Tuesday, February 28, 2012


For all intents and purposes, it seems true to say that anachronism and nostalgia come as a package, one begetting the other. Often this may lead to overt sentimentalism, but The Artist, recipient of this year’s Academy Award for Best Film, is a picture built not around longing for the past, but an homage to the origins of cinema. Writer/Director Michel Hazanavicius has crafted a classic tale about the evolution of the medium, marrying the idiosyncrasies of high silent film with an introspective account of the transition from silent cinema to “the talkies”.

George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the pinnacle of his career as Hollywoodland’s premier silent film actor. His eyes sparkle and pencil moustache bristles as with joyful gesticulation and unsounding laughter he signs autographs and waggishly winks at his young devotees. His career is doomed, however, as the late twenties host the usurpation of his silent cinema sovereignty by ‘talking’ film. Though the budding format seems to George new-fangled and laughable, it is fully embraced by the public and by adorable rising star Peppy Miller (to the 1920’s what Meg Ryan was to sentimental audiences 70 years later, played by Bérénice Bejo). Despite their ensconcement in each opposing kind of film, Peppy and George brim with fascination and admiration for the other, and sadness for the changing of the times.

The Artist submits that film is a medium of endless possibility and with a long and healthy future, yet omits today’s glittery special effects and blockbuster gimmicks. It is a film-lovers’ film, one that might inhabit a space that no longer exists, before ‘mainstream’ and ‘arthouse’ cinema divorced in the late 20th century: a film that is artwork whilst still being what we might call a ‘crowd-pleaser’. Perhaps more than anything, The Artist speaks as though from a time when “the public” was a newly commercialised corpus, wholesome and excitable, never compartmentalised and analysed, and certainly without such dubious tastes as today.

Filmed in black and white, The Artist is an earnest and loving resuscitation of cinematic classicism. Scenes are framed and shot with a view to capturing moments that resemble the sum total of films like Chinatown, Rear Window, Sabrina and Cleopatra (the Haciendas, Art Nouveau statuettes and voluptuous Coupés abound), and the roles of George Valentin oft resemble the wishful casting of Laurence Olivier as Middle Eastern princes, Greek epic heroes or Shakespearean swashbucklers. The era is tangible, yet Hazanavicius has sensitively avoided glutting on overt cinema references. The movements of each actor are choreographed so as to hint at the legacy of the high-frame-rate (and therefore slightly sped up) slapstick wackiness that characterised early film whilst never crossing into farce. In all, The Artist adopts the best of silent era techniques, Hazanavicius worthily portraying the era and not simply doing a silent film.

Jean Dujardin seems to have been born in black and white. His physicality and appearance are those of a Golden Era star, when male leads were older, dapper and without a trace of boyishness. The pinnacle of manliness was not to shoot a gun or jump from a moving vehicle but to write cheques and smoke cigars, wear a suit properly and to stop listening if a young woman’s legs were exposed nearby. The wiry figure of Bejo is less of the 30’s actress as we think of her; regal, husky-voiced and lazy-lidded women like Elizabeth Taylor and Katherine Kepburn. Bejo captures the less-considered flapper darling type of the twenties in whose madcap Charleston and romantic roles is buried the seed of the American sweetheart. Her rendition of Peppy’s over-eager movements is threatened to cross over into uncontrolled flailing and silliness. There are also incredible endearing performances by James Cromwell as Valentin's devoted butler-cum-chauffer and the prolific John Goodman as jowly production bigwig Al Zimmer.

Some mention should be made of the entertainment value of scripting in a sidekick dog. It’s tricks and unconditional obedience was simple, yet uproariously successful way of getting the audience onside (if the improprietous chortling from the senior citizens in the theatre I visited was anything to go by). An adjunct to Dujardin’s performance, perhaps this savvy canine served little more than to allow Dujardin to smile that magnificent winning grin, and perhaps more credence is given to the “dog’s performance” than need be by other commentators, and the sincerity of the film was palpable regardless of the scruffy Jack Russell.

Sound is the flesh of The Artist. The film achieves an elegant balance of shifts in Foley, dialogue and score, as well as total silence. As a silent film made in an era of complex sound layering and artistry (the Los Angeles Times’ introduction to Foley is a sweet entry-level descriptor, though of course the intricacy of a Transformer morphing is perhaps the best example of where contemporary sound mixing and editing is at), The Artist had an unlimited audio palette. It’s almost a feat that Hazanavicius and his sound team had the restraint to produce a film that makes use only of the sounds it needed to: the flourish here is in what is not used. It’s quite absorbing to watch a contemporary film that employs only one sound at a time, whether strong wind, telephone peal or footsteps, each noise starring in it’s own solo moment.
However, The Artist is largely without Foley. Just as in the silent era, it is uniquely composed orchestral music that comprises most of the audio track for The Artist. French composer Ludovic Bource has written a lively score that constantly ebbs and flows with mood, theme and tempo. It’s almost an onslaught, as the score must act as background music, emotive cue, voice and sound effects all at once. At many points the score is dangerously hammy, and surprisingly these moments come not in comedic sequences, but when characters are in crisis. It’s as though, because this is a film about film, the score is reminding us (as Wes Craven once did with The Last House on the Left), that it’s only a movie

