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Category Archives: Australian Film

Last Cab to Darwin

Last CabOkay, I’m a bit late. I recall wishing I had the time to go see this on stage a few years ago, and in recent months I again thought it looked like an interesting film. How I underestimated it!
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The story of a cabby from Broken Hill who finds himself with terminal cancer and an abrupt prognosis, this film resonates with some of the deepest anxieties of humanity. When the Northern Territory legalises euthanasia, he hoofs it in his cab across the desert to end his life on his own terms.
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This is a brilliant road movie, certainly one of the best I’ve ever seen. It succeeds in portraying some deeply flawed characters with empathy and keeps them at the centre of the story despite the political nature of the theme. This is probably the film’s greatest strength. It could have ended up being something of a polemic, but it remains grounded by its earthy and endearing characters who are never out of focus.
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I ended up seeing Last Cab to Darwin in an aeroplane flying across Australia, and it turns out that’s the perfect context. I whipped up my window blind afterwards and watched Kangaroo Island pass underneath as the plane made its way out over the Bight, just the right time to whistfully ponder the beauty and ugliness of life. Australia’s outback offers the perfect metaphor for this; majestic in its grandeur and vicous in its relentless trajectory towards death and destruction.
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Be afraid, it seems to say, but stay on the road. I hope when my journey ends, I don’t have to make a decision like this, but I’m also sure I’d make the same one. I just hope our governments can manage to keep their worthless noses out of my bloody business.
 
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Posted by on Thursday, 8 October 2015 in Australian Film, Film

 

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Holding the Man

holding the manTimothy Conigrave’s autobiographical story of his love for John Caleo has turned into one of the finest Australian films ever produced. In fact, I should strike the Australian from that sentence, as it’s really one of the finest films ever produced in the world, but having seen it, I’m rather more proud to be an Australian than I was yesterday, so it’s staying.

Adapted for the stage (and subsequently the screen) by Queanbeyan playwright Tommy Murphy, Holding the Man follows the story of Tim and John from when they meet in high school and Tim pursues John. The story follows their love through homophobia, infidelity (of sorts), moderate success and finally AIDS. The characters are portrayed skilfully by Ryan Corr as Tim, and Craig Stott as John. Despite a strange, forced accent from Corr (he insists on pronouncing every T as if he were dining with the queen and it annoyed me throughout), their performances are truly impeccable.

The film matters in a sociological sense because it is set against the backdrop of the changing Australia of the late seventies through early nineties, which was when the bulk of social attitudes about the rainbow community shifted. And yet, despite the significance of these political shifts, this story is firmly grounded in the experience of the two men at the heart of this tragedy. And therein lies its greatest strength.

If you really hate spoilers, you might want to stop reading now, but really, the ending is clear from the very opening moments of the film, anyway. It is rare, I think, that this tactic works, but this is certainly one of the circumstances in which it serves well for keeping the story on track and focused. One of the benefits of knowing that John dies is that as the film delves into some very dark places the audience doesn’t question whether he will pull through. And because we know he is going to die, we are able to concentrate on the way in which the characters deal with their circumstances. It really is very strategic storytelling, and shows a master of the art was at work.

Despite the darkness of this story, this film is, at its heart, a celebration of love. It truly demonstrates a spectacular skill on the part of Tommy Murphy, to delve into such dark plotlines with such pathos and not lose sight of the heart of the story, which was the love between the two protagonists. Few writers can manage this with such dexterity.

I simply cannot recommend this film highly enough. Get it. Watch it. Share it.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 26 August 2015 in Australian Film, Film, Goalpost Pictures

 

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Paper Planes

Paper_PlanesI think I need to begin this post with a warning: I may gush a little. This is simply one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Maybe I say that a lot, but it doesn’t make me like it any less. There’s a great deal of skill involved in balancing plot with character development, balancing pathos with humour and balancing light with dark. The creators of this film have done all three brilliantly.

