Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Cover Girl

Check it out, my first cover story (and with Kristen Stewart no less)!

You can read the digital version HERE, and I'll post the story on the blog next week.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Blog Birthday!

Why thanks, Marilyn, you shouldn't have!

Yes, today marks the two year anniversary of The Plot Thickens, so although it is America's Independence Day (something I can't type without thinking of Bill Pullman's speech), I'll beg your forgiveness for a little self-indulgence.

Looking back at what I wrote last year, I'm amazed to see how this past twelve months has unfolded. The blog has essentially turned into an archive of my published writing, which has evolved from film reviews to include all manner of features and interviews. Some great chats have been had with the likes of Gillian Armstrong, Scott Hicks, Brendan Cowell, Michael Hoffman and Philippe Lioret as well as some wonderful discoveries such as Spencer Susser, David Michôd, Russell Peters (no I really didn't know who he was) and Reuben Field.

Then to top all of that (quite a feat indeed) I wound up winning the Slate Culture Gabfest conversion contest and recording an endorsement with the fabulous hosts (I'm still seeing stars), before being invited back by (pick your superlative) Dana Stevens to record a Slate Spoiler Special. It was utterly, insanely amazing to get the chance to speak with the Gabfesters, who all have brains and ideas that I deeply admire, and vocabularies I covet.

I also won an award from the Australian Film Critics Association. Eeeee!

So, my twos weren't so terrible after all! Quite the opposite in fact. Thanks to all who stop by this humble site and for all your wonderful comments here and in the Twitterverse.

Virtual group hug!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Interview: George Sampson (StreetDance 3D)

Dance may have been part of cinema since its very inception, but now it’s in 3D. What’s more, the Brits have beaten Hollywood to the punch, pitting ballerinas against street dancers on the cobbled lanes of London. Well, not quite. Co-star George Sampson elucidates the finer points of street dance and the irony that the whole film revolves around finding a proper rehearsal space.

“There was no street part to it! he exclaims. "I mean there was for me, I started in the street when I used to busk, and I was the only one doing it.”

“You can do it anywhere but it is important to get rehearsal down because everyone wants to be the best crew, [and] to be that you need a rehearsal space with mirrors and you all need to be in synch, make sure it’s looking the best it can, or flawless. And the best place to practice is a big rehearsal space similar to the one in the film.”

Sampson would know, the 16-year-old has been dancing since he was 6, busked for two years (“When I was a kid.”) and won Britain’s Got Talent at the tender age of 14. “My Mum worked a lot and so a lot of days she put us into singing camps and different performing arts camps,” he says, “and I got used to that being a natural hobby: singing, dancing and acting. I think my dancing was always a bit further ahead of everything and people spotted me and said, ‘you were born to dance.’”

After his reality show win, Sampson brought out a DVD, Get Up On The Dance Floor/Headz Up ("It was a biographical music album, it had about four or five songs on it and an interview and a day in the life.") directed by Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini, who then created a character for him in StreetDance 3D. As Eddie, the cheeky coworker desperate to join Carly’s (Nichola Burley) crew, Sampson ends up sharing a few scenes with the trailblazing head of the ballet school, played by the divine Charlotte Rampling.

“She was amazing,” he says. “She was just a nice person to get along with; she’s just one of them people, she knows she can act, she’s there to just do her thing and make new friends. She was a very inspiring person to work with.”

Having such a consummate actor grounding the film, Sampson and his costars are freed up to do what they do best, dance. And Eddie even gets a solo in the film’s climactic event.

“That was the best bit! Because that’s what I’m used to, a big strong audience. Going from just being a busker on the street with a big crowd, then going to live shows then Britain’s Got Talent was kind of my first camera event, but even then they had a live audience so I’d never not danced in front of a live crowd before. So that for me was the best bit because I knew that’s what I bounce off, that’s what makes me best.”

On set, the film’s dancers made for an energetic shoot, “It flew by, absolutely flew by!” he says. “I guess it’s hard because you have to keep doing things over and over again, but I think with other dancers there, the adrenaline of the day, [and] they had a live crowd to help out, it was very good.”

One of the most striking elements of street dance is its theatricality and iconography, with crews all kitted out in identical label clothing and dancing under specially designed logos. “It’s a showcase,” Sampson says. “If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it properly. Your clothing, you all have to match what you’re doing. If people came on in their everyday clothes and started dancing you’d just think, ‘well, do they even know each other?’ Whereas if five guys walk on and they’ve all got the same hats on, they’ve all got the same thing, you can tell they’ve rehearsed this and they’ve gone to extra lengths to make this real for everyone. So I think you get more street cred for what you wear.”

Sampson now has his own crew, “Access 2 All Areas, there are four or five of us and I love it.” And he takes his training very seriously: “It’s deadly important. You always need to be improving; once people have seen you, they’ve seen every move you can do and the only way to show them something a bit better than you were last time is to do something new. And to do something new you’re going to have to train a hell of a lot.” He describes street dance is an amalgam, “You could easily fit about thirty styles around street dance. I guess I’ve got seven or eight mastered, and I do more, but I’ve got seven or eight locked down.”

