Just my two cents worth.
So, last week I did a stupid thing. I started a twelve part series. So far so good, but now I have to do the other eleven parts. Why do I keep doing this to myself?
It’s alright. I do it because I like it…and because I have a lot of time to kill. And because I’m hoping that someone out there will find a kinship with my taste in movies. Everyone who’s a real cinephile will know that their favourite moments in life consist of someone saying “I’ve never seen that”, to which your response is always “What?! Sit down, we are watching it now!”. It’s self contradictory behaviour, of course. Being forced to watch something will automatically make you like it less. Humans hate having their free will robbed from them. That’s why I’m trying my best to cultivate a passion in you, rather than just order you around. I’m hoping to seduce, not command. Is it working yet?
Hopefully you spent this last week trying to source and watch as many Alexander Payne films as you could. I’m telling you, if you haven’t then you’re missing out…
…I mean, whatever, it’s your decision, take it or leave it…but you should really take it! Damn it, this is too hard! Alright, forget it, I’m a Nazi giving you orders. But I’m an entertainment Nazi!
So I have your best interests at heart, you know? “Schnell!” We march on with…
I started with Alexander Payne because I felt like he was the most accessible auteur. Ergo, his style would appeal to a majority of the public. David O. Russell is also fairly accessible, but part of his catalogue will only satisfy a few. He is also a controversial figure, someone whose behaviour I struggle with at times. He is notorious for treating his cast and crew terribly, shouting at them and tearing up the set when he gets angry. He even got into a fistfight with George Clooney that resulted in a headlock. Temper tantrums are just the beginning. One of his film projects, Nailed, became indefinitely suspended and eventually shut down altogether because he couldn’t be bothered to pay his crew.
On the other hand…his films are really good!
Russell’s stories are like dense dramatic literature rewritten by a comedian. He can’t help but be funny, even though he’s clearly interested in larger ideas about identity and personal crisis.
His first film was a small creepy comedy called Spanking the Monkey.
I say “creepy” because it’s about a young man who’s inability to successfully masturbate leads him to begin a sexual relationship with his mother. Sorry to spoil it for you, but…did you really want to stumble upon that on your own? Yeah, it’s really that weird.
The film was a success, both artistically and financially, so it must be doing something right. I suppose shock value is a necessary ingredient in any directorial debut, otherwise no one will bother talking about it. I don’t fault Russell for exploiting this, it obviously worked for him and he’s never gone back to the well of comedic perversion since, but I just don’t enjoy Spanking the Monkey. I mean, you know…the film.
David O. Russell’s funniest film, easily, is Flirting With Disaster. It’s a stellar screwball comedy, as fast as it is funny, concerning a neurotic middle aged man who drags his family and acquaintances on a journey to find his birth parents. The cast is great, with Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Josh Brolin, Alan Alda, and more. It’s the O. Russell masterpiece that I recommend above all others, and yet most people don’t even know about it.
After some initial success, Russell was given the opportunity to write and direct a big budget studio picture. He conceived of something that few others could have, a black comedy heist film set during the Gulf War.
…Actually, he stole the idea from another writer.
I told you, he’s controversial! The original script was called Spoils of War. Russell read it, rewrote it, and renamed it Three Kings. After a contentious back and forth, the original writer, John Ridley, ended up with a ‘story’ credit. Hey, it’s better than nothing.
Three Kings was the first David O. Russell film that I ever saw. I remember liking it, even at a time when I mostly watched lowbrow action films. It has a an unusual visual style, which was achieved by shooting the film on something called Ektachrome film stock. This particular photochemical choice mimics the look of actual Gulf War photography, with a high contrast and a striking clash of cloudless sky blue with scorching pale yellow.
There’s no other movie that looks quite like Three Kings, which makes it rather special. Not all of you will like it. The humour is sometimes clunky and at other times too subtle. The moral pivot of the main characters also feels a little unearned. I’ve re-watched the film in recent years, and it didn’t hold up as well as I thought it would. Perhaps I mostly have a nostalgic connection to it. Oh well, it’s worth watching at least once.
Then…there’s I Heart Huckabees…
This is not only the worst David O. Russell film, by quite some distance, it’s one of the worst films ever made! What’s it about? Great question! Ask David, because I’ve seen it and discussed it in my film theory class and I still can’t figure it out.
