Return of the Mountain King

[24 Dec 03] The best movie I've seen this week was full of stunning alpine scenery and almost unbearable tension; and The Return of the King was good, too.

Touching the Void is the story of two mountaineers who tackled an unconquered slope in the Andes and barely escaped with their lives. This dramatization of their story is by turns breathtaking, horrific, funny and truly amazing; it grabs you by the neck and drags you up a mountainside, through the snow, over the boulders and down a crevasse. All the time you wonder how on earth these men—particularly Joe Simpson, who wrote the book the film was based on—could have lived through things you can barely stand to watch. Again and again it seems as if surely he must have died at this point, or at this point—but you know he didn't, because he's narrating over the top of it, and every few minutes you see him talking to camera. Combine that incredible tale of survival with some of the worst dilemmas and decisions anyone would ever have to face, and you have an absolute classic of a documentary, the best of a year full of them.

The Return of the King was a classic of a different kind, and if you have any interest in it whatsoever you'll either have formed your own opinion already or not want me to spoil the surprise. Well, surprise: it's every bit as accomplished as we've come to expect. The novelty of the scenery and the characters may have worn off, but there's still plenty to get excited about. Strangely, for such a visual feast of a movie, my favourite moment was part of the soundtrack: the combination of score and sound effects under that scene—you know, the denouement, where that guy, and him, and the thingummy, reach Mount Spoilers and... yeah, that one. Top scene. I think I'll be going back just to hear it again.

My only quibble—not a quibble, really, more of a quiblet—is that Return feels more like one-third of one very big film than the other two did. If it was physically possible to sit through all three of them in a row with bladder intact, this would make an even better ending than it does. What are the odds on an extra-extended 24-hour all-in-one cut at cinemas next Christmas?


Let There Be Lists

[10 Dec 03] The one-off has become a habit: here's my fourth end-of-year list. I should wait to see where Return of the King ends up, and to give myself a chance to read Quicksilver, but it's not like either of those need my personal seal of approval. Better fill in the gaps, though...

Intolerable Cruelty was widely reviewed as a weaker Coen film, but I loved it. (But then, where most critics rate Fargo and Miller's Crossing as their best, I'd have The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink.) Screwball comedy in the finest 1940s mould, with George Clooney looking more like Cary Grant every day. Catherine Zeta-Jones is an unusual presence in a Coen movie, but perfect for this role, not a million miles from her Chicago turn; and Wheezy Joe was a classic Coen character. Four out of five.

Another movie with dodgy marketing was Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which is much better than its trailers and billboards suggest. A nautical period-piece played completely straight, with none of the winkingness of Pirates of the Caribbean, Master and Commander was suspenseful and convincing to the end. Or perhaps it was just me: my friends thought Russell Crowe was hard to take as Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey. Me, I can think of bluffer sea dogs. Another four stars.

I caught Finding Nemo and American Splendor in Oz, and The Quiet American on the plane over, and liked them all; Spirited Away was strange and sometimes hauntingly beautiful, even better than Princess Mononoke; and Bright Young Things was a successful between-the-wars yarn, with Stephen Fry a perfect director for Waugh's material. Three and a half or four stars apiece.

On the music side, my Britpop leanings have rarely been more obvious. Blur's latest was reassuringly assured, and Catatonia's final album and the much-maligned Manics were excellent bargain finds. The fans' response after Elliott Smith's death led me to his pre-Dreamworks work, which has made me one too; and seeing Alfie at the Flaming Lips concert prompted me to buy all their albums in a fit of retro-'60s-and-Madchester madness—definitely one to watch. The one huge omission from this list, when I recall my fifteen-year Musical Obsession, is MO's 2003 remake of his first and most successful album. But even though it's a polished performance with a few pleasant touches, I can't really recommend it to anyone but a fellow obsessive—not least because I had to order it from Canada to get an un-screwy CD version.

Of all the tech-related non-fiction I've ploughed through this year, Gelernter's and Lessig's books stand out; the former, in particular, demands re-reading. Of the general non-fiction I haven't already mentioned, Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe III was a timely continuation of an excellent series, dealing as it did with the rise of Islam and its impact on the West, and James Woodford's The Secret Life of Wombats a fascinating overview of some of my favourite animals and the people who study them. Fiction has been hit-and-miss this year, with a few exceptions: everything I've read by Jonathan Coe has been excellent; David Lodge's Nice Work was a Rummidge return-to-form after Small World; and Sue Townsend's Number Ten was a far more satisfying political satire than The Queen and I. Also worth a mention: Erik Durschmied's The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History (which conjures up any number of what-if questions); Michael Moore's Stupid White Men (which explains where half of Metafilter's members get their arguments from); and Ben Elton's Inconceivable, Douglas Adams's The Salmon of Doubt, and Tony Hawks's One Hit Wonderland (all better than I expected).