“I’m proficient in street dance as a typical routine: quick, get in there, get your message across kind of dance form. Then break dance, which is all your head spinning, your flips, the gymnastics, which is obviously more flips, popping, locking, which is kind of waving, but there are so many!”

Indeed StreetDance 3D pivots around this eclectic mix of styles compared with the more straight laced classical ballerinas, but Sampson thinks everyone can get along.

“There’s a competitive little thing to it because ballet dancers think their dance should be the more stereotypical kind of dance to learn, and street dancers are very [motivated by] street cred and are very rebellious to that. But people will see that they can do it together.”

As a rising star on the UK dance scene, Sampson is abundantly enthusiastic about being part of the first ever 3D dance film.

“I think it’s going to add life,” he concludes, “You can watch a film and you know it’s a film [but] I think dance is such an interactive kind of sport, where people want to see it live, they want to see a backflip in their face and I think the best way to get that across is obviously in 3D. I think it can only add to the tension of the dance.”

Published by Street Press Australia
Streetdance 3D Australian release date: 27 May 2010

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes

This Argentinean gem comes to Australia with a modicum of celebrity, having won the Best Foreign Film Oscar over such favourites as The White Ribbon and A Prophet. And while this makes for an interesting post-cinema debate, so does the film itself, for writer/director Juan José Campanella presents Eduardo Sacheri's novel as an enticing, gorgeously rendered memory, one that lingers long after the credits roll.

The story oscillates between 1999 and 1974, as retired criminal court investigator Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darín) looks back over his career in an attempt to novelise the case that effectively ruined it all. Seeking counsel from his former colleague and unrequited love, Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil), the two stir up some sleeping dogs as they piece together their memories of a hideous rape/murder case that they never once discussed in the intervening 25 years. Darín and Villamil compellingly straddle the two eras, filling in the decades with more than just good make up, while cinematographer Félix Monti conjures a stunningly subjective atmosphere with his evocative framing and focus. Indeed, Monti’s superlative photography in a football stadium scene is alone worthy of its own review.

Though the titular metaphor becomes a bit laboured at times, The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) has such emotional and visual depth that it's nigh impossible not to get swept up in Esposito's epic tale. Dryly humourous, impossibly tense and achingly ardent in turn, Campanella's journey down memory lane makes for unforgettable cinema.

Published on Concrete Playground

Australian release date: 27 May 2010

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The End of the Line

It’s tricky to review Rupert Murray’s excellent fishing documentary without spilling forth with a litany of alarming and potentially alienating statistics; so let’s just focus on one: global fishing will grind to a halt come 2048. That’s right, in our lifetime we will have devastated the world’s fish population to the extent that there will be no more seafood left to feast on. You’d better savor your sushi while you can.

Or actually, don’t. The very aim of Murray’s documentary is to create awareness and change consumer culture towards seafood. It’s all well and good to top up your Omega 3 levels, but not uninformed purchases that encourage the ruinous overfishing and the extinction of species. Take bluefin tuna for example, it is as endangered as the orangutan and yet still a popular fish to order in restaurants and is prized by celebrity chefs. The tenuous fate of the bluefin tuna is just one species that struck British journalist Charles Clover, who set about researching the staggering levels of overfishing and wrote the book upon which this documentary is based.

Following Clover’s lead, Murray spent two years travelling the globe capturing the stories from Gibraltar and Senegal to Alaska. Narrated by Ted Danson, the documentary is a compelling patchwork of fascinating (and yes, alarming) truths from across the socio-economic spectrum, from a poor Senegalese fisherman to the purchasing prowess of motor giant Mitsubishi. And though little time is given to naysayers (there a those who dispute the 2048 estimate), it’s impossible not to be affected by the awesome shortsightedness of the global fisheries industry and the governmental departments who have been entrusted to protect our oceans.

Here the documentary shares some common ground with the Oscar winning The Cove. Though The End of the Line lacks the high tech, singular focus and the cuddly main character (the dolphin), both press their points about the need for change at a political as well as a consumer level. And Japan once again comes under the microscope for their fishing practices alongside other frightening examples of the willful blindness of nations; all resulting in catastrophic consequences for the world’s sea life.

So what can be done? Mercifully, The End of the Line gives time to some happier statistics, citing marine reservations and sustainable fishing areas that provide positive examples of ways forward. But the most tangible first step is surely to overcome our ignorant assumptions about the sea; as Danson intones in his opening narration, “Our view of the sea has always been that it is huge, beautiful and inexhaustible.” And it is our erroneous belief in that final adjective that The End of the Line can immediately alter.

Published by Street Press Australia

Australian release date: 13 May 2010

Click here to read my interview with Rupert Murray.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Robin Hood

Perhaps Ridley Scott has become a little origins obsessed. With not one but two Alien
prequels on the cards, it’s not too long a bow to draw to see the director looking to give the mythologised man in tights the same treatment. Reteaming with his mainman Russell Crowe, fans may have been hoping for Gladiator 2, but instead the duo serve up an entertaining, though ultimately unimpressive portrait of Robin Longstride, before he came the legend of Sherwood Forest.