Paper Planes is focused on Dylan, a 12-year-old who lives with his grieving father on a dilapidated farm near the fictional town of Waleup in Western Australia. When a strapping, visionary student teacher introduces him to the world of competitive paper plane-making, he enters that world with enthusiasm and brings a balance of humility and determination with him, which helps to draw his father back to life.

Ed Oxenbould‘s portrayal of Dylan is the linchpin for this brilliant film, and his ability to balance energy and pathos is remarkable for a 13 year old actor. He is supported well by Sam Worthington, whose character is sullen throughout without being entirely flat, which is quite an achievement. And light relief is all in the hands of the brilliant Deborah Mailman, who adds just the right spice to the mix.

The plot is largely predictable, but doesn’t suffer for it. Even the best of the humour is available in the trailer, so if you don’t like character and aren’t interested in their journeys, then maybe you shouldn’t bother with this film (if that’s the case, why would you watch films at all anyway?). The fact is, this is a light-hearted story that really gets to the guts of what life is about.

And more importantly, perhaps, this film is a testament to growing maturity in Australian storytelling. While it is distinctly Australian in character, it refrains from either romanticising or demonising the bush, and there’s barely a skerrick of cheap and nasty ockerism. There’s a hint of romanticism about Sydney (something I’ll never understand, having been liberated from Sydney myself), but what it does best is pitch a national identity that is quietly confident, but nonetheless cautious. I don’t think we’ve done that very much before.

I’m even willing to forgive some very substantial continuity errors, the biggest of which I can’t mention as it would spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it.

If the opportunity presents itself, don’t miss this one. If you’re the teary type, take tissues. If you like a good laugh, don’t put the popcorn in your lap. But either way, see it.

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 11 January 2015 in Arenamedia, Australian Film, Film

 

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The Rocket

rocketThe plot summaries about for this film leave a lot to be desired. There is something distinctly airy-fairy about a line like “a boy who is believed to bring bad luck leads his family on a journey through Laos to find his family a new home”. Had I read that, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with The Rocket. Luckily I didn’t read one as soppy as that, and I took off on a whim to our cushy Palace Electric Cinema and saw it.

Now, I’m not saying there’s nothing soppy about this film, and that sentence is not an entirely inaccurate description of the plot. But this is a gritty, mucky and sometimes confronting story that just oozes the best and worst of humanity.

Set in the northern mountains of Laos, the story begins with the birth of that boy, Ahlo, who is saved from the tribe’s gruesome tradition of slaughtering the first-born of twins by his mother’s pleas against his grandmother’s judgement. The story cuts to him in early adolescence as his village is about to be flooded by the construction of a hydro-electric dam, and his mother is killed in a tragic accident. In the midst of his grief and confusion, he incurs the wrath of the village and the family finds themselves fleeing and beginning the search for a new home.

There is the risk with a story such as this that the inner turmoil of the boy could be overworked, bogging the story down in melodrama. But there is a great balance of pathos with movement, and the story almost plunges forward. There are moments of intense fear, beautifully crafted, and moments of sheer pleasure. This truly is the stuff of life.

The ever-present danger of unexploded weaponry, legacies from the Americans’ secret sojourn through the territory in the 1960s, is intermixed with idyllic settings and distinct twenty-first century technology like LED lighting, painting a picture of a society not entirely backward, but nonetheless held back by its history.

The success of this story really stands on the back of a brilliant performance by Sitthaphon Disamoe, whose energy is magnificent and never falters. The ten year old certainly earned the Best Actor Award he picked up at the Tribeca Film Festival.

This is genuinely one of the best Australian films I have ever seen, and if this is any indication of the direction our film industry is going, I think there is a bright future ahead.

 
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Posted by on Friday, 6 September 2013 in Australian Film, Film, Red Lamp Films

 

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The Sapphires

 

We’ve seen plenty of films centred on the victories of the Civil Rights Movement. Most are quite interesting but the bulk of them seem to float in the ether of the social and political significance of their subject matter, and don’t make a particularly smooth landing in the grit and grime of reality. That criticism can’t be levelled at The Sapphires.

