Archive for the Australian Category

Love, Lust & Lies – 2010

Posted in 2010, Australian, Documentary/Mockumentary with tags , on December 12, 2010 by filmglutton

In 1975, young director Gillian Armstrong made a documentary about 3 working-class teenage girls in Adelaide, exploring what it was like to be a 14-year-old girl. The girls were Josie, Diana and Kerry, and the documentary provided a brutally honest insight into their lives. What’s life like now that they’re pushing 50?This is the fifth in this documentary series which has followed these women since they were 14 years old. Don’t fret if you haven’t seen the previous ones, because we are given a recap at the beginning to bring us up to speed. I had seen the other instalments and I was very keen to catch up with these women.

 

Gillian Armstrong is one of my favourite filmmakers, and this is just a wonderful documentary, the best of the series (she won the ADG Award for Best Director of a Documentary in 2010 for this film). The women in this are so real, and we really see life unfolding before our eyes. All three women had similar upbringings in a poorer area, but their current lives are very different. Kerry is the most ‘normal’: she married in her late 20s, and has been with her husband ever since. She also had kids later, and as a family unit they all seem very happy. This has been a successful step up in life for Kerry. Diana is the most disappointing of the group. Always outspoken and vivacious, Diana was married with a baby at age 18, and has always struggled to gain her own independence. I don’t want to say too much about her and spoil to documentary for you, but there are a lot of revelations here about her marriage and her children. It’s like Diana is trying to re-live her youth; she is very thin (too thin) and dresses like a teenager. She has gambling problems and just generally seems to be very immature. My favourite throughout the series was always Josie. Josie is warm and honest with a truly beautiful soul. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to that’s seen this film has connected with Josie, and she’s also been the one with the most heartache. Some family skeletons are revealed in this doco (one of her revelations about her mother had me bawling), but generally we already know Josie had it tough. She had two children by age 18, and, in one heartbreaking sequence from 1980’s 14’s Good, 18’s Better, Josie revealed that she sent herself flowers when she was in hospital because everyone else had flowers, so why shouldn’t she? It’s this kind of honesty that makes Josie so endearing . She’s done it tough, but she’s a battler and really trying to make something of herself. Aside from the three women we also see their families, including the next generation. This invites an interesting comparison between the women and their children, and gives us some insight into what effect a lack of education can have on future prospects and happiness.

 

I enjoyed this film immensely. It’s so real and powerful, and I really care about these women and the choices they make. There’s a lot of sadness, a lot of laughter, and it’s an extremely interesting look at life. I made my whole family watch it and they liked it too. The issues here are universal, so if you are interested in documentaries, try to get your hands on this one. You won’t be disappointed.

My rating:

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Shine (1996)

Posted in 1996, Australian, Based on True Events, Drama, Reviews with tags , , , , , on January 23, 2010 by filmglutton

Shine is based on the life of Australian pianist David Helfgott. Gifted from a young age, David showed exception prowess in chess and piano. His main obstacle and encouragement in life is his father (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Peter Helfgott (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a survivor of the Holocaust, is a man that cares deeply about his family but doesn’t know how to relate to any of them. He never shows David or his sisters any love. He is furious when David comes home with second prize at a piano competition. He even beats David. It’s almost like Peter loves him too much, and every time David disappoints him he becomes irrationally angry. When David is offered a scholarship to study piano in America, Peter goes nuts, screaming that he is the head of the family and that they won’t be separated. What a terrible disappointment to poor David. This emotional and physical abuse in David’s childhood is central to his later life.

The film opens with middle-aged David (Geoffrey Rush) running around in the middle of the night, his talking frenzied and incoherent. He is gripped by schizophrenia, and as the film moves through his earlier life, it is extremely painful for the audience to watch this develop. We don’t want it to happen but there’s nothing we can do to stop it. When David starts taking piano lessons (he previously learnt from his father), Peter insists that he learn Rachmaninoff’s 3rd, an extremely difficult piece technically and emotionally. Each teacher refuses to teach him that song; David eventually learns it at college, but the sheer emotional demands of the piece threaten to unravel his fragile psyche. Music, and his father’s advice, nearly destroys him. We see him at three stages in life, from his childhood to his adolescence and young adulthood (Noah Taylor) and finally in later life (Geoffrey Rush). Lynn Redgrave has a small but important role later in the film.

