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Sunday, 19 December 2010

So much for the afterglow: Love and Other Drugs


There is one scene in Love and Other Drugs that sets up why this film looked so promising. Unfortunately, this scene isn’t currently commercially available as a stand-alone segment, which is a shame as every other moment in this film is good for little more than encouraging you to drive a railway spike through your forehead. But for one moment in one scene, you can almost maybe just see into a parallel world where this movie wasn’t a total waste of time.

In this scene, our leads Jamie (Jake Gyllenhall) and Maggie (Anne Hathaway) are lounging around in a post-coital fugue, talking about… well, it doesn’t really matter: every line of dialogue in this film falls like lead shot from the lips of the cast, usually hitting the ground with a muffled thud, occasionally creating a clanger that will endure until the sun grows cold (“She’s Thai. And I’m Thai-curious”). But here they’re both rolling around on the bed with a – for Hollywood – surprising ease as far as nudity (mostly Hathaway’s) goes, creating an atmosphere that we don’t often get in western films. Two people who seem to like each other have just had sex, and now they’re soaking up the afterglow.

It only seems like a smart moment in the context of prudish western film-making, with its L-shaped sheets and one-time-only kisses. It that context, even this film’s depiction of a kind of relationship that we all know from real life but never see on film – a relationship built almost entirely (at first) on sex – seems daring. But being the world’s tallest dwarf is nothing to be proud about, and this one brief moment of relative humanity only makes the robotic dreck that surrounds it all the more painful.

Story-wise there are actually two stories going on here: one involves Jamie’s efforts to become the best-darn salesman for Pfizer he can be, but you needn’t pay too much attention to that one because the film is set in the mid- to late-1990s so along comes Viagra and even the most disinterested Sportsgirl salesgirl could sell that. It’s actually hard to remember a recent mainstream film where so much effort is devoted to such a major plot thread that ends up going nowhere: it’s not like he’s a slacker who lucks into a product that sells itself, or a loser whose career is saved by this awesome self-selling product – he’s a good salesman, being a good salesman is important to his self-image, and then this drug comes along that takes away all the skill and ability from his profession and… it just doesn’t matter. His arch-nemesis in drug sales vanishes from the film, his co-worker (Oliver Platt) gets half a scene at the end that means nothing –

[Actually, let’s explain that: Platt wants to be a success so he can get a gig back in Chicago close to his family, and he thinks Jamie’s slick ways will get him there. Platt’s character pops up every now and again to crack wise and dispense job tips, Viagra comes along and it’s money in the bank, and then we get a scene where we learn that Jamie is going to Chicago but Platt’s character isn’t. Viagra sells itself (or so we’ve been told), so why is Jamie getting a bump over his more senior colleague? No doubt there could be a dozen reasons, but the only one we’re given (sez Platt: “they need me here”) is presented as nothing more than excuse-making by a broken man. It’s a sign of how sloppy this film is: Jamie strives for success in a world where things happen for no reason, and yet we’re still expected to care about his success.]

-and otherwise, a few cheap and nasty gags about how drug salesmen work aside, this side of things adds up to nothing more than a bauble Jamie can throw away at the end to prove how much he loves Maggie. Because that one brief, mostly-naked bedroom scene aside, this is the kind of romantic comedy that runs on rails to a destination that only looks attractive from a long, long way away.

We learn three things about Maggie when we first meet her in a doctor’s surgery: she’s sassy, she has early-onset Parkinson’s Disease, and she’s got nice breasts. Surprisingly, of those three things it turns out that being sassy is the least important, as, after some slightly more spiteful than usual banter, she promptly invites Jamie home to her sweet loft for some no-strings sex, which soon becomes a regular event. The frequent sex is another thing that might fool more gullible viewers into thinking this film is smarter than it actually is: whereas most Hollywood rom-coms restrict the sex scenes to one or (if they need to have the sex interrupted comically or start to go bad) two, this keeps ‘em coming well past the usual cut-off point.

