Reviews Wrap: I Am Eleven, Not Suitable for Children and The King is Dead!

For Australian audiences looking for home grown entertainment on the big screen, there are certainly some great choices right now. The heartwarming documentary I Am Eleven, the romantic comedy Not Suitable for Children and the darkly funny suburban western The King is Dead! are just some of the options.

Here’s our latest Reviews Wrap, where we offer a quick dip into the reviews for recent Australian releases, offering  a broad sense of the critical response they’ve received.

Please note that the reviews referenced here do not reflect the views of the AFI | AACTA. We’re aiming to represent views and opinions from a variety of sources, and you’ll make up your own mind, of course!

I am Eleven

The feature length documentary I am Eleven premiered to sold out sessions at the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival, and is now making its way around the country, enjoying wonderful word-of-mouth publicity through its ‘ambassador’ campaign and other savvy hands-on promotional efforts by director/producer Genevieve Bailey.

The film profiles a collection of delightful 11-year-olds from around the world who share the qualities of their particular age – being  ‘no longer children, not quite adults’. They discuss the ‘private obsessions and public concerns that animate their lives’ – from their love of animals, their concerns for world peace and their hopes and dreams for the future.

I Am Eleven won Best Documentary at last year’s IF Awards and won an Audience award at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Upon its release at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova, I Am Eleven enjoyed the biggest opening weekend for an Australian documentary in three years, and has since been adding cinemas from around the country to its schedule, including in Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Geelong, Castlemaine, Tasmania’s MONA (from 11 August) and many more.

With overwhelming grassroots support and general goodwill from audiences and high profile supporters (including Chrissie Swan, Jane Hall and Claudia Karvan), reviews seem a little redundant to the film’s success, but critics have also been overwhelmingly charmed.

Writing for the The Australian, Evan Williams said, “What gives the film its cohesion and integrity is its triumphant affirmation of a shared humanity. In the deepest sense, these children speak with one voice.”

Philippa Hawker, for the The Age praises I Am Eleven “as a film of great warmth, generosity and optimism… a work that wears its strengths and virtues lightly, without insistence or heavy-handedness.” Hawker also commends the film for its graceful interweaving of its 23 interview subjects and their stories, noting that “Each child comes across as an individual, sometimes strikingly so. Yet there is something they all seem to share: a kind of openness and thoughtfulness, expressed in myriad ways, that transcends other differences.”

Don Groves, reviewing for the SBS Film website, finds the film “illuminating and uplifting” and praises first time feature filmmaker Bailey for her “impressive dexterity as the director, cinematographer, editor, interviewer and narrator.” Groves finds some passages repetitive, but he too enjoys the film’s overall optimism and energy.

Here’s the trailer for I Am Eleven.

Not Suitable For Children

A ‘biological clock comedy’ with a difference, Not Suitable for Children sees its male lead (Ryan Kwanten) racing against the clock to find a woman to bear his child before he becomes infertile due to cancer treatment. Written by Offspring scribe Michael Lucas and directed by Peter Templeman, this energetic modern comic drama has a great deal of heart. Filmed in Sydney’s Newtown, and backed by a zesty soundtrack, the film features wonderful performances from its young cast, including Sarah Snook as Kwanten’s street smart confidante, Bojana Novakovic as his on-off ex-girlfriend, and Ryan Corr as the indefatigable party animal flatmate.

Over on the ABC’s At the Movies, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton both gave Not Suitable For Children a four star review, with David noting that “What lifts this Australian romantic-comedy above the level of most of its Hollywood counterparts is the reality of the characters and the situations and the honesty of the film’s approach.” Both reviewers thoroughly enjoyed the film.

Filmink’s Erin Free also enjoyed “this smart, soulful and surprisingly darkly-hued comedy” and praises both Lucas and Templeman for their sensitive handling of the material. Free writes that Not Suitable for Children is “a wry, engaging, deeply humanist film with pointed, interesting things to say about personal responsibility.”

In contrast, Variety’s Russell Edwards finds the story “flaccid” and Kwanten’s performance lacklustre, though he praises the film’s technical qualities, describing it as “visually inventive without being obtrusive,” praising the ” HD lensing by Lachlan Milne emphasiz[ing] warm colors that catch the vibrancy of Sydney’s trendy Newtown district.” Edwards also enjoy’s Snook’s performance and her “killer smile” along with the film’s “pumped-up pop soundtrack” which he argues “only throws the yarn’s inherent lethargy into high relief.”

QuickFlix critic Simon Miraudo is just one of many reviewers to single out actress Sarah Snook as the breakout star of the film. He finds Not Suitable for Children to be “a genial and occasionally very funny romantic comedy with the added benefit of being a showcase for one of the best break-out Australian performances in some time.” Miraudo argues that though some of the characters’ quick changes of heart may be hard to swallow, these are plausibly justified by the drastic circumstances of cancer. Andrew Urban of Urban Cinefile echoes similar concerns but is eventually won over, writing that the “impressive screenplay and the fine performances combine with Peter Templeman’s confident direction for a satisfying result.”

You can check out the trailer for Not Suitable for Children below:

The King Is Dead

Rolf de Heer’s latest film is described in the press notes as a ‘suburban western’ but it’s rather more comic and wry than that description implies. Dan Wyllie and Bojana Novakovic play an attractive and unpretentious middle class couple. They buy a house in a nice Adelaide suburb and happily begin to paint and renovate, but quickly discover that on one side of the fence, their neighbour, the scuzzy ‘King’ (Gary Waddell) is playing host to every hoon, drug dealer, and petty criminal in the neighbourhood. As the sleepless nights and burglaries mount up, and the police seem powerless to act, the couple are driven to extreme measures.

Luke Buckmaster of Crikey strongly recommends catching the film during its limited theatrical run, describing it as a “a deliciously dark genre mash-up, coy and explorative but tight and insular, sprayed with wry laughs and a genuinely foreboding undertone.” Buckmaster describes the whole cast as excellent but singles out Gary Waddell who plays King, for special commendation.

