Monday, December 13, 2010


The independently-made sci-fi films that have been popping up over the last two years have more than proved that smaller films in this genre can compete, and in some cases completely outclass, the studio-funded big guns. Monsters is one such example, beautifully crafted from a tiny budget (reported to be anything from $15,000 to $500,000), with a miniscule cast (two professional actors) and a crew of four, including creator, director and cinematographer Gareth Edwards (making his feature film debut).

A road movie, a love story and a travelogue, Monsters is not much like a sci-fi film at all. Taking a unique spin on alien invasion, the film’s premise has similarities to District 9, with alien life forms taking up residence on Earth, in an area that is economically deprived. But here is where the comparison ends; Monsters treads a very different path, creating an engaging and poetically humanistic film.

The story takes place in the ‘Infected Zone’ of northern Mexico, as an unlikely pair of travellers try to make their way northwards – and homewards – to the United States: photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and his boss’s daughter, Sam (Whitney Able), who he has reluctantly agreed to escort. The film’s success owes a huge amount to the chemistry between its two leads, a couple in real life. While this is an obvious advantage, the quality of their performances shouldn’t be underestimated.

Monsters is a good-looking film, with Edwards creating a lovely visual lyricism from Central American landscapes. As the person behind the special effects he has also created magic in post-production, providing the all-important extra-terrestrial action.

With clever political undertones, an affecting love story and gigantic squid-like aliens, Monsters may just be the best sci-fi film of 2010.


First published in The Brag 30/11/2010

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Due Date

In Due Date successful architect Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr) is stuck making a cross-country road trip with wannabe-actor Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis), after they are both thrown off a plane flight by an over-zealous Air Marshall. On a strict deadline, and with his wallet and passport still on the plane, Peter opts to hop a lift with Ethan, in order to get back to LA in time for the birth of his first child, with wife Sarah (Michelle Monaghan). Along the way Peter learns about fatherhood and friendship from his eccentric travel buddy, through a series of incidents that includes masturbating dogs, violence against children, and various car wrecks.

With its gross-out humour and overly manipulated set-ups, Due Date is more cringe-worthy than humorous. The film feels like it has been pieced together from the leftover scraps of funnier, more entertaining films. The writers appear to have a checklist of comedy props – annoying child, ugly pugdog, angry war veteran, scary Mexican immigration officials – that they were obliged to mould into a coherent storyline. Any attempt by the filmmakers to say anything even vaguely true about fatherhood or friendship appears tacked on, as if the only way they can get away with the series of idiotic jokes is to inject in the odd emotional revelation.

What is most disappointing is that Due Date hasn’t been made by talentless hacks, and doesn’t have a second-rate cast. Downey Jr. and Galifianakis could and should have made a more appealing pair for a buddy film, but director Todd Phillips (The Hangover) hasn’t been able to balance the pairing at all, and both come off as highly unlikeable characters. Obviously playing on The Hangover riff that did so well last time, Phillips is too reliant on Galifianakis as a visual gag.

Saying all this, the film has already made back its budget of $65 million at the US box office, with a pretty hefty bit of change on top of that. So there is definitely an audience for this film, and (knowing the laws of Hollywood) an even more depressing sequel is probably already in the pipeline.


First published in The Brag 30/11/2010

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Josh Fox Interview

An interesting episode in the life of Josh Fox

Josh Fox, US documentary-maker and current mouthpiece of the anti-natural gas drilling movement, has been on what he calls “an exhausting and comprehensive” tour with his film, GasLand. Launching screenings with local grassroot organisations across America and then travelling to Australia for Q&As in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, Fox’s role is one firmly stuck between filmmaker and activist. Tired but still obviously spurred on by the environmental damage he’s seen and the threat to his own home, Fox is determined to continue spreading the message of the film.

GasLand is part exposé, part personal travelogue. The project began when Fox received a letter from a gas company offering $100,000 to lease part of his family’s upstate New York estate for exploration. Instead of signing on the bottom line like many of his neighbours Fox- a theatre director and part-time banjo player- decided to investigate the natural gas industry. “I was in the middle of a raging debate in my area between people who wanted this development and people who didn’t, and I just wanted to find out who was right.”

