Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Road to Guantanamo

I was invited to see Road to Guantamo before it opened and managed to catch it the day it closed. There are films that make you seethe with anger and this is one of them. In Australia it has to be seen through the prism of the continuing ill-treatment of David Hicks, a man abandoned by his country, its elected officials and those who are paid by taxpayers to look after our interests as citizens. Thus the seething contempt you feel is not just directed at the buffoon Bush and his cohorts but at those who interrogate the Tipton Three, lying to them, presenting them with false or faked evidence, sitting uncomprehending. They are the real knaves, utterly lacking in affect, indoctrinated themselves into believing they are doing ‘good’ and defending the world for freedom. One assumes they can sleep at night though what they must have gone through in their pitiful professional lives to get themselves to such a position beggars belief. The best part of the film is of course the fact that the prison guards and the interrogators, the lying diplomats and the so-called intelligence officials will go on living their brutish lives knowing the three triumphed over them. It will be the same for Hicks when eventually he is released no doubt without even any trumped up conviction or probably without any charge ever being tested. The gruesome Phillip Ruddock looks as if the lies he has to tell have caused a cancer in his soul. Not so the Prime Minister or Alexander Downer. They are as chipper every day as those who pathetically still try to wring confessions out of the innocent.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Unfinished Business

I think that the Howard Government has probably drawn the curtain on any more policy decisions for the year. The Prime Minister has last been seen skulking away from a press conference where he might have had to answer questions about the army mislaying some of its weapons of modest destruction. So we can assume that the future bureaucratic arrangements for supporting the Australian film industry are in limbo for another couple of months. All those acting in positions within the bureaucracy can breathe easy for awhile at least and shortly we'll start getting the announcements of new production investments and the hope that next year's crop will be 'audience focussed', targetted at key box-office demographics and all the other management speak that passes for discussion from the financing bodies. What will be done finally when the Government gets round to doing something. (That starts to look now like something for the 2007-2008 Budget. My guess is that the current tax incentives will pretty much remain, or be tweaked just a little perhaps. I doubt there's anyone associated with the Government or its advisors who could dream up a new incentive scheme designed to create a production environment where all of a sudden we start producing great, internationally admired films that are all, or mostly, stunning successes at the local box office. Such success has largely been left to George Miller, and the producers of Kenny both of whom didn't want, or need, any Government intervention at all.

So next year we can probably expect somebody to come up with some rejigged bureaucratic arrangements, probably putting parts of the AFC into the FFC and leaving the residue of the AFC to run the National Film and Sound Archive and the cultural activities stuff like grants for festivals. ....But then again who knows the Government may have been convinced its all in perfect working order already.

In the meantime we have more time to ponder on the figures Gary Maddox produced in the SMH with the box office takes of all the Australian releases. Most disappointing, at least to its prodcuers though hardly surprising to any one who saw it was that for the co-production Like Minds. A film which cost $13m to make grossed the rather modst amount of $35,000 at the box office. It would have found about 3,500 paying punters on that basis. Still box office numbers cant be the be all and end all of the discussion. Just to remind you, Bruce Hodsdon and myself put in a submission to the Government review which recommended a few things about these matters. I dont expect anybody will have taken the slightest notice of what we said but it was nice to get it off our chests. Here's what we recommended

. there should be a clear recognition that the comparative box office performance of Australian films has been unfairly denigrated by the use of inappropriate comparisons;

. the focus of assessment criteria to judge success should be shifted from percentage return on investment and market share to comparative subsidy per consumer. This shifts the conceptual emphasis from a film as a product to a film as a work with intrinsic cultural value with an enduring outreach across national boundaries;

. Australia’s film agencies need to radically rethink the attention given to the process of scriptwriting, the funding of writer/auteurs and the relationships that exist between writers, producers and directors in the Australian film industry; and
there needs to be a strong, forthright and full commitment on behalf of all funding and investment bodies to ensure that our best film-makers, those whose work has been internationally or locally recognized and rewarded, and our best writers, are working more fruitfully and more often.

In the meantime, as a breathless film world awaits these decisions, I wonder whether it's time to ask the question about whether the ABC is in fact setting up some some equivalent of SBS Independent to handle the additional money for drama that it got in last year's Federal Budget. Or has the money just passed through to whomever is doing the commissioning now? That would be nice to know.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Borat and Bazza

