Wednesday, December 29, 2010


There is a particular kind of violence that is the common currency for Hollywood directors making big budget action films over the last twenty or so years. It is at once graphic and numbing, and it is the kind of savagery that has parents, teachers and governments concerned for the psychological welfare of youth. Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is a neat example of this: blackish-red blood, ‘illegible’ wounds, camera cuts that do not actually depict the brutal act, the sound of a sack of flour dropping when punches are thrown, Pythonesque spurting gore. It is not hard to identify a high level of stylisation here, but also – predictability. The reason that, for many of us, this kind of film is fairly easy to watch and not lastingly troubling, is that we’ve seen it all before. Here comes that word… we are desensitised because between Apocalypto, Lord of the Rings, Die Hard, Saw, Scary Movie and the Watchmen, film violence has been packaged to be watchable, it’s absent of the erratic oddities of real-life injury and frankly, none of us get that vicarious shudder out of seeing Jason Bourne with that cosmetic dribble of blood over his left eye.

It is necessary to set out this account of arbitrary film violence in order to describe some of the elements of Black Swan. This is because Aronofsky’s highly anticipated film depicts a kind of violence not usually seen in cinema. It’s delicately detailed, unsparing in its clarity. You blink, and unlike a normal film, the image is still there. Most disturbing of all, this bloodshed turns every object that the viewer can see into a possible device of pain – building up a tangible tension the like of which I have only experienced once or twice before. Whilst I felt this was a magnificent film, and an important piece of cinema, particularly in the career or Natalie Portman, I felt upset that I was viewing things that I would rather not, just because I was held to the film by its prestige and quality. I spent no small fraction of my time in the cinema peering gingerly out from between my fingers, by the end credits I noticed the tension and revulsion of the violence had left me mildly nauseous, and I simply felt relief as I got up from my seat. I almost wish I knew the film already, to reduce the tension. I wish my first viewing of Black Swan was actually my second viewing.

Black Swan is at first glance an unlikely location for horror. It takes place in the unforgiving arena of professional classical ballet. In a timeless, masterly performance, Natalie Portman dons tutu and ribboned-pump as Nina Sayers, a technically accomplished, but oft-overlooked ballerina, at a stage of her youth in which she is best primed to launch what could be a prestigious career in the public eye. Her company’s forthcoming production of Tchaikovsky’s seminal Swan Lake and the retirement of the company’s prima ballerina Beth, combine to change Nina’s life. The opportunity to dance the dual part of the Black and White swans (one a virginal maiden, the other a malevolent seductress), provokes her out of her usual demeanour: a sweet, focussed girl, ungraduated into adulthood under the pervading care of her mother Erica, a retired ballerina herself. A misfit in the company due to her naivety and closeted inexperience, she begins to experiment with her sexuality and daring in order to better understand her darker side, to embody the Black Swan and win the role of the Swan Queen.

This film certainly does no favours to the discipline of ballet. Whilst fluffy as a cupcake on stage, ballet requires dedication, unfaltering peak physical fitness, and the sacrifice of much socialising – despite the fact that it is an art that most people won’t ever experience, and which tends to breed a very insular and self-referential community. It is also wearisome to the body – a dancer in their mid-thirties is long past their prime, and probably bears the marks of numerous injuries, particularly to the feet. An ex-dancer I know once told me that you are only a “true ballerina” once your have broken a big toe. There is certainly a lot of ugliness at the periphery of ballet, as there may be with any physical activity. In Black Swan, Aronofsky has gathered up this ugliness and hardship, and laced it together with the age-old narrative of a troubled genius driven to the edge of sanity, society and sanctity by the pursuit of artistic perfection.

What ensues is a tense, unpredictable oscillation of personality. Nina’s natural state of mind resembles the innocent White Swan, but each time she forces herself into the guise of the Black Swan, she has further to go to return to herself, and it is immensely gratifying to watch the twists and layers move like ebbing and flowing waves. The story of Nina’s transformation is so grandiose as to echo the great female dramatic characters of history – Cathy of Wuthering Heights, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Helen of Troy, Salome and Medea. Nina’s story is one that feels like it belongs in the annals of ancient literature, and yet remarkably Nina lives in the same world we do. She owns a mobile phone and rides the subway; her fellow dancers sport naff tattoos, drink cocktails, take uppers, flirt with each other and gossip in the green room. Nina’s turbulent emotional state is only heightened by the normality of those around her, none of whom recognise her turmoil, perhaps because the blueprint for Nina’s troubled personality comes from a tradition of storytelling that we have little equivalent for in this modern world. We no longer live in a time where people die of broken hearts, are possessed by the devil or maintain enemies, yet this seems to be Nina’s internal reality.

Black Swan is a film in which no detail is without meaning. This is no doubt a contributory factor to the film’s already widespread acclaim and will no doubt give it longevity. The music of the Swan Lake ballet, in particular the overture and the iconic The Swan permeate the whole film, the orchestral soundtrack remixing its famous motifs or slowing down the piece almost beyond recognition – warping it to enhance whichever scene it matches. I suspect that apart from some incidental music, the entire soundtrack was lifted from Tchaikovsky’s original score. The leitmotif of black and white is also prevalent, both signifying and bamboozling the viewer’s understanding of the presence of good and evil, truth and illusion, sanity and lunacy.


If the food you eat when you go to the cinema is anything to go by, Tron is the kind of film you watch whilst gulping down a $20.00 carton of popcorn – the kind that’s so large you don’t run out before the end of the film. Sometimes the experience of going to the cinema (snacks from the lobby, the trailers, the plush red seats, the air-conditioning) is more enjoyable than the substance of the film you are seeing. I don’t mean to say that Tron: Legacy is a movie you might see because nothing else is on. Rather, I mean that everything about the film embodies the spirit of blockbuster film culture in the 21st century. This of course is an inadvertent characteristic of a film that is as earnest and full of conviction as any piece of science fiction or major action release.

Falling halfway between a re-make and a sequel, Tron: Legacy is the story of Sam Flynn, son of disappeared tycoon Kevin Flynn and heir to Encom, a successful global software corporation. Being entirely disenfranchised by the drag of his father’s company, Sam has no girlfriend, no friends, no assets and no aspirations. He spends his time playing practical jokes on the acting board of his father’s company, spontaneously base-jumping and performing death-defying acts on his resplendent Ducati. In other words, he is perfectly primed for adventure when he discovers the virtual world of The Grid, where his father has been trapped for 20 years. The Grid is an efficient and spotlessly beautiful world - all is shiny black surfaces, neon lines, polished glass and glowing machinery. Everything is modular – machines pop out of hidden panels, and even the people living there are computerised. Everything on the Grid –the buildings, the people, the vehicles- is sexy. If the iPhone grew on trees, its plantation would surely be sited on The Grid.

