Category: Australian Cinema

Another cautionary tale

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Last Friday I found myself in Leeds city centre with several hours to fill. I wanted to participate in a Palestinian Solidarity Group demonstration for the 67th anniversary of the ‘nakba’: which did not start to 5 p.m. I have to say that there was not a great selection of films available last week. The Vue in the Leeds Light was screening Mad Max: Fury Road, just released. The Guardian review awarded it four stars, though I also noted that it suggested that the film had a very loud soundtrack. So I took the precaution of purchasing a set of ear plugs: a wise precaution as it turned out.

At the Vue I found myself just behind five people in the queue. However, they had to buy any food at the same time as their tickets. So by the time I reached the ticket position there were now about two dozen people in the queue behind me. The ticket cost me £1.50p more than usual. When I queried this I was told that it was ‘dynamic marketing’. When asked what that meant I was told that this was because it was a popular film: we ended up with about forty punters in the auditorium!

Since it is not possible to determine exactly how long the adverts and trailers run there I caught some of the former. They were as naff as usual. They also included ‘cineme’; which encourages audience members to use their mobile phones and tablets to answer quiz questions. However, there was no subsequent warning to switch them off again. The trailers included two for a forthcoming release, San Andreas. The title suggests the plot-line: I am surprised that it has taken so long since the advent of CGI and 3D to get round to this treatment. When the feature started, in 2.39:1, there was no appropriate masking though the Vue does have masking equipment which used to operate.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia, 2015) is essentially an action movie using some of the characters and tropes from the original. There are some impressive sequences and settings: some of the CGI is impressive, but some is rather obvious. The film lacks the sort of devil-may-care charisma of Mel Gibson: Tom Hardy as Max looks more like a James Bond hero. Charlize Theron is as good as the script allows as the wonderfully named Imperator Furiosa. The other characters reminded me of a trailer I saw for Game of Thrones (and similar fantasy series). The film also lacks the intentional humour of the original. I laughed a lot, the rest of the audience less so but still occasionally.

As I left the multiplex I sought out the price list, not exactly in an obvious position. Apparently I was correctly charged. I then had a pot of tea and read the whole Guardian review. I never quite worked out why Peter Bradshaw had awarded it four stars. His headline read:

The legendary Aussie-post apocalyptic road warrior rides again – as extravagantly deranged as ever …

Sort of true, though I would query the ‘as ever …’. This is a ‘post-modern’ version. To paraphrase Claude Rains in Lawrence of Arabia

I wished I had stayed with the original.

 

The Water Diviner (Australia/US 2014)

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I recently read Roy’s review of Suite Française where he took Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian to task. So I went back and read Bradshaw’s review and whilst I could sympathise with Roy’s contentions over the language of the review I still disagreed with Roy’s actual assessment of that film. However Peter Bradshaw is a novice when it comes to invective in comparison to the review of this film by Thirza Wakefield in Sight & Sound (April 2015). Does Wakefield have a personal grudge against Russell Crowe, director and star of the film? It reminded me of the vitriolic obituary by Tony Rayns of Akira Kurosawa.

Apart from hyping up her comments Wakefield misses out on a crucial element in the film: its treatment of the Turks in relation to the colonial war prosecuted by Britain and its allies. The film opens as Turkish troops invade the trenches of the allied forces (mainly Australian troops) to discover that they have ‘retreated’ / ‘evacuated’. The film spends a good deal of attention on the Turkish position on the war and its aftermath. Something that is rare in mainstream war movies . . . We have a major Turkish protagonist and some telling comments on both the allied conduct in the war and their conduct in the post-war settlement.

Or course rooting for the Turks means that the Greeks become villains: even so it is refreshing. And given this is an Australian film the representation of British officers is negative: deservedly. The review is rightly critical of the representation of women, and the conventionality of the plot. However, there is a whole dynamic of the treatment that seems to have passed the reviewer by.

The film is, by and large, conventional. And Russell Crowe does not show great promise as a director. But he clearly has a distinctive view on these past events. Anzac Day, the anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, is one of the more reactionary memorials in Australian culture. Germaine Greer has rightly taken it to task. But this film does not valorise those events or its memory. And whilst it ends up valorising the male protagonist and aspects of Australian culture: its treatment of a distinctive foreign culture is not common in Australian cinema.

The Babadook (Australia 2014)

See, . . . nothing under the bed!

See, . . . nothing under the bed!

