For my birthday, I watched Sweet Country. It’s a brilliant film: beautifully crafted shots, a clever plot working within the conventions of the thriller, and a superb evocation of 1920s outback Australia. It’s the story of an Aboriginal man, Sam Kelly, who shoots a white man in self-defence and goes on the run. At one point the townspeople are watching a travelling screening of the early silent film The Story of the Kelly Gang, and the parallel is a good one: in Sam Kelly, we have an outlaw we can unequivocally cheer on. The actor who plays him, Hamilton Morris, is brilliant. I love the fact that in 2018 we can finally have a film with a middle-aged Aboriginal hero, wise, quiet, and complicated and so alien to every cliche of Hollywood heroes. I also love this film for the way it made me experience the outback, the heat, the beauty, the harsh life. It made me glad to be Australian. It comes just as I’m re-reading Katharine Prichard’s Coonardoo, published the same time the film is set. The whole film feels like a contemporary reworking of Prichard’s outback ouevre from an Aboriginal perspective. For that and many other reasons I recommend it highly.
Our firstborn, Thomas, came into the world in July, and, predictably, I have not been to the cinema since then. If I did go, I would probably fall asleep halfway through. But I’ve still seen some fine film and television this year. We signed up for Netflix to watch series 3 of House of Cards (good but not in my favourites list) and stayed with it for its convenience (the equivalent of a dozen paused DVDs at any time) and interesting range. It started with a well-chosen Australian selection, which I used as an education in some classics I’d missed; alas it hasn’t added many Australian titles since. I’ve reviewed a number of my favourite films, but none of the television series, so I’ll offer some comments on them.
- Fargo, season 2 (US/Canada, 2015; SBS) – each episode is a near-perfect short feature film. The crime trappings are just a mode of investigating existence. It’s intelligent, funny, absurd, sometimes brutal. And if you haven’t seen season 1, it stands on its own. But watch season 1.
- Black Mirror (Brit, 2011-2013; Netflix) – these short films are extrapolations of our current culture, a couple of years into the future, and offer the most extraordinary critique of our lives today. It’s science fiction at its best.
- Toast of London, season 1 (Brit, 2013; SBS) – I cannot convey how bizarre this show is as it follows Steven Toast, the world’s second finest high-winds actor, around his improbable career on stage and film. To give one taste: his arch-enemy exacts revenge on Toast by pretending to be a plastic surgeon and turning a friend of a friend into a Bruce Forsyth look-alike, just to annoy Toast. And you know what he finds funny? He’s not even very annoyed. This will be a cult hit for decades to come but season 2 is not as good.
- The Americans, season 2 (US, 2014; DVD) – this is a small masterpiece of the drama and thriller genres, as deep undercover Soviet agents live out their suburban lives in the US of the early 1980s.
- Utopia, season 2 (Australia, 2015; ABC) – this satire is so perceptive about how offices function and the groupthink / buzz-words / box ticking which drives too much decision-making in the public service and politics.
It’s incredible that two of the greatest Australian films – Walkabout and Wake in Fright – were both released in 1971. What a year it must have been, for those who were alive and cinema-goers. Both films are ambitious explorations of Australian identity directed by non-Australians. I watched Walkabout for the first time this week after watching Wake in Fright last month. Walkabout is truly astonishing, a film that is visually captivating, engrossing as a narrative, complex, and still so fresh over forty years later. Continue reading
I’ve finally watched the great Australian film, Wake In Fright (1970). It’s the story of a school-teacher’s descent into a hell of drinking, gambling, and violence when he gets stuck at an outback town called the Yabba on his way back to Sydney. The brutality of the characters’ dissipation is matched by the beauty of the film-making, each scene, each shot so well-composed to capture the landscape, the drama, the horror. Watching it in stops and starts over a week as I fed my newborn son, I was acutely aware of its achievements at a micro-level.
It’s such an ambitious film. It successfully attempts to depict the dark side of the Australian psyche. Aboriginals hover at the edge of several shots, never speaking. The orgy of gambling stops only for a surreal moment’s silence to remember the fallen Anzacs. The only crime is to refuse a beer with a bloke.
