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Sleeping Beauty (2011)
The depiction of human nature in this film is not completely miserable, but it's pretty miserable. Emily Browning plays the largely inscrutable Lisa, a university student in Sydney already exhibiting degrees of nihilistic behaviour before she signs on as a silver service lingerie waitress in a very weird, hoity-toity brothel of sorts. She quickly 'graduates' to the position of Sleeping Beauty in which, while voluntarily drugged and asleep, she becomes a sexual prop for grey-haired men rich enough to pay for the service. While asleep, she sees and knows nothing of what happens, but the audience of this film sees plenty. What is seen and heard is more disturbing than it is visually explicit, excepting the nudity of all involved, especially Browning's.
The question is - what is all this about? It is beautifully designed and photographed in still, square-on Kubrick style, with minimal editing and music. There are degrees of suspense and disturbance, mystery and eroticism, but there isn't much of a vector for any of these elements. The characters are variously arch and obnoxious, cold, stupid, reckless and unkind. We know little about any of them, and most of what we do learn doesn't make much sense. Bizarrely, the kindest person in the film seems to be the madam of the brothel, played by a magnificently still Rachael Blake.
I wondered, while watching Sleeping Beauty, how it was going to end itself. The final scene is pretty unsatisfying, given that the resolution depends on Lisa eventually seeking to find out what has been going on during her sleeps - something the audience doesn't just know already, but has watched at length as fact. And there is a twist which potentially confuses the denouement.
There is no doubting that this film is an experience and finely made, but there's a strain of dumb misery and pessimism at work here along the lines of Catherine Breillat and Michael Haneke. Everybody is hopeless and unkind, they don't know what they want, they can't evolve, they don't want to evolve. Lisa seems interested in a promiscuous brand of self-destruction for reasons the audience basically has to invent. The whole film also teeters on the edge of being one of those pieces where every single man is depicted as being a sex-enslaved scumbag. What you're left with is an aesthetically interesting film with a strong sensibility, but which is wearily negative about everything, and whose ending is also a letdown on the film's own terms.
Accepting that the feat of the original film can't be replicated, this was still a bit disappointing.
I was an 8 year old kid learning to program my Apple II when my dad took me to see TRON in 1983. The film has probably been a bigger deal in my life than I would consciously reckon.
I was made aware of this tonight after seeing TRON Legacy. I saw it in 3d at IMAX and it was spectacular, no doubt about that. But the story didn't feel like it had much depth, and there was no sense of wonder.
Aesthetically, the feat of the original film is only reproducible by doing something that nobody understands or has imagined yet, and doing it with new technology. The aesthetic of the new TRON is beautiful, but it runs along with my feelings about the diminishing returns of photorealism in gaming - the world of the original TRON didn't look like anything we knew. This new one looks like plenty we know. The world inside the computer has become a concrete looking environment painted with photorealistic CGI. It looks like it's all really there, like it's built out of matter. You can see the real latex wads on people's hands. To me this felt all wrong, somehow.
Is this the point? That graphics are going this way? It seems logical, but in a way, I don't even understand the aesthetic of the new film. It didn't seem to bother anyone I saw it with.
I enjoyed the film when it was in front of me, but afterwards I felt oddly down about it. I didn't think I went in with manic expectations, but I suppose deep down, I did want more, because the original film has been a part of my consciousness all this time, and it's a film which invoked pure creativity. The new film doesn't touch anything so inspiring, even if it has many good qualities.
Pretty terrible, but at least it's different
This is a pretty monotonous and factually inaccurate portrait of Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. The Night Stalker, the serial killer and self-proclaimed Satanist who terrorised Los Angeles and San Francisco in the mid-1980s. It offers little characterisation, next to no story, no suspense and lots of badly executed violence. Most of the short running time is filled with Richard's repetitious bad-beat-poetry voice-over of a soundtrack ('She was my dark Princess. Dark like hell. Darker than night, my Satanic queen, she was so dark..' etc) plus endless close-ups of him sucking suggestively on a lollipop.
What the film does have going for it is difference - the style and delivery are significantly unlike those of the majority of straight to DVD horror films. This doesn't save it from being a real chore to sit through, but seems worth commenting on in these times when so many films are bad in exactly the same way as each other.
