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Monday, 24 December 2007

I'm Not There


You can read my review of this strange, baffling tribute to Bob Dylan over at Eureka Street magazine online. - Rochelle Siemienowicz

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Atonement

Like it or not, certain kinds of films get a free pass when it comes to class and Atonement ticks all the right boxes. First, it's based on a novel by Ian McEwan (Endless Love) so it's got literary cred on its side, not to mention a story that's actually about something more than glamorous people talking loud and saying nothing. Second, it's (in part) a love story set against the backdrop of the Second World War - think a less morally dubious version of the extremely classy The English Patient. And third, the characters are all either English gentry or their grimy yet studly servants, and decades of ABC miniseries have trained us to see snooty types in dinner jackets in the 1930's as class all the way. Usually all this class would be hiding a whole lot of not much at its core (again, think The English Patient), but thankfully all this effort hasn't been wasted on a featherweight story.

It's the 1930s, and Briony(Saoirse Ronan) is a precocious child busy writing plays and stories in her family's huge mansion in the English countryside while her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) is slowly circling Robbie (JamesMcAvoy), the made good son of a former servant. Briony thinks she's worldly and wise, but when she jumps to conclusions about her sister's relationship -and then uses those conclusions to tear their lives apart - she soon realises that she's nothing more than a painful meddler. Her efforts to right her wrong make up the second half of the film, and while they initially seem to be setting this film up to be little more than a very well crafted and highly entertaining tale of love lost and (perhaps) found again, it's the revelations towards the end regarding exactly how far Briony is willing to go to engineer a "happily everafter" that lift this from a engaging but lightweight romance to something really special. You might even call it classy.

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 20 December 2007

No Country for Old Men


Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian, The Road) isn't the cheeriest of writers at the best of times, while in recent years indie film stalwarts the Coen Brothers have drifted into making lightweight, disposable, and worst of all, forgettable films (remember The Ladykillers? Didn't think so). The Coens once had form when it came to offbeat crime (Blood Simple, Fargo), but the success of their adaptation of McCarthy's relatively lightweight yet still dark andbrooding No Country for Old Men was far from the sure thing it once would have been. Turns out those fears were groundless: not only is this a triumphant return to form for the Coens, it actually marks something of a departure for them in terms of crime drama as they (mostly) reign in their quirky humour to stay true toMcCarthy's bleak lament for a barren place that exists as much in men's hearts as it does the physical world.

It's 1980, and when trailer park resident Llwewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad, complete with a ute full of drugs and a satchel full of cash, he decides to take the money and run. That puts him in the sights of the extremely deadly Chigurh (Javier Bardem in a nightmare-inducing performance), while local sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to put the pieces together.

The film's lean, stripped-back style comes largely from the novel - there are long silent sequences here that simply involve people going about their work, which sometimes results in murder - but its the kind of thing the Coens did brilliantly in their earlier films and they clearly haven't lost the knack. The three lead performances are all amazing: Brolin is perfect as a decent man not sure how over his head he is, Bardem seems like he should be a jokevillain but turns out to be the scariest thing on screen this year, and Jones (who doesn't appear onscreen until half an hour in, but turns out to be the film's central character) continues his recent run of quality work as a worn down man unsure of the worth of his work. There's plenty of sly humour and dry wit on offer, but where the Coen's earlier work would squeeze a note of redemption into the grimmest of events (think of the end of Fargo), this winds up in a way that's both quietly real and totally devastating. This is one of the year's best films.

Anthony Morris

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

September


The year is 1968, and on a farm out in the West Australian wheat belt two teenage boys are good friends: Ed (Xavier Samuel) is the white son of the farm's owner, and the aboriginal Paddy (Clarence John Ryan) works for Ed's father alonside his own dad in return for food and board on the property. And for a long time that's pretty much all there is to this film, as writer / director Peter Carstairs is content to let images speak louder than words as scene after slow-paced scene involves little more than the two teenagers hanging out together around the farm. Then the government, in a well-meaning act of compensation, makes it mandatory for Aboriginal workers to be paid the same as everyone else and things start to fall apart between both the teenagers and their fathers. If you're looking for a high-energy, hard-hitting parable about race-relations in this country, keep walking. This film is content to be its own thing, and while the story might have wider implications that's for you to find. Closer to a tone poem than anything else, this is well-acted and often beautifully shot with long moments of near-wordless visual power. But for those who like things to happen in their viewing, the leisurely pace might start to get to you after a while.