Legacy is perfect for 3D, and there are several scenes that make use of that ‘so-real-you-flinch’ effect and which enliven vast expanses or vertiginous heights. There is little denying that The Grid is a brilliant 21st century manifestation of the visual effects of science fiction. It takes elements from Avatar, the Matrix and Transformers, then adds in real-world ingredients from the digital revolution: the recently ended re-hash of all things Eighties, the popularisation of specialised gadgetry and the trend towards a neo-deco penchant for streamlining. The film is also penetrated by CGI face-altering technologies. Jeff Bridges plays both Kevin and Clu. The latter is digitally altered throughout the entirety of the film to resemble a much younger Bridges – the lineless, handsome face we remember from the original Tron. Most importantly, as any Mac product user will tell you, the technology of The Grid is intuitive – no real technical, programming or hardware knowledge is needed to be able to operate the futuristic lightcycles, planes or automated doors*, just as none is needed to use an iPod, a Blackberry or a digital SLR camera.

Daft Punk are in situ as a direct link to our current world, in which style is hallmarked by smooth surfaces, reflective glass and the total invisibility of the gritty inner workings of machinery. Their presence constitutes a brief moment in which the fourth wall falls and director Joseph Kosinski says “this is one for the fans”.

For a film that has the word ‘Tron’ in the title, the character of Tron barely features. Whilst this might be a little confusing for those who haven’t seen the first film, it’s not that important to Legacy. In fact, like many chase/explosion action films, this plot is only lubricated by a viewer’s willing indifference to its inconsistencies. Garret Hedlund’s Sam Flynn is exactly Par, making him conveniently invisible against the glittering spectacle of The Grid, and Jeff Bridges is charming as the outdated arcade owner-cum-spiritual guru, and his part is peppered with some real gems of anachronistic 80s slang, man.

Not unexpectedly, cliché’s abound. Tron: Legacy is fitted out with a complete trifecta of witless exclamations: “Go! Leave me! Save yourself!” plus the unforgettable “What have you become!?” and of course “Perfection was in front of me the whole time, I was just too blind to see it.” Or something like that. Whatever. I may have got the exact wording wrong; I was munching popcorn pretty loudly at the time.

*A Note on Genre-Spotting: The genre of ‘Science Fiction’ in film, may be defined by the presence of automatic sliding doors. These will usually have some kind of ‘ready’ or ‘lock’ light beside them, a swipe-card or bio-recognition panel to trigger access, a female voice advising the user of the space they are entering, and sometimes a burst of white mist to denote the change in pressurisation between the rooms. If a film has an automated door with any or all of these features, it is without a doubt a work of Science Fiction.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Apparently there is, or was rather, a movement in the mid-70’s referred to as Northern Soul, and of which I was wholly oblivious until a few evenings ago. Part of the Summer outdoor programme at Somerville and Joondalup Pines, Soulboy is the rather mild story of a young man living in Stoke-On-Trent, which was a celebrated centre of industrial production for England, but not an exciting place for a young person to live. A little green from his limited experience of subculture, Joe McCain played well by the cheekily-dimpled Martin Compston, and his embarrassing best friend Russ (Alfie Allen) are lured by the charms of a startlingly beautiful blonde into the world of ‘Northern Soul’.

Northern Soul is what it sounds like: the children of rough, blue-collar workers in the North of England catch a shuttle coach once a week down to a resurrected dance hall where they listen to soul music and perform some very tricky dance moves. Accompanying the dance and music, are the various fashion particulars of northern soul: long leather jackets and singlets for the men, circle-cut skirts and bobby socks for the ladies, and a good helping of leather soles and patch-laden bowling bags all round. Soulboy depicts this culture as a short-lived one, yet representative of a unique reaction to the scarceness of enriching popular culture available to young people working in the tired industrial centresx of the North, especially in the economic prosperity enjoyed pre-Thatcher.

This film is pleasant enough, and the dance culture it illuminates is interesting, certainly enough so to be the subject of a film. The plot, however, the story of Joe McCain, is not a captivating one. It is styled as a heartwarming coming-of-age film, yet lurks in the wishy-washy territory between drama, comedy and historical pic. I imagine director Shimmy Marcus’s personal positive mantra was ‘”I will make this year’s Billy Elliot. I will make this year’s Billy Elliot.” It falls very far short of Billy Elliot, however, and no one character behaves in an exceptional manner. Perhaps this film is best described as a snapshot of what a Northern Soul dancer’s experience of the scene was actually like: A normal guy likes to go to a venue, where a bit of romance ensues, as does minor drug-taking and a splash of justified violence, and everything ends up more or less happily, no real lessons learnt. A day-in-the-life, if you will.

The soul music itself is absolutely the best part of this film. As to the rest of it, it’s almost as if a standardized bildunsroman plot, lifted from some classical source, got dipped in a big vat of Northern Soul. Like when the Bell Shakespeare company stages a production of Romeo and Juliet, but sets it in a prohibition-era speakeasy. This is little more than a subculture theme movie.


Ever heard of fan art? Fan fiction? Even fan pornography? Fan of course being the contraction of fanatic, these genres of quasi-creative endeavour constitute the pastimes of obsessives. Favourite subjects for fan-made mash-ups are generally the would-be geeky and marginalised empires that somehow make it main stream and go on to manufacture belt buckles, pencil cases, and plastic figurines. Think Star Wars, Buffy, Harry Potter, Dr. Who, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, the Millenium Triolgy, Seinfeld, the Simpsons, the Matrix, Dan Brown novels, the Chronicles of Narnia, and most recently, the phenomenon of Twilight.

Fan fiction happens because enthusiasts know everything about their preferred universe like the back of their hands, and finding they have exhausted the series, miss the feeling of anticipation. Making use of detailed fictional worlds with extensive hosts of characters, these fan-written devotions are not innovative. They do little else than rearrange existing narratives. Say, a novelette in which Neo discovers that he is actually a software program and has to back himself up on floppy disc. Maybe a short story about a teenage Gandalf making his first suit of armour that Tolkein never detailed. Perhaps an erotic poem where Harry Potter and his ginger buddy compare wands in the owlery.

Whilst in no way as poorly conceived or realised as any of these fan ideas, the new Harry Potter film, called HP7.1 by the die-hards, is certainly approaching the same level of creative bankruptcy as fan fiction. By this I mean that the likelihood that this film will touch you deeply, warm your heart, truly surprise you or really make you think, is next to zero. Like fan-fiction, it’s all about recreating that tantalising, original hype.

This latest film sees Harry (the “Chosen One”*), Ron and Hermione* leave Hogwarts*, to go on the run from the corrupted Ministry of Magic* in a mobile, magically expansive tent. They search for Voldemort’s* Horcruxes*, which are objects they must destroy to help in the fight against evil. Meanwhile Deatheaters* are wreaking havoc and morbid disappearances increase among the muggle* and wizarding* communities alike.