More introspective retrospectivity coming soon.



[21 Oct 03] Although it was annoying to be left hanging at the end of Kill Bill Vol. 1, I can understand Miramax's decision to release it in two halves. After having Uma Thurman chop the heads and limbs off dozens of crazed yakuza, what could be more appropriate than chopping the end off the movie?

They missed the perfect finishing touch, though. They should have wired up the cinema sprinklers to trigger when the credits rolled and shower the audience in blood.

Saw the excellent documentary Spellbound last week as well, and now my dreams are rife with Uma in yellow jumpsuit hacking her way through two hundred and thirty-nine precocious schoolkids saying "I-am-a-mu-si-cal-ro-bot-you-call-that-spel-ling?"



[29 Aug 03] The morning after, I'm still haunted by Être et Avoir. It's possibly the best film about teaching ever made, and a wonderful example of the power of the documentary. It barely seems to be a documentary at all; it just feels real. A real depiction of a small single-teacher school in the French countryside.

There's so much wrapped up in this film, so much said in a look, a silence, a pan across the landscape, that to try and describe it in a few words is pointless; you just have to experience it. It's about childhood, the pain of growing up, adult care and custodianship, the balance between work and education, and the value of a life spent teaching; and it's all done with hardly any overt analysis, interviews or editorializing; just by observing and carefully selecting the moments of the school day.

A couple of nights ago I was impressed with Johnny Depp's tour de force performance in the enjoyably silly Pirates of the Caribbean, but no acting can compete with the reality captured here. Indeed, it's hard to think of any acting achievement that can trump a life spent patiently teaching five-year-olds the difference between ami and amie, teaching them to respect and care for one another, and showing them they can count past a billion if only they keep going.


Movie Marathon

[24 Aug 03] Looking at all those Fringe shows I've reviewed makes me freshly aware that of all the movies I've been to this year I've reviewed only two. This shouldn't bother me, but the fact that there's a "Film" category on the archive page where the last review is six months old does—another example of the strange compulsions that arise from, and give rise to, the blogging urge. So this is my pointless attempt to catch up.

I can't be bothered writing about the three-star films, the ones that were good but ultimately nothing great: Punch-Drunk Love; Chicago; Revengers Tragedy; Adaptation; Far From Heaven; Johnny English; Secretary; Dirty Deeds; Igby Goes Down; Hulk. They all had their merits, but none of them soared, which is probably why I couldn't be bothered writing about them in the first place. And as for the two stars, the soulless X-Men 2 and the gratuitous Matrix Reloaded, it's enough to note that yes, I supped from that broth of stale zeitgeist, and move along.

The first four or five star movie I saw after City of God and About Schmidt was, unexpectedly, Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can. I say "unexpectedly" because for a while I actually paid attention to the lacklustre reviews, without accounting for Spielberg backlash; some people never forgave him for A.I. Well, I liked A.I.—certainly more than Minority Report, which undid its classy SF touches with the most hackneyed of endings. And I liked Catch Me, too, even if it took some liberties with the story of con-man Frank Abnagale. I liked it for its dash and its cheek; for being a movie about the '60s that wasn't about flower power or Vietnam; and, yes, for Leo and Tom, and for reminding us why they're stars—Christopher Walken, too. It was perfect escapism during the inescapable build-up to Iraq. ****

As was Jackass: The Movie. Here I should offer some sort of post-modern rationale about the ironic enjoyment to be gained from watching puerile behaviour; but I won't, because that would be a fraud. Jackass was just funny. Bam Margera setting off fireworks in his parents' bedroom is funny. A roller disco in the back of a truck is funny. Steve-o getting an off-road tattoo in Henry Rollins' jeep is funny. This movie is like all the stupidest things you and your friends ever did or dreamed of doing as teenagers, and comic material of that calibre needs no rationale. ****

