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Friday, 22 November 2013

20 Feet from Stardom

The history of showbiz is littered with stories of talented people left out of the limelight – valiant professionals whose unsung efforts enabled brighter stars to shine. In this excellent documentary, directed by Morgan Neville and produced by the late A&M Records executive Gil Friesen, the spotlight is turned onto background vocalists, or ‘backup singers’ – the artists whose voices we’ve all heard, bringing life to the hits, but whose faces we’ve never seen.

Those faces, it turns out, are mostly female and mostly black. The daughters of preachers and churchgoers, these women learnt their trade harmonising in choirs and singing Baptist hymns, where the focus was on ‘the blend’ – the joining of many individual voices into a sweet-sounding whole. This mysterious merging is effectively illustrated in the film by a scene featuring the synchronised patterns created by a flock of black birds swooping in unison through a blue sky.
Read the full review by Rochelle Siemienowicz here at SBS Film online.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Farewell My Queen

Review by Rochelle Siemienowicz

Why do we continue to be fascinated by the doomed and decadent French queen, Marie Antoinette? Cinema and literature keep finding fresh angles to explore and exploit her ongoing charisma, and Benoît Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen provides all the pleasures –  and more – that we expect from this subject. There are extravagantly beautiful costumes, stunning cinematography and visions of lavish excess and emotional intrigue. Most importantly, the film offers insights into the (possible) personality and motivations of Marie, that frivolous and pitiable creature whose pretty neck will always be on the edge of the guillotine when we watch her from our historical vantage point.

Watching the queen is also the chief pleasure and obsession of the film's central character, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), a young girl employed in the palace library and called upon regularly to read aloud to the queen. Sidonie's devotion is wonderfully portrayed by Seydoux, whose full-lipped, unmade-up beauty and candid intensity recall a very young Scarlett Johansson (especially in Girl With a Pearl Earring). Rushing along corridors, falling over her skirts in her desperation to please her majesty, Sidonie lives and breathes for the moments she spends in the queen's presence. Meanwhile, Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) lives and breathes to see and touch her own best friend (and perhaps lover), the pragmatic and cat-eyed Mme. de Polinac (Virgine Ledoyen).
The Sapphic love-triangle element of this plot is never overplayed, though both Sidonie and Marie are shown experiencing all the breathless desperation and anguish of women in love with someone who doesn't return, or deserve, their level of ardour and the final betrayals are breathtaking. Kruger is brilliant at portraying the young queen's nervy absorption in her own romantic dramas, even as the palace walls are crawling with political turmoil and rumours of beheadings.

Filmed on location at the Palace of Versaille (with cinematography by Romain Winding), and set over the course of a few days leading up to the fall, Farewell My Queen is particularly good at suggesting how separate and removed Versaille remains –  a complex social world unto itself, far from the concerns of the French people, right up until the moment when the gates collapse.

A worthy addition to the collection of films about Marie Antoinette, this one succeeds as the ultimate costume drama  one where the clothes are both sublimely pleasurable to look at and also irreducibly meaningful to the story's progression. The sumptuous costume design is by Valérie Ranchoux & Christian Gasc, with every element describing the characters' journey and psychology, from the single dress owned and adapted by the servant Sidonie, to the fine white linen nightdresses donned by the queen as she lolls about in bed. A special mention has to go to that poisonous green gown (it's almost chartreuse, but not quite) worn in the movie's final scenes and featured in the promotional poster. It's well worth seeing the film to find out exactly why it matters.

(Farewell My Queen - released in Australian cinemas by Transmission on Thursday 6 June 2013)

Monday, 15 April 2013

Rust and Bone

Review by Rochelle Siemienowicz

When disaster befalls us, the pity of others is sometimes the hardest burden to bear. This simple truth forms the premise for Rust and Bone, a sublimely beautiful and surprising tale of friendship, violence, disability and love. When Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) first meets boxer-cum-bouncer Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) they have little in common. He’s a brutish single father on the verge of homelessness; she’s a beautiful and haughty whale trainer. But after a tragic accident, Stephanie finds Ali’s no-nonsense physicality and lack of sympathy a blessed relief. An understanding develops between them, but the progress of this couple’s journey towards intimacy is anything but predictable.

Set in the French Riviera town of Antibes, the film revels in both the sparkling seaside and the ugly economic underbelly of the region. Such contradictions and contrasts abound, for director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet), together with cinematographer Stephane Fontaine and composer Alexandre Desplat, has created a work of art that is simultaneously realist and expressionist; shockingly blunt at times, yet mysterious and profoundly romantic. 