Anthony Morris

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Hitman

There's no real reason why movies based on video games have to have bland and generic stories - they just do. It's tempting to suggest that it has something to do with the nature of the games themselves: if games only need simple, straight-forward storylines to hang their action on, then that's why their movie versions are so simplistic. But then surely the writers and directors could fill in the space left by the games' simple story with unique and interesting material? Whatever the reason, Hitman is a perfectly serviceable action thriller that ends up a boring chore to watch thanks to the determination of the behind-the-camera crew to make a movie containing no original material whatsoever. 47 (Timothy Olyphant, who does his best with almost nothing to work with) has been trained since childhood to be the world's deadliest assassin, but when he's betrayed by his employers over a botched (or is it?) attempt to kill the Russian president, he has to kill a whole bunch of people so... well, so he can then kill a whole bunch more people. With a plot stitched together Frankenstein's monster-style from a dozen better movies it can't really fail, but eventually the complete lack of originality starts to sink in and once your attention wanders you start to ask inconvenient questions. Like why does a supposedly untraceable hitman have a shaved head with a barcode tattooed across the back of it when it makes him instantly recognisable? And why does a super-secret organisation of killers stamp their logo on all their tools of the trade? If you've never seen an action movie before in your life, then you'll enjoy this; otherwise, go watch The Professional again.


Anthony Morris

Monday, 10 December 2007

Rescue Dawn


In the mid-90's acclaimed film-maker Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Fitzcarraldo) made Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a documentary telling the story of German-born US navy pilot Dieter Dengler and how he escaped from the Viet Cong after being shot down over Laos in the early days of the Vietnam War. Unusually, that version wasn't enough for Herzog, and in Rescue Dawn he tells Deiter's story once again, this time in an often powerful yet never fully satisfying recreation. The problem isn't with the casting: Christian Bale plays Deiter and gives a gritty, intensely physical performance in a role that for the most part requires him to be caged like an animal or trekking through thick jungle. The support cast is equally strong, especially Steve Zahn as a fellow American and escapee who's spirit has been all but crushed by captivity. And the story itself ticks all the right boxes, especially in the long months in the POW camp as Dieter slowly scrapes together the pieces that will first give the prisoners their dignity back, and then give them the means to break free. But in the jungle sequences, where the film really should have its strongest emotional impact, things don't feel quite right. There's no denying that these scenes are well handled, and the aimless and increasingly desperate nature of the escapee's wanderings in a land where both nature and the population are out to finish them off is convincing. Still, Herzog feels like he's either holding back (Rescue Dawn is a rare effort on his part to work within the traditional movie industry) or lost his way: for a director who's made his career with fiercely powerful and unflinching looks at the relationship between man and nature, too often this feels like standard (but well-made) Hollywood fare. It's a good film rather than a great one.

Anthony Morris

Gabriel


Reviewers often get the stink eye from the general public for their supposed blind support for the local film industry. And rightly so: a reviewer's job isn't to give a film marks for trying hard, or making do with no money, or keeping local technicians in work. You the viewer don't care about that stuff... which is a problem because that's pretty much all Gabriel has going for it. It's not a complete stinker, mind you: this story of gun-toting demons and angels warring over an urban Purgatory has a moderately effective and heavily stylised look to its visuals, the performances are mostly competent in a super-serious Matrix bit-player way, and the story itself features a couple of well-handled twists, which is a lot more than the usual Hollywood fare. But they can't make up for the fact that the action isn't that exciting, the characters aren't anything new, the story is wall-to-wall cliches, and the whole thing has the unmistakable and leaden feel of a series of video game cut scenes strung together. The movie-makers clearly have the technical ability to put together a decent film, but when you're telling a story as tired and humourless as this one "decent" doesn't cut it.