Inspired by the true story of the writer’s mother, who toured Vietnam during the American WarThe Sapphires portrays three sisters and a cousin, young Aboriginal women who in 1968 are discovered by a drunk Irishman who can barely hold down a job but has a great passion for Soul music and recognises a talent. Auditioning for an American military talent scout, they are recruited and find themselves on their way to a war zone.

The story veers close to the heavy themes of racial discrimination, the Stolen Generation, and the moral predicament of the Western powers in Vietnam, but deftly avoids wallowing in them, instead focusing on the narrative of a family. It is remarkably how carefully balanced this story is, since it could so easily drop into a tirade on the heavy themes it skirts, but instead focuses on the triumph of hope and perseverance.

The Sapphires is distinctly the product of the early twenty-first century. It looks back at this period as a critical juncture in world history, a point when the usual shift in cultural values across the western world took on seismic significance and fundamentally altered the way we see things. And unlike most films that try to do this, it doesn’t preach, it doesn’t overstate the political and cultural significance of its subject matter. It just tells the story of five young people experiencing change at the crossroads of world culture. This is cinema at its best.

 

 
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Posted by on Friday, 10 August 2012 in Australian Film, Film, Goalpost Pictures

 

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Swerve

The thriller has not been a genre that has appealed to me greatly, but over the last few years a few of them have  started to change that. Wolf Creek was one of the first, and The Ghost Writer was probably the most recent to impress me. Swerve can now be added to that list.

Starting with an exchange of drugs and money that doesn’t go entirely to plan, mild-mannered Colin (David Lyons) gets mixed up in a web of deceit, corruption and tangled motivations that don’t just keep you on the edge of your seat, but also keep your mind on its toes trying to remember who knows what, who owes what to whom, and where stuff is. In fact, this web of complications is almost too tangled, but I think the film survives thanks largely to two brilliant central characters expertly portrayed by Emma Booth and David Lyons, neither of whom I’ve ever encountered before.

Several action scenes involving car chases and accidents exemplify the elegant simplicity in this film’s cinematography, and that’s no mean feat. Perhaps its thanks to cinematographer David Foreman‘s background in television, but the action is brilliantly pared back to ensure that the focus remains on the characters and their objectives, contrary to what a lot of film makers tend to do. This is absolutely essential for a thriller, otherwise all you get is stunts and acrobatics, which I find far less satisfying than the thrill of seeing characters I care about in danger. As a result, the film as a whole stands up against its complicated plot and the occasional continuity error.

The sense of fear is palpable, and the film maintains an ethereal atmosphere without losing its grounding. This one is worth watching over and over again.

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 16 June 2012 in Australian Film, Duo Art Productions, Film

 

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Toomelah

Toomelah is a particularly interesting film, if not especially engaging. Writer and Director Ivan Sen went into the New South Welsh township of Toomelah, which began life as an Aboriginal mission, and filmed this story with the local community performing the roles. As characters and performers, they offer a lot. They are, in a sense, playing themselves, and although the story is fictitious, the setting and the circumstances of life in Toomelah is very real.

After the screening at Arc, Sen described the experience of making the film in this community. He went alone, with no film crew, in order to get unhindered access to the community, and to allow the performers more scope to ignore the camera. The effect is remarkable; these characters come to life, despite having just about the thinnest plot I’ve ever seen. There was one point while watching the film when I wondered whether the story was actually just Sen following Daniel Connors around and filming his real life.

The reality, though, is that this is a fictitious story about a real community, played by the people of the community. The slowness of life in this community is, presumably, captured faithfully, but unfortunately I don’t think this verisimilitude does the film any favours. It asks a lot of the audience to keep watching, and while I think this is often acceptable, it is more effective when the story is more engaging.

I think it is particularly important that we tell the story of diverse Aboriginal communities, but I still think these stories need to be told in the dominant storytelling form of our society. While Toomelah is a film worthy of our attention, I doubt it will get much. With a plot arc this slow, it takes pre-established empathy with the characters for an audient to sit through it.

