Wednesday, November 30, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 23, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, November 14, 2011


Bill Cunningham, lifelong photographer, incessant original and charming recluse is a documentary-maker’s dream subject. Compiled from tagalong footage of Cunningham’s everyday life (half art, half ablutions, undetectable respite) and interviews with fashion industry stalwarts or prominent street style figures, director Richard Press has put together a thorough examination of the life of this enigmatic shutterbug. In typical New York style, the overflowing life and fashion of the city competes for focus in an enchanting film about clothes, trend cycles, high society, the fate of golden day NY creatives, and surprisingly, living modestly.

80-year-old Cunningham has been taking pictures of fashion in society, on the catwalk and in public spaces for decades. His craft is one of passivity: Cunningham never manufactures or censors his photographs, but takes on a kind of biological approach, documenting the restless ecosystem of the Big Apple. Long installed as the New York Times’ On The Street commentator, Cunningham is among the most respected image-makers in New York, indeed the world. Not for glossy spreads or elaborate studio shoots, but simply capturing what lies before him. His ability to spot new ideas is viewed by industry insiders as a yardstick for good taste. The reluctant arbiter of style is nonetheless adamantly opposed to any kind of financial gain, embodying the dictum that the work is “reward enough”, and jettisoning all sweeteners or perks. He lives by a kind of creative moral code, striving for an art of essential Platonic purity: “You see if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, that’s the key to the whole thing”.

One might suspect that the society Bill documents and his own enormous legend have overwhelmed the editing chair (Ryan Denmark) a little. Interviews with the likes of Anna Wintour and Carnegie Hall resident Editta Sherman, whilst magnificent, allowed Cunningham to drift back out of shot where he is most comfortable. It is difficult to penetrate Cunningham’s life-built edifice of privacy. Any sense of Cunningham’s person dovetailed in and out of focus as the praise and vanity that his camera attracts swallowed up a number of opportunities to get to know Bill.

The film is rife with beautiful, bold and bizarre clothing. Outfits both outrageous and demure are given equal credence, as are the people who wear them, whether 1am drag queen or a Manhattan dynasty philanthropist. In fact, what is clear is that Cunningham’s work has gone a long way to democratising taste, shifting importance from who-wears-what to what-wears-who.

            Bill Cunningham New York introduces a number of intersecting ideas about superficiality and the role of fashion. Perhaps most fascinating, is Cunningham’s adoption of a kind of uniform – a blue workers’ shirt, grey flatcap and black plastic poncho. I am reminded of the self-professed laziness of the young David Lynch, who filled his wardrobe with multiples of one outfit – black suit and tie, white shirt – and daily ate the same diner meal. Cunningham’s caricaturish appearance is unchanging and pragmatic, nothing like the fashion he loves to document. It’s amazing to think his fascination can remain so wholly outward.

The film also addresses fashion as a form of social or personal expression. Cunningham gives praise and exposure to anybody who wears something of interest to him, whoever they are or whatever their background. On the other, slightly darker hand, the hermit-like photographer maintains few personal relationships, and after many years behind the lens, seems to have become the camera. What I mean is, he cares little for personality if it is not contained within clothes, and apart from to commend you on your outfit, the compliment of his having photographed you effects no closer an acquaintance between you. Bill doesn’t seem to buy into the idea that clothes maketh the man.

This is particularly clear during interviews with Patrick McDonald, a flamboyant street-dandy, whose love of Cunningham’s work seems inherently bonded with his own narcissism. The socialite seems to misguidedly believe that a tribute to his outfit is a tribute to his whole being. Not so. This is not to say that important social issues or identity politics cannot be communicated well with clothes. Rather, dressing to get attention may eclipse your personal integrity if your end goal is simply to turn heads or have your picture taken. Here I shrug a little and think of those cheerless dog-collared, rave-panted, kitten-eared young kids I see on trains, who seem to take pride in subcultural uniformity and appearing unapproachable.

