Monday, March 28, 2011

Waiting for "Superman"


If Health Care is the third-rail of US politics, then the education system must be a train, packed with school kids, hurtling out of control. No, this isn't a review of Unstoppable, but the analogy is ruthlessly apt when you consider Academy Award winning documentarian Davis Guggenheim's (An Inconvenient Truth) bone-chilling portrait of public schools in Waiting for “Superman”.

Guggenheim is no stranger to the US school system, having followed five teachers for 180 days in the 2001 TV documentary The First Year. In his impassioned and unapologetically personal opening narration, Guggenheim cites these credentials, perhaps in an effort to counterbalance the shellacking he’s about to serve up to the Teachers' Union. Indeed in this damning chronicle of a system so broken it doesn’t even warrant the name anymore, the protectionist practices of the Teachers' Union provide a handy punching bag to vent the waves of incredulous rage that build up over the course of the documentary.

But wait, this is about the kids. For all Guggenheim’s infuriating tales of ‘lemon’ teachers and the ‘terror of tenure’, his main aim is to give this reality some human faces. Following five kids rather than teachers this time, he sets their sunny hopes for the future against the woeful statistics that look set to steal their dreams. When the kids apply for the Holy Grail of public education: a chance to attend a successful, independent Charter School, which is decided via a lottery. This certainly provides the documentary a terrifying, heart-in-your-mouth climax, and one that is sure to raise some bile if the proceeding facts have failed to do so.

If Superman provides the film’s overarching metaphor, then Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee and education reformer Geoffrey Canada come as close to real life, butt-kicking heroes as possible. Both straight-talking, committed and downright ballsy individuals provide glimmers of hope amongst the darkness that surround them. However their insights, plus the five kids, various animations and other talking heads spread Guggenheim much too thinly across this important ground. While he and his team of editors piece these strands together in undeniably compelling fashion, less might have ultimately proven to be more.

Waiting for "Superman" is essential viewing. It's as simple as that. Though jam-packed and shamelessly earnest, it is a well-crafted and crucially effective call to arms against the reign of these 'failure factories.' Most importantly, it is impossible not to be touched, nay, radicalised by this devastatingly inconvenient truth.

Published on Concrete Playground
Australian release date: 24 March 2011

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Young at Heart Film Festival

The luminous Helen Mirren once again takes centre stage at the Young at Heart Film Festival. In 2010, Dame Mirren dazzled as Tolstoy's wife in The Last Station, and this year she delves into more sinister territory in Rowan Joffe's stylish adaptation of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock.

But cinema's beloved queen will have to fight for the spotlight as this year's festival programme proves its most impressive yet. Festival-goers will delight in the chance to revisit old favourites like The Graduate, The Pink Panther and a focus on John Huston and Humphrey Bogart, which boasts screenings of timeless classics The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen. Australia's Bruce Beresford (Mao’s Last Dancer) will also be honoured, with The Fringe Dwellers and Breaker Morant both returning to the silver screen.

Up and coming Australian filmmaker Belinda Chayko will be taking part in a Q&A screening of her beautifully realised tale Lou. The film stars British veteran John Hurt (who is also in Brighton Rock) as well a remarkable debut performance from Lily Bell-Tindley in the titular role as a questioning 11-year-old who strikes a deep bond with her estranged grandfather.

Rounding out this marvellous lineup is the vibrantly retro, must-see Aussie legend Red Dog (see it now or wait until August!), Robert Duvall's cantankerous funereal fable Get Low and a short film competition. Plus, fresh from the French Film Festival are two sure favourites: Catherine Deneuve's comedy Potiche and the wondrous underwater documentary Oceans.

So ok, the Young at Heart Film Festival might technically be for seniors (taking place during NSW Seniors Week), but with such brilliant films screening - not to mention many events include free drinks - this is definitely a case where you should learn from your elders, and make a beeline for the Dendy Opera Quays.

