Saturday, August 15, 2009

Film review: Cedar Boys

Director: Serhat Caradee
Cast: Les Chantery, Buddy Dannoun, Waddah Sari
Country: Australia
Year: 2009

A big hit at the Sydney Film Festival this year, Cedar Boys sees first-time feature writer-helmer Serhat Caradee join the ranks of filmmakers attempting to take the path less explored of Australia’s non-white (sub)urban experience. As the film’s title suggests, Caradee story focuses on young Lebanese men, though to call them such would be misleading as these are just boys waking the fine line of responsible adulthood and the recklessness naivety of youth. So of course, because no one seems to have an original idea for how to tell these stories, we find ourselves in the territory of crime, drugs and gangs again in what is a very competent, if obvious, drama.

Les Chantery plays Tarek, a young Lebanese-Australian lad who makes what little cash he can as a panel beater whilst living at home with his parents and little sister. At night Tarek can be found cruising around in his mate Nabil’s (Buddy Dannoun) car or getting turned away from upscale clubs because their money’s not green enough and their skin’s not white enough. Tarek’s a good kid who finds himself tempted by another life in Sydney, one of big houses in the Eastern suburbs and flashy white girls who drink champagne. Furthermore, Tarek’s has a brother in the clink with no money left for his appeal. It’s enough for the young lad to compromise his character and get involved with Nabil’s plan to rip off a dealer’s stash and use their hustler mate Sam (Waddah Sari) to shift the pills.

Thus Caradee embarks on a moral tale about kids who think getting rich quick the illegal way will come without consequences. The director tells his story well and there is just enough room for one more western suburbs story after David Field’s The Combination earlier this year. But with those films and Shawn Seet’s boxing drama Two Fists, One Heart it’s starting to feel like the only immigrant stories involve criminals, boys from the wrong side of the tracks and love stories with white Aussie girls. Are there no young Lebanese women in this world we're being served?

Unfortunately not, and until Australian filmmakers start trying to tell their stories without the baggage of imitating American urban filmmakers’ gangland-immigrant tales it’s going to continue to feel like old ground revisited. That there are gifted writers, directors and actors out there to explore the cultural concerns of these groups and that they are being giving the opportunities to do so is undeniably a good thing; Cedar Boys is a decent enough showcase for this talent, but let’s see something fresh, imaginative, original.

What Cedar Boys demonstrates is that on a small budget with the Red hi-def cam you can make a film that looks great and captures an Australia city and outer suburbs in a way that is at times menacing and others magical. Go see Cedar Boys, it is accomplished work featuring an incredible cast (Rachael Taylor, Martin Henderson, Daniel Amalm) by a filmmaker with a bright future.


Film review: Balibo

Director: Robert Connolly
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Oscar Isaac, Damon Gameau
Country: Australia
Year 2009

Robert Connolly’s third feature is a historical political thriller of rare quality, not just in terms of Australian filmmaking but on any. Taking us back to the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor Connolly and his co-writer David Williamson (Gallipoli) refuse to pull their punches yet intelligently avoid sermonising the Australian government’s culpability in turning a blind eye, effectively condemning six Australian journalists to death. Based on Jill Jolliffe’s 2001 book Cover Up, Balibo is powerfully affecting cinema and a compelling piece of storytelling.

The film opens with a Timorese woman giving her oral history at the recent Timor-Leste Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in which she recalls witnessing the execution of Australian journalist Roger East. Played by the rock solid Anthony LaPaglia, we first meet East as he is eagerly encouraged by a young Timorese patriot José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) to head the government’s news agency. Jaded and cynical, East is not to be convinced easily and only comes round when his own buried idealism gets the better of his world weary instinct.

Arriving to find Dili a capital city under siege with Indonesia intelligence wondering the streets in civilian clothes, East is more interested in picking up the trail of the five missing young Australian journos in order to discover their fate. Balibo expertly weaves together two storylines, that of Greg Shacklton, Gary Cunningham, Malcolm Rennie, Brian Peters and Tony Stewart reporting from the frontline whilst East investigates their fate. Despite knowing the men’s ultimate fate, Balibo never misses a beat of tension, the impending spectre of death always looming claustrophobically overhead.

The film’s narrative echoes the sentiment offered by East, that the only way he can get the Australian public interested in the plight of the East Timorese is by exposing the fate of the Balibo Five, much to Ramos-Horta’s distaste. Along the road to the titular village where the Five met their ultimate end we see the results of Indonesian death squads, whose activities resulted in the murder of thousands of civilians. Balibo is anything but a film without conviction, its anger palpable and uncompromising, leaving the audience unable to ignore the spectre of crimes committed and the implications of the Australian government’s inaction.

And while Balibo is an intensely political film, it is also a beautiful one. Nick Meyer’s editing between the two timelines is nothing short of masterful and more than appropriately complemented by Tristan Milani’s photography on both 16mm and 35mm. Milani deploys handheld camera work for the most part in all the right places, beautifully colour contrasting the duelling stories and capturing the lush, exotic locales of East Timor. It is always a pleasure to see filmmaking of such calibre in sync with storytelling and performance.

Director Connolly has made a remarkable film, equal to Oliver Stone’s Salvador, arguably that filmmaker’s best work, and is a reminder to Australia that with great power comes great responsibility. The Balibo Five and Roger East died trying to report the truth, the very least we can do is stand up and pay attention.