There are some truly fine performances in this film. Geoffrey Rush won the Oscar for his role, but I think Noah Taylor and Armin Mueller-Stahl are both fantastic as well. The music is almost a character in itself. It is incredibly beautiful and skilfully used throughout, never being too much. Music is David’s life-force and a driving force in the narrative. The music in the film was played by David Helfgott himself, while Geoffrey Rush acted as his own hand double. While music is extremely important in the film, the film focuses on the relationship between father and son and how that affects David as an individual. There is one scene about 3/4 of the way into the film between older David and his father that is so just incredibly moving, it brought me to tears. It’s a bitter reminder of so many wasted years, wasted time. Boy, that was strong writing and strong performances. You will know it when you see it.

Much of the criticism aimed at Shine has focused on the blurring of fact with fiction, or about how David Helfgott is not a great pianist. It’s even more contentious because David Helfgott is still alive and still touring. I’ve chosen to judge the film as it is, not on outside debate.

Oh my goodness, this was a great film. I rarely hear Shine mentioned whenever the ‘Australia’s best films’ debate crops up, and I have absolutely no idea why. This is an Australian film that has a really wide appeal and can resonate with anyone. It has universal themes of family and love and growing old and regret. Why can’t we make more films like this instead of the crap we see in the cinemas now? I can’t believe it took me so long to see this, very fine direction from Scott Hicks.

Absolutely loved this. Watch it now.

My rating:

(just as a side-note, it was very difficult to find pictures for this review, so I kind of gave up…)

Bright Star (2009)

Posted in 2009, Australian, Based on True Events, Drama, Period Film, Romance with tags , , , , on January 10, 2010 by filmglutton

Bright Star is about the last three years of John Keats’ life and his relationship with Fanny Brawne, the girl next door. Fanny is a strong-willed young woman with a skill for sewing, and she finds beauty in John’s poetry and personality. As the fall in love, however, we see that his health grows weaker, making for a sparkling yet doomed romance.

Bright Star has been hailed as Jane Campion’s best film since The Piano. I haven’t seen any of Jane Campion’s films other than The Piano, so I can’t really comment on that, but I will say that I think The Piano is the superior film.I think my problem with Bright Star was that it had very little plot. This is not a terrible thing, but it meant that the film felt quite, well, slow at times. I was still very engaged with the characters, but since you will probably know the outcome of the story (as spoiled by every review you read) there are no surprises in this film, nothing to keep you hanging on. And while I think the two leads had good chemistry, there is actually quite a lack of sexual tension (which was so prevalent in The Piano and is something which really draws the viewer in).

Abbie Cornish is really lovely as Fanny, she’s not a character you’ve seen 50 times before in period dramas. She has her own ideas but she’s not as headstrong as an Elizabeth Bennet or Jo March. She is a fantastic seamstress, creating a range of interesting fashions that are looked down upon by stuffy neighbours. Abbie Cornish gives her life and intelligence, I really like some of her work (although Fanny is supposed to be 18 and Cornish is clearly much older). Ben Whishaw as John Keats is suitably poetic and vulnerable…I don’t know much about Keats, so I can’t comment about his characterisation. Paul Schenider as Keat’s friend and fellow poet Brown is suitably irritating, I think he played this role really well (and probably had good fun with it!). Pretty good performance from this American actor in Scottish accent. The other roles are quite small; Edie Martin puts in a natural performance as Fanny’s younger sister Toots. And just excuse the animal lover in me for one second while I say I loved the cat. Cats in films = win.

The cinematography in this film is simply stunning. The locations are beautiful, and there are some shots that film fans will just drink in. At times one could get sick of that dreamy, overexposed look but it is just beautiful. Even if you aren’t interested in the film the cinematography is definitely worth the admission, beautiful photography. Also worth mentioning is the art design. The sets are good, but I really loved some of the costumes.

