‘We’re all a little bit mental’ – Rebecca Gibney and Anthony LaPaglia

Anthony LaPaglia and Rebecca Gibney play an unhappily married couple, Barry and Shirley Moochmore, in P.J. Hogan’s MENTAL.

Anthony LaPaglia and Rebecca Gibney seem relaxed and happy sitting on the couch together talking about their roles in P.J. Hogan’s latest film Mental, in which they play a Gold Coast husband and wife, Barry and Shirley Moochmore, parents of five rambunctious teenage daughters. Well, LaPaglia and Gibney seem as relaxed and happy as you can be, in a high rise hotel room with different journalists coming in precisely every eight minutes to ask you roughly the same questions.

Still, the roles they play in the film are interesting departures for both of them. LaPaglia is an Emmy and AFI Award-winning actor more used to playing heroes and strong men in TV shows like Without a Trace, and films such as Balibo, Lantana and Looking for Alibrandi. In contrast, he’s more of a cowardly lion in Mental, playing a philandering local politician who’s a clueless father (echoes of Bill Hunter’s monstrous turn in Muriel’s Wedding), completely unable to cope with his brood when their mother, played by Gibney, has a nervous breakdown.

Gibney is known and loved for her AFI and Logie award-winning performances on television in shows like Come in SpinnerHalifax F.P, Packed to the Rafters and Stingers, where she’s played a string of predominantly likable but strong women. Having appeared in a few small film roles, Mental is by far her most significant big screen role to date. She’s quite transformed in it, having famously gained weight to play the frumpy and downtrodden mother and wife, who escapes her miserable existence by pretending she’s living in The Sound of Music and going on manic shopping sprees.

Not quite the Von Trapp family – Rebecca Gibney and Anthony LaPaglia (centre) in MENTAL.

Both LaPaglia and Gibney agree that the film is a refreshing departure in numerous ways, especially from any idea of what’s ‘normal’.

“I don’t believe it’s a film about mental illness,” says Gibney. “It’s about dysfunction – it’s about a family in dysfunction. And it’s about the fact that we’re all a little bit mental! And that’s normal, and we can live with it and laugh at ourselves. It’s a liberating film.”

LaPaglia chimes in with that gravelly voice that always commands attention. “I guarantee that if you show me any person and I look at them hard enough and long enough, I will find some form of behaviour that if I single it out, looks mental. Once you accept that, it’s actually quite liberating. It’s like when you turn 90 and you can say whatever you want because suddenly you’re liberated from being polite. ‘I hate you. I always hated you!’”

Rebecca Gibney as the jam donut-addicted Shirley Moochmore in MENTAL.

Gibney is open about the fact that she fought for the role in Mental, and had to convince the director that she was right for it. “I did go all out to get it in the audition process,” she says. “I’ve said it before and P.J. knows it, that when I read the script I just knew the character. It’s one of those classic moments where I said ‘this is my mum’ – and other people that I know. Obviously my mum is not Shirley Moochmore, but she’s raised four daughters and two sons, and we have a slightly dysfunctional family, and she’s the ultimate people-pleaser. So I knew that I could bring something to the table. So I went out and got the fat-suit and put the muumuu on, and sang my guts out when I auditioned. I told P.J. that I’d do anything – put the weight on, do anything. Thankfully he gave me the gig!”

“That’s great – you do have to fight for the roles you love!” answers LaPaglia, encouragingly. Which begs the question, did he have to audition or fight for his part in Mental?

“No, I didn’t audition, but I wasn’t handed it on a plate either. I sat down with P.J. and had a very long discussion about it. At the end of that discussion, had we not seen the same thing on the page, I don’t think he would have hired me, but based on the discussion that we had, I think he felt that I understood the character, and could do it justice. I think he had a specific vision in his head about the character and I don’t think he would have compromised that for a minute by hiring someone who couldn’t commit or give the performance he wanted.”

One of the aspects of the role which appealed to LaPaglia was not just the chance to sing a rather atrocious version of ‘Eidelweiss’, but to depict something of the struggles of fatherhood.

Not running for Father of the Year – Anthony LaPaglia as Barry Moochmore.

