AICN-Downunder: INCEPTION, SPLICE, SOUTH SOLITARY, ROBOGEISHA, and so much more!
Published at: July 16, 2010, 10:56 a.m. CST by merrick
Never recreate from your memory. Always imagine new places.
It's that time of the year again. Every serious film geek has at least one film festival they clear their schedule for, and for me it's the Melbourne International Film Festival. For two and a half weeks, I'll be keeping up my tradition of immersing myself in the festival, seeing as many films as humanly possible, and reporting on them for you. I usually see some of the best, most innovative, and most inspiring films at MIFF, and I'll be telling you which ones you have to look out for and which ones you have to avoid. The coverage will kick off in about a fortnight, so make sure you check 'em out!
Screen Australia recently announced new investments, putting $15million into thirteen new productions. Those include the already-filmed THE EYE OF THE STORM (directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Geoffrey Rush, Judy Davis and Charlotte Rampling), LORE (to be directed by Cate Shortland), and SAY NOTHING (to be directed by Kieren Darcy-Smith).
Ready for a trailer onslaught? Check out the trailers for the romantic SUMMER CODA, the comedic WEDDING PARTY, and the horrific LOVED ONES. The trailers for both SUMMER CODA and WEDDING PARTY have me eager for their world premieres at MIFF in the coming weeks, but LOVED ONES (which played at MIFF in 2009) is a trailer I didn't watch -- according to those who have, it is spoiler-heavy, and as I'm really looking forward to seeing it, I've refrained from watching it. But for those less concerned with such things, click away!
Production will begin next month on TROUBLE DOWN UNDER, a CGI animated film directed by Disney director Steve Trenbirth. According to Encore Magazine, the film follows "a mob of African meerkats lost in the outback [who cause] tension with the local red and gey Kangaroo mob families. Their accidental arrival triggers chaos when a white wallaby rogue named Al Bino, returning from exile overseas, creates further confusion". The cast includes Rove McManus, Ernie Dingo, Cameron Daddo, Andrew Daddo, and Tony Bonner. The film is expected to be released in October 2012.
As I mentioned above, I'm going to be diving head-first into the glory of MIFF very soon. In the meantime, here are some cool facts to get your appetites whetted... Some of the Australian films playing at MIFF: THE WEDDING PARTY, SUMMER CODA, THE TREE, RED HILL, DREAMLAND and Mark Hartley's MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED! Other cool films playing include: SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD, SEX & DRUGS & ROCK & ROLL, FOUR LIONS, Gasper Noe's ENTER THE VOID, Shane Meadows's LE DONK & SCO-ZAY-ZEE, WORLD'S GREATEST DAD, Atom Egoyan's CHLOE, the entirety of Olivier Assayas's CARLOS trilogy in two sets of single sittings, THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP, Michael Winterbottom's THE KILLER INSIDE ME, Steven Soderbergh's AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE, I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS, the doco WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY, and Sylvain Chomet's THE ILLUSIONIST. The festival is also bringing out Joe Dante for a retrospective, and will be playing much of his back catalogue, including the impossible-to-find MOVIE ORGY. MOVIE ORGY will test your resolve: it's over four and a half hours long and starts at 11:30pm. Those who can attend, should. Those who can't should wait for my coverage. And everybody should check out the MIFF website.
7th Annual AICE Israeli Film Festival
The festival of Israeli films will open with the Oscar-nominated AJAMI, and feature the homosexuality-themed EYES WIDE OPEN, the inventive PHOBIDILIA, the comedy A MATTER OF SIZE, the Olga Kurylenko-starring WALLS, the Joseph Fiennes-starring SPRING 1941, the Holocaust documentary A FILM UNFINISHED, and the Haredim trilogy of docos GEVALD!, THE RABBI'S DAUGHTER & THE MIDWIFE, and RELIGION.COM. The festival begins on August 17 in Melbourne and August 31 in Sydney, and the official website can be visited here.
THE HORSEMAN comes to Australian screens
I mention this below in the Upcoming Films section, but it's worth a breakout of its own: one of the most impressive films of recent years has been THE HORSEMAN, which, after being universally praised by international audiences and Australian film critics, has finally, finally, finally reached Australian screens! You'll need to check local cinema listings to find where it's playing, but those in Sydney should find it at the Chauvel, Brisvegans can see it at the Tribal Theatre, and Melburnianites can catch it at the Nova.