* - Please see all other Harry Potter films, and/or read all Harry Potter novels

After six other films, what can you do, really, other than produce a film “a lot darker” or “more sexy” than the last film. No great departures are made, and even those that are present, such as a charming animated sequence, or the inclusion of a conspicuous Nick Cave track.

The truth is, the Harry Potter films are on a trajectory that was set when the first film was released, and are bound to it by the oppressive, yet worthy insistence of their literary origins. I don’t doubt that fans of the books will take is as give that they’ll see each film. Unfortunately, I don’t anticipate they will be doing so with much gusto, as the original target audience for Harry Potter (who where the same age as Harry when the books were published) are now in their early twenties, so by the time HP7.2 is released in 2011, they will have outgrown the characters too far to meet the no doubt momentous conclusion with the same excitement as they once might have.

Non-fans will be less interested, especially if they are not up-to-date with the other films. When my distinctly non-fan boyfriend asked me what HP7.1 was like, I explained to him thus: Yes, it is darker than the last. Yes, there were better special effects. Yes, I saw a little more flesh and a little more stubble. Yes, more veteran British comedians and ensemble actors starred. Yes, more main characters died. No, I can’t tell you anything you haven’t already heard. No, you do not have to come to HP7.2 with me.


A very pleasing exercise in the complexities and confusions of the modern family, The Kids Are All Right is the latest film by Californian director Lisa Cholodenko. But you may know it as “that one with the lesbian moms and the sperm donor”. Even put that simply, lesbian marriage, unknown paternity and artificial insemination are by no means trifling subjects for a film to offer. This is particularly so in the wake of some rather disappointing negative decisions and attitudes regarding the legal status of gay marriage. In lurid contrast to this inequality is the apparent normalisation of gay marriage presented in gaggy TV show Modern Family, the “gay wedding” of Sex and the City 2, and the high-profile same-sex marriages of Elton John to David Furnish and Ellen DeGeneres to Portia De Rossi.

Lesbian relationships, by nature of the regrettably uneven receptions they receive, are a delicate territory for portrayal in a film. Depicting one of the couple as “the man”, or introducing excessive cross-dressing or sexually explicit slang would definitely be a faux-pas here. This is not only because this film is about family, but because at least in part, it documents the graduation gay parents into the popular vocabulary – it’s a demonstration of our near future, wherein we will see more and more gay couples bringing up children without any of the special attention or stigma they would have received even ten or twenty years ago.

As you might imagine, the problems facing mothers Jules (Juliane Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening), are the trifling ones facing any family with adolescent children. Their concerns over their kids’ performance at school, awkwardly budding sexuality and questionable friendship ties are interrupted after their daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska, fresh from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) turns eighteen, and at the suggestion of her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson), asserts her legal right to contact the man who donated sperm in order for her mothers to conceive them both. Their expectations upon meeting this man are a formed from a complicated mix of defensiveness, feelings of abandonment, apparent longing for a father figure, curiosity and interest in the genetic heritage of their own talents and tastes.

The meeting proves that the question “Where did I come from?” is most often followed by “what will I do now that I am here?” Perhaps the most singular aspect of this film’s plot, and a magnificent matter to write about, is the fact that family are not chosen, however the arrival of sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo) necessitates a choice that most people will not ever have to make, and for which no status quo exists: who will we let into our family?

The characters of this film are exceptionally strong, and all performances are imbued with a romance and a comic clumsiness. Not a scene goes by without some kind of awkward pause, unconsidered comment, or hilariously banal conversation forced out by some previously un-navigated social arrangement. This is all whilst remaining a relatable story, and showing how easy it is for any of us to make poor decisions or panic ourselves into conversing in the inane. Very intimate handheld camera-work heightens the comedic impact of the awkwardness, yet also has the lovely effect of assuring the viewer of the safety of these characters’ dignity – we feel so close to them that we know their humiliations will ‘stay in the room’, or rather, in their family.

Also of note is writer-director Cholodenko’s inclination to demonstrate and develop the personality their characters in a quite curious manner. Further to a central conflict, the characters of the children have their own enclosed stories that are furnished by very minor characters. Whilst these do not develop in the same dramatic manner as the main story, or serve a great deal towards showing the children in any more depth (not that we are in want of depth), they do work as an eloquent narrative mark. They help us to be aware of the potential tales the children may go on to forge, showing each member of the family has their own life outside of it.

The Kids Are All Right might be the best film about close or complicated relationships I have seen this year. It’s a well-loved gimic for an actor to shout ‘Cut! Cut! What’s my motivation?’ yet I don’t hesitate in saying that the best part of this film, for me, is that these are characters who don’t have a grand plan. They act without thinking, without anticipating repercussions, or out of emotional reflex, just like many of us do, and they can only know what they want by experiencing all the alternatives first.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Already the darling of the Sundance Film Festival, Winter’s Bone comes to Australia with much endorsement and accolade. As I watched this masterpiece, I recalled the scoring system used in driving examinations: a candidate starts with 100% and loses a mark for every misplaced step to determine a final grade. If it were to be marked in this way, Winter’s Bone surely never put a foot wrong.

Unsettling and with unique character from the start, Winter’s Bone is a tale of deterioration and extinction. In the freezing and pristine Ozark woodlands, seventeen-year-old mountain girl Ree Dolly (played with early genius by Jennifer Lawrence) leads a primal, but peaceful existence. Ree is burdened by a mother who is mentally decimated by drug-use and violence. She provides for a brother of twelve and a sister of six and we learn that her conspicuously absent father is neck deep in methamphetamine production and drug feuds. Ree cares for her broken family attentively and firmly, and represents one of the strongest, most admirable and singularly beautiful female protagonists to grace the screen in several years.

The Ozark woodland setting gives this film much of it ominousness. It’s inhabitants all seem to be related in some way, and appear prematurely aged. No new money has come to the area in a long time; front yards are desolate wastelands of broken toys, porches are draped with rocks, bones and furs and locals hunt and prepare their own meat. The visual character of the setting is immediately tangible. All is grey and splintered: the houses, the woods, the people, their possessions. Each property is isolated and residents keep to themselves, as it’s commonly known that meth labs, crack abuse, violence and ruthless family dynasties have long strangled the life and potential from the area. I recently learned that one of the beliefs of Scientologists is that there is a small fraction of people in the world who are not good for you. You might call them ‘Poisonous’. These people must be recognised and removed from your life in order to have a good one. The Ozark woods of Winter’s Bone may well be the place where these nasty people proliferate from, and woe betide anybody who is stuck in the midst of their backwater world.