While there is a modicum of robbing from the rich to give to the poor, the film is more reminiscent of The Return of Martin Guerre (or the saccharine remake Sommersby), where a man returns from war to assume the place of his fallen comrade. Layered on top is a dense political history of the dastardly King John (Oscar Isaac) and the first rumblings of the Magna Carta. Like Scott’s earlier crusade epic Kingdom of Heaven, the result is a rather muddled account, that one imagines will be properly elucidated upon the release of a much more detailed director’s cut.

Indeed the film suffers from a lack of depth and nuance. There can be no real stakes when Robin Hood is characterised as an omnipotent hero – albeit it one with father issues – and the stellar supporting cast (Mark Strong, William Hurt) are relegated to the sidelines. And despite the inspired pairing of Crowe and Cate Blanchett, neither actor, nor Scott himself, escapes from the shadows of their previous epic successes.

Published by Street Press Australia

Australian release date: 13 May 2010

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Harry Brown

There is something odious about Harry Brown
. No, it’s not that musty old man smell (that surely doesn’t afflict the likes of Sir Michael Caine), it’s the stench of scandalous sensationalism. For that’s what director Daniel Barber serves up, couched in a Grand Torino style senior citizen revenge tale. But where the Clint Eastwood vehicle actually crafted a socio-economic, cross-cultural dilemma with regards to the film’s antagonists (albeit a rather questionable one), the council estate kids Caine’s eponymous ‘hero’ ruthlessly dispatches are characterised as nothing more than frenzied animals.

The abject amorality as well as the horrific violence of Harry Brown is actually quite stomach churning. From the film’s opening, senseless murder to Caine’s supposedly justified rampage, the spurting blood and pumping music is the utterly unnecessary result of video game violence brought to vicious life. Any supposed thrills that are meant to be enjoyed at the sight of Caine knocking heads and dealing justice (which, to be fair, he does with aplomb) are completely stymied by the heinous stance of the film which in no way problematises or humanises the realities of the council estate gangs. Instead they are mere cannon fodder for Barber and screenwriter Gary Young’s misanthropic and bloody fantasies, with Emily Mortimer’s thoughtful police detective thrown in for a bit of climactic feminine distress.

Barber and cinematographer Martin Ruhe (Control) are clearly skilled at bringing a stylish, well paced and atmospheric thriller to life. If only they hadn’t so thoroughly undercut themselves with such an offensive storyline.

Published by Street Press Australia

Australian release date: 20 May 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

Interview: Russell Peters

Midnight might seem like a rather antisocial time for an interview, but Russell Peters isn’t fazed in the least. Speaking from a rowdy bar in Boston, the stand up comedian is winding down from another night on his Green Card Tour. The world famous 39 year old Canadian comic is blatantly letting it be known that he’s on the hunt for the holy grail of American residency, “The name is to celebrate the fact that hopefully I’ll get my green card in America this year,” he says, “So I’m going to get my green card in America then I’m bringing [the tour] worldwide. It’s kind of like, “hey you can stay!” “Ok, now I’m going to go.”

Toying with Americans is at the heart of Peter’s comedy. “Wherever you go in the world, you can take it to the Americans,” he scoffs. “Safest target in the world when looking for a victim.”

The funny thing about my comedy is that I talk about all these other places and other countries and other cultures, and I think the world bases it around [the idea that] America is the insider and the rest of the entire world are the outsiders. So it’s kind of like the rest of the world is in on the joke that America is not in on.”

But some Americans must be getting the joke, because Peters has sold out Madison Square Garden as well as coming in at number nine on the Forbes list of top-selling comedians. Though he still thinks his North American neighbours have a hard time laughing at themselves. “I think they fail to see the irony,” he says, “I don’t think they really know how to address [comedy] properly, there’s no tongue-in-cheek about it. It’s very blatant, so once they get some sort of subtly involved, it will work out better for them.”

And while Peters foresees no such problems for his upcoming tour of Australia and New Zealand, he does consider the Antipodean rivalry as analogous to that of North America. “Australia would be the America and New Zealand would be the Canada and since I’m from the Canada originally, I would have to say I’m somewhat leaning towards the plight of the Kiwi.”

“At the end of the day both countries are outsiders, so I would say Australia, New Zealand and Canada, we’re all outsiders so think we all get it the same way, so it works out well.”

Kiwis and Aussies have had to bide their time for Peters’ Green Card Tour, which was postponed due to his appearance in Duncan Jones’ upcoming film Source Code. “I’m the comedic relief in this sci-fi thriller,” Peters says of working with, “good old little Duncan Jones and young Jake Gyllenhaal.” “The movie takes place on a train and I play one of the passengers on the train. And if I told you anymore I would give away the film!”

Peters is more revealing about Jones’ debut film, Moon; specifically the fact that it confused him. “I was like, ‘Duncan, I bought Moon and I didn’t really get it, so can you explain it?’ he says, “[and] he did. The real Sam Rockwell was on earth. I wasn’t sure which one was the real one! I’m not that bright.”

Peters is keen to continue acting, putting the hard word on his agent during the interview. “My agent is actually sitting across from me and I keep hounding him, like ‘hey, what about this movie? Get me in this movie!’ And he’s like [sounding like a 1940s film director], ‘I’m going to get you the world, kid. You’re going to be a star, see!’”

“I keep staring at him – awkwardly, because he’s half Italian, so he can halfway do something and the other half can plough the wheat fields.”

