Thursday, September 20, 2007

Grapple Tackled

I’m beginning to feel like a misanthrope and a curmudgeon. When did I notice I hear you say. The good new movies just aren’t coming at the moment through though the good old ones are. A recent unexpected DVD viewing of Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive reminded me of just how precious is the work of some of those artists whose output consists of just a few small infrequent jewels. The current art house rave After the Wedding comes wrapped in the sort of kudos that indicate a likely certifiable hit. It has won nominations and prizes everywhere including the audience award at the Sydney Film Festival for most popular film. Yet I cant help feeling that what I got from it was a rather large dose of manipulation by virtue of a script whose method seems to be to introduce, at near frenetic pace for such an intimate enterprise, coincidental and/or choreographed script developments designed to cause a shock or surprise at each turn. (At this point be warned I’m not going to bother concealing plot developments). Jacob is working as a schoolteacher in an Indian orphanage. The Director, Mrs Shaw, says a Danish would-be benefactor wants Jacob to go to Copenhagen and explain what the place is up to before a bucket of money will be tipped in to save the orphanage from closure. He heads off reluctantly and has a cursory meeting with the benefactor Jorgen, a big time businessman/property developer, loving husband and good father of young twins and a marriage age daughter. He invites Jacob to the daughter’s wedding the next day and Jacob suddenly sees his old flame who abandoned him in India, not being able to compete with the freely available drugs and promiscuous sex that Jacob enjoyed. We then realize that Jacob is the daughter’s biological father. The new marriage quickly descends into chaos as the daughter works out what’s going on and goes further into instant farce via an episode of philandering, (foreshadowed by some early flirting by the groom when he first meets Jacob). When this is tucked away, Jorgen admits he’s got cancer and very soon dies. But before that he need to settle accounts, as does everyone else. On and on the script goes, working us over, trying to wrench the emotions on ever more flimsily created occasions. Now that I think back to the director’s previous Open Hearts I see the same powers of contrivance beginning to get to work. That film did have some emotional punch and you didn’t get the feeling you were being constantly set up. The Dogma tradition which this film tags along on, is actually rather replete with such methods when you come to think about. And yet the critics and reviewers find this stuff ‘emotional and engaging” and “a captivating, precision-executed relationships drama” and best of all from some stoneheart on the Wall Street Journal, "a thrilling and beautiful celebration of the unpredictability of life." One man's unpredictability is another's script contrivance I fear. Needless to say the film has the sort of ‘happy ending” that apparently sends crowds out into the night with a warm inner glow. I thought, however, I’d been the subject of an artistic grapple tackle and had only just escaped.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Cult Following

The Final Winter has sprung from nowhere. Financed privately, it was a last-minute inclusion in the Sydney Film Festival and has found a (I assume) Sydney based distributor who has put up the money for a dozen or more prints and a good ad campaign to go out mostly through the art houses. It lists, in two groups, seven executive producers, followed by two producers, a director, Jane Forrest, and a co-director. The auteur of the movie is its writer/lead actor and former Rugby League player Matt Nable. Set in the 80s when Rugby League was the cult game that dominated Sydney and Brisbane sport it’s subject is a brutish player Mike Henderson, nickname Grub, who plays for one of the impoverished, underperforming inner suburban teams headed for extinction. Off the field he’s a nice guy who doesn’t cheat on his wife and two kids, but is prone to drink too much and erupt with the same kind of violence he’s known for on the field. (The representation of football’s beer culture is one of its very best elements). His more skilful brother has left the club behind and is playing for one of the fancy teams. The president of the club is trying to woo the brother back to get a ‘marquee player’ for the club to boost its status. (That’s not a phrase I recall from the 80s but there you are). For the first bit of the film there is a long sequence where all the casual brutality of Rugby League, then and now, is on display. It then covers a week in Grub’s life after he assaults his brother on the field, spends much time agonizing as to whether he’ll be suspended, charts his fragile domestic relationship (“I want back the man I married. I want Mike Henderson not Grub!”) examines the future of the team given the President’s ambitions involve a clean-out of the staff and has a sad/happy ending when Grub accepts his life and fate. TV melodramatics abound. They aren’t helped by some of the actors delivering clunky lines without much skill and by some actors going over the top. John Jarratt (or as he’s referred to in the Dendy’s ads John Jarrat, or as he’s referred to in the Palace ads John Jarret) seems to be still under the influence of his role in Wolf Creek and mugs endlessly. Much of the ground was trod once before in Bruce Beresford’s rather slipshod version of David Williamson’s The Club. That film too succumbed to footy nostalgia with lots of cameos by once big names now balding and rotund.

I remain intrigued however as to why Sydney people keep investing in films about Rugby League. This minor cult sport, nowadays played at frequently near empty stadiums for the benefit of large numbers of TV viewers in the two northern states, is an impenetrable mystery to most outside those areas. Despite millions of Rupert’s money being spent on a Melbourne team the matches there are still played in phone booths to almost complete disdain and shown on TV in the early hours of the morning. They don’t play it at all in the west or the south. Listening to Matt Nable on radio yesterday he was no doubt on message when he spoke of its universal values and that this is a film for all sports fans. Hmm. Sports fans actually like going to or watching sport. But this is the second Rugby League film in a year. The last one, Khoa Do’s Footy Legends had buckets of taxpayer funding from the Sydney-based authorities and was without doubt the worst Australian film of the year. That one opened in over a hundred cinemas nationwide and closed after the minimum statutory terms were reached, grossing around half a million. This one is less ambitious but I doubt it will have any greater impact though some will praise its honesty, truth etc and its performances, especially Nable's. I note that the ads are already mentioning three four star ratings given to it.

I sat alone in Hoyts George Street Cinema 3 to watch. Admittedly it was APEC Saturday and the city was deserted thanks to endless police warnings of imminent violent behavior. The only such behavior I saw was the unsavory late tackles, punch ups, all-ins, head highs, coat-hangers, Liverpool kisses and bar-room brawls that characterise Rugby League even after its move from the inner suburbs to the (empty) stadiums.. Now its up mainly to the denizens of the art houses to make or break it. That will be interesting.