As far as I can tell, I Heart Huckabees is about existentialism. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin play existential detectives(don’t bother asking), who are hired to help Jason Schwartzman solve large questions about the meaning of existence. There are philosophical debates, awfully executed green screen fantasy sequences, and even a mud orgy scene. I think David thinks it’s a profound plot, but I was counting down the minutes till it was over. None of it makes any sense, and on top of it all it’s not even funny or entertaining.
The worst part about I Heart Huckabees, though, has to be what transpired on set. Footage was leaked onto the internet of David O. Russell going absolutely mental during a spat with Lily Tomlin.
It’s a deplorable example of inexcusable behaviour…which you can watch here. Who am I kidding? It’s hilarious – but also enraging. A man getting payed a lot of money to do whatever he wants should not be acting violently towards the people who are all there to help him realise his vision! Plus, it’s not even worth it. The film is dog shit.
There was some discussion after the controversy of Huckabees about whether David O. Russell would ever work again. Sure enough, he struggled to get films made for the next six years, but as the saying goes, “when it rains, it pours”.
Russell has had a positive resurgence in the last several years due to the award winning success of The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy.
While The Fighter and Joy (especially) are flawed pieces of work, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle are tremendous achievements. The former is a romantic comedy that tackles bipolar disorder (a disease that Russell’s own son suffers from) while the latter posits the wacky semi-historical foiling of an art heist in the 70’s.
They all vary in many ways, but there’s a recognisable Scorsese influence that binds them. The characters are often unhinged, sometimes suffering from mental disease, addiction, or just general eccentricity.
Their intense nature is exaggerated through the cinematography, too. Quick whip pans, zooms, and choppy editing, combined with close tracking shots and narration helps to shape a story told through a kinetic point of view.
Russell’s movies are almost never boring (I Heart Huckabees being an exception). He slavishly keeps his pacing up tempo. That’s particularly evident in American Hustle, where some scenes contain blatant jump cuts (cuts that don’t vary the camera angle more than fifteen degrees). It’s the mark of a director who will sacrifice content for timing during the finishing stages of production, and that’s enormously important. He will kill his darlings in order to keep you entertained.
The problem with jump cut editing is that it implies that the director is not planning ahead during production. Someone like Steven Spielberg, for example, always “cuts in camera”, meaning that he plans every shot and every scene down to the second. The editing process, therefore, should rarely consist of more than slotting the clips into place. David O. Russell clearly doesn’t do this, preferring to let the films best moments arise organically. An enormous gamble, sure, but on the up side you get things like this…
…which are all improvised moments pushed to their hilarious extremes. Louis C. K. has even spoken about how his character’s main contribution to the plot, a childhood story about ice fishing, was never even part of the script. The development of these films is fluid and whimsical, but on the whole what you get seems to work.
David O. Russell’s career is as unpredictable as his temper. He’s currently slated to oversee an untitled mysterious TV series. Beyond that it’s anybody’s guess. Can he be a bastard? Yes. Would I want to have lunch with him? Probably not. Can the man make great films? Abso-fuckin’-lutely.
I completely understand if the above information makes you want to skip over this guy, but the dilemma of Russell is that you simply can’t afford to. He has an innate genius, which at times tips over the fine line into madness. You do have to suffer a lot of missteps and shenanigans in order to remain a fan, I admit. It’s a bit like being a sports fan, where every week there’s a new story about your favourite footballer’s shocking weekend behaviour.
Thankfully, though, he hasn’t had a blow up in a while (as far as we know), and I’m therefore recommending this artist to you. I vouch for his works, deviations fully declared. Here’s my guide to help you test him out:
Give it a go. See if he’s for you. If not, there’ll be a new artist next week.
The Academy Award Nominations are fast approaching. It’s the time of year where all the ‘serious’ films come out, and even infrequent moviegoers start to speak like film historians. I’ll start hearing words like “genius” and “masterpiece” from someone who once recommended that I go see Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because it’s “actually really interesting” (yes, I know someone who’s like that. I do my best to smile and nod.)
I will admit, however, that one of the good things about the Academy Awards is its instructional element. It can serve as a guide to those who otherwise find themselves too busy or disinterested to separate the wheat from the chaff. Even after the awards are over, films have their Oscar nomination stamped all over their marketing, increasing their chances of recognition amongst the public. Although I disagree with the Academy from time to time, I’m glad that someone out there is exercising their ability to do this.