Drugs and murder have left Ree with no resources, just her resilience. She has long survived her beautiful yet brutal environment by staying close to home and ensuring she is never a witness or informed about any shady goings-on. This is short-lived, however, when “the Law” informs her that she will lose the family home if her absent father doesn’t show up for a court date, and must set out to find him. In such a volatile place, Ree is forced to seek information from dangerous distant family whom she would not normally pursue to find a father she has only reflex love for. Her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes), an unpredictable addict, provides her with a little direction, at the cost of being drawn closer into the volatile heart of her extended family’s corruption.

There is a common technique used in American script-writing across many genres that is employed as an easy way to agitate or stimulate the viewer: the protagonist ‘goes down that corridor’, or ‘doesn’t run away from the monster’ or ‘goes into the dark cellar’. Simply put, they do something the audience would not, and we all say ‘No! Don’t do that!’ Winter’s Bone is exceptional. Ree is written as a woman who knows how to stay out of trouble, but is forced into it, rather than makes mistakes or poor decisions that don’t match her character and are written in for momentum’s sake. Even whilst in the proximity of ugliness or danger, she rarely loses control of herself, and it is this steeliness and outright valour that makes her such a fascinating character, and a joy to behold. Ree does do what the audience would do, and proves that an incredible story can be formed without relying on unlikelihoods to build a plot.

Everything about this film seems to echo decay and stagnation. The music is bittersweet yet antiquated; there are barely any youthful characters, adulthood and hardiness seeming to take over before childhood has ended. The army or the drug ring are the only career options, and when there are children to be taken care of, leaving the gritty woodland is an impossibility. This is stated with huge impact in a very sweet exchange between Ree and an army recruitment officer, played with sensitivity by Russell Schalk.

Winter’s Bone could be described as a survival film, as it illustrates the lengths that humans may go to in order to ensure their own continuation, filing savagery, paranoia or isolation under ‘necessity’. It is also a story of hope, of personal strength, and a cautionary tale suggesting that the best way to survive is to quickly identify and dissociate oneself from those who might be dangerous. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is a triumph, and I have rarely come across a character I have cared more deeply about than Ree Dolly.


I have spent a lot of time in Australian country towns, usually staying in rural hotels with my extended family. These small towns are curious places. On a Sunday in the Wheat belt, nothing is open. The locals stay home. The main street is deserted. I don’t mean quiet – I am the only one there. The few historical buildings that make up the skeleton of the town huddle around the main street, their un-rendered brick backsides leading off to not much else. Apart from a Coca-Cola sticker on a corner shop window, an orange-topped phone booth, or a ‘For Sale’ sign outside a failed gallery or gourmet café, many of these towns don’t seem to sport any signs that the digital age, the 21st century has arrived. It has of course; rural citizens have Wiis and broadband and wireless EFTPOS, it’s all just hidden behind a Careema green linoleum bar top, or beneath the flap of a dri-za-bone.

Perhaps my favourite thing about country towns is that there is only one of everything. One pub, one post office, one health clinic, one deli, one restaurant, one tractor hire, one butchery, one police station, one school and (if you’re lucky) one public pool or recreation centre. All of these singular ablutions hug a long, single road, usually called High Street. The town personnel are also often in the singular: one GP, one baker, one publican, one cop, one MP and so on.

So, a country town is almost like a play set or a kit. Each set comes with one of everything, standard issue, and this is what makes Australian country towns the perfect arenas for a Western-style shootout film. There are limited characters and locations, and we can easily grasp the characters’ positions and watch them play out their strategies within this diorama-like micro-map, like we would watch a game of chess unfold. Red Hill represents the whole world in one tension-riddled street. Characters in hiding watch the stage in the centre of the main road as though waiting in the wings, and all major discoveries, risks and statements are made centre-stage, where they permeate the whole of Red Hill with dread.

Red Hill is an insular country town, full of civic pride and staunch resistance to change, but with little going for it culturally, socially or historically. Newly transferred from the city, Ryan Kwanten’s Shane Cooper and heavily pregnant wife Alice (Clare van der Boom) are looking to settle into a peaceful rural idyll, to bring up their soon-expected baby boy. In a town where everybody knows everybody and they all have dark secrets lying close to the surface, Cooper struggles to befriend anybody. Red Hill is played out over a single day and night - Cooper’s contracted first day on a Hellish beat.

The great enemy of the Red Hill police force is convict Jimmy Conway, newly escaped from a nearby high security prison after allegedly attempting to assassinate Red Hill police officers. Wearing an akubra, overcoat, crossed ammunition belts, wielding a sawn-off shotgun, and with Twoface-style scarring on his face, Conway is the very picture of dogged retribution. Whatever he is coming to do, it’s clear he won’t back down ‘til it’s over. Jimmy Conway is also conspicuously the only Aboriginal character in the film, which appears to be an illustration of some kind of latent intolerance and ignorance about Aboriginal culture in rural Australia. A sweeping gesture, perhaps, but one that certainly highlights some persistent pockets of out-dated attitudes that exist all over the country, in small towns and in big cities. This point exists only as a premise, however, for what is a rollicking Western-flavoured thriller, and a mysterious, twist-riddled revenge story.

Ryan Kwanten has certainly come a long way since Home And Away (an idiotic TV show) and the addictive True Blood (in which he plays an idiot). Whist the unimpulsive-young-copper-with-pregnant-wife role is a classic one, his performance is admirable, his character a level above his previous roles. Performances by Steve Bisley (the town sheriff) and Tommy Lewis (the vindictive Conway) outshine Kwanten’s, despite being written as impressionistically sinister roles.

As a fast-paced thriller Red Hill is immensely satisfying, and makes the best possible use of all of the components of small-town Australian culture. Writer-director Patrick Hughes, made this film entirely independent of funding, and has therefore produced a singularly Australian re-working of a film that, had it been made in Hollywood, would have been utterly common, full of one-liners and ridiculous explosions. In Australian, and less well-funded hands, this film reaches its maximum potential as an exercise in tension, and an illumination of the Australian country culture that we don’t know whether to embrace or to laugh off.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


At its core, Monsters is a film about the wreckage of conflict. Whether it be by the hand (or tentacle, rather) of an alien race, by nuclear decimation, warring or poverty, civilisation is in a constant state of minor reclamation by the landscape. Whenever a part of our world falls down, nature is there to smooth it over, or indeed it is nature that destroys it. Monsters is a disaster film set in the retrospective. Its exposition is neat: we are in a post-alien world, as colossal iridescent cephalopods roam and ravage the US/New Mexico border. The world goes on living just the same outside a demarcated ‘infected zone’ (somewhat unimaginative titling). Nearby the zone vast memorials and vigils are maintained to commemorate victims of the Creatures, which are not malicious, just wildly destructive. Photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) and disenfranchised tourist/marriage escapee Sam (Whitney Able) try to make it home through the zone just as the area it encloses begins to expand with the success of the monster’s habitation in the jungle.