For now though, Peters is happy touring and is quick to point out that his rather ribald style easily translates across cultures. “We live in a global community now where with the internet everybody understands things a certain way now. So everybody knows a lot more about the rest of the world than they once did,” he says. “I think the people who understand it appreciate that opposed to pointing out the differences, I’m actually pointing out the similarities.”

Indeed Peters is indebted to the Internet.

I think that’s what made me somewhat of a – I hate to use the term – worldwide phenomenon,” he says. “I used to go to these places before – not all of them but a lot of them – and it was based on me performing out of England, and to expats mostly. Whereas now we’re in a different situation, where it’s not just expats it’s mostly locals from other countries, because the locals are hip to a lot of stuff that they would never have been hip to before. Thanks to the YouTube generation.”

There is no doubting Peters is a ‘worldwide phenomenon,’ one who holds the UK record for largest attendance at a single performance (16,500) and who performs in stadia throughout the world. It seems like a tall order for someone who doesn’t take notes. “I don’t ever physically write down anything,” he says of his creative process. “I just get on stage and I start skitting from scratch until I piece together a bunch of ideas that I really like, and they flow and they sit together and then it becomes the new act. And then once I record it and once I release it on DVD, I trash it, I throw it away and I never remember it again.”

“I’m sorta like the Jay-Z of comedy.”

While he remembers it, the Green Card Tour will be the culmination of a year’s work crystalised into an hour and forty-five minutes of banter, accents and wry cultural insight. Though an Anglo-Indian, Peters doesn’t focus on the fish out of water experience, “rather than dealing with how the immigrants are trying to fit in in a Western world, I [look] more how they’re actually doing back home.”

Peters may soon have a new place to call home, if he gets his green card that is. “I just have to wait for the interview,” he concludes. “But my brother who is also my manager is somehow trying to Bogart my interview.”

Published by Street Press Australia

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Spanish Film Festival: Leo's Room (El cuarto de Leo)

Originally published on the Spanish Film Festival blog

Coming to terms with yourself and your sexuality is compassionately and affectionately portrayed in Leo’s Room. Director Enrique Buchichio tells a relatively familiar tale of the eponymous Leo (Martín Rodríguez) passively drifting through life and relationships until he meets an old school friend Caro (Cecilia Cósero) and starts to take stock. He starts seeing a therapist (Arturo Goetz) and also makes a few furtive attempts to meet men over the Internet. But it’s real connection rather than fleeting sex that Leo is looking for and so after a few false starts he chances upon the lovely Seba (Gerardo Begérez).

The delight of this film is its ensemble. Though Leo is entirely wound up in himself and his decision to come out (the titular room being a wry expansion of the closet), Buchichio fills Leo’s life with all manner of intriguing characters. Caro is deeply depressed and Leo’s perpetually stoned landlord and flat mate Felipe (Rafael Soliwoda) is seemingly oblivious to everything, including his tenant’s series of nighttime visitors. But as Leo begins to embrace his true nature, his heart is opened up to those around him. It’s touching and affectingly conveyed, with the big eyed beauty Rodríguez carrying the audience through his character’s journey with a confident and sympathetic performance.

Leo’s Room is a simple story well told. It’s wonderful to spend some time in Montevideo with such a personal yet universal story of love and acceptance.

Click here to see the trailer and festival screening times.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Soul Kitchen

Fatih Akin serves up some schnitzel, love and laughs in his ensemble comedy Soul Kitchen
. The titular restaurant is owned by one Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos), a longhaired Greek-German, who ekes out a living deep-frying food for a handful of regular customers. When his (inexplicably) glamorous girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) takes a reporting job in Shanghai, Zinos pines, before deciding to find the money to join her. Between recruiting a fiery new chef, Shayn (Birol Ünel), reluctantly employing his soon to be ex-crim brother Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu) and being confronted by an old school mate (Wotan Wilke Möhring) intent on scamming the property out from under him, Zinos gets hit with a herniated disk and suddenly Shanghai is out of reach.

What Akin cooks up here is referred to as a Heimatfilm (homeland-film) a popular Germanic genre from the 1950s that saw friends, family and lovers in bucolic settings getting up to all sorts of studied sentimentalism. By relocating the action to a grimy rundown restaurant (literally on the wrong side of the tracks), in the director’s hometown of Hamburg, Akin is clearly enjoying tinkering with convention. The same goes for the film’s free flowing drugs, sex and alcohol, which sit somewhat uneasily in a mishmash of stories about relationships, ambition and redemption.

Soul Kitchen succeeds is its clear sense of place and affection for its characters. Like the location, Zinos’ bad back is an autobiographical addition from Akin, which is probably why it’s drawn with such (painfully) wry humour. Similarly, the film is driven by music; “Music is the food of the soul,” Zinos intones, an association stemming from Akin’s critically acclaimed film Head-On (Gegen die Wand). But on such assured ground, it’s curious the director wasn’t able to bring more consistency to the film.

Instead Soul Kitchen strays into farce, with and a debauched farewell party and a gate crashed funeral requiring Bousdoukos and Bleibtreu to ham it up for the camera. But with the next breath, Akin is asking the audience to care about Illias’ precarious parole status and the blossoming love between Zinos and his physiotherapist (Dorka Gryllus). It’s just as well Bousdoukos and particularly Bleibtreu are likeable enough to carry a film that seems determined to have its cake and eat it too.