“I love the scene in the film where I finally admit that I’m just like my father,” he says. Looking over at Gibney, he says to her: “We’re both parents now and how many times, as your kid gets older, do you find they ask perfectly logical questions but they’re difficult to answer? And you say ‘Because I said so!’ And suddenly you’re like  your own father. I promised myself I would not be like my father with my kids, and suddenly I find myself saying the same crap he did, and now you realise why. Because you don’t have time to explain everything!”

Asked how they think viewers will respond to Mental, Gibney and LaPaglia are aware there will be criticisms from some sectors, but agree that what they most love about the film is the fact that it’s the product of one single authorial voice and vision. “It may not appeal to everyone and there will be scenes that some people might find confronting or uncomfortable,” says Gibney, “and I’m sure P.J. got asked to remove some scenes to make it a bit more palatable for some people, or to make it easier for an American audience, and he would have said ‘no, I’m not going to. I wrote it this way, and that’s how it’s going to be.’ He’s a very passionate man and knew exactly what he wanted right from the outset. It’s his script, his baby, and he’s been working on it for over ten years, so everyone that came on board knew exactly what they were going into, and the fact that he was going to stretch all of us and challenge all of us. And he did.”

LaPaglia agrees. “On a lot of films that you work on these days, there’s always outside pressures to change your film once it’s been done – based on audience screenings, studio notes, what will ‘play’ overseas, and blah, blah, blah. And P.J. – and for this I have a huge amount of respect – has just said, I don’t care. This is the movie I want to make and I’m not changing any of it. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but it’s MY film. And I couldn’t agree more. It’s rare that you find people who won’t fold under pressure. The pressure is enormous! But with Mental, you can tell it’s the vision of one person, unlike so many movies now, which have no direction. They float because there’s the voice of 15 people in there, and so the films lack that definitive quality. And to me, the difference between a really good film and mere entertainment is that somebody has had a really strong vision of what they want to do, and they’ve followed through on it. I would rather watch that film – whether it works or not. If it’s a success, that’s great. But if it’s a failure, it’s a grand failure, an honest failure. It’s not a compromised failure that everyone runs away from, saying ‘oh that’s his fault, no it’s his fault’. I want a film where someone’s going to stick up their hand and say this is mine, and no matter what happens, it’s mine.”

Mental is screening in national release and is one of the Feature Films in Competition for the 2nd AACTA Awards.

To read an interview with writer-director P.J. Hogan, click here.

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Troubled Mothers, Gold Coast Garishness and The Sound of Music: P.J. Hogan on the making of MENTAL

Writer-director P.J. Hogan (centre) with cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine on the set of MENTAL.

By Rochelle Siemienowicz |

When writer-director P.J. Hogan burst into public consciousness in 1994 with his first feature film, Muriel’s Wedding, he not only launched two newly minted Australian stars (Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths) but, along with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, helped to fuel a fervent ABBA revival.

With an unflinching eye and keen ear for the Australian grotesque, Hogan managed to blend garish colours, iconic music and hilarious black humour with genuine pathos and moral complexity. It was a successful recipe that took the film to Cannes, Sundance and Toronto, and won Muriel’s Wedding four AFI Awards, a BAFTA nomination and an American Writers’ Guild nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Proving that his talents could travel outside a Gold Coast location, Hogan’s first American film, the zany and unconventional My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), starring Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz and Rupert Everett, went on to become one of the highest grossing romantic comedies of all time and was nominated for three Golden Globes. His other American films have included Peter Pan (2003) and Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) and telemovies Dark Shadows (2005 ) and Nurses (2007 ). But now Hogan returns to his roots with an Australian film that looks like the Muriel’s cousin, complete with Toni Collette in a starring role.

Set in the Gold Coast town of Dolphin Heads this time (rather than ‘Porpoise Spit’!) Mental tells the story of the Moochmore family which consists of five loopy teenage girls, their depressed and ‘mental’ mother Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), and their shady local politician father Barry (Anthony LaPaglia). Into their rather sad and frazzled lives comes Shaz (Collette), the demented babysitter, picked up from the side of the road as a hitchhiker, she’s both brilliant and terrifying. The soundtrack this time is laden with tunes from the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein score for The Sound of Music.

Muriel’s Cousin?

Hogan is matter of fact about the similarities between this latest film and his breakout hit all those years ago. “Like Muriel’s Wedding, Mental is based on events from my past,” he says. “It’s not surprising that they seem related. I always say that they share DNA. While not being the same story, they’re definitely from the same person.”

