Somewhere

December 24, 2010

Sofia Coppola, revered for her ability to carefully craft a beautiful visual (most often over a story about an individual detached from their environment), has created yet another visually stunning film covering startlingly similar, yet still distinct, subject matter. Her latest film, Somewhere (2010), focuses on a fittingly washed-up and all together empty stunt-man/actor in LA. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), cares little about anything other than booze, women and to a lesser degree, fame. But when his eleven-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) turns up on his hotel door-step he is forced to take a quite literal look in the mirror to see if he can face the challenges of fatherhood, or, in the very least, the mere sight of himself.

Opening with a drawn-out static look at part of a race track where a black Ferrari intermittently speeds past, Somewhere establishes that location is not important and that our protagonist lives life in a quite literal “fast lane”. From here, the film follows a slow week or so in Johnny’s life (the exact period is inconsequential as Coppola is clearly interested in distilling time to mirror the listlessness of her central character), where he reveals himself to be just as uninteresting as the visual of his car repeatedly and pointlessly driving cyclically by.

Receiving occasional anonymous text messages that ask questions akin to “Why are you such an asshole?”, we are to take from this film that Johnny’s conscience, and possibly even his subconscious, are finally catching up with him. Unsurprisingly this is explored through a popular, technological medium seeing as he is – once again and all together now – detached from humanity, included in that, himself.

Whilst there are wonderful formal moments within in the film, including a sound scape so crisp that you can literally hear the embers of a cigarette catch light as it is inhaled, these moments feel artificial. And they continue to fail to pierce the viewer, resulting in an experience that provides ultimate appreciation for craft but remains unaffecting on either emotional or cognitive levels, rendering the film passive in reception.

The sadness and superficiality of the strip-teases he repeatedly pays to fall asleep whilst watching, contrasted with the warmth and natural affection of his time spent with his daughter, is all too easy and forces the viewer to “watch” rather than “engage” with the content of the film. Far from fond of Sofia Coppola’s oeuvre for its preferencing of style over, or rather in place of, substance, Somewhere is yet another film that demonstrates remarkable technical craftsmanship but leaves very little (much like her subjects) to be desired. But perhaps this is her intention and the absolute lack of engaging content is her way of demonstrating the full extent of the vacuity of her subjects. Either way, the film invites a passive rather than active cognitive viewing process and as such communicates its vapid intent far too entirely.

Somewhere is released in Australian cinemas on Boxing Day, Sunday December 26, through Universal Pictures.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

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Whilst literacy levels amongst adults in the western world remain relatively high, it seems a vast majority of audiences are still averse to the act of “reading” when it comes to their cinema-going habits. Subsequently (or perhaps it is causally?), American film studios appear to be increasingly obsessed with churning out remakes of quality “foreign” films. Sometimes it takes several years and is born out of love for the original and, at others, there is a quick turnaround and a multitude of cash to be made. But whatever the motivation, remakes can’t help but fall into two overarching categories: those that stick closely to the material of the original, arguably enhancing certain aspects, and those that take liberties in an effort to either “mainstream” the film and/or express a new take on a great idea. This week’s Australian theatrical releases of Let Me In (2010) and Chloe (2009) are respectively exemplary of two such models.

LET ME IN: Aesthetically, thematically and narratively faithful to its source, Let Me In is the American remake of last year’s release of Swedish gem Let The Right One In (2008). Carefully shot and well-observed, the cinematography is strikingly similar to its inspiration and with so little narrative divergence it is almost impossible to separate the two. Well cast, Let Me In sees Chloe Moretz in the role of Abby (Eli in LTROI), a vampire who looks and acts for the most part like a pre-adolescent girl, and Kodi Smit-McPhee in the central role of Owen (Oskar in LTROI) who is a young boy trying to survive the harsh realities of an underprivileged socio-economic upbringing paired with incessant and cruel bullying at school. The relationship between the two is the true lynchpin in the original and the remake certainly achieves the same level of intimacy through its convincing and moving depiction of their shared relegation to “otherness”; from both familial and peer surroundings.