Quite a few good films coming out of Oz in the last year or two I think. The Babadook is intriguing and I’m still thinking about it. There seem to be several references to classic haunted house/melodrama/demonic possession movies of the 1960s-80s though I worry that I might not recognise the modern references so I can’t really comment on how ‘fresh’ it is. But for a low budget Kickstarter-aided film from a relatively inexperienced director it is pretty impressive. There aren’t enough horror films made by women and it’s interesting that the most frightening scene in Jennifer Kent’s movie for me was the clutch of glammed-up young mothers at a children’s birthday party with their matching gift bags – very ‘Stepford Wives’!

The Babadook is that old standby, a magic or ‘possessed’ book, in this instance a child’s pop-up book with rather interesting drawings (charcoal or pen and ink?). The book finds its way into the decidedly Gothic old house of Amelia, the widowed mother of 6 year-old Samuel. Samuel’s father was killed driving his wife to hospital on the night she gave birth and Samuel’s upcoming birthday is a significant date. Amelia is sleeping badly and Samuel is a difficult child who is driving her to distraction with his fears about monsters. Neither of them need the further pressure of a new monster threatening to cause havoc and terror in the household. But once you’ve read the book, your fate is apparently sealed . . .

I was amazed to read that the film’s producer suggested that this was an ‘arthouse film’ and that this explained why it had only a limited release in Australia. The Guardian reported that the film made more in the first weekend of its UK release (on 147 screens) than in its entire release in Australia. Australian distribution seems to be in even more of a crisis than in the UK.

Samuel and Amelia are authentically weary souls in an often uncaring world – or is that just their perception?

Samuel and Amelia are authentically weary souls in an often uncaring world – or is that just their perception? Note the palette of blues, greys and greens.

It isn’t an art film for me, rather an intelligent genre film that marries the familiar tropes of the haunted house/demonic possession genre with the good old family melodrama. Apart from Samuel and the demon/ghost, the only other male character who appears more than once is the nice young man at the care home where Amelia works. Much more significant are Amelia’s sister and the older woman next door. Essie Davis is very good as Amelia and she joins Deborah Kerr (The Innocents), Nicole Kidman (The Others) and Bélen Rueda (The Orphanage) as a woman under pressure trying to cope with small children. The Babadook doesn’t have the budget of those earlier films and it doesn’t have the allegorical status of the latter two, but it is distinctive. I’m not sure how ‘Australian’ it is – or whether this matters. (In terms of its difficulties in getting a wide release in Australia, this seems contradictory – the more an Australian film is recognised by overseas audiences first, the better chance it is supposed to have with domestic audiences who respond to foreign commendations. At least, that’s how I read comments from Australia.)

The colour palette is drained and costumes have generally been chosen in muted colours. Added to that, the costumes look very old-fashioned (is this a period film?) and the actors in minor roles have unusual faces and expressions. Check out the trailer below. The television seems to play a bizarre range of violent cartoons and a selection of films that includes Mario Bava(!), George Méliès and a Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in peril’ noir. (It appears to be The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, when it should be Sorry, Wrong Number?) The more I think about the film, the more references come to mind. Although the stories are different in terms of the ghost, there are strong connections to the Nakata Hideo film Dark Water (Japan 2002) which was in turn remade by Walter Salles for Hollywood. The social pressures on Amelia as a single mother are not as great as in the Japanese context but they are definitely there.

I think the film deserves its generally very good critical reception and I’m glad it seems to be attracting audiences. My only complaint would be that having imposed restraint for three quarters of the film, Jennifer Kent perhaps let go too much in the final quarter, changing the overall tone of the film.

The Railway Man (Australia/UK 2013)

The young Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) when he first arrives at the railway camp.

The young Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) when he first arrives at the railway camp.

The Railway Man is a decent film and rather better than I thought it might be. For some reason I got the impression from the trailer and the poster that there would be CGI war scenes and the like. If anything, the film suffers from the opposite – an attempt to use the ‘authenticity’ of the typical British realist drama including railway scenes that the real Eric Lomax would probably have winced at (wrong locos, rolling stock, stations etc.). But I’m not going to go on about that. The two reactions to the film have been either warm appreciation and enjoyment or dismissal as conventional/’soft’ etc. I think the former is more reasonable.