As far as the lurid Gold Coast location goes, this is where Hogan grew up. “We used a lot of the places that I remembered from my childhood that were still there. And if they weren’t still there, they were replaced by edifices even more garish, so there you go!” he enthuses.

Hogan, who turns 50 this year, is wiry and intense with bright brown eyes. He’s likable and funny and he laughs a lot, often at his own expense. But it’s clear he’s driven by his own demons and visions, many of them stemming from his personal family-of-origin story. He’s the first to admit he comes from a dysfunctional family, and that Mental is based on his own tragedies.

“The beginning of the film is almost as it happened,” he explains. When I was 12, my mother had a nervous breakdown. My dad, who was a local politician and running for re-election at the time, just said, ‘Nobody is going to vote for a bloke whose wife has gone crazy,’ so we had to keep it quiet. And he picked up a hitchhiker off the side of the road. He trusted her because she had a dog. And I remember we returned from school one day and there was this strange woman on the couch rolling a cigarette, with her dog by her side and a knife sticking out of her boot. She said, ‘Bit of a mess in here innit?’ As a writer, I didn’t feel the need to improve on that!”

Vulgar, fearless and unconventional, Collette’s Shaz is the twisted heroine of the film. Did her real life counterpart turn out to be such a positive influence on Hogan and his siblings? “She really did sort us out,” he answers. “We were a bunch of ratbags. My mother really did have a nervous breakdown for a reason, and we were a part of that! Shaz was very inspiring. To this day she remains one of the most original and inspiring people of my life. But she was crazy. And I mean, certifiably crazy, and we discovered that later. Like a lot of people who are crazy, she walked that line between crazy and genius. She thought about things in an original way. She’s probably still out there, living with another family, changing their lives right now!”

It’s hard to find a completely ‘normal’ person in Mental. There’s depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorders, obsessive compulsion and a plethora of other unlabeled dysfunctions. In fact, one of the film’s themes is the idea that nobody is perfectly normal. Hogan agrees. “I don’t know what ‘normal’ means. My mother tried to be normal all her life and went mad in the process. Because what’s normal? It changes all the time. Normal is having a clean house. Normal is getting your kids into the right school, or even having a vegan diet. It’s a big issue for me because not only my mother had issues with depression, but my sister is schizophrenic, my brother is bipolar, so my family bats in the big leagues! It was very important for me that it not only be funny, but that it be compassionate.”

Troubled Mothers: from Betty Heslop to Shirley Moochmore

Certainly one of the most memorable characters in Muriel’s Wedding turned out to be the long-suffering people-pleasing mother of Muriel, Betty Heslop, played so beautifully by Jeanie Drynan. Despite having only a few scenes in the film, she was the tragic heart of the story, and in Mental, the troubled mother figure, played by Rebecca Gibney has echoes of Betty, but with a happier story arc, and a singing role.

The hills are alive, with the sound of…madness! Shirley Moochmore celebrates a manic shopping spree in MENTAL.

“I traveled the world with Muriel’s Wedding and the character that affected people most profoundly was Jeanie Drynan’s,” says Hogan. So many people asked me ‘Why did you have to make her die? Why did her ending have to be so sad?’ They all told me she reminded them of their own mother. I even met with people in India whose own mothers reminded them of Jeanie Drynan! Jeanie Drynan’s character was based on my own mother – and she didn’t have a very happy ending. So when I came to do Mental I decided to give my mother a happy ending.  I thought: ‘what if this time the Shirley character wins?’. And that’s what happens. She comes out on top and she gets some brass and I think Rebecca Gibney is marvelous in the role.”

The casting of the central roles is certainly notable. Toni Collette seems a natural fit for Shaz, especially with her history in Hogan’s first hit, and he admits that “this is one of the few times that I’ve written a role with an actor in mind because when I was working on the story I started to hear Toni’s voice saying Shaz’s lines.”

‘I couldn’t give that role away with a toaster! But Liev Schreiber saw what it could be.’

P.J. Hogan on set of MENTAL with actor Liev Schreiber.

