Sunday, June 30, 2013

June Quick Picks and Pans – Australia Month

Proof (1991) Writer/director Jocelyn Moorhouse’s debut film features great early roles by Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe.  Weaving stars as Martin, a blind man who documents his world through photography.  He befriends Andy (Crowe), a busboy at a restaurant, and tasks him with describing his photos in an effort to confirm that the images represent reality.  Martin’s housekeeper Celia (Geneviève Picot) constantly toys with him, rearranging his furniture and hiding his things to push buttons. 

Proof is a fascinating character study populated by emotionally stunted individuals.  Martin and Celia, stumble around in the dark, but fail to connect.  They’re prisoners of their ambivalence toward each other.  Martin is embroiled in a perpetual struggle to make sense of reality, which involves an inherent mistrust of people.  Celia is in love with Martin, but resorts to elaborate mind games and deception as her primary tools of interaction.  Proof is at once an amusing portrait of human eccentricity and a painful exploration of dysfunctional relationships.   

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD

Red Dog (2011) Based on a book by Louis de Bernières about a legendary canine that roamed a small mining town in 1970s Northwestern Australia, Red Dog blends fact and fiction to create a bittersweet story of love and community.  Director Kriv Stenders and writer Daniel Taplitz spin a contemporary folk yarn (sort of a postmodern Old Yeller), which packs a surprisingly emotional wallop.  As the eponymous, wayward dog ingratiates himself to the town’s diverse inhabitants, he becomes an agent of change amidst the harsh landscape, provoking a series of serendipitous encounters.  Red Dog hooks you with verve and humor, which does little to soften the blow of its emotional climax. Maybe I’m just a pushover for this sort of thing, but it’s hard to imagine not being affected by this simple, yet effective story.  If you have a pulse, or if you’re a dog lover, like me, you’ll want to bring the Kleenex.

Rating: ****.  Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Kenny (2006) Director/co-writer Clayton Jacobson takes an unsavory topic for his mockumentary, and manages to make it engaging.  Shane Jacobson (who shares co-writing credit with the film with his brother Clayton) does a terrific job as Kenny Smyth, a likeable working stiff who finds solace working for a portable toilet/waste disposal company.  We witness his challenges and minor triumphs as he contends with crap, literally and figuratively in his personal and professional life. 

Kenny’s strength is also its weakness.  The acting by the performers (including Shane’s real-life father and son), is spot-on, and the everyday situations he encounters in his job seem entirely plausible.  It was easy to forget the film was a complete fabrication, and not someone’s actual life.  As a result, I wish the filmmakers had thrown in a few more absurd artistic flourishes.  The material also seems to be stretched thin at times, and scenes with Kenny stuck in his day-to-day grind get to be a bit redundant.  While the Jacobson brothers could have easily left some of the footage on the cutting room floor, the end result (pun unintended) is amiable enough, and definitely worth your time.  I was glad to have had the chance to meet Kenny.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Dead End Drive-In (1986) This intriguing film from director Brian Trenchard-Smith recalls Escape from New York, with Joe Lansdale’s novel, The Drive-in thrown in for good measure.  The film is set in the near future, after society has suffered a global economic collapse.  Rampant unemployment and restless youth are the norm in this changed social milieu.  Government officials resort to extreme measures to deal with the rising incidents of juvenile delinquency.  Young people are lured to the Star Drive-In to spend their idle time.  There’s just one catch: once they enter, they can’t leave.  They become prisoners of the state, left to eke out an existence in their new walled compound while movies play in the background (including scenes from Trenchard-Smith’s Turkey Shoot).  Dead End Drive-In sneaks in some social commentary, seeming to equate Australia with the drive-in, an island isolated from the rest of humanity.  Ned Manning plays the protagonist, Crabs, who just wants to escape, disgusted by the contingent of white supremacists that have taken over the drive-in.  It’s a silly premise that somehow works.