Eric Lomax was a young Royal Signals officer captured by Japanese forces at Singapore in 1942. The terrible irony was that this young railway enthusiast was sent to become part of the slave labour force building the ‘Death Railway’ from Siam into Burma to provide the Imperial Japanese Army with a supply route for their proposed invasion of India. Lomax was taken to be an engineer and was therefore slightly better off than the soldiers who became labourers. However, he crossed the Japanese camp leaders and was brutally tortured. Though he survived the ordeal, he developed post-traumatic stress, a condition not fully recognised in post-war Britain and it was not until 35 years after his release and marriage to Patti, a woman he met on a train, that he is able to return to the railway in contemporary Thailand – there to meet his torturer.

The Railway Man is an Australian-UK co-production. There is useful background material on the production on the film’s official website, but it’s still not clear to me why it became an Australian film after the initial script work by Frank Cottrell Boyce in the UK, over several years, based on Eric Lomax’s own book. (Australian troops were captured at Singapore and the liberators of the camps in 1945 were Australians, as shown in the film.) The film also has a huge budget by British standards ($26million is the estimate on IMDB – I’m not sure if that is US or Australian dollars, but it’s still large). I’m guessing that Nicole Kidman as Patti was part of the deal to promote the film. I’m afraid that she felt miscast for me as I didn’t believe in her as the character as constructed by the narrative. She nevertheless performs the role with skill and she looks lovely even in the dowdiest of clothes (by all accounts the real Patti claimed never to have been as dowdy.) The budget went on location work in Scotland, then Thailand and then finally in Australia for studio sets and construction of the camp.

The older Lomax (Colin Firth) with Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) one of the other survivors of the camp.

The older Lomax (Colin Firth) with Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) one of the other survivors of the camp.

I’ve see a number of reviews from what I assume to be younger writers who simply don’t ‘get’ the film. They don’t understand why Patti’s role is important and they don’t really understand the experience of the POWs in Burma. (I should point out that the film is not totally ‘truthful’ to the facts of Eric’s life – but Patti is clearly important in triggering events.) It occurred to me that there have been films about the trauma of being captured by the Japanese in Malaya at regular intervals in the UK since soon after the war ended. One that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is Mine Own Executioner (UK 1947), an adaptation of a Nigel Balchin novel that features a psychiatrist in a difficult marriage who has been a POW himself and then finds himself asked to treat another POW who is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress caused by his experiences in Malaya/Burma. Later films included Hammer’s Camp on Blood Island (UK 1958) and the relationship drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence directed by Oshima Nagisa (UK/Japan 1983). Oshima reminds me that I did think about The Burmese Harp (Japan 1956) at the end of The Railway Man. In Kon Ichikawa’s film we get a very different sense of the Japanese soldiers who have to come to terms with the end of the war but on reflection some of that is in the meeting between Eric Lomax and the figure of his nightmares played by Sanada Hiroyuki. I found these scenes very moving. I think you could argue that The Railway Man is a true ‘anti-war film’. We realise that along with the terrible loss of so many lives, Eric has had his life ruined and his opportunities for fulfilment closed off because of the (understandable) hatred he felt towards Japan and the Japanese. In a parallel universe, Eric Lomax would have travelled to Japan and marvelled at the diversity of Japanese rail networks.

Colin Firth with Nicole Kidman (as Patti Lomax)

Colin Firth with Nicole Kidman (as Patti Lomax)

My other gripe is with the reviewers who dismiss the ending of this film. One states that though the ending conforms to what actually happens, it doesn’t work as cinema – as if a film must end in a certain way. These reviewers appear to have been force-fed Hollywood screenwriting handbooks and that is not a good practice. Films can end in lots of different ways, all of which can be effective in different circumstances. The story of The Railway Man is relatively well-known because of the book and documentary treatments. Many audiences want to ‘experience’ the story on the big screen – they don’t want it changed to conform to Hollywood conventions.

On a technical level, The Railway Man feels accomplished and restrained. Frank Cottrell Boyce is of course an experienced and celebrated scriptwriter but Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky gets more exposure in the international film market than he has had before. Perhaps the issue about the film is that it feels old-fashioned, like a film that might have been made in the 1970s and 1980s. That hasn’t stopped it being a hit with older audiences. My hope is that its box office success in the UK will attract younger audiences who might be introduced to this history and who might understand a little more about post-traumatic stress. Perhaps it will contribute to the general discussion about the impact of war on the lives of ordinary people that the whole emphasis during 2014 on the centenary of the First World War should bring. Come to think about it, the thousands of young soldiers abandoned by the poorly prepared authorities in colonial Singapore have something in common with the troops sent out to be slaughtered in 1914.