The grainy video cinematography and no-budget location shooting give the film a gritty sense of place. Richard's voice-over seems designed to fill the void where a recording of the outdoor location sound would normally be. It looks like they only bothered to record sound when it wouldn't be blotted out by traffic and the din of the world - i.e. mostly when they were indoors.
This is actually a pretty good film for the actors when they are able to snatch any screen time away from Richard and his lollipops. It looks like the performers were allowed to improvise nearly all of their conversations. When this works, it gives the scenes a ring of non-movie reality. Of course when it doesn't, the actors end up riffing the same ideas repeatedly.
The Night Stalker was called the Night Stalker because he attacked people at night. Well, he goes in for a lot of daytime attacks in this film. Very few of the crimes match up to the real case history, the scene in which he is apprehended is abysmally directed, you never see how he gets into any of the victims' houses, and there is no real illumination of the man, either real or imaginary. I would have settled for either.
I didn't stop watching this film, but I wouldn't recommend that you start. It's also not a good sign that the film's opening and closing credits take up one eighth of the running time ... but then again, the actors in this film did get a very good deal. They got to improvise, and everyone's name was displayed twice.
Downbeat dance drama which ain't easy to find
The difficulty of finding this 1988 film to see it in 2010 amounts to a sad (or weird) comment on film archival in Australia, as does Quentin Tarantino's need to buy his own print of Frog Dreaming. You can't buy a DVD of Belinda, and there's no copy of the film in the National Sound and Film Archives, only posters and press material. I'd be happy to get a look even at that stuff because there's nothing to be found online.
My minor irrational obsession with this film is a direct consequence of these difficulties. I first saw Belinda on VHS in the early 90s, either during high school or early university years, and remembered filing it away in my memory as one of my favourite Australian films. By the time I was pining to check this memory by seeing the film again, it was the year 2008. Google searches turned up next to nothing on Belinda - though there was a very old interview with the director on a website about adult thumbsucking(!) - and ironically the easiest way to obtain a copy turned out to be by buying an NTSC video from the USA on eBay. The film wasn't even called Belinda in the US, it had been renamed 'Midnight Dancer', and the woman on the front cover of the video hadn't actually appeared in the film, but looked like a refugee from Flashdance, and I had to manually repair this ex-rental video with a screwdriver and great difficulty before I could watch it... but I got there in the end.
So I sat down to watch Belinda for the first time in probably 15 years. Sadly, I discovered that the film wasn't as good as my memory of it. Belinda is an innocent young dancer who ends up in damaged company in Sydney's King's Cross during the 1960s. The strand of the film about her straightlaced parents never really goes anywhere, while the major strand about the wisened old dancer who becomes a drizzled mother figure to Belinda is kind of maudlin or corny by turns. Crime and seediness rub around the edges of the club, and there are a lot of unhappy and dysfunctional women on display.
The film is kind of effectively grim, but just not particularly well paced or involving, and Belinda comes across as too slight a presence. The sexual assault scene is still pretty nasty, and was something which really stuck in my head from the first time I saw it. The standout actor in the film is Kaarin Fairfax (later one of Col'n Carpenter's roommates) who puts in a killer performance as a really lively and dangerous-seeming dancer at the club. Seeing her here makes me wish she'd had more film roles.
In spite of its flaws, I will always have a soft spot for and interest in this film, probably because I had to jump through so many hoops to find it again. IMDb says that the film also received four AFI nominations. You would think an AFI nominated film would be available or distributed somehow in Australia, but not this one, at least not at this time of writing.
The film does have John Jarratt in it, Tarantino's favourite Australian actor, so maybe he will buy a print from somewhere and save it, a la Frog Dreaming.
Clash of the Titans (2010)
This remake of the starry-eyed 1981 Greek mythological fantasy adventure has a grungy, ugly look and a completely joyless opening quarter of an hour. Sam Worthington's blokey performance as Perseus turns out to be roughly interchangeable with the performances he gave in both Avatar and the last Terminator film, though Clash has next to no character development on the cards for Sam or any of its other actors. What little humour there is comes in the form of cynical one-liners from one of Perseus's bearded mates. The film is mostly a series of grunty fight scenes involving sandaled humans versus giant CGI monsters giant scorpions, giant medusa, giant kraken, etc.
