Friday, January 25, 2013


Disclosure: I create comics and have had a shimmery involvement with the indy Melbourne comics scene since the late 1990s. I know some of the team behind this film and am acquainted with almost everybody on screen (ok not the crowd scenes but then again ....).

Bernard Caleo is our tour guide. Not only a fan of the form and its local living patron saint, he also produces his own comics AND is currently working on a long form comics narrative of his own. As clarity begins in Rome he has avoided conflict here and elected to focus on four figures from the Melbourne scene to talk about their life, art and books. Along the way we pick up much about the local scene but also about what it is to work in this form.

Right, so a bunch of talking heads in a figurative circle jerk, then. Well, no. Directors Caleo and Daniel Hayward have clearly thought about this. There is a lot of talk. There has to be. This is neither sport nor concepts so weighty that they must be all talk (eg politics or environment) but here there must be more and is.

Straight up we get photography morphing into comic drawing as the principal subjects and interviewees are introduced. This happens throughout has more functionality than its gimmickry would suggest. The moments of comparison of real scene to drawn panel from Bruce Mutard's The Sacrifice tell of real industry in the artist's approach. Not only do the drawings look like their inspiration they are clearly interpreted rather than traced. The difference is the artist.

The artists are interviewed in their workspaces also relieves the talk as our eyes roam the walls of the studios blutac-ed to the last millimetre with pictures. There is no difficulty taking in the flow of the relaxed conversation while also absorbing the sketches, first tries, notes and one-offs. I just characterised the talk as feeling on the easy side but in fact the tenor of the questions allows for a lot of autobiography and the sight of clear lines of convergence. Showing the artists drawing lines is a must and also included here.

Bruce Mutard's scripting and scene sourcing are fascinating. Nicki Greenberg's tale of the conception and execution of her Great Gatsby adaptation is compelling and instructive (she toiled away knowing that her complicated and taxing efforts might well be supressed and rendered null by the Fitzgerald estate). Mandy Ord's development around rather than through the traditional comics upbringing (ie Footrot Flats rather than superheroes) provides a refreshing prespective. Pat Grant's first hand account of the Cronulla riots and subsequent observations about his own culture render his book Blue inevitable rather than creative.

We meet these people. There were a lot of fellow practitioners in the audience of this screening and their thoughts were all but audible: why wasn't I asked? I've been working on what is perhaps the finest rival-anihilating work of sequential graphic narrative on the face of the earth and it all its history and prehistorical period. Yes it is I who will genuinely lead this despis-ed form from the captivity of general spite through the wastes of indifference to the land of milk, honey and collegiate worship that shall after all be my promised and deserv-ed land. Ok, that was just me thinking that but the question was asked and answered well by Bernard in the Q&A. Limiting the coverage to four artists allowed more depth and focus. I'll take that one step further and add that these four are of such easily distinguishable individuality that it is impossible to confuse them. The sense that if there is a comics community in Melbourne it doesn't suffer from the conformity of the clique.

But the clarity and flow don't last all the way through. The film shifts gear to cover the Caravan of Comics tour by a number of Melbourne-based comics artists to The U.S. and Canada. As the crew (which includes two of the four we've been following) move through various conventions and public events talking and selling Melbourne comics we are dropped into home video shaky cam and Blair Witch editing and what now feels like too many interviews which involve too much similarity to each other. This does pick up and we get back to a smoother surface but it feels busy rather than expanding and when it appeared my first thought was: what's that doing here? Relevant as it is it jarred.

While I was easily engaged by the profiles of the four principals I was less taken at some points. I know Bruce Mutard and admire his work and I know that his moving house after decades in the same situation was a major life point, the footage of it, as a viewer of a documentary, made me wonder what the time was.

While Bernard, who at comics events can incite large groups of friends and strangers alike to shout themselves hoarse cheering like Her Majesty's 39th Bristol Fusiliers, starts too stagey he does take his presentation down to acceptable cinematic levels. His effortless enthusiasm is infectious and provides a current of constant energy whenever he is on screen or driving what's happening there. Less so is the occasional hasty edit between soundbites, particularly early on which can feel breathless rather than energetic.

That aside, I can happily inform you that this film made me want to draw and write comics. It made me edgy to do so and indeed when I got home I fired up the ol' Cintiq and sketched out two pages of part 3 of Fibula that were giving me trouble. Last time anything like that happened was after I saw Crumb for the first time.

