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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Balibo


Australian films are traditionally cool, calm and collected even when dealing with the most sensational subject matter (just check out the way Beautiful Kate deals with the biggest taboo around). Balibo runs against that trend: it's angry that five Australian journalists died at Balibo, it's angry that thousands of Timorese died in the invasion and its aftermath, and it's angry that the Australia government did nothing to prevent it from happening.

Our guide through the emotional roller-coaster of late 1975 is Australian journalist Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), who goes from barely interested outsider to a man so passionately angry about the events of the Indonesian invasion that he's willing to risk everything to get the truth out there. As East heads out into the strife-torn countryside to investigate the disappearance of the Balibo Five the film becomes a gripping look at the horrors of war, and as such it's one of the most powerful Australian films of recent times.

The flashbacks to the Balibo Five's final few weeks are skilfully done and often deeply moving, and the depiction of East Timor's final few weeks of independence is surprisingly layered and complex. But just because it's powerful doesn't mean it's perfect: director Robert Connolly (The Bank, Three Dollars) is so committed to stirring up the audiences outrage that occasionally he oversteps the mark and goes from agiprop to outright parody. The film doesn't exactly end with someone being gunned down against the backdrop of an Australian flag left splattered with their blood... but it comes close.

Balibo is to be applauded for having the courage to want to make an audience feel strongly about an issue, and for being both a compelling wartime drama and a chilling reminder of the brutalities that have taken place on our doorstep in the recent past. But if you're looking for nuance or subtlety, look elsewhere.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #459)

Beautiful Kate


How many more Australian films about families with dark secrets do we need? Usually the answer would be "none", but in Beautiful Kate's case there's a reasonable case for an exception. For one thing, first time feature writer / director Rachel Ward has put together a compelling collection of characters in her adaptation of the 1980's novel by Newton Thornberg. Shifting the location from a farm on the outskirts of Chicago to the fringes of the outback, she also takes full opportunity of the magnificent scenery (and the unsightly junk people have dumped there) to create a truly evocative backdrop for, well, a family with a dark secret in its past.

When Ned (Ben Mendelsohn) returns home to the family farm with a girlfriend (Maeve Dermody) half his age, the real surprise is that he's come back at all. His father (Bryan Brown, who also produces) might be dying but there's been no love lost between the pair since he left his family behind after the deaths of his brother and his twin sister Kate (Sophie Lowe). So while the surviving sister (Rachel Griffiths) looks after their still bitter father, the tensions between father and son rapidly return to their former intensity - even as returning home stirs up memories of the siblings coming-of-age, and how it all went tragically wrong.

With great performances all around (especially from newcomer Lowe) and a story that constantly moves forward this gets pretty much everything right... apart from the dark secret at the heart of the family. This particular secret is rapidly becoming a cliche in Australian film and, while plausible here, remains both jarring and a revelation that doesn't sit well with the rest of the film. There's no denying that Beautiful Kate is a class act all around, a well-crafted and visually stunning drama - but how many films about families with dark secrets does one country need?

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #458)

Drag Me to Hell



Back before the Spider-Man series, writer / director Sam Raimi was best known for the Evil Dead movies, in which monsters, gore and goop were flung about with thrilling abandon. Whether Raimi wanted a break from superhero antics or just felt it was time to show the current crop of dour torture-porn-obsessed horror directors how it's done, his latest film Drag Me to Hell is about as good a time as it's possible to have watching someone get their face chewed on my a slobbering, toothless old lady - which turns out to be a heck of a lot.

Bank loans officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is under the pump from all directions to get ahead in her career. Her boyfriend's family think she's a loser, and if she doesn't get an upcoming promotion she'll be working for the smarmiest guy ever. So when an old gypsy woman comes in looking for a third extension to her home loan, she grits her teeth and knocks her back - even when the gypsy is begging on her knees. But what's good in the work of banking isn't quite so good outside in her car: the gypsy attacks (in the first of many battles that are cartoony over-the-top yet jump-in-seat scary) and ends up laying a curse that means in three days Christine will be dragged to Hell. And, thanks to a pre-opening credit sequence where we see a Mexican boy foolish enough to steal a gypsy's silver chain suffer the same fate, we know the gypsy's not messing around.

Big on slime and goo and people vomiting maggots but not on gore or anything truly nasty, this is a thrill-ride in the best sense of the word, with plenty of touches of sly humour to let you know you're in safe hands once people start getting possessed and spraying co-workers with blood. But be warned: if you're the kind of person who wonders why someone would have an anvil dangling from the ceiling of their back shed (making it oh-so-handy for dropping onto a ghoul's head), you're in the wrong cinema.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #458)

Public Enemies


When director Michael Mann (Heat, Miami Vice) embraced digital video cameras with his Tom Cruise thriller Collateral, it was seen as a legitimate stylistic choice for that film's gritty late-night urban setting. But using the same cutting-edge video cameras to film Public Enemies might raise a few eyebrows, seeing as it's the story of the last few months in the life of notorious bank robber and US public enemy number one John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), and last time anyone checked they weren't big on video cameras back in 1933. Once you get past the jarring nature of traditional gangster hijinks (complete with men in fedoras firing tommy guns from the running boards of speeding sedans) shot in hi-def video, there's a whole lot to enjoy in Mann's latest crime epic.

Basically it's yet another one of Mann's character studies where a hard-boiled crime professional faces off against his law-enforcement doppelganger (Christian Bale), though here the balance is slanted heavily towards the criminal side of life. There's some loose attempts to give Dillinger's final days some deeper meaning here, mostly in the form of a passable love story grafted onto his life and a subplot about how the rise of the professional mafia turned flamboyant crims like Dillinger into a liability for everyone, but you're here for Depp (who's great) and the shoot-outs (which are also great).

This isn't Mann's best work: the character side of things feels a little lightweight as we never really get under the skin of anyone involved, and despite the two hour plus running time (which flies by) the whole thing feels oddly superficial. Then again, so did the gangster films of the 1930s and this - while clearly an update in technical terms, and a firmly modern film in many ways - is also very much in that run-and-gun tradition. Heat still remains Mann's masterpiece, but a B+ from him is still A+ viewing.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #458)

Cedar Boys


Take a group of young guys growing up in one of Australia's more macho ethnic communities, add some crime (often drug-related), throw in a blonde-haired, blue-eyed model-esque all-Aussie love interest, and you've got... well, at least three Australian films this year. Clearly it's a popular formula amongst film-makers at the moment and it's not hard to figure out why. Tight-knit communities like to see themselves up on the screen, so there's your core market, while on an artistic level crime films are a solid way of dramatising second-generation migrant's drive to make it in the wider community. Not to mention the guns, drugs, car chases, and numerous opportunities to film scenes in strip clubs. Cedar Boys works because, unlike the recent and somewhat similar Two Fists One Heart and The Combination, it's a crime film first. Mind you, director Serhat Caradee hasn't made a great crime film, but by keeping its stereotypical trio of young Sydney Lebs (one's nice, one's worried, one's reckless) focused on first stealing a drug dealer's stash and then selling the drugs, he ensures the story doesn't get bogged down in the kind of family dramas and issues of ethnic identity that are beyond its capabilities. It'd be easy to nit-pick at this films numerous flaws and (for one) the ending is far too cliched), but at it's heart it does what it sets out to do: tell a simple, straight-forward crime story based firmly in one of Australia's ethnic communities. There's a place for solid, undemanding entertainment in Australian film, and for a low-key pulp thriller this ticks all the right boxes.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #458)