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Friday, 28 November 2008

Australia


Forget the hype – here's all you need to know about Australia: there's wobble board on the soundtrack. There's also John Butler playing guitar, which does kind of suggest that The Angels, Smokey Dawson, The Hilltop Hoods and Kylie might have got a look-in during the editing process, but it's the wobble board's appearance – brief though it may be – that sums up this film. How can you take seriously a film about Australia that has a wobble board on the soundtrack? How can a film that's meant to be a Gone With the Wind-style sweeping saga of passion set against the backdrop of both history and a timeless land possibly work if you can't take it seriously? You can't, and it doesn't.

At first it's not even clear that this film has ambitions beyond being the kind of broad knockabout comedy that died out with Welcome to Woop Woop. Uptight English noblewoman comes to Australia circa 1939 and is shocked by the crudity of the outback? Check. Rough-hewn Aussie roustabout gets in bar fight defending the natives then takes his shirt off? Check. Bill Hunter cameo? Check. A more charitable reviewer – and lord knows there's plenty of them about, as the rare combo of a local production and serious money has resulted in more than the usual amount of fawning from the usual entertainment reporters – would call this "playing to the American market". They'd be wrong. Even the most dim-witted American would spot this guff as cliches played for comedy, and it's only Aussie pride that could possibly prevent anyone from seeing what's going on here: writer / director Baz Lurhmann is taking the piss.

This isn't automatically a bad thing. A movie-length version of Kath & Kim set in the outback could be well worth checking out. But as the romance between Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) and The Drover (Hugh Jackman) - set against the backdrop of a vast untamed land, naturally - progresses we get a brand new load of cliches and the trouble really begins. In every film he's made since Strictly Ballroom Lurhmann has proven himself to be both a master of spectacle and close to useless when it comes to creating living, breathing characters. In his earlier films, that wasn't much of a problem; even the pointless mess that was Moulin Rouge had enough music blaring to keep you distracted from the sub-cartoon characters. But here, where despite his best efforts to create a tourist ad the romance between Sarah and The Drover is what we're interested in, the fact that both of them are nothing more than cardboard cut-outs is a lead weight around this film.

Lurhmann tries to give himself an out by telling us up front that what we're seeing is the past viewed through the eyes of Nullah (the charismatic Brandon Walters) the pre-teen Aboriginal "creamy", (his father was white, his mother black) who narrates the film. He's a kid: no wonder his view of what's going on is simplistic. And the parts of the film that directly concern Nullah as he struggles to find a place for himself as he's stuck between two worlds are easily the most interesting and affecting parts of the film. But if he's the one we're supposed to be paying attention to, why cast the two biggest Australian actors around? And if the big names are where our eyes are drawn, why not give them actual characters to play?

This kind of garbled approach runs throughout the film – well, the parts of the film that are actually important if you're supposed to be telling a story. The fact that Lady Ashley seemingly packs a funeral dress for a trip to meet her husband in a country where she doesn't know anyone else, or that she shacks up with The Drover for years but never learns his actual name are just symptoms of a film where the surface is everything and the film-makers just aren't that interested in large chunks of their own film. Take the air raid on Darwin: what should have been a dramatic high point is instead basically a minute's worth of out-takes from Pearl Harbor as Darwin is revealed to be full of dropkicks who just stare stupidly at a wave of attacking planes instead of running away or shooting back. Ok, that's what they did in Pearl Harbor (the movie), but that was a surprise attack. Australia's been at war for over two years at this stage of the movie: a bit less gawking and a bit more running would seem to be the order of the day.

So if the characters are wafer-thin and the story is cobbled together from pages torn from The Bumper Book of Historical Romance, is there anything actually worth watching here? Well, there is a pretty exciting cattle stampede that's halted by magic Aboriginal singing, plus a lot of references to The Wizard of Oz that link "Somewhere over the Rainbow" with the rainbow serpent. It'd be tempting to dismiss this kind of thing as patronizing, but this film has to get its magic from somewhere – there certainly isn't any happening between Kidman and Jackman. And who knows? Maybe the aborigines summoned up the Japanese airforce to punish the white man for their part in the Stolen Generations.

