A friend suggested my recent Australian cinema week was lacking in bright and cheerful musicals, and short of re-watching something by Baz Luhrmann, this musical from ten years ago fits the bill rather nicely, and also focuses on Aboriginal communities.
This isn’t a perfect film: it has an underlying cheesiness to it, a sort of sentimental cheerfulness that sometimes seems at odds with its story, and yet it’s at heart delightful and criticising it would feel wilfully cynical. The film is based on a stage musical, though it certainly doesn’t hide that — and the way characters will break into song and choreographed dance is one of the pleasures of the form, after all. It presents Aboriginal Australian lives in the late-60s in what feels like an ahistorical way, but it also doesn’t hide some of the unfairness of the way they’re treated as a group: it just couches this in a gaudily-coloured musical ensemble treatment. This is a film about characters who have all the same generic desires as American teenagers in films made 10 years or more before this one is set (the concession to the late-60s moment is a VW van driven by two hippies, although the young man’s German accent is surely one of the worst in recent memory), but set in the Australian outback. There are times when the forced cheerfulness feels so positively sugary that I felt a bit queasy, but I can’t fault its heart and the colourful staging by director Rachel Perkins and DoP Andrew Lesnie.
Director Rachel Perkins; Writers Reg Cribb and Perkins (based on the musical by Jimmy Chi); Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie; Starring Rocky McKenzie, Ernie Dingo, Jessica Mauboy, Geoffrey Rush; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 23 September 2019.
I guess what’s good and also valuable about this documentary is a number of things. First off, it shows — without judgement or sneering — people of various age ranges who have all been enormous fans (“fangirls” if you will) of a boyband, getting the posters, collecting the paraphernalia, going to the gigs, just generally defining their lives for at least some period entirely around a band and their experience of that band. All four of the women interviewed in the documentary have their own respective boxes of mementoes that they retrieve from some corner of their cabinet, as if hidden away in concession to getting older. Some of them have moved on with their lives in interesting ways, but none have lost their fangirlish love of the band, and for all of them it provokes interesting digressions in their life stories.
And I suppose that’s another thing that’s really interesting about the film, in that it shows that being a fan is something that helps you through your life and does not (should not) mark you out as weird or beneath contempt. The film is keen to stress the positive, sustaining power of — in this case — being an enormous music fan, but I imagine it applies to anything else one might be a fan of. It creates social worlds and connections that can lead to love and happiness, it bridges experiences of trauma, it even connects generations. The women here have similar experiences, despite being separated by continents (there are two women in the US and two in Australia), and they are all very eloquent in talking about their lives, which it seems are more often than not unified by a feeling of being out of place. There’s the young Muslim-American women whose families in various ways find their daughters’ interests difficult, the elderly Australian woman who wasn’t allowed to pursue her own interests by her parents, or the younger one who was grappling with her own sexual orientation issues. Actually, a lot of the stuff that’s away from the fandom becomes an equally fascinating part of the story.
But most of all, there’s the filmmaker’s generosity of spirit in highlighting stories that are perfectly normal, perfectly healthy, and yet so often vilified or laughed at in mainstream culture, and this finally is what is wonderful about I Used to Be Normal.
Director Jessica Leski; Cinematographers Jason Joseffer, Simon Koloadin, Eric Laplante and Cesar Salmeron-Hoving; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 7 January 2019.
In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.
Continue reading “Films by Warwick Thornton”
Australia, like a lot of Western countries, has a demonstrable problem with white nationalism and racism, and a number of recent documentaries directed by women have addressed this issue head-on. This racism, a holdover from the colonialist politics of the British (the country only gained its independence at the start of the 20th century), is directed not just towards the indigenous Aboriginal population but also towards those seeking refuge and asylum from nearby conflict zones (this latter dealt with admirably by Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts). An increasing number of feature films, including those by Aboriginal filmmakers like Warwick Thornton as well as (rather more eliptically) beDevil (1993) by Tracey Moffatt, have examined some of this prejudice historically and as it functions today, and it’s also the subject of director Molly Reynolds in Another Country, which follows the experience of prominent actor David Gulpilil (probably still best known as the boy in Walkabout, and from his appearances in the Crocodile Dundee films). It’s worth noting here that, while I wouldn’t want to sideline his troubling personal history (which includes alcoholism, violence and domestic abuse), it is undoubtedly deeply tied into the conditions still experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia, and some of this comes across powerfully in the documentary.