It’s unthinkable that this film was out of circulation for years, considered lost until the discovery of a print in a discard bin and its splendid restoration for its 2009 re-release.
The sort of film I like: an intelligent historical drama. The Imitation Game tries to do a lot in telling the whole of Alan Turing’s life – the focus being on his time at Bletchley Park during World War Two, leading the team which would break the German Enigma code, but also narrating his awakening to his homosexuality as a misfit boy genius at boarding school, and his prosecution for indecency in the 1950s, contributing to his suicide in 1954. The film works well, capturing the difficulties of a misunderstood genius and the terrible days of WW2 for Britain as the Nazis bore down on them and the code-crackers felt the weight of the nation on them.
I’d just finished watching lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch in a WW1 drama, the brilliant BBC mini-series Parade’s End, where he plays a different misunderstood genius. Imitation Game suffers by comparison; it is not the sequel-in-spirit I might have hoped for. It is a far less subtle and intelligent film, with less complexity of character. Parade’s End plays each scene perfectly, not needing to bring things to a crisis each time to achieve true drama. It’s unfair to mark Imitation Game down by comparison, but inevitably I do, as the Turing code-breaking machine is saved at the very last minute, and the small canvas requires all sorts of shortcuts. Keira Knightley plays the second lead, Joan Clarke, superbly. She almost never appears in anything less than a very good film, and this is no exception. (Although I will never watch King Arthur or Domino.) If this film tries to achieve too much in two hours, who can fault that?
It was the year of long-form drama for me and Nicole. To watch a story unfold an hour at a time, night after night – such a bigger canvas than a feature film, and an after-work addiction.
1. The Returned (series 1) – I have never seen anything like this French supernatural drama. To watch it is to be trapped inside a beautifully eerie dream, as the dead begin to return to a village.
2. True Detective (series 1) – An existential crime series about two detectives on the trail of a southern gothic murderer across decades. Really, the crimes are secondary – this is about the meaning of life, as Rusty philosophises to Marty and an unlikely friendship develops.
3. Parade’s End (mini-series) – A dense and super-intelligent adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s novels, following a man of integrity through World War One, at war with a scheming wife and torn by his desire for a young suffragette. It is incredible.
4. House of Cards (series 1 and 2) – An excellent adaptation to the American context, with fascinating characters and enthralling political intrigue. I wrote about it here.
5. Fargo (series 1) – Fargo the TV series is better than the film. It is dark and funny and suspenseful, and Billy Bob Thornton’s character could be the most interesting killer I’ve seen on television.
Honourable mentions – Rectify (series 1); The Fall (series 1); and Boardwalk Empire (series 1).
What was your favourite?
1. Inside Llewyn Davis – A folk singer caught in an eternal recurrence of misfortune. Thanks for showing how beautifully cruel the world is, Coen brothers. My review.
2. Pride – Uplifting drama about a group of homosexuals helping Welsh miners during a strike. Perfect filmmaking. My review.
3. Boyhood – Ten years in the life of a boy growing up, through the small tragedies and dramas of family life. I was disappointed at the time, but it stayed with me a long time. Important and affecting.
4. Interstellar – A flawed but fascinating science fiction film on a huge canvas across space and time. It moved and awed me. My review.
5. Her – A man in love with his operating system. It’s profound and nearly perfect, although it left me a little cold.
The Water Diviner starts promisingly, showing the final day of the Gallipoli campaign from the Turkish perspective as they charge the enemy trenches only to find the Australians retreating. In a time of much jingoism, we need to be reminded of the humanity of the ‘enemy’, and the strength of this film is that this is one of its major themes.
Unfortunately, it has a kernel of interesting drama wrapped up in ridiculous action-heroics, at times degenerating into Indiana Jones. Russell Crowe plays an Australian farmer, Joshua Connor, arriving in Turkey after World War One to bring back the bodies of his three sons. It paints Turkey by numbers, with an obligatory chase through a crowded market and a chase across rooftops (oh! it makes me groan to think of it), and even a massacre of an entire trainload of people, with the exception of Connor and his new Turkish friend, Major Hasan. It’s a film which overplays almost every scene, and neglects all the potential for adult drama. The difficult reconciliation between the Australian Connor and the Turkish Hasan is overshadowed by them being caught up in a new war with the Greeks. (It may be a historically plausible detail; that doesn’t make it a good plot decision.) In a rather mystical moment, Connor locates the bodies of his sons with his water divining skills. At this point one begins to wonder if he actually is a superhero in disguise. The mystery of the fate of the third son is under-explored and rushed through at the end. Again and again, it is a film which veers awkwardly between an attempt at adult drama, an action movie, and a romance.