One of the heroes of the original Clash was a cute clockwork golden owl named Bubo. When trailers for the new Clash were screening, my friend and I joked about whether Bubo would make the remake. I said, "there's no way they're going to have a cute robot owl. This film looks way too grungy and they're playing heavy metal music on the trailer."
To all our surprises, Bubo did appear, albeit for ten seconds. Just before Perseus sets out on his adventure, he is digging around in a supply chest when he pulls out... Bubo, looking and sounding exactly like the little blighter did in 1981. This caused me to cry aloud: "Oh my God!"
Perseus considers the owl briefly and says something like, "What the hell is this?" His bearded one-linery friend responds with, "Don't worry about it, just leave it here." Then they shove the owl back in the box and go adventuring. In retrospect this was the wittiest moment in the whole film, even if it only made sense to people who knew the original. If you had been wondering if the owl would reappear, this scene both satisfied your desire to see the owl again and then reassured you that, "Okay, that's the owl issue dealt with, so no, the owl won't be in the film in general, and now you can stop worrying about it."
The basic strike against the new film, which amounts to 1000 strikes, is that not a single aspect of it is developed in any satisfying way. Dialogue is absolute nuts and bolts stuff to propel the simple plot. The people in the film aren't moved when their pals are killed, so you aren't either. There's a cast of gods in Olympus, but 80% of them stand in the background saying nothing, etc. etc.
The new Princess Andromeda is dull as dishwater in a cut down role (but I was kind of in love with Judi Bowker of the original film, so I am biased). The principal female role now belongs to lovely Gemma Arterton as Io, the ageless half human, uh, toga'd spirit type woman.(?) If I thought anyone would ever say anything remotely poetic in this film, I'd have put money on her character saying it. But nobody does and she didn't.
The old Clash of the Titans was extraordinary with romance, G rated magic and beautiful scenery, no matter how naff some of it was. The new one is ugly and weak, brisk and dumb. I think it's safe to say that no kid who is seven years old now will be looking back on this film with any fondness in thirty years' time.
Glamour and ridiculousness, together at last
Crush brings a war hammer to the table when it comes to the idea of 'hitting every single part of the youth demographic'. It's a thriller featuring tae kwon do championships, house sitting in a Panic Room mansion, a sexy mystery girl and a brand new rockin' song on the soundtrack in every second scene. The actors are young and glamorous and so is the Perth scenery. The trouble is that all of this rollicking-in-theory content is at the service of a story and film-making which continually nudge at the borders of dumbness, and which ultimately make a leap right into its crazy heart.
Julian (Chris Egan) can no longer compete in his beloved tae kwon do on his USA home turf after a minor underage drinking scandal, so now he has to slum it in Australia while studying architecture. With his next big tourney approaching, Julian figures he'll get a bit of R&R in while carrying out his new temp job of housesitting the mansion of a rich family who are about to holiday in Paris. The dad has installed a Sliver-like system of security cameras throughout the house, and warns Julian that his niece might drop over while the family's away to use the mansion's swimming pool.
Before you can say "Fatal Attraction", Anna (Emma Lung) materialises by the swimming pool in a red bikini. She is well sultry, and about five minutes later Julian is already having understandable fantasies of her licking his face. This immediately creates a ton of problems he's already got a girlfriend (Brooke Harmon), plus Anna apparently has keys to the otherwise secure house, plus Julian is supposed to be taking it easy before the big fight.
Development in these thrillers about obsession needs to be craftily ratcheted up by degrees in order to keep things believable. Crush is very shaky in this respect, moving alternately in extreme leaps or underwhelming shuffles. Anna's behaviour as she hangs around the house is pretty inscrutable. One scene begins with the decent threat of the lights suddenly going out. It ends with Julian 'rescuing' his girlfriend from a slightly regurgitating toilet.
Julian frequently has flashbacks to scenes which occurred just five seconds earlier, another omen of bad film-making. He is seen with his university friends in authentically Australian campus computer labs, but his two mates are scripted and acted far more like American college frat boys than Australians, even though they occasionally say "mate". Combined with Julian's nationality being American, this feels like further slight desperation to play to the international market, which I wouldn't mind if this film was better.