  Published on Concrete Playground

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Griff the Invisible

A simple and sweet romance disguised a crime-fighting superhero flick, Griff the Invisible is a film to fall in love with. This elegant feature debut from writer-director Leon Ford stars True Blood's Ryan Kwanten as the eponymous masked crusader, though one who might spend a little more time practicing his lines in front of the mirror than actually protecting the streets. As a painfully awkward recluse, Griff bears all the hallmarks of a misfit: he's mercilessly harassed by office bully Tony (Toby Schmitz), while at home his sole visitor is his caring, if exasperated brother Tim (Patrick Brammall). But this all changes when Tim brings by Melody (Maeve Dermody), a delightful eccentric who spies the superhero behind Griff’s shy façade.

Shot through with enchanting magical realism and chock full of heart, Griff the Invisible needs to take its place in your DVD collection alongside films like Amelie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Lars and the Real Girl. Though Ford's fable is more modest in scope, these titles provide a handy primer for the appeal and tone of his marvellous creation. Because to truly appreciate this film, the audience needs follow Melody and let themselves be sucked into Griff’s oddball world; a leap of faith which ultimately prove utterly charming.

For True Blood fans, Kwanten will be almost unrecognisable as the sociophobic superhero. His performance is so expertly restrained (in fact one briefly wonders if there isn't a more insidious pathology at work), yet he also infuses Griff with such earnest enthusiasm, that the audience is quickly rallied to become his champions. Leading the charge is of course Melody, who is brought to wondrous life by the ever-impressive Dermody. Her performance is as bright and colourfully quirky as Melody's wardrobe, and she provides a perfect compliment to Kwanten's quiet reserve. After stealing scenes from Ben Mendelsohn in Beautiful Kate as well as making a name on the Sydney theatre scene, Dermody again proves herself a talent to watch.

Another stand out are Sydney band Kids at Risk, who have leapt from Triple J Unearthed discovery to pen the film's soundtrack. Though Ford also makes bold use of silence, the indie-rock trio hit it out of the park, crafting such a striking soundtrack, you’ll want to head straight from the cinema to buy the album (though, for now you'll have to make do with downloading the single Doing the Best that We Can).

As a writer and director, Ford playfully eschews the wiz bang trappings of both the superhero and romantic comedy genres to craft a disarmingly honest and guileless love story. But Griff the Invisible also succeeds in acting as a heart-warming reminder to celebrate your idiosyncrasies, as well as having the courage to embrace love when you’re lucky enough to find someone who truly sees you. And much like the film, these are lessons worth taking to heart.

Published on Concrete Playground
Australian release date: 17 March 2011

Monday, March 21, 2011

It's so fluffy!

If you ever hear me earnestly/aggressively declare, "It's soooo fluffy!" then this is why:

It's surprisingly useful in everyday parlance, but mostly it just makes me giggle. Have a great week everyone!

Oh and for more unicorn related chuckles, don't miss Kate's great find over at Love You Big.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Movie Club: The Company Men

On this episode of The Movie Club, Michael Adams unwittingly triggers tragic memories of the time I had to sell my Porsche and give up my cushy golf club membership. Those were tough times...

Well actually that's the fate Ben Affleck's character Bobby Walker must face in John Wells' feature debut The Company Men. Yes, it's a bit of a first world whinge, but as I say during our review, I was intrigued by the portrait of men grappling with failure.

And who doesn't love Kevin Costner chewing some scenery?

Click HERE to head over to the club website - as ever, I'd love you to weigh in with your thoughts.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Eddie Vedder

Back in the day Pearl Jam provided many a teenage angsty anthem, but time has mellowed front man Eddie Vedder. In the past few years, Vedder has struck out with some striking solo tunes, including the sublime soundtrack from Into the Wild as well as one of the tracks (and thus one of the few saving graces) from Eat, Pray, Love.

Packing his iconic raspy tones and an acoustic guitar, Vedder is en route Sydney’s State Theatre for three nights of pared back music. For Pearl Jam diehards, the gilded stage and cushy red seats may prove too discombobulating, but Vedder’s voice is sure to lure you back into the heady days of your misspent youth.

Sydney dates: 18-20 March 2011 (more info on Concrete Playground)

Published on Concrete Playground

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Trailer: Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Indie version)

This inspired indie trailer of Ferris Bueller's Day Off has been doing the rounds lately, and it's definitely worth a look:

The filmmaker behind the recut, Joseph Brett, has definitely taken some cues from Sophia Coppola, n'est pas? Just take a look back at Somewhere.

