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Monday, 29 September 2003

Japanese Story (2)

This is a most mysterious film - and not just because of the midway plot twist that the media is forbidden to disclose. Amidst a cackle of infantile local films attempting (desperately) to make us laugh, director Sue Brooks' Japanese Story takes viewers on a decidedly sombre, thought-provoking and adult journey.

Sandi (Toni Collette) is a brisk and sinewy Perth geologist, the kind of girl who can program a computer, fix a 4WD and keep up with her make workmates at the pub. In the hope of selling her software, she finds herself acting as tour guide to Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), a rude and chauvinist Japanese businessman. The story follows their prickly and life-changing journey through the mines and deserts of the spectacular Pilbara region.

There's something immensely appealing about plonking an urban-smooth technology-obsessed Japanese person in the midst of our rough desert landscape and its tough dirty inhabitants. (Remember Clara Law's fascinating Goddess of 1967?) It's a kind of social sci-fi, where we watch as an alien discovers our planet. But Japanese Story takes us beyond simple cross-cultural conflict, stripping away layers of sediment until what remains is merely two human beings, naked and vulnerable.

Perhaps a trifle too long in its final act, this film is worth watching for many reasons, but especially for Collette's fearless tour-de-force performance.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
(This review originally appeared in The Big Issue, Aust edn, #187)

Sunday, 28 September 2003

Japanese Story

The aptly-named Sandy (Toni Collette) is a geologist, not a chauffer. So why is she driving a Japanese businessman called Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) around the deserts of Western Australia? That's a question she's asking herself: she came out to meet him on his visit because she'd be told there was a chance his company might be interested in the software her company's written, but he seems a lot more interested in travelling as far out into the desert as he can. It's not exactly a massive surprise then when they manage to get their four wheel-drive bogged, and the barely buried tensions between the feisty Sandy and the restrained Hiromitsu come to the surface. What comes after that, and the way the bond between them changes, is - only thing is, there's a little note at the bottom of just about everything to do with this film that says "the filmmakers would like to request that after seeing the film, audiences refrain from disclosing the plot within Japanese Story, so as not to spoil the film for others." So sorry, no big plot twist revealing here. Suffice to say that there is something of a twist - no extended dream sequences, identity shifts, or unbelievable revelations though - and that it isn't the kind of thing that'll have you storming out of the cinema in disgust. This is a quiet, low-key film about two people gradually revealing themselves to each other and the audience, and both performances are spot-on. The setting is just as impressive whether it's the expanse of the desert or some very large mining equipment, and while the story itself is stripped-back to the point of non-existence, every scene in it is arranged to bring out the emotional depths within. The more you're willing to put into Japanese Story, the more you'll take from it, and this quiet tale of love has a lot to offer.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #308)

Monday, 18 August 2003

Take Away

Yep, the stand-up comedians are taking over the Australian film industry, and the results aren't pretty. Wherever you look there's a team of close-knit comics slapping together a script and a bit of finance and guffawing their way through their favourite skits, send-ups and set pieces. Sometimes it works (Crackerjack or The Castle for instance) and other times the results are intermittently amusing (The Craic or Bad Eggs). Then there's Take Away, a dreadfully dumb revenge comedy, written by Dave O'Neill and Mark O'Toole, and directed by Marc Gracie (Wogs Out of Work, The Craic).

The premise is cute enough. Rival Fish 'n' Chip shop owners Tony (Vince Colosimo) and Trev (Stephen Curry) must join forces when a greedy multinational burger franchise (a distinctly Macca-esque 'Burgies') sets up next door. The scenario is nicely established, with the slobby Curry counterpointing the clean and earnest Colosimo, but Rose Byrne, Nathan Phillips and Brett Swain stand around like wide-eyed extras in a school play.

Take Away contains some very funny sketches, including a ripper of an opening sequence, but these don't hold together as a story. Likeable characters become increasingly brainless and annoying as the film progresses, with the whole thing resolving itself in a puerile and overlong visual gag. And what's with the constant jokes about buggery?