Not in the slightest bit funny or fun, but undeniably compelling, was The Magdalene Sisters, the story of three young Irish women condemned to virtual slavery in church-run laundry houses for such crimes as being single mothers, victims of rape, or over-flirtatious. Watching this was like being fed head-first through a mangle: I was cringing, literally flinching away from the screen, almost unable to watch. Undoubtedly one of the best films of the year, for sheer emotional impact alone. *****

Almost as bleak was Lilja 4-Ever, the story of a teenage girl in contemporary Russia trying to make her escape to the West, only to get drawn into the sordid world of sex slavery. Watching a spirited and optimistic girl being tricked and broken was one of the more depressing ways you could spend your time at the movies, but what a powerful film this was. *****

Less traumatic was the recent version of Nicholas Nickleby, a star-studded adaptation with the likes of Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Barry Humphries, Nathan Lane, and Jamie Bell. It had its dark moments, of course, with Broadbent and Stevenson a deliciously horrible Mr and Mrs Squeers, but managed to capture that feeling of overwhelming goodness in the young leads that Dickens's stories always have; Jamie Bell was especially impressive as Smike. ****

After Lilja 4-Ever it was a relief to see a movie about a young girl that didn't end on a down note, in the form of Whale Rider. I've got something of a love-love relationship with New Zealand, where I spent some of the happiest months of my life in 1997, so the wide-screen Northland landscapes were a point in its favour from the start; and its story of a tribal elder's attempts to preserve Maori culture in a weakening community touched a chord from my postgrad days. But the clincher was its lead, Keisha Castle-Hughes, playing the girl who should have been chief. She holds a note of unwavering certainty in her destiny and culture without ever seeming dogmatic or over-zealous; by the end her attempts to win her grandfather's respect are irresistably moving. *****

I must have been the only person in Edinburgh who went to see Buffalo Soldiers for its director and not its star. Gregor Jordan is unknown here, but his debut Two Hands was one of the best Australian movies of the 1990s, so I wanted to see whatever he did next. What he did was a smart and fast-moving military caper set in 1989 West Germany, with Joaquin Phoenix as the drug-dealing soldier who meets his match on a US army base. More than a few echoes of Three Kings and Fight Club, without being quite as excellent as either; but still a solid movie. Can't wait for Jordan's Ned Kelly. ****

How good to know, though, that the best movie about 1989 Germany was made by Germans. Good Bye, Lenin! appeared from its trailer to be a straightforward comedy—East German mother in a coma sleeps through the fall of the Wall, and her son tries to protect her from the shock of the news by recreating the East in her bedroom. But it was much more than that—a story about trust and deception, culture clash, young love, hope and possibility, lost dreams, and one of my favourite cities in the world. Its storyline was never predictable, and it achieved everything it set out to; a wonderful elegy for the failed experiment of the DDR. *****

The last entry on my four/five star list was even more unexpected, given the diminishing returns we've seen from so many sequels, especially those made years after the original. But Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is a worthy addition to Schwarzenegger's most famous franchise. Leaving aside Arnie's political aspirations and the policy implications of his cinematic oeuvre, complaints about T3 have ranged from its lack of cutting-edge special effects to the "unbelievable" nature of the unstoppable Terminatrix. Well, I wouldn't have wanted a T3 with bullet-time and wire work, thanks; it would sit as oddly next to its predecessors as 2010 next to 2001, whereas this captures perfectly the feel of the first two. And as for the unstoppable dominatrix, er, Terminatrix, I can only assume that such criticism comes from people who never saw T1 or T2. Or at least, never saw them as I did, at the age of 16, sitting in the theatre wondering if this would be as good as Conan the Barbarian (this at an age when no-dialogue swords and sorcery scripted by Oliver Stone could count as entertaining). As I watched that scene for the very first time where the gleaming Terminator skeleton crawls from the burning wreckage of a truck to pick up the chase, some guy in the audience yelled, "Aw, bullSHIT!"; and we all laughed, and we all loved it anyway. If you go into T3 in that frame of mind, you'll love it too. It's got the one-liners, it's got the tension, it's got the evil gleaming techno-fetishism, and it has the best car chases in years, showing up Matrix Reloaded as the unengaging cartoonery it was. ****

Next up: Pirates of the Caribbean. I had my extremely heavy doubts about a movie based on a theme park ride, but the buzz has convinced me to give it a whirl. [Update: see comments, ye scurvy dogs.]