Continue reading “Two Recent Australian Documentaries: Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) and Another Country (2015)”
I have to admit that some of my film choices in watching Australian cinema (or indeed, a lot of older cinema) are driven by what’s in the collections at my local DVD rental store, Close-Up — yes we still have one in London, and when I say “local”, I mean that it’s the only one (so far as I’m aware) in the city. It has a pretty diverting selection, but it also means I can’t claim any comprehensive overview of the development of the national cinema, which would in any case surely be beyond the purview of a video shop halfway around the world. Still, there are a few interesting titles, including a number of films directed by women, some of which — as these ones do — show their age a little bit. The early-2000s, after all, does feel like a hangover from the 90s.
Continue reading “Two Early-2000s Australian Films Directed by Women: The Monkey’s Mask (2000) and Japanese Story (2003)”
Following contemporary women-authored stories set amongst communities within white Australia, like Celia (1989) and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992), it took artist and photographer Tracey Moffatt to become the first woman of Aboriginal background to make a feature film, one distinctive and idiosyncratic enough that she never did make another. I saw it at Bristol’s Cinema Rediscovered festival, a fantastic long weekend of cinema which is modelled after Il Cinema Ritrovato, and takes place at the end of July each year.
An extraordinarily stylish one-of-a-kind film (not least because director Tracey Moffatt never made another feature), it has a heightened unreality that recalls not just studio-bound 50s Hollywood hothouse melodramas but arthouse experiments like Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois (1978) or Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982). The three ghost stories share not just this visual stylisation but the way they leap between past and present with ease, for these are not just stories, but collective memories or perhaps cultural touchstones, channelling a sort of Australian mythology that (for a change) isn’t rooted just in white men ‘going bush’, but a wide variety of ethnic identities, not least Moffatt’s Aboriginal roots. It’s quite possible the range of reference points is too specific for me (a non-Australian) to pick up on much of it, but it’s a heady watch all the same, a knowing wink at the audience without the suffocating irony and cynicism that too many directors of the 90s considered cool. Maybe that’s why it never made much of a splash at the time, but it’s ripe (in every sense) for rediscovery.
Director/Writer Tracey Moffatt; Cinematographer Geoff Burton; Starring Tracey Moffatt, Lex Marinos; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Saturday 28 July 2018.
Having started my Australian-themed film week with Celia, I’m skipping back ten years to a real classic of the era, and a film that launched the career of one of Australia’s best known directors, Gillian Armstrong, whose 1992 film The Last Days of Chez Nous I’ve also reviewed on here. (NB I only realised after watching and writing the text below that this has recently been released on the Criterion Collection, but it won’t be until 2032 that I’ll get to that film, so expect another review in, er, 13 years.)
This film is now 40 years old, and I wonder whether a lot of the issues that it addresses, the rich emotional lives it affords to its characters, and particularly the way it resolves the central romantic pairing, are still somewhat ahead of their time even now. There are certainly plenty of filmmakers who could do some catching up. Published originally in 1901, My Brilliant Career is a late-19th century story of colonial Australia starring a young Sam Neill (who almost 40 years later would be in a quite different rendering of a similar period in Sweet Country). Here he plays Harry, a dashing young man competing for the hand of Sybylla, but it’s very much her film, and that of Judy Davis who plays her. Indeed the very first scene sets that much out, as Davis makes an iconic entrance* reading the words of Miles Franklin, that this is a story about her. It’s also a story about finding one’s own way in the world (shades of The Souvenir which I just watched yesterday) and about colonial-era class relationships, though the society it depicts remains very white (there are some Aboriginal servants, but these are only glanced briefly in the background). At this remove, it feels like there’s a preponderance of Australian cinema dealing with its colonial European past from the 1970s, though that’s partly just how brightly Picnic at Hanging Rock still shines, but each of these films deserves its place in expanding the possibilities of a specifically Australian cinema, and Syb (as Harry calls her) feels like a very modern woman, even now, even in 2019.