But what about the casting of respected heavyweight American actor Liev Schreiber as the comedically menacing Trevor the shark hunter? It must be admitted that Schreiber’s pitch perfect Australian accent and macho presence in the film almost steal the show, but what led Hogan to think of him as a possibility? “I couldn’t give that role away with a free toaster! Nobody wanted to do it,” says Hogan, “because on the page Trev does not have much screen time. And actors, I don’t care who they are, they’re page-counters. They’ll finish reading the script and ask, ‘am I furniture, or am I a part?’ And often that becomes mathematical – if I’m not in it for more than 10 pages, then I’m furniture.’  But somehow the screenplay ended up in the hands of Liev and he saw what the role could be. I had never thought of going offshore for that role but Liev understood this guy. He contacted me through friends, and he wanted the part. And I said, ‘we have no money’, and he said, ‘I’ll do it for whatever you’ve got’. Of course we discussed the accent. I’m not a big believer in Americans coming in and trying to do the Australian accent, because it doesn’t usually work. It’s a very difficult accent to do. But I knew that Liev – having seen him on stage – is a master of accents. And of course he’s married to an Australian, and he felt that he could do it. I don’t think he would’ve done the part if he wasn’t convinced he could pull it off, and he did spectacularly.”

The Don behind the camera

MENTAL is cinematographer Don McAlpine’s first foray into digital cinematography – and he’s not turning back.

Mental is shot by legendary (and Raymond Longford Award-winning) cinematographer Don McAlpine, who also shot Peter Pan for Hogan nearly a decade ago. This new film boasts the honour of being McAlpine’s first experience with digital cinematography. “I didn’t want to do it digital,” admits Hogan, “because I’m a film guy, which makes me spiritually older than Don is. I’ve never really liked the look of digital film. But I left it to Don, and I thought after so many decades of shooting film, if Don wants to go digital, then he knows how to do it! And if you talk to Don, then you’ll know that he will never go back. He has now become digital’s biggest champion. He loves it. And this is the guy who did My Brilliant Career and Moulin Rouge – one of the greatest Australian DPs – and he’s not going to go back to film.”

A Mental nod to the Von Trapp Family

Asked what the most difficult aspect of making the film was, Hogan answers, “just making the thing, and making it on a low budget. I never really like talking about budgets because whether it’s low or high, I don’t like that to be the focal point – but I will say that Mental cost more than Muriel’s Wedding but only because with that film (Muriel) ABBA gave us the rights for free to use their music. A lot of the money here went towards getting Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music. Luckily as a filmmaker I’m known for having a very good reason for using particular music in my films. Rodgers and Hammerstein are understandably very protective of what they own. They read the script and I had a talk to them and they agreed to allow me to use it. But that doesn’t mean that they’re a charity, so we did have to pay.”

Still, it was essential to Hogan that this particular music formed the backdrop to the film – and the scene involving Anthony LaPaglia’s rendition of ‘Eidelweiss’ has to be seen to be believed. “I just love the movie The Sound of Music,” says Hogan. I was introduced to it in re-release by my mother, who adored it. I couldn’t understand why she always cried when the father sang ‘Eidelweiss’ – it wasn’t until later that I realised why, and that to me was very important realisation: the sound of music is a very entertaining movie but it is a burden as well, to try to compare your family to the Von Trapps!”

Filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse (centre), one of the producers of MENTAL, on set with husband and long time collaborator P.J. Hogan.

Mental  is now in general release in Australia.

Mental – Key Cast & Crew

Writer/Director: P.J. Hogan
Producers: Janet Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Todd Fellman and Jocelyn Moorhouse
Executive Producers: Gary Hamilton, Bryce Menzies and Lee Soon Kie
Key Cast: Toni Collette, Liev Schreiber, Anthony LaPaglia, Rebecca Gibney, Kerry Fox, Caroline Goodall, Deborah Mailman, Sam Clark, Lily Sullivan, Malorie O’Neill, Nicole Freeman, Chelsea Bennett, Bethany Whitmore.
Director of Photography: Don McAlpine, ASC
Production Designer: Graham Walker
Editor: Jill Bilcock
Music: Michael Yezerski
Visual Effects Supervisor: Ben West
Costume Designer: Tim Chappel
Casting: Christine King

Australian films at the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival

The Sapphires

The Melbourne International Film Festival has a long history of supporting Australian film, and in 2012 the festival again screens a wide variety of local fare in its Australian Showcase stream, from internationally-lauded blockbusters to low budget indies.