Take a good, long look: this is what box offices returns look like in a pre-INCEPTION world. Soak it in. Actually, don't. I've seen practically nothing from the below list, because practically nothing has enticed me to see these films, not even to review on AICN. I'll take a bullet for you guys, but I won't pull the trigger myself. Anyway, what few films I've seen in both the Box Office and the New Release sections have handy little hyperlinks that will take you to the AICN-Downunder review.
1. TOY STORY 3
2. THE KARATE KID
3. THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE
4. SHREK FOREVER AFTER
7. THE A-TEAM
9. GET HIM TO THE GREEK
10. CEMETARY JUNCTION
RELEASED THIS PAST FORTNIGHT
A biopic of Charles Darwin is designed with moderate intelligence, Michael Caine makes those no-good kids get off his lawn... of death, I counted five cats and one dog but no hedgehog, the Australian revenge classic finally gets a cinema release, this title is only half correct, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz recapture the magic from VANILLA SKY, I always confused this film with the one about the editors from that PR firm, this film would be better if the title had "TRAIN" in it and it starred Eric Roberts and Jon Voight, and Joel Edgerton continues his CITY fetish.
Breaking, for some reason, with the current trend of simultaneous worldwide releases, it will be a week before Australia and New Zealand receive Christopher Nolan's INCEPTION. As I presume the majority of my readership is made up of Aussies and Kiwis, I promise not to spoil anything in this review. And I don't just mean anything I think is important, like the film critic who tells you the twist of the film because he didn't happen to like it, but pretty much everything. I went in with a blank slate, and I think you should too.
I think I just talked you out of reading this review. Which is fine -- by all means, skip ahead to the SPLICE review, but whilst you're reading that, I'm going to be several paragraphs up, still waxing on about how great this film is.
And it is great. Christopher Nolan has done the thing we always hope filmmakers do when they achieve record-making success: parlay it into a great, original work. One could forgive Nolan for, in the heady afterglow of DARK KNIGHT, jumping straight into a third Batman film or looking to something relatively safe and familiar. INCEPTION is a terrific risk. It is not a sequel. It is not an adaptation of existing material. It is not a remake. It is an original work. Influenced, of course, by the greats -- Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Dick, Ellison, all the way through the alphabet -- but show me a great intelligent science fiction film that isn't in some way influenced by these writers, and I'll show you someone who hasn't read any of the above.
Although I am a huge fan of AVATAR, its risks are markedly different. Cameron forges ahead into new terrain, but his interests mean that his risks are more technical: Can we convince people that these aliens are realistic? Can we pull off the flora and fauna of this world? The closest to a philosophical risk that AVATAR had was whether audiences would accept a film comprised largely of largely blue people. None of this is problematic. Cameron made the film he wanted to make and he made it admirably. But even though AVATAR itself was an original script, there is something that feels dangerous and new about INCEPTION. It is smart science fiction that does not pause to explain itself. If you're not paying attention, you're going to miss a lot. It presumes an intelligence and understanding in the viewer that does not feel pretentious or self-aggrandising. Being respected by a film, particularly a film positioned as a massive blockbuster, is a strange and very welcome feeling.
There is really no part of this film that disappoints. Wally Pfister's cinematography, Hans Zimmer's score, and Lee Smith's editing are perfect. The visual effects are, both literally and figuratively, mind-blowing. The cast is one of the best ensembles in a long time: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, Lukas Haas, and Dileep Rao -- who, between this, AVATAR and DRAG ME TO HELL, is fast becoming one of my favourite character actors -- all nail their roles. The impressive thing about this is that each of them has a distinct character to play, a key part in the film. There is no filler. Nobody is there to make up the numbers, and nobody has a brief sketch of a character that feels like it was lifted from a dozen other movies. These are developed, important characters, and this fact is as welcome a surprise as anything else in the film.
The star of the film, though, is Christopher Nolan, who has proven that the biggest of blockbusters can be about something. In a film full of ideas, the very nature of the concept of ideas is explored in a way you expect from smaller, more niche films. To see it explored on such a huge scale is something else entirely.
But if you need something to go on, something that prepares you for the experience without spoiling anything, I give you this: it is a psychoanalytical heist movie. It's the film you'd get if the Wachowski Brothers directed OCEAN'S 11 from a script by Franz Kafka. Only much, much better. Easily one of the great films of 2010.