Writing for The Age Craig Mathieson situates The King is Dead! within de Heer’s oeuvre and finds it to be his funniest film to date. Giving the film three and a half stars, Mathieson deems it “a very good movie” and “a wry commentary on our national obsession with real estate.”

Variety’s Richard Kuiper’s describes The King is Dead! as a “combo of dark suburban drama, absurdist social comedy and violent crime thriller”, placing it “somewhere between niche and commercial arenas” and describing its offshore prospects as “iffy”. Kuipers enjoys the performances (with Waddell again praised for his multidimensional performance as the not-entirely-despicable King), though he’s offput by the changes in tone as the story progresses. The cinematography by Ian Jones and “slinky jazz-flavored score” by Graham Tardiff, both regulars among de Heer’s coterie of collaborators, are singled out for praise in this review.

Others are not so positive. Peter Galvin over at SBS Film finds the film to be “a kind of comedy of manners, mostly of the very bad, irritating kind.” Galvin’s main criticism is that the comedy is just not funny. He cannot, however, resist the appeal of Gary Waddell “who can make even de Heer’s tired talk sound like it has a funny sting.” Galvin writes that Waddell’s King “has a sturdy comic grip from his first beat and never lets up. It’s a piece of acting so good you spend the movie waiting for him to turn up a lot more often than he does.”

Coming full circle, Louise Keller, of Urban Cinefile, finds The King is Dead! to be outrageously funny, saying, “I haven’t had such a good laugh for ages”. Keller thoroughly enjoys the display as “Intelligence is pitted against rat cunning, logic battles the irrational and the evolved bumps into the barbaric”, concluding that this “is a riot of a film that will make you laugh till it hurts.”

Here is the trailer for The King is Dead! 

Did you see these films? What did you think? Feel free to comment below. Note that comments are subject to moderation. We’ll publish them as long as they’re fit for polite company.

Sharing the Ride, WISH YOU WERE HERE: Kieran Darcy-Smith and Felicity Price

Kieran Darcy-Smith & Felicity Price - their film WISH YOU WERE HERE premiered as opening night selection at Sundance Film Festival 2012.

If you want to be an independent Australian filmmaker, it pays to have allies, friends – and even spouses –  who are working in the industry. All the better if your friends and lovers are able to perform multiple roles in this low-budget environment. Sophie Hyde and Brian Mayson (Life In Movement) and Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond (Mrs Carey’s Concert) come to mind, but there are many others, stretching all the way back to Raymond Longford and Lottie Lyell. Kieran Darcy-Smith and Felicity Price are just the latest couple to make a film together, and as they’re keen to point out, the filmmaking life is an adventure, a creative partnership and a wild ride that they want to be on with each other, and with their young family.

Darcy-Smith and Price are the co-writers of the new Australian feature film Wish You Were Here.  Darcy-Smith is also the director, and Price is lead actress, in a career-making performance alongside Joel Edgerton, Teresa Palmer and Antony Starr. Wish You Were Here, which is produced by Angie Fielder of Aquarius Films, and premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January, released in Australia this week. It’s a taut contemporary thriller following four 30-something Australians who travel to Cambodia for a carefree holiday. When only three of them return, there’s escalating turmoil, and the secrets surrounding the disappearance are slowly and shockingly revealed.

The film works so well, in part, because the Australian characters, played by Price and Edgerton in particular, seem like just the kind of attractive middle-class fellow tourists we might run into on a holiday in Asia— the kind who love their kids but are still keen for the odd party drug or night on the town. Alice and Dave are the busy married couple of two young children, with another baby on the way. They leave their two kids at home with granny while they take off  for one last stab at freedom, invited by Alice’s younger sister (Teresa Palmer) who has a charismatic new boyfriend (Antony Starr) with business to conduct in the beautiful and tropical Southern Cambodia.

 

“When we were writing the script we were looking at our own world, our own friends, our own generation who were having kids but still partying, still keeping one foot in that other world,” says Price. “I was interested in exploring responsiblity and how parenthood changes you, and how you can sometimes long to be that person you were before you had kids. As parents you love your kids more than anything, but you still adore freedom. As Gen X-ers I think we’ve kind of paved a different way to parenthood where we want to have our cake and eat it too.”

Price and Darcy-Smith have two young children, who were born as the script took shape. The kids accompanied them on the Cambodian shoot (which Darcy-Smith insists was both hellish and wonderful) and the US promotional trip.

“Felicity fell pregnant not long after we started the first draft,” says Darcy-Smith, “and the whole story of Wish You Were Here became this incredible opportunity for us to expose and express ourselves and what we were going through as a couple. It was like a play-room, in a sense, and we’d come to it to express everything we felt about the human condition, about our place in the world at that point in our lives.”

A getaway gone wrong - Felicity Price and Joel Edgerton in WISH YOU WERE HERE

Price is keen to point out that the story is purely fictional – but that “the world of the characters is very familiar to us, and we poured a lot of our own experiences, and what we’d witnessed with friends, into the film, and we’d constantly ask ourselves and each other, ‘what would you do right now in that situation?’.”

Price is a revelation in the role of Alice, the feisty pregnant wife who’s prepared to fight for her family. She manages to be convincingly loving and angry, yet without being wholly sympathetic. An actress whose credits including playing the young Florence Broadhurst in Gillian Armstrong’s Unfolding Florence: The Many Lives of Florence Broadhurst, as well as extensive theatre and television credits, this is arguably the first screen role to fully feature her talent. Of course the fact that she wrote the role for herself, and that she gets to play the wife of long-time friend Edgerton (who was best man at her wedding and godfather of one of her children) certainly helps to add authenticity to the performance.

“Joel and Kieran have been best mates for ages and they went to drama school together,” says Price, “so I’ve known Joel for a long time. Also, he had read more drafts of the script than almost anyone, right back to the first draft. That kind of familiarity was helpful.  Also, as an audience we enter this relationship at a point where these two people are very familiar with each other – it’s not the first flush of love, but a very solid relationship. And Joel’s a very good actor, who’s 100 per cent there emotionally, so it was easy to create this couple.”

Darcy-Smith directs Joel Edgerton on set of WISH YOU WERE HERE in Cambodia.