Aside from some superfluously sped-up and slightly clumsy looking CGI vampire action as well as the addition of an incredibly overwrought soundtrack that distracts from the otherwise quite beautiful imagery onscreen, Let Me In is a very decent remake indeed. With so little divergence from its original however, it will unfortunately be ultimately inconsequential to audiences who enjoyed LTROI and, given it retains certain visual and thematic art house sensibilities, might not appeal to those audiences who don’t like to read in the cinema either. A film of fine quality, it is most suitable for audiences who sit somewhere in the grey area – between Hollywood and Art House which, if nothing else, suggests filmmakers and studios are at least (and at last) aware that the idea of a “target audience” is a none-too easily definable concept.

Let Me In opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday October 14 through Icon.

CHLOE: Being ‘remakes’ is just about where the similarities between Chloe and Let Me In begin and end. Chloe, Atom Egoyan’s recent remake of French psychological thriller Nathalie… (2003), takes the premise and little else with it. Clear from the get-go that this he has no intention of adhering to the parameters of the original, Chloe opens with images of its title character (Amanda Seyfried) redressing after an encounter with a client set to her internal dialogue in voiceover. Already, we know the film is not so much about watching or desiring its title character as it is about its title character. This marked difference is also, unfortunately, the crux upon which the subsequent success – or indeed failure – of the film rests.

Wealthy, intelligent, attractive couple Catherine (Julianne Moore) and David Stewart (Liam Neeson) have reached breaking point in their marriage: the trust has gone and Catherine suspects David is cheating on her. Feeling alienated from her husband and consumed with irrational fear, Catherine hires Chloe – a beautiful, sexy, youthful high-class escort – to tempt her husband and likely confirm her suspicions. Naively thinking herself to be in control of the situation, Catherine develops a dangerous relationship with Chloe that soon threatens her home and her family.

Choosing the well-trodden path of “crazy lesbian threatens heteronormative familial unit”, Chloe swiftly spirals into implausible and unconvincing territory with wild abandon. Not nearly so sultry as Emmanuelle Béart (Nathalie…), it is Julianne Moore who carries this film; her performance consistently strong. Often too melodramatic for its own good, Chloe lacks the tension its source material so successfully achieved and as a result it leaves little more than disappointment in its wake. The remake then is a new take on the original and no doubt will do well amongst illiterate audiences despite its crisis of identity; in Nathalie… it is quite clear that we are to align ourselves with Catherine; voyeurs who learn they are not at all in control of what they see, but in Chloe the identification is split between the two female leads which creates an unnecessary distancing from the film and therefore a high level of viewer inaccessibility.

Chloe opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday October 14 through Roadshow.

Above all, the recent swathe of American remakes of films not in the English language (“foreign” is such a loaded term), open up debate surrounding the question of access in the first instance; a film’s ability to communicate and engage its audience. Weighing the two against one another (although crude, seems justifiable given this is what audiences quite frequently do when choosing which film to pay to see), Moretz is the favourable of the two Chloes and when faced with a vampire or Amanda Seyfried, one would be well advised to take a moment to pause, and then let the right one in.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

Boy

August 24, 2010

In a small run-down rural town, man-made objects such as old cars slowly rust and never quite fit in with their backdrop; a vast natural terrain. Not unlike the abandoned cars (popularly and commonly personified as female gendered and/or as “babies”) a young boy and his many, even younger, siblings and cousins, try to get by in a familial landscape structured through the matriarch. Entirely devoid of strong or reliable male figure; fathers, uncles, grandfathers, all absent, even the male teachers within the community remain at a remove from offering guidance or advice (unless inside of paid school hours that is); all positions of morality and authority are held by female characters, offering a view of this small town community as ordered by the maternal insofar as it is motivated by a nurturing, survivalist ethos. Simple, sweet and subtly expressing concern for a lack of strong male role models in an underprivileged community, Boy (2010) is an endearingly comic “coming of age” drama.