Australian release: August 19 // New Zealand release: TBC
SPLICE is an exceptionally silly film. Usually, this would be a criticism, but SPLICE is a film that could not be happier with its existence as an exceptionally silly film, so it becomes the highest compliment I can give, one of met expectations.
Vincenzo Natali has been oddly quiet since he burst through with the seminal science fiction film CUBE. His IMDb suggests he has been working steadily since it came out in 1997, but nothing has broken out the way many of expected his follow-up films to. Despite the films made in the intervening years, SPLICE feels like a strong sophomore effort, a high concept film with a couple of indie-friendly movie stars, all capitalising on the goodwill of his first film. This, too, is a compliment. This is the film I was hoping Natali would make after CUBE, a high concept film that doesn't shy away from its ideas.
SPLICE's biggest attribute is the freak show element. We want to see these scientists push the boundaries of genetic engineering, and we want to be shocked by the results. Too often do films wuss out at this point. We get a human being with no noticeable abnormalities, and the second half of the film becomes some sort of lame chase, with a government/corporate agency pursuing the scientists, and the scientists in turn trying to track down the specimen before it gets into trouble. SPLICE avoids these cliches without distorting the genre beyond recognition.
Walking the line perfectly between scientific plausibility and outright ridiculousness, every twist and turn is ensured to play to our freakshow desires. Adrian Brodey and Sarah Polley are brilliantly cast as the geek chic couple who takes things too far; so much of the film is sold on the performance of these two.
SPLICE is flawed, but it's flawed in all the right ways. It is a rarity in science fiction horror: a film that knows exactly what it wants to be and achieves it.
Australian release: July 29 // New Zealand release: TBC
You're going to need to brace yourself, because it's not good news. And there's nothing I like more than trumpeting Australian films, so to offset the impending negativity, let me start with the best part of the film: the score by Mary Finsterer is terrific. Although the music is slightly on the bombastic side, you get the feeling that Finsterer has realised she has to do all the heavy lifting, and you're thankful when she does. It's a beautiful score, and the one element of the film I came out loving.
SOUTH SOLITARY is the story of Meredith (Miranda Otto), a woman living in the late 1920s who accompanies her uncle (Barry Otto, her real life father) to a remote lighthouse island where he is to become the new head keeper. The only residents of the island is the mopey Fleet (Marton Csokas) and a family of five (including parents played by Rohan Nichol and Essie Davis). To list the events that follow would suggest more drama than actually exists in the film. Fifteen minutes in it becomes clear that writer/director Shirley Barrett is so in love with the mundane world she has created, she is happy to simply watch the characters exist within it. Such love was not shared by me. Fifteen minutes in I was wondering if anything was going to actually happen. I was left wondering for quite some time.
The tedium of the film stems from a lazy, bloated script. Scenes go on far longer than they need to, thanks to dialogue that goes around in circles. It's stream-of-consciousness writing, the sort of first draft excess that would normally be cleaned up in subsequent rewrites. Long dialogue scenes would be tolerable if the dialogue itself was interesting, but it's not. Characters speak their minds, expressing their emotions in relatively straightforward manners. "I must remember to stay positive," is Meredith's first line, awkwardly spoken out loud and directed towards nobody but herself. It's it a pretty good indication of how the characters will speak for the remainder of the film.
I've always liked Miranda Otto, but usually she's been in films that give her a character to work with. She's clearly giving Meredith her all, but given she's frequently telling everybody what she's feeling, there's not a lot hidden emotion or obfuscation left to perform. Otto's accent leaps around a bit, going from posh to common with little motivation.
She fares better than Marton Csokas, though. Csokas is another actor I remember liking, but SOUTH SOLITARY is not his finest moment. Leaving aside the fact that his accent suggests he fares from the Welsh slums of South Africa, Fleet is clearly the desirable brooding hunk of the piece, but the brooding is ratcheted up to ridiculous proportions. Yes, he's suffering from WWI shell shock, but Csokas's performance suggested he just walked off the last TWILIGHT film, with his constant hunched neck and under-the-eyebrow glances and monosyllabic grunts. It feels very put-on and silly, but, sadly, not at odds with the rest of the film.
SOUTH SOLITARY runs for two hours, and you feel every minute of it. The stereotype of the dramatically dull Australian film designed to appeal to nobody should be a thing of the past. At a time when a new wave of Australian films are appealing to festivals, critics and audiences across the board, SOUTH SOLITARY feels like the last gasp of the old guard, the exception that proves the rule. It pains me to have to say it, but SOUTH SOLITARY is one to avoid.