The film makes no secret of the link it’s forging between her free-wheeling sexual ways and her illness. While it’s possible to see her illness as some kind of punishment for being a young woman who likes sex, lets give this film the benefit of the doubt and say that her illness (and awareness that for her, life as an able-bodied person is short) fuels her hunger for sex. It doesn’t fuel her appetite for much else tho – she’s an artist, she works in a café (good job paying for the sweet loft on that wage, especially as she can’t afford drugs and has to go to Canada on a bus for the cheap stuff), and there’s not a single “look at me and all the things I’m trying to cram into my life” montage anywhere to be found. She just likes to fuck. A lot.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty fortunate for her. After all, why else would Jamie want to be with someone with an incurable illness unless she was constantly up for it? There’s nothing else to her character her to suggest any other reason for him to fall in love with her, after all – she’s constantly pushing him away verbally, she’s got the whole illness thing going on – if she didn’t want to sleep with him all the time, why would he bother hanging around? Don’t blame me if this sounds offensive: while it may be possible to come up with another reading of the situation here, it’s hard to ignore the way this film constantly re-enforces the sexual nature of their relationship in a way that most other Hollywood romantic comedies and dramas don’t. Considering there’s almost nothing else to her character, it’s difficult not to read this as “hey, why else would you fall in love with a Parkinson’s sufferer?”

Offensive to both men and women this undoubtedly is, but at least it fits in somewhat with the jerk Jamie seems to be. And in some early scenes together their horrible, stilted, clichéd dialogue almost makes sense: he’s a heartless jerk, she’s a victim desperately trying to keep life at arm’s reach, no wonder their dialogue sounds clichéd: they’re both saying things they don’t really mean about emotions they’re not actually feeling. But then everyone sounds that bad all the time in every situation and it turns out the script is just really poorly written. Oh well.

Sadly, this film dubious approach to Parkinson’s doesn’t stop at the suggestion that the only way a sufferer can hope to get a man is by being extremely hot and sexually available. For a while its lightweight and unrealistic approach to the illness, while kind of annoying, is no more annoying than anything else here. She’s sick, only she’s the kind of sick that doesn’t actually seem to have any real affect on her life; oh well, back to bed we go. But then she goes to a meeting of Parkinson’s sufferers – presumably played by actual Parkinson’s sufferers – and things take a turn for the offensive. It’s one thing to drag an actual illness into a fantasy rom-com: it’s another thing entirely to try and justify it by bringing out actual real-life sufferers to bolster your offensive drivel.

[not to mention it’s a completely pointless scene: supposedly it empowers Maggie to take control of her life and illness, only to then be followed by a series of scenes where Jamie drags her around to doctors and clinics desperately trying to find a cure. Girl power!]

The result is a film that constantly plays around with elements it has no idea how to use. Time and time and time again it throws up a scene or idea that could be interesting, only to run away from the implications as fast as it can. Jamie and Maggie’s relationship can’t stay no-strings, it has to become a traditional rom-com relationship right down to the last minute dash by one partner to chase down and win back the other – seriously, in 2010 someone still thought this was a good way to end a movie.

We’re constantly told that there will be no cure for Maggie’s illness, but then we’re never shown her actually falling ill: the film’s final moments are just a touchy-feely montage, despite the fact that it’s set in the late 1990s so jumping forward to the present day would seem like the most logical ending in the world. Even if it was just to show Jamie still lovingly caring for a disabled Maggie, that would still be marginally more confronting that the total avoidance of the issue that this film serves up.

But surely there’s at least a few side elements that don’t completely stink up the cinema? Hell, no: from a totally insane running gag about a crazy homeless man who gets his life together thanks to taking anti-depressants he steals from a dumpster – which might have been funny in an Airplane!-style slapstick film, not a supposedly cynical real-world drama – to the amazingly unfunny no-name brand-Jack Black role of Jamie’s brother, this is all-to-wall painful.

This is, after all, a film whose idea of comedy is to have Jamie come home to find his brother – a former internet millionaire whose career has gone so far down the toilet he now lives with his brother, where his mission in life is to act like a total dipshit and whose character arc concludes with him discovering that he doesn’t actually like meaningless sex – masturbating to a sex tape Jamie and Maggie made. That’s right: he’s beating off to a tape of his own brother having sex. It’s very, very, very difficult to think of a film in which this kind of thing might be seen as comic relief. Salo perhaps?

By the end it’s hard to figure out why anyone involved thought this was a good film to make. It’s not like they’ve shown any real desire to follow through on any aspect of the story that’s being told. The relationship is blanded out as fast as possible, Jamie’s personal issues are totally glossed over or ignored, his career turns out to have meant nothing, the idea of actually educating the audience about how drug sales work in the US medical system is barely touched upon and then only in the most benign fashion, any possibility of a Vigara-based sex-farce is quickly squashed (there is one scene where Jamie rushes to the emergency room with an erection that won’t go away, but we never see the offending boner – or even a decent laugh-getting bulge in his shorts – and the scene just… ends, with no punchline beyond a nurses’ eye-rolling), Maggie’s character quickly degenerates into yet another mildly whiney victim who’s biggest problem isn’t the incurable and debilitating illness she suffers from but that she’s “afraid of love” (sigh), and the whole things ends in a way that leaves little more than the impression the film-makers had no idea how to end things.