Insert Coin Now

[24 Jun 03] Now that it's a month since the opening of The Gospel According to the Matrix and everyone's had a chance to see it, it's time to point out what every other reviewer seems to have missed. The real eye-opener in this by-the-binary-numbers sequel wasn't Keanu fighting hundreds of Agent Smiths, or the mop-head twins running through walls and trucks, or Trinity's hot hot pants... it was the Architect's revelation that this was, in fact, Matrix Version 6. And you know what that means. Prequels.

After November's Matrix Revelations, er, Revolutions, we can look forward to the Wachowski Brothers falling prey to George Lucas's influence and cranking out five more Matrices, each one a little more advanced, a little less buggy, and a little less exciting than the previous one.

But you know you'll want to see them. Who wouldn't pony up for The Matrix 1.0?


Keep Moving

[17 Apr 03] MeFi has been discussing and augmenting a list of the modern movie canon, one that contains only a single entry more than ten years old. As a roll-call of influential movies of the past decade it's reasonable enough, but Ty Burr's discussion of its '90s focus makes pretty sobering reading for the film enthusiast. I love The Big Lebowski, Boogie Nights, The Matrix, Fight Club, Pulp Fiction—all of those usual suspects— and would rank them highly on a list of '90s favourites of my own. I also loved the postmodern games of Being John Malkovich, the most surprising omission from this list. But postmodernism to the exclusion of all else gets tiresome, and if all we have to look forward to is pomo movie-making feeding on its own regurgitations, the movies of 2008 are going to look pretty tired.

Not for the first time, I feel grateful towards the main sources of my film education: the local video store in the 1980s (back in the 'pigging out' days); the ANU Film Group in the 1990s; the black-and-white classics on the ABC; and the foreign movies on SBS. Amelie was enjoyable enough, but it was no Le Vacance de Monsieur Hulot; Run Lola Run was terrific, but will it linger in the mind for as long as Aguirre, Wrath of God?

Can you really know the movies of the past decade if you haven't held a butterfly in Close to Eden, wept at the border in Journey of Hope, suffered the blows of Once Were Warriors, sat in the pink bathroom of Harry, He's Here to Help, or run after a chicken in City of God? Can you really know movies, full-stop, if you haven't fought in the rain with The Seven Samurai, gripped the steering wheel in The Wages of Fear, listened to the sound of your own air supply in 2001, dodged a biplane in North by Northwest, trimmed the bushes in Mon Oncle, danced with Hitler in The Producers, danced with Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain, plucked a banjo in Deliverance, hauled a paddle-steamer in Fitzcarraldo, or felt pity towards Citizen Kane?


I'd Like to Thank...

[24 Mar 03] My pick them without having seen them experiment didn't go too well; all I got right were best picture for Chicago and best actress for Nicole Kidman's fake nose. The big surprise was the number of awards for The Pianist; I really did think that Polanski's dubious past would rule it out, but I guess the Academy is more forgiving about such matters than the British public. Also a surprise that Julianne Moore missed out. My (22% guaranteed!) prediction is that she'll win something next time for an entirely ordinary performance in some forgettable flick.

Still haven't seen The Hours, Gangs of New York or The Pianist. Chicago was enjoyable enough. Adaptation was fun while it lasted, but a bit too clever for its own good; Confessions of a Dangerous Mind had a better Kaufman script and was a better film all round. Catch Me While You Can was a surprise: surprisingly good, that is, considering how luke-warm a lot of the reviews were, with Spielberg on top form, strong performances, and great style. The portrayal of the flipside of 1950s America in Far From Heaven was also well done, although the intrusive soundtrack was one piece of period authenticity I could have done without.

Now comes the mad rush to fill in the gaps before summer blockbuster season kicks in.


Rage Against the Dying of the Light

[13 Feb 03]

Dear List,

Re: Odeons Under Threat (461)

How depressing to read of the imminent closure of the Odeon on Clerk St. I've only been here 18 months, but this cinema has been one of the best things about Edinburgh. I've visited movie houses from pirate-video joints in Tonga to the Sony Metreon in San Francisco, and none could compare with watching The Fellowship of the Ring on screen one at Clerk Street.

Back home in Australia anything that classy was refurbished into a soulless multiplex twenty years ago—exactly the kind that's springing up around Edinburgh and Glasgow today. They have their place, sure, but does every place have to be like that?