Monsters is not a big budget film. There are next to no special effects (although those present are eloquent). Camerawork is largely limited to a head-height tracking of the main characters and sweeping shots of the surrounds, which gives the film a sense of urgency during tense moments, and a kind of bored intimacy in between. In order to ‘catch up’ the viewer, there is a heavy reliance upon incidental prop-signage (government signs, TV news items, newspaper headlines) to communicate the breadth of damage caused by the presence of the aliens. Occasionally these signposts are too simple, or oddly in English despite their location in Mexico, and are overall a little too noisy. When the plot moves its two hackneyed travellers into the jungle, this level of reliance upon media formats to set the scene is shaken off, and the quality of the story ripens. It is in the jungle that a true Odyssean struggle can take place, where wave after wave of misfortune, encounters and oases are burst upon by our heroic pair. The infected zone is the place in which they are changed, and also the setting in which this narrative is at its most unique and spectacular. The proximity of the two main characters with the creatures is in steady incline throughout their journey. This build-up is contrasted against their sense of removal from the wired-in everyday. Their trek through the danger zone is intended to be brief, a means to and end, a shortcut home. Instead, a sense of permanence seeps in to their struggle through the wilderness, as they adapt to constant peril.

Monsters is not really the indi-romance it is made out to be. Whilst its two main characters happen to be waifish, culturally sensitive, untalkative nomads, their relationship develops in a manner befitting of a fully-fledged drama. Its evolution is tethered to reality, and its impact is powerful. It doesn’t exist in order to neatly tie up loose ends at the conclusion of the film, and seems to have a certain realism. The couple’s connection is formed out of a shared experience, where they rely on one another for emotional strength, rather than lust or mutual attraction in the Hanks/Ryan sense.

After viewing Monsters, I would also tend to shrug off any declaration that it is the ‘District 9’ of this year. There are similarities of course, the issue of containment borders, the comparatively small budgets, the circumvention of big name actors in favour of unknowns. Despite this, District 9 had a distinct political agenda, which pulled focus, and secondary to this, it aimed for entertainment value much more highly through its use of dark comedic undertones, special effects, action sequence and more simplistic romantic elements. Monsters is a film with less in it. It’s selective. This is the crux of the difference between the two.

This is a film as strewn with political metaphor as its sets are with debris and bodies. These images, however, are jumbled together so that no single reading can be divined; A huge Berlin-style wall separates us from the Aliens; Passing through the borderland between the US and Mexico requires tricky or underhanded immigration techniques; The US government has set up a semi-permanent presence in alien territory, constantly sending fighters and unmanned bombers over the region; The use of gases and chemical weaponry is an ominous rumour; The impoverished townships near the disaster zone are unstable and largely ignored internationally vis-à-vis welfare. Whilst it could very well be argued that this plethora of allusions constitutes some kind of singularity, or uniqueness to the film, it could also, and equally, be considered to draw too heavily upon disparate political and military histories. Perhaps the latter is more likely. For a creature film, Monsters seems to miss out on an opportunity to build up a new world, an alternate future with new rules and circumstances. It forgoes the Science Fiction tradition of invention. Instead, we see a future that, despite the presence of the titular Monsters, has progressed no further than its current state. If aliens landed tomorrow, we (I mostly mean America) would probably shoot at them and cause the carnage of whichever civilisation they happened to crash into. We are not ready to interact with aliens any more than the nations of the world are able to amicably interact with each other.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


George Clooney is Jack ‘The American’, an emotionally exhausted professional assassin hiding out in the rustic mountaintop village of Castel Del Monte in Italy. His existence in the normally idyllic town is somewhat pathetic. Jack works at the beck and call of brusque paymaster Pavel (Johan Leyson), completing one last illegal weapon order for the beautiful Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Jack rises and retires each day with a gun at his fingertips and extreme paranoia in his red, wearied eyes. He is a man plagued by attempts on his life, and as far as we can tell, he has no home, history or friends.

Jack is unable to truly enjoy his postcard surroundings, and as an unsympathetic protagonist, prevents the viewer from enjoying it either. This is not because the town isn’t beautiful. Corbijn’s camera constantly lingers after the narrative action of a scene has finished, simply to drink in the scenery. The whole film resembles a vast landscape photograph filled with mountains, ancient villas, cobblestones, swirling fog and green forests, with the conspicuous portrait of a strung out Clooney off to the side. As may be hinted at by the title, being American (especially an American in cinema) is to be conspicuous, to bring your own gaze upon everything you come across, never able to assimilate into any other culture, no matter where you go. It is this incongruence Clooney emanates in an admirable, highly controlled performance, providing us with a lens through which to view the setting of the film. This lens, one might argue, is that of the Hollywood action film.

Saccharine riverside picnics become strenuous, potential shoot-outs and the affections of a wide-eyed village girl (Violante Placido) are met with extreme suspicion. All of the passing villagers are possible hitmen, quaint cafés may descend into gunfight arenas, cosy cobbled alleys become escape routes and even an innocent passing butterfly can only be appreciated as ‘endangered’. Jack’s anxiety turns the picturesque into the puzzling. It doesn’t make sense for beauty to exist in a place so wrought with threat and conspiracy. In fact, it’s a little inconvenient, annoying almost, for clear and present danger to be interrupted by spontaneous love affairs, long strolls with canny, stoic Catholic priests, or fine Italian wines and cheeses. What’s more, a viewer mightn’t want Jack to enjoy them, being a generally bland character who shows only hints of, simply put, character. This is a poster-film for retirement, for “getting a life” more than it is one for Italian getaways.

As we know from viewing countless spy movies, it is impossible for an agent, killer or operative to outlive his or her career. By the logic of cinema history, Jack has limited paths to follow; he might be a killer all his life, he might die in the course of his work, or he might try to escape the cycle by attempting to kill all his connections. There is no bloodless option. The audience already knows this. They knew it before the title sequence rolled, and they certainly knew it before Jack did. The notion of a violent life leading to a violent death or, if you will ‘once a killer, always a killer’, is not a new one, however seems to be one of the foremost themes in a film where overarching meaning is otherwise thin on the ground. How disappointing. How many cautionary tales do we need regarding the perils of becoming a professional assassin? Is this really a pressing concern?

The American is paced by a gradual build-up of tension, which in itself is an admirable quality for a film to possess, however it does so at the expense of true drama. The violence of this film is staid to the point that any action or chase sequences do less to motivate the plot or the tension than they do to alleviate frustration at the otherwise meandering pace of the film. Action relief, if you will.