Cunningham’s shyness and elective plainness has without a doubt contributed a vast sense of mystery and depth to his choice of career. It certainly seems that the key to his happiness lies in the ability to enjoy observation. This seems akin to Buddhist sensibility, in which one may appreciate beauty without feeling the need to capture or own it. In fact, Cunningham’s compulsive sharing of new trends and ideas is certainly antithetical to the competitive interests of those fashionista’s who so much love his work. Yet another conundrum.

Bill Cunningham New York is the best possible manifestation of any fashion-themed movie I’ve seen. I refer of course, to those ‘chicsploitation’ films that give rise to a conflict of the intellect – yes, I’ve watched Confessions of a Shopaholic, The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City 2, but ‘it was just for the clothes!’ And then here comes Bill Cunningham New York, a film about the joys of apparel, boasting a protagonist who is fascinating, principled, humble, blind or undeterred by the failings of his industry, and the unfettered progress of his city. Surely this is what fashion has to be about – making the world a more interesting and beautiful place to live in. Certainly Cunningham sees exuberant dress as some act of civic kindness, a generous donation to the life of New York. How delightful.

Bill Cunningham New York is so fun it might just encourage you to be a little braver with your streetwear. Its structure and tone mimic Cunningham’s methods – the whole film feels like an energetic walking tour of the city. Inclusion of older interview footage with Cunningham and photographs of his muses through time ensure that journey is historical as well as geographical and gives a celebratory rebirth to the idea of the artiste or avant-garde. Music is sparse but effective, the city being its own melodious cacophony for much of the film. There is a most charming application of NY Darlings Velvet Underground’s I’ll Be Your Mirror, from their 1967 release & Nico.

Whilst having no claim to being as fashion-forward as Bill himself, I here would like to try a little trend-spotting of my own. I am no stranger to the method, as in the art world where I eagerly lurk, a kind of party game is made of naming up all that is ‘trending’ in art (graph paper, modesty, auto-ethnographic history, pine, unsealed canvas, paint-pouring, you get the idea, I hope). My claim here is that sincerity is trending. Cunningham’s most thrilling feature, especially in our proverbial ‘modern times’, is his excitement He genuinely enjoys outfits that others might make fun of, or disclaim against with some layer of irony or ambiguous post-modern wryness. I am proud to descry an increase in sincerity, in new films, new documentaries and new art: and thank goodness, because it might just help us take ourselves less seriously.


On that note, trend ho:

(Lastly, though 80 years old, Bill Cunningham has been uploaded to the chronic immediacy and accessibility of 21st century media: his weekly On The Street column for The New York Times is available in a slideshow, narrated with joy and wonder by Cunningham himself. This is certainly something to check out if you’re considering seeing the film or were left wanting more of everything Cunningham, which I most certainly did. The link is below:

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


             It’s difficult to write about a film like Norwegian Wood without leaning heavily on its relationship to its source, Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel of the same name. Perhaps this is because so little Japanese literature or cinema makes it to Australia. Though more likely it is that Murakami’s novel about becoming an adult in order to better understand our loved ones and appreciate the beauty of the world strikes a sweeping, universal chord with readers. It’s an important book for a lot of people, and came to many when their own bildungsroman was taking place.

Toru Watanabe is a 19-year-old Tokyo college student, a recluse amongst the endless student protests of the 1960’s and haunted by the loss of his best friend Kizuki to an unfathomable suicide two year earlier. Toru’s only friends are Nagasawa (Tetsuii Tamayama), a debonair serial womanizer, and roommate “Storm Trooper” an earnest, bullied hayseed. Toru’s monotony of menial jobs, casual sex and inane politics is suddenly enlivened by the reappearance of Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi), Toru’s childhood friend and lost Kizuki’s lover. Then he meets Midori, a precocious waif who fascinates Toru. He finds himself increasingly split between the complexities of his relationship with Naoko, to whom he is bonded by grief and profundity, and the progress of his everyday life, which Midori moves through effortlessly.