(This review previously appeared in edition 429 of The Big Issue magazine: 29 March - 11 April)

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Film review: 21 and Over

Hang on a second: when did March become the month for party movies? Last year we had the aimless, pointless and dull Project X, and this year come March* we get 21 And Over, in which the writers of The Hangover prove they’re not just one-trick ponies by writing (and directing) a movie that’s nothing like The Hangover. For one thing, those guys in The Hangover are way older than 21, right? And sure, this is also a movie about a totally crazy party night in a bunch of guy’s lives, but in The Hangover they were just flashing back to the party the day after, whereas here the party is happening right here and now. Oh, wait, the very start of the movie shows the guys at the end of the night so yeah, in a way this is all one big flashback too.

But this time there’s only two guys: Miller (Miles Teller), the wild, crazy, Jim Belushi knock-off one, and Casey (Sylar Astin), the uptight sensible one. So that bit’s more like Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. They’ve turned up on campus to help their old high school buddy Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) – you won’t forget that name, as they say it at least sixty times during the course of the movie (I counted) in the kind of running joke that’s not really a joke but they sure run with it – celebrate his 21st, even though his evil dad has told him he has to get up early for a big interview so NO PARTYING. But one drink won’t hurt, right? 

Yeah, right: before long it’s the end of the night, Jeff Chang has passed out (okay, that bit’s like The Hangover too) and his surprisingly sober buddies have to find out where he lives, which is the bit of the film that’s kind of like Dude, Where’s My Car?. Crazy things then happen, but guess what? All the movies this movie is ripping off are better than it, so you’re better off watching them instead. A lot of the crazy stuff here isn’t even that crazy: they have to complete a variety of drinking games to make their way through a multi-story party house, but because our heroes never seem to be affected by alcohol, where’s the drama? 

Various dark hints about Jeff Chang’s current situation (why is he carrying a gun, for starters?) are more dramatic and funny, only the film then wimps out on even the mild drama it’s created for a resolution that’s just a whole bunch of hand waving. But they throw an unconscious guy out a window onto a pool and he goes flying into the bushes! So that bit’s like Weekend at Bernies. On the plus side, Teller is pretty good at selling the average material he’s stuck with here, and there’s just enough chemistry between him and Astin to make it plausible that they’re friends who’ve drifted apart since high school. Oh wait, that doesn’t require any chemistry at all. But they do get to make a couple of hot, blindfolded sorority girls make out! Which is totally worth buying a movie ticket for if you’ve never seen the internet.

*presumably these movies are released in March to teach new university students what is expected of them re: their partying responsibilities. Or, more likely, to torment them with a lifestyle they'll never have, what with having to actually study if they want to have the slightest hope of "making it" in today's post-employment work environment.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The year in films: 2012

Somewhat surprisingly considering how much of my current income is derived from writing Top Ten lists, I don't actually like end-of-year best and worst lists. There are plenty of perfectly valid criteria on which to compare and rank movies (let me know if you think of any funny ones), but "they came out in the same calendar year" never really feels like a good one to me.

Still, it doesn't hurt to look back at the end of the year and take stock of what's gone by, if only to update your shopping list for your next trip to the DVD store. So with the half-hearted introductions out of the way, let me present perhaps the most whishy-washy Best and Worst of 2012 list you'll read this year. By which I mean I didn't even narrow it down to a top ten, I just lumped the good and bad films together in near-arbitrary clumps and left out most of the really recent releases just in case I changed my mind about them (sorry, the most excellent Wreck-It Ralph! Close shave, the unflushable Parental Guidance!). Enjoy!

10) Relationships: A Separation / The Deep Blue Sea / Take This Waltz / Your Sister’s Sister / Jesse & Celeste Forever. Whether you’re falling in love, falling out of love, or are just plain sick of the person you’re in love with, good viewing was the result.

9) Male nudity: Shame / Magic Mike. One is a depressing tale of sex addiction, the other features a lot of shirtless dancing and screaming women. They’re both worth a look for more than the tackle-out action.

8) Kids: Safe / Moonrise Kingdom. Okay, Jason Statham running around with a pre-teen maths wiz and Wes Anderson’s latest tale of melancholy have very little in common apart from the presence of small children in both. But they're still both good films.

7) Hitmen: Looper / Killing Them Softly / The Grey. Okay, Liam Neeson in The Grey was a hitman of wolves, not people. Doesn’t mean that movies about hitmen didn’t do well in 2012.

6) Cops: End of Watch / Dredd / 21 Jump Street / The Raid. Out of these three extremely violent films and one comedy, guess which one had the goriest moment? Wrong: the end of 21 Jump Street was just plain nasty.

5) Robbers: Get the Gringo / Headhunters / Contraband / Bernie. At the other end of the law-enforcement scale, these films proved that committing crimes could be just as entertaining as fighting them.