The film’s title character, known plainly as ‘Boy’, professes from the outset that in addition to having quite the extended family he is also a huge Michael Jackson fan. His adoption of an androgynous pop icon as ‘male role model’ goes some way to explaining the flawed absent father he so desperately longs for. At an uncertain age where learning about life and girls are equally weighted, Boy is ecstatic when his father turns up unannounced with his so-called “gang”, The Crazy Horses. Learning a variety of all important lessons from his father; how (not) to treat a lady, how to steal and, most importantly, “don’t get into the Nazi stuff”; over his summer holidays, it is clear that his foray into a patriarchal structure is nothing more than a flirtatious summer fling.

Too eager to take on the advice of others, Boy’s impressionability often gets him into trouble. But when the best “advice” he receives is, “It’s better to risk your money on something big, be really poor. It’s better than being a bit poor.”, it isn’t difficult to understand when, why and how things take a turn for the worse. The crux of the film comes when Boy realises (in a wonderfully Freudian moment) that the reality of satiating his desire (for a “father figure” in this instance) was ultimately traumatic and disappointing. In fact, when so-called “memories” of his father turn out to be fabrications of his own imagination, the return of the head of the matriarch (his grandmother) at the very end of the film marks the restoration of order, nurture and survival to the lives of Boy and his extended family.

That the film and its title character are already gendered by their very naming indicates the wider prevalence of gender roles at play in the film. Thematically engaging, and certainly an endearing tale when taken at face value, Boy offers a gentle view from its warm filmic heart.

Boy is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday August 26.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision

MIFF Shorts Awards

August 3, 2010

Having not really had time to check out all of this year’s Shorts strand at MIFF, I thought heading along to the Shorts Awards would at least afford me with a working knowledge of and opportunity to see the festival’s most outstanding highlights. After a fair bit of talking and some occasionally amusing anecdotes, the actual award ceremony got under way and the winners in each category were announced. They are as follows:

  • Jury Special Mention: Out of Love (2009)
  • Melbourne International Film Festival for Best Experimental Short Film: Long Live the New Flesh (2009)
  • Melbourne International Film Festival for Best Animation Short Film: Angry Man (2009)
  • Melbourne International Film Festival for Best Documentary Short Film: The Mystery of Flying Kicks (2009)
  • Cinema Nova for Best Fiction Short Film: Autumn Man (2009)
  • Melbourne Airport Award for Emerging Australian Filmmaker: The Kiss (2010)
  • Film Victoria Erwin Rado Award for Best Australian Short Film: Franswa Sharl (2009)
  • City Of Melbourne Grand Prix for Best Short Film: The Lost Thing (2010)

Somewhat disappointingly they didn’t quite have enough time to show all the shorts (although I dare say that if they’d cut some of the comedy intro – no offense to Colin Lane intended – along with the absolutely pointless “montage” of shorts’ opening credits that some poor bastard spend time needlessly editing together, then they could have fit them all in), but the majority of those shown were of a very high standard.

First up was The Kiss, a well observed Australian “coming of age” dramatic short that was well shot and suitably atmospheric.

Next was the fascinating documentary surrounding the act of “shoe tossing” which illuminates a number of global theories on the “origin” and “meaning” behind the phenomenon. Amongst the reasons cited are; marking the loss of one’s virginity; signaling a crack house; indicating gang territory; a sign of bullying and performance art. Using mixed media and with a strong but not omniscient voice, The Mystery of Flying Kicks is a tidy little film with peculiar yet intriguing subject matter.

The less said about Franswa Sharl the better – let’s just leave it at this: sometimes it seems Australian filmmakers don’t know where the line is – no matter what the motivation, an intentionally comedic character who “blacks up” is wildly inappropriate and always offensive.

Finally, The Lost Thing: a sweet, endearing, well animated tale about individuality and imagination. A kind, subtle metaphor for the anomalous nature of pure imagination within an industrial cityscape: “A place you wouldn’t know exists.”

Thomas Caldwell said it best in his brief intro when he urged the filmmakers present, “Please continue to make films that are true to your own visions because they’re going to be the good ones.” Just so long as they can leave the racial offenses aside, I wholeheartedly agree.