And in addition to offering local filmmakers a chance to have their film screened to supportive Australian audiences, MIFF supports the Australian film industry further through its MIFF Premiere Fund, which has financed a diverse range of feature films and documentaries since its inception in 2007.

Australian films will both open and close the festival in 2012, with Wayne Blair’s 1960s-era musical drama/comedy The Sapphires adding a touch of glitz, glamour and soul to the opening night gala last week. A joyous crowd-pleaser all but guaranteed success (after being picked up for international distribution by the Weinstein Company at Cannes), The Sapphires celebrates Aboriginal culture, family bonds and the irrepressible power of soul music with a delightfully sassy script and extravagant production and costume design.

There are dozens of Australian feature films playing at MIFF this year, from introspective dramas to psychotic horror-comedies to Bollywood musicals. Some of these titles are sure to appear in upcoming AACTA Awards seasons. Join us as we profile the Australian features on offer to thousands of eager cinephiles during the Melbourne International Film Festival.

The Melbourne International Film Festival runs from August 2 to 17 at various locations throughout the Melbourne city centre.

Features

100 Bloody Acres

100 Bloody Acres

Reg and Lindsay are having trouble sourcing the “secret ingredient” for their organic fertiliser – human remains sourced from car crash victims. When a trio of young music festival-goers find themselves stranded at their front door, the two businessmen have a devious idea – but struggle to bring themselves to go through with it.

One for the schlock fans, 100 Bloody Acres is produced by Julie Ryan (RED DOG) and Kate Croser, with Damon Herriman, Anna McGahan, John Jarratt and Angus Sampson adding a touch of crackle to the cast of this grisly, comedic horror flick. They’re not psycho killers… they’re just small business owners.

Being Venice

Being Venice

The first feature-length film by New Zealand-born filmmaker Miro Bilbrough follows the eponymous Venice (Alice McConnell) as one man leaves her life and another re-enters it. The former – her boyfriend – announces that he needs some space and promptly leaves the house they share, while the latter – her estranged ex-hippie father Arthur (veteran comic actor Garry McDonald) – worms his way into staying on Alice’s couch while visiting from New Zealand.

Being Venice was warmly received at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year, described by Frank Hatherly of Screen Daily as “thoughtful” and possessing “something of a European sensibility” in presenting Venice’s struggle to make sense of the male relationships in her life.

Dead Europe

Dead Europe

The first announced of MIFF’s “surprise screenings” on the last day of the festival, Dead Europe is the latest in a string of adaptations of Christos Tsiolkas novels, directed by director Tony Krawitz (The Tall Man), adapted for the screen by veteran television writer Louise Fox, and starring acclaimed young actor Ewen Leslie in the lead.

Described by Gary Maddox in the Sydney Morning Herald as “a bruising blast of intense drama”, the film is a deep, densely wrought examination of Europe, “the continent of lost souls”, and the burden that children of “cursed” peoples must bear.

Errors of the Human Body

Errors of the Human Body

Described as a “psycho-scientific thriller” developed while director Eron Sheean was artist-in-resident at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, early reviews of Errors of the Human Body have noted the scientific authenticity with which the film’s plot is realised.

A German-Australian co-production directed by an Australian based in Europe, with a cast including Karoline Herfurth (Germany), Tomas Lemarquis (Iceland), Rik Mayall (United Kingdom) and Michael Eklund (Canada), it’s a horror film set on the cutting edge of science and technology, dealing with the ethics of biological and genetic science.

Hail

Hail

Melbourne local Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s work straddles both art cinema and mainstream filmmaking, with over a dozen short fiction films to his credit as well as three highly-acclaimed documentary features.

Hail shapes the extraordinary life experience of artist and ex-convict Daniel P. Jones into an experimental, autobiographical dramatic tapestry. Jones’s own words – transcribed and edited from interviews with the director – form the basis for the film’s dialogue, which is spoken by “characters” being played by their real-life counterparts. The resulting film is not strictly a drama and not strictly a documentary, but an exploration of hope in the face of oppressive adversity.