But what about the other eleven months of the year? I know I’m sounding sanctimonious (as usual), but I think far too many people choose which films to watch for the wrong reasons. Typically, people will see a film because of who’s in it. That’s not a revelation, I know, and movie studios have been aware of it forever. Budgets almost always fluctuate in accordance with casting, not writing or directing. A movie star will have a certain radiant charisma and/or reputation that helps draw an audience in and can even charm them into liking a bad film more than they otherwise would have. We’re all susceptible to it, myself included, but I still contend that it’s a mistake on the viewer’s part.
If you find yourself thinking “Oh, I might see that film because George Clooney’s in it, and I like him”, then you might just end up wasting money and time on Batman and Robin or Tomorrowland. The trick, rather, is to think about films like books. You don’t choose which books to read based on an incidental plot feature or, as the usual saying goes, by judging it on its cover. You usually fill out your bookshelf based on authors, right? Well, there’s a film version of that as well. It’s called…
Auteur theory is a concept that originated in French cinema. It’s a vast and largely debated topic, but essentially boils down to the notion that a single filmmaker can be (and should be) responsible for directing all aspects of a film in order to succeed with one coherent vision. Hence the word “auteur”, the french for “author”. It rejects the profit-driven notion of films being made by a committee, as is the standard on large scale studio pictures.
I don’t want to get into the weeds of this thing, but I largely agree with auteur theory. Most filmmakers are at their best when liberated from studio interference. Then there are some that only seem to make good movies when pressure is applied to them in terms of budget restrictions and/or financial pressure. It depends on the artist, but I’m usually uncomfortable with corporations and powerful colleagues telling a painter that they can’t use certain brushes. The result is often unsatisfying.
And so, I’ve decided to provide you with a guide, of sorts, to some of my own personal favourite auteurs.
There are several auteur filmmakers that you will already be familiar with. Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese all qualify as auteurs because they shepherd their films from script to screen and oversee every shred of the production. I love and admire them just like everyone else, but they’re still compromising within a studio system. A pure auteur, conceived in the saintly womb of obsessive control, is one that writes their own dialogue, casts their own actors, and frames every shot. They keep their budgets relatively low in order to minimise hassle with the investors.
You may be familiar with some of these, but my hope is to introduce you to the ones you’ve never heard of. There is no real order, best to worst or vice versa, so the choice is yours to find your favourite.
Often, auteurs will have a dominant theme or genre that they operate within, and I’m attempting to pinpoint each one respectively in order to help you find the best filmmaker for you. Not only am I listing their movies, but I’ve split them into three levels of accessibility. This will give you a ladder to climb if you find that the first ‘rung’ agrees with you. Please be aware that I’m not ranking the films, I’m just designating some films as more or less harsh for a layman’s palette. Also, I’ve tried to pick auteurs who have made at least three films, but less than fifteen; worthy, but not daunting.
And so we begin with…
I’m going to start with what I consider to be the most accessible auteur on this list, Alexander Payne. Payne is an interesting case, because his films are well known to many, but he is not. For the layman film-goer he remains an invisible hand, frequently shunning personal publicity.
His most famous film is probably Election, which was described as a ‘high school teen comedy’ in the 90’s. It’s really not, though. If anything, it’s an examination of personality types and the absurdity of who wins and loses within politics and society. It is, however, a comedy. All of Payne’s films are comedies, but with varying degrees of deadpan social dissection baked in. Election, interestingly, also has an uncanny resemblance to Americas most recent Presidential Election. The three nominees, Tracy, Paul, and Tammy, are eerily similar to Clinton, Sanders, and Trump, forcing us to face the reality of politics’ predictable unending cyclical nature. Have fun trying to decipher which is which.
Payne loves to skewer his main characters, who are mostly anxiety-ridden middle aged white males. I suppose it’s a blatant case of “write what you know”. As with all great artists, his canvas is as much of a therapy tool as it is a workplace. His stories are always set in his home state of Omaha, Nebraska. They involve characters who are comfortable, if a little unfulfilled, in their quiet boring lives, but eventually find themselves on a perspective-altering journey that is both literal and figurative. By the end they find out that the world they were so comfortable inhabiting was, in fact, incomplete. The fruits of life were always within their grasp, they just never had the courage to reach out and cease them. Examples of this include About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska.
