LFF 2020: The Cheaters (1930)

The highlight of the archival strand of the London Film Festival was undoubtedly recently rediscovered Iranian film The Chess Game of the Wind, which I saw at the online version of Il Cinema Ritrovato (though I haven’t posted about it here yet). However, there was also this silent programme of Australian director Paulette McDonagh’s surviving feature, alongside a fragment of her earlier Those Who Love (1925).


This surviving Australian silent film, directed by Paulette McDonagh and starring her sister Isabel (as “Marie Lorraine”), has a somewhat hoary old feel to it, given the advances being made in silent (and indeed sound cinema) at the time in other parts of the world. It’s a melodrama of criminals and cheats, but also a romance in which “Marie” falls for the son of an old enemy of her father’s, prompting all kinds of contorted plotting that I didn’t fully keep up with. Still, it’s jaunty good fun and a perfectly solid bit of early filmmaking from a nation not known for its cinema for quite a few decades yet.

The Cheaters title cardCREDITS
Director/Writer Paulette McDonagh; Cinematographer Jack Fletcher; Starring Marie Lorraine [Isabel McDonagh], Arthur Greenaway, John Faulkner; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Monday 12 October 2020.

Criterion Sunday 356: Sweetie (1989)

I think it’s easy to take against a lot of what is most distinctive and interesting about this early feature by Jane Campion, but I find it compelling. It’s about the blandness and conformity of suburban lives in a way, set in an Australia that could as easily be the 1950s as the present, and revolves around a character called Kay, an office worker whose life outwardly just seems to be a black hole. The actor who plays her (Karen Colston) has a compelling face and even a charismatic screen presence, but the details of Kay’s life just seem to drain energy from around her, as she sucks in the gormless Louis (Tom Lycos) and then pushes him away bit by bit through her phobias and hang-ups. And this is when her sister Dawn, nicknamed Sweetie (Geneviève Lemon), bounds into her life and her home and seems to cause destruction and alienation all around her, as first their parents split up and then she starts to go after Louis, although she has her own boyfriend/hanger-on/”producer” Bob (Michael Lake). I think in a lesser film Sweetie would be the kind of force for change that prompts the other characters to discover themselves, but here her own mental difficulties and acting out hardly seems too divorced from that of her sister. The visual style breaks their world down into close-ups and breaks it up with humorous cutaways that suggest a fundamental absurdity to suburban Australian life.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extras are three of Campion’s early short films, starting with An Exercise in Discipline: Peel (1982), which with a paucity of camera flourishes marks out a distinctive vision, even if the story it tells — of a young boy throwing peel out of a car window, and being disciplined by his dad — is fairly slight. Given how dislikeable all three of the characters are (there’s also the dad’s sister, I think), it’s still pretty watchable. Her next is Passionless Moments (1983), a series of little black-and-white vignettes of ordinary suburban banality, of the sort that probably all of us have been through at some point, but presented as fascinating insights into the human animal. It’s all very carefully framed and nicely directed, with a droll anthropological voiceover that only heightens the likeable absurdity. Finally there’s A Girl’s Own Story (1984), which feels like Campion really finding her voice and dealing with the themes that she would pursue throughout her feature film career. Here these include a coming of age in a period setting (1960s girls’ school), but probing into darker psychosexual corners with the dysfunctional parental relationship. There are a number of young women at the centre of the tale, who all seem to be lacking in proper adult guidance and find themselves in various forms of trouble as a result, with little support from their peers. It looks great in grainy black-and-white, and is filled with striking shots that are all laden with perils of this well-worn genre.
  • There’s a 22 minute interview from several decades later with its two stars, Lemon and Colston, sitting on a sofa reflecting on making the film, their camaraderie on set and their own lasting friendship, as well as the lack of opportunities it generally led to (unlike some more noted Australian films of subsequent years).
  • Another 20 minute piece from the AFTRS (Australian Film, Television and Radio School, where Jane Campion was a student) has Campion speaking to a critic about her early works, particularly the three short films included on this disc, on which she made her name.
  • There is a gallery of striking and distinctive production photographs showing the making the film.
  • Plus, of course, there is a trailer for the film, which captures a little of the distinctive flavour although obviously it has degraded somewhat more than the film itself.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writers Campion and Gerard Lee; Cinematographer Sally Bongers; Starring Karen Colston, Geneviève Lemon, Tom Lycos, Jon Darling, Dorothy Barry; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 24 August 2020 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 2000).