Giveaway: Griff the Invisible

***Update 18/3: Competition closed! Fabulous to see so much interest - now everyone go and discover Griff!

I'm super delighted to giving away tickets to see the little Aussie charmer, Griff the Invisible. My review and feature are still to come, but I defy you not to be won over by the official synopsis:


Griff - office worker by day, superhero by night - has his world turned upside down when he meets Melody, a beautiful young scientist who shares his passion for the impossible. 

By day Griff (Ryan Kwanten) is an everyday office worker, in an everyday town. He lives a secluded life, bullied by co-workers (Toby Schmitz) - his protective brother his only friend. By night Griff assumes his other identity, roaming the dark streets protecting the innocent and the vulnerable from the dangers that lurk in the shadows - he is the hero, GRIFF THE INVISIBLE

Increasingly concerned by Griff's eccentric behaviour, his brother (Patrick Brammall) attempts to draw him back into the 'real world'. In doing so he introduces Griff to Melody (Maeve Dermody) an equally eccentric and charming girl. 

Fascinated by Griff's idiosyncrasies, which are equal only to her own, Melody begins to fall for Griff. As Griff is forced to face up to realities of a mundane world, it is up to Melody to rescue GRIFF THE INVISIBLE for the sake of herself, Griff and their love for each other. 

GRIFF THE INVISIBLE is the fresh, highly-original romantic comedy from the wildly fertile imagination of debut feature film writer / director Leon Ford. Starring Ryan Kwanten in the lead role of Griff (star of smash hit US TV series True Blood) and Maeve Dermody as Melody (who earned critical acclaim for her performance in Beautiful Kate), GRIFF THE INVISIBLE is fresh from international rave reviews and accolades from the Toronto International Film Festival and will (dis)appear in cinemas nationally March, 2011.
To win one of ten double passes to see Griff the Invisible, simply email me (subject: Griff the Invisible Giveaway) with your name and address. Winners will be notified by reply. 

Australian release date: 17 March 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Movie Club: Rango

Do you think film-reference rife Rango has the potential to make a good drinking game? I am back on The Movie Club discussing this, Johnny Depp and other salient details with Michael Adams and Chris Murray. It was too much fun reviewing this marvellous film, so please click through to watch our onscreen chuckles.

As ever, please feel free to join the discussion by leaving a comment over on the Club website.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Inception in 60 Seconds

The only thing that could make this more perfect would be if Werner Herzog had narrated. 

Thanks to Guy Davis for the heads up. 

The Boy From Oz

Garish sequined shirts, feisty maracas and the QANTAS theme song can only mean one thing: The Boy From Oz is back in town. Todd McKenney has swapped his judging scowl from Dancing with the Stars for a big, cheesy grin in order to reprise the role that brought him fame some 12 years ago. An icon in her own right, director Nancye Hayes clearly wants her audience to have a truck load of fun with Peter Allen's colourful life chronicle. The pared-back production design sees musical director John Foreman centrestage with his bombastic band, flanked only by a long, black staircase, which proves a handy stairway to heaven over the course of Allen's gussied-up version of This is Your Life.

And what a life it was! For the uninitiated, Nick Enright's jukebox musical whisks the audience through Allen's dusty beginnings as a country boy with a boundless passion for entertaining, through to his rebranding as one half of the Allen Brothers act and subsequent discovery by the one and only Judy Garland; his marriage to Ms. Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli, and the waxing and waning fame and fortune that governed his later years. Told in flashback with jubilantly biased narration from Allen himself, The Boy From Oz is on the surface a glossy, shamelessly over-the-top tribute to a richly talented musician.

Walking the fine line between cheesy and cringe-worthy, which, let's face it, is the hallmark of jukebox musical theatre, this rendition feels like it would be at home on a cruise liner. Everything is a little bit too kitsch and McKenney's campy delivery feels a tad too forced, leaving the production with a distinct lack of chiaroscuro. The emotional heavy lifting is outsourced to other characters - impressive solos by Alex Rathgeber and Robyn Arthur as Allen's partner and mum respectively - and to video footage of the man himself. So despite an utterly committed performance, McKenney is really given precious few notes to play on stage. Though he dances up a storm (including a set of effortless ab crunches atop a piano) and his cavorting banter works well, the updated quip about Hugh Jackman  is an ill-advised reminder of Jackman's own Tony Award-winning turn in Allen's shoes. It also doesn't help that McKenney is distractingly hopeless at fake piano playing, but much more successful is the amusingly reflexive revamp of ‘I Still Call Australia Home', which sees Allen surrounded by grown up versions of the QANTAS kids in uniform.