This is a film where one lead suffers from a terminal illness but we hardly see her getting ill; the other is supposedly a self-absorbed, sex-obsessed cad who somehow becomes a devoted, self-sacrificing boyfriend at the earliest possible opportunity. A medical system run by drug salesmen is nothing to worry about, success in your career means nothing and has nothing to do with you anyway, drugs have no down side that isn’t funny and coming home to find your brother masturbating to a tape of you having sex is a minor glitch. Man, I need a drink.

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 9 December 2010

In The Company Of Men: professional film reviewing in Melbourne


(warning: this column contains no mention of the film In The Company of Men. Which is a shame as it's a great film)


Who knew that seeing movies for free and then getting paid to tell people what you thought about them was a job that required a penis? Okay, maybe it doesn’t (unless you’re reviewing the films down at the Shaft cinema), but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you’re getting your reviews from the Melbourne media.

Some context for this outlandish statement: at The Age, of the five regular (well, four and Craig Matheson, who’s the regular fill-in) film critics, one (Phillipa Hawker) is a woman. At The Herald-Sun, the two critics – the omnipresent Leigh Paatsch and Sunday’s McEachen , who is based in Sydney - are male. At the two street papers, the film critics – Greg King at Beat, Anthony Carew at Impress – are male. The host of RRRs Film Buffs Forecast is male, as is Thomas Caldwell, the reviewer on RRR’s The Breakfasters. Triple J’s film reviewer until the end of 2005 was the (mostly) Melbourne-based Megan Spencer; she was replaced by the Sydney-based Marc Fennell (who also reviews on the Melbourne-based morning show The Circle). Luke Buckmaster writes about film for Crikey.com; Sean Lynch reviews for Web Wombat.com. As they say, the list goes on

[In the interests of full male disclosure, I review films for Fairfax website The Vine.com, The Big Issue, and the Geelong-based street paper Forte; the other Geelong-based film professional critic is The Geelong Advertiser’s Guy Davis]

Thankfully, the Melbourne reviewing scene isn’t entirely devoid of women; my co-blogger Rochelle Siemienowicz is the film editor at The Big Issue, where Melbourne-based reviewers Tara Judah (who’s also appeared on Film Buffs Forecast) and Carly Miller also appear, while Clem Bastow has proven to be a passionate advocate for film at The Vine. But Rochelle’s day job has reduced the amount of time she’s had to write reviews in recent years, Tara recently returned to Melbourne after a number of years overseas, and Clem only started reviewing films in 2010. That’s right: this is what a good year looks like when it comes to female film critics in Melbourne.

[despite my best efforts, no doubt I’ve overlooked some female critics, including Sydney-based Big Issue regular Alice Tynan. So for balance I left a few males off the list as well.]

What makes this imbalance even harder to explain (unlike, say, the gender imbalance in sports reporting) is that pretty much every single job related to that of film reviewer seems to have a far more equitable gender balance. Obviously, plenty of women are actors (not as many are directors, but they’re there too), and loads of films are aimed primarily at women. Beyond that, film publicists are almost always women; in my 15 plus years of reviewing I can count the number of male publicists I’ve dealt with on a regular basis on one hand.

Entertainment editors are often women: at the moment I work with female editors at all three venues I regularly submit film reviews to, and at The Big Issue the other three arts editors (I handle DVDs; they cover books, film and music) are women. The current editor of The Age’s EG is a woman, as is the entire editorial staff of that paper’s Saturday supplement A2 (books editor aside); for many years Claire Sutherland was the editor of The Herald Sun’s Hit section.

Out in the writing world, entertainment writers across the board can be and frequently are women: Stephanie Bunbury writes pretty much all the Schembri-free in-depth film stories in the A2, EG and elsewhere in The Age, while Neala Johnson has moved across from music writing to handle film interviews at The Herald-Sun. Music is slightly more male dominated, but even there high-profile women aren’t hard to find: the current writer of the EG’s Sticky Carpet column is a woman, for one.

Even in reviewing that other realm of images on a screen, television reviewers are often women. The editor of The Age’s Green Guide is a woman; of that paper’s three television columnists (Green Guide, A2, Sunday Age), two are women. While the Herald-Sun’s daily television reviewer is male, as is the editor of the Herald-Sun’s TV guide, that guide’s sole television columnist and reviewer is Diane Butler.