Babyteeth (2019)

I’ve still only seen five films in a cinema since lockdown rules were relaxed, because I am still very careful about how much I’m stepping into cinemas (and there’s still a relative paucity of new content available, quite aside from the fact that the institutions I most often frequent, like the BFI Southbank and the ICA are not yet reopened). However, this Australian film tempted me back into a cinema, because it looked like one of the highlights of the London Film Festival last year. It clearly doesn’t work for everyone, presumably to do with its themes and the way it presents them, or perhaps the age differential in the central relationship (her age is somewhat skirted around), but I really liked it.


There’s basically an entire sub-genre of films about terminally-ill teenagers, and it’s probably also fair to say that they don’t always get the best reception. It’s a strange category because it’s hard-wired to be a weepie, but it’s too often made into this romantic thing given the demographic involved. Of course, the 20-or-so-year-old Eliza Scanlen has recent form for playing dying children, but she plays them well so it’s no surprise she’s excellent as Milla here. However, I think the real focus, because it’s where the greatest pain lies, is in the parents and as far as casting goes, you don’t get much better in Australian cinema than Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn. The film itself has a rather arch structure, little chapter headings popping up on screen, and an at times whimsical and stylised presentation. Still, for all that it’s pulled down some fairly mixed reviews, I find myself liking this film quite a lot. The choices that the filmmakers take are pretty bold — although I think the romantic story between Milla and the older Moses (Toby Wallace, playing a 23-year-old to her teenager) required a little bit more thought about the way that age gap would play, although certainly it is acknowledged within the film — and so I think they pay off, but ultimately this is an actors’ film and they excel.

Babyteeth film posterCREDITS
Director Shannon Murphy; Writer Rita Kalnejais (based on her play); Cinematographer Andrew Commis; Starring Eliza Scanlen, Toby Wallace, Essie Davis, Ben Mendelsohn; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Sunday 16 August 2020.

Global Cinema 9: Australia – Starstruck (1982)

Australia is of course a huge country, but relatively speaking it’s not so populous. Nevertheless it’s had a long and prosperous cinema, with a number of well-known and highly-regarded directors, not least Gillian Armstrong, who directed the film I’m focusing on in this post. I’m not sure if any one film can sum up Australia, but Starstruck seems to capture something of the spirit of the place, at least in the 1980s.


Australian flagCommonwealth of Australia
population 25,758,900 | capital Canberra (427k) | largest cities Sydney (5.3m), Melbourne (5.1m), Brisbane (2.5m), Perth (2.1m), Adelaide (1.4m) | area 7,692,024 km2 | religion Christianity (52.1%), none (30.1%) | official language none (English) | major ethnicity no data | currency Australian Dollar ($) [AUD] | internet .au

The sixth-largest country in the world by area is an island large enough to be (most of) its own continent, and as such has huge diversity of environments, from deserts to tropical rainforest, and mountains in the south-east, and most of the population is concentrated on the eastern seaboard. The name comes from the Latin terra australis (“southern land”) used since ancient times for an (at that point hypothetical) southern continent, though “New Holland” (explorer Abel Tasman’s name for it) was largely used until the early-19th century. It has been inhabited by indigenous peoples for around 65,000 years until Dutch explorers “discovered” it in the early-17th century. The British set up camp for the first time there in 1788, to establish a penal colony, with further colonies set up in Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land) and other areas, though South Australia was never a penal colony. Indigenous populations declined in these years, with a policy of assimilating the Aboriginal population that continued until well into the 20th century. The separate colonies federated on 1 January 1901 and independence from the UK declared, with formal constitutional ties ended in 1942. Ties to the US strengthened and immigration from Asia was allowed from the 1970s onwards. It still maintains the British monarch as head of state, with an elected Prime Minister.