Jack Irish – Bad Debts

Jack Irish – Bad Debts

MIFFsters will be treated to the first of two Jack Irish tele-features scheduled to air on ABC TV in late 2012, boasting a stellar cast including Guy Pearce, Aaron Pedersen, Colin Friels, Shane Jacobson, Marta Dusseldorp, Steve Bisley and Roy Billing.

Guy Pearce is Jack, an old-school former criminal lawyer turned part-time private detective and debt collector, whose line of work has won him some rather colourful friends and acquaintences over the years. When one former client turns up dead, Jack burrows deep into Melbourne’s seedy underside to get to the bottom of it all.

Based on the eponymous series of crime novels by Miles Franklin Award winner Peter Temple, Jack Irish: Bad Debts will be followed by Jack Irish: Black Tide.

Last Dance

Last Dance

David Pulbrook (a veteran, AFI Award-winning editor) makes his directorial debut in this tightly-wound drama, set in the immediate aftermath of a synogogue bombing perpetrated by the Muslim Sadiq Mohammed (Underbelly‘s Firass Dirani). Seeking shelter, he forces his way into a flat occupied by a Holocaust survivor Ulah (Julia Blake), and thus begins a hostage drama which forces both Sadiq and Ulah to confront their own pasts.

Mental

Closing out the festival is Mental, a so-called suburban dramedy which reunites director P.J. Hogan with Toni Collette for the first time since Muriel’s Wedding was released in 1994.

Anthony LaPaglia is a philandering small-town politician shocked to discover that his wife has been institutionalised and has left him to take care of five children – none of which he has any particular interest in getting to know. By serendipity, a “charismatic, crazy hothead” (Collette) finds herself thrust into the household as the girls’ nanny, and slowly but surely transforms their home into something resembling normality.

Save Your Legs!

Save Your Legs!

A new addition to the MIFF calendar this year is the mid-festival gala event, turning the middle weekend of the festival into yet another party – if the opening and closing nights weren’t enough. A decidedly more relaxed affair than the glitzy opening night, the mid-festival gala will see the upbeat Bollywood-influenced musical comedy Save Your Legs! screened.

The Abbotsford Anglers, a D-grade local cricket team more interested in the shots on offer at the bar than those being made on the cricket field, make one last thrust for glory by going on an ill-conceived cricketing tour of India which ends in disastrous on-field results but more than a few laughs.

Starring Stephen Curry, Brendan Cowell, Damon Gameau and many more (plus a cameo by cricket legend Sir Richard Hadlee), Save Your Legs! is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

Documentaries

Coniston

Coniston

In late 1928 upwards of 100 innocent indigenous men, women and children were brutally murdered to avenge the death of a white dingo trapper named Fred Brooks, who was killed by Aborigines after “taking liberties” with the wife of a Warlpiri tribesman.

One of many films presented in partnership with Blackfella Films, Coniston is a combination documentary-dramatisation of the Contiston massacre as told by Warlpiri, Waramunga, Anmatyerr and Kaytetje people. Based on a shameful episode of Australian history – the last large-scale massacre of Aborigines by whites – is an important exercise in educating modern audiences.

Croker Island Exodus

Croker Island Exodus

Also blending the documentary and dramatic forms is Croker Island Exodus, based on the true story of a Methodist mission on Croker Island off the coast of Arnhem Land.

After the bombing of Darwin in 1942, the Australian government evacuated all white women and children from the far north of the Northern Territory, including Croker Island. The (white) missionaries refused evacuation, not wanting to abandon the 95 aboriginal children in their care, and instead embarked on an epic 44-day, 5,000-kilometre journey to Sydney by boat, truck, canoe and even by foot.

First-time feature director Steven McGregor combines dramatic reconstructions with interviews of three of the children who made the journey, now in their 80s, who reflect on their childhood as part of the Stolen Generation and their remarkable journey to sanctuary.

The First Fagin

The First Fagin

Is Fagin – the grotesque thief/landlord in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and one of literature’s most enduring characters – based on Ikey Solomon, a real-life 19th century English criminal and escape artist? That’s what The First Fagin, directed by the trans-continental team of Alan Rosenthal and Helen Gaynor and narrated by the great Miriam Margolyes, sets out to discover.

Exploring the expulsion-happy criminal justice system of the 19th century as well as the life and reputation of Solomon, who was sentenced to be deported to Australia but for reasons unknown never made it to his down under prison, The First Fagin is one of many docu-drama features playing at MIFF this year. Tracing Solomon’s movements from England, through continental Europe, the United States and finally to Australia – where his wife had been deported – the film is a fantastical portrait of a man whose influence on culture is still being felt.