Brimming with winning nostalgia, The Boy From Oz glides over the clunks and bumps for an ultimately glittering and celebratory trip down memory lane. Buoyed by a play list of firm favourites like ‘Tenterfield Saddler', ‘I Honestly Love You' and of course the maraca mayhem of ‘Rio', this production may not quite have the glamour, but, like its star, The Boy From Oz simply wants to entertain.

3 Stars
Published in Time Out Sydney
Sat 26 February to Thu 17 March at the Capitol Theatre

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Judi Dench & Daniel Craig: Equals?

I could happily listen to Judi Dench read the phonebook, so this starkly simple PSA directed by Sam Taylor Wood (Nowhere Boy) and written by Jane Goldman (Kick Ass) definitely captured my attention.

It also doesn't hurt that Daniel Craig is quite easy on the eyes, but I do wonder if they couldn't have come up with something a little more adventurous than a cross-dressing James Bond? I found Keira Knightley's PSA for Women's Aid much more compelling.

This was created for International Women's Day. You can find more information over at Equals?

Thanks to The Film Experience Blog for the heads up.

2011 French Film Festival

You've got to admire the French love of cinema. It’s like a national sport, and their support for local fare is something that sorely needs translating to these shores. So it’s really no surprise that the Alliance Française is serving up another enviable cinematic celebration for its 22nd year.

For the big draw cards in 2011, you can’t go past the festival’s Opening Night film Potiche. Directed by national treasure François Ozon (Eight Women) and starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu in a crowd pleasing comedy about a forgotten housewife forced to step up and run her husband’s company. Crowds will also flock to see Olivier Assayas’ (Summer Hours) critically acclaimed Carlos (Carlos, Le Chacal), which chronicles the twenty-year career of international terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (played by Edgar Ramirez). Originally released as a five-and-a-half hour miniseries, this edited theatrical version may lack the exhaustive detail of its television counterpart, but the chance to see this masterpiece on the big screen should not be missed.

Similarly sought after is Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux), Marion Cotillard in Little White Lies (Les Petits mouchoirs), the equally delightful Audrey Tautou in Beautiful Lies (De vrais mensonges) and Francophile Kristin Scott Thomas in Love Crime (Crime d’Amour).

For some lesser known film recommendations, festival goers should keep an eye out for Clotide Hesme’s beautifully calibrated performance as a newly paroled young mother in Angèle and Tony. Hesme is coming to Australia to attend a series of Q&A screenings, one of which should definitely be on your to-do list. So too should a session of actor/director Mathieu Amalric’s (The Diving Bell and The Butterfly) superb portrait of burlesque in On Tour (Tournée).

If boys on tour are more your thing then check out the gorgeous selection on offer in Christopher Thompson’s rocking debut Bus Palladium. This film might include every wannabe rock band cliché in the playbook, but it does it with oh so much style and a scorching soundtrack. Another cracking debut comes in the form of Géraldine Nakache and Hervé Mimran’s witty love letter to best friends in All That Glitters (Tout ce qui brille). Nakache also co-stars as one half of a BFF-duo who come unstuck when their fervent attempts at Parisian social mobility prove polarising.

A second fractious friendship is brought to the screen in the François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard documentary Two in the Wave (Deux de la vague), surely a must see for all cinephiles. Documentary fans might also want to check out Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud’s spellbinding Océans, which ventures into the deep blue to cast an eye over the extent of human impact, as well as simply to swim with the fishes.

As with years gone by, audiences are truly spoiled for choice when it comes to the French Film Festival. May these suggestions help you on your way to finding something new to love about French cinema. Bon voyage!

* The French Film Festival is in Sydney from March 8-27, screening at the Palace Verona, Palace Norton Street, Chauvel Cinema and Cremorne Orpheum. Click HERE for the details for other states. 

Published in Concrete Playground


Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Here's another wonderful Passenger music video by the crafty Mark Carlton.
Featuring the singular Lior, Rivers is a disarmingly addictive track from Passenger's latest album Flight of the Crow.