Rochelle Siemienowicz
(This review originally appeared in The Big Issue, Aust edn, #184

Tuesday, 14 January 2003

The Wannabes

It's no big secret that film reviewers often get to see movies at special preview screenings, usually held in small screening theatrettes that hold maybe twenty or thirty people at most. Makers of local comedies often complain that a small audience of film critics isn't exactly the best-way to see a mainstream crowd-pleasing comedy. So I'm here to say that I saw The Wannabes the way just about everyone else can: at a crowded lunchtime screening during the school holidays. And it still wasn't funny. To be fair, there were only two walkouts, but the film's biggest laugh was when a character was accidentally hit in the groin - and they're giving that stuff away for free on Australia's Funniest Home Videos. The laugh-free zone begins with eight year-old Danny being scarred for life after getting a massive thumbs down on Rising Stars 78. He then grows up into the movie's writer / director / producer Nick Giannopoulos, a so-so dance instructor who gets hired by a collection of very dodgy types including Marcus (Russell Dykstra), Hammer (Ryan Johnson) and Stewie (Tony Nikolalopoulos) to turn them into a Wiggles-style children's group for an upcoming fancy kid's party. Danny says no - until he sees Marcus' cute sister Kirsty (Isla Fisher). It fairly quickly turns out that the guys don't want to entertain kids at all: it's just a front so they can rob the mansion where the party's at. Then things go wrong - and yet somehow right, as their group (called The Wannabes) turns their clumsy and crude antics into a smash hit. But their criminal past isn't done with them yet... Okay, so it's not funny - and that's not funny AT ALL not funny - and the acting is more wooden than a pine plantation, and the characters don't really make a lot of sense, and Giannopoulos gives himself the only character with even two dimensions without realising that a condescending idiot doesn't really work as a sympathetic lead, and the plot manages to be way more complicated than a movie about crude kid's entertainers needs to be, but... well, that's pretty much it. But let's end on a positive note: at least The Wannabes isn't amazingly, mind-numbingly, teeth-grindly boring.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #308)

Perfect Strangers

First, the bad news: Perfect Strangers isn’t the long-awaited big-screen version of that similarly-titled mid-80s sitcom about a wacky immigrant. Instead, it’s the story of Melanie (Rachael Blake), who lives a fairly grey life centred on her job at a New Zealand fish’n chip shop. So when a boozy pick-up night down the local pub with her mates ends with her scoring a handsome stranger (Sam Neill), it looks like she’s on to a good thing. They go back to his place (a fishing boat), she passes out, and when she wakes up he’s taken her away to a remote and deserted island. And that’s far from the last time the romantic and the creepy are mixed here. This film’s greatest asset is also it’s weakest point: it’s not afraid to take an idea and run with it. The first third of this movie looks like your usual Hollywood thriller, so it’s an enjoyable surprise when some twists takes the story to strange new places. But one person’s strange new place is another’s over-the-top mess (it could’ve been titled The Curse of Zombie Island), and here the line between the two is so fine it’s difficult to know which side this film falls on. Solid performances from Blake and Neill keep the over-the-top plot at least slightly grounded; the result is a haunting film in more ways than one.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #309)

Gettin' Square

It's one thing to spice up movie dialogue with some snappy phrases; it's another to rely on one phrase so often that a game based on having a drink every time someone says it would result in everyone taking part slipping into an alcoholic coma before the half hour mark. And when that phrase also happens to be the title of the movie - and we all know how great it is when a character says the title of the movie - you've got a blunder so big it threatens to overshadow what could have been a decent crime thriller. The words "I'm gettin' square" or "I'm square" (meaning they've turned their back on crime) haven't had this good a workout since the fifties, and blind viewers would be forgiven for thinking they'd stumbled into a movie about a bunch of beatniks turning their backs on the hipster life in favour of conformity and the quarter-acre block. The story itself is your usual confused mess about a collection of colourful crime characters (this time based around Surfer's Paradise), as our nominal hero Barry Wirth (Sam Worthington) gets out of jail and tries to go straight, while his junkie mate Spit (David Wenham) keeps messing up, former crime boss turned restaurant owner Dabba (Tim Spall) has to cope with a tax investigation and losing weight, parole office Annie (Freya Stafford) wanders around, and crime lord Chicka (Gary Sweet) and his crooked cop buddy (David Field) are out to ruin everyone's fun. Whining scuzzball Spit is definitely the film's highlight, and Wenham steals every scene he's in. Problem is, having such a minor character become such a laugh-getter throws the whole movie off balance. And when there wasn't much balance there to begin with - it's the kind of Snatch-style knock-off that only works so long as it keeps moving fast - you end up with a film that's little more than a collection of fun but forgettable moments.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #309)