Rating: ***.   Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Escape 2000 (aka: Turkey Shoot) (1981) How could something so wrong seem so right?  Brian Trenchard-Smith directs this piece of dystopian exploitation, set in the future world of 1995(!).  Under the regime of a fascist dictatorship, dissidents are placed in internment camps for re-education.  Steve Railsback and Olivia Hussey play political prisoners, watched over by a sadistic head guard (Roger Ward).  I don’t need to overstate that Escape 2000 isn’t for everyone.  It’s exploitation through and through, packed with gratuitous nudity, rampant violence and over-the-top gory deaths, but I had a heck of a lot of fun with it (probably more than I’d care to admit).  It’s a variation of The Most Dangerous Game, along with shades of 1984, wrapped in a sleazy, but oddly entertaining package.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Long Weekend (1978) Peter and Marcia (played by John Hargreaves and Briony Behets, respectively) embark on a camping trip, under the auspices of rekindling their strained marriage.  Instead, they find every possible opportunity to argue.  Director Colin Eggleston, working from Everett De Roche’s screenplay, suggests nature has become an antagonist, possibly as a reaction to the couple’s disintegrating relationship.  Long Weekend plays a bit like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf mixed with Frogs, with its conflicting themes of marital discord and the natural world in revolt.  It all gets a bit tedious by the last third.  There’s only so much time you can spend with two bickering main characters before it gets really uncomfortable, but this was probably the point.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Inn of the Damned (1975) The Australian film industry experienced a renaissance in the 1970s, stretching boundaries and breaking new ground.  Unfortunately, the revitalized industry also allowed for this dud, which attempts to combine the western and horror genres and fails miserably at both.  It’s two (count ‘em), two rotten stories in one!   Writer/director Terry Bourke borrows liberally from spaghetti westerns and sociopath- in-the-house movies to tell the story of a remote inn where the guests keep vanishing.  At least a half-hour could have been snipped from the bloated running time of nearly two hours.  The standard western outlaw subplot contributes nothing to the terror and only adds to the tedium.  You might feel damned after watching this flick, since the only thing you’re liable to experience is an overwhelming sense of boredom.

Rating: * ½.  Available on DVD

Monday, June 24, 2013

Cinematic Dregs: Young Einstein

(1988) Directed by Yahoo Serious; Written by Yahoo Serious and David Roach; Starring: Yahoo Serious, Odile Le Clezio, John Howard, Peewee Wilson and Su Cruickshank; 
Available on DVD.


“…Then there's the time the country rallies together to beat back Hell, like the time we as a nation said no to Yahoo Serious.”  Joel (Joel Hodgson) from Mystery Science Theater 3000

After nearly 25 years ago, it was time to confront my demons, and revisit a dark period in my past that I had kept hidden from the world.  While my memory of Young Einstein was somewhat hazy, I seemed to recall the film as eccentric and misunderstood.  As a video store clerk, I was prone to championing it to anyone who’d listen.  I’d quote a few choice lines at the drop of a hat, and even purchased the soundtrack.  Now I’m not saying that I was off the mark with all of my movie choices, but everyone makes an error in judgment now and then.*  Realizing that tastes change over the years, I knew that time was nigh to re-evaluate my assessment of Young Einstein.  Could I have been wrong?  Was it an unfairly maligned comic gem or an unfunny misfire worthy of our collective scorn?

* Referencing my first, ill-chosen pick for a girlfriend, my mom commented, “You have taste in your ass.”  Take that as you will. 

So, what did a second viewing, separated by two and a half decades, yield?  Was Young Einstein as bad as its reputation suggested?  Yes and no.  Humor is a subjective thing.  Some people find Adam Sandler hilarious and Woody Allen grating.  Some prefer Buster Keaton’s antics to Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp.  There’s no surefire formula for comedy, and there’s no accounting for taste.  With this in mind, I can only report that I found Young Einstein sporadically amusing, and by sporadic, I mean a couple scenes elicited a smirk.  Not to say there weren’t some clever visual gags, but they were often nullified by the film’s mugging lead.