Mike Rosenberg (aka Passenger) has just wrapped an Australian tour with Old Man River, but ever the indefatigable muso, he'll be back on the road at the end of April to perform with a full band. Click HERE for details.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Feature: WOW Film Festival


International Women’s Day just got a whole lot more fun. Not only do women across the globe get to high five each other and officially revel in their collective awesomeness (though this should really happen every day), but now it's also joined by the WOW Film Festival. In its 17th year, the World of Women’s Cinema Film Festival is like many teens: undergoing a radical make over. And it’s one which the festival’s delightful director Ms. Sil-Nyin Cameron is eager to reveal.

“Traditionally we’ve had [WOW] in October, but we’ve decided that it would be fantastic to reposition the festival to mark International Women’s Day,” Ms. Cameron explains, further highlighting that the auspicious change comes in time to mark the event’s centenary on March 8th. The festival is also pinning its hopes on a change of venue; moving from Paddington’s Chauvel Cinema to the Dendy Opera Quays in an effort to capture more public attention. Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director Oscar win aside, Cameron sees female filmmakers fighting an uphill battle.

“There has been a stereotype of what is a woman’s film. A lot of men say, ‘Oh I don’t want to go because it’s a woman’s film,’ but what is a ‘woman’s film’? The implication is that it’s something that’s not going to be interesting or fun or funky or entertaining. We want to dispel that myth and stereotype.”

Whittling down over 300 short film entries to the festivals final 44, Cameron is keen to stress the wide variety on offer. Joining the raft of “fun and funky,” shorts is actress Alyssa McClelland’s (Surviving Georgia) on and off screen efforts in the delightfully awkward first date fable of Emilia Eckle. Colourfully shot and featuring the special powers of a Magic 8 Ball, McClelland hits her marks impressively well (pun intended – once you’ve seen the film).

Also screening is Tropfest finalist Matilda Brown’s (Underbelly) karmic comedy How God Works, which is as wry as it is wonderfully shot. Darkly humourous too is Brooke Trezise’s film noir meets The Matrix spoof, Wendy Vs Helvetica. This year’s Tropfest Best Actress winner Kate Worsley is a captivatingly comic femme fatale in this cheeky take on typography.

Striking a similarly irreverent, if slightly more somber tone, is the UK’s Deborah Haywood with Sis. This impeccably crafted portrait of two young girls’ shenanigans on a council estate is both super cute and surprisingly creepy. And further down the disturbing scale is Qing Xie’s award winning Red Water Red, which tramples the boundaries of intimacy between a father and daughter with provocative results.

Documentary shorts also feature in this year’s festival, with Katie Mitchell’s remarkable This is How You’ll Make Your Bed in Prison sharing the vital tale of prisoner turned PhD candidate Vickie Lee Roach’s High Court fight to reclaim her voting rights. Aptly screening at Parliament House is Dancing with the Prime Minister, which chronicles the first Aboriginal debutant ball. Cameron also makes special mention of French documentary Silence = Death, which shines the spotlight on the little discussed issue of HIV affected women.

“I hope [festivalgoers will] take away the knowledge that there’s diversity in films with key creative input by women, and that they’re high quality, enjoyable, stimulating and challenging films.”

Published by Street Press Australia (pg. 61)
WOW Film Festival runs March 8-10 before going on tour. See the website for more details.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

As far as boy-meets-girl films go, this one is a keeper. Not only does this film tart up the rather tired romance genre with an inspired thriller twist, but the chemistry between leads Matt Damon and Emily Blunt is downright electrifying. Add to mix a Phillip K. Dick adapted story which conspires to allow them to ‘meet cute’ on multiple occasions, and The Adjustment Bureau might just be the perfect date movie.

Writer George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum, Oceans 12) makes a confident directorial debut with his main man Damon playing feisty up-and-coming politician David Norris, who is set to shake up the US Senate if he stops sabotaging himself with youthful antics. On election night, David is mesmerised by the beautiful dancer Elise (Blunt), but ‘the powers that be’ – literally - get in the way to keep David on track. In a marvellous advertisement for Moleskines, David’s fate is mapped out in a notebook and monitored by a band of mysterious, besuited men who all sport fedoras like they’ve stepped out of a film noir.