Despite this muddled screenplay Soul Kitchen is helped along by a groovy soundtrack and some spry cinematography. Akin also refuses to let the film take itself too seriously; an audience would be wise to take his raunchy, slapstick attempt at a Heimatfilm with a generous grain of salt.

Published by Street Press Australia

Australian release date: 6 May 2010

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Message Sticks International Film Festival

Blackfella Films directors Rachel Perkins and Darren Dale are once again taking over the Opera House for a long weekend of Indigenous film celebrations. Now in its 11th year, Message Sticks Indigenous Film Festival uses this spectacular setting to showcase the latest cinematic works from Indigenous filmmakers across documentary, short and feature productions.

Among the 13 films screening, recent AFTRS graduate Adrian Wills will open the festival with two of his productions, the documentary Boxing for Palm Island and his short film Daniel’s 21st. The festival will also host the Australian premiere of Canadian Neil Diamond’s Reel Injun, which tracks the conceptions and portrayals of Native Americans throughout cinematic history, as well as an array of local and international short films.

While Q&A sessions will accompany each film, the festival highlight may prove to be Ernie Dingo, who will be hosting a sing-along screening of Rachel Perkin’s recent musical hit Bran Nue Dae. This delightful feature stars Geoffrey Rush, Missy Higgins and Australian Idol winner Jessica Mauboy. Considering tickets are free, be sure get to the Opera House early so you don’t miss out on the fun.

For your diaries: Thursday 6th - Saturday 8th May

Published on Concrete Playground

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Spanish Film Festival

The Spanish are once again bringing their special brand of fiesta to Sydney this May. The 13th Spanish Film Festival has a programme brimming with over 40 films, many of which come with a glittering array of festival accolades, including the Oscar-nominated short animation The Lady and the Reaper, which will open the festival along with the crowd pleasing rom-com Friends Zone.

Other critically acclaimed films include Berlinale winners The Milk of Sorrow, Crab Trap and Gigante, as well as the Goya- (Spanish Academy Awards) winning animation The Missing Lynx. And closing the festival is Agora, this year’s favourite with six Goyas, by Oscar-winning director Alejandro Amenábar (The Sea Inside, The Others) and starring Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardner) as the Greek mathematician and philosopher Hypatia. Set in fourth century Alexandria, this historical epic tracks the revolutionary rise of religion and the political and social upheavals that portend centuries of Classical tradition.

Alongside these new releases from Spain and Latin America, the festival has programmed an exciting All By Women section, highlighting the achievements of contemporary female filmmakers. Included among this great selection is the winner of this year’s Goya for Best New Director, Mar Coll, with her debut feature, Three Days with the Family.

The festival is also shining the spotlight on director Fernando Trueba, who will be visiting Australia to conduct Q&A screenings of his new film The Dancer and the Thief. Audiences will also have the opportunity to catch up on his lauded films, including Oscar-winning Belle Epoque, the Civil War–set The Girl of Your Dreams and Trueba’s love letter to Latin jazz, 54th Street.

Documentaries, Julio Medem’s naked romp Room in Rome and a vibrant Viva La Musica section (including a Q&A screening with Sydney Dance Company artistic director Rafael Bonachela for Blank Canvas) are all vying for attention over a jam-packed 12 days. And keep an eye on the website for the special ‘best of the fest’, screening on a lucky 13th day!

For your diaries: Wednesday 5th - Monday 17th May (Sydney)

Published on Concrete Playground

And don't forget to check out the festival blog!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Beneath Hill 60

Beneath Hill 60 turns the historical spotlight on the Australian 1st Tunneling Company, a corps of civilian miners appropriated by the army to solve the treacherous and muddy stalemate in the infamous trenches of the Western Front. Lead by the affable engineer Oliver Woodward (Brendan Cowell), the miners quite literally took the war underground, digging a claustrophobic ‘caterpillar’ of tunnels up to thirty metres below the trench line. It was a dangerous and thankless task, with the men as marginalised by their contemporaries as they have been by history.

Director Jeremy Sims and screenwriter David Roach’s (Young Einstein) greatest achievement is the rescuing of this fascinating story from historical obscurity. Their story sticks squarely to the generic conventions, with a requisite motley crew of Aussie Diggers (portrayed by Gyton Grantley, Anthony Hayes, Steve Le Marquand, Warwick Young and Harrison Gilbertson) coming up against stuffy British officers (notably Chris Haywood and Leon Ford). Encouragingly, a couple of compassionately written German miners (Kenneth Spiteri and Marcus Costello) are introduced in the second act, as a cat-and-mouse game ramps up the tension. Less successful are the flashbacks to the Home Front before Woodward is pressured to enlist, which brings about the rushed courtship of the comely Marjorie Waddell (Bella Heathcote).

There’s no doubting this was a passion project for all involved. From the engineer Ross Thomas’ discovery of Woodward’s diary, to a sodden cast and crew near permanently caked in mud. However, on screen Sims faces an uphill battle to make mining look dynamic, and while the production design and Toby Oliver’s cinematography push for verisimilitude, there’s a crispness to the film that stops it short of feeling truly grimy. Similarly, the bombastic score seems to go overboard in an attempt to make up for the restricted visuals (or special effects budget), with the music distractingly cuing every plot twist.

