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Saturday, 20 June 2009

The Choir

A group of underprivileged people form a choir, their lives transformed by music under the guidance of a charismatic leader. Sound familiar? Well this isn’t the television series about the Choir of Hard Knocks. Instead, it’s a feature documentary following a group of prisoners in Johannesburg’s largest and harshest prison. Their choir leader is a fellow inmate, Coleman, jailed for 24 years for armed robbery. He’s a plump and balding middle-aged man, with teeth missing. He readily admits that his love of luxury is what got him to trouble. But here in the prison he’s a changed man, a mentor and disciplinarian to the group of singers, young damaged men, whom he grooms to compete in the National Prisoner Choir Competition.

Among the group is Jabulani, painfully thin and scarred by knives and bullets, and very very angry. He’s reluctant to submit to authority, and of course he hates being locked up in a place where there are 40 inmates to a cell, and two small meals a day. We hear of terrible violence, of an eye being gouged out by a broken lightbulb, and of men cooped up from 3pm every afternoon until the next morning, with very little supervision. When Jabulani tells of his poverty-stricken childhood, however, of being hungry and bored and hopeless, we see that life outside is not that much better.

Filmed over four years, with remarkable access, by Australian journalist and filmmaker Andrew Davie, The Choir begins as a simple though illuminating look at a prison choir working towards a singing competition. The format, if not the setting, is familiar, formulaic even: the backstories of the participants, the practising, the nerves and anticipation, the moment of performance and finally, the announcement of the winners. The film could have concluded at this point, and it would still be a fine documentary. But the beauty and power of it lie in the fact that it continues down the track, years after that climax. What happens to Coleman and Jabulani after they are released? Can they live in freedom without falling back into crime? What kind of place is South Africa these days, and what hope is there for children living in the shanty-towns of the major cities? Despite the harsh realities depicted, The Choir never loses hope, and reveals in a fresh way the human need to group together to create meaning and beauty in the midst of devastation.

The Choir had a limited (Aust) national release and will be on SBS TV and DVD later this year. A version of this review appeared in edition 331 of The Big Issue magazine.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

The Year My Voice Broke (21st Anniversary DVD release)

Set in 1960s country-town Australia, this is the coming-of-age film that made Noah Taylor a star in 1987, and it’s no wonder. As 15-year-old Danny, a boy in love with his best friend Freya (Loene Carmen), he’s a wonderful mix of sensitivity, awkwardness and sexual longing. He can strum his guitar, wear dark glasses and dangle a cigarette from the side of his mouth, but he’ll never be able to compete with the town’s bad boy, Trevor (Ben Mendelsohn in hyperactive mode) when it comes to getting the girl to fall in love with him.

Written and directed by John Duigan, the film is beautifully shot by Geoff Burton, who captures the spirit of a hot golden summer where childhood dies and adult realities must be faced. A soundtrack heavy with squeaky violin is the only real drawback. This 21st Anniversary DVD contains a number of extras, the best of which is a conversation between Duigan and his three stars, now all grown up but still deeply affected by their experiences of making this film about the ‘summer when everything changed.’

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Monday, 15 June 2009

Terminator: Salvation

A lot of elements went into making the first (and to a slightly lesser extent, the second) Terminator movies classics of the SF / action genre... and pretty much all of those elements are nowhere to be found in Terminator: Salvation. Which doesn't automatically make it a bad film: equalling the first Terminator is a pretty tough act, and within the tight confines of the 21st century action movie franchise there's plenty of things even a movie with 'Terminator' in the title just can't get away with.

What ends up making Terminator: Salvation a bad film - and it's one of those films that has you leaving the cinema thinking you've just had a pretty good time, only to discover that as the hours pass it melts away like a T-1000 dunked in molten steel - is the fact that despite being the first film set entirely in the machine-dominated future only hinted at in the earlier films, there's just no point to it. Again, not a new development: even the second film didn't really have much reason for existing apart from reminding us that director James Cameron was the most kick-ass action dirctor on the face of the planet. But at least the other films (even the much maligned third one) managed to come up up endings that had a bit of weight to them. This ends with our heroes going off into the sunset (seriously), with the War Against the Machines at pretty much the same stage it was when the opening credits rolled and the whole thing feeling like you just watched someone running on a treadmil for two hours. Of course, a few things do happen to space out the various action scenes between man and killer machine: it's the future, killer robots roam a post-nuclear world, and while resistance hero (but not yet leader) John Connor (Christian Bale) grits his teeth between killing robots, former death-row inmate Marcus (Sam Worthington) wakes up after fifteen years dead and wonders why everything's gone to hell. So actually, not a lot happens between the various action scenes. Luckily, those actions scenes are usually pretty good, with director McG showing some decent action chops without ever creating a truly memorable stand-out chase scene (the one thing all three previous films managed). The acting is actually pretty good too, though bad writing leaves just about everyone hamstrung to some extent. And some of the many, many, many callbacks to the previous films (seriously, if you liked a moment or line in the first two films, it's been tweaked and re-inserted here) are kinda fun. But without the time travel, memorable characters, sly humour, creepy horror, warm humanity and leather jackets that made the first film (and to a slightly lesser extent, the second one) so memorable, this is just another fourth installment in a franchise that should have wrapped up at least one film earlier.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #455)