Fans of The Matrix or Alex Proyas’ superb neo-noir Dark City will be in familiar (if watered down) territory here, as David discovers the truth behind his ‘fate’ and is then forced to fight for his own free will. Damon is very well cast, with his effortless likeability and everyman quality, as well as the commanding presence necessary to carry the film. Blunt is given decidedly less to do; barring one lovely dance sequence, she is fairly firmly relegated to the sidelines, though sheer force of will sees her manage to make Elise three dimensional in spite of the annoyingly passive writing. Mad Men’s John Slattery steps smoothly into his fedora-wearing role alongside a believably conflicted Anthony Mackie, while Terence Stamp is another piece of genius casting, playing fate’s ominous enforcer.

Great actors, an engaging, brain bending story and a series of clever chase sequences through New York City all point to the bright cinematic future of The Adjustment Bureau. However much like David’s plan, this all goes terribly off course during the film’s dénouement, when Nolfi decides to slather on his moral message so thickly it’s almost suffocating. This atrociously trite conclusion threatens to ruin the entire film, but perhaps if we can just get a hold of the right Moleskine, we can make some adjustments, and it’ll be like that ending never happened…

Published on Concrete Playground
Australian release date: 3 March 2011

Friday, March 4, 2011

Protest Screening: Offside

Film fans, it's time to get up in arms. Last year celebrated Iranian film director Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, The Circle) and fellow filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who were sentenced to six-years in jail for making films that threatened the Iranian regime, and who have been banned for a further twenty years from leaving Iran, making films or talking to the press.

This unconscionable imprisonment has been condemned by Hollywood heavyweights such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Sean Penn, Robert Redford, Oliver Stone, Terrence Malick and the Coen Brothers, with Paul Haggis heading up an online petition via Amnesty International.

Now the Australian film community is doing their bit, with Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne film festivals joining forces for the first time to host fundraising screenings of Panahi's remarkable football dramatic comedy Offside. Audaciously shot during Iran's 2005 World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain, Offside follows various women as they dress as men in an attempt to circumvent their enforced exclusion from the stadium. Charming, funny and intelligent, Offside is the perfect introduction to Panahi's filmography; the future of which we all need to fight for.

Sydney: 2.00pm Saturday March 5, 2.00pm Dendy Opera Quays Cinema Tickets available at the door
Adelaide: 6pm Saturday March 5, Palace Nova East End Cinemas (Cinema 9) Bookings telephone: 08 8223 2161
Melbourne: 7.15pm, Sunday March 6 2011 ACMI Cinemas, Federation Square, Melbourne

 Published on Concrete Playground

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Australian Film Festival

Riding high on our Oscar wins, it’s time to continue the celebrations, festival style. The Australian Film Festival will revel in its terrible twos over twelve days of films and frivolities, where seminars, food and even some squares of concrete vie for your attention with the silver screen. Making the Australian Film Walk of Fame this year are the beloved Jack Thompson and Gary Sweet, who star in James F. Khehtie poignant portrait of the World War II homefront, The Telegram Man. This will screen as part of the Australian Short Film Competition on the festival’s closing night.

Other stars set to shine during the festival include Isabel Lucas (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), who returns from Tinseltown with not one but two local productions: opening night honours with The Wedding Party and the tale of a small town brass band in A Heartbeat Away. True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten has also ventured home to co-star with the delightful Maeve Dermody (Beautiful Kate) in the utterly charming superhero fable Griff the Invisible. Another Australian abroad success story, Michael Rowe, has sent back his compelling Camera d’Or winning debut feature Ano Bisiesto (Leap Year) to screen at the festival, while Underbelly alums Gyton Grantley and Damian Walshe-Howling take to the seas in the terrifying true story The Reef.

Other highlights include a Jack Thompson lead walk down memory lane with the Popcorn Taxi screening of The Sum of Us. This blue-collar father and son tale features a fresh-faced Russell Crowe, and is well worth a look or a revisit. Another film due a replay is Pixar’s superb Finding Nemo, which will screen for free this Saturday (March 5th) down at Clovelly beach. The Australian Film Festival is packed with plenty more besides, so check out the website and order up a serving of patriotism along with your popcorn.