So I find it sad that I don’t think Toomelah will get much attention. It is worthy of every Australian’s attention, but its interest lies in the way it was made and what it offers as a picture of life in this community, rather than being intrinsic to the film.

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 29 October 2011 in Australian Film, Film

 

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The Hunter

Odd that I should pass the small band of faithful in Martin Place for ‘Occupy Sydney’ on my way to see The Hunter. Odd, because this film is an interesting take on the idea of a big faceless corporation hiring a hit-man to take care of some business. Only the victim in this case is not to be just one person but an entire species, and they don’t just want it dead, they want its DNA. Creepy, yes; and a great premise for a film. What a shame the script wasn’t better developed.

The Hunter doesn’t disappoint entirely. A strong storyline and some very interesting relationships develop. Despite some unfortunate stereotypes there is some genuine complexity in the fabric of the film, but The Hunter lacks any real character development. Now, I’m all in favour of plot-driven stories, but the plot in this film doesn’t move fast enough to carry well without stronger characters. The hunter himself, played by Willem Defoe, is two-dimensional and lacks any back story to justify his quiet demeanour. By the time he reaches the climax, we still don’t really know him. The vaguely heroine-like Lucy Armstrong doesn’t quite make it to romantic lead, but despite the lack of script development, Frances O’Connor does a great job of bringing her to life. Apart from the very engaging children, played by Morgana Davies and Finn Woodlock, the rest of the cast are just plot devices.

I still think there’s a lot to love about The Hunter. Tasmania’s wilderness is a landscape that was made to be a film set, much like Utah’s Monument Valley was, except the Tasmanian bush has mood swings. Really, what the characters lack is almost made up for by the bush, which certainly changes its mood more often than Willem Defoe does. I’m not just being flippant; the bush genuinely works for this film, and the cinematography is exceptional, which makes the poor script all that much more disappointing.

This one’s not worthy of a cinema screen, but it’s worth seeing when it comes to TV. And I really did like it.

 
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Posted by on Monday, 17 October 2011 in Australian Film, Film, Porchlight Films

 

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Tomorrow When The War Began

Tomorrow When The War Began is an iconic piece of Australian literature renowned not so much for its story, characters or fantastic writing as for annoying the heck out of high school students. John Marsden wrote it specifically for the high school market, aiming it at schools in need of an easy read for young adolescents. This ambit was successful, and as a result it is one of the most read stories in Australia, despite being dull, poorly-written and full of implausible circumstances and pointless guff. Needless to say, I didn’t expect much from the film.

From inauspicious beginnings, apparently, great stories are born. The very act of adapting a story for film has a way of weeding out page-filling nonsense and implausible circumstances. A novel can get away with not mentioning visual elements, but scenarios undergo more thorough analysis in film. In the case of Tomorrow When The War Began, this process has thoroughly redeemed an otherwise unremarkable story.

The cast, who, with one exception, are far too old to be playing characters who need to ask their parents’ permission for anything, are otherwise superb. Led by the magnificent Caitlin Stasey in the role of Ellie, they personify Marsden’s characters better than Marsden did, and without any exception they sustain impeccable performances throughout the film. And yes, I even include a former Home and Away actor in this praise, which is remarkable in itself.

Like the age of the actors, the locations chosen for the film leave something to be desired, but are nonetheless redeemed. The Blue Mountains, instantly recognisable and distinctive, simply doesn’t cut it for a random bush hideaway near the fictional rural town of Wirrawee. The sandstone cliffs of the Megalong Valley are simply too familiar, and the familiarity detracts from the value of setting the story in a fictitious Australian town.

The film nonetheless survives these faults, and is certainly the best saleable film made in this country for many years. The plot, characters and actors combine to produce a film that is far better in all respects than the novel that spawned it, making the tongue-in-cheek line from the film that all books are better than their films deliciously ironic.

This film may not win huge numbers of awards, but thoughts that it may be the beginning of the most profitable film series in Australian history could be right on the money. I certainly hope so.