The film asks us to take a huge leap by accepting its basic premise – Albert Einstein didn’t really grow up in Germany, but on a Tasmanian apple farm.  If you’re good with that, then you’ll probably accept anything, as its titular character hobnobs with science luminaries Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Marie Curie.  Young Einstein plays fast and loose with history and science, as our hero simultaneously discovers the theory of relativity, invents rock ‘n roll and puts bubbles in beer.  When an apple lands on Einstein’s head, resulting in an epiphany, we need to suspend our disbelief that the laws of gravity weren’t discovered before 1906. 

Yahoo Serious (aka: Greg Pead), who started out with documentary and short comic films, took the auteur route (and I use the term “auteur” very loosely here) with Young Einstein.  His name appears in the credits six (!) times, as star, director, writer, producer, stunts and supervising editor.  It’s a lot of pieces to juggle, and unfortunately Mr. Serious can’t keep everything in the air for long.  First the good.  He obviously has an eye for visuals, with some nicely framed vistas and elaborate set pieces.  The film is infused with frenetic energy, which might not keep you from being annoyed, but you won’t be bored.  But Serious’ enthusiasm is also his undoing.  He seems like a precocious child who will try anything to get your attention, waving his arms about and shouting, “Look at me, look at me!  Aren’t I funny?”  Some of the questionable comic choices were obviously cribbed from old Warner Brothers cartoons, as when he shows up twice in blackface to simulate getting fried by electricity.  The soundtrack is peppered with wacky sounds to punctuate the “silly” moments.   While the music tracks represent a nice sampling of Aussie pop and rock from the 80s, they contribute to scenes that resemble music videos rather than integral parts of a whole (what Roger Ebert would have labeled the “Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude”).  When he frolics on the beach with his girlfriend and newly invented surfboard, the results look like something from the old Monkees TV show.

As I re-watched Young Einstein, I was painfully aware of the fact that I wasn’t nearly as fond of it as I remembered.  While the film was a huge hit in Australia (despite mixed critical reception), it failed to win over many fans in the United States.  Perhaps my original impression was obscured by my post-adolescent desire to buck the trend of popular opinion?  I suppose I’ll never be able to reconcile this chaotic stage in my past.   Young Einstein is best described as a near miss; a curiosity best left as a cinematic footnote.  Serious swings for the fences, but ends up with a foul ball.  I’m keeping the soundtrack, though.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Mary and Max

(2009) Written and directed by Adam Elliot; Starring: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries and Eric Bana; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Rating: ****

“Max hoped Mary would write again. He'd always wanted a friend. A friend that wasn't invisible, a pet or rubber figurine.” – Narrator (Barry Humphries)

It’s hard to imagine there was a time, not too long ago, when people corresponded through letters, and would wait days, weeks, or even months for a reply.  Now we’re instantly connected with folks around the globe, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and thousands of other internet avenues.  We refer to individuals we’ve never met face to face as our friends, while our neighbors are complete strangers.  The global community has shrunk, but next door remains a mystery.  In this bold new age of instant gratification and a world without borders, it seems something has been lost in the tradeoff. 

Mary and Max tells the (purportedly true) story about a lonely eight-year-old girl in Melbourne who initiates an unlikely friendship with a reclusive middle-aged man in New York.  Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced by Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette) is a shy, imaginative young girl.  Due to a large brown birthmark on her forehead, she’s the object of ridicule in her school.  She finds little solace at home, as her alcoholic mother and emotionally distant father (who appear to have been forged from a Roald Dahl book) are mired in their own little worlds.  One day, Mary picks a name out of a New York phone book, and sends a letter in the hope that some of life’s burning questions can be answered by someone living in a distant land.  It’s by sheer happenstance that she ends up finding a kindred spirit by the name of Max Jerry Horowitz.

Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a morbidly obese social recluse with Asperger’s syndrome (now classified under the somewhat generic-sounding term “autism spectrum disorder”).  He’s an alien on his own planet, trapped in self-imposed exile from the rest of the human race.  His home town of New York is depicted in black and white, mirroring his literal-minded perceptions.  Other people are a constant source of confusion to Max, with his inability to gauge others’ emotions and non-verbal cues.  He lives a quiet, monastic existence in his tiny apartment with his goldfish, one-eyed cat, and imaginary friend, Mr. Ravioli, who sits quietly in the corner reading self-help books.  He longs for a friend, while being outwardly incapable of maintaining a meaningful connection with another human being.  Mary’s first letter breaks through his malaise, thus forging a long-distance friendship, based on their mutual love of cartoon characters called Noblets, all things chocolate, and outcast status.  Max views her questions regarding matters of the heart or being the object of bullying as simply problems to be solved. 

Writer/director Adam Elliot deserves kudos for creating a story that’s alternately hilarious and heartbreaking.  Bittersweet, with emphasis on the bitter, Mary and Max goes to dark places that Pixar or Aardman would fear to tread.  It’s not afraid to explore the abject despair that only the truly alienated can experience.  The stop-motion animation style matches Elliot’s warts-and-all approach, with character designs that aren’t cute or cuddly.  While Max’s borderline grotesque features aren’t likely to inspire plush toys, T-shirts or other merchandise, his appearance underscores the isolation he likely feels on a daily basis.

True to its non-traditional pretensions, Max and Mary doesn’t wrap everything up in a neat little package, with the underdogs triumphant.  In the end, Mary’s life is still a mess, and Max... well, let’s just say he hasn’t changed much.  The final scene is poignant and fitting to the main characters.  It might not be the one we were hoping for, but it shows a great deal of integrity on the part of the filmmakers.  It’s easy to forget that the characters are cast in plasticine, since they display more depth than many characters in live action films.  Their artificiality belies the fact that they can still evoke real emotions.  It’s a beautiful tale that reminds us friends can come from unexpected places, whether we want them or not.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Classics Revisited: The Road Warrior (aka: Mad Max 2)

(1981) Directed by George Miller; Written by George Miller, Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant; 
Starring: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Vernon Wells and Michael Preston;

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *****

“In the roar of an engine, he lost everything.  And became a shell of a man, a burnt out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man who wandered out into the wasteland.  And it was here, in this blighted place that he learned to live again...”

– Narrator (Harold Baigent)

The Road Warrior (known as Mad Max 2 outside the U.S.) is simply one of the finest action films every committed to celluloid.  It helped spawn an entire sub-genre of (mostly lesser) post-apocalypse movies, and established Mel Gibson as an international star.  Speaking of Gibson, let’s confront the pink elephant in the room and acknowledge that much has already been said about his recent transgressions and ill-chosen words.  But conjecture about how he took a wrong turn or an in-depth examination of his ideologies is irrelevant to this review.  The recent controversy has only marred the fact that The Road Warrior is an exceptional film, worthy of praise for its raw energy and spirited performances.

If Mad Max is about the vestiges of civilization, struggling to maintain law and order in a society moving towards lawlessness, then its superior sequel is about humankind’s complete descent into chaos and disarray.  Director/co-writer George Miller introduces us to this new world disorder through black-and-white stock news footage depicting public unrest and war, intercut with scenes from Mad Max, to bring the uninitiated up to speed with the previous film’s events (a similar introduction was employed by Brian Trenchard-Smith in his Ozploitation film Turkey Shoot).  We’re introduced to Max as he roams a desolate highway with his dog, * vigilant for any scraps that the old world saw fit to leave behind.  Gasoline, referred to as “juice,” is now more valuable than human life.  The bleak desert landscape is inhabited by roving bands of thugs, intent on getting their share of what’s left while leaving death and destruction in their wake.  Amidst this wasteland stands a tiny enclave of survivors, determined to protect the precious lives, and small oil refinery residing within their makeshift fortress walls. 

