed by him is something I don't think my brain can yet comprehend. But as a big fan of his low key oeuvre like BUBBLE and THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, I must see this ASAP.

Between GHOSTS... OF THE CIVIL DEAD, THE PROPOSITION and THE ROAD, I don't think there's a better qualified director to give us dystopian pasts, presents or futures than the great John Hillcoat. So why did his film THE PROMISED LAND get shut down? It had a script by Nick Cave. It had Shia LeBeouf, Ryan Gosling and Amy Adams attached. It's based on a well-received book called "The Wettest County In The World", about Depression-era bootlegging. Who the fuck does not want to see this film? Hillcoat himself seems to think it's the current trend of 3D blockbusters and movies-based-on-board games that's done it. Hey, I loved AVATAR and having just seen 1985's surprisingly funny CLUE for the first time, I don't have a fundamental problem with board game movies, but if these trends are edging out films like THE PROMISED LAND, then Hollywood has a fundamental problem full stop.

Despite 2009 being (in my own opinion), the best year to date for Australian cinema, such a boon is not reflected in the box office, a fact that should surprise absolutely no one. Inside Film has published an article that looks at the disparity between films' budgets and box office takings. The big numbers are that the 37 Australian films released in 2009 cost AU$147 million. Their box office revenue came to AU$35.9 million. I know, I know. But hey, we got a bunch of great films out of it, so I don't care. Well, I do care. BASTARDY, my favourite documentary of 2009, cost $260 000 to make, and made about a seventh of that back. A quarter of a million dollars, and a film that brilliant couldn't make its money back. Something is seriously wrong with this picture. Check out the other budget disparities and have your mind blown.

JAKE is a new indie film from New Zealand, about a man who, I'm told, has his life stolen by a mysterious shadowy agency. The Kiwi flick is currently in post-production, and should hopefully see the light of day in 2010. Check out its website, which features possibly the shortest teaser I've ever seen.


DOCNZ 2010

The only Australasian film festival devoted solely to documentaries (hooray!) has just announced most of the lineup for its 2010 programme. Local films that made the cut include A GOOD MAN, NEW BEIJING, SOLO, and STOLEN from Australia, and DANCE OF THE INSTANT, HE WAWATA WHAEA, FIVE HOURS WITH RAJA, KIT AND MAYNIE, MARCHING ON, THE UNNATURAL HISTORY OF THE KAKAPO, and YOU ARE HERE from New Zealand. And, bridging the gap between the two countries, LIQUID STONE - UNLOCKING GAUDI'S SECRET, a co-production between Australia and New Zealand. The festival begins in Aukland on February 27, and in Wellington on March 13.


My ongoing practice of pitting Australia against New Zealand based on their box office tallies will, as you all hoped, continue into 2010. The first winner? New Zealand. Sure, both countries have the ALVIN "squeaquel" in there, but Australia topped it off with both IT'S COMPLICATED and OLD DOGS. Those Australian box office takings I mentioned in the news section now have an added layer of depression.



New Zealand



India remakes THREE... EXTREMES, everything about this film makes me physically ill, China makes a film whose primary demographic is William Monahan, Geoffrey Rush is a singin' dancin' priest!, Jane Campion makes yet another film that everybody else loves and I don't get, more Hindipendant cinema, this is the weirdest title for a proposed franchise that I've ever seen, Sophie Barthes demonstrates why there's only one Charlie Kaufman, Lawrence Dorman proves to be a very intelligent designer, Marc Lawrence makes another compelling case against his own career, stop motion is currently pwning computer animation, the French take on AMERICAN PIE is surprisingly terrific, this is not what Michel Gondry meant when he wrote about sweded movies, the money used to fund Nancy Meyers's films could be better used as landfill, I really wish I liked this film more than I did, the screenwriter of GOMORRA makes his directorial debut, an origin story to the Bruce Greenwood "Nowhere Man" TV series explains NOTHING, read this, the Kiwis belatedly get this overrated not-scary horror, Disney goes back to basics, India remakes "Beauty and the Geek", this is actually my favourite Guy Ritchie film to date, The Rock squanders his not-insignificant charisma on more crap, Jason Reitman goes three-for-three, Woody Allen's comeback streak continues, and Drew Barrymore's directorial debut is pleasant enough until you remember Ellen Page dropped out of DRAG ME TO HELL to do this.




Australian release: January 21 // New Zealand release: December 17 (2009)

It occurred to me that re-watching 8 1/2 before seeing NINE was probably not a good idea. As much as I like Rob Marshall (you heard me), comparing most working directors to Fellini isn't going to do them any favours. Loading them up with unrealistic expectations -- even if they're the ones choosing to do a musical remake of a Fellini film -- is pointless.