For some viewers, The Artist may border on the maudlin side of nostalgia, and indeed is a highly earnest and certainly inoffensive film. Yet, this warning is really only for those, quite unlike myself, are without a large capacity for romance. Rather, one might see The Artist as the culmination of several recent attempts at extolling the virtues, history and very essence of film. These include Spielberg’s 2011 backyard-movie adventure Super 8 and the magical account of Méliès’ career in the otherwise saccharine Hugo (3D) by Scorsese (a director of such weight that his name goes without red underline in Microsoft Word). For Spielberg and Scorsese this look back into the way cinematic fantasy is born is surely due to their advanced careers, their longevity and age within the film industry. But for Hazanavicius, the word film is less about miracle than it is about mankind: a restless civilisation hungry for progress and with so many ‘golden eras’ to its name that only film can contain them. There’s the Golden Age of Hollywood, of silent film, of black and white, celluloid, hand-wound cameras and of all the historical bubbles they represent (George Valentin’s repertoire includes Musketeer and jungle explorer, but one easily finishes this sentence with ‘Robin Hood, Greek God, Egyptian Queen and Sinbad’). The Artist wrangles technique, allusion, history and narrative into a cohesive portrait of the pictures. But perhaps most of all, The Artist suggests that art and entertainment used to be, and may again be, at least some of the time, synonymous. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

AOE Top Ten List 2011

It is, quite simply, that time again. After a year spent in the noble occupations of asserting my (nonetheless fraudulent) right to discounted student ticketing, finding the perfect nasal balance between glasses and 3D glasses, dreaming up questionable movie puns during woeful Yalumba promos and perhaps a few too many cappuccino choc tops, AOE exhumes its notebooks, scribbled star ratings and faded laser-printed ticket stubs to assemble it’s annual Top Ten List. This year the list is selected out of over 55 films released in Australia over the course of 2011 in preparation for the awards season. Films are dubbed meritorious according to entertainment, production, artistic and cultural value, and of course according to AOE’s EO.

10. X-Men First Class

Honourable Mentions: Frankenstein: Live at the NGV; The Tempest; 127 Hours; Project Nim; Attack the Block.


On her lavish wedding day to bashful Michael (Alexander Sarskård), Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is struggling to feel motivated about her nuptials, her future, or the very ritual of living. Her attentive sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) guides her gently through a string of bridal customs amid a surreal ensemble of guests whose cacophony of foibles include bitterness, pretence, vapidity and melodrama. This night is as doomed as another the pair spend together weeks later in the same idyllic seaside estate, after Justine’s depression has deepened and the once-hidden planet Melancholia has loomed into visibility, drifting silently by the Earth.

Melancholia is an entropic narrative progression, a film adorned with beauty and visual spectacle (a triumph in and of itself). It’s a tightly written film with a strong relationship to ancient mythology, classical beauty and the human practise of conjecturing on the future. Von Trier has with Melancholia made a magnum vanitas work (an art history term referring to the genre of still life painting which juxtaposes images of luxury, youth and sensuality with those of decay and death in order to warn the vain or unthinking that mortality must come to us all). Justine is Von Trier’s ultimate motif in this momento mori picture, a luminescent body sculpted in femininity and bridal white, yet hollowed and haunted by despondency.   

This relationship between death and beauty is ancient and recurring, having become part of both religious and scientific wonder equally. What I mean is, anything beautiful is by necessity finite, ephemeral, or simply doomed to change. It is the destruction of all things by erasure or transformation that reveals perfection, just as endurance results in disregard and boredom. Therefore one moment of beauty can only exist instantaneously, a decaying version of itself, perhaps left in human memory. Beauty, sadness and humanity seem to be tragically interlinked this way.

Melancholia is formed of three parts. First, the title sequence: an almighty montage of slow motion, high-resolution scenes that foreshadow the coming film. They have an elite fashion photography flavour in their slickness, lighting and glamorisation of disaster. Part One: Justine tells the story of the bride’s fear at the precipice of the rest of her life and Part Two: Claire of Claire’s fear at the precipice of Melancholia’s approach towards Earth.

I do hate to say this, but I found Part One dizzying. Perhaps it was a combination of not having eaten and an out-dated optical prescription, but I had to close my eyes intermittently to keep my hand-held camera blues at bay. One could easily ascribe this effect to some mimicry of Justine’s struggle through the haze of depression, or a reflection on her haywire personality, but I hesitate to link Von Trier to either such amateurish excuses. Rather, and sadly, it was a little too shaky for me.

The hotel grounds in which the entirety Melancholia is set are a sprawling idyll of incredible beauty, a perfect Arcadian blend of wilderness and artifice, overflowing with references to classical painting. It’s a dioramic Eden, an allegory for the whole of humanity, containing a man, wife, child (Claire, John, Leo), and the spectre of death (Justine). Its sprawling grassy terrace is a custom-built viewing platform upon which to witness the cataclysm of worlds. The film is threaded together by a grave reprieve from Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan Und Isolde, a shimmering lament whose duty in the original opera was to foreshadow romantic tragedy, or liebestod (‘love death’). The piece is enriching without being overwhelmingly emotional, as grandiose orchestral scores, often independently of the film, can be.