Borat, has plenty of historical precedents. Australians especially have long embraced the notion of the innocent abroad to poke fun at pomposity, stupidity and alleged general incomprehension of other cultures. Sacha Baron Cohen’s best trick is to take the elements and be really outrageous, most notably in the casual anti-semitism and anti-Romany poses he adopts. But we have precedents for that as well, most particularly in the comic strip version of Barry McKenzie when it appeared in Private Eye. The film version severely toned down the anti-semitic element of the McKenzie character. Sacha Baron Cohen’s trick also rather resembles that of Garry McDonald’s with his Norman Gunston character who ran rampant in the 70s. Gunston’s best moments were ambushes, no more so than his attendance at Warren Beatty’s press conference when he arrived at Sydney Airport to promote Shampoo. “Have you made it with any Australian chicks yet, Mr Beatty?” Gunston politely enquired. Beatty turns to see who has asked this question and spots a buffoon in a lame jacket with pieces of cigarette paper stuck to his face to cover his shaving cuts. “Who are you?” says the great man. “Norman Gunston, ABC Tonight Show”. “You….have a Tonight Show? At least that’s the way I remember it. Barry McKenzie was, in Philip Adams words, a little nature study of what a naïf found when he arrived in Britain. Not a pretty picture and the world has hardly moved on far. Barry was confronted by feminists, Borat confronts them even more directly. Borat also skewers politicians and really makes them squirm. I’d love to know just how much the speech about supporting Bush’s war on terror was set up and staged and how much the actor managed to wring from the crowd. Borat is good simple fun. You cant but help admire the sang-froid of an actor/creator attempting such a confrontation and bringing it off so successfully.

Friday, December 8, 2006

A Short History of Magic

A Short History of Magic

I saw Ross Skiffington once at a dive up in King’s Cross. He was playing to about twenty people and I was called up to assist with a card trick. At a given moment I heard a slight engine whirr and the designated card popped up. Not much of a trick, I thought, from my vantage point. But he is a brilliant prestidigitator who can confound with all sorts of dazzling exercises. His name keeps popping up as a technical advisor in theatre pieces calling on one of the cast to display a magician’s skills. This year alone he has advised Pamela Rabe in the STC’s production of The Cherry Orchard and Paula Arundell and Socratis Otto in the Ensemble’s production of Are You There?

More alarming was a call up on a boat doing a desultory trip down to the mouth of the Yangtze from Shanghai. The return journey featured a cabaret show and the inevitable magician. Chinese magicians are quite brilliant and an incident/hommage in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige shows one at his best. The magician on the boat was working very close to the crowd and he produced a small guillotine and promptly sliced a carrot in half. Then I was instructed to stick my finger in the gap and the crowd eagerly awaited the moment when it might be hacked off. I didn’t. Just as the magician was about to slip the mechanism I heard a click but still pulled my finger out before the blade did or didn’t come down. This caused hoots of laughter. We tried again. By this time I’m contorting my face in fear. Again I heard the click and pulled my finger out. The crowd is reduced to hysterics. Finally click, finger, blade falls, finger intact. Triumph. Buckets of applause. Back at the hotel a stranger accosts me in the foyer and calls my ‘act’, deliciously extending the suspense of the moment, the funniest thing he has ever seen on a stage.

In Las Vegas I went to see Siegfried and Roy. Buying my ticket only a few hours before the show ($99, price includes two drinks) I get put on the side. “Where are you from? says the attractive usherette. “Australia’. ‘Gee that’s a long way to come. Maybe we could find you a better seat’. At that moment, I learned later I was supposed to say ‘Gee, could you?’ and slip her ten bucks. I didn’t, so she didn’t. But the show was astonishing right down to one elaborate sequence where they claim they are going to show you a trick from behind so that you can see how it’s done. They don’t of course, just dazzle you even more. I learned later that one woman who got called up for a trick and, for a seeming eternity, then doesn’t notice a white tiger about a foot away from her is all part of the show. Most people never pay the $99 (includes two drinks) so they don’t realize the whole show is a clockwork apparatus and things like calling up random strangers from the audience is a definite no-no. That’s an aspect of magic acts that is discussed in The Prestige as well. Magicians practicing the catching the bullet in their teeth act will never forgive the film-makers.

The movie spends quite some time explaining much of the magician’s armory of distracting devices, especially bits and pieces about concealed bottoms, trap doors and fake locks. The fanciful element of the story is in the involvement of the genius Nicola Tesla, Edison’s rival in developing uses for electricity, and his invention of a means of de-materialising matter and transporting it elsewhere. That was the gravamen of the quite thrilling narrative written by Christopher Priest, a novelist who trades in the mysterious and the unsettling.