Unfortunately, at the moment of potential maximum intrigue concerning Anna's origins, a revelation occurs whose proportions are so ludicrous that any viewer remotely cynical at this point (which I believe will be the majority of viewers) will topple completely offside. I then experienced the film's conclusion as dumb and embarrassing.
Chris Egan does okay as Julian, and Emma Lung wrings a few good moments out of an impossible, ridiculously scripted part as Anna. The film's glamour, high production values and unpaid-off hints of intrigue actually make it pretty easy to watch, even through some overbearing faults and naffness, but the finale is irredeemable. I think the real reason Crush invites derision is that it goes all out to be a rousing cross-market genre piece, yet for all its heavy-handedness, doesn't pull it off, and ends up prompting jokey cynicism instead.
Another wretchedly unwatchable effort from the straight to DVD horror bonanza of the noughties. Little silverfish like parasites which variously kill people or control them while squirming around under their skin ran rampant on Kuttyhunk (!) Island 20 years ago, thanks to some Resident Evilly maniac scientists who wanted to create super citizens and now, it's happening again, albeit very slowly and stupidly.
The presence of cool CGI parasites is all for naught because the film fails on all the most basic levels: You don't give a crap about any of the characters, the editing is incompetent, and the script is gaping with holes of illogic sure to keep any viewers in Total Cynic mode. The result is extreme boredom.
An opening montage shows parasites swarming like ants in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This never happens during the present day invasion of the island. Instead these parasites, which have demonstrated the ability to leap from one infected person to another over 20 feet away with extraordinary ease and finesse, choose to propagate in the following manner: They infect one young man, imbue him with superpowers and confidence, and make him stroll into the Kuttyhunk Tavern, where he goes all out to pick up one local young woman. After she admits that ' he really gets her', her boyfriend's gander is raised. The boyfriend and Superman go out into the parking lot for a scuffle, which is the cue for Matrix-like articulate slow motion kung fu. After Superman's inevitable victory over three locals, he emphasises his win by smashing the car park asphalt up with his foot. His newly won girlfriend fails to notice the strangeness of this and trundles off into the woods with him for some smoochies. Finally, FINALLY, a parasite begins to squirm out of his ear in readiness to attack a new victim, but her scream panics Superman and he tears the girl's throat in annoyance.
DAMN! The invasion's never going to get anywhere at this rate.
There's an unintentional laugh when heroine B, the one with the really short shorts, begins to play the accordion one night in her cabin, after saying earlier to her would-be boyfriend that she was going to do this. I admired the film's follow-up in this area when it had failed to follow up in most others. That we see her playing the accordion from the POV of a heavy breathing, hooded parasite dude just makes the moment even funnier. However, such pleasing moments are thin on the ground.
As the cliché goes, this is 80 something minutes (which felt like two hours) which I can never get back. CGI tricks and RED camera cinematography are wasted time and time again in the service of completely sloppy material like this from indie filmmakers who haven't got their skills up enough before throwing out a feature with a shiny veneer but zero watchability.
Quantum of Solace (2008)
Stop the directors! Stop the editors! I want to get off!
This is the first time I ever came out of a Bond film at the cinema thinking, 'I enjoyed almost none of that.' And there was no mystery for me as to why I felt this way. I didn't have to weigh up the other pros and cons (it is not an unsophisticated film) or think far or deeply. I couldn't stand Quantum Of Solace because ninety-five percent of its action sequences are appallingly directed and edited. Endless, wobbly extreme closeups are cut together too rapidly into a meaningless dirge which prohibits you from discerning anything about the nature of the scene.
How many cars are participating in this car chase? Will I be allowed to glimpse anyone's face in this scene other than Bond's? Will I be allowed to glimpse even Bond's face? Which boat is in front? Where is anything in relation to anything else, ever? And just what was that? That blur in front of me for the past half a second, what the hell was it? The answers to these questions respectively throughout Quantum of Solace are, 'I have no clue, no, no, I don't know, I will never know, I don't know, I still don't know.'