Cinema had its beginnings in Australia with screenings in 1896, and anthropological shorts from 1900, with the first feature in 1906 being The Story of the Kelly Gang (the earliest feature-length narrative film in the world, depending on your definitions). Studios were founded (the earliest in Melbourne) and there was a boom of sorts in the 1910s, followed by a decline in the 1920s. Production continued at an uneven pace, slowing down significantly by the 1960s, though the Australian Film Institute was founded in 1958. From the late-1960s onwards, though, government supported film more and various programmes led to an Australian New Wave, as well as a fringe of “Ozsploitation”. The 1990s saw a further entrenchment into the mainstream and worldwide success for a number of titles. Cinema continues to be made, although with less worldwide success against the huge American productions, though a lot of these are filmed in the country.


Starstruck (1982)

Obviously Gillian Armstrong’s feature debut My Brilliant Career (1979) is justly lauded, and it’s a fine period film, but with the passage of almost 40 years this, her second feature film, seems almost equally period. It’s contemporary, of course, and it gleefully trades on a certain post-punk new wave spirit of restless energy and vertiginous hairstyles, yet alongside it sits the traditional working class Australia still stuck in the 1950s, tut-tutting at the kids and the noise they make. It’s a slender premise to hang a film around — a TV talent show that could make our heroine Jackie (Jo Kennedy) a big star if only she can somehow inveigle her way on — but yet Starstruck achieves it with single-minded vision. The energy of the musical numbers shares a lot with the kind of art pop of, say, Split Enz, which makes sense given the involvement of that band’s leader Tim Finn in the songs here (and, one imagines, some of the performances too). It’s an energy that sustains the film through all of its madcap plotting, that and the interplay between cousins Jackie and 14-year-old Angus (Ross O’Donovan), who it slowly becomes clear are only so determined at pop success because their family disappoints them so regularly — with the exception of the rambunctious Nana (Pat Evison). This is one of the films I had most looked forward to seeing by Gillian Armstrong and it’s inexplicable that it’s not more widely-available, because it’s not just a precious document of an era (the early-80s) but also a delightful film in its own right.

Starstruck film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Stephen MacLean; Cinematographer Russell Boyd; Starring Jo Kennedy, Ross O’Donovan, John O’May, Margo Lee, Pat Evison; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Friday 22 May 2020.

Speed Racer (2008)

There’s certainly a message to this film, but it’s buried in layers of aesthetics that you’ll either hate or, as I did, sort of get to tolerate after a while. I think it’s an acquired taste, but I enjoy the Wachowskis and their increasingly baroque output, as witness Jupiter Ascending, one of the great films of the last decade and one equally likely to divide its audience. Anyway, I’m taking a bit of a break this week from the themed reviews, so this is just a post for my regular women filmmakers slot on Wednesday, and I should cover a newish release on Friday.


I’ve seen films based on cartoons and manga before, but they don’t usually go quite so far in capturing a certain uncanny hyper-saturated cartoon-panel-like sensibility as this film. It all but completely does away with standard filmic editing or any kind of naturalistic construction of reality, as each element within the frame looks as if it’s filmed separately and layered on, moving often independently of the other images. Conversations are between superimposed heads swiping right or left across the screen, and rarely between two people standing or sitting facing one another. Even in domestic settings, every shot looks like it’s against a green screen, so it must have been fearsomely difficult to have acted on the film — though, that said, the performances are hardly naturalistic either. It’s all pushed to a ridiculous degree, with the racing sequences themselves more like a very hi-def version of Mario Kart, and certainly defying all laws of physics. And I suppose that’s where the achievement lies, in creating a film so at odds with reality, but still with a very clear message about the corrupting power of capital and the need to resist it.

Speed Racer film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski [under different names at the time] (based on the manga マッハGoGoGo Mahha GoGoGo [“Speed Racer, aka Mach GoGoGo”] by Tatsuo Yoshida 吉田竜夫); Cinematographer David Tattersall; Starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Fox; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 1 June 2019.

Strange Fits of Passion (1999)

Usually I do a new release on Fridays, but my theme this week is YouTube movies, and there’s rather a shortage of ‘new’ feature filmmaking (it’s mostly music videos and maybe short films). So here’s another old Australian comedy from the late-1990s, again inspired by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’s Twitter thread. The director of this effort (she doesn’t appear to have any other non-TV directing credits since) wrote the recent film Ride Like a Girl (2019).