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 18 September 2010 in Ambience Entertainment, Australian Film, Film

 

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Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom poses that age-old question about how many blood spatters are too many. I suspect that the creators were attempting to use blood spatters as a visual motif, as most of the spatters were of a similar consistency, evenly spread across a contrasting surface, but ultimately they just echoed the naff nature of the film generally.

There was a lot of potential here. After a slow start, the film did engage, and it did manage to take me to that serendipitous point at which you have to know what happens next, and the screening environment just melts away. A magnificent cast with a wealth of experience is admirably lead by newcomer James Frecheville. His treatment of the morose character he landed is remarkably compelling, and I think the cast is this film’s saving grace.

But overall, this is a truly disappointing film; not because it represents nothing of value, but because it really had a lot of potential that it didn’t live up to. An engaging story and some of Australia’s best actors are let down by a slow treatment in the editing suite and mundane cinematography. This one’s definitely worthy of a remake, perhaps even with the same cast, but it needs a more compelling treatment by the creative team.

 
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Posted by on Friday, 28 May 2010 in cultural cringe, Porchlight Films

 

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I Love You Too

I was one of the privileged hundreds to get free tickets to Limelight Cinemas‘ preview of I Love You Too, with writer Peter Helliar in attendance. After some inane and worthless chatter from morning radio hosts Scotty and Nige, who ‘interviewed’ the rather more intelligent Peter Helliar, this unfortunate train-wreck of a film was underway. Perhaps ‘train-wreck’ is a little harsh; I think this film is more like a series of minor derailments, causing some mayhem on the commute to great Australian cinema.

The plot, although a little cliche, is nonetheless engaging, following the story of Jim, a commitment-phobic man in his early thirties who is threatened with losing his girlfriend. It suffers, however, from that age-old scourge of the comedian-writer; being interspersed with one-liners, which may be hilarious at the time, but seriously interrupt the progression of the plot. It is a problem that may have been resolved, had the writer been an unknown, but perhaps there wasn’t a dramaturge available who could confront Peter Helliar with the awful truth that some of these one-liners should have been ditched to protect the integrity of the narrative arc.

Admirable performances from Brendan Cowell, Yvonne Strahovski, Peter Dinklage and even Peter Helliar himself (who struggled to keep a straight face at times) couldn’t save the compromised script.

Australian film went through a period of producing only one genre of film. It was a cross between comedy and drama that worked very well for the period we were in, but our industry has matured, and our films are now more complex, influenced by a wider range of international cinema, and reflecting a more diverse Australia. I Love You Too does none of this. It harks back to a naive and self-centred Australia from sometime in the 1990s. It has some redeeming qualities, most notably its engaging plot, but it just doesn’t come together as a unified work, and is sorely disappointing.

 

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Bran Nue Dae

Bran Nue Dae is a bit of a romp, but I’m not entirely convinced this film has survived some of its more irksome quirks. By and large the story sings, the direction is clear, and the cinematography is inspired, but a few lines of uninspired dialogue, a few missed beats, and the occasional diversion from the film’s primary mode of storytelling let down what is otherwise a light, unassuming comedy that would do the Australian film industry proud.
Ernie Dingo and Geoffrey Rush could be said to have saved this film. In the lead role is Rocky McKenzie, who can sing, but comes across rather wooden, even in singing mode. If it were a stage play, I would say it was over-rehearsed, but I’m not sure that’s possible with film. I would assume Jessica Mauboy was cast for much the same reason: her voice is spectacular, and this is one of the film’s redeeming features, but the moment she must speak it’s like she seizes up and loses all sense of her character. Missy Higgins is another actor who was surely cast for her musical talent, but whose performances as a character were charming, mesmerising and hilarious.
I don’t want to be too critical, because I actually really liked the film. It has a great story, some hilarious characters and scenarios, and some really great music. I just couldn’t quite relax into it.
 