The Unloved

July 28, 2010

Sometimes all it takes for a film to fail miserably is for just one detail to be out, especially if that detail is actually something of a lynchpin for the film. This was unfortunately my experience of Samantha Morton’s directorial debut, The Unloved (2009). Co-written with Tony Grisoni and based upon events and experiences of Morton’s own life growing up, The Unloved is a snapshot of an eleven-year-old girl’s experience of the UK’s social welfare system. But the problem lies with its protagonist, Lucy (Molly Windsor), who somehow, despite her screen father (Robert Carlyle, whose acting abilities actually seem to be getting worse) having a Scottish accent, and despite her living in the middle of the north of England, somehow has an accent that sounds a lot like it came from one of the home counties…hmm.

But for those of you who can disavow deep enough to let this detail slide, the film will be fairly decent. It’s a straight forward drama offering a grim picture of UK social care that is in some ways fair but also very one-dimensional, failing to properly explicate or elucidate issues surrounding resources and infrastructure. Welfare in the UK is not strictly social issue as it is inherently linked to greater political and economic concerns.

The strongest performance (and indeed character) in the film is Lauren Socha who is both believable and compelling in all her scenes, the only problem then being her constant outshining of the other cast members. Originally made for TV in the UK (and best left there), The Unloved is disappointingly less informative or moving than a simple stroll around pretty much any council estate anywhere in England. One for the middle-classes, innit.

The Unloved screens as part of this year’s MIFF and will be screening again on Monday August 02 2010, 7pm at The Forum.

The Australian Order

June 10, 2010

“In the bush, there are big trees and pissy little bugs”, says Inspector Leckie (Guy Pearce), it is the definitive and apparent “Order” of things.

An abbreviated, overtly Aussie explication, but, no matter the metaphor, the meaning is clear and the “Order” is undoubtedly Lacanian. The Symbolic Order, as it more widely known, is the child’s entrance into language, or “linguistic communication” as it is best understood. Accepting semiotic comprehension between words and objects is the first step to accepting ideology and ultimately, the Law (referred to in Lacanian Psychoanalysis as the Name-of-the-Father.) We know it is The Symbolic Order that Leckie speaks of because he stands in the film for both the Father and the Law: two o’erbearing, ominous and destructive forces in what is easily the best Aussie film release for years, David Michod’s Animal Kingdom (2010).

J Turns his back on Leckie

But our protagonist J (James Frecheville), the youth upon whom Leckie is trying so desperately to impress, is not a typical kid and despite his naiveté, he is suspect of the aforementioned Order and the supposed “big trees” Leckie speaks of. Thrust into a dangerous and dysfunctional family following his mother’s drug overdose and subsequent death, J is as confused about life as he is about the construct of his own “family”. Not knowing how to care for himself or even how to arrange his mother’s funeral, J calls his grandmother who willingly takes him in as one of her own; already J moves from matriarch to matriarch, fatherless and lawless in his formative years as he attempts to bridge the awkward gap between adolescence and adulthood. But Janine Cody (expertly played by Jacki Weaver) is no ordinary Nanna. She likes to be around her boys, so much so that she’ll abide anything and defy anyone to see them safe and at her heel. Unfortunately for Janine – and indeed for J – her beloved “boys” are all in danger in the proverbial Kingdom due to their own behaviours which sit outside the strict ideologies of  The Symbolic Order.

Pope attempts to take his place at the head of the family

Within the matriarch there is a further pecking order whereby her boys are rank age appropriate. Andrew, known as ‘Pope’ (played with subtle expertise by Ben Mendelsohn), is the archetypal eldest son from a fatherless family: stepping up and assuming the familial role of the Law like a lion in order to protect and preserve his cubs. Only the cubs aren’t his, they are unmistakably Janine’s.  So consumed by rash fear his fight for survival is repeatedly and blindly self-sabotaged; his own instincts flawed as he tries desperately to fit The Symbolic Order. It is only when two of the four brothers are gunned down that the Law begins to catch up the Cody family, and in this instance it is time for the matriarch to step up and take a stand. Like the lioness in charge of her kingdom, Janine is willing to let the weakest of the litter fall by the wayside to protect the two who are truly her own. But as it happens, J isn’t quite so stupid as he looks.