The saddest part is knowing that in a few years' time everyone will be sitting in the movie theatre equivalent of Economy Class wondering why they ever gave up their First Class seats, and by then it will be too late.


Rory Ewins.


And The Winner Is...

[12 Feb 03] The Oscar nominations have been announced, and I've managed to see only one of the five Best Picture nominees. Since three-quarters of Academy voters will be in the same boat, this makes me ideally qualified to pick the winners—armed with nothing more than the abridged list of nominees in today's Metro, a reasonable knowledge of Oscars form, and ingrained cynicism. Hey, it worked last year.

Best Picture: Chicago. The Academy always welcomes the chance to give the gong to a much-loved but long-neglected genre; and a gong for Chicago will serve as pseudo-gong for Cabaret, which missed out in the early 1970s. The Hours sounds too clever by half; anything to do with Polanski (The Pianist) doesn't have a hope in these paedophiliphobic times; Gangs of New York has lost its shine; and The Two Towers* won't win for the same reasons Fellowship didn't.

Best Director: Stephen Daldry, to balance losing Best Picture; conversely, Rob Marshall will have to be satisfied with same. Almodovar is too Spanish, Polanski is too wanted by the FBI, and Scorsese was too slow to finish Gangs.

Best Actress: Nicole Kidman. Julianne Moore is a strong contender, given that the world has suddenly realised that she's been in every movie released in the last five years, but the Academy never awards actors at their peak. Renée Zellweger won't get it because of her funny name, and Salma Hayek and Diane Lane won't because I have no idea what they did, and therefore three-quarters of the Academy won't either. No, Nic will get it: not because of her acting per se, or because of a belated break-up-with-Tom sympathy vote, but because the role called for a prosthetic nose. Fake physical deformities are Oscar gold—unless they're oversized hairy feet.

Best Actor: Michael Caine. Everyone says Daniel Day-Lewis was the best thing about Gangs of New York, but he's had his Oscar already, and just hasn't been in enough films lately. Jack Nicholson was brilliant in About Schmidt,* but that's too indie and interesting for the Academy. Nicolas Cage is great in Adaptation by all accounts, but how many Oscars did Being John Malkovich get? And Adrien who? Nope, this is the Academy's chance to give the gong to a veteran, show how much they loved Zulu, and give some timely Hollywood-liberal support to a film that suggests that not everything about US foreign policy is perfect.

Best Supporting Actress: Julianne Moore. Consolation prize for not getting best actress. La Streep will have to be satisfied with a record number of nominations and her past gongs; Zeta Jones with public spats with Hello; Bates with her previous Oscar, and the pleasure of having appeared in About Schmidt; and Latifah with being Queen (see also: Funny Names—Zellweger).

Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Walken. Paul Newman's had his chance. Ed Harris—ehhh. Chris Cooper and John C. Reilly—ruh? A gong for Walken is another chance to acknowledge a stalwart actor, and to honour Spielberg without having to honour Spielberg.

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Hours. Another consolation prize for not getting Best Picture, and proof that the Academy really does like clever writing, honestly. About a Boy* is pleasant but slight, Adaptation too smarty-pants, Chicago is getting the main prize so doesn't need this, and The Pianist has that Polanski connection.

Best Original Screenplay—you guessed it: Gangs of New York. The Academy has to acknowledge Marty's pet project somehow. Far From Heaven, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Talk To Her and Y Tu Mama Tambien hardly have that Scorsese cachet.

Best Animated Film (when did this get its own category?): Ice Age.* It should be Spirited Away, judging by what others have said, but anime won't get the gong. Treasure Planet stiffed, Spirit sounded pretty ordinary, Lilo & Stitch ditto. Ice Age wasn't as good as it should have been, but wins by default.

Other Oscars: Chicago will scoop up a bunch of costume and music awards to boost its overall haul to respectable levels; Two Towers might get a special effects award, but then again might not, because after all, it's only make-believe, and wasn't there some digital work on Nic's nose in The Hours?

You saw it here first, folks. Bookmark this post and revisit in a month's time. Meanwhile, I'd better go out and see a few more of these nominees. (* marks the ones I've actually seen at the time of writing, which shows how seriously you should take these predictions. But if you win money on them, I want a cut.)