Sideways is especially brilliant, and no one fulfils the Alexander Payne character type better than Paul Giamatti. The man can make make me laugh with mere eye motion.
He plays Miles, a depressed struggling writer with a cultured passion for wine, who takes his impulse-driven successful actor friend, Jack, on a week long bachelor romp through the Californian countryside. Of course ‘hilarity ensues’, but so does a lot of introspection and personal growth. By the end, a few subtle moments of facial expression and body language sums up Miles’ pivot towards a more proactive lifestyle. If you haven’t seen Sideways, wedge it into your schedule immediately.
About Schmidt, The Descendants, and Nebraska could easily be boxed together as a trilogy. They’re Payne’s slowest films, giving you time to sip on and savour every shot. All three feature significantly older main characters struggling to deal with the latter stages of their existence. Sudden loss of a loved one or a slow onset of dementia causes old secrets to reveal themselves, in the form of romantic affairs or a forgotten personal history. They’re not films for those who want a fast laugh, they’ll make you think deeply with the odd chuckle interspersed. The comedy springs naturally from behaviour and character, as it should, and not from strategically wacky dialogue. Of course Payne, being an auteur, frequently demonstrates his ability to frame a shot for maximum visual comedy.
You don’t have to be “old” or “artsy” to enjoy these films, you just have to be patient and open minded.
Occasionally, Payne will dive head first into politics. He won’t ever take a stance, but instead tries to dissect a debate and slam its uttermost extremes together, juxtaposing them to extract humour. Citizen Ruth is a bravely light hearted spin on the abortion debate. If you’re passionately invested in the topic from either side, then you may find it offensively diplomatic. Others may see its ‘cast of caricatures’ as a little too on the nose. I liked it, but it’s definitely not my favourite of Payne’s work. Worth watching, though, and it sports a perfect ending.
So now you know a bit about Alexander Payne. He’s a great introduction to auteur filmmaking, and I hope that you remember his name for future releases. He tends to pump out films at a rate of one every three to four years, with the occasional long hiatus. His next project is a film called ‘Downsizing’, set to be released in 2017. It appears to be a more straight forward science fiction slapstick comedy about people literally shrinking themselves. The cast is both impressive and eclectic, with Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, and Matt Damon, so I’m not sure what to expect.
I’m recommending that you start your “journey of Payne” (there’s got to be a better name for that) with Election and Sideways. If you don’t like both of these films, then Alexander Payne is clearly not for you.
If, however, you’re glad that you saw them, you should definitely move on to The Descendants, About Schmidt, and Nebraska. Beyond this point you can have a crack at Citizen Ruth. If you like them all, or even most of them, then it would appear that Alexander Payne is one of your new favourite filmmakers. Be a proud fan. Welcome to the club.
…and just like that, it’s Halloween again!
I’ve spent this last week diving into my own personal collection of horror films. I re-watched some classics like Poltergeist, The Thing, Halloween, and Alien. It was fun to see the good ol’ boys again. The thing that differentiates a merely good horror film from a ‘classic’ is its re-watch-ability. I’ve seen Alien thirty times at least, and it never stops being scary.
Actually, that’s not true.
Horror films aren’t endlessly re-watchable, if I’m being honest. You can usually get five or six toe-curling viewings out of a good horror, and after that you basically know every scary moment by heart. The tension is lost as well, because you know where the story is going. The only thing that really remains is your love for the characters and the atmosphere.
I meet people all the time who refuse to watch horror films, and all I want to do is this:
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a great horror film. Watching one that makes you shake involuntarily by chilling your very bone marrow is an invigorating experience. It’s a rare one, too, unless you scare easily or you’re a horror virgin. There’s so much garbage out there calling itself ‘horror’ that you have to do your homework before making a selection. Speaking of which, I’ve found it hard to pick out three new horror films this year. There just haven’t been any good horror releases in 2016. Last year was jam packed by comparison. There was Crimson Peak, We Are Still Here, The Witch, and my personal favourite…It Follows.