There are innumerable references to great artworks littered throughout Melancholia. Among them, John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, which depicts the unravelled female allowing her body to succumb to madness and nature; The Greek goddess Diana bathing in a stream, her erotic, lunar paleness glimpsed timidly by the hunter Acteon; The moonlight paintings of Turner; the shimmering seas and precipices of Caspar David Friedrich. All these seem to claim that true art exists in situ and not on canvas, negating the idea of literary or artistic posterity. Indeed, contrary to the historical immortality great men aspire to, Melancholia presents an antithesis to the dystopia we humans love to fantasise about. There is no pandemic, nuclear fallout, or death on a pale horse. The Earth is simply gone, along with its history, and its self-declared universal significance. This is a stunning way in which to describe the impermanence that is often so hard to grasp during the solidity of day-to-day routine.

Melancholia seems truly to address inevitability in a different way to other films dealing with oncoming mortality, such as this year’s elegant Take Shelter, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Road or Bergman masterpiece The Seventh Seal. It lacks any hint of hope begot by the unpredictability or mystical nature of the universe. Though it might not feel like it, Melancholia is a highly empirical film, grounded in fact, science, and reality. Not even Justine’s third-act revelation that she is tuned into the cosmos in some supernatural way provides respite from the oncoming planet. It is in hoodwinking the young Leo (Cameron Spurr) into believing in a magical cave that the devastating absence of miracle in the world is laid bare. In this, Melancholia deems the protection of his innocence as instinctual and tacit behaviour. Though Justine is entrenched in morbidity, she nonetheless spares her nephew the trauma of mortal knowledge, regardless of the fact that the boy will barely live long enough to experience that trauma.

When the symptomatic suspicion of clinical depression – ‘what is the point?’ – is confirmed, what then? How does one prepare for the relentless approach of the end of all things? Surely some kind of ceremony is in order. What spiritual guide contains the ritual we must solemnly observe on the last of days? Perhaps, like Christmas, this is a time to be spent with loved ones. Should we feast? Kill ourselves? Does it matter? Claire’s idea of an apocalypse met with wine, hands held and high classical symphonic fanfare is one that seems almost natural given man’s predisposition towards ceremony. It’s an artful response, one that helps to ascribe significance to the event. This might be like holding your own funeral before you die, as nobody will mark your passing. In her advanced state of depression, Justine chides her sister’s attempt at giving formality to the end of the world. Her unnatural ungratefulness over her own wedding in Part One may have already switched off audience empathy over Justine’s death, but does she have a point? It’s worth considering.

Whilst there has been much said about the relationship between Melancholia and Lars Von Trier’s own gripping listlessness, the film comes at a poignant time. Piety is waning in the West, while the universal landscape is further mapped. The once-rapid evolution of space travel and extra-terrestrial Imperialism has slowed to a crawl at about the same time that the reality of Earth’s limited resources has finally hit home. Yet of all the calamitous threats in the world, celestial collision is one of the easiest to put out of mind. The stars twinkle pictorially, as much a part of fictional pantheons, mythical constellations and heavenly firmaments as ever; the Sun and Moon are reduced to reliable aerial symbols, infographics that mark the time of day. Melancholia peels away this fictive veil, again revealing the perils of the universe.

In his lecture series Death, Yale professor and extraordinary exponent of the theory of mortality Shelly Kagan explains that the problem with trying to conceive of your own death is that it’s almost impossible not to accidentally place yourself in the picture. If somebody says to you “imagine you are dead”, you will visualise being in a coffin, spying on your own funeral or an aerial perspective of an Earth you aren’t walking on. Either way you’re involved. Melancholia goes some way to sidestepping this phenomenon, as it is the whole of the Earth dying. There is nothing to imagine – there is nothing to imagine.

Perhaps my own greatest fear, on the last day of all life, would be to feel  (like Justine) so disconnected from the significance of the event, as to be unable to fully and completely understand, see and feel my oncoming death; To disintegrate mid-blink whilst trying to look death in the face.


Saturday, December 3, 2011


Stephen (Ryan Gosling) is a young, ruthless and wan campaign officer working under worldly manager Paul (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) on the trail for charismatic Democrat governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). The team is working on delivering Morris the title of prime Democrat presidential candidate. As is often the case in the US presidential race, the players, odds and stakes are determined long before the public is aware of them and by bizarre shifts in the competition, huge decisions, are often left to the voting public of one single state, in this case, Ohio. Scheming grandly out of a pop-up HQ of suits, hotel rooms, handshakes and monitored mobile phones, Stephen receives a call from opponent campaigner Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), to set up a meeting that will set in motion a chain of rumour, sabotage, scandal and revenge. 

