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Saturday, 22 May 2010

Love, Lust & Lies

In 1976 Gillian Armstrong was a fresh young filmmaker just out of school. Commissioned by the South Australian Film Corporation to make a documentary about what it’s like to be a 14-year-old girl, she made Smokes and Lollies, a portrait of three naughty working class girls. Kerry, Josie and Diana proved to be funny, honest and spirited, and so a series of films were made, following them at 18, 26 and 33. Now the girls are 47-year-old women, and in some cases, they’re grandmothers. It’s been 14 years since we last caught up with them, and this instalment proves to be highly entertaining and revealing – as the title suggests.

Comparisons are bound to be made with the British 7-Up series, and it’s true there are similiar voyeuristic pleasures in seeing lives fast-forwarded and rewound. But Armstrong is warm and generous, with a unique focus on love, sex and mothering. She’s never condescending, even as she charts lives that have been constrained by early parenthood and lack of education. The resulting film is a beautiful and inspiring tribute to family, and to the universal yearning to create a better life for one’s children.

Rochelle Siemienowicz
(This review appeared in #354 of The Big Issue, Australian edn.)

To read my interview with Gillian Armstrong at the Australian Film Institute click here.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Green Zone

The invasion of Iraq is in its' first few weeks, and Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is leading a unit that’s scouring strife‑torn Baghdad for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Not surprisingly, Miller is getting a little frustrated at raiding supposed WMD bunkers and finding disused toilet factories. So when local resident 'Freddy' (Khalid Abdalla) says he saw a bunch of Iraq generals holding a secret meeting in a house in the next suburb over, Miller decides that it’s his big change to get some real WMD information direct from the source. He manages to get the information even as the general gets away, but he also gets into a world of trouble as Pentagon suit Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) and CIA agent Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) decide that they can both use him to push their own agendas.

Brown thinks that keeping the Iraqi army together will help hold the crumbling country together; Poundstone is a neo‑con who thinks that democracy- and disbanding the army as soon as possible - will make Iraq into America Jr. Miller ends up siding with Brown (which we know is a bad move, as the Iraq army was disbanded soon after the invasion) and it starts to become obvious that, for all the wonder of this film extremely impressive re‑creation of Baghdad circa 2003, we’re basically watching a remake of Chinatown.

As in all good noir mysteries, our lead is a hardboiled hero trying to uncover the truth, while everyone he thought he could trust turns out to want the truth covered up, and there’s a sense of doom hanging over the place that makes it clear that there's no happy ending in sight even if he does solve the mystery of the WMDs – it’s Iraq circa 2003, the only way things can go is down. As seen from his excellent work directing the last two Bourne films, Paul Greengrass definitely knows how to put together scene after scene of exciting action. The fights here are way more realistic than anything Jason Bourne dished out, but they retain an impact that keep this film on the edge. Using real life events as plot devices in a thriller is a risky move, especially when they took place not so long ago, but here it pays off. Whatever your views on the war in Iraq , this is a gripping thriller that – the occasional flat moment aside – provides thrills from start to finish.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #475)

Remember Me

It wasn't all that long ago that there was a steady trickle of this kind of indie film out of America . Not any more: these days it takes a name the size of Twilight's Robert Pattinson to get people interested in the small-scale tale of a young man haunted by the dead of his brother ,who happens to fall for a young woman named Ally (Emilie de Ravin), who just happens to be haunted by the shooting death of her mother. This isn't entirely a indy film, mind you, as eagle-eyed viewers will notice that after a bit of bar action and street violence (to let us know that our hero Tyler is both too deeply hurt to commit to the ladies and someone likely to spring into violent action a little too quickly to be well-adjusted), his relationship with Ally starts off in a very traditional rom-com fashion: as the result of a bet. That's right: there's a dark secret at the heart of their relationship that you just know will eventually be the trigger for a nasty break-up, followed by a tearful resolution.

What happens before all that tho works surprisingly well, as Pattinson gets to do a Brando imitation, de Ravin is an actually likeable quirky free spirit, and both of them get to work out their daddy issues (Chris Cooper plays Ally's tightly wound cop dad; Pierce Brosnan is Tyler's hi-flying but bottled up lawyer father). Most importantly, the two leads have real chemistry together, creating a true movie special effect: a cute couple. As the final ten minutes constitute something of a twist - a twist that's fairly easy to figure out if you're paying attention, but still - lets just say that the ending throws a new light on the film without taking away from what's come before.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #475)

Alice in Wonderland

There's a long-standing Hollywood tradition where big name directors make one film for themselves then one film for their corporate masters. And for a long time Tim Burton's been the director to avoid when he's doing it for the money (remember Planet of the Apes? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?). But because he's still seen as the master of "dark whimsy", even the knowledge that his version of Alice in Wonderland was a Disney production (they own the trademarks), and not something from the heart wasn't enough to dampen interest. The news that the story wasn't a direct adaptation of either of the original books but instead a all-new Hollywood-style follow-up featuring Alice (Mia Wasikowska) as a young woman might have worried a few people but hey, it's Tim Burton. And it's in 3D! With Johnny Depp!

In a result that will disappoint many but surprise no-one, this is yet another film where Burton 's vast visual skill is coupled with not much else to create an experience that looks amazing but is best enjoyed in the background while conversing with your friends about something else entirely. The story is pretty much the result of a Hollywood sausage factory, throwing various "greatest hits" characters and situations from the original books into a half-hearted but visually impressive story where various rebels battle to overthrow the evil rule of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter with a massive CGI head).

Having a film version of Alice in Wonderland that ends with a giant battle while Alice - in armour and wielding a sword - battles the Jabberwok is pretty much an insult to everything the original stood for, and the moral of the film makes no sense whatsoever: in the real world it's all girl-power that Alice avoids her destiny (to marry a Lord), yet in Wonderland it's presented as a good thing that she can't avoid her destiny (to battle the Jabberwok). Huh? Meanwhile, Depp's Mad Hatter gets annoying long before he performs perhaps the most gratuitous, painful dance number ever seen on film - seriously, it's literally unwatchable. If there's one of those big glossy "making-of" books with loads of images from the film available, read that instead of enduring this.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #475)

Dear John

All you really need to know about this film is that it's based on a novel by the guy who wrote The Notebook. Even better, it also features a notebook! Though it does also help if you have a very poor memory, because otherwise you're probably going to spot the twist in a love story between a young would-be social worker (Amanda Seyfried) and a US special forces solider named John (Channing Tatum) set in America in 2001.

The lovebirds meet in a small town on the Gulf of Mexico - he's back in town to visit his autistic father, she's on spring break - and before you know it he's muscled out the dweeby guy she was hanging around with and it's a perfect holiday romance. They both don't want it to end, and he's only got another year to go in the Army, so why not stick together? And then before you know it he's stuck in a War Without End, and despite all the letter-writing back and forth (there are a lot of time-passing montages going on here) it becomes an open question as to whether she'll be waiting for him when - and if - he ever comes home.

As romances go this avoids most of the obvious traps when it comes to drawing things out, giving the impression of two good kids who love each other but keep being torn apart by an uncaring world. A sharper film might have made more of the fact that it's the War On Terror that's killing their love, or even the shoddy medical treatment the autistic Dad gets at one stage. But that's not what this film's about; the only battle it really cares about is the one for the human heart. If that makes you go "awww", then this is the film for you; if not, The Hurt Locker should still be showing somewhere.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #475)