A slight if likeable Australian comedy, which I’d struggle to call a ‘coming of age’ exactly as it features a fully-grown protagonist who is trying to lose her virginity. She works in a Melbourne secondhand bookshop, and the film is very good at demonstrating how wrapped up she is in her own inner world — in so far as the (clearly low) budget allows, we get to see all kinds of imagined reveries featuring her various crushes, as they come along. Like a lot of contemporary Australian films of this nature, it’s comedic up until the point that it’s not really anymore, but instead morphs into an exploration of what’s motivating her. The (unnamed) protagonist played by Michaela Noonan has a sharp and ironic sense of humour, a sort of brusque underlying cynicism which her journey throughout the film starts to erode a little bit, to bring out her inner empathy as the film goes on.

Strange Fits of Passion film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Elise McCredie; Cinematographer Jaems Grant; Starring Michaela Noonan; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Wednesday 25 March 2020.

Thank God He Met Lizzie (aka The Wedding Party, 1997)

Right, I’ve done weeks themed around various online streaming platforms, but I haven’t yet mentioned YouTube, which may just be the best repository for films online. It certainly has some of the more interesting and obscure titles. It’s always worth searching YouTube when you’ve exhausted every other possibility, especially when you’re looking for a particularly niche title, because someone may have uploaded it. I also can’t verify that at any given moment any of the films I mention having watched there will be available, but who knows. This particular pick comes from inspiration provided by Australian film writer and academic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas in a Twitter thread of Australian movies directed by women which were available on various platforms, including YouTube, so a few more may appear on my blog this week.


A deeply bittersweet Australian romcom of the late-1990s, about a man who marries a woman but realises as he’s doing so that he still has deep and real feelings for an ex that he can never repair due to his own stupidity. That all comes out in the final act, though, as the early part of the film is him meeting his future wife, and then a series of flashbacks to the earlier relationship. At first these seem like they’re just a reminder of another similar time of happiness in his life, but by the end comes the realisation (for him as for the audience) that this was in fact the only time he was happy. The problem — and this is perhaps a problem exacerbated by time — is that it’s difficult to really feel for his predicament because the woman he ends up marrying, the Lizzie of the film’s title, is played by Cate Blanchett. That said, playing the role of a beautiful, perfect yet imperious and demanding woman is in fact very suited to Blanchett; the true love is played by late-90s Aussie romcom mainstay Frances O’Connor (well, she was in Love and Other Catastrophes anyway), and that makes some sense even if the fact that both of them fell for this guy (called Guy, which makes me think of the similarly bittersweet Umbrellas of Cherbourg) is rather less explicable. Still, it’s rather likeable in my opinion.

Thank God He Met Lizzie newspaper adCREDITS
Director Cherie Nowlan; Writer Alexandra Long; Cinematographer Kathryn Milliss; Starring Richard Roxburgh, Cate Blanchett, Frances O’Connor; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Friday 10 April 2020.

In My Blood It Runs (2019)

It’s the end of my themed week of films by Australian women directors, so here’s a film I have seen while actually visiting Australia. I could have gone to see the Miss Fisher film (although strictly speaking it’s not directed by a woman), but instead I chose to see this one about Aboriginal people that touches on all kinds of issues that permeate many societies, my own included, but are specific perhaps in their details to this place.


It’s fair to say that Australia certainly has its problems, none more vexed than around the treatment of Aboriginal Australians. The legacy of colonialism, brought by the British, means that many are more or less confined to rural areas where inadequate support is provided for education and employment, and it’s through the case of one child (Dujuan) that this documentary focuses itself, and it credits Dujuan and his family as co-directors of the piece (some of his video footage is seen during the film too, meaning he’s an assistant cinematographer too). Dujuan is being brought up by his family to know about his own culture and language, while also being given an education by a Northern Territories school that seems to little understand or care for his cultural background (a schoolteacher absentmindedly laughing off her lack of understanding of Aboriginal beliefs is pure condescension). As a result he is unhappy and finds himself at odds with the state, which is increasingly under pressure for its violent and repressive treatment of young ‘delinquents’ who fall through the gaps (and as one on-screen statistic points out, 100% of NT youth being held in detention are Aboriginals). But while the film itself is never strident, it makes clear the need for changes and for better understanding and empathy towards the young kids being left behind.