Darcy-Smith is himself a recognisable actor, appearing in films like SeptemberAnimal Kingdom and the multi-award winning short film Miracle Fish, yet has has always been an actor with a keen interest in working behind the camera as well as in front of it. He is one of the co-founders of the prolific Blue-Tongue Films collective (established in 1995), together with Nash and Joel Edgerton, David Michôd, Luke Doolan and Spencer Susser. Although Wish You Were Here is Darcy-Smith’s first feature film as director, he’s been honing his craft with a number of award-winning short films, as well as curating the short film program of Sydney’s Homebake Festival since 2000.

Now aged in his late forties, Darcy-Smith admits in his director’s notes that he was frustrated to be one of the last of his colleagues to make the jump from short films to features. Yet it was essential that he find the right idea and a script worth fighting for. Luckily this came in the form of his wife’s script, one she was writing in order to create a strong and interesting role for herself. Together, the two of them worked on the screenplay, which was accepted into Screen NSW’s Aurora screenplay development workshop process .

“I really think the screenplay is everything,” Darcy-Smith says. “I decided many, many years ago that that’s what I was going to put my chief investment in. I was going to learn to write, because I recognised it was the greatest commodity you could have in this industry. And it doesn’t matter how good you get with cameras and tricks and blah blah blah. It means nothing if you’re not telling a story that people want to see. And so I think writing is absolutely everything.”

Director Kieran Darcy-Smith (left) and producer Angie Fielder on the set of WISH YOU WERE HERE in Cambodia.

It’s common to hear filmmakers talking about the importance of the script, but Darcy-Smith has invested genuine effort in honing his writing skills, working with acclaimed producer Andrew Mason (The Matrix Trilogy, Tomorrow When the War Began) and writing a number of award-winning screenplays  including the Inside Film Award for Best Unproduced Screenplay for Memorial Day and the Australian Writer’s Guild Mentorship Award for Little Sky Cambodia. (Incidentally, Memorial Day is his next movie, where he’ll collaborate again with Wish You Were Here producer Angie Fielder, with acclaimed US indie producer Ted Hope (21 Grams, Happiness) as executive producer.

Darcy-Smith admits he’s an active, nervy man with a short attention span, and thus it was essential to make a film that held similarly impatient audience members in its thrall. This manifested in a story structure that gradually and thrillingly delivers pieces of its puzzle.

“It was a very delicate dance of delivery of information,” he says. “It was about keeping the audience working. There’s a duality at play. You’ve got an overarching mystery genre thriller element that very early in the piece kicks a ball up in the air. The idea is to keep the audience suspended with the need to know how this is going to play out. What’s going to happen? What’s he going to do? What’s she going to do?  – Which is pretty cool to any kind of story, no matter what it’s about. You need that sense of ‘I need to turn the page’ or ‘I need to sit in my seat and stay here until the very end’. So that was one element of keeping the audience engaged. But more importantly, you had to get them to the end of that and have them really care about the characters and the outcome. So the real story is with the family and what’s taking place in this relationship between a husband and wife.”

A different world on our doorstep in South-East Asia - 'the smells, the sounds, the humidity that just drips off you...'

So why Cambodia? Why did part of the story need to take place there? Price admits that any part of South-East Asia would have fitted with her themes of a getaway gone wrong. Initially the setting was Bali. “The smells, the sounds, the humidity that just drips off you and hits you, we needed it to be this place that is on the doorstep of Australia, but is just a different world.”

“There’s a real heart of darkness, a real underbelly that’s present in Cambodia in particular,” says Darcy-Smith. “And you don’t have to dig too deep to sort witness it, if not participate in it. I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in South-East Asia and had always gravitated gravitated towards that sort of sketchier element of the society there, and had always been attracted to general case studies of people who got into trouble of there. There is a real wildness, a sense of lurking danger there, and a dark history. That presented this environment in which to credibly set up this situation that we were exploring. It needed to be entirely credible and that sense of integrity was critical to the overall telling of this story. It was our intention that people walk out of the cinema thinking or saying to one another: ‘that could so easily have been you or I. What would I have done had I been in that situation? What choices might I have made?’”

As for advice for a first time feature director? Darcy-Smith says he asked a lot of his friends for tips, but the only concrete directive he got was from Gregor Jordan – “to get a really comfortable pair of shoes, because you’re on your feet all day!” As for his own advice for filmmakers? “Apart from the importance of the script, which is almost everything, trust your gut. If it comes down to a choice between A and B, you have to go with your intuition. Test that intuition and inform it, but go with your gut.”

Watch: A great behind-the-scenes clip from the film Wish You Were Here.

Wish You Were Here – Fast Facts

Director: Kieran Darcy-Smith
Writers: Kieran Darcy-Smith & Felicity Price
Producer: Angie Fielder
Duration: 93 minutes
Genre: Pyschological Drama / Mystery
Shoot: Sydney, Australia & Cambodia
Camera & Shoot Format: HD, Arri Alexa HD
Release Format: 35mm and Digital

Key Cast & Crew

Joel Edgerton
Felicity Price
Teresa Palmer
Antony Starr

Cinematographer: Jules O’Loughlin
Editor: Jason Ballantine
Production Designer: Alex Holmes
Costume Designer: Joanna Park
Sound Design: Brooke Trezise
Music: Tim Rogers
Casting Director: Kirsty McGregor
Score: Rosie Chase

Australian release date: 25 April, 2012
Website: www.wishyouwereherethefilm.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/WishYouWereHereTheFilm
Twitter: @Wish_UWereHere

Sophie Hyde – Releasing Life in Movement

Documentary filmmakers in Australia have always needed to be energetic and creative in order to find an audience for their work – even more so if they’re trying to get their films off the festival circuit and into a general theatrical release. But South Australian writer/director/producer Sophie Hyde, along with her Closer Production teammates (Bryan Mason, Matthew Bate, Rebecca Summerton), is certainly at the forefront of hands-on promotion and distribution of her work. Life in Movement, released around Australia yesterday (12 April) and also available to view as part of Qantas in-flight movies, is a pleasingly poetic and intimate portrait of dancer and choreographer Tanja Liedtke. A feature-length film, gorgeously shot and skilfully edited, with an ultra-cool urban soundtrack, it’s a portrait of Liedtke’s life, her work, her untimely death, and the ensuing grief among those who knew her. Yet according to Hyde, the film is a tricky one to sell to audiences, requiring a strategy that harnesses the enthusiasm of those who have already seen it.