Teen Angels

[12 Feb 03] Being reminded of Alexander Payne's Election the other day got me thinking about teen movies, and in particular the romantic and comedic teen flicks of the 1980s. It just so happens that I was a teenager from 1981 to 1987, and spent those impressionable years soaking up the finest hours of the brat pack on the big and small screen. Which gets me wondering which ones I would include in a personal top ten.

The problem is where and when to draw the line. All teen movies ever made? Movies aimed at teenagers, or about teenagers? In the end I've kept the focus on the 1980s: the movies don't have to have been released then, but have to be set during that decade. This means leaving out older classics like The Graduate and more recent ones like Election itself, but saves having to explain why Clueless and Rushmore just didn't do it for me. The movies also have to be about teenagers per se, and not just, say, vampires who happen to be teenagers. And finally, they have to be movies I would actually want to watch again.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986): John Hughes spent half the '80s trying to make the perfect teen movie, and managed it precisely once. Weird Science, 16 Candles, and The Breakfast Club all have their merits, but none quite get there for me. Ferris Bueller, though, has it all: the cocky hero, the endearingly nerdy friend, the malevolent teacher, the beautiful girlfriend, the knowing asides to camera, and the outrageously hot car. Packed full of classic lines and moments, Bueller is let down only by the 'day off' itself, which can't hope to match the build-up of the first act; but is redeemed by an ending which will forever stamp Yello's 'Oh Yeah' into the minds of those who've seen it. For making Bueller, Hughes can be forgiven just about anything—even Curly Sue.

Risky Business (1983): Matthew Broderick may have killed a fine car in spectacular fashion in Ferris Bueller, but Tom Cruise killed one even more spectacularly three years earlier. That scene alone makes Risky Business a contender—add the 'pimp from home while mom and dad are away' plot, Cruise dancing to Bob Seger in his jocks, and the screen debut of the hilariously lame insult 'a-hole', and ladies and young gentlemen, we have a winner.

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987): Hughes churned out teen-movie scripts by the several in the mid-80s—more than he could direct on his own. Howard Deutch filled the director's chair with Pretty in Pink and this, its gender-swapped counterpart. In a first for a Hughes teen script, Some Kind of Wonderful is played completely straight, and is the stronger for it. No goofy male nerdling as the unrequited lover here, but instead a cute tomboy who frankly could have done a lot better than Eric Stoltz.

Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991): Bill and Ted were shamelessly derivative, both of SNL's Wayne's World and of early '80s landmark Fast Times at Ridgement High (which hasn't aged well). But even if Keanu was just aping Sean Penn's surfer dude, he's still Keanu, dammit, and the Bill and Ted flicks were the crucible in which his Keanuness was formed. The first B&T was pure '80s, and although it was released in 1991, so is this sequel. Bogus Journey trumps its predecessor for its brilliant parody of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, ensuring an afterlife of in-jokey enjoyment among cineastes everywhere.

Back to the Future (1985): Purists might argue that Back to the Future is not first and foremost a teen movie but rather a science fiction movie. Without its teenage themes, though, this would be no more than an average episode of The Twilight Zone. As it is, it brilliantly contrasts 1980s and 1950s teendom, touching on all the essential elements: young love, jocks, nerds, rock and roll, and hot cars. And it does it with a great sense of humour, a tighter than tight script, and Michael J. Fox, small-screen teen icon of the decade. How could you not include it?

The Big Steal (1990): So far, my list has been all-American. I've racked my brain trying to think of a British movie worth including, but Absolute Beginners isn't it. Australia, though, produced a couple of genuine classics about adolescence during the 1980s. The first, The Year My Voice Broke, would be on this list if it wasn't set in the 1960s. The second, The Big Steal, may have been released in 1990 but was shot in the late '80s, and captures the time perfectly. Its star Ben Mendelssohn was the essence of the gawky Aussie adolescent: neither nerd nor jock—just a Good Bloke trying to impress a girl (the curvaceous Claudia Karvan) with his hot car. For once, the auto-drama revolves around repair rather than destruction, as Mendelssohn gets his revenge on a car dealer who's double-crossed him. Was there ever a more deserving target of teenage pranksterism?

Dead Poets Society (1989): Peter Weir's fraught vision of New England private education is remembered as a Robin Williams vehicle, but the focus was no more on captain, my captain than it is in any school; it was the students who made this story work, and Dead Poets was as good a portrayal of teen earnestness, angst and aspiration as there's ever been. Or so I thought in 1989; it'd be interesting to see how well it's aged.