Structurally, the film suffers from taking too long actually getting beneath Hill 60. So much time is given to the platoon’s formation and Woodward’s backstory that when Aden Young crops up in a scene-stealing cameo as a Canadian miner who assembled the underground bomb entrusted to the Australians, one wonders if the real set up has been overlooked. Yet Beneath Hill 60 resolutely captures the claustrophobia and the camaraderie of these forgotten diggers. Their devastating explosion reverberated from the trenches of Belgium all the way to London and Dublin, and now their captivating story can resonate with a new generation of Australians.


Published by Street Press Australia

Australian release date: 15 April 2010

Click here to see the trailer and here to read my feature interview with Cowell and Gilbertson.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Iron Man 2

Bigger isn’t always better; unless, of course, you’re Tony Stark. And taking the lead from their titular hero, director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) have crammed more explosions and stars into Iron Man 2 than is superhumanly possible. This suped-up sequel has an awful lot of fun gallivanting around with big guns and even bigger egos, as the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell and Don Cheadle join the party with Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Favreau himself.

The storyline follows on immediately from the first film, with Russian rival Ivan Vanko (Rourke) threatening Stark’s monopoly on privatised peace with his menacingly public display of iron man technology. Nursing a bruised ego on top of his already broken heart, Stark struggles to find a cure for his rising blood toxicity, alienating Pepper (Paltrow) and Rhodes (Cheadle) in the process. Meanwhile, a politically ambitious competitor, Justin Hammer (Rockwell), unites with Vanko to show Stark up at his own technology expo.

If all of that sounds like a lot to cram into two hours, then you’re absolutely right. After the relatively sedate origin story, Iron Man 2 cranks the dial up to 11, jumping around at an impressive click to work in the characters, and all but elbowing out the original cast in the process. Paltrow’s Pepper Pots may get bumped up to CEO of Stark Industries, but her role is woefully downgraded to mincing around in Louboutins and shrieking in distress. The sexually charged repartee between Pepper and Stark that invigorated the first film is barely present, though it is partially reassigned to Pepper’s replacement, the sultry provocateur Johnasson as the Black Widow.

With Downey Jr. getting a lot less screen time, Rockwell steps up to entertain, playing Hammer as a mealy-mouthed weasel who is abundantly generous with his fake tan. Rourke is suitably malevolent and Johansson impresses in her action scene, with Samuel L. Jackson on hand to deliver his trademark cheese. And for purists, Cheadle’s appropriation of Terrence Howard’s original role is reflexively dispatched in his opening line, “It’s me, I’m here. Deal with it. Move on”

As a sequel, Iron Man 2 delivers in scale, enthusiasm and a soundtrack of thumping base. Not all the amped up action works (the fight between Stark and Rhodes feels laboriously manufactured), but ultimately this is Robert Downey Jr.’s gig, and he effortlessly entertains as the narcissistic, nihilistic rascal you love to envy. The film’s standout scene is Stark’s opening senatorial address, where Downey Jr. sizzles in his character’s cocksure antics. If only Favreau had given us a bit more Stark to go with all that Iron Man.

Published on Concrete Playground

Australian release date: 29 April 2010

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Book of Eli

Denzel Washington chews the post-apocalyptic scenery in the Hughes brothers’ (From Hell
) gritty thriller The Book of Eli. Thirty years after a devastating war has razed America and ruined the atmosphere, Eli (Washington) walks west, a lone journeyman on a sacred mission. Violent vagrants and would be hijackers are dispatched with a ruthless efficiency as Eli steadfastly walks onward, impassive behind dark sunglasses.

That is until he stops at a ramshackle town to barter for goods, where he comes up against the local muscle and thus draws the attention of Carnegie (Gary Oldman) the town’s obsessive, imperialistic leader. Having sent out roving gangs of illiterate brutes to collect any and all books they come across, Carnegie’s malevolent interest is soon piqued by Eli erudition. Inviting Eli to be his guest for the evening, Carnegie sends in a spy in the form of courtesan Solara (Mila Kunis), who defies her master and escapes with Eli to join his solemn quest.

If this is starting to sound a lot like Mad Max meets Deadwood, then you’re not far off. The film almost revels in its references, with Eli’s shadowy sword fighting scenes given extra reflexivity when you consider the Hughes brothers have also set their sights on an adaptation of dystopic Japanese manga comic Akira. Similarly, cinematographer Don Burgess (Forrest Gump) delights in the film’s western roots; capturing the climactic gun battle in a remarkable, roving steadycam shot that tracks between the dueling parties with an extra-diegetic dynamism.

But if only as much precision had been put into the film’s script as its cinematography and crisp, sepia colour grading. These compelling visuals, and the undeniable screen presence of both Washington and Oldman are almost entirely wasted on Gary Whitta’s lackluster screenplay. Laborious and predictable, The Book of Eli suffers under the weight of its own attempted solemnity. Not even cameos by Michael Gambon, Tom Waits or Malcolm McDowell can revive a film so earnestly appealing to its worthiness.