Writer/director Sophie Hyde, centre. With Bryan Mason, right, and Jonny Elk Walsh, left. AACTA Awards Luncheon, January 2012.

Nominated for two AACTA Awards earlier this year, Life in Movement was a very personal project for Sophie Hyde and her partner in life and work, Bryan Mason. Together the pair wrote, directed and produced the film, with Mason also performing cinematography and editing roles. (Incidentally, Mason also won an AACTA Award for his editing on another Closer Productions project, Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure). Life in Movement premiered in March 2011 at the Adelaide Film Festival, and was a hit at other festivals it toured. But festival audiences are known to be uniquely supportive of Australian films – a stance not always mirrored outside of festivals.

With a view to releasing the film, Hyde and Mason were keen to pick up tips at the inaugural AACTA Awards Luncheon in January, from fellow guests Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond, the pair who had successfully self-distributed Mrs Carey’s Concert. A veteran documentary maker and self distributor, Connolly, together with Raymond, tapped into word of mouth popularity for their hard-sell film about a high school music department. The result was stunning, with the film grossing almost $1.2m and becoming the fourth highest grossing Australian documentary ever.

“Bob and Sophie did such an amazing release with Mrs. Carey’s Concert,” says Hyde. “They put so much energy into that release and it paid off. They’ve been really supportive of us, and of all the documentaries in competition last year and they talked to us about their experience working with music schools [to fuel word of mouth]. I think our idea of [harnessing] ‘champions’ probably came from the conversation with them.”

The ‘champions’ Hyde speaks of are those fans of the film who’ve signed up to help spread the word. In return these champions receive regular email updates, exclusive footage and fizzy ideas to assist in group bookings, promotions and discounts.

“The thing about Life in Movement is it’s really hard for people to get a hook on what it’s about,” says Hyde. “People look at it and go: ‘Oh, yeah, it’s about dance and it’s about someone who died’, and there’s not that straight, immediate interest in the concept. That first spark of interest is hard to ignite. But what we find is that people who have seen it really want to talk about it with others and they want other people to see it. So the champion idea felt like the right thing to do – formalising that impulse. We have almost no money to release the film, so if people like it and want to talk about it, then that’s really great for us. I only wish we had thought of the champions idea when we first released in festivals last year, because we’ve only been building the champions list up over the last few weeks, and it would have been better to do it earlier.”

In hindsight, Hyde also sees other drawbacks in trying to drum up new interest in the film so far after its initial festival buzz. “The film had quite a lot of press over the year that it was in festivals in Australia, and so a lot of media are saying ‘okay’ to reviewing it but they won’t do another feature on it now. But you know, when you’re first releasing at a festival you just have to go for it and get as much interest as possible while you can, and you can’t hold off. We may never have gotten a cinema release without that initial engagement.”

Tanja Liedtke. Photograph by Julian Crottism.

Life in Movement is being jointly distributed by Closer Screens (a subsidiary of Closer Productions) and the Brisbane-based Antidote Films (formerly Gil Scrine Films). “We’re trying to be a bit more in control of the rights of our films,” explains Hyde, “so we are co-distributing the film.  Antidote do a lot of the dealings with cinemas and we do a lot of the grassroots campaign.”

Made for an astonishingly tight budget of $308,000, Life in Movement was funded by the Adelaide Film Festival Fun, the South Australian Film Corporation’s Educational Content Fund, and Screen Australia’s Special Documentary Fund (now Signature Docs). There were also small donations from private investors and the Tanja Liedtke Foundation. Hyde laughs as she remembers trying to make the budget stretch. “It was crazy. That’s the total budget including development funding. We shot a lot of the film on development money, because we had to, and it took us four and a bit years to do it.”

Partners in life and work, filmmakers Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde.

Those four years began the day after the sudden death of Tanja Liedtke, a 29-year-old dancer and choreographer who had just made big news in the Australian arts community for her unexpected appointment as artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company. For Hyde and Mason however, the obsessive, driven and sometimes tortured Liedtke had already proved herself as a fascinating and accomplished artist, with two highly regarded productions under her belt – 12th Floor and Construct.

“We had already been working with Tanja,” says Hyde, whose career has ecompassed extensive experience in filming performance and dance (including the Necessary Games trilogy of short films with Restless Dance Theatre). “We had an idea years before to do a documentary about Tanja. So we had some footage that we’d already shot for that and for some other work we’d done with her. And then on the day Tanja died, Bryan [Mason] was just adamant that we were going to make a film. And we worked on it straight away.”

The filmmakers were also incredibly fortunate that their subject had been an avid recorder of her own development and work, filming herself from her early awkward years at school, through to her elegant and quirky dance pieces.  “Using a video is something that a lot of dancemakers do,” explains Hyde. “Some of them probably just film their shows or rehearsals and then have a look back at it. Some of them film phrases, like, a movement, so that they can remember it. I think Tanja was kind of at the extreme of using video because she had a camera from when she was a child, and she would use it whenever she had an idea or a response, and there was so much footage. She used the camera through every stage of her process, whereas most dancers probably use it at very particular moments.”

Self portrait by Tanja Liedtke.

Of course having so much footage can be both a blessing and a curse for the poor editor who has to shape it into 90 odd minutes of coherent beauty. “It was really hard to edit this film,” agrees Hyde. “Bryan is the editor and also the co-director and he spent a long time in the suite without me, kind of trawling through footage and piecing things together and trying to put it in a linear structure of Tanja’s life.  And that took a long long time, finding the structure, finding the right kind of way in and out of it. There were  really long nights in the edit suite for both of us. It was hard, really, really hard. But it was amazing to do. It was a creative experience like the one Tanja’s going through in the film. I think we kind of replicated that experience ourselves, digging down into this work and trying to make it work and becoming a bit blind to everything else at periods of time. Yeah… 3am in the morning, you know, delirium. Our daughter was asleep in our house with us editing in the studio out the back!”