At the outset of his journey Fox was oblivious to the extend of the damage that hydraulic fracturing (a process for drilling for gas) was causing across America. It was a trip to the town of Dimock, Pennsylvania (shown in the film) that spurred Fox on to action. Interviews with residents there revealed flammable drinking water polluted by chemicals involved in the drilling process and massive health problems caused by toxic emissions. Fox felt terrified.

“I came home [after visiting Dimock] and I couldn’t sleep for a month, I still can’t sleep sometimes when I think about it, because I feel the walls closing in and I feel like I might have to leave.” Indeed, Fox's greatest fear is that he may not ultimately be able to halt the drilling process. “Here I am down in the valley, a lot of the property up on the hill, to the north side is leased. My immediate neighbours to my left and to my right are not leased, but what if they sell their house and the next person leases? … Even if they just drill the properties up on the hill, all those toxic emissions, and I know what they are, are going to waft down and collect in the valley.”

Watching GasLand it is hard not to feel outraged and angry. The film shows how gas companies in the US have been allowed to by-pass environmental laws. But despite all of his alarming and depressing findings you never see Fox angry in the film, which is surprising. “I think I am in shock myself a little bit about that, I think I am really deeply angry, I don’t think that is the way to express it though.” Fox pauses before continuing “Here is the thing, I think you have to leave space for your audience to make up their own mind… GasLand is a series of questions, put forward from a reasonable perspective, and it is in the audience’s hands to figure out what they need to do or what they think. You’ve got to come charging in at the end of the movie, not me, I’m already charging.”

Converting audience outrage into action isn’t easily done, but this filmmakers isn’t shy about pointing the way. “I think people have to be in the streets protesting about this, in the major cities. I think you have to have, at the locations, civil disobedience. The popular opinion has to turn and say ‘no, we are citizens of this country and we really want to examine this before industry comes in and decides to buys out our continent and our government’. At the beginning of the process I was really interested in preserving my land and my house, now the most important objective to me is to move the Earth towards renewable energy. Its about all of us investing in the great change that is to come, which is to get off fossil fuels. And natural gas is dirty just like fossil fuels.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fox has attracted a smear campaign determined to discredit both him and the film. “A lot of people have said ‘hey you are getting to them, they’re attacking you’. But it sucks. Here is the thing that bothers me about it, what they [gas companies] are saying is so obviously a lie, they are lying through their teeth. I would like to see journalists challenge them on their lies instead of me having to deal with it. When they come out and say ‘We’re not exempt from the Safe Drinking Act’ the rudimentary level journalist could just look it up and see they are lying. And if they try and put that question to me, the journalists should chime in and say ‘sorry we know you are lying’. That’s is the part of it that pisses me off, the fact that they are able to hit one spin cycle in the media and disrupt the conversation with something that is such an obvious untruth.”

Becoming the mouthpiece of a cause certainly doesn’t come without its problems, but Fox with his wry sense of humour, seems to be coping. “The film has put the human face on this issue, on gas drilling…For me it is a really interesting rollercoaster. Isn’t this an interesting episode in the life of Josh Fox, I wonder what will happen next?”

First published in The Brag 15/11/10

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The American

For his sophomore film, Dutch director Anton Corbijn (Control) gives us a slow-paced Euro-thriller, adapted from Martin Booth's novel A Very Private Gentleman. The central character has been changed from British to American, with George Clooney cast against type. Filmed largely in the stunning Abruzzo region of Italy The American is visually impressive, but light on substance.

Jack (Clooney) is a hitman/gunsmith who begins the film in Sweden, where he commits as act of violence that will haunt him throughout the rest of the film. Escaping to Italy he hides out in a small countryside town and takes on a new assignment for a mysterious client (Thekla Teuten, In Bruges). The town's elderly priest (Paolo Bonacelli) quickly sizes Jack up as someone whose soul is in torment, and tries to befriend him, but Jack is a little more interested in getting to know Clara (Violente Placido), a beautiful and vivacious prostitute. However the quaint old town is full of dark, cobbled, maze-like alleyways and Jack, who is unable to escape his past, is constantly on guard for enemies lurking in the shadows.

Clooney, rightly or wrongly, is associated with characters that are charismatic and amiable. Jack, on the other hand, is solemn and cold; too hard a character to care about, not because of his immoral choices but because we find out so little about him during the course of the film.