So, yes, worth the ticket and the choctop. I was expecting gluey video of a lot of backslapping. What I got was cinema.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dislikes for Remakes

The Rum Diary: This attempt to squeeze the yet unformed Hunter S. Thompson's youthful reflections into the crowded room of his more famous ones seemed like an attempt by Bruce Robinson to reclaim the triumph of his glory in chief, Withnail and I. The reason that worked and this doesn't is that the earlier film had the sting of autobiography whereas this is a mishandling of someone else's. Anytime something serious or intriguing happens something goofy falls arse backwards on to the stage with a big sheepish grin. The balance is wrong and no one wins.

Instead of a Martial riffing on the fall of Rome how about a bloody minded Seneca coolly observing a dodgy patrician at the rise of the Cold War empire? All the makings are there and Aaron Eckhart makes a great greedy lizard-of-influence. Play it well and there's plenty of room for Thompson's daggers and foolery. Terry Gilliam has already shown how even as evenhanded a depiction as Fear and Loathing (seriously, look again if you don't believe me) can allow Thompson's anger through and still serve cinema. Plus, he still has to struggle to make his movies, and can still make great ones. I'd see it.

The Road: Mostly good and faithful to the novel but it so cornily overplays the religious imagery that it shames the source's own deflatingly disappointing theism. Then again, it's not much of a stretch to read the novel's relgious passages (and there aren't many obvious ones) ironically to show that even at the end of the world humans can still be so nightmarishly dependent on mythology. The film really only needs an edit, IMHO, as most of it works well. Oh, and ditch the giant Hollywood music score that threatens a Michael Bay moment every ten minutes or so. Remove it or replace it with something sourced from the environment of the film. The big orchestral swell is like a subtitle saying YOUSE ARE SO STUPID YUZ WOULDN'T KNOW THIS IS DRAMATIC OTHERWISE!

What's Eating Gilbert Grape? The title alone might have done it but the director credit of Lasse Hallstrom sealed it. This really could have been interesting with a young Johnny Depp coping with being at the centre of a rambling mess of a family, a messy Graduate style affair and the seductive prospects of a young Juliet Lewis while she still had a career. And then there was the real wow of seeing the then unknown Leonardo DiCaprio who seemed at first look to really be a boy with something like cerebral palsy. But nothing works. For stretches there is a creditable tale of Gilbert learning to take control of his life and follow his own inklings while still coping with his responsibilities. But this is too frequently interrupted by crises so thunderously played and sudden that you can smell the glue of the old scotchtape used for their inclusion into the screenplay. This film made me think that if My Life as a Dog had been in English and set in the U.S. I would have winced at it as much as I did here.

Remake as magical realist as you want but do it with an eye to the narrative timeline that will allow your audiences to care about the crises when they happen. Let the newly conventional Sion Sonno make this in Japan. He will find things in the treacley warmth that will rightly chill your central nervous system ... and turn this bowl of porridge into an adventurous eel miso.

Also, recalling this movie brought to mind other Depp vehicles from the time: Don Juan de Marco, Arizona Dream, Benny and Joon (which almost made it into this list and might well into the next), Sleepy Hollow ..... And that's not counting all the suspected horrors I avoided at the time like Chocolat or The Man Who Cried. He's an impressive screen presence, Johnny Depp but god he's made some rubbish.

The Stunt Man: A tale of cinema and cynicism unfolds as a fugitive runs into the protection of a film production making a war movie. Everyone's favourite Charlie Manson, Steve Railsback, as the runaway is almost immediately pitted agin the might of the director, Peter O'Toole who wields an icreasingly tyrannical power o'er all beneath him. This falls from an enticing premise quite quickly into such ponderous self importance that it becomes impossible to take seriously. Who will win the war of wills? Who will be left to care? You know those people who laugh so much at their own jokes that they put you off joining in? This movie is like that.

But since it does have some good points and is only ruined by the execution it might be yet another candidate for a found footage/faux docco style that can actually justify itself. Get Michael Winterbottom on the phone. He'd work it.