Still, you can't deny the title is spot-on. Not only does Australia feature pretty much every Australian actor alive (Jack Thompson! David Wenham! Bruce Spence! Ben Mendlesohn! Jeff Jarrett!), but it also seems to self-conciously reference large chunks of Australian film history. There's a beat-up car like something out of Mad Max 2, a running character's death that echoes Galipoli, and a hand trailing through grain straight from (honorary Aussie) Russell Crowe's Gladiator. Sadly, there didn't seem to be any obvious references to Alvin Purple – perhaps they'll be in the director's cut.

The strange thing is, all the hype seemed to be setting audiences up to expect a completely different kind of dud. Heavy hints were dropped that Lurhmann had created an overly populist film that would portray Australia as a true-blue land of bonza blokes and top shelias, not what he’s actually delivered: something that too often feels like a costume designer's half-arsed film adaptation of a bad mid-90s protest play. Still, approach this in the right frame of mind and there's plenty to keep you awake, like the scene where a bunch of American trucks – we know they're American because they're flying the American flag – are shown driving across the outback only to never be mentioned again. What's all that about?

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #442)

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Hunger


In the early 1980s a string of protests rocked Belfast’s Maze Prison as IRA prisoners demanded to be treated as political prisoners and receive special privileges. Their actions included "dirty" protests (refusing to wash, smearing the walls of their cells with their own excrement) and "blanket" protests (refusing to wear anything but a blanket), and eventually escalated to a string of hunger strikes by various members, including the one that led to the death of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). The first half of writer / director Steve McQueen’s film dramatising those events verges on being a silent film, as we see the back-and-forth of the situation: the prison guards living in fear out on the streets, the prisoners being abused inside the prison, with the cycle of abuses ramping itself up to brutal bashings and killings - and then we get what might as well be a twenty minute play filmed pretty much in one take of a conversation between Sands and his priest (Liam Cunningham) which lays out with compelling argument and at times chilling logic the case for Sands calmly starving himself to death. Which we then see him go on to do in the same clinical, almost emotionless detail that the earlier scenes have taken to examine earlier horrors. Hunger is a gripping, utterly absorbing, and at times appalling film that won't be easily forgotten.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #440)

Newcastle



There's a fine line between teen angst and being a dickhead and Jesse (Lachlan Buchanan) wanders across it a little too often for Newcastle’s good. Sure, he’s got a lot of problems on his plate. There's his older brother Victor (Reshad Strik) who's moved back home (and turned into a bully) after his pro surfing career ended; a younger brother (Xavier Samuel) everyone calls "Fag-us" (instead of Fergus) because, well, he's clearly gay; and dreams of surfing stardom that’re dashed when he fails to deliver the goods at a qualifying meet. But while everyone else (even the thuggish older brother) gradually develops int a slightly rounded character Jesse remains an angry dickhead, stomping around sulking and moaning and abusing everyone around him. Even when he and his buddies (plus Fergus) go on a camping trip to an isolated surf spot and he finally gets to score with his hot girlfriend he just ends up with even more to be angry about... though this time he has a pretty good reason. Newcastle is well shot (especially in the surf sequences), the cast are convincingly awkward and director Dan Castle’s script certainly has a decent movie buried in there... somewhere. It's probably one about the homosexual awakening of Fergus (easily the most likeable character in the film), as the countless butt shots, the tanned and shirtless cast (the lead doesn’t wear a shirt for the first half-hour of the film - sure, he’s a surfer, but can you name a non-porn film where a female lead wears a bikini for a solid half-hour of camera time?) and the all-male skinny dipping scenes this is one of the gayest “straight” films in recent memory. As it stands, unless you're a huge surfing fan you can keep driving past Newcastle.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #440)