Oddly, it was an unfounded concern. NINE holds up surprisingly well to the film that inspired it, largely because it doesn't try to act as a carbon copy. There are some inevitable similarities, to be sure, but NINE is its own thing. Stylistically, it has more in common with Marshall's CHICAGO than with 8 /12.

This is not a bad thing. CHICAGO was excellent on practically every level, and the choice to make the musical numbers feel like part of the characters' imaginations is one that Marshall brings to NINE. And it works.

The cast will live and die with your preconceptions (ie: if you don't like Nicole Kidman or Fergie, I don't think this is going to dramatically alter your opinions), but the most fascinating part is watching Daniel Day Lewis warble. In an Italian accent. He's great at it, and although I can't think of which one specifically, he does feel like an Italian Neo-Realism director.

The numbers themselves are solid, although there's not really a show-stopper in there. Still, not everyone can be Sondheim. What's important is how the songs work in relation to the story being told, and in that respect they are perfect. Every one of the women in the life of Daniel Day Lewis's Guido gets their own song, songs that illustrate who they are in relation to him. With every song, we build up a picture of Guido, who he is and what he does and what's wrong with him.

A quick glance at the 6.6 rating on IMDb suggests I'm in the minority on this one, but that's nothing new. It's clearly not for everyone, but this film -- adapted, intriguingly, by THE PLAYER's Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, to whom the film is dedicated -- will hit all the right notes (I swear that pun is unintentional) with a lot of people. If you fit into that obscure demographic of people who like Italian Neo-Realism, musicals, and CHICAGO, this is probably for you.

(Trivia note: apparently Katie Holmes auditioned for the part of Luisa. Given Penelope Cruz and Nicole Kidman are in the film, all you need is Mimi Rogers as, say, Lili, and Tom Cruise as Guido, and the film could have been a hell of a lot more interesting. Sometimes, the baggage works.)


BALIBO (December 10, Region 4)

The film: How many times can I possibly review this film? I seem to be going for a record. There was my initial review. My MIFF review. My extensive recap when I named it the best narrative film of 2009. You don't need to hear any more on the subject from me. (I, however, could write thousands more words about how amazing it is, but I should probably, just this once, consider my audience and stop now.) What I will say is that if you were unfortunate enough to not see it at the cinema, the Blu-Ray I was sent makes this not such a terrible thing after all. The transfer is extraordinary. It makes me very happy to see a film this great given the treatment it deserves. Hell, that we deserve.

The extras: This disc does everything I hoped it would. There's a commentary from director Robert Connolly, a terrific behind-the-scenes doco by actor Nathan Phillips, deleted scenes, six (!) brilliant documentaries, and a trailer. As great as those extras are, they pale in comparison to the disc's most compelling feature. Chillingly, Greg Shackleton's original television reports are included on the disc. If you can watch those without a shiver going down your spine, you're a stronger person than I. (On a more superficial note, these reports drive home just how accurate Connolly's film was.) Unfortunately, these 1975 reports are emblazoned with the current Channel Seven watermark, likely Seven's condition for the footage being included. It's pretty tacky, but it's impossible to fault Madman for the concession. That watermark is the closest thing I have to a fault with this amazing extras package.

Should you buy it: I can't think of a disc more worthy of purchase than BALIBO. The film, the transfer, the extras, all put most of its contemporaries to shame. Buy a dozen.

LAKE MUNGO (December 2, Region 4)

The film: I didn't hate PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, but nor was I scared by it. Nor was I convinced at any moment that it was anything other than two actors playing "real". LAKE MUNGO scared the shit out of me, and thanks to the precise attention to how documentaries are constructed (as opposed to misremembered assumptions about how they are constructed), it feels very, very real. The real mockumentary horror of 2009 was made on a microbudget in Australia -- who knew?

The extras: If a set of extras are interesting in their own right, yet actually make the featured film seem even better, then they're a raging success. LAKE MUNGO doesn't have an excess of extras, but quality is favoured over quantity. The deleted scenes are as good as anything in the film, but were clearly cut to keep the pace going. As for the commentary track with cinematographer John Brawley and producer David Rapsey, I was only going to listen to a few minutes of it to get a taste, but ended up leaving it on for its duration. Few commentary tracks are this informative and engaging.

Should you buy it: If you're a horror buff, this is a no brainer. Get it. If, like me, you're not, it's still worth having on the shelf to spring on unsuspecting friends. I know that's what I'll be doing with it.

THE COVE (November 30, Region 4)

The film: One of the most amazing films of last year, that I reviewed here, and mentioned again here in my 2009 wrap up. But it's worth talking about as much as possible. A documentary about a cove in Japan where dolphins are horrifically slaughtered annually, you are in no way prepared for what this film does to you. At the risk of this column's DVD review section turning into a David and Goliath-style comparison to Hollywood excess, I almost nodded off during TRANSFORMER 2; THE COVE, however, nearly had me ripping the arm rests off the cinema chair.