Man on the Moon: Milos Foreman, who took Amadeus from a strong theatre piece and made a huge sprawling epic that yet remembered it was at heart a simple fable here trowels on a string of scenes from the life of a singular comedian like any biopic you could stumble on between the ads for phonesex and the paid religious hours. A little playing around with some of the points of Andy Kaufman ideas including an end that can't quite work out if it's buying into a myth or just displaying it. Jim Carrey provides a turn that feels like an actor's exercise. People from Kaufman's life appear both as themselves and as other characters. All fine and dandy but it feels too smug. It just doesn't go far enough. Want to really serve the idea of an Andy Kaufman? Make a real documentary and invade it with such smooth falsehood that it will be impossible to tell fact from myth. Then invite the audience to debate it online and seed that with trolls. Director? Who cares? Find someone on Youtube. Actually, put it exclusively on Youtube. Done!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Top 10 21/01/2013

Billy Liar: Because all small towns share one thing for any nineteen year old: they are not good enough.

Rear Window: Alright, so I'm getting through my Hitchcock Blu-ray set. But this still compels and shines. The vouyeurism of the protagonist might be obscured by the crime he seeks to expose but it is left disturbingly bare. The initial screen kiss between James Stewart and Grace Kelly was done with deliberate camera shake, giving it an extraordinary alien feel, as though for his audiences that's what kissing Grace Kelly was like.

Eraserhead: Because I never of the completeness of its world. I feel I could walk into it and I'd try if I knew I could get back.

Isle of the Dead: I love films of people waiting. With skill they become deep and troubling observations of human behaviour (see also Key Largo and Beat the Devil). Here the force keeping the people in one place is pestilence but there is another force preying upon them. The neat and Lewtonian touch is that there is no guarantee that the purported monster is real. At-mos-phere!

Dracula: Veteran carny Todd Browning, fresh from edgy/dodgy fare like Freaks or his Lon Chaney movies, gave the Stoker tale a real sense of dread in brilliant use of mise en scene. It's too slow and dragged further by its lack of music score but this early (not first, mind you) venture into vampire mythology still wins. "Leeesssen to dem .... what mewsik they mike."

Fight Club: Because it's as funny and poignant and relevant as it was in 1999 and probably will be in the future. Not long after its first run expired there were late night screenings of this one at a few arthouse and marginal mainstream cinemas giving it the feel of an old fashioned cult movie.

The Turin Horse: Bela Tarr uses such long takes that he leaves himself open to effortless ridicule but just as James Joyce is good at long sentences Tarr is great with ten minute long shots, lighting and choregraphing them to the extent that the impression they leave can be as wildly diverse as to appear like paint drying or busily edited. Here he examines a lonely windswept apocalypse where a father and daughter team live as they must until such time as they don't. Sounds like porridge but is deep, flavoursome and sobering. This is Tarr's farewell. What a beautiful way to go.

Citizen Kane: Because it's good even if some snobs like it and other snobs hate it.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her: Godard's midpoint between a mounting politicisation in his subject matter to increasingly political ways to make cinema. This non-narrative fiction is also an essay on prostitution and consumerism in everyday life is weighty in material but feels light as a feather. This vies with Masculin/Feminin as my favourite Jean Luc piece. This week it's this one.

Onibaba: I could just watch the atmosphere of this one but the sense of it being a cinema verite record of a folk tale is too compelling. Wins me over every time and I've never known anyone to dislike it when I've shown it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Top 10 15/01/2013

Ginger Snaps: Rejigged a largely forgotten horror subgenre with a brave and fascinating angle, managing to be funny, effortlessly clever and, when it needed to be, scary. Remembers, too, that the best horror stories harbour real tragedy.

Peeping Tom: "All this filming can't be healthy." No it isn't. It's unsettling and leads to one of the most poignant finales of any horror movie ever.


Groundhog Day: Skillfully extended Twilight Zone style fable of learning to carpe that diem runs dizzingly on the power of its leads and a chemistry you'd never expect. If they make 'em like this any more I haven't seen 'em.

Eraserhead: Because it is what it is and evermore shall be so.
Berberian Sound Studio: Along with Peeping Tom, one of the most sobering expeditions into the treasures and horrors of the lightless caves of the violent imagination.

Apocalypse Now: A war story. A horror story. Neither generic. This means good.

The Birds: Ridiculed this as a kid when I saw it on tv. Didn't when I saw it on blu-ray.