Anthony Morris

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Beowulf


Computer-generated imagery has come a long way very quickly, but it still can't quite get the human face right. So in a strange way Beowulf's script (by fantasy author Neil Gaiman and one-time Tarantino collaborator Roger Avery) is too good for the current technology: sometimes subtle in mood and often relying on facial expressions to get across things the characters left unsaid (in short, acting), more than once it outstrips the ability of CGI animators to bring their human characters to life. But that said, the only way film progresses as a medium in through films like this, where the reach of all involved exceeds - sometimes - their grasp. Based on the Dark Ages epic poem, Beowulf is the story of, er, Beowulf (the voice of Ray Winstone), who arrives in a land under siege from the monster Grendel and promises the king (Anthony Hopkins) to rid the land of this blight. But while brute force and a bit of naked wrestling might be enough to tackle Grendel, his demon mother (Angelina Jolie) is another matter entirely. Unusually for this genre, which usually just powers blindly on to an all-action climax, this film's third act could almost be a separate film, as the much older and world-weary Beowulf is forced to face the mistakes of his past and try to put things right once and for all. Fortunately for action fans, this involves fighting a dragon, and it's the combination of narrative force and physical action that sets this above the average fantasy film. The animation works best when there's monsters around, but even in the human-only sequences (and there are plenty of them, with the of Beowulf, the King, and the King's wife - voiced by Robin Wright Penn - becoming quite the twisted love triangle) it's only the occasional stiff or stilted moment in the performances that jars. If Beowulf is the future of film, it's mostly because it's sticks close to that oldest of values: solid storytelling.


Anthony Morris

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Boxing Day


Chris (Richard Green) is tough. You can see from the tattoos he wears all over his bare chest and muscled arms that he's hard man. And yet, as this film opens, he's cleaning the house and setting the table like an uneasy housewife. He's on parole you see, and he's trying to prepare Christmas lunch for his estranged family – his brother’s ex-wife Donna (Tammy Anderson), and her teenage daughter Brooke (Misty Sparrow) who calls him ‘Dad’. It's a strange damaged little family, and of course the afternoon will not run smoothly.

For one thing, there is the ‘mate’ who turns up on the doorstep trying to involve Chris in a drug deal. And for another, there’s the abundant Christmas alcohol singing a siren song in the fridge. The tension here is almost unbearable as temptation after temptation presents itself to this man who’s trying so desperately for redemption.

Director Kriv Stenders (The Illustrated Family Doctor, Blacktown) has made one of the best Australian films of the year with this ultra-realist low-budget drama. The script, written – or more accurately ‘improvised’ by Stenders and Green, is totally convincing with its authentic Western suburbs rhythms and cadences. The incidental Aboriginality of the central character is perfectly integrated and never forced or contrived. Even the digital camera-work, so rough and unbeautiful, manages to work with the subject matter – though one does hope for a steadier steady-cam and a bit of glare-management in Stenders’ next film. Nevertheless, Boxing Day sets the bar high for Australian filmmakers, showing what can be done with a digital camera a decent script and a handful of talented performers.


Rochelle Siemienowicz

Interview


After controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim fundamentalist in 2004, his producers decided to continue with van Gogh’s plans for English-language versions of three of his films. Interview is the first of the remakes to be released as part of this project, but those lured by its controversial origins might come away wondering what the fuss was all about

Co-written and directed by Steve Buscemi (who also stars) this tale of a clash between political reporter Pierre Peders (Buscemi) forced to interview not-so-vapid starlet Katya (Sienna Miller) has the wordy nature of a stage play. For most of its length the two character circle one another warily, searching for a way to get under the other’s skin. There’s some nice moments here, and Miller’s performance is a decent one (even if, as a Hollywood starlet, she’s basically playing herself), but even at barely eighty minutes there are moments when the energy flags.

This film’s real saving grace is Buscemi himself. Miller might be conventionally beautiful, but he’s the one you can’t take your eyes off. Pierre is an arrogant, manipulative creep; Buscemi makes him compelling.

Anthony Morris

Friday, 23 November 2007

Death Proof




Is it worth wading through ninety minutes of dreary chit-chat to see the most thrilling car chase ever filmed? That’s the question to ask before checking out Death Proof. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s sharp ear for dialogue deserts him in this sluggish tale of a group of young women who sit around and talk for close to forty minutes until stunt-car driver turned serial killer Stuntman Mike (the excellent Kurt Russell) finally and fatally runs them off the road in his specially modified ‘death proof’ car. Then another four girls come along and we start all over again.

Staggering from the wreckage of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s failed Grindhouse feature (where two short trashy films and fake trailers were combined into one box-office flop), Death Proof is a love letter to 70’s exploitation films. Unfortunately, Tarantino gets the details right but forgets to make things interesting – until the final car chase, featuring Mike versus a car with New Zealand stuntwoman Zoe Bell (playing herself) tied to the bonnet. This CGI-free sequence is astounding, nail-biting stuff. It’s Tarantino’s best film-making to date, trapped inside (probably) his worst film.