Whilst this is an intricately woven film in a visual sense (symbolic motifs, recurring imagery, the altering of physical appearance to mirror the internal state of the character), the script itself remains impressionistic. Conversations are short, acting exists primarily in the realm of facial expression, and even when there is dialogue, it is only present in order to suggest what is being shared between characters. The look of each character, their posture, their face and clothing, say everything else. This may come down to Corbijn’s background as a photographer. I imagine there might have been a photograph pinned up in Corbijn’s studio during filming of The American, handsomely framing the image of a moody American and a superstitious priest at a dank kitchen table. The film version of this scene seemed to me to be part of an album of shady encounters, a film truly photographic in appearance. Like a photo, I know nothing about the past or future of the encounter in each scene, and I cannot know the true thoughts or nature of those within it. All I can do is put the photographs together in chronological order to form a brief story about the present, finding patterns, seeking out recurring images, locating changes in expression and appreciating the splendour of each picture as it is presented to me. 6.5

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


The Social Network is an exceptionally dark film that offers up a veritable smorgasbord of every negative impact that digitised socialising has been accused of causing, from selfishness and delusion, to cyber bullying and social alienation. Justin Timberlake plays slimy Sean Parker, disgraced Napster founder, and Zombieland’s Jesse Eisenberg returns to über-nerd territory as the intensely geeky Mark Zuckerberg, inventor of social networking site Facebook. It is a film that addresses a huge array of concerns, many of which are not resolved, reflective of the fact that the Facebook story is not over – the site and its culture are still growing and evolving. A dank but forgettable score by Trent Reznor faintly permeates the film.

Mark Zuckerberg and Harvard college roommate Eduardo Saverin brought Facebook to life in 2003, in their dormitory, in a whirlwind of drunken ambition. Their cares were few: the site’s success (counted in ‘hits’) and finding girls who will sleep with them because of it. They disregarded much: issues of property theft, friendship betrayals, hacking, Internet privacy, cheating, misleading contracts and lawsuits. The film never quite explains whether Zuckerberg is guilty of cruelty or is simply too young and socially immature to make wise decisions or consider impacts on others. Rather, the focus is on the consequences of Zuckerberg’s unsociable behaviour, egotism and illustrates his coldness to a level approaching Camus’ ‘The Outsider’.

It is easy to imagine some women will find this film offensive. The phrases ‘meeting girls’ and ‘getting laid’ are used synonymously. Females are portrayed as either ‘crazy’ techno-addicts or as the fleshy rewards that come with success and prestige, to be plied with drugs and alcohol, slept with and then ignored when leisure time is over. I am told this is true-to-life, not a directorial device, despite its effectiveness in casting the ethics of Facebook-use into uncertainty. Only one beautiful, articulate female is present and she shines as a beacon for healthy relationships and moral behaviour amongst the superficiality that orbited the birth of Facebook.

When Facebook first emerged in 2003, it easily fit on a shelf that contained all other social networking sites. It facilitated all manner of narcissism and gratuity. To have Facebook or Myspace or Friendster was akin to watching reality TV or reading tell-all tabloid magazines: it was a guilty pleasure. But Facebook became something else, something transcending cool or uncool. Its simple blue-and-white design resembles that of Google and Apple, whose projected ethos’ combine democracy, philanthropy and equity.

Facebook seems to have absorbed some of that ethos over the last few years. It has hosted some of the most soul-lifting feats of fundraising, petitions and campaigns for all manner of worthy causes. All users have the same page layout. Separated Families can keep in touch. There is the semblance of user privacy. It’s convenient. Its perceived virtues are easy to list. The Social Network is a film that comes at a time when Facebook membership is (as ever) at an all-time high, but more than that, its social assimilation is peaking. ‘Facebook’ is a verb now! Like the telephone, TV or microwave, it is useful and for many, indispensable. In this climate, it is easy to assume that like the image of Google or Apple, Facebook is a manifestation of some kind of sincere desire to interact with people, to make life easier, to help human beings meet each other, all for free, for the good of the world. We needed this film, now, to remind us of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The Social Network is a reminder to never take social networking too seriously. The film’s small central cast perform a warning: no matter how pliable a social networking site may appear, it can never do justice to the person it represents. No amount of money, hits, site members or company shares could improve the lot of Mark Zuckerberg, who is styled here as the 21-year-old billionaire with only one friend.

The rhythm of this film aims for a late redemptive arc. Unfortunately, the exposition so perfectly portrays its characters as selfish and unfeeling, that any gesture towards explaining that behaviour is unconvincing. One feels that the line ‘you’re not a bad person’ was the result of some stipulation that Zuckerberg contractually required the filmmakers to include. Perhaps this portrait of a seriously handy website born out of a socially rancid collegiate clique was meant as a warning against the evils of ‘online life’, but I doubt it. Rather, it proves that any project or occupation requiring total immersion and specialisation will probably cause extreme alienation. In creating Facebook, Zuckerberg formed his own world of hits, programming terminology and legal contempt, which outsiders couldn’t penetrate. The same applies to the world of Facebook: it has its own rules and dialects. Its formalities and etiquettes are as stringent as those of Victorian courting or royal audiences. If we let it, it will soak into the way we talk, write and interact so that it becomes yet another barrier which stands between two people understanding, appreciating and caring for one another.

I won’t be deleting my Facebook account, but watching this, I was tempted. 7/10

Sunday, October 3, 2010


The pairing of ‘bromedy’ heavyweights Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg was a cataclysm very obviously predetermined by the laws of ‘loudmouth gravitational pull’ and ‘money-making’. The timing of this film is actually rather good. Ferrell and Wahlberg seem to have a lopsided chemistry that is more believable and dare I say it, complex, than the classic angry cop/nerdy cop routine that has been gathering momentum of late in Hollywood. This film also follows the Tracey Morgan/Bruce Willis cringe-comedy ‘Cop Out’, and does a much better job of staying within its own boundaries, despite covering almost exactly the same territory. Although improving the US interpretation of this niche genre, one cannot help but reminisce about the premier film of this kind, from Britain, the Frost/Pegg double-bill Hot Fuzz. The Other Guys certainly falls very far short of this mark.

Self-conscious double-lead genre films like this one generally survive on two things: continuous, deprecating banter and allusions to ‘serious’ cop films and TV programs. The Other Guys is no exception. It goes so far in its references to other films as to include Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson amongst the cast as cops who are two, well, badasses. Any writing falling outside of these two categories, by virtue of its conspicuousness, has to be memorable. This is where this film is most disappointing. Perhaps the most innovative plot device is one in which Ferrell’s character Allen Gamble openly deflates his wife’s self-esteem by referring to her plain looks. The wife is played by the curvaceous Eva Mendes, who is anything but average-looking. This is not, I am sure you will agree, comic genius.