Being John Malkovich: The cleverness that had me laughing even on hearing the synopsis of this one cannot hide the poignant and eerie love story beneath. 


Laura: Mid-Noir with cast at top of their game in this whodunnit of manners as society upstart of the title (a luminous Gene Tierney) appears in the testimonies of the suspects in her murder. High Manhattan was never so low.

Juliet of the Spirits: When Acid Met La Dolce Vita. This failed half of the audience I screened it to a few years back but also delighted half. There was a large late walk-in followed by a walk-out the same size. I think Fellini had directed the audience as well as the movie.


Ok, so Scarlett Johansen doesn't look like Janet Leigh, Helen Mirren doesn't look like Alma Hitchcock and Anthony Hopkins, despite make-up costing the budget of seveal independent features, doesn't look like Hitch. All the reviews I've heard about this movie start out this way and it seems to colour the tone of them.

We accept far more of a gap in resemblance when we see it on stage because we expect film to give us a more note perfect illusion. But how can that form part of any valid criticism of a film that plays the cinema as artifice card so crucially? To be fair, it's probably because there is an inconsistency across the cast of the level of the attempt. Tony's in the fat suit and prosthetic double chin whereas Scarlett and Hel end at the wigs.

The Tony Perkins, however, is really convincing but his nervy performance reminds me of what Chopper Read said about the Heath Franklin's impersonation of him that it was based not on himself but on Eric Bana's performance in Chopper. James D'Arcy's creation is offered in imitation of Norman Bates rather than Anthony Perkins. Bad thing or good thing? Moot: his role is a lot smaller than it is in Psycho and is almost there for some perfunctory padding. Worth a thought by comparison with the others, though.

Still, this isn't a documentary, it's a fiction film and we should be concentrating on how well the themes of adultery (real or imaginary), sharing credit and how mainstream art can be pushed. How does it do on those scores? Pretty well ... if in a digestibly mainstream way.

If I were true to my claim of finding the above criticism objectionably irrelevant I would have begun this way: I love movies about movies, deep or shallow, glorious or grimy, and this is a good one.

It's 1960 and Alfred Hitchcock is a world-renowned film director known as the master of suspense. He's getting a lot of insinuation about ageing and losing his touch so he choses a risky horror story as his next project against the advice of everyone he knows or works with. Striking a risky deal with a studio the film, Psycho, gets under way and the real drama begins on set and off as Hitch pushes his players with a sadistic intensity and grows smoulderingly angry about his suspicions of his wife's infidelity. Blend with this the theme of ingratitude held by his wife Alma whose work for his has been essential and decades long and her sense of betrayal at her husband's uneasy relationships with his famous blonde leading ladies.

Resentment, betrayal, adultery, public expectations, self-doubt, exploitation, abuse of position, career frustrations etc are on the boil ... So there is a point to all the dress-ups. But for me it's still the bits that keep me nourished rather than the whole table: Hitch playing conductor and grotesque ballet dancer in the cinema foyeur as Psycho's first audiences find out what they paid for; the invisible weapons that take the air between director and star. There's a lot a fine turns on screen here.

Another thing that has bothered some reviewers but I emjoyed was the presence of Ed Gein. Gein's crimes of grave robbing, serial murder and human taxidermy inspired Robert Bloch to write the novel Psycho and Gein provides a continual touch point for Hitchcock who appears in scenes with him as a troublingly unaffected observer. What might well have been an easy-come-by trick served for me as a solid expression of the extent to which an artist might long to go but is saved from doing so by his art. It's not Bergman but it doesn't pretend to be. This is Hitchcock who saw himself primarily as a commercial filmmaker, regardless of how much art Truffaut got him admitting to.

So, I liked the obvious shortfalls in resemblance, the tropes and forced dramatics of Hitchcock because they blend so pleasantly into a great big choctop of a movie. I think it's likely that something will soon pass before my eyes which will erase this film from my memory but before that happens I'd like to compare it favourably against a film which attempts something similar but fails at every step (here, for some I know I am committing sacrilege): The Stuntman. That film pontificates with great leaden bowling balls of cynicism about the moral imperatives of the filmmaker, lurching with thundr'ous steps t'ward a goofy little line at the end. Hitchcock does some fine work but still is happy enough selling popcorn. Try some.