Anthony Morris
(This review first appeared in edition #291 of The Big Issue Australia, 5 November 2007)

Outsourced


Todd Anderson (Josh Hamilton) leads a bland life as manager of a Seattle call centre. Then he’s told that his job is being outsourced to India. If he wants to keep his stock options he’s going to have to go there and train the new workforce.

Cue Bombay’s heat and chaos, and an encounter with some dodgy ice confectionary. Still, Todd’s Indian hosts prove charming, and his new employees are quirky, resourceful and eager to learn the American accent. Sweetening the brew is the lovely Asha (Ayesha Dharker), a spirited Indian girl who’s not afraid to laugh at Todd and tell him that he needs to learn ‘the Indian way’.

Written by George Wing (50 First Dates) and directed by newcomer John Jeffcoat, Outsourced gently and humorously addresses our worst fears about globalization and the people whose voices we hear on the other end of the line; suggesting that if our third world cousins are this generous and enterprising, surely they deserve the work .Yes, it’s romantic comedy, and presents an almost too sweet view of the world, but it’s a colorful trip to a friendly place that’s well worth visiting.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

(This review first appeared in edition#291 of The Big Issue Australia, 5 November 2007)

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

The War on Democracy


When the United States talks about ‘bringing democracy to the world’, other countries have good reason to shiver with fear – especially if they happen to possess significant oil reserves. In this chilling documentary, journalist John Pilger investigates the sinister political activities of the US in South American countries like Bolivia, Venezuela and Chile. Here history tells of democratically elected governments toppled in favour of US-friendly dictatorships. It’s shocking to learn that Pinochet’s torture squads where even trained in the USA.

A lot of the material here is familiar, but Pilger puts it together in a cohesive and convincing fashion, and his interviews with swaggering ex-CIA operatives are frightening and funny at the same time. “World, get used to it!” drawls one old boy.

The film’s mood is hopeful, however, with a strong focus on recent People Power victories in Latin America, like Bolivia’s reclamation of its water resources. Topping-and-tailing the film is a somewhat adulatory interview with Venezuala’s beaming working class president, Hugo Chavez. Perhaps this was misjudged, but it’s highly entertaining and inspiring. Pilger’s evangelical style may irritate some, but his message is a timely and important one.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 4 Days


The winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 4 Days is a grimly thrilling film about two young Romanian women trying to obtain an abortion. The film is set in 1987, in the dying days of Ceausescu’s Communist regime, when abortions are strictly forbidden, with severe jail sentences hanging over anyone who defies the State’s official ‘population increase’ policy.

But Gabita (Laura Vasilu) is a poor, single college student. She seems almost stupid with animal fright. She can’t think straight. She just needs to get rid of this growing ‘problem’. Luckily her room-mate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) has a calm head on her shoulders – and a true loyal heart of gold.

The film begins slowly, as the two women shave their legs, argue about money, and perform complex negotiations to buy soap and cigarettes from black marketeers. If it’s this hard to get soap how hard is it going to be to book a hotel room in which to perform an illegal medical procedure? And what price will the abortionist himself (a chilling Vlad Ivanov) extract from these pretty young innocents? To complicate matters, Otilia’s boyfriend wants her to come to dinner tonight, to meet his parents for the first time. Buses must be caught in the dark, surly hotel porters evaded, and a fetus disposed of before midnight. It’s no wonder Otilia can barely force down her desert; she’s wondering if her friend is bleeding to death on the other side of the city. And when her boyfriend tries to score a quickie in the bedroom, well, it’s bad timing to say the least.

Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu (Occident), and lensed by Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu), the film is a triumph of sober simplicity. Long single shots are utilised, with a colour palette that’s Soviet grey, reflecting the crumbling concrete of an oppressive State. Naturalistic acting, with the kind of short-hand dialogue that real people use, enhances the empathy we feel for these two scared girls as they inhabit their nightmare. And when it’s all over, you feel that you’ve lived it, been there, been afraid. So whatever your beliefs or feelings about abortion – or about Communism, for that matter – the success of the film lies in its ability to make us feel deeply for the plight of these women and their limited, life-threatening, essentially female choices.