Despite potholes in the script, the film is full of fun explosions, city car chases, quite memorable casting (Steve Coogan does a turn as a corporate patsy) and most endearingly, the fractured angry patter of Ferrell and Wahlberg themselves. The two are a well-suited duo, neither quite committing to the dominance or subservience of the other, and are particularly prone to spontaneous acts of violence in the name of passion or drama. This is a film angled at fans of Ferrell and Wahlberg’s previous films (‘movies’ might be a better term here), and of fast-paced comedy that still works even if you forget the particulars of the plot, didn’t pay attention to the plot, or couldn’t in fact locate a coherent plot at all. 6.5


Boy is the tremendously comic latest offering from ultra-Kiwi Taika Waititi, that follows in the loping footsteps of his seminal Eagle Vs Shark. This is a film peppered with nostalgia for the cult of 1984. Characters swoon after Micheal Jackson’s Thriller and ruminate on the poetic moments of Spielberg’s E.T., all is drenched in a sweet Kiwi glaze.

It is a common narrative technique, where a child is protagonist, for the author to sever the child’s connection to authority. Usually this means orphaning or estranging a character from their parents, in order for them to be free to rise to the heights that a dramatic narrative conflict demands, without the intrusions of safety, common sense or reluctance. The titular Boy, played with charm and poise by James Rolleston is left adrift in New Zealand’s pastoral East Coast, having lost his father to prison, mother to death during childbirth and his grandmother leaves town to attend a funeral. In their absence he fabricates an alternative life for his family, triggered by the return of his long-lost father, Alamein, combining tender domesticity with the dizzying heights of his delusions after fame and fortune.

The remote lives of Boy and his friends are portrayed as some kind of indicative test for the cultural significance of world events. MJ, arcade games and samurai films have penetrated the imaginations of the characters, but their lives seem untouched by politics, economy, religion or ‘highbrow’ cultural pursuits. This NZ litmus marks out pulp cultural phenomena as being a prime source of inspiration and escapism: if it takes off in this town, it’ll take off anywhere.

Fans of Eagle vs. Shark will recognize Waititi’s impassioned level of involvement in his own world, this time having included himself amongst the cast, many of whom are non-actors or unknowns. Writing himself into the role of Boy’s long-absent father adds a layer of potency and interest. His character fluctuates smoothly between the pathetic paternal failure and ‘Best Dad Ever’. Curiously, Waititi’s blueprint for the perfect father, despite being projected outwardly by a character who is a child, reflects an adult understanding of how kids glorify their parents, and a distinct nostalgia for childhood in the 80s. Accordingly, the character of Boy is singularly capable of caring for and raising his brothers and sisters, exhibiting sympathy and justice beyond his years. It may be a reading uninvited by the film, but Boy, his father Alamein, and director Taika Waititi resemble the Father, Son and Holy Ghost: A youth with the wise soul of a man, a father glorified in absentia, and the intangible presence of love, nostalgia and history that a family shares. Like the Holy Trinity, these three overlap and entangle in each others’ memories, interests and especially their love, rural New Zealand life in the 1980s.

The arc of this film is accelerated by a somewhat torrential use of montage and time-lapse editing. This approach is a slight departure from the perfection of the opening act of the film, wherein every fragment of dialogue is delivered so as to be utterly hilarious, yet pleasingly familiar. Hats off to Waititi for the line “Who can tell me what disease this sheep has got?” delivered by Boy’s teacher, a man in a sweaty singlet, who smokes out the classroom window. This comic momentum fades in and out of density, but lands in a place that is rewarding and triumphant.

Go and see Boy, you egg. 8

Monday, September 20, 2010


Anybody who has seen the “I saw you coming” sketches from British comedy series ‘Ruddy Hell it’s Harry and Paul’ will be familiar with the character of the vintage furniture dealer cum vulture. Please Give deviates little from this conception that the second-hand goods industry is the abode of those who buy cheaply from the vulnerable and sell at cost to the obscenely rich.

Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt excel as two sarcastic Manhattanites whose business turns profit from death, acquiring ‘newly-trendy’ furniture from deceased estate. In this commercial arena, quality and price are polar extremes. Their lives unfold gradually in very intimate, sharp spates of dialogue, shot in the few places this family, and their neighbours inhabit. These snippets of exposition are of a very particular rhythm, so that the first act functions almost as an organism; the ensemble cast are the various diseased organs, through which cruel or derogatory banter pulses like a heartbeat.

It is very difficult to sympathise with this set of characters, all of whom compromise their goodwill by habitually directing it towards individuals they can never really be sure will benefit from it. The title, Please Give, hints at the poisonous effect that indulging your inner do-gooder can have if you are only ever moved by pity when acting charitably, not by hope. That is, the bleeding heart cannot offer solace to those in need, no matter how much they give, because they do not place hope or optimism in their donation. They do not expect the recipient to improve their lot, and are blind to the selfish fact that this consistency comforts them.

Perhaps one of the most curious truths that this film illuminates is the changing nature of charity in a commercial city. Whether it is a gifted gesture of love to a close friend, or a crumpled twenty-dollar note thrust into the hand of a homeless person, money is often necessarily combined with true sympathy and altruism. This is not to say that the aphorism ‘it’s the thought that counts’ no longer applies in a corporate world. The thought always will count, but it may take the form of cash, or gifts, just as often as it manifests through gestures of a more ephemeral nature, like compliments, spending time with somebody, or letting a person know they are valued.

The impact of this film resides a great deal in its camerawork. Cropped mid-shots are abundant, small rooms and brownstone-lined avenues give the impression of a life lived in ‘storeys’. Humans are stacked up on top of one another, resenting their proximity, but also relying on each other to fill their lives with, well, life. This is most beautifully illustrated in the title credits; a sweet, bashful montage of the compression of breasts between cold perspex during Mammogram procedures. It seems that the more this fragile, pink-tipped, feminine organ is compacted against the plastic, the less it is able to comfortably fit within the confines of the machine, and the more its natural shape is compromised.

As is often the case in this kind of New York ensemble film, redemption and reconciliation are at hand in the second act. I would suggest in this case, however, that they do not come merely to offer up satisfaction to an audience, but rather to better contour the trajectory of a life lived in what Satre would describe as ‘Bad Faith’. Where truth and action do not speak to one another. This film is riddled with expressions of optimism and hope, but not as a warning against misdirected charity. Rather, all gestures of goodwill should be motivated by a desire to encourage, support and foster improvement. 8.5

Sunday, September 12, 2010


The flier for Chris Morris’ latest film Four Lions is half-covered with a rhythmic grid of quotes, all saying the same word: “FUNNY”. This film is mercilessly so. In contemporary London, five Islamic extremists knock about their sub-railroad apartment, quibbling and exchanging affectionate banter over their bomb kits and machetes. These are characters whose penchant for quoting the popular terrorist vernacular detracts nothing from the sincerity with which they aspire to greatness through martydom.