[In fact, the only area of television reviewing that is male dominated are the movie reviews: Leigh Paatsch does them for the Herald-Sun, and when Scott Murray isn’t providing them in the Green Guide, Craig Matheson steps in.]

To be fair, perhaps all this (clearly anecdotal) evidence means nothing. Perhaps there is no real overlap between those positions and film reviewing and I might as well be discussing the gender of the projectionists and popcorn sellers. But let's pretend all this does mean something: so where are the female film reviewers?

Part of the problem is simply that there aren’t many film reviewers full stop: in Melbourne – and therefore all of Victoria – you’d be lucky to find five people making a full-time living from reviewing at any one time. And since at least the turn of the century three of those people are Tom Ryan, Jim Schembri and Leigh Paatsch.

Film reviewing is not a job that has a high turnover either; critics are generally seen to get more authoritative as they age (unlike, say, music writers, where youth is often an advantage), so once someone scores a good job, either they leave in a hurry (upon discovering it’s not for them), or they don’t leave at all. So unless some new high-profile positions are created, or someone (God forbid) falls under a bus, there isn’t going to be a shift at the top of the ladder in Melbourne any time soon.

That said, this is an issue that extends all the way down the line. There simply aren’t that many women turning up to media screenings to review films in a paid capacity. So what might be the factors that are keeping women away?

It could just be the obvious: film reviewing is poorly paid, often erratic work that requires you to be available at short notice to attend screenings at inconvenient times. But wouldn’t that keep men away as well? In the wider scheme of things, that kind of job description would make it more likely for women to be involved, not less. Maybe it’s the reverse: film reviewing is seen as a fun, glamourous, cushy job that everyone would grab with both hands given the opportunity. But if that’s the case why aren’t more women going for it, considering their prevalence in related fields and seemingly similar fields of review?

Let’s take a different tack. Based on my half-arsed observations, “film critic” doesn’t seem to be a job for the young – while there are a number of reviewers for community radio and small publications on the far side of 50, reviewers under 30 are pretty rare (I started when I was 22; to the best of my knowledge, I was the youngest regular professional film critic in Melbourne until I was well into my 30s, though there are more reviewers under 30 now). I have no idea why: maybe they have to go through an academic career studying film before they can review Jackass 3D; maybe they need to spend five years as an accountant before realizing film is their one true love.

Based on that, here’s a supposition: if film reviewing is a job that, with notable exceptions, requires an age with at least a “3” at the front, maybe the reviewing door is opening just at the time when wanting to have a family might come to mind? Obviously not for every woman (it’s a pressure that would apply to men too, and there have been stay-at-home dads who’ve juggled reviewing careers), but it could make the numerous downsides to reviewing loom large – and in a field as small as professional film reviewing, if it puts one or two people off, that could make a big difference.

Film reviewing is fairly unfriendly to family commitments in general, what with odd working hours, often last-minute deadlines, low pay, and so on. Running all over town catching movies while pregnant wouldn’t be fun, and with a child it would be all but impossible to go to screenings on a regular basis without some serious child care (I do remember one female critic who used to bring her baby to screenings years ago… that didn’t really work out ). Not to mention that other media jobs – television reviewing, for example – can be done from home, while movie reviewers actually have to physically go to the movies. So perhaps for women working inside a large media organization a film reviewing job just doesn’t look as enticing as covering other forms of media - especially if the jobs just aren't available in the first place.

After all, the current chances of getting to the top - “the top” being a living wage - are pretty slim whatever your gender. Schembri’s been at the Age for over 20 years now, with no sign of leaving (and if he did, he might not be replaced: four reviewers at one newspaper is a lot), and Paatsch could easily be at the Herald-Sun for another thirty years. hanging around waiting for someone to step aside to make a living wage at reviewing is a pretty thankless prospect whatever your gender: any additional pressure finance-wise certianly wouldn't encourage women to stick around.

But why stop there with the wild theories. Most of the current crop of reviewers, even the ones in steady work, started off freelancing. Could it be that freelancing itself isn’t female-friendly? Well, it does have crap hours and low pay, but so do a lot of other writing gigs that seem to attract women just fine. Freelancing is competitive, but one way to get started in the reviewing field in the past was to work in PR and make enough contacts so that the move to freelancer came with a certain amount of locked-in work. Film PR is a field dominated by women, yet none of them seem to want to (or be able to) cross the street.