Donnie Darko (2001): An instant teen-angst classic, as previously described; and thanks to its 1988 setting, one that definitely qualifies for this list.

O.C. and Stiggs (1987): Filmed in 1985 by Robert Altman from a National Lampoon storyline, this went straight to video in most countries, and divides viewers still: half hate it, half hail it. I don't know which half I belong to, because I only saw half of it, in the small hours of the morning six or seven years ago. But that brief glimpse of two gonzo teenagers in a monster truck puts this at the top of my list of Possibly Great Teen Movies I Fell Asleep In The Middle Of And Want To See Again, which is a good enough reason to include it for me.

And: This space intentionally left blank. Which essential teen movie set in the 1980s have I missed?


You Don't Know Jack

[ 6 Feb 03] Alexander Payne's Election was one of the better films of recent years, so I had high hopes for his latest, About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson—and they weren't in vain. Not much happens in this story of one man's life after retirement, but it's beautifully observed—one of the most real films I've seen in ages. Nicholson's stereotypical Jack-ness is wound back to 1, leaving a perfectly pitched performance. It's a comedy, in parts, but takes its time getting there, building up the mood carefully and deliberately, and making the eventual laughs all the more effective. It could almost work as well without them: its framing device of the letters that Schmidt writes to his sponsored 6-year-old in Tanzania is as poignant as it is funny.

A great film. And a refreshing change to see one that focusses on 60-somethings, not the usual 20-somethings or 30-somethings.


The Neverending Story

[16 Jan 03] With the weather being typically miserable this month, we've been spending a lot of evenings watching a hoard of Christmas-present DVDs on Jane's iBook—one of them the extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Where Peter Jackson's epics skillfully reduce thousands of pages to three 3-hour instalments, these DVDs willfully expand one scene to thousands of frames of behind-the-scenes material, that being the one where the elf-lord Elrond addresses the nine with the immortal line, "You shall become... the Fellowship of the Ring!" Immortal because, like Elrond, it shall never die, so long as there is a behind-the-scenes doco maker to replay it one more time.

From Book to Script: It was hard to condense the long council meeting at Rivendell into one scene. "You shall become... the Fellowship of the Ring!"

The Weta Workshop: The prosthetics for Gimli sometimes gave John Rhys Davies a nasty rash, as you can see here. "You shall become... the Fellowship of the Ring!"

Computer Graphics: See how we shrank down the hobbits in this key scene. "You shall become... the Fellowship of the Ring!"

From Vision to Reality: Hugo Weaving had a natural sense of authority in his acting. "You shall become... the Fellowship of the Ring!"

Howard Shore's Score: We needed a stirring theme behind the dialogue at this point. "You shall become..." Yes, YES, shut up, shut UP, SHUT UP YOU NOISY FILM MENS, WE HATES YOU.

Imagine being poor Arwen, daughter of Elrond. She's suffered thousands of years of this.

"Daddy, Glorfindel won't let me have a go on the swiiiingggg." "You shall become... the Fellowship of the Swing!"

"Dad, Mum said to tell everyone it's time for dinner." "We shall become... the Fellowship of Eating!"

"Father, I'm going to drop out of uni and head east with Aragorn to become a Buddhist." "You shall become... the Fellowship of I-Ching!"

"Dude, this is getting seriously tedious." "I shall become... the Fellowship of Boring!"


Meu Deus

[16 Jan 03] A knife strops back and forth across the screen, sharpening on a stone, sharpening our senses for what's about to come. A gangly chicken jerks its head from side to side, nervously watching the pot, before making a break for freedom. A gang of kids run after it, guns in hand, through the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

The first scene of City of God (Cidade de Deus) is one of those openings that promises an exhilarating movie, and for once the rest doesn't disappoint. What follows is the all-too-believable and at times almost unbearable story of small-time hoods in the slums rising to the rank of drug lords, and their terrible impact on the men, women and children around them. Gang boss Li'l Ze is one of the most menacing bastards depicted on screen in years, and the moments when the narrator, the likeable Rocket, is in his presence are filled with fight-or-flight tension. Worse, it's all based on a true story.

Packed with local atmosphere and the latin sounds of samba and funk, City of God is the most gripping depiction of urban violence since Once Were Warriors, and the first great film of the year. I haven't seen Gangs of New York yet, but doubt that even Scorcese could top the gangs of Rio.


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