If you’re a layman who’s eager to pick out a good horror this year, then It Follows and Crimson Peak are excellent choices. Beyond that, there are some fantastic modern horrors for you to check out; The House of the Devil, Cabin in the Woods, Insidious, The Evil Dead Remake, Drag Me To Hell, and Trick R’ Treat are just some of the great chillers and splatter-slashers made in the last ten years. Also, if you’ve never seen one of the Scream movies, make sure you get on that shit right away! There are four of them and they’re equal parts scary, funny, and genre-educational.
Unfortunately for me, I’ve seen way too many of these horror movies. I’m always struggling to find adequate fresh blood for this time of year, so this time I’ve decided to search outside of ghouls and goblins.
The first film I chose was The Invitation. I’ve wanted to see this one since I first heard about the great response it was getting from critics. It’s not a ‘Halloween’ film, or even a ‘horror’ films per se. It’s more of a tense paranoia thriller, but it’s a damn good one!
It starts off with a couple arriving at a reunion for friends who haven’t seen each other in years. The night begins pleasantly, but as the hours tick by things begin to seem oddly out of place. The hosts of the party appear to be hiding something, or perhaps our main character is simply overly suspicious. Only in the last few moments of the film do we get the real answer.
You should watch this one, I recommend it! I just can’t tell you any more about it without spoiling the whole thing.
Session 9 is a weird one. It’s a tiny movie from 2001, made for a small budget and shot on digital video tape instead of film. It only made about $300,000 upon its initial release, and has since become a tiny cult favourite.
The film concerns a group of asbestos removalists who take on the job of cleaning an old abandoned mental hospital with a creepy history. As you might imagine, the dark hallways are hiding something far more dangerous than a carcinogen.
I do wish this film looked more professional. I’m not a fan of video tape, and I wish people like Michael Mann would stop using it. In this case, however, it did add a certain ultra-realism to the film. I felt like I could reach out and actually touch the walls, which I suppose works for a horror film.
Most importantly, though, the film had some really creepy moments where I began to feel damp behind the ears. One scene, in particular, stayed with me for all the right claustrophobic reasons.
The underlying story is almost entirely confusing until the very end, when the whole thing suddenly falls into place. Make sure you stay with it until then, because it will make sense eventually.
The final film I’ve chosen is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. I’ve not seen it yet, and will be watching it tomorrow night. I don’t know much about it, other than that it comes highly recommended. Many film historians put it high up on their list of horrors, next to The Shining and The Exorcist. How can I argue with that?
Anyways, that’s what I’m up to this time around. I hope you all have a great night. I do hope you’ll try and find a really scary film to watch, or even two or three. Happy Halloween!
It’s time to finish what we started. Pucker up!
I recently began subscribing to the Australian version of Netflix, and was immediately confronted with a stark reminder of why I have always been a proud pirate and will have to continue sailing the rough torrents of the internet for some time yet.
There’s nothing on this damn thing!
I scroll up and down, though every category: horror, drama, thriller, rom-com. There’s barely anything but box office tween-movie bullshit! Where are the obscure titles, the arthouse projects, the independent low-budget experiments? This is barren! Instead they’ve filled it up with big-budget mass-produced typical tripe.
As I pushed my supercilious shopping trolley though this digital corporate suburbia, trying to stomach the most over-marketed flavours of film you can imagine, it got me thinking about a particular symptom of poor cinema that Australia struggles with.
The only genre that Australia seems to be comfortable appropriating is the Western, for obvious reasons. We have miles and miles of red desert sandwiched against blue sky and nothing much in between. Except that…that isn’t true. Living in Australia means living in or around a city. It means waking up in the morning to the sound of train horns and traffic jams. We don’t mount a camel at 7 AM and head out towards the horizon. We down a bitter coffee and squeeze ourselves into smelly boxcars, wearing pristine suits and skirts and holding onto greasy metal rails.
Have you ever taken a moment to look at an Australian city? The closer you get to the city centre, the more brick and rust is replaced by steel and plastic. Yet the original grunge and architecture never fully dissolves. It’s always there, wedged in amongst the contemporary showcases. Take a stroll away from the main roads, and you have a maze of thin streets that look like the inside of a submarine. There are small delis and doughnut shops stacked against bins, pipes, and cross-beams. All you need is steam coming out of the manhole covers and you’ve got yourself a solid…
Film Noir, from the french for ‘Black Film’, encompasses a large array of crime dramas from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. This genre still resonates through modern cinema, but spikes every so often, resulting in what’s typically known as Neo-Noir.
