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Tag Archives: United States

The Way

There seems to have been a slew of films about journeys or pilgrimages from American film makers lately. Either that or I’ve just started noticing them. At any rate, I haven’t seen any as good as The Way.

The film, written by Emilio Estevez (who I had no idea could actually write), is the story of a man who finds himself walking El Camino de Santiago following the death of his son on the pilgrimage, and whereas most of these pilgrimage films I’ve been seeing are either a little light on character or a little too heavy, The Way has just the right balance, and drives forward beautifully, even surviving some very obvious product placement.

It could be a tearjerker if you’re that way inclined, but unlike others that could fit that bill, it doesn’t go out of its way to try to generate a deeper pathos than is necessary, and this is so very refreshing, especially from the Americans. This is the kind of story I want to be able to write.

Of course, the problem with pilgrimage films is that they give me itchy feet, but I always seem to be wanting to go somewhere, so I don’t suppose that matters much. Anyone want to join me in Spain in a decade or two?

 
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Posted by on Friday, 3 August 2012 in American Film, Film, Filmax Entertainment, Icon Entertainment

 

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Hugo

Hugois a great film, although it is about half an hour longer than it needs to be and (coincidentally?) half an hour too sappy.

Set in Paris, it’s the story of an orphan in the care of his drunkard uncle, who undertakes his uncle’s work to remain in his home in Gare Montparnasse, to avoid ending up in an orphanage. His home puts him in the perfect position to pilfer the bits he needs to continue his dead father’s work restoring an old automaton, but it also puts him at risk from the station’s other denizens.
The story is excellent, and the visual effects stunning. The characters are beautifully composed, and the whole film sings… as long as you’re patient. This film would have been so much better if it had been written by a Frenchman; its American screenwright, however, has seen fit to weigh it down with as much schmaltz as he could muster. It’s a shame, because it would be just about perfect without it.
 
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Posted by on Sunday, 11 March 2012 in Film

 

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The Phantom of the Opera

I’m just home from Las Vegas where I had the opportunity to see The Phantom of the Opera at The Venetian. What I have found fascinating since first hearing about the production is the idea that a theatre could be constructed specifically for one show; it seems at once wasteful and devout. The ancient Greeks invented the notion of an architectural entity devoted to theatre, and three thousand years seems rather a long time to wait for a theatre devoted to one show. Las Vegas, apparently, boasts two, but I only managed to see the Venetian’s Phantom Theatre. It is a spectacular representation of Paris’s Opera Populaire, complete with wax vestiges of Parisian high society in the nineteenth century in the balconies.

The custom build has allowed for some spectacular use of the fly tower to quickly present a myriad of different scenes and aid some very clever blocking. Effects including fireworks and flame throwers as well as a dancing chandelier and a rather clever gondola, not to mention the thickest smoke I’ve ever seen, cover a multitude of sins as the performers omit all pathos to avoid making a technical error. Not that it would matter if their performances were better; the audience simply wouldn’t notice with all the smoke and mirrors around (and, I might add, not all of the smoke is intentional special effect; Nevada’s lax smoking laws mean that cigarette smoke from the neighbouring casino fills the auditorium constantly).

I’ve said in the past that I like museum pieces; and apart from some impressive special effects, there’s little more of value in this show. Any student of theatre should see it, purely to flesh out their understanding of nineteenth century theatrical culture and gain a sense of the theatre’s layout. Of course, if you’re going to Paris you could go see the real thing, and probably get a better show into the bargain. The Venetian’s production, though, is also a fine example of theatrical precision, and execution, but little more. Dead flat characterisation and mechanical and unfeeling theatrical precision from the performers sucks what little life Andrew Lloyd Webber deigned to sprinkle into his book, and leaves you with nothing more than special effects to keep you entertained.

The big theatrical surprise of my trip to the United States is that the express version of Aladdin being performed twice daily (and often more) at Disney’s California Adventure Park shows the same technical precision and impressive technical effects while also portraying the story and characters with reasonable passion. It really puts the Venetian’s production of Phantom to shame. Still, that’s Las Vegas; the bright and shiny things are a very thin veil designed to distract the observer from the soulless decrepitude of the human condition. Andrew Lloyd Webber fits in perfectly.

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 9 April 2011 in Musical Theatre, Theatre

 

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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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The Road to Guantanamo

There is a particular atmosphere in films that depict the victims of the Holocaust, and I found it incredibly disturbing to sense that same atmosphere in this excellent documentary recently aired on the SBS.

The Road to Guananamo is the story of several Pakistani Britons from Birmingham who found themselves caught up in the war in Afghanistan immediately following the 9/11 attacks, and who are ultimately imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, accused of being members of Al Qaeda. That this can happen to innocent travellers is hardly surprising, but the stories of their treatment at the hands of mostly American guards is no less shocking and outrageous than the many depictions of Jewish victims of the Nazis during World War II.
Apart from its moral position and emotional impact, which is similar to what I have felt when watching depictions of how the German Jews were treated in the early forties, what I found astonishing was the realisation of how conditioned I am. As these young men were relieved from their Afghani captors and handed over to the Americans, I felt, when I heard the American accent, a sense of relief; I felt their ordeal was finally over. Of course, the worse was yet to come, and the Americans proved themselves incapable of justice.
The film unselfconsciously takes advantage of our conditioning, allowing us to feel some confidence in the American gaolers before showing them to be as evil and conniving as their Nazi predecessors; and putting the story into this context highlights that the problem lies with the fascist element in the perpetrating society. While I cannot vouch for the voracity of the prisoners’ accounts of their gaolers’ actions, I am more inclined to trust their accounts than the rantings of governments beseiged by criticisms. What appalls me more than the behaviour of the American guards is the knowledge that Australians were imprisoned with these Pakistani Britons, and that our government was no more loyal to our people than the British were to theirs.
It is rare to see such a cogent and compelling story about the need to heed the lessons of history. While I know that the American people are every bit as honourable and worthy of respect as the Germans are, this film demonstrates that no people, least of all the Americans, should be complacent in holding their politicians accountable.
 

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American Teen

Winning a place on the guest list to American Teenwas not a high priority for me. When I heard the title, I thought it must be a teen movie, and when I read that it was a documentary, I was even less interested. I could not have been more wrong.

This was the first time I’ve watched a documentary in a cinema, and it was well worth a Monday night. The stories of these five adolescents from Warsaw, Indiana were absolutely compelling, and wonderfully hilarious, as the raucous laughter from a near-empty cinema attested. Nanette Burstein has edited their experiences in their final year of high school with a deft hand, developing a rich, interwoven story well worth telling.
Watching these young Americans over-experience every emotion imaginable was fascinating not only because of the universal comedy of youth, but also because it reminds you just how good our education system is. Which is quite an accomplishment when your audience is a cynical old ex-teacher like myself.
American Teen is not ground-breaking or unique, but it is one of those rare pieces of film-making that exemplifies the best of the art form: simple storytelling, with characters that are easy to relate to, an awesome soundtrack, and an image of ourselves. Well worth a Monday night. Or even a Friday. Go see it.
 
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Posted by on Monday, 17 November 2008 in American Film, Film

 

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