Out of the shed and into the world, Hyde is now keen to reach out and connect the film with an audience, one she conceives as including “both people who understand what it is to be a creator, as well as those who haven’t had that experience.” She’s keen to point out that it’s not just  a film for dance fans and dancers, and that “a lot of people who really love it are very young, and one of the things they connect to is the great music and soundtrack by DJ TR!P that really ads to the whole experience.”

For Hyde, who identifies as an ‘artist’ herself, albeit a very collaborative one, part of the process of connecting with viewers and mobilising champions, includes an active presence in social media – from Twitter to Facebook and now, Pinterest.

“At first I didn’t really enjoy it and wasn’t sure what it would mean,” she says. “But recently I’ve realised I really, really want people to see my films. I know that sounds like a funny thing to say, but for a long time you’re just focused on making work, making the film. And then I suddenly thought, ‘I want people to actually see it!’ And I don’t want to just rely on somebody else. There’s that old idea that you hand over your film and someone else will release it, and maybe they’ll do an okay job of it, but maybe they won’t. Something shifted in me when I realised that social media isn’t about hassling people and saying, ‘Here I am, promoting my film’, but instead it’s about trying to engage a bit more outwardly; be a bit more open rather than head down, which I can be a lot. Now you can share your own work, and you can talk about someone else’s work too, and people are much more conversational now on social media. I enjoy Twitter and I’ve just started on Pinterest. I love that idea of just looking at images and sharing them with people. There is something beautiful about that.

Life in Movement released in Australia on 12 April.

Links  & Further Reading

Life in Movement website | Facebook | Pinterest|

Sophie Hyde is on Twitter @sophhyde.

Watch a clip of Twelfth Floor choreographed by Tanja Liedke: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiYxTA4lEpM

Reviews Wrap

Here’s a quick dip into the reviews of two recently released Australian feature films: Black & White & Sex and Any Questions for Ben?. Please note these do not reflect the views of the AFI | AACTA. We’re aiming to represent opinions and views from a variety of sources, and you’ll make up your own mind, of course!

Black & White & Sex

Billed as ‘an intimate film about sex’, Black & White & Sex was released in March on just a few screens in Melbourne and Sydney by John L. Simpson’s Titan View. The film previously screened at the 2011 Sydney and Brisbane film festivals, and also screened in official selection at the 2012 Rotterdam Film Festival.

Written and directed by John Winter (who has previously produced films such as Rabbit-Proof Fence and Paperback Hero), Black & White & Sex is a film within a film, following a largely unseen documentary filmmaker (Matthew Holmes) who gets more than he bargained for when he interviews a sex worker who goes by the name of ‘Angie’. Intriguingly, this character is played by eight different actresses (Katherine Hicks, Anya Beresdorf, Valerie Bader, Roxane Wilson, Michelle Vergara Moore, Dina Panozzo, Saskia Burmeister, Maia Thomas). Filmed in black and white, and with occasional split screens, this is an independent film in every way.

Here’s the trailer:

Andrew L. Urban and Louise Keller, over at Urban Cinefile, are both extremely positive about Black & White & Sex, with Urban describing it as “bravura filmmaking on a taboo subject.” He praises the performances of the actresses, the ironic choice of black and white cinematography (ironic because the subjects under discussion are anything but black and white), and the manner in which the film questions assumptions and hypocrisies within our culture around sex and prostitution.

Keller also praises the work as “an ambitious, fearless film” and enjoys the “titillating dialogue” and “witty banter” as well as the performances of the eight very different women, who respond to the filmmaker’s questions – “every question anyone ever wanted to ask a prostitute.” Keller finds the film surprisingly sweet and playful.

Peter Galvin, writing on the SBS Film website, agrees that the film is ambitious and experimental, and that the acting is fine, but wrestles with the question of whether the film actually becomes the very thing it aims to counter – a stereotypical representation of the prostitute as cultural cipher. Galvin also finds the dialogue clichéd, writing that “most of the talk has the dry, pre-digested, lifeless feel of a self-help manual – it’s all catchphrases and aphorisms.”

Writing for Variety (login required), Richard Kuipers describes the film as offering “a full-tilt examination of the sex-for-sale biz that effectively challenges stereotypes and is well served by dashes of droll humor.” Kuipers sees only a few “flat dialogue stretches” and praises the “uniformly excellent acting” and the “outstanding black-and-white HD widescreen imagery by lenser Nicola Daley.” He predicts, however, that the film will probably appeal more to festival audiences than to mainstream ones.

Over on the ABC’s At the Movies, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton agree that Black & White & Sex is “imaginative”, “brave”, superbly acted, and “within its limitations, very stylishly done”. They concur on a three and a half star rating.

Want to read other reviews of Black & White & Sex? More can be found here:

Any Questions For Ben?

A romantic comedy from Working Dog, the team behind previous Australian hit features The Dish and The Castle, Any Questions For Ben? was released in Australia on 9 February 2012 through Roadshow Films. Written by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch, and also directed by Sitch, the film stars Josh Lawson as a smart, good-looking Lothario suffering a quarter-life crisis, brought about by his encounter with a beautiful United Nations lawyer (Rachael Taylor) who makes him question the meaning and purpose of his life.   A supporting cast includes Rob Carlton as Ben’s father, Lachy Hulme as his mentor, and Daniel Henshall, Felicity Ward and Christian Clark as his best buddies.

Here’s the trailer:

Simon Miraudo reviews the film on QuickFlix and finds it has “an easy, low-stakes charm, and is buoyed by its very talented cast of performers.” Miraudo praises Lawson as a likable lead who “deserves much of the praise for making sympathetic a character who could be considered the poster child for ‘first world problems’” – though he wonders if a more understated and less slick style may have been more appropriate to the film’s material. While declining to include it in the same “pantheon of Australian films” as The Castle and The Dish, Miraudo declares it it “a sweet, unassuming and occasionally very funny film.”

Likewise, Matthew Pejkovic of Matt’s Movie Reviews enjoys “a funny and insightful look into Gen X pressures in an increasingly fast paced world,” and has more praise for Lawson’s natural comedic timing and ability to depict Ben as sympathetic despite the fact that he’s “swimming in money, opportunity and women.”