It is especially unfortunate that this film comes so close on the heels of John Hillcoat’s assured adaptation of The Road, as the thematic sophistication of Cormac McCarthy’s writing puts Eli in violently sharp relief. Despite the fact that the apocalypse seems to be all the cinematic rage right now, The Book of Eli has little more than good looks to add to the discussion. And although these images play well on the silver screen, audiences would better off revisiting The Road, or Children of Men (with its superior steadycam shot) instead.

Published by Street Press Australia

Australian release date: 15 April 2010

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Interview: Jan Kounen (Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky)

The crowds at the Cannes Film Festival are notoriously vocal, but director Jan Kounen found a way to shut them up. Premiering his luscious Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky at last year’s closing night, Kounen was very aware that of the audience’s reputation: “Cannes is still a place where people can shout at your film. For example last year, Lars von Trier [left] his own screening [of Antichrist] because people were shouting.”

But in a reflexive twist, Coco & Igor opens with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring being shouted down by an incensed Parisian crowd. “So it’s a bit like showing the people who have shouted in the theatre that maybe they have shouted at what could be The Rite of Spring,” he says. “[After] the first scene, everyone was quiet, of course!”

Kounen can laugh now, but admits, “It was very stressful. Mads [Mikkelson] hadn’t seen the film completed and we were sitting and discovering the film [together] and I felt his hand [gripping my arm]. I [could also] understand how Igor Stravinsky felt in that moment. Any filmmaker, or any artist would know that feeling. It’s like you’re making the film or the ballet, and you’re alone with your creation and then you discover that a lot of people are going to see it. And they might not have the same taste as you!”

The director is also quite philosophical about the audience’s vocal response. “The problem is that sometimes you see a film, or you hear music or you read a book and you’re shocked or moved inside,” he says. “Instead of questioning this [feeling], you reject it immediately because you hate the feeling that the artistic piece provoked in you. But, maybe it’s interesting, because what was provoked in you is [an interesting way] to learn more about yourself, instead of reacting like an animal and immediately projecting back the feeling.”

Coco & Igor came hot on the heels of Audrey Tautou’s turn in Anne Fontaine’s Coco Avant Chanel. Kounen admits, “It was a race. They won the race,” but sees this shared interested as indicative of the era. “It’s the time period of biopics. Sometimes it’s westerns, sometimes it’s sci-fi movies, maybe soon it’ll be ecological sci-fi movies, but now biopics are the period. So everyone suddenly looked back in France and our main character is Coco Chanel.”

For all this interest, however, Kounen was initially ambivalent about going to the source. His lead actress, Anna Mouglalis has worked as the official muse of the Maison de Chanel, an honour Kounen has described as, “a major handicap...I’m not making a Chanel commercial. I’m not portraying the perfect Chanel. I was depicting a specific Chanel: successful, 40 years old, after the death of [her lover] Boy [Capel], a cold, manipulative dark queen in her castle. [But] as soon as I saw [Mouglalis] speaking and moving then I knew she was the character. I understood why Chanel took her, because it was in the collective unconscious that she was portraying the strength of Chanel, the elegance and the strength.”

Kounen is similarly expressive discussing what drew him to this story over his recent, “more rock ’n roll” action films. The director describes Coco & Igor as a “classical chamber piece” and a “personal challenge.”

“It’s an atypical film, [because] the big action scene is at the beginning. I come more from a kinetic, postmodern style of filming,” he says. “I’m more [about] filming the storm or the full sun, but this film is like the storm never explodes.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Met: Hamlet

It seems the New York Metropolitan Opera has caught wind of what those clever fellows over at the British National Theatre have been up to; they’ve launched their own live, high-definition screenings of productions for the delight of international audiences.

As with London, New York has too pesky a time difference for Sydneysiders to see the shows live, but instead you can while away an afternoon at the Chauvel, the Hayden Orpheum or the Dendy Opera Quays for Ambroise Thomas’s lauded adaptation of Hamlet. Inspired by Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, Thomas’s 1868 opera is best known for extending Ophelia’s descent into madness in a gripping scene celebrated in operatic circles for centuries.

Published on Concrete Playground

Screenings this week.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Date Night

Tina Fey and Steve Carell are the dream comedy couple. Both come from the cream of the live TV comedy crop and have crossed over to star in their own successful sit-coms as (30 Rock and The Office) well as a few sideline movie projects (Baby Mama and The 40 Year Old Virgin). So the expectations are high when the two paired for Shawn Levy’s crime caper, Date Night.

As Claire and Phil Foster Fey and Carell are your typical, upper middle class, sleep deprived, suburban parents. He’s a tax lawyer to her real estate agent and they have two cutie-pie kids, whom they weekly entrust to the next-door neighbour (Leighton Meester) for the ritualistic routine of a Friday date night. That is until best friends Hayley and Brad (Kristen Wiig and Mark Ruffalo) confide their separation, putting the Foster’s autopilot relationship in sharp relief. Cue a desperate dash into Manhattan to spice things up with a fancy dinner, whereupon Phil daringly nabs a table reservation from a no show couple, but in karmic retribution all hell breaks loose in a classic case of mistaken identity.