The American suffers from being too earnest and relying on a heavy amount of visual symbolism, struggling to find a suitable way to express the film's message without banging the audience over the head with it. Corbijn's lack of subtlety as a filmmaker means that when he does make smart choices he is unable to do so without pointing it out to his audience, spoiling the magic somewhat. Corbijn coming from the world of photography and music videos certainly knows how to make a visually engaging film, but he hasn't quite learned how to tell a good story yet.


First published in The Brag 8/11/2010

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Monday, November 15, 2010

Interview: Emily Calder / Flightfall

A mystery of creative collaborations

I speak to Emily Calder, Flightfall is a week from opening at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, and the young playwright can hardly believe it. “It is feeling very surreal at the moment. It’s been two years of lots and lots of re-drafting. In my mind I never really imagined it would be on.” For the 26-year-old NIDA graduate, it’s a significant milestone: her first produced full-length play. Covering topics of fidelity, passion and creativity,Flightfall has a young cast of talented up-and-coming Australian actors, and will be directed by Calder’s fellow NIDA graduate, Mark Grentell.

In fact, Grentell has been an instrumental to Flightfall from its inception.“Mark approached me at the end of my Playwrights Studio year at NIDA, and he wanted me to write about a particular subject,” Calder explains. “It was very broad in scope and I struggled to find the story I wanted to tell to represent that.” It was a bit of fortuitous timing that saw Calder’s first draft become part of Sydney Theatre Company’s Next Stage program. “Mark was working as an assistant director on a production here (STC) and he mentioned our project, and they had some workshops they were offering to writers.”

Calder credits Next Stage as an integral force in the play’s development “We had a really amazing three day workshop at the STC and we had three of the young female actors [from the STC’s Residents] basically doing lots of improvisations, and I wrote a whole lot of new scenes from it.” Calder is enthusiastic about the need for artistic collaborations throughout the whole writing process. “One of the sweetest words to my ear is ‘workshop’. You are sitting there all alone in your room, and you read the words out to yourself, but until you actually hear them coming from someone else… I’ve been so lucky to have fantastic actors reading for me, the whole way through.”

In Grentell’s production of Flightfall Augusta Miller (Happy Feet) plays Nina, an artist who is seduced by her new muse (played by Ryan Corr ofPacked to the Rafters), causing tension with her boyfriend Sam (James Elliot) and her best friend Jo (Alexandra Fisher). Although Calder will discuss the play’s themes and tone she is a little coy about the plot. “Flightfall is a bit of a mystery play, so I can’t give too much away… the play is about this artist and her story. It is about art, and what happens with her and her boyfriend, but it also represents poetically something else, which you find out about at the end.”

At a certain point, with the show cast, and its premiere season approaching, Calder had to let go of her baby. “Mark and I had discussed the need to give the director and the actors the script by themselves, and not have the pressure of the writer in the room. I kind of really missed being [in rehearsals], because I loved it so much, and I have to admit I did have that initial ‘oh my baby’ – which I think is typical to all writers.”

There’s always the ‘next thing’ to look forward to, however. “There has been so much work put into it, it would be wonderful if it had a run somewhere else, or got picked up for another venue,” Calder reflects. “I hope it will open doors so I can write more. I suppose everyone would just love to do it again, I think.”

First published in The Brag 25/10/2010

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Social Network

With its themes of friendship, betrayal and ambition, The Social Networkis one of the best and most intriguing films of the year. The combination of wordsmith Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and director David Fincher (Fight Club) has produced something exciting and narratively creative. Using two co-running lawsuits against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) the film tells the origin story through disputing voices and ‘truths’.

We open with 19-year-old Harvard student Zuckerberg out on a very uncomfortable date with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara). Showing off Sorkin’s signature rapid-paced, witty dialogue, this scene perfectly highlights the irony of the world’s largest social networking tool being created by someone who is socially inept. The narrative cuts between boardroom legal negotiations: on the one hand, original investor Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) is suing Zuckerberg for squeezing him out of the company after its move to Silicon Valley; on the other, the Winklevoss Twins (played by Armie Hammer) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) are suing Zuckerberg for stealing their idea for Facebook. Using this legal setting to weave in and out of events and perspectives, Fincher’s directing is as intelligent as Sorkin’s words.