The central plot trick itself stares at you and it seemed to me that I picked it up too early. Earlier than the film-maker intended anyway. That doesn’t distract that much from the story. What does distract is that you don’t get the full sense of Danton’s obsession. It becomes a by the numbers retelling and the bland face and even blander accent of Hugh Jackman doesn’t serve it well. Strange too that Jackman doesn’t even attempt any sort of English accent and you cant quite work out the origins of his character. Christian Bale is called on to do Cockney and mostly succeeds but you have to wonder why these two actors had to be chosen over other Brit stars. Robert Carlyle might have been astounding in the Danton part and someone uglier and more menacing would have done better than Bale. That would have given the film a darker edge, a meaner tone, something that reacts better with Michael Caine’s role as a master manipulator. And I have to wish that people would stop casting Scarlett Johansson in unsuitable roles as well. After this one and The Black Dahlia she’s in danger of getting herself lost in so-called prestige (oops) productions which cause her to lose credibility. Lana Turner would never have taken this role. Still the story itself remains great. Nolan’s rendering of it is mediocre. He seems like the boy who got called up from the audience and flubbed the trick, much to the real magician’s consternation.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Oz Film's Big Day

Oz film notes
The AFI Awards are on this weekend and one prominent scribe has let it be known privately that Kenny is a certainty for Best Picture. Maybe, though I find it hard to believe that the serious Jindabyne or the humanely wise Ten Canoes wont fight it out. In the lead-up Gary Maddox of the SMH managed to get the local distributors to divulge the box office grosses of all the Oz films released this year. The gravamen of Maddox’s report was that the bunching of releases that occurs because of the need to get ready for Cannes then Toronto then the AFI’s is the reason for the less than spectacular performances of many of the titles. The list however is fascinating; Heading it is Kenny ($7.3m) followed by Jindabyne ($5.3 m) and Ten Canoes ($3.3m). Boytown and Kokoda also took over $3m. Candy was the only other film to pass $1m. At the other end were Like Minds ($35,000) and Opal Dream ($64,000). My favourite filmic voodoo doll Khoa Do’s Footy Legends tapped punters for the grand total of $557,000 after opening on over 100 screens. I’d love to know how much of that came from markets outside New South Wales.

Film and Numbers

It’s been a week for big numbers. Twelve new films opened and most of them went un-reviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald. The only paper which meticulously lists and describes each film, no matter how modest the opening or the venue is the Daily Telegraph. It’s also the only paper which carries ads for the Greater Union cinemas including my local around the corner. I cant bring myself to buy the paper under any circumstances but, for at least giving the new films due deference, it’s clear the Tele beats the SMH hands down.

The other big number I noticed was on the credits on Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia. The opening titles list some fifteen people as Associate, Co-Executive, Executive or straight up Producers. The closing titles list four more who probably still want to know how come they missed out being listed at the start. One name stood out among them all. James B Harris got a solo credit as Executive Producer. There’s a name to conjure with. Harris first came to prominence in the fifties when he produced three of Stanley Kubrick’s best films The Killing, Paths of Glory and Lolita. He became a director himself, starting with the nuclear thriller The Bedford Incident. He made at least four other films himself, the last I can find listed (without going to IMDB) being in 1988. He’s now approaching eighty years of age but still seems to be a player. I heard at one time he was interested in producing an adaptation of one of Alan Furst’s wonderful wartime espionage novels but nothing seems to have come of that. Whatever, The Black Dahlia is, as most of the reviewers have said, a major disappointment. De Palma had a few burdens to carry into the project beyond the nineteen producers. For starters James Ellroy tells his stories in oblique ways that keep you off-centre. He often changes the viewpoint of the narrative from chapter to chapter and keeps you guessing as to what is occurring and what its relationship is to other things that happen. The script deals with this in a very muddy fashion. Scenes never seem to relate to each other. Finally it’s all resolved but you cant look back on the narrative very clearly. Then there is the abysmal casting of the far too young Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett. Johansson is supposed to be some mature, experienced Lana Turner type but still looks like a juvenile lead dressing up.

I think I’ll keep a record of all these Executive Producer driven films. I suspect that there will be a clearly diminishing correlation between numbers and quality.

Finally people seem to be dying in numbers. This week alone the estimable Ronald Bergan of the Guardian, who seems to have the market cornered on SMH obituaries, noted the deaths of Philippe Noiret, Claude Jade,Truffaut’s wonderful discovery as the lover and wife of the 'mature' Antoine Doinel, and the adorable Betty Comden. Comden thrilled me a few years ago when she and Adolph Green took part as narrators and occasional singers in a telecast of a concert version of On the Town conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. It, and she, and they, were fabulous. The show thrilled me more, I have to opine, than the Donen Kelly movie.

If you'd like to read the rest of the week's note about what's been overlooked on Australian TV, including Michell's The Mother, Johnnie To's Left Turn, Right Turn, Michael Powell's The Fireraisers and Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Sucides then email and I'll add you to the email alert list


Sunday, December 3, 2006

Film Alertist online

Hi everyone

I've created this blog so that you might check on things on my site more easily and be aware of updates. If you want to subscribe to my weekly email about movies coming up on TV (down here in Australia) you can contact me at and I'll put you on that list so that something arrives in your inbox each week. Or most weeks anyway. If you want to know what's on the website you can check it out here

Most recently I assembled all the notes I've done on a few dozen J Arthur Rank titles over the last couple of years.


Geoff Gardner