Richard Gray of The Reel Bits  gives another positive review of the film, and finds Ben to be a character whose struggle to find meaning in modern life makes him “just as much of a local hero as Darryl Kerrigan.” Gray applauds Lawson in the lead role, and also enjoys Rachael Taylor’s “most naturalistic performance to date.”

In stark contrast, Crikey’s Luke Buckmaster is scathing of the film, failing to see any effective comedy or any chemistry between Lawson and Taylor. He wishes more effort had been made to capture the subtleties of the Melbourne location and deplores the soundtrack “stuffed to the gills with top 50 bubblegum pop tracks.”

Sandra Hall, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald is gentler on the “bright and shiny piece of film-making,” but is also disappointed, finding its depiction of Melbourne akin to a tourism advertisement, and its music montages “a sign of desperation.” Hall is thankful there are no fart jokes, (as in Apatow comedies), but finds herself “nostalgic for Working Dog’s sharper days when they would surely have perpetrated all sorts of wickedness at Ben’s expense.”

Other reviews of Any Questions for Ben? can also be found here:

Did you see these films? What did you think? Feel free to comment below. Note that comments are subject to moderation. We’ll print them as long as they’re fit for polite company.

Reviews Wrap

Here’s a quick taste of reviews of current release Australian feature films Blame and Sleeping Beauty. Please note these do not reflect the views of the AFI. We’re aiming to represent opinions and views from various sources, and you’ll make up your own mind, of course!

Blame

Blame Key Art AustraliaReleased nationally in Australia on 16 June by Pack Screen, Blame premiered at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival (where it was a MIFF Premiere Fund film) and screened to some acclaim at festivals including Toronto and Chicago. Filmed and set in the foothills of Perth, the story centres on a group of young vigilantes intent on wreaking vengeance for a sexual betrayal.

Directed by Michael Henry, and produced by Ryan Hodgson, Melissa Kelly and Michael Robinson, Blame stars a raft of fresh but familiar talent, including Sophie Lowe, Kestie Morassi, Damian de Montemas, Simon Stone, Mark Leonard Winter and Ashley Zukerman. Reviewing the film as part of the TIFF 2010 lineup, Twitch’s Todd Brown was particularly impressed by the actors, and by the opening sequences, but writes that the film is “[l]ong on cast and concept but slightly short on execution,” and that it “never quite manages to reach its full potential or really cash in on its premise”.  

Megan Lehmann, writing for The Hollywood Reporter (login required), calls Blame “a compact little thriller set in a remote corner of the Australian bushland,” and predicts that it will be a good calling card for its cast and crew. She singles out the stark piano-heavy score and DOP Torstein Dyrting’s lingering camera-work for special mention, with the only real criticism being a “generally tight script  [that] stumbles in the second act as the characters chase their tails for a while.”

Simon Miraudo, over at Quickflix sees in the film “brief flashes of brilliance that evoke Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie,” though ultimately, he argues, “it feels like a sincere tribute to Hitchcock and Christie, but not a modern-day companion piece.” Miraudo singles outs out performances by Damian de Montemas, Sophie Lowe and Kestie Morassi for special mention. Also seeing Hitchockian references in Blame, Peter Galvin (SBS Film) commends the way the audience’s sympathies are simultaneously engaged by both the victim and the perpetrators.

Leigh Paatsch, reviewing for the Herald Sun gives Blame three stars and writes that “[f]irst-time writer-director Michael Henry makes a little go a long way throughout, pushing an impressive young cast through a twisty, turny maze most viewers will be happy to get lost in.” Both David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz from the ABC’s At The Movies are similarly impressed with the film, agreeing with a three and a half star rating, and praising it as an intelligent low budget film that “punches above it’s weight.” 

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty key art AustraliaSleeping Beauty, an ‘erotic fairytale’ about a young woman, Lucy (Emily Browning), who sells her body in a particularly passive way, is shaping up to be one of those films that is dividing critics and audiences. This divisive tendency was evident at the film’s premiere screening in Official Competition at Cannes 2011 (you can see a table summarising critical responses from French critics at Cannes here), and the vigorous debates here at home continue the tendency. In fact, as Glenn Dunks argues, writing for Onya Magazine, perhaps “the discussion it has elicited from critics and audiences (domestic and international alike) is reason enough for [the film’s] existence.”

One of the most interesting and lateral responses to Sleeping Beauty is this one by Matt Riviera on his blog A Life in Film, where he engages not only with the film but with its critical and audience responses. (Riviera has meticulously compiled a table of Sydney critics’ responses to 2011 Sydney Film Festival offerings, including Sleeping Beauty, and you can see that film’s divisive effect evident in the chart here.)  

Anticipating that many viewers will be alienated and unmoved by the somewhat clinical tone of the film, Riviera notes that “[w]e are not encouraged to relate as much as to reflect on our position as voyeurs. In other words, we can look but cannot touch.” He goes on to offer a fascinating and unexpected reading of  the film as a metaphor for Australia’s passive relationship to its own beauty and international exploitation.

Over at Cinema Autopsy, Thomas Caldwell gives a more conventional review. Awarding Sleeping Beauty four stars, Caldwell admires writer/director Julia Leigh’s “well tuned sense of visual storytelling” and notes that the film’s cinematography (Geoffrey Simpson) and production design (Annie Beauchamp) evoke the work of Kubrick, Lynch and Greenaway. Caldwell also praises the “meticulous and minimalist sound design by Sam Petty”, and the “highly measured and controlled performance” of Emily Browning in the lead role.  Anticipating other viewers’ criticism of the film, he writes that “[o]n face value Sleeping Beauty may appear to be simply an arty exercise in film style and as a result will no doubt perplex and frustrate some audiences, particularly those expecting something more erotic or blatantly emotionally charged. However, like Lucy it contains something dark, complex, mysterious and, indeed, beautiful deep down below the surface.”