There are many classic noir stories, usually centred around heists, investigations, or just plain gangster intrigue. My personal favourites have to do with suspense and escalating tension, rather than grimy detective work. Typically a main character will make a selfish decision based on something superficial, like sex or money. Thus begins an increasingly complex series of events which traps him or her in a prison of their own consequences. Confused? Want examples? Well, here’s your homework, should you choose to accept it:
The first place to start on any Film-Noir caper is Double Indemnity. This is the classic murder-gone-wrong movie, and one of Billy Wilder’s most famous works. The setup is a stroke of genius.
Fred MacMurray plays Walter, an insurance salesman who falls in love with his client’s wife, Mrs. Dietrichson…the classic femme fatale. The two devise a plan to murder her husband and cash in on his life insurance policy. It all seems straight forward, until Walter’s boss suspects foul play and sends Walter off to investigate his own murder.
The film is an utter joy to sit through, as the couple have to eventually worm their way out of meeting with witnesses, find ways to re-purpose the evidence, and scramble to distract from suspicious clues. All the while, they grow resentful of each other and begin to argue over their agonising situation. As you might imagine, there is no happy ending in sight.
It’s always baffled me that in this age of adaptations, remakes, and reboots, there have been so few attempts at directly modernising this story. Maybe one day it’ll pop up at the box office, but until then you should check out the original.
Of course, you can’t take a stroll though the golden age of cinema without bumping into the master himself, Hitchcock. Strangers on a Train is one of Hitchcock’s lesser admired films, but I actually prefer it to Vertigo or Psycho. It’s a far more engaging premise that befits my own sensibilities like a killer’s glove:
The film opens, obviously, with two total strangers meeting on a train. After engaging in innocuous conversation, they find that both are struggling with comparable predicaments that would swiftly be resolved if a particular person in their life was to die. They begin to discuss the idea of ‘swapping murders’. This way there will be no connecting motive and both can retain an alibi on the night of the crime. There isn’t even any evidence of collusion between the two, since they are merely strangers on a train. Of course, the plan isn’t really fool proof, as it relies entirely upon the mere promise of both individuals fulfilling their respective halves of the deal.
From the minute this film opened with a visual motif of crisscrossing train tracks I was in! The expository dialogue that’s standard in a 1950’s film may grind at your modern cinematic expectations, but the story is just too good to be left unresolved. You’ll want to hang in there and see this plan deservedly unravel.
Now we make a jump into the 80s and 90s, where Noir made a hell of a comeback. One of the greatest examples of Neo Noir is the Coen Brother’s film debut Blood Simple. It’s minimalist in concept, and pays direct homage to the classics.
Julian, the owner of a Texas bar, suspects that his wife is having an affair. When confronted with photographic evidence, he pays a private detective to murder her and her lover. Of course, in a sweltering summer of moral flexibility and loyalty to money alone, nothing is ever that simple.
This is certainly not one of the funnier Coen Brothers films, and is more tonally akin to No Country for Old Men than it is to Fargo. Still, the Coens can’t help but introduce a healthy dose of visual humour and winking irony. I hope you’re someone who enjoy twists and turns, cause they’re a-comin’.
If I live to be 100 and spent all that time preaching to you on topic, I could never truly convey just how much I love Bound. It’s practically perfect in every way. You just have to see it and you’ll understand.
The Wachowski Brothers (now known only as ‘The Wachowskis’ after one of them underwent a sex-change operation) spent years struggling to secure a deal for their most precious film aspiration, The Matrix. In a fit of frustration, they took some time off to make a tiny noir thriller named Bound. It proved to the studio that they were dependable filmmakers and earned them the confidence to make what became one of the 90’s most groundbreaking action movies. The irony is that Bound is actually better than The Matrix. It really is!
Now, I’ve recommended this film in full detail here, so if you’re interested in my fleshed out reasons for adoring it, then by all means dive in. To those who can’t be bothered, I shall retread.
Bound regurgitates the classic formula from Double Indemnity, but with one significant change: sexual orientation. Violet, a seductive femme fatale, lives in an apartment building with her money laundering Mafia boyfriend, Caesar. When Corky, a hardboiled lesbian ex-con, is released from prison and begins maintenance work in the apartment next to her, the two can’t resist each others sexual charms and end up planning to elope with all of Caesar’s stolen cash. If their intricate plan of lies and misdirection plays out perfectly, there will be no need for bloodshed…but that’s a big ‘if’.