4) Superheroes: The Avengers / The Dark Knight Rises / Chronicle / Skyfall. Hey, James Bond is as much of a super hero as Batman – he just doesn’t have to wear a silly outfit to save the world. Though Chronicle was the only real surprise of the bunch here, as Hollywood at least has the big budget superhero movie down to a fine, unsurprising, art.

3) Spies: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy / Argo / Haywire. And these guys don’t need any outfits at all to save the world! Not that they weren’t wearing clothes or anything, but, you know, they lurk in the shadows and so on.

2) Comedy: Ted / Bachelorette / Young Adult. This was not a great year for comedy, but at least these three managed to bring the laughs.

1) People in a room: The Master / Margin Call / Carnage. These films may have all been very different from each other, but one thing did unite them: the drama you can create simply by having people in a room talking to each other.

(as for my actual best film of 2012, that's the same as my best film of every year since 1987: Robocop)

But just in case you were thinking 2012 was the dawn of some kind of new golden age of cinema after all that praise, rest assured the stench of utter rubbish continued to billow out of cinemas at a steady rate. Especially cinemas screening the following, for which it was a very bad year…

10) Science Fiction: Prometheus / The Darkest Hour / Total Recall. In theory it’s possible to tell a science fiction story without, you know, just completely making all of the science up. Not that you’d know it from these films.

9) Australasian Comedy: Any Questions For Ben / Two Little Boys / Kath & Kimdrella / Mental / Housos Versus Authority. Anyone remember when Australia used to make funny films? Anyone? Didn’t think so.

8) American Comedy: The Watch / That’s My Boy / American Pie Reunion / The Five Year Engagement. American big screen comedy seems to have come to a screeching halt. Five seconds after it ran off a cliff.

7) Fantasy sequels: Underworld / Resident Evil / MiB III / Paranormal Activity 4. The fun of a movie where you’re just making stuff up is that the stuff you’re making up is surprising and new. If you’re doing sequels, you’re doing it wrong - especially with horror, where "the same old shit" really is just plain shit.

6) Big name directors: Savages (Oliver Stone) / Dark Shadows (Tim Burton) / Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg). Yeah, just retire already. Well, not you Cronenberg, at least you're still trying new things that only kind of don't quite work. But you other two, don't let the door hit you in the arse on the way out.

5) Big Budget Spectaculars: Battleship / Wrath of the Titans. You cost how much money now? At least John Carter was trying to tell a story...

4) Highbrow guff: A Dangerous Method / The Words / Holy Motors / Beasts of the Southern Wild. Actually, most of these movies weren’t all that bad really (apart from The Words, which was just plain rubbish). They just weren’t anywhere near as smart as they thought they were.

3) Giving love a bad name: What to Expect When You’re Expecting / This Means War / The Vow. Seriously, if you go see Hollywood romantic comedies at this stage of humanity's existence you get exactly what you deserve

2) Musicals: Rock of Ages. In which Tom Cruise sang part of a musical number into a woman’s arse. Though I didn't enjoy Les Mis all that much either.

1) And the worst film of 2012 was… Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Presumably the title was meant as a warning as to what it was going to feel like being in a room with the amazingly annoying quasi-teenage lead as he wandered around post 9/11 New York refusing to shut the hell up. There are plenty of "bad" films I enjoyed (how did I fail to mention Step Up 4: Miami Heat?), and plenty of boring films I can see have merit: this was the only film that left me actually angry over how much time I'd wasted watching it.