Lasseter’s Bones

Lasseter’s Bones

Beyond Our Ken, Luke Walker’s exploration into Kenja Communications – the “self-empowerment” group and alleged cult run by Ken Dyers and his wife Jan Hamilton – stirred up significant controversy when it screened at MIFF in 2007, and was nominated for an AFI Award in 2008.

His follow-up, Lasseter’s Bones, trades quasi-religious fanatics for an outback legend stretching back over 100 years, based around the existence (or non-existence) of Lasseter’s Reef, an enourmous gold deposit reportedly discovered and subsequently lost by Harold Lasseter in 1897.

With the help of Lasseter’s eccentric elderly son Bob, who continues to search for the fabled river of gold to vindicate his father, Walker attempts to get to the bottom of a legend which has taken on a life of its own – and taken one over, too.

Make Hummus Not War

Make Hummus Not War

A documentary about a different kind of war in the Middle East, Make Hummus Not War is about, well, hummus. Specifically, which culture can lay claim to ownership of the chickpea dish, which is steeped in thousands of years of contentious history and is one of the oldest prepared foods in human history.

Veteran filmmaker Trevor Graham, who won an AFI Award in 1997 for his documentary about the life of Eddie Mabo (Mabo: Life of an Island Man), traces the history of this unlikely dish and its symbolic importance to the Arab people of the Middle East. A lawsuit brought against Israel by Lebanon in 2008 about the heritage of hummus inspired Graham to delve a little deeper into what place hummus holds in Middle Eastern culture, and maybe, its role in Middle East reconciliation.

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me

Australia’s unofficial troubador laureate Paul Kelly has been capturing the Australian condition through his folk/rock/country music for decades, and has been called “one of the greatest songwriters I have ever heard, Australian or otherwise” by Rolling Stone editor David Fricke.

Paul Kelly: Stories of Me charts Kelly’s life, loves and losses, painting an intimate picture of a private man living in the public eye. The film, directed by Ian Darling, offers an exclusive insight into the man behind the fame, his creative processes and his remarkable catalogue of music.

Stay tuned to the AFI | AACTA blog as we post further updates throughout the festival.

Why I Adore: Lantana

By James Madden

First viewings can be overrated. Fairly frequently, I fall in love with a film upon a second viewing. Lantana was one of those experiences. I was a touch too young to see Lantana in its theatrical release. Sure, I could have done so, but at the tender age of 13, Jim Carrey comedies shone brighter on my radar. That is not to say that I hadn’t heard about Lantana. It was so critically acclaimed that upon release at the local video store (at a time not too long ago where videos could still be hired), I instantly snatched it up. After all, I had grown into a mature and worldly 14-year-old by that point.

Genius! An instant classic! Breathtaking Australian cinema at it’s finest! These were words I had heard sung from the heavens by not only critics and through promotional television soundbites, but from close family members too. For me, however, it just simply flew over my head. It wasn’t until the second viewing where I fell deeply and passionately in love.
Like the wild shrub that it is named after, Lantana offers an interconnected vine of characters that are quickly growing out-of-control within their own environment. Though the lantana weed is considered a pest, it also contains simple and beautiful flowers within its thorny vines. This analogy is not lost, and speaks volumes for the characters within the story.

Adapted for the screen by Andrew Bovell, based on his play Speaking in Tongues, Lantana presents a multi-strand narrative consisting of four couples in a contemporary Australian setting. Not all couples belong to the same social class, however . The unemployed Nik (Vince Colosimo) and his wife Paula (Daniella Farinacci), a nurse, are working class. Their neighbours Jane (Rachael Blake) and Pete (Glenn Robbins) are lower-middle class with seemingly more money, while detective Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) and his teacher wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) are middle class.  Psychiatrist and author Valerie (Barbara Hershey) and her husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), an academic, have enough money to live in a spacious home with a spectacular view.