Rochelle Siemienowicz

(This review first appeared in edition #290 of The Big Issue Australia, 22 October 2007)

The Brave One


When radio host Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) and her boyfriend take an evening stroll through New York’s Central Park only to end up mugged, bashed and - in the boyfriend’s case – killed, you could be forgiven for not knowing what’s next. When Erica is so scarred by the experience the only way she can feel safe is to buy a gun, things start to become a little clearer. And when she shoots a crazed gunman in a convenience store, there’s no doubt about it: you’re watching a good old-fashioned vigilante movie.

Director Neil Jordan ticks all the boxes in this gender-reversed Death Wish clone: crime rules the streets, rape-crazed gangs prowl the subways, and only one woman with a gun dares to put things right. The vigilante genre has lost some of its social relevance in these law-abiding times, but its taking-out-the-trash cliches still pack a punch and they’re well-handled here. Foster is the one who makes this straight-to-DVD material live, with a powerfully heartfelt performance that is often simply too good for the cheesy script she’s working with. And how does she get to be such a good shot?


Anthony Morris

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Superbad

More a prime example of the “one crazy night” genre (anything from Adventures in Babysitting to Martin Scorsese's After Hours) than a teen sex romp, Superbad still presents audiences with some of the flat-out filthiest dialogue heard outside of an episode of Deadwood. And yet there’s enough insight in its depiction of dorky high school boys and the girls who might like them to keep it from ever being merely crude.

With high school nearly over and different universities awaiting them, best friends Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) seize on a surprise invite to an cool kids party as their last chance for some serious fun. Their invite depends on them bringing booze; being underage, this proves to be way more difficult than anyone could have predicted.

Some might say that the freewheeling subplot involving two unbelievably nutty cops (Bill Hader and scriptwriter Seth Rogen) undermines the otherwise emotionally resonant depiction of a couple of friends about to be torn apart by adulthood. Others might question all the dick jokes. They’re both wrong: with great performances, classic scenes, and plenty of heart, Superbad is a brilliantly hysterical comedy.

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 13 September 2007

The Final Winter

Despite Australia's passionate love affair with all forms of sport, we don't seem to make all that many movies about sport - presumably because in Australia culture you either love one or the other. That's their loss: rough around the edges The Final Winter may be, and with it's fair share of clumsy scenes and two-d characters, this still manages to be one of the more down-to-earth entertaining local efforts of the year. It's the early 80's, and Sydney rugby league club The Jets is in turmoil: crowd numbers are down, the old style of bash-heavy play is out of favour, and new club CEO Murray 'Colgate' Perry (John Jarrat) thinks the only way to keep the club alive is to take it down a more professional path. One man who disagrees is Grub Henderson (writer Matt Nable), a 200 game man and old-school thug who solves his problems by hitting people or ignoring them until they go away. In the week that follows Grub will finally realise that his playing days are be behind him - but he's not going to bow out without a fight. Stories about the end of an era always have a resonance, and even though this is perhaps too heavily weighted in Grub's favour - Colgate is an a-grade creep, even though pretty much everything he says and does makes a lot more sense than Grub's stubborn bull-headedness - the rugby stuff turns out to be a lot more universal in terms of the global corporatisation of sport than you might think (and the games themselves are filmed with bone-jarring impact like a widescreen Nutra-grain commercial). Likewise, Grub himself isn't that likeable, but his slow realisation that time is passing him by is one that even non sports fans can identify with. The Final Winter isn't going to win any awards - but who goes to see the Australian films that do?

Anthony Morris

(this review appeared in Forte#410)

Forbidden Lie$

In 2004 Norma Khouri's best-selling book Forbidden Love was a global sensation, a gripping true-life tale exposing the horror of Jordan's 'honour killings' where young women were killed by their family for falling in love with the wrong man. Then West Australian journalist Malcolm Knox exposed the book as a fake, and Khouri as a married Chicago mother of two - not the Jordanian virgin she'd claimed to be. Norma went on the run, leaving her kids behind with a neighbour for months while her publishers pulled the book from the shelves and tried to retrieve the hundreds of thousands of dollars Norma had received in advances. She's been in hiding ever since - until now. In Forbidden Lie$, film-maker Anna Broinowski gives Norma enough rope to hang herself, and instead finds herself tangled up in an ever more complex tales of scams and interconnected lies with the increasingly compelling Norma front and centre throughout. The twists and turns of the tale in itself are enthralling, especially as Norma refuses to back down as more and more holes get punched in her story, but the portrait of Norma, aka "one of the best [con artists] ever", that gradually develops is just as interesting. By turns laugh-out-loud, wince-making, appalling and bizarre, this constantly surprising documentary is a classic.