David Stratton, reviewing for At The Movies, called Sleeping Beauty “a handsomely made and quite haunting first feature” and gave the film three and a half stars. Stratton argued, however, that “while it’s often very impressive it’s also very cold and detached.” Andrew L. Urban is another such viewer, frustrated at what he perceives as the film’s coldness. At Urban Cinefile he writes: “I salute the unique vision, but I feel cheated that I felt so little emotion in a film that has such vast emotional potential.” Writing in the same space, Louise Keller declares Sleeping Beauty “a mesmerizing film and a stunning debut for Leigh, although the ending disappoints and leaves us adrift.”

Jim Schembri, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald gives the film backhanded praise, arguing that “the one thing you can’t say about Sleeping Beauty that you can about many other Australian arthouse films, is that it is boring. If anything, there’s something mesmerising about Lucy’s journey and in Browning’s deliberately passive, low-key performance, even if the whole shebang leads to frustration.” Leigh Paatsch, in the Herald Sun is not so kind, describing it as “prentious” and an “arthouse snoozer”. Variety’s Peter Debruge is similiarly unimpressed, criticising the film’s “frustratingly elliptical feel and lack of character insight.”

Over at the Guardian however, Peter Bradshaw seems to gain far greater insight into the “emotional seriousness” of Lucy’s character, praising Emily Browning’s “fierce and powerful performance.” Bradshaw also calls the film a “technically elegant” and “assured debut”, nevertheless finding it to be “no more than the sum of its parts”.

Clearly, the debate will continue to rage. What did you think?

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A Sense of Wonder: An Interview with Julia Leigh, writer/director of Sleeping Beauty

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Reviews Wrap: Mrs Carey’s Concert, Mad Bastards & Snowtown

Reviews Wrap: Griff the Invisible, The Reef, and A Heartbeat Away

A Sense of Wonder: Julia Leigh talks about Sleeping Beauty

I’m interested in Wonder Cinema. I wanted to make a film where the audience responds with ‘Did I really see that?’ and ‘Did I really hear that?’ and ‘Can such a thing really exist?’. Holding the breath. Eyes wide. A response of intense wonder rather than shock. Cinema as wunderkammer, wonder-room. – Julia Leigh in her Director’s Notes for Sleeping Beauty.

Julia Leigh, writer/director of Sleeping Beauty

Julia Leigh, writer/director of Sleeping Beauty

Who is Julia Leigh? There’s a whole lot of curiosity about this first time Australian director whose debut feature film, Sleeping Beauty, made it into Official Competition at Cannes this year. Add to this the fact that Jane Campion, the Cannes-annointed elder stateswoman of auteur cinema, has supported Sleeping Beauty, adding her ‘Jane Campion presents’ imprimateur to the title. Oh, and then there’s the nudity – lots of it – and the film’s tagline: ‘an erotic fairytale’.

Starring the luminous Emily Browning, Sleeping Beauty tells the story of a young woman who is drawn into a particular kind of prostitution, requiring her to be drugged, unconscious and unclothed in a chamber where she’s visited by elderly admirers. It’s creepy and intriguing; brave and stylish. So who is the writer and director from whose mind this strange story sprang?

Julia Leigh was 29 when her first novel, The Hunter, was published in 1999 to international acclaim, including being named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her novella Disquiet (2008) won the UK Encore Award and was an LA Times Favourite Book. Then, in 2008 the script for Sleeping Beauty was named on the Hollywood Black List – an annual list of Hollywood’s most liked unproduced screenplays.

Sleeping Beauty key art Australia

So how does a successful novelist turn into a screenwriter and then a director? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that Leigh is uncoventional in a multitude of ways. A qualified lawyer who has never practised, she holds a PhD in English from the University of Adelaide. She’s studied and taught abroad (including a stint as Adjunct Associate Professor at Barnard College, Columbia University). Now 41, Julia Leigh would love to make more films, as well as write more books. But it’s clear she’s an artist working to her own timetable – and one who is choosy about answering questions that attempt to explain her work. As she writes in her Director’s Notes, “It is dangerous for me to explain the meaning of my work. Like gouging out my own eye. Like pinning down the viewer and gouging out their eye.”

Here we chat to Leigh about the move from solitary novel-writing to colloborative filmmaking; about working with her editor Nick Meyers, and the fruitful collaboration with production designer Annie Beauchamp. Leigh also talks about the importance of beauty and of living in the creative “risk zone”.

AFI: Filmmaking is such a collaborative endeavour. Was that something you enjoyed, a change from the more solitary nature of writing a novel or a novella?

Julia Leigh: It’s very interesting shifting between the two, but novelists and filmmakers both need to have something they want to explore. That is the most important thing. They both create complex characters and full detailed worlds, and they both work with the flow of time. In  a way the perceived loneliness of the writer is not so dissimilar, actually, to the situation of the director, because I do feel the director is the only one who holds the whole film in her head. I really did enjoy the collaborative process, however, and the strong relationships you have with the actors, and the heads of department, and the people on set. They’re actually still quite close one-on-one relationships rather than this big group of people that you’re talking to.

Sleeping Beauty 1

Eden Falk, Emily Browning & Rachael Blake in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

AFI: One of the closest and most intense relationships would have to be between the director and the editor, who both shape and create the story together in the cutting room. Can you tell us a bit about how this worked with your editor Nick Meyers?

Julia Leigh: Oh, I had a great editor! I was just so lucky to work with Nick Meyers [whose other credits include The Bank, Balibo, The Boys and Mrs Carey’s Concert]. I hadn’t met him before. I gave him the script to read and we met for a coffee. You know, in those initial meetings with people, for all my head of departments, I tried to gauge how people responded to the script and if the project resonated with them truly.

Jamie Timony and Emily Browning in the lab in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

Jamie Timony and Emily Browning in the lab in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

There is this strange thing, it’s very hard to talk about expressedly, but you know, it’s a person’s energy or vibe and how that comes across when you’re meeting them. So yes, so Nick came on board and one of his roles during the shoot of course was to look at the footage as it comes in each day. We watched the rushes and he spotted what we call pickups. You know, he said: “You might need to go back and shoot this exterior.” And we did, and it’s in the film, so you know, that was one of his jobs there. We didn’t actually have a budget to do an extra day of pickups. So we had to jam them into the existing schedule, so that was pretty tough.