Each character is caught in moments of quiet, suburban desperation. The underbelly of modern suburbia is not a novel concept, but underpinning this theme is a mystery motif. The opening images present a woman’s body lying apparently motionless amongst the tangled vines of the lantana weed. A connection is later made to the disappearance of psychiatrist Valerie Somers, who never made it home after she ran her car off the road. As the film progresses, the mystery slowly unravels, but in an unusual style. Valerie doesn’t even disappear until half way through the film. Up until then, the principal characters are increasingly intertwining.

Leon begins an affair with Jane after meeting in dance class, while his marriage to Sonja continues to sour. Sonja’s sessions with Valerie reveal the deep connections missing in both of their lives, as the story then follows Valerie home. Her life is surrounded by agonising grief after the murder of her 11-year-old daughter only two years beforehand. Not coping well with the grief, Valerie and husband John are also drifting further apart. Even in the confines of their car, their detachment is obvious.

Having not made a feature film since Bliss in 1985, Ray Lawrence made a big return with Lantana. Lawrence articulates the disintegration of relationships most marvellously and effectively well through use of space and proximity. John and Valerie rarely look at each other while on screen. Their days are spent commuting back and forth from work in the car, where they avoid face to face contact. Barbara Hershey is particularly compelling when Valerie emotionally breaks down in a phone booth. Catching the answering machine, Valerie initially lets John know of her car troubles. After two more phone calls, she psychologically collapses and details her pain. As Valerie opens up, the vast distance becomes strikingly apparent and is in direct contrast to the estrangement that occurs daily within an arm’s length.

Meanwhile, Rachael Blake creates an atypical character in Jane. Cast as the “other woman”, Jane could be seen as a Fatal Attraction-type temptress, bordering on the lines of psychotic stalker. Instead, a portrait of an unhappy housewife is shaped. Jane lives an unfulfilled life, where dreams occupy her reality, as she dances along to Cuban music in her living room with a glass of vodka in one hand and a cigarette in the other. There is a moment where it seems she may become the needy, stereotypical adulteress, but instead she shies back into her insular fantasy world.

As an ensemble, the cast is as good as it gets. While I’ve singled out Hershey and Blake, each key actor could easily be commended on their brilliant portrayals. Impressive chemistry exudes freely and each performance is astonishing. Even the supporting actors are terrific despite little screen time, with noteworthy performances from Leah Purcell, Peter Phelps and Russell Dykstra.

Paul Kelly’s score adds a necessary element of mystery, as well as providing a contemporary suburban foundation. A Cuban/Salsa flavour is added and is most effectively utilised within the final scene as Celia Cruz sings “Te Busco”. Each character is presented in their current and unsure state. While the future may be hopeful, it is anything but certain, and as Leon and Sonja dance, this becomes painfully clear.

About James Madden: James Madden has written for a slew of student newspapers/magazines and online publications including Portable, Upstart and X and Y magazine. He is currently undertaking a Master of Arts and Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne. James founded Film Blerg in 2009 where he continues to slave away and will be a Screen Editor for Farrago magazine in 2012. Many of his inane ramblings can be found here as well as on Twitter @FilmBlerg.

Editor’s Note: More on Lantana

In 2011 AFI | AACTA hosted special ten-year Anniversary Screenings of Lantana in Sydney and Melbourne, followed by Q&A sessions with key cast and crew members. The Melbourne screening of Lantana involved discussion with the film’s producer Jan Chapman and actors Vince Colosimo and Kerry Armstrong. You can watch highlights below, and while the lighting is atrocious, the sound is excellent, and their reminiscences about the production process are fascinating and illuminating.

Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:

Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. Most recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City.  Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space, John Bailey remembers a strange fascination with Big Brother Up Late, and most recently Hila Shachar explains why Cate Shortland’s Somersault moves her so.

Contribute: We’re currently looking for more ’Why I Adore’ articles devoted to Australian film and television. Send a one paragraph summary to editor[at] afi.org.au and we’ll get back to you with more details.

Snapshots from the inaugural Samsung AACTA Awards Ceremony

Here’s an editor’s quick pick of snapshots from the inaugural Samsung AACTA Awards Ceremony, held at the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday 31 January, 2012. They’re a collection of red carpet pics, photos from the Ceremony, media wall images of winners, and afterparty snaps. Hope you enjoy them, and there’ll be more uploaded soon!

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To see a gallery of photos of winners in the media room, click here to find them on the AACTA website. There are also lots of lovely pictures on our AACTA Facebook page.