Suspicious of every male who represents to him some version of patriarchal Law and Order, he rejects them all; uncomfortable and uncertain of their honesty he plays one against the other, using everyone from Inspector Leckie, Uncle Pope and Attorney Ezra right down to girlfriend Nicole’s Father, never truly letting any one of them in. When J deals it is with Janine and a notably female prosecutor. When he is honest and emotive it is with his girlfriend, his trust only in the order of the matriarch. Too much for him to bear his final actions are not carried out so that he might replace Pope as top dog or “big tree”, but so that he can reinstate Janine as the head of the “family” and therefore the Law by which he wishes to live.

Janine at the head of the family

Not so much gritty as it is naturalistic in its aesthetic, and broody in tone, Animal Kingdom is a remarkable film about the marginalised role of systems that challenge the dominant ideologies, and the persistent struggle that one comes up against when opting out of The Symbolic Order. J and his family will always have the Name-of-the-Father impressed upon them; their resistence heart wrenching and stoic. A brilliant drama with stellar performances across the board – though Sullivan Stapleton is so convincing that he just about manages to steal the show – and absolutely undeniably a must-see.

Robert Carlyle is once again to grace our cinema screens, and all because of Justin Kerrigan’s burning desire to tell a deeply personal (and so, self-serving) story about the special relationship he shared with his father. Straddling a multitude of genres from dramatic thriller to coming of age weepie, I Know You Know (2008) is as deeply confused about its own generic identity as its central character is about the boundaries between fiction and reality.

Carlyle plays Charlie, a man whose mind is at the precipice of sanity; failing to comes to terms with a bleak reality. Convinced he is under surveillance both in and out of his home, Charlie can’t help but involve his son Jamie  in his crazed world of conspiracy. Loyal to his father, Jamie is something of a curious and disobedient child which only serves to further entangle him in Charlie’s complex web of plot and intrigue. Promising Jamie a new life and a slice of ‘American Dream’ pie, it understandably follows that Jamie, young and impressionable, falls for his father’s story, hook, line and sinker. Although ultimately, mustering up a little savvy, he comes to realise that the enemy exists only  in Charlie’s head. What follows is the exploration of a young boy’s coming of age experience as it parallels the coming apart of his mentally unstable father’s mind. Just as Charlie must learn to face reality, Jamie must now face the world.

Although the premise for the film is not entirely without merit, I Know You Know is, sadly, unable to sustain even its short 81 minute run time, failing at every turn to engage or affect. A large proportion of the cast struggle with the Welsh accent, not least protagonists Carlyle and kid newcomer Arron Fuller. As one of the most difficult accents for a non-native actor to achieve, it makes one wonder why Kerrigan preferenced ‘a name’ over a suitable cast? One can only assume it is because he hoped the pull of Carlyle would distract from his own substandard screenplay and direction. But alas, Carlyle’s acting isn’t exactly up to scratch either which, for everyone concerned, is indeed a crying shame. The use of non-diegetic music is heavy handed and over sentimentalises anything that might otherwise constitute a heartfelt moment.

Unashamedly aspiring towards being the best British film release for 2010, I Know You Know is just another contender that wildly misses the mark. Writer/director Justin Kerrigan, by his own assertion it would seem, can’t decide upon the film’s identity, “This is my funny, heartfelt, fast-paced, adrenalin-rushed coming of age film.” The attempt to embrace so many different styles/adhere to a variety of generic codes, has achieved nothing more than a schizophrenic yet undeniably average film. Instantly forgettable, it fails miserably to hit even one of the disparate tonal qualities its generic hybridity boasts. An unfortunate exercise in filmmaking, I’d suggest Kerrigan stick with pop culture and stay well away from stories with sentiment.

I Know You Know is released in cinemas on April 9 2010 through Network Releasing. There will be a preview screening and Q&A at The Apollo Cinema in London on April 7 in aid of The Big Issue and Mind.