Anthony Morris

(this review appeared in Forte#41o)

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Ratatouille

Animation studio Pixar is the closest thing Hollywood has to a sure thing. Films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles have given the studio a reputation for making hits (that people actually enjoy) that’s second to none. That’s a tough legacy to live up to, but Ratatouille doesn’t flinch. Writer/director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) takes what should be a fairly icky subject - Remy the rat (Patton Oswalt) loves cooking so much he becomes the head chef at a swanky French restaurant by teaming up with clumsy garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano) - and turns it into a triumph.

Weaving non-stop physical comedy with romance, friendship, family dramas, health concerns, the kind of hero’s journey most blockbusters would kill for and a hefty swipe at cynical critics, this occasionally threatens to collapse in on itself like a badly cooked soufflĂ©. But Bird, demonstrating a directing ability that mirrors the Remy/Linguini team’s virtuoso skill in the kitchen, constantly adds and mixes characters and subplots until everything comes to a head in a riotous conclusion that can't fail to satisfy. It might have been created virtually, but Ratatouille is the best physical comedy of the year.


Anthony Morris

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

No Reservations

It’s a set-up more sugary than a bag of Hollywood donuts: uptight, no-nonsense chef Kate (Catherine Zeta-Jones) runs her Manhattan restaurant’s kitchen with an iron fist until her sister dies in an off-camera car crash and makes Kate the guardian of her adorable nine year-old Zoe (Abigail Breslin). When juggling child care and culinary duties proves a handful for Kate, her boss hires her a new assistant, the handsome and carefree Nick (Aaron Eckhart). He’s Kate’s opposite in every way, and if you can’t see where this is heading you just might need glasses.

Before you start groaning, rest assured that Australian director Scott Hicks (Shine) fights a constant battle against the sappy sentiment that runs through this film’s script like thick treacle. More often than not he succeeds. Kate thankfully doesn't become a magic mommy overnight, and for the most part Zoe remains a little girl grieving for her dead mother. Having a cast way better than the lines they’re required to say also improves things greatly, and all three main cast members bring a lot more to their characters than they strictly require. Don’t see this on an empty stomach: the food alone earns it an extra half-star.


Anthony Morris

The Home Song Stories

Bad mothers make intriguing characters, and Shanghai nightclub-singer Rose (Joan Chen) is certainly no saint. She drags her two children from Hong Kong, to Melbourne, to Sydney and then back to Melbourne again, shacking up with a sequence of unsuitable ‘uncles’. She’s glamorous, vain and mentally unstable. Yet for her 11 year-old son Tom (Joel Lok) and his older sister Mai (Irene Chen) she’s never quite monstrous enough to hate. It’s hard not to admire her as she strides through ugly 1970s suburbia in her jewel-coloured cheong-sams, cooking up spicy fare and collecting lovers half her age.

Written and directed by Tony Ayres (Walking on Water) and based on his own reminiscences about ‘the year that changed my life’, this film could have been depressing and deeply disturbing. Yet for the most part, the tone is gently humorous. Sumptuous unhurried cinematography by Nigel Bluck could almost be referencing In The Mood for Love, and a score by Antony Partos recreates a retro ‘little China’ atmosphere. Occasionally the film veers close to self-indulgence – particularly in the closing scenes, but a light touch and a collection of superb performances make it a memorable and entertaining variation on the migration story.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Monday, 27 August 2007

Once

The world has lost faith in traditional movie musicals. Somehow it’s no longer acceptable for characters to burst into song and dance – unless they’re parodying Hollywood’s heyday or they’re the cute creations of an animators’ studio. Yet this little Irish film, shot on a shoestring and featuring non-professional actors, manages to be a moving musical love story that’s wholly believable and totally unpretentious.

A young man (known only as ‘the guy’) stands on Dublin’s busy street corners, playing his guitar and singing. The sounds he makes are almost painful – heartfelt but unpolished, strident with desperation. As he’s busking into the chaos, he’s approached by a poor young Czech woman (‘the girl’) selling roses – and in one scene, copies of The Big Issue. She’s a new immigrant, struggling to support her mother and baby daughter, but she has a secret talent. When the pair wander into a music store, she sits down at the piano and begins to play. Guy and girl begin to pick out a tune together, their two voices, and two instruments combining into a tentative but hauntingly beautiful harmony. And so, in the coming weeks, they talk, sing, and write some songs together, with their story climaxing in an intense and cathartic weekend at a borrowed recording studio.