There are not a few elements of film noir in this dark, brooding tale. All visual cues aside, the presence of a winter-coated, pragmatic protagonist, shark-like journalist masquerading as a friend (an on-form Marisa Tomei), forward-facing meetings on park benches and shadowy bars, and the doomed femme fatale played by Evan Rachel Wood very quietly show The Ides of March to be an almost perfectly noir genre film. The city is not a geographical landscape, but one made of people, haunting various buildings and corridors with the attachment of an anemone-fixed clown fish. Gosling’s Stephen is pragmatic and idealistic, and without the classic voice-over narration of some Bogart P.I., his introspection and intentions are evident. This is a man so enamoured by big politics that he alone is not cynical about it, but going the way of all noir,  his vigilantism and sense of justice become confused. 

The political profession is a cutthroat business: there are few other jobs wherein one’s personal life and most intimate views are criticised so closely or publicly. There is zero separation between work and life here, and even as campaign manager, Stephen is held accountable for his personal decisions, as his most innocent mistakes are both noticed and punished. Morris himself is unable to escape open scrutiny of his most intimate self – his inability to subscribe fully to religion. This kind of press carte blanche leaves a wake of emotional wreckage that is often irreparable. The Ides of March describes the human costs of political agency in grandiose terms, describing the creeping manner in which the job first comes home from the office and then becomes the life of its employees. We’re talking about marriages, births, deaths, murders, all for politics – a thing not always synonymous with ideals

After disbelief has been suspended, many of the policies Mike Morris lays out as his platform sound alarmingly convincing. I say alarming, because of their veritable obviousness – how has nobody yet tried to milk the angle that to end war we just need to rid ourselves of the demand for foreign oil? This could easily be marketed as an end of conflict and step towards environmentalism to the left, and to the right – the simple disentanglement of the US from all its woes in the middle East, with the added bonus of disempowering those nations it wishes to get the upper hand on. The progressiveness of this platform, whilst wildly desirable and therefore improbable, serves to highlight how easily policy can be sidelined in favour of strategy.
It’s a struggle to speak highly enough of the calibre of performances in The Ides of March. Paul Giamatti as bitter Republican campaign shark Tom Duffy and Seymour Hoffman’s doggedly above-board campaign veteran Paul effectively pit two actors of a unique and exclusive calibre, equals and peers in so many ways, into opposing sides of the Ohio competition. They are a balanced, formidable pair, whose casting immediately portends of a perpetual stalemate. How can there ever be a winner in the battle of Giamatti and Hoffman? This is yet another spectacular performance from Gosling, a master of the steely and reserved. Even as all Stephen’s loyalties and efforts begin to shatter around him, Gosling expresses each shock as a controlled implosion, his face crystallising into an ever more closed fortress. Despite this shuttered look, Stephen’s options are known to the audience who anticipate his limited palette of ‘moves’ with exhilaration. 

Films of the political thriller genre are often difficult to follow or attempt to describe recent political history with superfluous poetics. The Ides of March is surprisingly easy to follow – there is a reasonably large introduction of characters at the outset, but each acts in such a compelling manner as to quickly become remarkable. The intrigue is tempered by urgency and each character is written with such distinct reality. Particularly lucid in the dialogue was the differences in age and behaviour between 20-year-old femme fatale and Republican heiress Molly and the more experienced, 30-year-old Stephen. 

The “Ides of March” itself, is actually a phrase describing the fifteenth day of the Roman calendar. We remember it now as part of a macabre line from Shakespeare’s brilliant Julius Caesar: “beware the Ides of March”. The line is spoken by a (presumably toothless and impoverished, as is often the case with this type of omen) soothsayer to Caesar himself, his portent later being fulfilled when the unfortunate emperor is unexpectedly shanked by conspirators Cassius and Brutus on the 15th

Backstabbing and treachery are dominant plot points in The Ides of March. The film illustrates the complexity with which information sharing can become an ethical issue. Certainly in politics, particular party members cannot be meeting with the opposition or unsavoury types, and it can be very unclear to whom exactly unannounced matters can be reported. Stephen suffers both for having shared too much information with those he shouldn’t, for not reporting it fast enough, and yet later survives the fallout of his actions simply by having not given everything away. One cannot help but smirk at the release of The Ides of March during the term of an Australian Prime Minister which has generated more political analysis of the justice and consequences of ‘backstabbing’ than in all our short governmental history. I’ve no doubt this barely factored into the production of the film, but one has to wonder whether there is a widespread public sentiment that deems politicians incapable of sticking to their ideals. The Ides of March certainly echoes this concern. 

Perhaps the Ides of March's greatest feature is the way that it gets the audience on side with different characters at different time, and slowly, inevitably, abandoning policy as a reason for doing so. Any presentation of a potential leader's policy should, really automatically, inspire some kind of thoughtfulness in us that takes into consideration both our own, and our civic interests. Opinions may differ on what is needed, but most of us will utilise our experiences, knowledge and personal preferences to decide what we think is best. That is democracy - a varied public with differing views delivering a majority decision simply by putting forward the ideas or groups they represent. This surely requires that those working in the campaign process do not sabotage candidates based on their personal encounters with them - that's the job of the public. I wonder how many of us would  vote or not vote for a candidate whose personality, private life or past had so effected our pride that we wanted revenge over them, no matter how good a leader they would be. I wonder, even if we liked his Rome, would we still stab Caesar?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