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People


It makes no sense, but it’s true nonetheless: one of the many, many unwritten rules of Hollywood film-making that a romantic comedy is somehow superior to a regular, make-'em-laugh comedy. So we get films like How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, where what should have been a good - or even great - straight-up comedy takes a serious turn for the seriously mushy in the final act. What makes it even more depressing is that up until then the romance angle was extremely well-handled: Sydney Young (Simon Pegg doing a bang-up job) is a feisty, muckraking UK journalist - and, to be honest, a bit of a dick - who gets head-hunted to work for Sharpes magazine in the US. It's a new world for Young, one where publicists control access to the big stars the magazine needs to survive and they use that control to ensure they get favourable coverage. Young, on the other hand, prefers to sink the boots in, which doesn't impress anyone he works with, least of all Alison (Kirsten Dunst). And so for a while what we get is a bunch of very funny workplace pranks and blunders spiced up with some A-list glamour (having hot new actress Megan Fox playing a hot new actress helps a lot in this regard) and Pegg's quality face-pulling, until suddenly the simmering romance between Sydney and Alison is shoved into the foreground, things go sour (as they must in all romantic comedies so the lovers can get back together at the end) and this becomes the extremely thin motivation for Sydney to suddenly throw aside his UK ethics in favour of US-style suck-up journalism. Before long he's got everything but love, but as this is clearly one of those “I had it all, then threw it away for love” stories, the ending isn’t exactly hard to spot. It also makes zero sense when you think about it for even a second - good thing the rest of the film is funny enough to more than make up for it.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #439)

Max Payne



Getting the tone right for an action movie is a tricky thing. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who got it right more often than most, fell into a serious pit of too-serious seriousness with most of his 90s output. And Max Payne - based on a video game series far more serious than the fun name would suggest - gets it wrong from the get-go. The story itself holds promise: Max (Mark Wahlberg) is a New York cop who's spent three years trying to find his wife's killer, which kinda suggests that he’s not that great a cop. Then suddenly he meets a sexy dame who strips off in his apartment than gets hacked to death after he kicks her out (because the pain of his wife’s death is so strong, not because he’s gay or anything), then his old partner gets hacked to death, then a lot more conspiracy uncovering takes place, and by the end everyone's on drugs and seeing weird stuff. Or something like that - this is one of those films that has too much plot for its own good, especially when everyone's come to see a bunch of cool shoot-outs and instead there's only a handful and they're so packed with cheezy bullet-time you can step outside, get some more popcorn, visit the toilet and come back in before Payne has finished racking his shotgun. As for the grey-scale colour palette and super-sombre tone (does it ever stop snowing?) designed to make us realise this these are serious events - uh, hello? The lead is called MAX PAYNE, not GRIM-FACED DARK AVENGER RACKED WITH SERIOUS EMOTIONAL PAYNE. Good dumb in an action movie is calling your lead Max Payne; bad dumb is what the rest of this film delivers.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #438)

The Dutchess



The problem with historical films is that while it’s relatively easy to recreate how people looked back then, it’s a whole lot harder to recreate how they thought. The Duchess is a rare attempt to provide a bit of insight into what was running through the minds of those well-dressed and (by the standards of the time) insanely wealthy types so beloved of costume dramas, and it turns what would otherwise have been a lightweight piece of well-costumed fluff into something that puts a bit of meat onto history’s bones. Still in her teens when wed to the extremely rich and powerful Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes), Georgina Spencer (Keira Knightley) soon discovers that her husband really only wants one thing from her: a son to carry on the family line. When she turns out to be very good at providing daughters, his attention eventually wanders to her best friend, the recent divorcee Lady Bess Spencer (Hayley Atwell). Unfortunately for Georgina, her attempts to take a lover of her own (Dominic Cooper) are far less socially acceptable...

On the surface this is yet another tale of true love denied by a society bound by unfeeling rules and so on. But while Knightley (who gives one of her better performances as a young woman trapped by her situation) does get to wear a lot of stunning costumes while wandering through some amazing examples of 18th century architecture while waiting to snog her lover, the real centre of interest in this film is The Duke himself. Rather than being a cartoon villain for our heroine to rail against, he’s shown as a man almost as trapped by his role as Georgina is in hers, forced into situations he has little interest in and compelled to act in a certain (usually cruel) way for appearances sake. Fiennes all but makes him a tragic figure, which isn't bad considering he's playing a man who moves his lover into the house he shares with his wife; his performance makes The Duchess far more thoughtful than the average be-wigged costume drama

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #438)