The Australian Film Festival runs from March 2 - March 13 
Published on Concrete Playground

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Way Back

It’s been a long time between drinks for one of Australia’s most prized directors, Peter Weir, and now we can see why. Returning from the treacherous seas of 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Weir has gone to the opposite extreme, well and truly losing his sea legs in favour of a harrowing 10,000 kilometre trek from Siberia to India. Beginning with Slavomir Rawicz’s 1956 ‘memoir’ The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom (the quotation marks necessary after a BBC documentary discredited Rawicz’s account as a fabrication, or at least borrowed from the experiences of other soldiers), Weir and his team undertook their own meticulous research to find the evidence of at least four Polish soldiers escaped from a Siberian Gulag and walked the staggering distance across the steppes of Mongolia, China’s Gobi Desert and across the Himalayas to the safety of British India. It’s a feat that truly boggles the mind, but one brought compassionately and incisively to the screen by Weir and his ensemble cast including Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan.

Sturgess provides the heart of the story as Janusz, a Polish officer condemned to the gulag during the Reign of Terror after his wife is tortured into giving evidence against him. There he meets taciturn American engineer Mr. Smith (Harris), and find himself hatching an escape plan with an eccentric Russian actor Khabarov (Mark Strong). But it is Smith and Janusz who eventually escape, joined by four fellow Poles and one terrifying tattooed thug Valka (Farrell). Each has his own reasons for risking almost certain death to attempt this superhuman feat, though it isn’t until they come upon Irena (Ronan), a young stray, that the men start to bare their souls.

The Way Back succeeds as both an impossibly detailed chronicle and a stunning tribute to the audacity of hope and the tenacity of the human spirit. The actors are all utterly committed, while the location scouts and cinematographer certainly earned their keep, with the beauty of the various vistas matched only by their implicit dangers. And yet in distilling the human condition down to the essence of escape and survival, Weir’s screenplay has a little too much fat to it. Would he have made The Way Back an even leaner, sparser film and trusted his actors’ impressively physical performances to tell the story rather than fall back on the many overwritten, exposition heavy, scenes. This is however a relatively minor quibble in the magnificent scope of the entire production. The Way Back is a beautifully hewn, honest and courageous film. It’s Man Vs. Wild, for real.

Published on Concrete Playground
Australian release date: 24 February 2011

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Rabbit Hole

Watching a couple mourning the death of their son was never going to be happy fun times in the cinema. For that reason many may avoid venturing down the Rabbit Hole, but for those willing to do so, you are rewarded with a truly exquisite film. Exquisitely raw and painful, sure, but also richly humane and deeply cathartic, for David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer and Tony award winning play is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Lindsay-Abaire adapted his own work, with director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus) bringing to the screen the story of Becca and Howie Corbett (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart), a once golden couple who are still reeling from the death of their son eight months before. In frustrated fits and starts they attempt to reassemble their fractured existence, but this is increasingly occurring in isolation from each other. Becca finds a certain solace meeting Jason (Miles Teller), the teenage driver responsible for the accident that killed her son, while for Howie, it’s Gaby (Sandra Oh), a veteran from group therapy, who provides the kind of emotional — and chemical — support he needs.

This all sounds terribly earnest and dour, but the real genius of Lindsay-Abaire’s writing is that it’s laced with the most gloriously dark humour. Becca in particular makes use of a biting sarcasm, which is directed at everyone from other couples in group therapy, to her mother (Dianne Wiest) whose loving overtures are brutally, and comically, shut down. Kidman is simply sublime in this Oscar nominated role; able to evoke the abyss of pain alongside the scathing humour with such and impressively light touch. This is master class acting, and she’s well supported by an emotionally bare Eckhart and the no-nonsense compassion of Wiest. But it is Teller who surprises the most in a beautifully calibrated and honest feature debut. The scenes he shares with Kidman take the film to a whole new level, though all are pitch perfectly directed by Cameron Mitchell.

People in pain are not unlike newborn children, wailing and railing about as they try to get their legs back under them. But what Rabbit Hole so powerfully portrays is that in amongst this desperate keening, there is a wealth of humour to be found. And eventually, a glimmer of grace.

Published on Concrete Playground
Australian release date: 17 February 2011

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