In any number of built up countries, the ‘problem’ of how to cheaply house those approaching the poverty line has usually resulted in state-funded, concentrated apartment living. Whether it’s the stack-up flats of the projects, the ghetto, or tenement blocks, the sheer numbers of people crammed in together create a pressure that guarantees rises in theft, assault, drug use and antisocial behaviour; a human ecosystem in which gangs and networks form much faster than in suburban living. It’s also a difficult place for young people to flourish, as they are easily pulled into violent drug gangs as a response to the tedium of block life. Lucky for the characters in Attack the Block, that banality is grandly interrupted…

This Block is a multi-storey South London tenement, an ugly edifice complete with shoddy elevators, flickering fluorescents and upended silo bins. Walking back home from the hospital, young nurse and block resident Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is mugged at knifepoint by a group of terrifyingly flippant high school age kids led by the steely Moses (John Boyega). They embody every kind of hoodie stereotype, tearing around on bikes and scooters with flick knives, yelling ‘”bruv”, “isn’t it” and “Ah ain’t even lyin’, believe” so that it echoes through shitty government-built concrete underpasses. The mugging is interrupted when a tiny, grotesque alien meteorically hurtles into a parked car from outer space. Moses and his gang bludgeon the creature to death and drag its body up to their mate Ron’s (Nick Frost, cast amusingly well) ‘weed room’ for safekeeping while they get blazed and discuss their prospects of fame and fortune for discovering a new species. But countless more aliens, bigger ones, are shooting down from outer space all around the block, and the boys’ encounter with the first alien will bring them, and Sam, a hell of a lot more trouble.  

This is a rollicking movie, and a stellar directorial debut for Joe Cornish. Attack the Block is unpredictable, abandoning any one typical formula and getting from A to B in a really refreshing and hilarious way. The way the gang cross paths with other characters, split up and reunite is fast-paced and exciting, but never hard to follow. Notable accomplices in the fight against the aliens include two six-ish year old kids who insist on answering only to “Probs” and “Mayhem”, adorable terrors with no capacity to be deterred by real and present danger; a gaggle of gum-chewing chav girls with gold be-hooped ear lobes who nonetheless prove themselves capable in a tight spot; and lastly, the posh, lumbering biologist-to-be Brewis (Luke Treadaway), whose glassy, blazed eyes and brow-sweeping fop of blonde hair may induce a distinctly indi-folk swoon.

Attack the Block is written wonderfully. Its portrait of London teen culture, particularly the grime slang and that accents, bless, is deployed with heart and comic genius, especially as the gang begin to interact with characters a bit more out of their subcultural loop. A gang of teen criminals, despite their necessarily honed survival skills, is probably the last cast you might think of to star in a monster movie. Much of the hilarity comes from their response to proper science fiction occurrences with “Yo, check it, more of dem tings”, “Right naw, I feel li’ goin’ home, lockin’ mah door and playing FIFA” and “I’ve got low credit, one text left, this is too much madness to explain in one text”.

            The special effects are great – minimal. There’s only one traditional, fleshy ‘creature’ and the rest of the monsters are characterised by their absorptive blackness and glow-in-the-dark teeth, (perhaps resembling a bizarro Brobee from Yo Gabba Gabba!? Yeah, I watch that). This means that special effects are never getting in the way of the story, the plight of the gang. There are some fantastic slow motion shots too, in particular those where the gang set off small-time fireworks and flares.

Attack the Block’s soundtrack is a pumping, energising collection of beats by Basement Jaxx, taking in elements of dubstep, drum ‘n’ bass and grime beats, capturing not only the mood of modern London teen life, but also would embody what the characters would want the soundtrack to be if they knew their wild night was being made into a movie. Check out the Attack the Block site for a taste of what I mean (unts-unts-unts). It’s a stylish sound and somehow manages to enliven the action whilst also keeping intact the comedic or ironic elements of every scene – kind of like the way teen gangsters keep up the attitude even when they’re in trouble.

I was in London during the height of the 2008 spate of stabbings and the sense of fear around certain areas in the South Bank and anywhere in view of an estate building was palpable. Nobody was making eye contact while walking at night, and never on trains. This kind of fear was dealt with by Daniel Barber’s excellent film with Michael Caine, 2009’s Harry Brown. Perhaps the progression from that genuinely chilling film, to Attack the Block, means that we are ready to try and tackle ‘hoodie’ culture with humour. But frankly, what is more likely, and what makes this such a compelling film for its characters, is that it so early on casts villains as the protagonists. After holding up Sam at knifepoint, the young gang have a long way to go and a lot to prove to the audience before they can appear redeemed, which they must presumably do before they can defeat the alien threat. Indeed, it seems the aliens are only a kind of horror in passing for much of the film, and that inter-gang warfare, not extra-terrestrial attack, is the most unpredictable and senseless way to be end up ‘murked’.

There tends to be a lot of discussion about these gangs of kids, about ‘what can be done’ for them, or how to give them more ways to earn an honest quid or spend free time. Harry Brown seemed to come up trumps, in that Harry simply kills all of the drug propagators and junkies in his apartment building to create peace. Attack the Block doesn’t seem to do much better. Sure, the characters seem to renounce their criminality, and I’m sure their lives will never be the same, or as dead-ended again: but it took an alien invasion for them to unite with the neighbours who they previously terrorized or grasp any level of moral duty and conviction.  