Sunshine Cleaning

Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams) used to be a high school cheerleader dating the head of the football team. Now she's a maid and a single mum in the same small town she grew up in having an affair with the former head of the football team (Steve Zahn), who's now a cop and married to someone else. So it's not all that surprising that she's not exactly content with her lot in life... unlike her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt), who seems more than happy sleeping in, living with their father Joe (Alan Arkin), and going from dead-end job to dead-end job. Then Rose finds out that there's real money to be made in crime scene clean-ups, and while it's not an ideal way to make money, with her somewhat odd eight year-old son being kicked out of public school money for private school is what she needs. And so Sunshine Cleaning is born, as Rose drags the initially reluctant Norah to various scenes of violent and natural death to clean up what's left behind. For a while this film does a solid job of working the quirky indy groove, with the grim nature of Rose's job and her life in general providing a much-needed counterpoint to the occasionally too-cute or too-obvious moments that the story brought forward. Adams especially is a great performer, able to embody her characters perky charm while never fully concealing the flickering despair in her eyes. But as things trundle towards a conclusion two things become obvious: this really wants to jam in as many "heartfelt" moments as possible - even if putting them back-to-back is way too much for the viewer to take - and nobody really sat down to work out a proper ending (though to be fair, reportedly a lot of plot-mangling editing took places after this film's Sundance debut). It's not like the film just stops (though one character basically just... leaves), but for something that started out so strong, the way it winds down is a bit of a disappointment no matter how happy an ending for all involved it might be.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #455)

I Love You Man

Like every single trend since the dawn of time, Hollywood is going to run the current fad for crude yet emotionally heartfelt comedies into the ground. Foul-mouthed dudes and the women who love them have been getting a real good run at the cinemas since Judd Apatow hit it big with The 40 year-Old Virgin, and it's up to the individual to work out at which film the whole thing just stops being funny. But there's a pretty good chance that for a few people, I Love You Man just might be that film. Not because it's all that bad: it does everything this kind of comedy is supposed to, and with Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in the leads you have two of the current funniest guys in movies doing their best to keep things rolling along. There's even a decent concept behind all the comedy: Rudd is a fairly uptight guy who's about to get married, only he's been a "girlfriend guy" since his teens so he has to go out there and find a male best friend. Enter Segel, as a perfectly nice but kinda quirky guy who might only seem to be the solution to all of Rudd's problems. There are plenty of funny scenes here and the performances are top-notch, but after a while the story starts to wobble a bit - mostly because the central joke is that these two guys are having a platonic romance, and so the plot follows the usual plot of a romantic comedy. You know, they meet, they fall for each other, they split up over a misunderstanding / trivial matter, and get back together right at the end. But with two men it doesn't really work: either they'd ignore the problem, or if it was too big to ignore they'd just punch each other out or never speak to each other again. Which they can't do with this formula, so the final act feels a little weak as they just sorta drift apart a bit. This film’s minor wobbles aren’t anywhere near enough to say this genre is dead, but it's starting to look a little unsteady.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #455)

Two Lovers

It's love triangle time, as Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) returns to New York and his Jewish parents after a relationship break-up that - together with his bipolar disorder - has left him occasionally suicidal, only to find two women vying for his heart. Well, maybe "vying" isn't the right word: Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) is the nice Jewish girl his parents set him up with, only it doesn't take much reading between the lines to notice that she was the one with her eye firmly on him even before his parents played matchmaker. Problem is, his new neighbour Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) has caught his eye, and he finds himself increasingly drawn to her despite the fact she's currently having an affair with a married man and might just be a little too fond of the drugs.

Director James Gray manages to keep a fairly straightforward love triangle tale interesting with a story that's frayed at the edges - not everything here actually means something, so there's plenty of elements you might expect to turn into something more that just end up being part of the texture of their lives. Phoenix gives yet another compelling performance, while both female leads make an impact. Unfortunately towards the end the rails the plot is running on start to become obvious, and the conclusion becomes obvious three or four scenes beforehand. But this is a film that's as much about mood and tone as it is how the romance ends up, and on that level this will stay with you long after the final scene.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #455)


The year is 1987, and James (Jesse Eisenberg) is fresh out of high school with a pocketful of dreams. Unfortunately, dreams are all that are left in his pocket after work trouble means his parents pull the plug on the money that would have enabled him to travel across Europe and he's forced to get a job at local - and very cruddy - amusement park Adventureland. There he gets to oversee various extremely rigged games, risk death at the hands of patrons who don't mind cheating - and going for a knife - when a "big-ass panda" is at stake, and generally feel like he's wasting his life. Things start to turn around once he gets a handle on his fellow workmates, including the musician / handyman who supposedly once jammed with Lou Reed, Mike (Ryan Renyolds), the pipe-smoking brainy dork Joel (Martin Starr from Freaks & Geeks), and most importantly, Em (Kristen Stewart from Twilight), an indy music chick with just the right attitude to pull the smart boys. So why she's secretly having an affair with the married Mike is a bit of a mystery. Not that James knows that as the bond between them grows and it slowly starts to look like he might finally get a chance to lose his virginity... if he doesn't screw it up, that is. Smart, funny, with a great (if seedy) atmosphere and a real feel for what it feels like to be waiting for your life to start, this does a first rate job of breaking out of the confines of the "summer that everything changed" genre. If you've ever felt like someone somewhere else was having a whole lot more fun than you then this will really resonate, and a string of great performances from a universally convincing cast help make this one of the most likeable entrants in the coming-of-age field in a long while.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #455)