AFI: What was the shooting schedule?

Julia Leigh: We had a 29-day shoot.

AFI: And what was the budget?

Julia Leigh: Ah… I’m not at liberty to discuss the budget. I think that’s something people don’t talk about, you know. It’s just so low-budget or whatever… Yes, so Nick and I went into the edit room for the process of the edit and you know, it’s very strange, it’s a very close working relationship. When you see the film you see we have an unusual shooting style. Scenes are sort of covered in one long shot, which might seem that there were very few editorial choices. Often a film is made where shoot a lot of coverage, which means you shoot that scene in wide and then you go in and you shoot one of the actors all in close-up, and you cover the scene from lots of different angles. Then in the edit you piece it all together and pick and choose from performances and decide where you want to focus on, all those sort of things. But in this case, we actually did not shoot traditional coverage and some people may think that that means there was not a lot of work to do in the edit. But in fact there was and we selected our performances very carefully.

An initiation - Emily Browning and Rachael Blake in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

An initiation - Emily Browning and Rachael Blake in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

AFI: It sounds like having such an experienced editor working on the shoot really helped to keep it within budget.

Julia Leigh: Yes, Nick also had some great suggestions for some sort of secret tricks that we used, that I cannot reveal, that made the film viable. It was a very short script actually, an unusually short script for a feature film. It was something like 67, 68 pages. And I thought that every single scene would be completely essential in such a short script. But in fact, in the edit, we did drop some scenes. So Nick was very helpful in working out what to let go. And in the edit, it’s very, very fine choices that you’re making. You’re working with the flow of the film.

AFI: How important was it for you to be making something that was beautiful to look at?

Julia Leigh: There’s no harm in beauty! [laughs] I really admire women’s beauty, you know. And I love male beauty too… And yes, this film is quite beautiful and I think that marries with the subject matter of the film, so it’s appropriate.

The Sleeping Beauty Chamber

The Sleeping Beauty Chamber

AFI: The film is very beautiful and stylish from a production design point of view too. Can you talk about that?

Julia Leigh: I loved working with our production designer Annie Beauchamp [whose other credits as art director and production designer include Moulin Rouge, Praise and Disgrace].  She was one of my first collaborators to come on board and she just did an amazing job, especially considering our small budget. We went out on location shoots together really early in the process, and pooled images and defined our colour pallette. I really enjoyed that part of things, and I think the look we got was quite amazing.

AFI: There has been some talk about it being difficult to get the film funded and supported officially because of the explicit nature of the material. Was that the case?

Julia Leigh: Look, as far as the funding goes, we got government funding from Screen Australia and Screen NSW. And I do really want to pay tribute to those brave people within those organisations who fought to support the film. I have no idea exactly what went on behind closed doors. But all I know is that it’s a very competitive environment and any film that gets up has to have its internal champions.

Rachael Blake and Peter Carroll negotiate the deal over the sleeping beauty.

Rachael Blake and Peter Carroll negotiate the deal over the sleeping beauty.

AFI: And do you think the film will shock or offend viewers potentially?

Julia Leigh: I don’t really want to address that in this interview. You know, I hope people watch the film with a sense of wonder and I hope the film allows them to use their imaginations.

AFI: You’ve said in the press notes that you’re comfortable ‘being in the risk zone’.

Julia Leigh: Yeah, I’m very comfortable in the risk zone. In fact I like to be in the risk zone. I think in fact with all good projects, you are in the risk zone. If you’re not in the risk zone, there’s probably a problem.

Emily Browning and Ewen Leslie in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

Emily Browning and Ewen Leslie - lonely friends in 'Sleeping Beauty'.

AFI: Did you always imagine that you would be a writer when you were a little girl?

Julia Leigh: I have always been somebody who has been formed by literature. I mean, I was a big reader. Yeah, I think a reading life is part of the writing life. And actually, this thing about this shift from literature to film, it all comes from the one place, which is your sensibility. And your sensibility is formed by so many different things. So I do resist this habit of typecasting people into one medium or another.

AFI: And yet it is quite unusual for a novelist to turn director.

Julia Leigh: That’s true. Actually, there probably aren’t many novelist-filmmakers. I can’t think of any.

AFI: Can you tell us about your involvement with the film adaptation of your novel The Hunter, releasing later this year?

Julia Leigh: Yes, it’s directed by my friend Daniel Nettheim, he’s a director. And I opted not to read the screenplay and I opted not to go to the screening room of the early cuts of the film because I’m waiting for the glorious day when I can just sit down in a cinema with an audience and see it myself as a very surreal personal experience, which will be a great day I think. That film is also coming out later this year. But I did go down and I visited the set in Tasmania and that was wonderful.

AFI: How did Daniel come on board with the project?

Julia Leigh: Dan is actually a really close friend of mine. We edited the student newspaper together in 1989, Honi Soit. There was a close little group of us and that was a great early collaborative experience.

AFI: It’s often mentioned that your script for Sleeping Beauty made the Hollywood Black List. How does that actually happen?

Julia Leigh: I have an agent in America at UTA, Bec Smith, and that’s how that happens.

AFI: That must have been very helpful in getting the film up?

Julia Leigh: I think it was an element. It’s very hard to get a film up, there’s so many important elements and that was probably one of them.

AFI: Best wishes with the film’s release, and thank you for talking with us.

Julia Leigh: Thank you.

Sleeping Beauty is in national release from 23 June, 2011.

To see an interview with Julia Leigh, conducted at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and filmed by Screen Australia, click below.

Production Notes

Sleeping Beauty is written and directed by Julia Leigh, produced by Jessica Brentnall and executive produced by Tim White, Alan Cardy and Jamie Hilton. Distributed by Transmission Films (Aust/NZ). Filmed in Sydney, 2011. Shot in 35mm. 101 min.

Director of Photography: Geoffrey Simpson ACS
Production Designer: Annie Beauchamp
Editor: Nick Meyers ASE
Costume Designer: Shareen Beringer
Composer: Ben Frost
Casting Director: Nikki Barrett
Sound Designer: Sam Petty
Associate Producer: Sasha Burrows