This is not to say that these gangs of kids are without any moral compass. Attack the Block sets out the rules and ethics of this street culture brilliantly. You look after your own, nurture the kids, provided they come from the same side of the track as you, and work your way up the chain, doing what you’re told for fear of getting shot for it. Above all, street culture creates an unspoken loyalty to place. The sense of territory Moses feels is instinctive – although his particular apartment is meagre and filthy, he’ll wager his own demise for the right to protect it and the rest of the block, because it’s his place.

There’s a hell of a lot going on in this movie. It’s an adventure flick, which threatens at times to become a disaster movie (the kind where a group of people are picked off one by one) but tastefully pulls back, it’s also got monsters, bonding between adults and kids, the posh and the urban, it’s a bit of a stoner film yet it also has plenty to say about the plight of young people crammed into London with no money, nothing to do and no beauty to speak of in their environment. How many layers is that? I’ve lost count. What’s more, Attack the Block, whilst many of these genres are only touched on, doesn’t mishandle or truncate any of them, allowing them all to fit together in a manner so logical that it’s a wonder this kind of film hasn’t been made before. Trust.       8.5/10

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Toomelah is a film about place more than people, a kind of socio-geographical biography. The town where director Ivan Sen spent much of his childhood is the focus of a near-mockumentary in which an ensemble of Toomelah ‘types’ express a complex portrait of boredom, aspiration and a deep desire to generate personal history. This film well describes the occurrence of government ‘agenda items’ such as alcohol and drug use, health, housing and education, then lays out the truth about how the locals, whose interests are at stake, view the situation. As in history, their values and concerns are not always the same. Toomelah strikes to the heart of the idea of community, a feeling of ‘home’, and in particular the importance of having good role models, wise elders and learnt tribal lineage.

Toomelah itself is a remote Aboriginal community in far North New South Wales. It’s insular, rife with substance abuse problems and still haunted by the ghosts of abuse and cultural fracture from the town’s days as a mission. The history of the mission has disrupted the passing down of traditional stories and knowledge of history is blurred. Despite modest leaps in education and health, a gang and drug culture has flourished amongst the community. This place is the home of ten-year-old schoolboy Daniel (Daniel Conners), a cocky, foul-mouthed youngster searching for some tangible future in what is a bubble, a mini-ecosystem of a town. Unengaged, then suspended at school and uninspired by his father, a washed up, fume-addled boxer, Daniel goes in search of male leadership. This admirable quest for mentorship unfortunately steers Daniel toward Linden (Christopher Edwards), a well-to-do pusher with a short fuse and only a casual grasp on tribal history.

            Ivan Sen’s picture is a unique and truly captivating portrait of his hometown Toomelah. The film was shot and script written on location. Only one actor, Dean Daley-Jones, was brought in from outside. The rest of the roles were cast as Sen ventured about the town, reconnecting with and meeting the townsfolk. Certain scenes take almost ver batim actual events he beheld. The perspective Sen sheds on Toomelah is a conflicted one, there is obviously a deep nostalgia and sense of place in the old mission town, and the community has keenly striven to piece together its own history.

Now with Toomelah, an evocative account is given of the current state of cultural identity, humour, life and wealth there. Each carefully crafted character represents a different aspect of that fragmented culture: Linden the gangster, Bruce (Dean Daley-Jones) the ex-con, Aunty Cindy the newly returned mission girl who was removed to the city as a child, Tanicia (Danieka Connors) the nymph-like child love interest of Daniel and Daniel’s own Nan, his silent stalwart who observes her grandson’s heartbreak. Most of these actors had never left Toomelah until the film was released and Cannes needed attending. One can only imagine what it would be like for Daniel Connors to reach ten in Toomelah, play a part about life there, and then travel the world, applauded for portraying something like his life, in his town.

Shot in hand-held, low budget and with almost entirely pre-existing sets and props, Toomelah is a no-frills feature. Its script is like this also. Dialogue is used sparingly, and a great deal of what is communicated is non-verbal; the characters all seem to know each other so well that they can infer what they need to without asking too many questions. The scattered violence of the film is likewise expressed bluntly, with no hint of shame, apology or added layer of moral warning. There is notion of the idea that children need shielding from it, either, indeed kids smoking cigarettes or brawling are shown as amusements to the adults. In one highly charged scene Daniel’s parents, one high on weed and one on meth, force the boy to declare who he’d rather live with, unwittingly forcing him to make a decision, at age ten, which of dope or meth is the eviller demon. Like the drug use and the traditional superstitions, the violence is just there and doesn’t need to be further explained. It’s a veritable exercise in ‘here it is, make of it what you will’.

Toomelah’s being about so remote a place makes clear the impact that projects such as missions and government initiatives can have on insular towns. With little in-and-out (the nearest map dot, Boggabilla, is 15kms away) traffic, any major intervention has a sweeping effect on the populous that is inherited by consecutive generations who grow up learning about the stolen generation or massacres of indigenous warriors as their history, perhaps even seeing injustice as part of their hereditary lot.