This film pulls together a ‘greatest hits’ of some of the most horrific and farcical of all terrorist bungles, accentuating the meaningless nature of blowing up an equally meaningless Western corporate landmark. Rather, human life is presented as the most valuable asset, for both Islamic and Western cultures. The point at which this film cheekily diverges from black comedy into drama is certainly catalysed by a split in that rumination on life – that it can be utilised as a weapon, or preserved as a treasure, and there will always be somebody would can interpret a death into martyrdom. The hallmarks of a traditional martyrdom are pulled apart and the viewer cannot but equate the success of a terrorists’ whole life, by the magnitude of the damage he causes when he dies.

It is very easy to fall in love with Morris’ characters, but equally easy to forget, or perhaps ignore the consistency of their path towards destruction and death. This film is almost compulsorily hilarious – we cannot help but laugh at things we wouldn’t want to find humorous, showing us how it is possible to feel elated over something as abhorrent as terrorism. Pay careful attention to the effect the Acoustica closing song has on you.

After watching this film I briefly suspected that its most challenging aspect was that it made you sympathise with the ‘enemy’. I quickly realised that the conflict between my Western values and those of extremists was far less confusing to my moral compass than the way that the film scintillated between tragic drama and farce. I felt that I had been fooled in a manner almost complimentary to my own values, that my knowledge of film genre and convention was keeping me from becoming an extremist too. 8.5


A popular criticism of Australian filmmaking seems to be that many of the idioms Australians agree upon as inherent to their culture, actually fit squarely into what could be described as ‘kitsch’. These idioms often find form in nasal aphorisms like ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’, and ‘never dob in a mate’, and are very clunkily layered into many Aussie films and TV. Think Packed to the Rafters or the Lurid Australia. Animal Kingdom is the antithesis to the souvenir-from-home feel of Australian drama.

For once, it is not the landscape that is imbued with immense age, and the white newcomer with youth, but the opposite. We have an underworld scenario; characters ruptured from their connection with place or community, instead relying on a nigh-incestuous family unit to facilitate their careers in heroin dealing, dodging the police and keeping mum. This is an extraordinarily tense film, a circulatory system of poisonous characters, most notably Jacki Weaver’s matriarch ‘Janine’ and the unstable ‘Pope’ played to singularity by Ben Mendelsohn. The stressfulness of the family’s every day lives, steering and oversteering away from incarceration and violence never quite lets up, unless it is in such a way that audiences are forced to suspect a false calm.

Perhaps the most memorable moments in this piece are in its opening scenes, in which the vulnerable ‘J’ (James Frecheville) and his ill-fated mother doze on a couch in a brick-rise flat, Deal or No Deal garishly beaming into their deathly quiet living room. At the centre of this film is a masterful use of something like an Australian Realism; a grave, relatable and cosy set of familiar places, objects and family banter.

For example, the memorable final scenes unfold over a lacklustre barbeque in which two brothers eat supermarket sausages wrapped in white slices of Tip Top. Not every Australian could say they’ve swum in a desert hot spring or gulped down an Emu Bitter in a dusty corrugated iron shack, but I’m sure a far greater number have eaten a snag in white bread, or switched on the telly at five thirty to hear elated contestants gesticulate ‘No Deal!’ 9


Perhaps it is best to approach this mildly endearing documentary with the knowledge that it is made by Chris Rock firmly in the back of your head. As a comedian, Rock lacks skill as an interviewer, and is largely unable to get his guests and subjects to state their opinions clearly, allowing them to waffle in order to get on friendly terms with him. He always opts for the charming quip over insightful questioning.

Despite this inherent flaw, Rock has pulled together more than enough material for a wide survey of the nature of black, or nap hair culture in America, and much of the coherence lost in the interview process is revived through clever editing. This is not a scornful documentary, even though there are numerous ethical grievances to be attributed to many salon practises (buying human hair from temples and running sodium hydroxide over the scalps of salon-goers to smooth out the tresses). This seems, rather, to be a portrait of a female love affair with personal improvement.

It falls in neatly with a number of other concerned commentaries on the increase of image-obsession, low self-esteem, and their impacts on our increasingly self-conscious young girls. Rock’s own daughter seems to be overwhelmed by the pressures to be pretty and have straight ‘white’ hair. It is this heart at the centre of the documentary that elevates an oft-ridiculous industry to the status of a genuine threat to girls, and Rock’s daughter. Much of the credibility and urgency of this film is lent through Rock’s very genuine concern, his sensitive parental trepidation a very welcome antidote to many of the hilarious, bombastic characters who are leading in the world of hair. 6.5


I know what you’re thinking. This film is a glittering, irreverent Odyssey of fashion pornography. And you’re not far off. What you may not have anticipated is the insistence with which this sparkly saga states its case. Everything about this movie is bathed in its own conviction that gratuitous opulence is the new modesty. For a start, it’s two and a half hours long. Coincidentally, the psychological effects of repetition see the breakdown of alertness and resistance in an audience after the seventy-minute mark.

I saw this film with my best female friend and on our way out of the cinema we passed through a shopping mall to get to the car park, at which point I found myself clinging to two crisp store bags, shoes inside (In my defence, there is a brilliant late-career cameo from Lisa Minelli, gyrating and belting out Beyonce’s ‘All The Single Ladies’, and my shoes were inspired by hers). This persuasiveness when it comes to fashion and expense is, however, familiar to the TV series, and frankly, is the easiest part of the film for the production team to be insistent about. Buying things is not a specialized career path. Continuing the relatively youthful dialogue on the identity of the 21st Century western female, however, definitely requires a special touch.

This latest instalment of the S&TC franchise continues to wax lyrical on women’s issues ranging from banal to touchy to explicit. The difficulties of marriage and child-rearing are both raised early on, but the film seems to suggest that nannies and copious resort-grade ‘me time’ (i.e. money) are the answers. There has however been an attempt in this film to carry the message a little further. The vast second act of this film takes place in Abu Dhabi, in which the approach is blanket superficiality to the depiction of local culture.

To say that this film is attempting to make some kind of comment on the plight of women in Islamic countries isn’t quite correct. Rather, the point seems to be the universality and penetration of American culture and fashion. Perhaps this is the true dream of the thirty-something designer-disciple female New Yorker – that even when they leave the city, or the US, they never, ever really leave. The opulent daze blinds them from all that lies beyond their infinitely complex loves lives and generous shoe and martini budgets.

Perhaps the most prudent question to ask is ‘did anybody go to this film who didn’t already know the score?’ I think very few. What amazes me about the ongoing story of Carrie, Big and The Girls, is that no amount of luxury, 5 star sets, clothes, props and cameos, could never, ever, possibly, make an intelligent female tell you that they saw this film without the disclaimer that ‘it’s a guilty pleasure’ or ‘I just saw it for the clothes’. When it comes to money, it seems that which what is premium, is inherently mediocre. 4.5