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Monday, 2 December 2002

Ghost World

Hollywood might be pretty good at churning out movies aimed at teenagers, but when it comes to movies actually about real teens their output falls a little short. It's ironic then that the two movies that've done the best job of capturing how it feels to be a teen in 2002 are based on comic books: Spiderman and now Ghost World, based on the serial in writer / artist Dan Clowes' 'Eightball' comic. The original story was a surprisingly moving look at two teenage girls drifting through life after high school, torn between nostalgia for a childhood they've barely left behind and a future too full of possibilities to reject outright; perhaps the most impressive thing about the film version (which was co-written by Clowes, along with director Terry Zwigoff) is how well it manages to retain the comic's quirky tone. Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) have just left high school behind them, and as a duo prone to making smart-arse comments about all and sundry, their future in an America made up of bland layered upon bland doesn't look good. Their aimless wanderings eventually takes them to a lawn sale where uber-geek record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi) is peddling his wares. For Rebecca, the slightly more mainstream / socially adjusted of the two girls, he's just a geek; Enid sees something more to him, and as she gets to know him better she senses something of a kindred spirit beneath all those layers of obscure music knowledge. For a film where not a whole lot happens, this manages to shift from very funny comedy (Enid and Rebecca's commentary on everything around them is classic stuff) to much more emotional territory without hitting a single bad note. That's thanks to a script that values the characters over any notion of a 'plot' and a trio of excellent performances from Birch, Buscemi, and Johansson. They're all playing characters that feel more like actual people than the usual types that populate most American films, and while all three actors really shine here, it's Birch who's makes the most of her sharp-witted role. Directing his first feature film (he previously directed the documentary Crumb), Zwigoff gets out of the way and lets his bleak panorama of strip malls and fast food joints make his point for him. It's a coming-of-age drama where no-one really comes of age, and a comedy that's too thoughtful for cheap laughs; Ghost World should not be missed.

Anthony Morris

(this review appeared in Forte#275)

Glitter

Through-out the century-long history of movies, a whole lot of people from a whole lot of professions have become good actors, so on the surface there's no reason why Mariah Carey can't do the same. Oh wait, yes there is: SHE CAN'T ACT. This wouldn't be a problem - after all, she pays the bills with her voice - only someone somewhere figured it'd be a really good idea to put her in a movie, and instead of the more traditional methods used to hide a lead actresses lack of talent (skilful editing, dubbing, nudity, etc), they went with the rarely used technique of dragging the rest of the movie down to her low, low standard. The good news is, this takes its time building up to its eventual laughable level of ineptitude: young Billie Frank (Carey) had a drunken arsonist mother who put her in an orphanage where she met her two lifelong friend, memorably described by one character as Roach Bag and Fat Ass. Growing up to be slutty dancers at a New York nightclub circa 1983 - and in case you ever forget that this is taking place in New York, almost every scene begins with an aerial shot of the city - they get a gig as backing singers for a no-talent bimbo and her evil pimp manager. Rescued from this fate by DJ / producer / leather pants wearer Duce (Max Beesley), Billie goes on to barely mentioned fame and fortune while Duce loses it big time, starts going to parties topless, and cruelly prevents Billie from dressing as slutty as she wants to. Oh, and Billie may be some kind of robot, as in most scenes she has a streak of metallic paint smeared on her skin. Every time Billie and Duce had a conversation, the entire audience at the screening I saw started laughing at the inept dialogue and tragic performances: if you want proof that tragedy can bring people together, then check Glitter out.

Anthony Morris

(this review appeared in Forte#259)

Sunday, 13 January 2002

The Nugget

Aussie films are a lot easier to enjoy in theory than in practice. Case in point: The Nugget. In theory, this should be a winner. It's written and directed by Bill (Kiss or Kill) Bennett, it stars such heavy hitters of the local comedy scene as Stephen Curry and Dave O'Neil, and then there's the little matter of latest local-boy-makes-good success story Eric Bana taking the lead. Even the story sounds okay: three country town road workers - the unlucky Lotto (Bana), the super-lazy Sue (Dave O'Neil), and Wookie (Curry), so named because he claims to have once seen a Wookie in his back yard - like to spend their weekends away from it all 'prospecting' (that is, drinking beer) out on an old goldmining site. So when they stumble across the biggest gold nugget ever found, they rather stupidly figure they'll just hide it under Lotto's backyard and then try and buy up all the mining leases in the neighbourhood in case there's even more gold in them thar hills. Local sleazebag Ratner (Peter Moon) has other ideas, even as the trio's friendship starts to come apart under the stress of that much sudden wealth, and it's not long before they find themselves in a bigger hole than the one they dug to hide the nugget in. So far so good, especially with the three main leads all giving likeable (and very Aussie) performances. But this just isn't that funny. Okay, there are a few good gags here and there (and one, where a creepy old prospector - played by Max Cullen - says he'll sell his lease for 'the lives of the one you love the most' and then laughs hysterically for a good two minutes, is a classic), but otherwise this is a big collection of moments best described as 'nice'. The story isn't exactly a dramatic one either, and what twists there are aren't difficult to see coming. It's being promoted as a fable, and it works as one - but fables aren't all that funny, and they don't make for compelling viewing either.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #283)

Dirty Deeds

Noble failure isn't really a description that comes up too often when describing Australian films. Usually if a local product stinks, it stinks so badly it closes the cinema down for fumigation. Dirty Deeds is nowhere near that bad; it's just that it's never quite as good as it should be. The year is 1969, and the original AC/DC version of the title track is playing (close to a decade before it was recorded) as Barry Ryan (Bryan Brown) and his Sydney crime crew smash up an illegal back room pokies joint. Not because they're police, mind you - Ryan runs the casinos in Sydney, and his chief rival Freddie (Gary Waddell) just needed a little reminder of that. Meanwhile, Ryan's nephew Darcy (Sam Worthington) has just finished his tour of duty in Vietnam and has flown into Sydney looking for a job. Ryan's more than happy to show him the ropes, as well as his wife Sharon (Toni Colette) and his mistress Margaret (Kestie Morassi), who ends up being Darcy's next-door neighbour. If it wasn't bad enough that Freddie won't take no for an answer, leading to an attempted hit on Darcy that doesn't sit well with crooked cop Ray (Sam Neill), two Chicago mobsters have flown into town with expansion on their minds. Ryan decides to try and get on the good side of Tony (John Goodman) and Sal (Felix Williamson) with a big party, but when he knocks back their offer to buy him out, everyone knows that trouble's brewing. Well, everyone but Darcy, who's too busy falling for Margaret to realise exactly how much danger he's putting himself in... This ends up being a pretty good re-creation of 60's Sydney for the money, but that's the only real success here: under-written characters and the occasional flat performance mean this attempt at a large-scale crime drama never really takes off. The huge range of double-dealings that fill the film's second half never really go anywhere, and while it is fast-paced and stylish enough to ensure that this effort by writer / director David Caesar is never boring, it never comes together as a complete success either. See Dirty Deeds on the cheap.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #277)