Film review: Bronson

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Tom Hardy, Matt King, Kelly Adams
Country: United Kingdom
Year: 2009

“My name’s Charles Bronson and all my life I’ve wanted to be famous,” comes the narration from the anti-hero of director Nicholas Winding Refn Sydney Film Festival Official Comp winner. Bronson is a film that offers perilously little else than a character portrait of Britain’s most infamous inmate played by Tom Hardy. And for those who value story over art that probably won't be enough, nevertheless Bronson has ‘cult classic’ written all over it thanks to it’s coiled tension and eventual balls-to-the-wall violence.

Refn, whose Pusher trilogy is another revered collection from the cult section, paints his portrait of a fascinating man with a Kubrickian brush, unapologetically repetitive in its explorations of a life behind bars and man incapable of, or uninterested in, rehabilitation into normal society. A squat fist of muscle with a shaved head and an English moustache, Refn’s Bronson is an intelligent, creative and at times vulnerable man who is nothing if not intensely wild, whimsical and interesting. His world becomes a bizarre vaudevillian affair beset by equally odd characters along the way from a prize-fight promoter, to an art teacher, to a particularly peculiar prison warden.

It all comes as a surprise to anyone from British shores more accustomed to the man born Michael Gordon Peterson whom after being imprisoned for armed robbery became known as the country’s most dangerous criminal, remaining in jail for 40 years (aside a couple of very short stints of freedom) as a result of crimes committed inside. One of the strengths of Bronson is director Refn decision to tell his story through the a tint lens of absurdity and leave the audience to work out how they feel about the ruffian for themselves.

Whilst no doubt capturing his charm, humour and raising questions about the rights and wrongs of institutionalising a man through years of solitary confinement, the filmmaker is never shies away from the brutality of this somewhat deranged and feral character who cannot be defined by normal society. Was he born this way or did prison and society’s limitations of social-acceptability shape him into the man he became?

Bronson is a deeply confronting film in respect of it subject and no matter what your opinion of its value the one feature uniformly agreeable is the stunning central performance by Hardy as the brawler. Previously only seen in bit parts in the likes of Layer Cake, Marie Antoinette and RocknRolla Hardy delivers a text book definition of a tour de force that is both mesmerising and terrifying and a performance that deserves to be talked about in the same vein of Eric Bana’s similar role in Chopper – utterly magnificent.

For 92 minutes Bronson sets out to entertain us with visual flair and a reek of madness. In the process it succeeds in becoming one of the most original and exciting biopics in recent memory and a scary insight into what may lie beneath humanity: little more than survival of the fittest instincts that betray our animalistic tendencies. Or it might just be a wild ride in the mind of a madman.


Film review: Inglourious Basterds

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Christoph Waltz
Country: USA
Year: 2009

What’s that you say: a Quentin Tarantino-directed World War II film about a Dirty Dozen-esque troupe of Jewish American soldiers behind enemy lines with the sole purpose of killing Nazis? As basic movie premises go it’s hard to imagine a bigger fanboy wet dream really, but be careful what you wish for, because you might not get it. Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is the least disciplined and most wildly uneven of his seven features to date.

Hardly one to dwell on his detractors, here the film geek’s filmmaker betrays what should be his own directorial maturing process and indulges his worst excesses. And while the big chin might be likened in many quarters as The Weinstein Company’s Mickey Mouse; the difference remains that Mickey didn’t have an ego and tens of millions of dollars at his direct disposal. Most disappointingly of all, Inglourious Basterds glaringly lacks for consistent inspiration.

Rather than the action movie about a crack(pot) team of scalping Basterds led by Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine, Tarantino has delivered a series of vignettes, padded by lots of talking with quintessential QT-patter and punctuated by increasingly violent exclamation marks. It is a farcical fairy tale set in Nazi-occupied France where the history books have been gleefully thrown on the pyre so as to enact a roaring rampage of revenge. Disturbingly though, Inglourious Basterds plays uncomfortably well as a 160-minute murder fantasy in which human life means very little in this post-Gitmo world.

Because no filmmaker loses their gifts overnight Tarantino still manages to cram some vintage stuff into his bloated runtime (you’d hope so, right?). The opening homage to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West, complete with Ennio Morriocone score to a homestead invasion, fused with classic Tarantino cat and mouse dialogue play is as good as any of the writer-director’s greatest hits. The scene excruciatingly drip-drops the tension before climaxing with exactly the execution we’ve come to expect of his violent poetics.

It is also during this opening sequence that Tarantino unleashes his secret weapon, German actor Christoph Waltz as ‘the Jew Hunter’ SS Colonel Hans Landa. Waltz steals every single scene in which he delivers his cunning dialogue in multiple languages, playing pitch perfectly for the uncertain bedfellows of terror and comedy. Where Waltz excels Pitt fails in a grimacing and gurning in a caricaturing that irritates more than it delights.

Because it’s an ensemble we could go on to mention the other standouts like Michael Fassbender and Mélanie Laurent, but it’s hard to care when the director himself barely treats his protagonists as anything more than a collection of names and faces. All the easier to kill one supposes. Tarantino has not lost any of his visual flare nor his talent with language, but here finds his storytelling lacking in restraint to his film’s detriment. There’s entertainment to be had in this escapist fantasy, but be warned, these are not the Basterds you’re looking for.