I'm tired of reading any defence for the most extreme incarnation of this style of action coverage. It is purposeless obfuscation. It's anti-exciting, annoying and just plain rubbish. Bond films in particular are known for their history of spectacular action and stunts, and if you briefly consider any eighties Bond film, you'll recall that somewhere in it was a long, held shot of something amazing. People fighting on the back of an airborne plane, racing cars through Paris or pursuing each other down a mountain on skis. Compared to any one of those scenes, everything in Quantum is a disgrace, incapable of engendering marvel or wonder.
Perhaps I should try to be less catastrophic about the direction of cinema in general and just apportion blame directly to the guy from the Bourne films whose second unit did this to Quantum, and to Marc Forster, who directed the film, and either sanctioned or did not repel the Bourne-on-steroids content. Call me Mister Insane, but I demand the context, information and sense of place delivered by even the occasional wide shot. To see how Bond kung-fu'd an elevator full of guys would be cool, right? The event happens in this film, but what you actually see is a camera jerking crazily over ten inch wide patches of dark clothing, to the accompaniment of cabbages being walloped on the soundtrack. Imagine if Bruce Lee tried to get away with this crap. And this wasn't a well considered case of indicating what had just happened by offering the impression of it rather than the depiction of it, it was simply a continuation of the house style.
Quantum Of Solace takes anti-illuminating film-making to new, stupid lows!
Saw V (2008)
A stumble, but still on mission.
I watched Saw V with a good opening night crowd here in Sydney. I've enjoyed all of the Saw films, predictably liking some episodes a lot more than others, and Saw V is, again, very watchable, with some intense moments and no shortage of grisliness. But I'd still say it's the weakest entry in the series to date. The trouble is that the main narrative addition for this episode, which has to sustain half the running time, turns out to be a dramatically weak one. I don't think a Saw film ever previously failed to create excitement or new meaning via one of its big twisty revelations, but Saw V's add next to nothing. The knowledge gained doesn't force any re-evaluation of the past events it concerns; you just see and know a bit more about them, and to no great effect, except for the fact that Tobin Bell's performance is always compelling, maybe even more so when he's talking to people who aren't stuck in Jigsaw's deathtraps.
The Saw films have demonstrated an unfeasibly high success rate over time in terms of pulling off twist after twist and having them nearly all hit home. With this track record, it seems inevitable that there'd be a significant stumble at some point. They've never been bulletproof films (and thrillers are the genre that are hardest to bulletproof), but I'd say Saw V is definitely the stumble. In spite of this, it still keeps in enough with the series in general for me to be ready for Saw VI in 2009 - which I hope will be better work.
Mysterious, weird, beautiful.
I saw about twenty films at the 2008 Sydney Film Festival, and Helen was probably my favourite feature. Steadfast in mystery, atmosphere, weirdness and emotional bleakness, the film follows the slow-growing obsession of the eponymous heroine with the former life of another girl, Joy, who disappeared in the local park one day, and whom Helen is 'playing' in a police reconstruction of the event.
The film has a beautiful cryptic quality, not in any conventional kind of whodunnit sense, but as regards both the elusive character of Helen and the nature of the film itself. The long, unbroken takes, great silences and restrained, almost self-effacing interactions amongst the characters generate fascination and curiosity. Is it some kind of hyper-naturalism? Or the opposite of naturalism? The players are often facing away from each other, or off the screen, or shot from behind, or just so that you can't see their faces. When a creepily patronising policewoman arrives to brief Joy's schoolmates about the reconstruction of the disappearance, half the scene is viewed via its reflection in a mirror.
Some of the dialogue is bizarre in its expositional nature, enough to prompt amusement, yet at others times it is completely evasive. Helen feels such a great hollow within herself (she has been raised in care, and her past and parentage are shrouded in mystery) that her vocalisation mostly consists of dull murmured statements. The strongest indication that some of the weirdness is in droll taste is an amusing scene in which a morose-looking teacher appears to do the worst job in the world in trying inspire the students with talk of 'blue skies thinking'.
The film is framed by metronomically perfect editing, fades to black, abstraction-making shots of dappled light filtering through park trees and a glacial ambient score. It reminded me at times of David Lynch in its poetic design. It offers a unique vision of a situation which opens onto multiple mysteries, most importantly the mystery of what is inside Helen, played with supernatural understatement by Annie Townsend. And it is emotionally confronting, with some moments that are very difficult to bear. This is beautiful cinema.