Bound is stylish as hell and wonderfully indulgent. I’m always surprised whenever one of my LGBT friends says they’ve never even heard of it. It should be mounted on the wall as a high point in progressive genre reinvention.
Whether you’ve heard of Bound or not, I can almost guarantee that you’ve never heard of (and certainly never seen) The Ice Harvest…but you should! It’s directed by the late great Harold Ramis, one fourth of the Ghostbusters crew who also directed Groundhog Day and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
In contrast to the other films on this list, The Ice Harvest successfully wrings comedy from all its crime thriller cliches. We have the femme fatale, the double and triple crossing, the money heist, the clashing double act, the crime lord, the body dumping dilemma, and of course the cynical protagonist with a wisecracking attitude and a history of broken hearts. It’s all so familiar, and yet it’s somehow been magically stirred into a fresh chilled cocktail.
John Cusack is Charlie Arglist, a lawyer for the mob. Together with a local scumbag business man, played by Billy Bob Thornton, they decide to steal two million dollars from one of Charlie’s clients. Everything goes well, until a winter storm turns the roads into ice and prevents them from skipping town. For the next several hours they both have to hide in plain sight and avoid suspicion, not an easy thing to do in a small town during Christmas.
The Ice Harvest was never really given a fair shake by critics. They considered it largely unfunny and averagely entertaining. I could not possibly disagree more! It’s one of Ramis’ best films! Is it better than Groundhog Day? Probably not, but you could make a good case for it. Both feature self deprecating main characters that find themselves unable to escape their surroundings, literally. What I like about this one is that, unlike most noir tales, it manages to find an underlying sweetness in its main character. He may be ethically ambivalent at times, but fundamentally cares about not letting innocent people get hurt.
You’re absolutely right, what does this have to do with my third recommendation of an Australian film? Did I just give up the search and decide to list American Noir films instead? No, not exactly.
See, I always thought to myself that urban Australia was ripe for noir. It’s the next genre we can absorb and re-envision for ourselves. I’m not talking about sleazy gangster crime, we have plenty of those. I’m talking about solid writing, style and story structure.
Fair point, and maybe one day I will, but as I’m about to show you…someone else already has.
The Square is exactly the kind of Australian film I’ve been searching for. It’s a noir thriller that fits in perfectly with the rest of the genre. It concerns two lovers, Ray and Carla, each cheating on their respective partners with one another. Carla ropes Ray into a scheme whereby she will steal her boyfriends drug money and stage a fire to cover it up. Ray has the connections and sets up the job, while orchestrating alibis for the both of them. Unfortunately, Carla’s mother-in-law ends up dying in the fire, making them both accessories to murder, and that’s only the beginning.
The Square is written by Joel Edgerton and Matthew Dabner, and directed by Nash Edgerton. It shows, once and for all, that Australian filmmaking talent can stand toe-to-toe with its American equivalent. As a bonus, the artists involved clearly understand that they’re not just ripping off an American genre (which in turn was adapted from the French), but that genre is a lens through which they can focus in on themes that matter in Australian culture. The Square seems to want to discuss class differences more than anything, and the difficulty of transitioning up and down the economic ladder. The two lover, Ray and Carla, are separated economically and geographically. Ray lives on one side of the river, the posh side of town, and Carla lives on the other side, in the poorer neighbourhood. Their plan depicts an attempted upsetting of the apple cart, a decision that has grave consequences for both of them. With that in mind, consider what the ending of the film is trying to say about Australian socio-economics…and who suffers the ultimate wrath.
That’s it. The trilogy is complete! See, I can compliment Aussie films! I’m not always a Debbie downer. Now, Aussie movie makers, go forth and make good art! Stop thinking about the country you want to sell and focus on the stories you want to tell. Most importantly, draw from you own life experiences. Your life and your interests make up your palette, pick the most interesting colours and paint them on the silver screen. Don’t just copy others and don’t let some studio of government affiliate pressure you into gumming up your ideas with marsupials and orange landscapes. What kind of film would you want to watch? If you can answer that question honestly, then you’re always pointed in the right direction. Whatever art you end up with will be beautiful and interesting in its own way, I promise. Just don’t be boring and predictable, ok?