Norwegian Wood is an adaptation with incredibly integrity. Murakami’s novel is a highly descriptive and compartmentalised text. The visual instructions of the book are realised with no alteration of Murakami’s voice. Screenwriter/director Anh Hung Tran’s film is quieter and more subdued than the novel, simply for the absence of pages of words, which are transformed instead into unspeaking visuals. In the novel equal credence and attention is given to explaining the suicide as the various components of Midori’s outfits, and now in the film, those details, left nonverbal, shrink into the background. I fear that those who haven’t read the book will not ascribe significance to these things.

This description of the banal everyday world, the encroached-upon wilderness, brand new parklands, tinkling door-beads, concrete architecture, high-waisted jeans, the turquoise public swimming pool, record covers, maroon skivvies and student riot banners; this is all surprisingly crucial to the crux of this tragic tale. For at heart, Norwegian Wood is a story about discovering how to be happy. Its moral is that to be content, one must be observant and appreciative of every small beauty one encounters, and to allow those beauties to fill you up with joy. Those characters who meet with tragedy are the ones to whom life seems unreachable, who long for the presence of loved ones yet simply daydream beside them when they arrive.

The life of Norwegian Wood as a literary export is a tale often swathed in Western indignation, as though Japan had been hiding the brilliant book and author, and then putting off the subtitled release of a film version. The adaptation has been a slow-tracked process by Hollywood standards. At just over two hours, I’m not surprised the whole text didn’t fit in the feature. The casting of Kiko Mizuhara as Midori surprised me a little. I had expected a young woman who had chosen to adopt childish qualities, rather than a woman who looks like a child. Reiko’s squeamishly powerful backstory also left her presence in the plot a little undernourished, but as far as adaptations go, this one is as direct and tonally accurate as can be hoped.

I am often intrigued by the way Murakami expresses the behaviour of women, Norwegian Wood being no exception. Watanabe and Nagasawa are detached and passive men, ruled by a kind of unthinking logic, a dormant modernity that allows them to accept all events without strife. The women, especially Naoko, seem to be ruled by a kind of magic, a supernatural whirlwind of unexplainable womanly complexities and fluctuations that range from sexual anxiety, to perversion, to near-spiritual turns of feminine madness that seem more fitting for Ophelia or Greek oracles than in the 20th century. This otherworldly connection is expressed beautifully by the poetic forest scenery, in which Naoko is embedded at a holistic recovery colony in the mountains, perhaps in echo of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. Even the ancient, uncontrollable force of the roaring ocean becomes Toru’s consoling companion in Naoko’s place. When the wild/tamed dichotomy is reversed between Nagasawa and his girlfriend Hatsumi (Eriko Hatsune), their relationship is characterised as bad and unnatural.

Norwegian Wood is home to one of the best and most authentic sex scenes I have ever seen. This is largely a triumph of Foley. There’s no music apart from the melodious moistness of lips, sweat-laced grasping and the rain outside. The camera is offset on a diagonal, less than a foot away from the faces of the lovers. It’s recreating the feeling of being a lover, the shuffling proximity you’d feel, the strange view you’d have, obscured by one another’s’ bodies and the sweetly humid sounds made as skin touches skin. This creates the illusion that the audience is not a spectator, or even privy, but part of the scene, having a tacit familiarity with it. It’s highly watchable, not embarrassing or voyeuristic in the least. Tonally, these visceral sex scenes are a wonderful counterpoint to the significance of the sex itself, which for Murakami is rarely just about pleasure.