Australian release: July 8 // New Zealand release:
Understated character pieces such as THE HEDGEHOG rely on the unusual, on the subversion of expectations. Just as large, intricately-constructed films require the subversion of plot points (ie: the benign butler turns out to be a trained swordsman), smaller dramas require the subversion of character reactions. When THE HEDGEHOG's young Paloma announces to her rich family that her ambition is to become a janitor, her parents' nonplussed reply is that they will do anything to help her achieve this goal. The truth is that they never would, and that placating her during this phase is their way of dealing with her whims, but none of this is said outright; we are given a standard, recognisable family, but they are presented to us in an unusual and subverted way.
Such is the manner in which THE HEDGEHOG behaves, deceptively straightforward in its depiction of a middle-aged housekeeper and the wealthy inhabitants of the building she tends to. When a Japanese widower moves in and behaves in a polite, open manner towards both Renée (the housekeeper) and Paloma, there is not the massive explosion of social morays, nor a simple going-through-the-motions that one might expect from such an interaction, in such a film. The characters behave in a believable manner, hiding their true intentions and feelings whenever they can, putting on the face they wish others to see, interacting the way you would expect such people to interact in real life.
Leads Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic and Togo Igawa are all perfectly cast, and Mona Achache's restrained adaptation and direction suit the material superbly. If I have a complaint, it's that the film feels too aware of what it is. The final scenes, for instance, are handled with a sort of matter-of-factness that veers towards the workmanlike. But again, these are not complaints that derail the film entire.
Its restraint might be a turn off to some; the lack of shocking revelations or unexpected twists (both plot and character) could conceivably leave some to wonder what the point of it was, but most, I suspect, will be charmed by its wonderful understatement.
ME AND ORSON WELLES
Australian release: July 29 // New Zealand release: July 1
The story notes describe the setup thusly: "17-year-old student Richard (Zac Efron) spends his days fantasising of the bright lights of Broadway..." This setup is more prevalent in these notes than in the film itself. Richard is seen daydreaming at school before happening to bump into Orson Welles and immediately getting a part in his production of Julius Caesar. It highlights the film's fundamental problem -- and, really, its only serious problem -- in the character of Richard. It is not a coming of age story, as Richard's role is written in an extremely straightforward, unremarkable manner. His journey, around which the film is based, is underdeveloped and unfocused.
But again, that's the only real problem with ME AND ORSON WELLES. If you don't know it's meant to be a coming-of-age film, it's simply a great depiction of a pre-KANE Welles putting on his notorious stage production of "Julius Caesar". The machinations of Welles make the film something pretty special, and Christian McKay's performance is easily the best depiction of Welles on screen, ever. He gets the physicality and the voice so perfect, it's like watching behind the scenes video from CITIZEN KANE.
The cast itself is solid, although the depth missing from Richard's character is missing from everyone across the board. That episode of "Firefly" notwithstanding, I've only ever seen Zac Efron in one thing, HAIRSPRAY, and he was great in that. He's very good here, although it's hard to judge. I'd like to know what he would have done with a more developed part. Eddie Marsen, Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin, Zoe Kazan, and the other supporting cast are all excellent.
Overall, it's a very good movie, and as someone who loves (a) behind-the-scenes Shakesperean productions, and (b) anything to do with Orson Welles, I was totally absorbed by it. It has its faults, and they're not insignificant, but they don't detract from what is an excellent, enjoyable film.
GOEMON (June 16, Region 4)
The film: Based on the legend of Ishikawa Goemon, the Japanese equivalent of Robin Hood, GOEMON dials everything it possibly can up to 11. Sure, it seems about as historically accurate as, I don't know, the Adam West "Batman" series, but it knows what it wants to be. Goemon must avert a war/save a princess/avenge a bunch of people/all of the above. He does so with an extraordinary amount of poorly-rendered CGI that nevertheless works in context, and somehow manages less location filming than SIN CITY. It's tremendously silly stuff, but it's a lot of fun as well, and manages to take the most horrific part of Goemon's fable and subvert cleverly into something completely different. It's long, but it's a blast. And hey, there's a Hattori Hanzo cameo!
The extras: A half-hour making of doco, plus a theatrical trailer.
