Film reviews

Desert bloom
Japanese Story, dir. Sue Brooks.

Japanese Story seemingly starts out as just another road movie—the laziest and most overdone of all the genres in Australian cinema—but it soon turns into a very
satisfying journey of the heart.

Sandy (Toni Collette) is a geologist working in the masculine world of the Western Australian mining industry. She’s a workaholic singleton, so wrapped up in her career that she can’t see her life is idling in neutral. Somehow she finds herself chauffeuring a Japanese businessman, Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima), around the outback, in the vain hope he’ll purchase her company’s software package. This odd couple in a four-wheel drive eventually discover a rapport that blossoms into an affair after the Australian desert nearly destroys them.

And then, just when you think you’ve got the film sussed, the film-makers supply a twist which is so elemental and frightening that it flies off in another direction entirely. Many Australian films have no third act, no reason to keep you in the cinema for a further 20 minutes—thankfully Japanese Story does.
The script by Brooks’ long-time collaborator, Alison Tilson, is beautifully structured, but unfortunately it does suffer from some wooden dialogue and a couple of speeches about the Australia-Japan


relationship do little to advance the drama. The film overcomes these problems: partly due to Sue Brooks’s wonderful eye for the strangeness and beauty of the Pilbara, and partly because of Toni Collette’s work as the female lead.

At the moment of the story’s key turning point she pulls off a performance of such rawness and truthfulness that it transcends acting. Without recourse to any tricks of the trade, Collette makes you think that you’ve stumbled inadvertently upon a woman in genuine distress.

In a year full of inept Australian films, at last we have one worth recommending. Instead of a lame, commercially driven, so-called ‘comedy’, Japanese Story offers a mature and insightful film for adults, not unlike that other recent Australian classic, Lantana. Though maybe not as good as Ray Lawrence’s multi-layered drama, Japanese Story runs a damn close second.

Brett Evans

Shyster’s paradise
Gettin’ Square, dir. Jonathan Teplitzky.

My favourite scene in this film is when ex-crim Dabba and his hardman Crusher go all gooey over Dabba’s twin baby daughters—the effin byootiful ones. Timothy Spall makes such a good ex-crim and Richard Carter (better known in White Collar Blue) is such a great old granite face that the scene has the effect of pantomime. Pantomime is an art form that relies on familiarity rather than the schlock-new: Gettin’ Square walks on ground broken by Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. But the journey is gentler, more like The Italian Job (the old good one, not the thin new one). You know it’s going to be a caper-heist movie with lots of swearin’ and threatenin’ because you’ve seen the trailers if you haven’t been in an enclosed order or at Guantanamo. You expect twists in the plot, not too hard to get your head around, and you expect some nasty villains along with some dupable cops and lovable rogues.

What you don’t expect is how sharp and funny it is, and how outstandingly good the art direction: the shonkiness of the Gold Coast conveyed by inspired camera work with hard colours and strong sun. In one scene the hero, Barry Worth, paroled from a long manslaughter sentence after being verballed by the bad cop De Viers (‘Devious’—get it? Pantomime), sits in his dead mother’s bedroom. The room’s faded florals and dated furniture have nothing to do with shabby chic or retro. Performances shine: David Field’s De Viers, Gary Sweet’s evil Chicka Martin, Barry’s dead mum’s ex-lover who really did the crime. Gretel Killeen’s two-minute cameo, as the vengeful wife of an unfaithful accountant whose downfall is going to bring a lot of Gold Coast shonks, is a joy. And of course David Wenham is going to run away (he does a lot of that in the film) with the AFI Best Supporting Actor Award next year for his fantastic grotty performance as John ‘Spit’ Spiteri, not-completely hopeless junkie. The whole thing’s as flash as a rat with a gold tooth, so comeuppances are moral rather than legal. Which makes them all the more enjoyable.

Juliette Hughes

Zombie madness
28 Days Later, dir. Danny Boyle.

Horror film or satire, zombie flick or love story? I was confused by Danny Boyle’s newest cinematic offering. What was it all about?

The story was straightforward enough. Animal rights activists break into a primate experimentation laboratory intending to free a swag of lab monkeys but instead unleash an horrifically contagious rage virus that infects an entire continent and beyond in but 28 days. Britain and, we assume, much of the rest of the world is overrun by zombie-like humans that do nothing but bite, scratch and infect.

Needless to say, 28 Days Later provides us with the obligatory handful of hero survivors to identify with but not nearly enough metaphorical richness or heart-stopping terror to create more than fleeting moments of cinematic grace. Never once did I turn from the screen or feel anxiety for the future of the human race—I came close on occasions, but sadly no cigar.

To give credit where it’s due, 28 Days Later did have a keen sense of the absurd and when it was played for awkward laughs it worked. Little moments of domestic normality sprinkled through the film’s zombie madness reminded me what a film-maker Danny Boyle can be at his best (remember Trainspotting and Shallow Grave). Had he really worked the film for those moments it might have been a fine piece of genre bending, but sadly they were but scattered vignettes gobbled up in the end by dull gore and ninja theatrics.

Anthony Dod Mantle’s (of Dogma fame—Feston, Donkey Boy and Mifune) cinematography is quite a piece of work. The opening sequences of London, devoid of its population, are genuinely breathtaking. His ability to wield a digital camera (in this case a whole swag of them) with gritty attention to beauty is a feat worthy of praise.

Oh, and if you go, don’t leave till the credits have rolled, there is a little surprise that is worth waiting for.

Siobhan Jackson

Flinty fellas
Matchstick Men, dir. Ridley Scott.

Ridley Scott has a long and distinguished career as a film-maker, and has directed at least two bona fide classics (Alien and Blade Runner), though he seems to have shifted into ‘epic theatre’ of late. Films like 1492, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down have emphasised the sheer spectacle of film-making over almost everything else, so it’s interesting to see him shift into a more intimate, everyday mode with his new release Matchstick Men.

Nicholas Cage plays Roy, a career con artist who, with his protégé Frank (played by Sam Rockwell), plays off the greed and naivety of his marks to build himself a substantial nest egg. He also has a startling array of ticks, compulsions and phobias—which he somehow manages to keep under control when he’s on the job. The compulsively tidy existence he’s created for himself starts getting messy when he discovers the existence of his 14-year-old daughter Angela (Alison Lohman, who makes a pretty convincing 14-year-old for someone who’s actually 24), who seems to have inherited some of his professional talents.

I’ve never been a great fan of films that rely on a sudden ‘surprise’ twist at the end to prove how clever they are, and in any case it’s not all that surprising for a film about con men to try and put one over on its audience as well. All three leads put in a strong performance, though Rockwell’s character seems a little peripheral to the story for most of the film—which, as it turns out, is something of a three-card trick on the part of Scott.

As you’d expect from Scott, the film looks great, though I’m not sure what to make of the self-conscious anachronism of Roy’s 1950s modernist dream house (even though the film has a contemporary setting, you’d swear from the opening shots that it was set in the ’50s). It’s a pleasant enough film, but, like Steven Spielberg’s recent Catch Me If You Can, it feels more like Scott was taking a holiday from his own seriousness than anything else. After the spectacular tedium of Black Hawk Down and Gladiator, that may not be such a bad thing.

Allan James Thomas

 

 

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