It feels like a film financed by Channel Seven with James Packer as an executive producer… oh wait, it is! It’s a crowd-pleaser, and many will go away cheering. I do think it’s better that they cheer this, an Australian production with important themes, than an American equivalent.
Watching a great film, or an interesting but flawed film, leaves me feeling excited about the world and about life – even when the mood of the film is bleak. Bad films, on the other hand, leave me feeling depressed – even when their mood is optimistic. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of the delightful Amelie (2001) has now made two dud but sunny films in a row – Micmacs and this year’s The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet. A ten year-old genius sets off across America on his own to receive a prize at the Smithsonian Institute for his perpetual motion machine. It has all the ingredients for a quirky, profound exploration of childhood, genius, and the meaning of America (road movies tend to be about the meaning of the places they pass through, and this one is to some extent). Yet from the beginning, it’s confused in plot and tone. It has trouble establishing its scenario, introducing the characters on the eccentric Montana ranch badly. Its picaresque structure doesn’t work, as TS encounters various characters on his journey to little real effect. The actors – including Helena Bonham-Carter and Judy Davis – are trying to inhabit characters that are two-dimensional with dialogue that just misfires in every scene. The finale has that most doomed of set-ups, a showdown between the protagonists on live television. At this point, the host says, “But there’s still another nine minutes to go!”; watching from Montana, TS’s sister slumps down in her seat groaning, as I did too. I wanted to like TS Spivet, I really did, but it’s a mess of a film. It feels like a Disney kids’ movie with a few flourishes. But I should also say it’s completely watchable, with a number of charming moments, and I’m sure many will find it a pleasant couple of hours.
All the crops are failing on a future Earth when a former astronaut leaves on a secret mission to check inhabitable planets on the other side of a wormhole, knowing if he ever sees his children again it will be decades away. There’s an ambivalence to many of the reviews of Interstellar, and I share it. The plot unfolded like the sort of plot I would expect to read from a talented fifteen year old science-fiction obsessive – clumsy, derivative, refreshingly ambitious, with flashes of excellence. The opening is particularly amateurish, as Cooper the astronaut stumbles on the secret NASA base, only for them to decide he’s really the one they need to lead their mission leaving in a few days. (Granted, we learn later the reason behind all this, but it still feels like a scene from a B-movie.) The most dramatic and interesting section occurs when the team must land on a planet that will cause seven Earth years to pass for every hour they spend on it. The tension of this dilemma is played for all its worth, and it is a truly gripping sequence.
Interstellar is a film of big questions; most of all, whether humankind (or as it keeps saying “mankind” – what is wrong with people that they are using such a word in the year 2014?) is capable of acting for the good of the species, or only as individuals seeking the survival of themselves and their direct descendents. I found it moving and frightening; it made me ponder death and space and time, and lose myself in its world. It is also visually and aurally spectacular.
Some random thoughts:
- Filmmakers have the perpetual challenge of representing scientists solving some great problem. In this film, as in so many, Nolan resorts to a blackboard filled with chalk. Groan! (But I do appreciate how hard it is.)
- The star, Matthew McConaughey, became one of my favourite actors after his performance in True Detective; at times, it almost feels like he’s channeling that character, Cole, in the more existential moments of this film. But not enough. I would have been quite happy for him to be fully Cole in this film.
- Jessica Chastain should be in more films. Maybe she’s the reason I thought of Tree of Life a few times.
- Just like in Nolan’s previous film, The Dark Knight, one of the central themes is the “noble lie”: we can’t tell people the truth, because it’s not good for them. The sort of thinking which the neo-cons used to justify war on Iraq in 2003.
- (Spoiler alert for the final point:) Continue reading