The extras: I've never really thought about it before, but are there any other DVDs whose special features are as polished as the feature film they accompany? Adopting J. Ralph's extraordinary musical score, the special features on this package feel like mini-films within themselves. In particular, the accompanying documentary MERCURY RISING is an essential addition, examining the health risks of seafood in more detail than the feature was able to. The outtakes, deleted scenes, and hidden camera footage are compulsive viewing. Bizarrely, the film's trailer is pixellated and features a small Apple logo in the bottom corner. Seriously? You guys couldn't source a trailer from anywhere but Apple? It smacks of laziness, and stands out like a sore thumb in a package that is, otherwise, superb.

Should you buy it: If you're big on social responsibility, then yes, you should. If you don't care about social responsibility, and just want 90 minutes of excitement, action, and a thrilling ending, then yes, you should definitely buy it. No action film of last year came close to matching this one for sheer visceral impact.

PONYO (December 29, Region 4)

The film: Do you even need me to tell you? It's Hayao Miyazaki, which means it's an automatic must-see. It means it's a surreal children's tale with an overwhelming sense of the tactile, with childhood foibles and mannerisms played against a fantasy that does not echo anything that has come before it. It's proof that between Miyazaki and Pixar, there hasn't been a better time to be a movie-loving kid in decades.

The extras: Not really much here, aside from some alternative angle storyboard, and some amusing Japanese-language trailers. Oh, and there is, of course, the option to watch the film in English or Japanese with English subtitles. This is hardly a choice at all: the English dubbing never works on Studio Ghibli films. I don't know why, but it alters the experience completely. (The Japanese-language KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE is one of my favourite films; the English-language one is barely watchable.) But each to their own, and kudos for giving us the option.

Should you buy it: Duh.

LUCKY COUNTRY (December 1, Region 4)

The film: In my 2009 wrap-up, I effused passionately about Adam Elliot, Rob Connolly, and Warwick Thompson, yet Kriv Stenders has been quietly working away for years, with a pretty impressive and consistent track record. I'm still catching up on his output, but I was blown away by the single-shot dramatic marvel that was BOXING DAY. Stenders has followed that film up with LUCKY COUNTRY, an Australian western that is ostensibly a film about a young boy watching his Christian frontiersman widowed father fail. Andy Cox's screenplay is good, but not without its distracting anachronisms. The acting is a strange mix of power and flaccidity; Aden Young is good, but his accent sounds a bit like he grew up in the Colonial English slums of Los Angeles. Stenders's direction holds the proceedings together, with some brilliantly-realised sequences suggesting he'd do wonders with a proper budget. Overall, the film works, overcoming its occasional limitations and flaws to present a story that doesn't lose your attention.

The extras: There's a whole second disc of extras, and more power to them! I don't think the second disc will get a lot of play, but it's nice to have it than to not. The behind the scenes feature is mildly interesting, as are the production diaries. The deleted scenes show that the film was originally called HOME, a title which is both inferior to LUCKY COUNTRY and better suited to the terrific French movie that premiered in Australia the same year. (There is also a commentary on the first disc with director Kriv Stenders, producer Kristian Moliere, and writer Andy Cox, though I'm yet to listen to it.)

Should you buy it: Depends on what you like. I'm quite pleased to have it, not just because I liked it, but because I've become fascinated with the Australian western. In that context especially, it's great to have alongside THE PROPOSITION, WAKE IN FRIGHT, MAD DOG MORGAN and, er, QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER.

THIRST (January 11, Region 4)

The film: This is another one of those films you don't really need to hear anything more about. If you're not already sold on the idea of the great Song Kang-ho playing a vampire priest in a Chan-Wook Park film, then you and I have very little in common. The film is utterly great, as my original review will remind you.

The extras: First of all, big props on the ballsy menu: Sang-hyun licking the blood off a naked female form as the intro to the main menu? Brilliant. It almost makes up for the fact that the only extras are a couple of trailers. But I'm more willing to forgive bare-bones editions of foreign language films, as all the behind-the-scenes materials, commentaries, et al might not translate that easily.

Should you buy it: If you saw the film in theatres, you already know the answer to this. If you didn't, pick this disc up and bemoan the fact that you missed it in theatres.


- Billy Dee Williams and Dylan Baker to make a DC/Marvel crossover TWO FACE VS THE LIZARD that nobody else is allowed to be in

- Plans to promote the proposed Eric Rohmer-directed SPIDER-MAN 4 with Dennis Hopper on Conan O'Brien's show are put on hold

- Much to Robert Zemeckis's frustration, Warner Bros dubs 2010 "The Year We Remade CONTACT"

Peace out,


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