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Friday, 2 December 2005

The Extra

Five years in the making - well, the writing at least - The Extra poses the cinematic question: how long do you really need to write a film this average? Sure, there's stuff to enjoy in this almost fairy-tale like story of a would-be actor (scriptwriter Jimeoin) who comes to the big city hoping to be a star but ends up as an extra / leather bar dancer who stumbles into both a (not-so-big) break and love. Jimeoin is a likeable screen presence, Bob Franklin as the shaven-headed night-club owner / movie buff villain deserved a larger role, and Shaun Micallef as a detective / host of a 'crime-stoppers'-style show is a highlight. Problem is, there's no real reason for his character to even be in this film, and he's not the only one. Worse, the story takes forever to get started, and when it does it's too bogged down in subplots and extra characters to really take off. On their own, some individual scenes work well (the romance between Jimeoin's un-named character and fellow extra Claudia seems to belong in a different, much better, movie), but they never come together as anything like a solid story. If The Extra was funnier, none of this would matter. But the laughs are few and far between, and the uneven tone suggests the film-makers weren't even sure how funny a film they wanted to make. Whatever they were aiming for, it must have been better than this.

Anthony Morris

(this review appeared in Forte#347)

Little Fish

If ever a film was crushed by the burden of big expectations, Little Fish is it. Directed by Rowan Woods (his first film since The Boys), and with Cate Blanchett (in her first local effort in years) heading up an all-star cast, this had hit written all over it. So what went wrong? Well, for a film that's beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and has some really impressive sound design, it seems kind of strange that no-one ever asked if an audience really wanted to sit through a half-hour story dragged out to close to two hours. Basically ex-junkie Tracey Heart (Blanchett) wants to start her own business in Sydney's Vietnamese west but she can't get a loan. She hangs out with her mum's ex (Hugo Weaving), her brother (Martin Henderson) acts dodgy, her old boyfriend (21 Jump Street's Dustin Nguyen) returns after years away and wanders around a bit, and a retiring crime figure (Sam Neill) wonders what his right-hand man is up to. Sure, it's important for a movie to have interesting characters - and no-one here is boring - but they eventually have to do interesting things and that's where this falls down. Little Fish is yet another arty character study, and we just don't need any more right now.

Anthony Morris

(this review appeared in Forte#358)

Friday, 14 January 2005

You and Your Stupid Mate

Everywhere you go across this wide brown land, you’ll find people having a good old laugh. They’re laughing with friends and relatives, they’re laughing in clubs and cafes, they’re even chuckling by themselves at an old joke or funny story they’ve just remembered. In fact, the only place where you won’t find people laughing is inside a cinema showing an Australian comedy. From a distance, the engagingly lowbrow approach of You and Your Stupid Mate holds out the hope that it might be the film to buck the trend. But unfortunately, keeping your distance is probably the best move as far as the adventures of dim-witted buddies Jeffery (Angus Sampson) and Phillip (Nathan Phillips) are concerned. This tale of how our heroes’ personal obsessions (Jeffery wants to save the dignity of axed soap Sons and Surf while Phillip wants to become a star via the Scouts and Guides’ Gang Show) are threatened by the work-for-the-dole schemes of their new case manager (William McInnis) is decently constructed and generally well-acted. It’s also packed with wall-to-wall ‘jokes’ that fall flat thanks to an approach to film-making that values pretty much anything over actually being funny. Writers Dave O’Neil and Mark O’Toole have proved elsewhere that they’re funny guys; maybe elsewhere is where they should have stayed, because this feels more like a film written by guys sitting around going “yeah, the kids’ll laugh at this” than something anyone involved actually laughed at. And be warned: if zero laughs weren’t reason enough to stay away, this also features a cameo from Eddie Maguire that proves that as actors go, he’s a great Collingwood president.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #349)

Thursday, 6 January 2005

The Magician

Opening with a garage execution that’s the most convincing movie murder you’ll see this year, The Magician manages to seem fresh and new without having an original bone in its body. Made for around $3000, its premise is simple: for some unknown reason, low-rent Melbourne hit-man Ray Shoesmith (writer- director Scott Ryan) has decided to let his friend and neighbour Massimo ‘Max’ Totti (cinematographer Massimiliano Andrighetto) make him the subject of a low budget documentary.

It’s a warts-and-all portrait, as Ray has no qualms whatsoever about allowing his kidnappings, bashings, and killings to appear on camera. The result is an episodic film where Ray’s conversations on life, family, Wayne Carey and thieving junkies alternate with his brutal yet often comic dealings with his victims, including a double-dipping drug dealer (Ben Walker) who manages to (maybe) stave off death with talk of a large wad of cash buried on his father’s farm.

For crime fans, this is hardly ground-breaking stuff. The style and setting owes a clear (and acknowledged) debt to the writings of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, the likeable hit-man is a Hollywood cliche, and the conceit of a documentary crew following around a killer goes back at least as far as Man Bites Dog (1992). But so what? With a local film industry seemingly obsessed in recent years with the personal problems of the articulate and handsome, making a film about a blue collar thug seems positively radical.

Almost as impressive is the way this turns the typical weaknesses of low budget film-making into strengths. Don’t have much money? Come up with a story that logically could only be shot on wobbly video. Can’t afford an experienced cast? Create scenarios that’ll hold an audiences’ attention (you’d have to mess up pretty badly to make a scene where a character is forced to dig his own grave at gunpoint dull), then let the actors improvise their dialogue to keep the performances fresh.

The result – standing in stark contrast to just about every local big-screen comedy in recent memory – is packed with ‘funny’ moments that are actually funny. The humour might be as blunt as Ray’s methods of conflict resolution but it works, thanks largely to an astonishingly charming and always compelling performance from first-time actor Ryan. He’s put together, and his performance holds together, one of the sharpest low-budget efforts in years. It’s the kind of film we need to be making more of.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in The Big Issue)