The young, up-and-coming cast is impressive. Eisenberg brings both arrogance and vulnerability to the role of the computer genius who wants to get noticed. Garfield’s performance, equally good, is a jovial counterweight to Eisenberg’s deadpan. Proving his chops as an actor, Justin Timberlake is the film’s only true villain, playing Napster co-founder Sean Parker, who seduces Zuckerberg with his rockstar charisma.

Certainly part of the film’s appeal is simple curiosity, about one of our generation’s most defining entrepreneurs; but with superb storytelling this film also seems to be saying something more about our lives right now and the rise of the tech-savvy.


First published in The Brag 1/11/10

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Made In Dagenham

Based on the true events Made in Dagenham explores womens’ struggle against sexual discrimination in 60s-era England. Brits do social commentary films very well. Kitchen sink dramas are staples of their film industry- with often bleak, harrowing films about Britain’s working class. So it is a pleasant surprise that director Nigel Cole hasn’t taken this story of factory strikes and union movements down this gritty route and has instead given us a fun, up-beat dramedy.

When the female machinists at American car giant Ford’s UK manufacturing plants are reclassified as unskilled labour and are moved to a lower pay salary, the employees at the factory in Dagenham, a borough in Greater London, move for industrial action. Lead by shy, but passionate worker Rita O’Grady (
Sally Hawkins) the women stage the first ever female strike, scaring both Ford and the Unions. What follows is a stalemate which raises issues of gender and rights forcing the British Government to take notice.

The competition between domestic duties and principles pull the women in differing directions giving some shade to the film’s overall light atmosphere. While
Made in Dagenham’s message is loud and clear, the script’s witty dialogue and the cast’s performances stop it from being belligerent, or overly self-righteous.

Hawkins is fantastic as Rita, a woman who finds her voice fighting for sexual equality. There is a delightful cheekiness as well as stern determination to the character, which makes her a charming lead. Also brilliant is
Miranda Richardson as Secretary for State Barbara Castle, whose role shows off another side to women in the workforce.

The film does overload the 60s clichés. Fashion and make-up are emphasised to the point that they are less setting and more proof that we are in the 60s- indeed we must be because there are hot-pants and massive beehives everywhere. But this is a small problem in what is overall a heart-warming and delightful film. The spirit of standing up and being counted is an important message that Made In Dagenham spreads by being entertaining rather than moralising.


First published in The Brag 25/10/2010

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Most Terrifying TV/Film Characters

It is Horror Week over at Trespass, so I a sked contributors to pick the 3 most terrifying characters from either film or TV. Here are my picks...

Bob (Frank Silva) from Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Bob is undoubtedly one of the most disturbing TV characters of all time. A demonic entity, Bob gains strength and pleasure from the fear and suffering of his victims. With the ability to possess humans who do his bidding, Bob’s character represented both the abstract notion of pure evil and also the idea of the evil within the human character. Bob’s status as a terrifying character is not only credit to the surreal visuals of the show’s creators- David Lynch and Mark Frost but also linked to the ambiguity of the character, was he real or imaginary- the catalyst for violence or the excuse?

Pennywise the Dancing Clown
(Tim Curry) from It (1990)

The TV miniseries It can be blamed for many a person’s fear of clowns. Adapted from Stephen King’s horror novel, the title refers to a creature that can take on many different forms, often using its victims’ worst fears and phobias to hunt and kill them. With a taste for children, It most often appears as Pennywise, a playfully sadistic dancing clown, who attack his victims with fang-like teeth and claws. Watching It at a young age, the character of Pennywise has stayed in my psyche, and I often find myself irrationally crossing the road when I came to a drain.

Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) from Psycho (1960)

I can’t count the numbers of time I’ve been spooked by a ‘movement’ behind the shower curtain. Perhaps I’m just a nervous bather, or maybe it is the indelible mark of Hitchcock’s horror classicPsycho and its infamous murderer- Norman Bates that is the cause. A man with some seriously scary mother issues, Bates is all the more terrifying because he doesn’t look like a monster, in fact he looks like your average Joe.

You can read the full list at Trespass

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