Should you buy it: You know that friend you have whose favourite film is ARMAGEDDON and whose favourite foreign film is the bit in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE when they go overseas? This is the film you show him to get him into foreign films.
THE EMPRESS YANG KWEI-FEI (June 16, Region 4)
The film: The big problem with crtiiquing so many of a single filmmaker's works in such a short amount of time -- in this case, the great Kenji Mizoguchi -- is that if you start with his greatest works, it's almost impossible not to make qualitative comparisons when you get to the other films. It's like watching VERTIGO and NORTH BY NORTHWEST and PSYCHO and then immediately following them with TORN CURTAIN or THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY. For all the praise you're about to heap, at some point the phrase "It's not quite the masterpieces of the others, but..." is going to slip out. Such is the case with THE EMPRESS YANG KWEI-FEI, a film burdened only by the fact that its director made films like STREET OF SHAME and SANSHO THE BAILIFF. On its own merits, EMPRESS is a superb film. At first it seems like it is the Japanese version of a classic Disney fairytale, based as it is in actual Japanese legend. And it's all well and good, as the first half of the film is about as good a fairytale as you're likely to see rendered, but then when it hits the halfway point and really kicks into gear, it becomes a totally different film altogether. A terrific and tremendously welcome addition to the Mizoguchi canon.
The extras: Oddly, there is no academic commentary track, as with most of the other Mizoguchi and, indeed, the entire Director's Label series. It's not a debilitating loss, but they're usually so informative and interesting, it was the first thing I looked for. What is on there is a brilliant find, an original Japanese theatrical trailer for EMPRESS, which has everything you'd want from a 1955 trailer.
Should you buy it: I've said it before, but the Director's Label series of DVDs is brilliant, and the Mizoguchi section of it is a resounding success. You should be picking all of these up.
THE CRUCIFIED LOVERS (June 16, Region 4)
The film: Mizoguchi's THE CRUCIFIED LOVERS was made in 1955, after SANSHO THE BAILIFF and HER MOTHER'S PROFESSION (both 1954) and before THE EMPRESS YANG KWEI FEI, TALES OF THE TAIRA CLAN (both 1955), and his final film STREET OF SHAME (1956). It sits beautifully between these masterpieces as one of his most subtle and understated melodramas. Mizoguchi being, apparently, the only director in history to be able to make subtle and understated melodramas. It's a tragedy adapted from the 17th century story by Chikamatsu Monzaemon, considered to be Japan's answer to Shakespeare. The comparison is well-earned. CRUCIFIED LOVERS is, I'll heretically proclaim, a better tragic love story than "Romeo and Juliet". It also doesn't hurt that this is one of the most gorgeous films of his filmography. EMPRESS YANG KWEI FEI may look stunning in colour, but his films seem to suit black and white all the more, as if reflecting the dull, constrained society depicted. It's an amazing feat, and a terrific note to end on this current crop of Kenji Mizoguchi releases. May there be many more.
The extras: There is a genuine original Japanese teaser trailer and a genuine original Japanese full-length trailer, both brilliant. No commentary on this one either, but there is a great essay by Dr Mats Karlsson subtitled "A Study In Unbridled Passion", included in booklet form.
Should you buy it: You shouldn't need to ask. It's a work of genius, and presented in a package to match.
ROBOGEISHA (June 16, Region 4)
The film: You remember that kid back at school who was really annoying and everybody laughed at him? Then the kid realised he was the source of amusement, and started playing up to it for laughs and it stopped being funny? Japan has become that kid. Realising that there's a huge market in the West for people who watch bad Japanese horror/action films ironically, they've now started producing films that cloyingly play to this new demographic. And, like that kid, the moment they realised what they were doing, they stopped being funny. ROBOGEISHA spends its time trying really, really, really hard to be silly and self-important, always looking over its shoulder to the audience to see if we're laughing. THE ROOM is funny because Tommy Wiseau thought he was making a serious film. ROBOGEISHA is not funny, because the makers were trying to make a comedy. There will still be many who respond to it, the same way they responded to the equally-cynical DEAD SNOW. Films like these like to imagine they're immune to criticism by being deliberately bad, but they fail in a fundamental, intrinsic way; instead of eliciting hilarity, they elicit intense boredom.
The extras: There is that now-infamous trailer that misled many of us into thinking ROBOGEISHA would be something special, and a 16 minute spin-off short film called GEISHA COP which is, if possible, even worse than ROBOGEISHA.
Should you buy it: God, no.
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