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