* I don’t know if it’s iconic, but it should be.
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Eleanor Witcombe (based on the novel by Miles Franklin); Cinematographer Donald McAlpine; Starring Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 September 2019.
This week here I’m doing a themed week of Australian films, mostly documentaries, but I’m starting it with this important and perhaps under-recognised 1989 drama that distills a particular vision of (white) Australia in the recent past. The 1990s would turn out to be a successful decade for Australian cinema, both at home and abroad, and the same cinematographer worked on another prominent film made by women a few years later that I’ve also reviewed on my blog, The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992). If you want a primer on women in Australian cinema, by the way, you could do a lot worse than this Senses of Cinema dossier, which includes an essay on Celia which properly contextualises my own remarks below as being on the lower end of amateurish.
This Australian film from the late-1980s certainly builds up a curious atmosphere, not quite horror but inhabiting a strange and (to the film’s young protagonist, played by Rebecca Smart) at times terrifying world in between lived reality and paranoid fantasy, based on fears stoked up by the adults — these being around both the ‘Red menace’ of Communists, but also the government’s attempts to eradicate the rabbit population by introducing myxomatosis. It’s not a million miles from the allegorical territory of The Babadook (again without the specifically horror genre elements, aside from a few brief monstrous dream rabbits), but rooted more firmly in a 1950s milieu of conservative culture. Celia’s cherished grandmother turns out to have had Communist sympathies, and her neighbours are local organisers, so this brings them into conflict with her regressive father (Nicholas Eadie). A parallel storyline about Celia’s pet rabbit becoming a threat to state security (enforced by her uncle, the local police chief) strangely manages to bring together some of these fraught family dynamics. Overall, it sustains a striking atmosphere of cultural dread, aptly filtered through the experiences of a young girl.
Director/Writer Ann Turner; Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Rebecca Smart, Nicholas Eadie; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 8 January 2019.
Another rather dour heritage film was made recently about the writer of Frankenstein by expatriate Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour, more famous (and justly so) for Wadjda (2012).
Watching this reminds me of going to lots of alternately dour and somewhat mediocre costume dramas in the mid-1990s (titles come to mind like Moll Flanders, Restoration or Mary Reilly). I cannot in any good conscience say that this is a good or well-written movie, but it has its moments, and given those youthful trips to the cinema, I do still have a nostalgic fondness for frock dramas featuring intelligent young women gadding about with blackguards and bounders. Sadly, the film doesn’t really give enough of a lucid focus to Mary’s story (played with spirit by Elle Fanning) and, despite the title, the film’s primary interest appears to be her relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), though it does its best to dramatise her own literary inspiration. There are too many scenes in the half-light of people reciting lines to one another, so ultimately this feels greatly inferior to Bright Star (2009) or other films about literary figures. However, Bel Powley does once again steal the film with her portrayal of Mary’s impulsive step-sister Claire.
Director Haifaa al-Mansour هيفاء المنصور; Writer Emma Jensen; Cinematographer David Ungaro; Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Maisie Williams; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 7 July 2018.
There’s a slow-building foreboding intensity at work here that sets up its mystery plot nicely — darkness, torrential rain, apocalyptic imagery. The film explores that liminal space between dreams and reality, underpinned by indigenous Aboriginal culture and beliefs. The film makes a lot of play on tribal affiliations and mystical rites and objects, which sometimes comes across as a bit naive, especially given Richard Chamberlain isn’t the most effective lead, and there’s a bit of condescension at work it seems to me. Still, the Aboriginal cast (led by David Gulpilil) are excellent.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Weir; Writers Peter Weir, Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu; Cinematographer Russell Boyd; Starring Richard Chamberlain, David Gulpilil; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 February 2017.