The film’s authentic feel is augmented by the fact that its two lead actors are accomplished musicians who’ve previously collaborated. The guy is Glen Hansard, lead singer of the acclaimed and popular Irish rock band The Frames. The girl is Czech singer and pianist Marketa Irglova. Just seventeen years old at the time of shooting, she’d already recorded ‘The Swell Season’ an album of duets with Hansard. With her strong accent, her big-nosed natural beauty and her brave innocence, Irglova makes this film sing – both literally and metaphorically.

Directed by John Carney (On the Edge) – an ex-Frames’ bass player – Once is shot in realistic almost-documentary style. The music takes centre stage, comprising at least two thirds of the film’s time, yet it’s never too much. You want more of these sweet heart-tingling songs with their memory-imprinting minor-chord refrains and their simple poetic lyrics that never strain too much in their intent to underline the plot’s wispy narrative thread. Once is quite simply one of the best films you’ll see about the creative collaborative process.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Monday, 30 July 2007

Shut Up and Sing

In 2003, just as the first bombs were about to hit Baghdad, Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, announced to a London audience that she was ashamed that President Bush came from Texas. Whoops, cheers and applause. But Maines’ joking protest sparked outrage across America. Radio stations stopped playing the Chicks’ music, fans trashed their CDs and Maines herself received death threats. So much for freedom of speech.

This excellent documentary by Barbara Kopple (who gave us the brilliant Woody Allen music doco Wild Man Blues) charts the three year journey of the Chicks. We see the three spunky gals go from being chart-topping Country Western superstars, to reviled pariahs. Finally, there’s their reinvention as tortured artists who write their own heartfelt songs that transcend genre boundaries.

The beauty of this film lies in its portrait of a trio of sexy, talented, outspoken women who refuse to be silenced. They stand united and make their music – all the while managing their multi-million dollar ‘brand’, their marriages and their young children – seven between them. Yes, there’s swagger and bravado here – particularly from the fabulously charismatic Maines. But mostly, its just ego-free honesty and true courage. Good old-fashioned American values.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Thursday, 26 July 2007

I Have Never Forgotten You

For decades Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal was a regular figure on the world stage, a constant reminder of the need to bring war criminals to justice. A one-time architect who was sent to the Nazi concentration camps and lost his entire family bar his wife there, he spent the rest of his life working from a small office in Vienna collecting information on war criminal sightings and publicising the need to keep vigilant.

This thorough biography benefits enormously from the many televised interviews Wiesenthal gave in the latter part of his life, and slightly less enormously from a limp
narration by Nicole Kidman. For a documentary made by the Simon Wiesenthal Center this is refreshingly honest about its subject, especially regarding the various controversies that surrounded Wiesenthal’s work.

His refusal to condemn Austrian leader Kurt Waldheim and his mistakes regarding the death of Josef Mengele may have damaged his credibility in some eyes, but their inclusion here only strengthens this portrait of a engaging man driven by a desire for justice it’s hard not to admire. Plus conspiracy buffs should enjoy how almost every Nazi Wiesenthal identified who managed to escape confinement died very, very soon afterwards of a heart attack.

Anthony Morris

Monday, 2 April 2007

God on my Side

Fans of Andrew Denton's pre-Enough Rope comedy work could be forgiven for expecting God on my Side to be a savage comedy take-down of the Religious Right. But Denton's moved one since then, and this restrained effort isn't interested in making fun of the often extreme and sometimes unsettling views held by those visiting the 63rd National Religious Broadcaster's Convention at the Gaylord Convention Centre in Dallas, Texas. Rather, a respectful and subdued Denton comes to them with a genuine interest in finding out what makes these committed Christians tick, and in the process comes away with a lot more insight into what motivates the people who put George Bush into power twice than he would have uncovered by cracking jokes. Denton's visit to the 2006 NRB convention was originally meant for an episode of Enough Rope (only in post-production was it expanded into Denton's first ever feature-length documentary) and it's limited origins show in this 75 minute film's slow start and video-quality footage. But Denton's gentle questioning of Bible salesmen, evangelists, religious sculptors, marketing experts and Mumps the preaching puppet, eventually gets to the heart of the matter: seeing the near-universal condemnation of all other personal choices on the grounds that they're '"not God's way" pure and simple is chilling viewing.

Anthony Morris

(this review appeared in Forte#388)