Maybe film reviewing is seen as the province of creepy male nerds, thus putting off women? Probably not – there are plenty of female film bloggers out there and they don’t seem deterred by howls of outrage over the latest Spider-Man casting decision. Maybe men have more free time to go to media screenings? Well, having a supportive partner (or family) is pretty much vital if you’re not making a living wage (which again, most people don’t) as a full-time critic. Are women more likely to support their men in their crazy dream of telling the world what they thought of Love and Other Drugs? Could be.

Maybe it’s a top-down problem. Perhaps film reviewing is seen by the (always male) chief editors at major newspapers - or was seen a decade or more ago, when the current lot of big names started work – as “man’s work”. That is to say, film is a proper artistic field that demands serious consideration from a serious (read: male) writer, unlike frivolous entertainments like television or pop music. This seems the most stupid theory, so there’s probably some truth to it.

If that theory was true in the past (surely it couldn’t be true today?), maybe it’s simply a matter of attitudes not shifting far enough in time? Could the only real difference between film reviewing and television reviewing in Melbourne’s daily newspapers in 2010 be that the old film critics moved on or died in the early to mid 1990s, and so were replaced by the men who hold those jobs today, while the old long-time television writers (Ross Warneke at The Age, Robert Fidgeon at The Herald-Sun) held on until the 21st century, and so were replaced by women when they finally shuffled off?

Clearly I have no real idea. And obviously whether any of this is a problem depends on whether you think the gender of a critic is important. If it’s not, sorry to have wasted your time. If it is, is it more important than experience? Can an experienced reviewer transcend gender to write reviews that see past those issues, or will they always have blind spots they can’t address? Is it a problem when only male voices are reviewing the latest chick-targeted Katherine Heigl rom-com, or does that film’s sheer awfulness transcend gender? And is it ironic that a man wrote this article, or does my girlish figure make up for it?

Anthony Morris

Sunday, 5 December 2010

News You Can Use: AFI on TV


Australia's most prestigious movie awards returns to television this Saturday night with Channel Nine broadcasting the 2010 AFI Awards from 9.30pm. Hosted by Shane Jacobson (Kenny) at Melbourne's Regent Theatre, it promises to be a night filled with stars from both cinema and television saluting what's been a bumper year for both forms of entertainment locally.

A close to even share of representation across the feature film category reflects the impressive line up of contenders, with 10 feature films out of a possible 16 receiving nominations. Animal Kingdom, the debut feature film from Director David Michod, has had a standout response, receiving a record breaking 18 nominations across all categories it was eligible for, including the prestigious Samsung Mobile AFI Award for Best Film. Across its talented ensemble cast, actors Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Sullivan Stapleton and Laura Wheelright have all received nods, with newcomer James Frecheville receiving 2 nominations for Best Lead Actor and AFI Young Actor Award.

Beneath Hill 60 has also been highly recognised with 12 nominations in total, including AFI Members' Choice, Best Direction, and all categories across the technical awards. Brendan Cowell is in the running for Best Lead Actor, and newcomer Harrison Gilbertson has taken away a nomination for the AFI Young Actor
Award.

Bright Star, Tomorrow When The War Began, Bran Nue Dae and The Tree have all received an impressive number of nominations, proving popular with audiences and their industry peers alike. The Boys Are Back, Daybreakers, Matching Jack and The Waiting City complete the roster of local productions that are in the running to take home one of the country's most esteemed annual screen industry awards.

A top billing of Australian actors have been recognised for their work in the international arena, with Simon Baker (The Mentalist), Ryan Kwanten (True Blood), Kodi Smit McPhee (The Road), and Sam Worthington (Avatar) in the running for AFI International Award for Best Actor. Toni Collette (United States Of Tara), Bojana Novakovic (Edge Of Darkness), Mia Wasikowska (Alice In Wonderland) and Naomi Watts (Mother And Child) have received recognition in the same category for Best Actress.

There's also a bumper crop of television nominated this year, with Network Ten's telemovie Hawke leading the way with 6 nominations, including Best Direction and Best Screenplay as well as Lead Actor in a Television Drama for Richard Roxburgh. Tangle from Showcase has received 5 nominations including Best Television Drama Series, and nods for Best Lead Actress for Justine Clarke and Catherine McClements. Best Television Comedy Series has been equally dominated by the ABC's Review With Myles Barlow and SBS's Wilfred II with three nominations each, and the ABC's Lowdown taking two nominations, while the nominees for Light Entertainment Series include The Gruen Transfer, Hungry Beast, MasterChef Australia and Talkin' 'Bout Your Generation.

For more information and a full list of nominees from all feature film, television and non feature categories, visit www.afi.org.au

Anthony Morris