I want to see more from Jane Campion, I wish some directors wouldn’t take so long to bring out their next project. Bright Star is a lovely film with good performances. I think some people will abolutely love this, and most others will appreciate the talent displayed here.  Keats fans may particularly like it, but it is less about him than about Fanny and their relationship.

Worth watching.

My Rating:

Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Posted in 2009, Australian, Based on True Events, Drama, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2009 by filmglutton

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Mao’s Last Dancer is based on the best-selling autobiography by Li Cunxin.

The film opens with Li (Chi Cao) arriving at Houston, Texas, then flashes back to 1972. Here Li is an 11-year-old in the Shandong province of China. The country is floundering under Communism; his family are peasants, and there is hardly enough food to go around. Life is hard when there are seven children to support. His Dia (his father, played by Wang Shuangbao) tells his the parable of a frog stuck in a well who longs to escape to the beautiful world beyond. Li feels as though he, too, is a frog stuck in a well. His life changes when representatives from the Beijing Dance Academy come to his school. The representatives almost leave, but the young teacher points out Li at the last moment. This twist of fate drastically changes his life. He progresses through the try-outs and wins a full scholarship to the school. He has been given an amazing opportunity, and he is a hero in his village, yet young Li doesn’t want to leave his family, especially his beloved Niang (his mother, played by Joan Chen). She helps him see how lucky he is and that this is his great chance to escape the poverty – to escape the well. Li initially hates the academy, and he longs for home. Eventually, though, he finds the enjoyment in ballet.

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I don’t want to give away too many plot points, though you will already know the story if you have read the book or seen the trailer (why must they always ruin the movie with the trailer?!) This is an amazing, almost unbelievable story about fate and triumph and family and love – a true rags-to-riches.

The dancing, choreographed by Graham Murphy, is simply spectacular, and it doesn’t completely take over the storyline, which should please more sceptical members of the audience. The actors are all adequate but there are no stand-out performances here. Kyle MacLachlan and Bruce Greenwood are the most recognisable cast members. Mao’s Last Dancer had a seemingly decent budget but it was actually quite small if you take into account the sheer breadth of the story. Beresford’s decision to shoot in Sydney instead of Houston may not bother most members of the crowd but it annoyed me, especially because the building used for Li’s house in Houston is actually in my suburb. The crowd scenes obviously had about 20 extras, and there is one really bad sequence with a warrior shooting an arrow…I laughed out loud, and it wasn’t supposed to be funny. The film is quite clichéd, and the suspenseful moments aren’t particularly suspenseful.

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I’ve read the book, so comparisons are unavoidable. I would have to have liked to have seen more screen time dedicated to his early days with his family and also at the dance academy. In the book you really got a chance to know and love the family, but the opening of the film moves extremely quickly. I just felt there was way too much time dedicated to his time in Houston, which is arguably the least interesting part of his life story. The film begins in a non-linear fashion, going back and forward between China and America, but then becomes linear somewhere along the way. This bothered me. Jan Sardi said that they started the film in America because they thought they would alienate audiences if the first 20 minutes of the film was entirely Chinese. I wouldn’t have minded. As it is, the structure of the opening forty minutes or so is quite jarring.

I don’t think this story has been taken to its full potential. This could have and should have been an incredible film, because Li Cunxin’s life has been incredible. Mao’s Last Dancer falls a little flat, which is so unfortunate. However, it is still a really enjoyable film, and the emotion is really there, particularly between Li and his parents. I was so moved by the ending, I absolutely bawled my eyes out in the last few scenes, I seriously did.

The film has taken more than $13 million at the box office in Australia so far, the highest grossing Australian film of the year at the local box office. I think this just shows that Australian films can be successful when they deal with universally themes, rather than stories with very narrow appeal (they are usually either dark drug dramas or stupid comedies). This is a film that the whole family can really enjoy, and the cultural diversity ensures a wide audience. I’d recommend this film to anyone, but you should also read the book afterwards because there is so much more to love about Li Cunxin that isn’t touched on in the movie. I wish this had been an even better film.

My rating: 1112