And yet, there is a kind of affection to Sen’s writing of Toomelah that uses humour, in particular a huge amount of crass language and precocious exchanges between the kids, belying a great peace and togetherness brought about by the film-making process itself. Perhaps this is more a side effect of Sen’s own adoration for his hometown, than complacency with the conflicts in the story. I am reminded in Toomelah of last year’s Winter’s Bone, another film about a young protagonist caught in a culture of family drug use and violence that forced children to grow up fast. In that film, too, there was a sense that even though a place may be troubled, the fact that that place was your home overrode any desire to leave, seek a better lot elsewhere, or foreswear its shortcomings. By no means does Toomelah come across as advocacy or poverty tourism, rather being a study of the cycles and shifts that take place in such an environment.

The performances in Toomelah are extraordinary, no doubt in part because the actors make use of real local characters. In particular, first-time actors Daniel Connors and Christopher Edwards strike a chilling harmony as Linden adopts a paternal and instructive tone with the all-ears youngster, despite it being about how to cut buds or roll spliffs. Bit parts and extras are given to young kids from the town who tail all of the major action, as though the town were its own entertaining movie (which indeed it was during filming).

One kneejerk response to Toomelah might be that it would have benefitted from a slightly bigger budget or a higher level of production. But it seems to me that the whole point of this film was to preserve as close a sense of the town as possible, to the point where it almost felt like the film wasn’t fiction. A huge camera on a dolly, aerial pans across helicopter-ruffled cotton crops or even indoor lighting, in a town with no whisper of anything like a film industry, would have been utterly incongruous. This is a feature in which the off-camera impact of a big budget blockbuster on the community would have utterly upended the integrity of the film. Having said this, there was certainly room for a tighter edit, and in many scenes I felt that the subtitles were unnecessary, for Australian audiences certainly. I’m sure that like the handheld camerawork, after a few minutes viewers could have tuned in.

            Like any film about one particular place, Toomelah has its in-jokes and cultural nuances that may be indecipherable to outside audiences. The rhythm of speech there, the pace of life, the options for what to do and where to go, are so unrecognisable in city life, in Australia or elsewhere. Yet in elucidating the way the town works, Toomelah helps us to briefly insert ourselves into one of the old run-down mission cottages, eating hot chips with Daniel before school, and thinking about what we would do with ourselves and who we’d befriend if we lived there. Toomelah induced a standing ovation at its Cannes showing, and Sen is certainly a part of widening school of Aboriginal filmmakers who are documenting and being inspired by Indigenous stories and histories.

After Toomelah was over, I did feel I better understood life in that place. However, I mightn’t ever go there. Perhaps that isn’t important? I now know Toomelah exists; I have a feel for its ethos, its people, its ghosts and its wit, just like I might if I saw a film set in Toronto, Shang Hai, or read about a fictional place, like Lilliput, in a book. Sen has put his town on the world stage, given it a literary indefinity that may well succeed him into posterity. Those hadn’t known about the place might now never forget it. What a gift to give to your community.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Hapless teenagers Will, Simon, Jay and Neil have completed their last day of year 12 public school and haven’t thought more than a day ahead about where their lives are going. And it’s small wonder; they’re nursing far bigger problems. Lovelorn and hair gel-coiffed Simon (Joe Thomas) has just been dumped by childhood sweetheart Carli; Neil (Blake Harrison) is booked up serving deli meats at the grocer where he startles customers by publicly and enthusiastically snogging his girlfriend; Jay (James Buckley) is hell bent on preserving his reputation as a heartbreaking womaniser and sexpert formidable; and posh protagonist Will (the charming Simon Bird) is seeking out a fresh start in his adult life, as a person hopefully considered normal and most importantly, not a virgin. Naturally, a cure-all leavers’ trip to Grecian resort city Malia is planned, and the gang head off with their pockets full of their parents’ cash and literally nothing in mind above boning and boozing.

Anybody familiar with the TV series that gave birth to The Inbetweeners Movie will expect this teen flick to be as gross and coarse as any episode and then some. In that end, it doesn’t disappoint, however it doesn’t add much depth or intrigue to the perpetually squabbling characters we’ve come to well, pity, from the series. The film lacks much of the intimacy of the series as it flings itself toward ever more ludicrous plot twists, and its script struggles to make the upgrade from TV to feature, meandering through what end up being episode-like chapters.

“The Inbetweeners” title refers to the passage from boyhood to manhood, but perhaps more accurately, from wanting or thinking you know about life, to actually knowing about it. This is a path marked by incorrect tips and poor guidance given out in whispers through toilet stall doors from peers with little clue. Gems such as ‘girls love it when you’re drunk’ or ‘that bidet is just a kids’ toilet’ are harkened to with disastrous effect. Part of the hilarity of this movie is just how wrong and useless all of this teenage advice and rumour can be. It’s nice to see that despite the sex-advice industry being a million-dollar operation (Dolly, FHM, Cosmopolitan are classic culprits), we have here a film that dispels any notion that you can learn something important from bike-shed gossip.