This is a film of gentle beauty. Japan in the 60s was a surreal place. Sprawling green countryside interloped between classic modernist architecture in a very Wright-ian manner, entangling verdant flora with textured grey college buildings. In Tokyo, a new kind of lassaiz-fair was taking hold, which Norwegian Wood was able to capture aptly: a population of young adults, orphaned to the city and having little interest in career or stability. Instead all aspirations were bent on the ‘now’: reading Western literature, working dead-end jobs to afford Beatles records, getting drunk, smoking and sleeping with someone cute from the student bar. What Norwegian Wood did was discuss this culture in a way that humanized it, made it timeless, regardless of the newness of these emergent attitudes. It’s a cherished story in Japanese literary history.   

Norwegian Wood was never meant as lively entertainment. Indeed, it uses death as a literary punishment for failing to learn how to live. It poses mortality and love and the pursuit of happiness as concurrent, indeed co-dependent natural phenomena. For me, some of that deep inseparability of natural processes was lost in the film, as was the unique sense of loss after Naoko’s death, felt as if for the first time. To casual observers, Norwegian Wood is a film in which a man chooses a well-adjusted and spirited city girl over his psychologically fraught first love. This is due both to the crushing weight of convenience and the crushing weight of mortality, and perhaps the difficulty of describing the personal growth of a character whose maturation is so subtle and quiet that it might be lost on screen.

I worry that something is amiss with this film; that its fragile meaningfulness reached only me, that everything I sensed between the lines of dialogue will be erased from my memory and lost forever. But then I remember that I felt this way after I finished the book, and that this is the same fear that consumed Naoko.


Friday, November 4, 2011


Contemporary Australian writer/director Jonathon Teplitzky, the man behind Getting’ Square and Better than Sex seems uniquely capable of elevating his films out of ‘Australiana’ status by bagging excellent leading men. Out of three major releases he’s cast Sam Worthington, now top swag of the Na’vi, David Wenham (known alternately as Faramir or Diver Dan) and now Matthew Goode, who sparkled as the manipulative yet suave Ozymandias in Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Moore classic Watchmen. Burning Man is something of a one-man-show; a biography of the period after acute grief when one may regress into impulsive pandemonium.

Burning Man is a reeling, kaleidoscopic and hectically visual account of English ex-pat Tom’s (Matthew Goode) struggle to deal with the various, fragmented parts of his life after the loss of his young wife Sarah (Bojana Novakovic) to cancer. Tom is left to raise his bright but forlorn son Oscar, maintain the all-hours timetable of head chef and restaurateur at an upmarket Bondi Beach eatery, and manage his growing penchant for abusing strangers and sleeping with even stranger women.

The term ‘fractured timeline’ mightn’t cut it here. You might think of a charming cyclical story from a Tarantino film or Donnie Darko’s flash-backs/forwards/sideways, and you’d be way off. Burning Man is literally one long montage. Not one single scene cuts to another that is consecutive in timeline, and I very much doubt there were more than a handful of scenes that lasted more than a minute. Imagine a jigsaw puzzle when you first shake all the pieces out of a box. Replace “sky, sky, brick, flowers, cow’s face, cobbles” with “hospital, prostitute, awkward dinner, clinic, kitchen, lobster, car crash, prostitute” and you’re about there.

This is not to say that each cut-to isn’t logical or explanatory or even appropriate, however in a film which I suspect has over 100 rapid fire time-changes, not every one of them is likely to make sense. This kind of music-video approach is something that gets easier to watch as the film goes on, but can at times be dizzying, tiring, and most especially it repeatedly cuts short the construction of sympathetic connections between audience and characters.

The primary problem with this kind of structure is that the first third of the film is spent in uncertainty. The story slowly weaves itself together, gradually revealing the significance of earlier motifs or dialogues over the course of the feature. This spelt chronic problems. I spent the first forty minutes labouring under the impression that Oscar’s mother was a character called Karen (an elegant performance by Essie Davis), but Karen turned out to be his Aunt, a deliberate ‘twist’ to throw us off the scent. What’s that about?