In My Blood It Runs film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Maya Newell; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, Wednesday 4 March 2020.

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (2018)

Usually on Thursdays I try to post reviews of older films (perhaps newly-restored, but perhaps just vintage) and in my Australian women directors theme week, I fear I’m running low on content. I could have posted a few sentences I wrote about Proof a few years ago, but instead I will take us all back to another era entirely, back when literally everybody seemed to have an opinion about this stand-up show. I will take us back to 2018.


It’s fair to say that this hour-long comedy special on Netflix is getting a lot of buzz at the moment [NB July 2018 when I wrote this], and I think it’s for fairly good reasons. Visually, it’s not groundbreaking — it’s an hour-long stand-up comedy special, and it cleaves to those conventions fairly closely, i.e. a few behind-the-scenes shots as the performer takes the stage, and then just cutting between close-ups and wide views of the auditorium. No, I think it’s fairly clear that what’s most interesting here is the content, which is broadly comic but then takes a turn and starts to play with and draw attention to the form itself, as part of a critique of gendered violence and standards of behaviour that largely define cis white male attitudes towards (gay) sexuality. Hannah Gadsby is Australian, and a lot of her humour and her attitudes are located within that context, but the points she makes about the way that male arbiters of culture are treated (via a lengthy digression into her art history education, and particularly on modern art and Picasso) is very much on the money and can apply to plenty of other artists and filmmakers. By the end, hers is an angry voice — albeit still within the context of a stand-up comedian, so she makes a lot of play with the tension and release of that format — but it feels necessary, and that undoubtedly explains some of that buzz.

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette film posterCREDITS
Director Jon Olb and Madeleine Parry; Writer Hannah Gadsby; Cinematographers Steve Arnold and Thom Neal; Starring Hannah Gadsby; Length 69 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 8 July 2018.

The Nightingale (2018)

Some of the best Australian films really plumb the bleakness at the heart of (their/our) society, and you get the sense that some of that violence and nastiness goes back to the (European, colonialist) foundations of the modern country. That’s certainly the history that Jennifer Kent is confronting with The Nightingale, which took a year or two to get a release in the UK.


Ah yes, the history of Australia: it’s a bit like American history in some respects. It can get quite dark, and The Nightingale is a film that’s intent on peering into that darkness. It’s not a genre film in the way that the same director’s The Babadook (2014) was, except in so far as it plays with a rape-revenge narrative. It tells a gnarly, suffocating tale of British colonialism and state-sanctioned violence, as young officer Lt Hawkins (Sam Claflin) heads north from his rural posting in Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania) to the local city in order to seek a promotion, despite his clearly being unfit for command due to his sadistic violence and inability to discipline his troops (well, perhaps those qualities can’t truly be said to disqualify anyone from command in most colonialist enterprises). Aisling Franciosi’s Clare is the prime object of Hawkins’ violent tendencies, at least at the start of the film, and this section presents a bit of an endurance test (let’s just say that she at least starts the film with a husband and a baby), as the film sets out the circumstances for her pursuit of Hawkins.

Clare begins the film as someone who has been transported to Australia due to a criminal conviction, and the grinding circumstances of criminality, poverty and lack of opportunity, combined with the high-handedness of the British authorities, creates a toxic environment of bitterness and hatred that extends not just within the British settlements but outwards towards the native Aboriginal inhabitants of the country, and at no point does the director spare us from the language or the violence used in pursuit of colonialism. Indeed, at a certain level this film reminded me of The Last of the Mohicans (1992), but only if that film were remade to remove all the elements that make it appealing to cinema audiences, and left only the brute fact of colonial violence and exploitation.

I can’t say that I entirely loved The Nightingale, but I feel as if it fits into a context of films which confront something in history that few films seem prepared to do, territory that in recent Australian cinema is occupied by Sweet Country as one example, though very few other films that have been distributed here in the UK, at least.

The Nightingale film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jennifer Kent; Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk; Starring Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 30 November 2019.