Anthony Morris

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Golden Slumbers

As a passionate believer in the importance of national film industries – and the sacredness of all kinds of film archives – the idea that a country’s entire cinematic output could be wilfully destroyed seems horrific. Unthinkable, even. Yet as Davy Chou’s intensely personal and poetic documentary Golden Slumbers recounts, that’s what happened in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. 
The regime destroyed every film it could find, shutting down all cinemas and murdering most of the actors and filmmakers – accusing them of ‘decadence’. What makes this even more poignant is the fact that such destruction came after 15 golden years of Cambodian cinematic output. A vibrant and robust industry produced nearly 400 films between 1960 and 1975, but now only 30 films survive, along with a handful of the people involved in their production.
Inspired partly by the fact that his grandfather and his aunt were key figures in the Cambodian film industry, the Paris-raised filmmaker Davy Chou visits Phnom Penh in an attempt to patch together the fragments of what remains. And fragments they are: fading photographs, torn advertisements, poor quality film scraps and bits of YouTube footage. Some haunting voices from the past echo through musical recordings. Interestingly, the songs from the films of the Golden Age seem to have lingered longer than the images, imprinted in the memories of the people who loved them, unable to be erased by the state. 
It’s the paucity of physical archive materials that makes this documentary so unique, forcing Chou to cast his net wider than the usual film clip montages used to piece together film histories. Instead, the films must be recreated orally, by those who remember them, recounting their plots and their songs, and revisiting locations where they were shot. Interview subjects include two Phnom Penh cinephiles, reminiscing about how the cinemas kept open right up until the last invasions. Then there’s Cambodia’s first screen goddess, the still beautiful Dy Saveth, who now runs a dance school, with walls papered by the faces of those she misses. And there’s Ly You Sreang, a respected film producer who lost everything, including the woman he loved, and his entire body of work, when he had to flee to Paris, finding work as a taxi driver.
It must be said that, from what we can tell, the actual films of this period may not have appealed to a modern Western sensibility. They appear to have been melodramas, musicals, simple love stories and lurid supernatural B-movies with cheesy special effects. But of course this is not the point. They had their ardent fans and they represented a local culture, a local industry and a creative way of life that was snuffed out. Though Chou doesn’t venture there, it’s impossible not to think about the similar fates that befell other creative and intellectual domains – literature, music, dance – and their ghosts circle this film. Tactfully, and powerfully, the actual horrors of Pol Pot’s regime are alluded to but never made explicit. Of course there is the stark fact that 1 million people ‘disappeared’.
For me, the most haunting scene in Golden Slumbers is when an old black and white film is projected on the dirty brick wall of what used to be a cinema, but is now a makeshift slum, housing numerous families. They watch this footage, flickering lights reflected on their faces. What do they make of it? It’s hard to tell. 
Golden Slumbers is a gossamer construction, a film made of absences and holes, a kind of ghost story in itself. But it’s also a celebration of the moving image and the traces it leaves in our memories.
Note: This article first appeared as an extended program note for Golden Slumbers on the website for the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists

Is it cyber terrorism, vandalism or legitimate political protest when a loosely organised bunch of computer geeks brings down an official website in order to make a point? What about when they hack into a person’s emails and steal his files, thus outing him as a neo-Nazi and an FBI informant? Is that theft or a public service? These are questions many of us asked a few years ago, when vague news reports started to filter through about the activities of the ‘shadowy’ and decentralised hacker collective known as ‘Anonymous’.
Brian Knappenberger’s We Are Legion is a fascinating glimpse behind the handsome, leering Guy Fawkes mask that has become the movement’s logo. Who are these people? What do they want, and how do they think? Are they cowardly bullies working from their bedrooms or courageous activists who are the last bastion of freedom of speech in an age of almost total Internet surveillance? 
Playful, annoying, disorganised and highly disruptive, hacktivist activities included attacks on the church of Scientology for its suppression of an embarrassing Tom Cruise video; the attempted ‘Operation Titstorm’ in 2009 to protest the Australian Government’s proposed filtering of the Internet; and attacks on PayPal, Mastercard and Visa disrupting service for days on end when services disallowed donations to WikiLeaks.
Knappenberger has collected a range of interview subjects who are prepared to go on camera to talk about their involvement. Sometimes these people are disguised by voice distorters and those disturbing Guy Fawkes masks, giving the notion of the ‘talking head’ a whole new dimension. In other instances, interviewees are out in the open, like the fresh-faced 20-year-old Mercedes Haefer, who was rounded up by the FBI in an early morning raid on the so-called ‘Anonymous 16’ in 2011. She’s in serious trouble but adamant she’d do it all again.
It’s clear that Anonymous encompasses a broad spectrum of participants – from the adolescent jokesters who think it’s funny to infiltrate a teen sim world and form swastika patterns out of avatars, to the serious conscientious objectors who are prepared to go court to defend their actions.
Academics, commentators and the odd victim of the stunts are also brought in to share their perspectives and their research. Yet on the whole, the tone here is forgiving and celebratory. A hard-edged musical score and tight editing create a sense of excitement about the emergence of this new kind of civil disobedience, one that has spontaneously grown out of the likes of the rude and anarchic 4Chan website. (According to one subject, 4Chan is the spawner and originator of those silly and addictive Internet memes and ‘lulz’ we all love and enjoy today.) Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the documentary is the way it traces the stages of evolution of this subculture, with its offshoots, splinter groups, internal conflicts and growing popularisation.
It’s hard not to feel inspired by some of the hacktivists’ political actions – such as restoring Internet services and enabling Twitter reporting during Egypt’s uprising in 2011. The essential secrecy, and indeed the anonymity required to stay out of jail, means that these stories are by no means the final, comprehensive account of what’s really happened in the buccaneering world of hacking. But for those interested in politics and the potential for resistance in the Information Age, We Are Legion is essential viewing.
Note: This article first appeared as an extended program note for We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists on the website for the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rochelle Siemienowicz