 

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Lucky Miles

If I told you I had watched a film based on trues stories about boat people entering Australia on the northwest coast, you’d probably yawn. I expected something more like a docudrama when I sat down to watch Lucky Miles, but was pleasantly surprised to encounter a comic drama set in the outback.

There is no sense of that superficial ocker-ness to this film, just a great story, impeccably filmed, and filled with dry, cackle-till-my-throat-hurts humour. Kenneth Moraleda gives an excellent performance as something of a straightman who balances the sardonic humour of the rest of the characters. He provides that balance between comedy and drama that Australian film makers have perfected.

This was a lucky find: I never heard about Lucky Miles when it was in cinema release, but wow! How do the greatest films always seem to miss out on media coverage? It’s a crying shame; find the DVD!

 

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Mao’s Last Dancer

Much is being made of Bruce Beresford’s latest film, Mao’s Last Dancer. It has been released amidst a flurry of discussion about the nature of Australian film, and because it doesn’t deal with a particularly Australian story, it seems to break away from the stereotypical Australian film. Unfortunately, I think this will be the most memorable feature of the film.


Mao’s Last Dancer is the true story, based on the autobiography of the same title, of Li Cunxin, a ballet dancer plucked from obscurity in a small Chinese village to study ballet in Beijing, who went on to defect from the People’s Republic and achieve stardom in the United States. It is an inspiring story, but for my money, not a particularly memorable one.

As we expect from Bruce Beresford, the cinematography is superb, the performances convincing, even from some iconic Australian actors playing Americans. But I think that the only thing particularly noteworthy about the film is its subject matter. This is an Australian film that has next to nothing to do with Australia, and while I would be happy to see more films like this, I fear that the more endearing aspects of Mao’s Last Dancer are overshadowed by this fact.

A good film, with a rather dull plot but spectacular performances, and one that offers excellent insight into a culture we tend to stereotype rather than engage with. Watch it when you’re not at risk of falling asleep.
 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 11 November 2009 in Australian Film, Film, Great Scott Productions

 

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Balibo

There is a fine line between a documentary and a movie, but occasionally a film comes along that sits very comfortably on that line. Balibo is one of these. The very true story of Roger East, who Jose Ramos-Horta lured to East Timor in those few days between Portugal’s withdrawal and Indonesia’s invasion in 1975, Balibofollows East’s efforts to find out what happened to the five Australian reporters who had vanished amidst the Indonesian advance.

The film has a unique quality that at once depicts East’s story and allows the audience to engage fully with him as a character, while at the same time telling the story of the Balibo Five with a sense of documentary. The process is not unlike Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt, in the way that the film shifts from building dramatic intensity to communicating the facts of the story.
This serves the purposes of the film makers very well. Talking about the making of the film (I went to Dendy’s Q&A session), director Robert Conolly talks about the Indonesian government asking whether the film will include the Indonesian point of view, to which he responded that the last thirty years of hearing the Indonesian point of view hasn’t gotten us any closer to the truth. I am not in a position to comment on the accuracy of this film as a historic record, but as a piece of cinema, it has more human honesty than your average documentary, and more depth than your average movie.
East Timor celebrates ten years of independence later this month, so this is a timely release, in a way. It is, however, an Australian film about six Australians. What remains is to hear the stories of the East Timorese who suffered 24 long years of Indonesian rule. The makers of Balibo are aware of this, and provided training to East Timorese working with them on their film, in the hope that they will one day do so.
 

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Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilahis a unique film that most filmgoers will probably find unappealing. It breaks many of the conventions of film, which makes for very unusual viewing, and it makes you uncomfortable in many ways, but it is a great story, and it is told with a great sense of simplicity and honesty.

Set in outback Northern Territory, this is the story of a young couple caught in a clash of cultures, and it explores the impact of broader cultural and political circumstances as they apply in this environment.
What I think is this film’s greatest achievement is the way it touches on broad political issues without being in any way didactic or even judgemental. It tells a story about two young people, and the context in which they find their way through life and love. I think stories like this can play a big part in furthering the process of reconciliation, and more to the point, I think it’s a great story.
 
 

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