Clearly we are not meant to know why Tom is angry with the world straight away. That Sarah even exists, and that she has been diagnosed with terminal cancer is only revealed at about the halfway point. Up until then Burning Man could be a study on Aspergers’, where the audience is unable to connect with unfolding events, because they are locked out of understanding their significance, and can’t yet decipher who is wrong, right, good, bad, friend or foe. On the other hand, yes, it can be fun to watch a film where one must connect-the-dots, solve the intrigues, but this is a film about a man going off the rails because his wife died. Is it appropriate to be pulling an Agatha Christie level of riddles when every ‘aha!’ moment is in relation to a tragic memory or physical pain?

What is clear in this story, regardless of whether one is aware that a decade ago, Teplitzky lost his own partner to long-term illness, is that there are significant lashings of autobiography here. I would stop short of accusing Teplitzky of partaking in film-therapy, however I would also not call his screenplay an homage to his partner, or a true portrait of grief. It seems more than anything else to be a film about coping with anger, regardless of its source, and perhaps ill advisedly this movie tends to glamourize that anger. Tom is portrayed as a man of searing passions, with an insatiable appetite for sex, food and drama. His grief is outweighed in screen time by his good looks.

Surely it is Teplitzky’s immodest autobiographical hand that has disabled the Tom character from ever really seeming pathetic, depressed or pitiable. Even in what should be the darkest scenes, Tom is cracking jokes, never a hair out of place, never in danger of having to deal with the consequences of his recklessness. What’s more, I suspect that Teplitzky hasn’t realised that embedding Sarah’s memory so deeply and consistently throughout the story makes it difficult to really flesh out Tom’s state of loss.

I really had a problem with the intrusiveness and emotional suggestion of the musical score in Burning Man. By necessity it flickered with the same rapidity as the changing scenes. It’s surely fair to say that people do not experience music in short, endless streams like they do images. Burning Man’s restless jukebox of micro-lamentations and mini-aspirational symphonic numbers seemed a bit silly.

Despite this, the music is quite powerful. It’s that midday movie stuff that really gets you in the gullet, even though you know the scene is saccharine, and indeed it’s effect is even stronger in Burning Man when one is worn out from the relentless intrigue. I have long suspected that the emotional impact sound can have on an audience is primarily a matter of physiology. We react strongly to high pitched sounds – wailing strings during hospital bed slow-motion conjures a deluge of silent tears, while screeching Psycho or Jaws peels literally make our hairs stand on end. Also the tireder we are, the more susceptible we might be.  Perhaps this theory simply helps me explain away the fact I passed out a little bit in 127 Hours or that The Lion King’s Circle of Life bit deposited a miserable golf ball in my gulping gullet. But I don’t doubt its centrality to the emotional hook in Burning Man.

Matthew Goode as Tom is a spectacular presence. He is in almost every scene, and is required to play a character out of sequence, living in varying states of emotional composure in the past, the future, or whenever the present might be. Goode is a sound navigator in a film other actors would surely get lost in; confused by the house of mirrors that is Teplitzky’s plot. It takes an intelligent performer to keep his head in one scene when so many others loom on the horizon.

Burning Man is a very beautiful film. All the characters, the sets and the mis-en-scene are attractive, romantic. The opening sequence in which Tom hurtles through three full flips of his mid-totalled car amidst a veritable cornucopia of fresh ingredients is perhaps the most stylish and visceral moment of the whole film.

So, what is a Burning Man? It seems to be a person who should be wracked by guilt but is too angry, fidgety and enveloped by their own fleshly lusts that they cannot find peace. More than this, I think a Burning Man is a person whose pain is obscured by the beauty of fast-flickering flames. This film could be telling a simple, relatable story, but instead has been set alight with lavish structural complexities, plot twists, beautiful actors, and pictorial metaphors. Tom and Teplitzky both are burning men, unable to communicate through the viscera, entirely lost to the hypnosis of orangey tongues of fire.