Where there are four ogling teenage pals, there must surely be four good-looking young ladies for them to shame themselves in front of. Alison, Lucy, Lisa and Jane are clearly all written to be complimentary to the foibles of the boys. Alison (Laura Haddock) helps boost Will’s confidence; Lucy (Tamla Kari, a mini Gemma Arterton) helps Simon to stop chasing unattainable dreams; Lisa (Jessica Knappet) is as identically stupid and mad on the ‘dougie’ as Neil is; and overweight Jane (Lydia Rose Bewley) teaches Jay to respect women of all shapes and sizes. None of them are particularly engaging or funny in and of themselves, but the boys’ improving rapport with them makes up the only real trajectory the film has, landing squarely and unsurprisingly in a neat quadruple coupling. How nice.

The Inbetweeners Movie is primarily a gross-out film, in which all graces are abandoned and bodily fluids let loose. This is where most of the obvious humour-cum-wincing is derived from and it’s always been a major part of the series. This isn’t too surprising – being a teenager is perhaps the most visceral time in a person’s life, as one comes to grips with having a body that has desires and limits and fluids and is perhaps not shaped quite like everyone else’s. The corporeality of youth is pushed to the fore here and one can’t help but feel this is a necessary component any feature that describes the horror and confusion of late puberty.

Director Ben Palmer is clever with these abject scenes, at first allowing the audience to imply and imagine certain indecorous things happening off camera, but then unexpectedly, locking the lens onto the purple cock of a club stripper or an unflushed shit. Audiences will react with genuine surprise at how far the envelope gets pushed here. Of course, this kind of thing is likely to shock or disgust those who don’t recognise it’s just a vehicle to startle a guffaw out of viewers. It’s quite an empty feature of the film, and one has to wonder how James Buckley (who plays Jay) came to decide baring his nob in his first ever feature was a wise career move. I doubt it will attract the same critical analysis as when Jennifer Connelly or Natalie Portman did nude scenes.

Malia is portrayed as a swarming whirlpool of fishbowl-fuelled hedonism in which vendors of tanning lotion, Fluro bikinis and novelty oversized sunglasses seem to be really pushing units. Imagine the royal show populated exclusively by drunk schoolies. Despite the youth and vitality of the hundreds of teens there and the pricey beachside lifestyle, it seems a vastly tacky place in which no local culture is experienced, let alone sought out. This is a pretty bleak reflection on Western partying habits, especially as binge drinking and finding a one-night stand having become fundamental components of a night out for a large group of young people, and often live music or entertainment doesn’t even factor in. This might at first look like the perfect arena for a parent-free tale of debauchery, but if you’re going to do a trip movie, why completely ignore the country you’re travelling to? Well, surely that’s the sole purpose of Malia – a kind of culture-neutral 18-25’s-only über bar. I may as well scratch it off my world globe now.

There’s little to be said for the Inbetweeners script. Like the show, it sensitively picks up on all the insensitivities of teen dialogue. This gets repetitive over the two hours, and there’s a heavy dependence on quick gags to string one scene to the next. Apart from this closely choreographed comedy, what you are essentially listening to is the drivel and smut that comes pouring out of the mouths of young men who have no idea what they are talking about but have on hand a hundred filthy words to describe it. This includes more words for vagina than I’ve ever heard before, including the inexplicable ‘clunge’, which The Inbetweeners may as well go ahead and trademark, it’s used so much.

I can’t help wondering what the difference is between The Inbetweeners and American college movies about randy cashed-up teenagers like American Pie or Road Trip. To me, The Inbetweeners is much funnier and seems far more authentic. Not only are the actors the right age (rather than in their mid-twenties), genuinely gawky, lanky, spotty and pallid (rather than hot but with glasses on), but they seem to be genuinely capable of feeling pain. The best thing about the Inbetweeners franchise and part of the reason it has been so popular is its unreserved deployment of humiliation. With absolutely no idea about how to talk to girls, diffuse scuffles, handle money or avoid trouble, the “Pussay Patrol” undergoes a constant barrage of shaming incidents. Unlike a lot of feature films, writers Iain Morris and Damon Beesley appear to have created three-dimensional, endearing characters in Will, Jay, Neil and Simon before any plot was conceived. The relish with which they’ve then forced the boy heroes into tricky situations is palpable, and the resulting shame is expressed really well by Simon Bird and James Buckley especially.

I’ve no doubt billing posters will tag The Inbetweeners Movie as a carefree, Coke-advert-style Summer adventure film, but frankly, the tagline “the rudest thing you will see all Summer” is probably more appropriate. To be clear, I did enjoy The Inbetweeners Movie. Who doesn’t get a laugh out of seeing a 17-year-old weep as he waves off his girlfriend at the airport? Nonetheless, The Inbetweeners Movie is still a unique example of a film about being a teenager that is sincere enough to compel audience sympathy, and also vulgar enough for teenage boys to want to see it. No doubt it will attract many a Jay, Will, Simon or Neil doppelganger. Yet The Inbetweeners Movie will no doubt wind up being described by its rudest moments. A quick list will suffice: “The Inbetweeners: Two dicks, a shit and plenty of vomit”.