* Fun fact: Max’s dog, a Blue Heeler, was rescued from a local pound, only a day before he was supposed to be euthanized.  (Spoiler alert) Although the dog meets an unhappy end in the film, Miller stated that the actual animal lived out his days on a ranch following the shoot.

Miller stated that he made Mad Max 2 to “overcome the frustrations” of the first film.  He wanted to speak through “film language,” rather than dialogue to get his point across.  The film was shot in continuity, so adjustments could be made as the filmmakers went along.  Contributing to its unpolished, improvised look, Miller employed an “immersion” approach for the cast, featuring discussions about their respective characters, rather than a formal rehearsal.

Max (Mel Gibson) is the epitome of the reluctant hero.  Deprived of his former life as a cop and family man, he wanders the wasteland in a peripatetic haze, existing but not really living.  Gibson’s nuanced, enigmatic performance recalls Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name (and to a lesser degree, Harrison Ford as Han Solo), as a laconic loner who’s disenfranchised himself from the rest of the world.  Self-preservation takes precedence over concern for anyone else.  There’s no room in his emotionally scarred heart to accommodate any new relationships.  When the Feral Kid (Emil Minty) adopts him as an unwitting father figure, Max responds by pushing him away.  In spite of himself, however, Max rises to assume the hero role.  Although his motivations are outwardly governed by selfish reasons, a miniscule flicker of humanity still presumably burns within.

Miller reportedly studied the writings of Joseph Campbell in preparation for The Road Warrior; especially The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  One common Campbell theme, archetypes, figures prominently in the film, with its assortment of eccentric and iconic peripheral characters.   Bruce Spence stands out, quite literally, as The Gyro Captain.  Resembling an Australian Ichabod Crane with his tall, gangly form, he’s determined to make the best of the paltry lot life has dealt him.  Vernon Wells makes an impressive entrance as the sadistic, Mohawk-coiffed Wez, who lives to destroy.  The Humungus (played by ex-Mr. Sweden, Kjell Nilsson), is the mysterious leader of a band of cutthroats.  His body is a visual contradiction, with a perfectly sculpted muscular physique, but a mask that conceals his disfigured face.  With apologies to the memory of Mr. Campbell, perhaps these archetypes could best be described, respectively, as The Opportunist, The Berserker, and The Despot.

Cinematographer Dean Semler helped bring Miller’s apocalyptic, kinetic vision to life, with his stunning camerawork.  Through alternating frame rates, hand-held cameras, and inventive angles, the viewer is sucked into the action front and center.  As a result, one feels more like an active participant, rather than a passive viewer in the final 13-minute road chase sequence.*  One other factor that contributes significantly to the immediacy of the action is that all of the stunts were done with real people and real vehicles (elements that seem lost in today’s CGI-laden blockbusters).

* Due to an extremely tight shooting schedule, Semler was forced to shoot the final chase scene during different times of the day, resulting in varying light levels.  While it might be a bone of contention among snooty cineastes, I tend to believe that most viewers will scarcely notice. 

Clocking in at 95 minutes, The Road Warrior is a lean machine, with no scene out of place.  It’s a thrill ride from start to finish.  Miller perfected a formula that inspired a multitude of lazy imitators over the years – just throw a bunch of junk around, add punk rock-look bikers, and voilà, you have an instant post-apocalypse movie.  Thankfully, the saga of Max didn’t end with this film, but continued with an underrated sequel, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and the upcoming, much heralded, and delayed, Mad Max: Fury Road, with Tom Hardy assuming the lead role.  While it will be interesting to see what Miller does with his latest iteration of Max, The Road Warrior will likely endure as his masterpiece.  Accept no substitutes!