With The Night at the Museum franchise under his belt, Levy is clearly adept at veering away from reality and into the heightened genre of comedic adventure, with Fey and Carell seemingly delighted to follow suit and mine the situation for all it’s worth. And while that isn’t much more than mainstream chuckles, Fey and Carell still manage to infuse enough zany to make Date Night light years better than the analogous married turn of Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant’s in Did You Hear About the Morgans?

The film is also greatly aided by some wonderful chemistry between the leads. Undisputed masters of their craft, both can hit every comic beat, bet it the quick quips or the long set up. Date Night also rounds up some brilliant cameos, with a mob boss Ray Liotta, shirtless lothario Mark Wahlberg, an unspooled James Franco and a foul mouthed Mila Kunis all perfectly cast to keep a very familiar storyline fresh.

Alongside the laughs, Fey and Carell also imbue Date Night with a remarkable amount of heart. As a treatise on the maligned state of the modern marriage, the film is unafraid to take time out for some quieter scenes of reflection. These genuine moments never ring false, though they’re wisely dotted through a rollicking plotline that even includes a rather inventive car chase.

For all its well-honed conventions and mainstream appeal, Date Night should be celebrated for the perfect paring of Fey and Carell. May this be the first of many (hopefully more ambitious) silver screen adventures for the reigning queen and king of comedy television.

Published by Street Press Australia

Australian release date: 8 April 2010

A Night of Horror Film Festival

The first thing you need to know about the A Night of Horror Film Festival is that it goes for nine days, so don’t go letting the name confuse you. In four years, the festival has grown from its original one-night spectacular, with punters now able to take up residence at the Dendy Newtown for multiple evenings of blood and gore.

Like its spooky sci-fi sister festival Fantastic Planet, the line-up this year is a heady mix of homegrown titles and international fare. The program is premiering three Australian features, with Q&A screenings for Damned By Dawn, The Dark Lurking and Steven Kastrissios’ critically acclaimed revenge thriller, The Horseman.

Also hotly anticipated is The Descent double bill, with Neil Marshall’s 2005 hit about a girly caving expedition gone wrong (is there any other kind?) screening before the nightmare continues with the NSW premiere of The Descent 2. Home & Away alum Melissa George will close the festival, getting her fright on as a soul stranded at sea in the Australian/UK co-production Triangle. With some 16 bloody features and 50 shorts on offer, the trick will be deciding how many nights of horror your psyche will withstand and trying not to choke on your popcorn as the genre claims its quota of screams.

Published on Concrete Playground

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Interview: Michael Hoffman (The Last Station)

Michael Hoffman is a filmmaker who seemingly knows no fear. His latest film, The Last Station, is a portrait of the revered Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy.

“This was not so much because of a tremendous love of Tolstoy...I think what I was really drawn to was the difficulty of living with love and the impossibility of living without love. I really saw it as a film about marriage,” he says.

And what a marriage it is. Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren were both Academy Award nominees for their portrayals of the spirited seniors, Tolstoy and Countess Sofya, clashing over the final days of a 48 year marriage, Tolstoy’s ardent socialism and the specifics of his last will and testament. It is this incisive, poignant look at unsaid realities of relationships that Hoffman believes deeply resonates with audiences.

“You go to lots of dinner parties and we learn to be sophisticated and talk about sex and talk about money…but very rarely does anybody at a dinner party say, “ You know what? I used to be really in love with this person I came with, but I lost touch with them and don’t know where they are any more. There’s a lot of sadness in my relationship, and there’s a lot of desperation and there’s a lot of pain.”

But the film never gets bogged down in melancholia, nor an embittered spousal battle.

“I was paid one compliment throughout this entire process that I probably value more than any when the members of the Tolstoy family told me that [the film] for them came closer to how they as a family tell the story than any of the biographies that had ever been written. The biographies tend to tell the story of a genius tortured by an unreasonable woman and it’s very much the family’s line that this is a disaster that was co-created by the two of them.”

Hoffman credits much of this to Mirren’s masterful performance.

“Helen’s performance is magnificent, but also incredibly cagy and intelligent," he says. "She knows the thing that you can’t do is ask the audience for sympathy. If you ask for their sympathy you’ll never get it.”

Hoffman saves his most effusive praise, though, for James McAvoy's portrayal of Tolstoy's wide-eyed secretary Valentin Bulgakov. “One of the reasons you connect to Sofya and you take her side is because of James McAvoy’s performance, which for me, is really the glue that holds the movie together.”

“James has to be very quiet and has an immense amount of moment-to-moment decision making and clarity of purpose and presence. He is just so gifted”

Although the performances speak for themselves, Hoffman is also acutely aware of the perceived density of his subject. But on the contrary, with the film’s intense, pressing portrayal of the paparazzi, The Last Station could be the story of a Hollywood star.

“[Tolstoy] was really the first big media celebrity in history, and we didn’t even begin to narrate just how intense the scrutiny in their lives was!” “It was unending, they lived their life in an absolute fishbowl.”

Through the veil of such celebrity Hoffman conveys the passion and the politics of marriage with an inquiring and compassionate eye. “It’s funny, my wife Samantha refers to the movie as ‘art imitates wife’ and I think that’s a testament to how personal a story it is, for me.”

Published by Street Press Australia

Click here to read my review of The Last Station

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