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.

25 Years on the Couch: Margaret Pomeranz

by Rochelle Siemienowicz

With her spiky blonde crop, enormous earrings and throaty laugh, Margaret Pomeranz is no doubt the most recognisable and beloved film critic in Australia.  In an amazing feat of television longevity, Pomeranz has been appearing on screen with her fellow reviewer (and friendly sparring partner) David Stratton, for 25 years now.  They first appeared together in 1986, when they established and hosted The Movie Show on SBS. In 2004, the duo moved to the ABC, where the show was renamed At the Movies, and is still going strong today. In fact, to celebrate the 25th anniversary, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne is now staging an exhibition, ‘Margaret and David: 25 Years Talking Movies’ (17 August – 4 December 2011).

Pomeranz fell into movie reviewing completely by chance. As a producer for SBS, she was casting The Movie Show  and needed a female host as conterpart to established film critic David Stratton. There didn’t seem to be anybody else available, so Pomeranz stepped in, sat down on the sofa, and as they say, a star was born.

An Arts graduate with a major in German and Pyschology, the young Margaret had spent time in Europe, worked as a journalist for the ABC and the Bulletin, and had become an enthusiastic supporter of the new wave of Australian films in the 1970s, alongside her husband, filmmaker Hans Pomeranz . After attending the Playwright’s Studio at NIDA she began writing for television, radio and film, and then moved to screenwriting and television producing for the newly established multicultural broadcaster, SBS – where her experiences included excecutive producing the AFI Awards and the IF Awards.

A passionate and outspoken advocate for the freedom of speech, Pomeranz is currently vice-President of Watch on Censorship. She’s also served as a member of the Advertising Standards Board, and is a past President of the Film Critics Circle of Australia.

In our interview, conducted earlier this year at the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival, Pomeranz was as warm, funny and intense in person as she is on screen. She enthused about her new hot pink iPhone (‘Now I can finally find my phone in  my handbag!’), reminisced about her early years on television, and discussed the complexities of reviewing the Australian films made by colleagues and friends. And just in case you think her job’s a dream, she lets us in on some of the minor irritations of having to see every single film released each week.

Celebrating 25 years of sparring on the couch: Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton. Image courtesy of ABC

AFI: Congratulations on 25 years of doing The Movie Show – or versions thereof!

Margaret Pomeranz: It’s been incredible. I can remember way back, at the beginning, when I’d only been doing it for four years, I remember saying, ‘Oh, I’ll just do it for one more year.’ It’s always been one more year, one more year. And then all of sudden, you go ‘Oh wow, it’s ten years!’ And then it’s 20. Now it’s a quarter of a century and it sounds pretty heavy duty.

AFI:  When you were saying ‘one more year’, was that because the pace was so intense that you didn’t know if you could keep it up? Or were you thinking that the show wouldn’t be supported for more than one more year?

Margaret Pomeranz: Well, I suppose in those days, programs only lasted a certain number of seasons. You expected that they’d want to go on and make something new. I think because we started on SBS, we sort of worked our way in from the edge. People who liked film made an effort to find us, and then the show became established. Films keep coming out every week, all year round, so they need reviewing. It just keeps on keeping on.

AFI: When the show started you were producing as well as presenting. What was it like performing both those roles?

Margaret Pomeranz: It nearly killed me! It’s not actually an ideal balance of roles, because, you know, I had to learn to shut up in the studio, to let them call the shots from the control room, instead of me trying to do it. I’m such a control freak! That took a while.

It’s a small country, and it’s actually quite a small industry, so you actually do personally know a lot of the people in these films you’re talking about and you know that if you are critical, it’s terribly hurtful for them, and terribly damaging.

AFI: In Australia, you and David are our most recognisable film critics, and you’re very much part of the debate when a new Australian film gets released. Every Australian filmmaker is interested in how their work is reviewed on your show. They’ll be watching and caring about what you think. That must be quite a consideration for you.

Margaret Pomeranz: It is a consideration. It’s a small country, and it’s actually quite a small industry, so you actually do personally know a lot of the people in these films you’re talking about and you know that if you are critical, it’s terribly hurtful for them, and terribly damaging. I must admit that I really liked it when our show was a little niche program on SBS without that responsibility. I don’t particularly want that responsibility. But unfortunately, it’s been thrust upon us and I’m very aware of how important it is for filmmakers when their work is reviewed on our show.

AFI: Your show was the first of its kind in Australia, wasn’t it?

Margaret Pomeranz: Yes. We were the only program that tried to cover every film in a week. You had Peter Thompson on the ABC and gradually, on cable television, there were a few shows as well. But for free-to-air, I can’t actually believe that no one had ever thought of this before. And even with SBS, you know, we really had to fight to get it up. There were movie review shows that were well-established in America at that time, but there was nothing here, and there continued to be nothing. I don’t know whether it was because the commercial television channels here were so aligned with some of the studios – the output that they took from Paramount and Warners and stuff like that, so that they thought it would compromise them if some of their material would be criticised on their own station – but the ABC and, well, public broadcasting in general, has that absolute freedom to not owe anything to anyone, which is healthy. It’s why I believe in public broadcasting.

AFI: The film critic or reviewer has to be absolutely autonomous, otherwise it’s a pointless exercise.

Margaret Pomeranz: Yes. At the same time, I wouldn’t downplay the major newspaper critics in this country either. I’m sure every city has at least one reviewer who is very important and would consider themselves to be thoroughly independent.

AFI: As someone who’s been doing this for so long, do you get the feeling that the quality of the debate about cinema and film culture has improved in the last couple of decades, or has it changed in any way?

Margaret Pomeranz: I actually don’t think television is the arena for really in-depth debate about film. All I wanted to do with our program was make a guide to cinema, the current cinema. But what I did notice over the years is this absolute explosion of interest in cinema. And I imagine it’s because cinema is taught in schools and kids have the ability to make their own short films with the technology these days. And it is a magic art. No wonder they’re so enthused about it! Nowadays many young people are extremely cinema-literate, so that has certainly changed over the years. When we started, we were the first people to go out and actually cover Australian films shooting on location. A lot of the early stories that we did, no one else had ever thought of that. Then the idea of creating EPKs [Electronic Press Kits] came up and we pulled back from that. But I hope that by giving those kinds of insight into this struggling, poor little industry that we’ve got, an industry that throws up so much talent, that we can be part of the process of developing enthusiasm for what’s happening in film in this country.

I walk the streets of any city in this country and people greet me with a smile. Now, that’s not a bad way to go about life, actually, to have that sort of genuine response – people smiling at you as if you’re a friend.

AFI: You travel the world’s film festivals and watch films for a living. What is the hardest part of your job?

Margaret Pomeranz: I suppose the fact is that you’re completely at the mercy of someone else’s schedule. It’s very hard even making a doctor’s appointment that you know you’re going to be able to keep. Or a dinner appointment. Recently I said to [theatre director] Neil Armfield, ‘I’m giving up on theatre. I can’t go to the theatre anymore because I don’t know when I’m going to have to go to a six o’clock film screening. And I’m never going to make the theatre by eight.’  The number of theatre tickets I’ve had to swap or abandon! It just gets to be very frustrating. It’s really difficult, trying to have dinner with the kids, who seem to want to get up early and go to bed early. It’s a minor irritation. But the rest of it is great. Everybody is so lovely. I have to tell you, I walk the streets of any city in this country and people greet me with a smile. Now, that’s not a bad way to go about life, actually, to have that sort of genuine response – people smiling at you as if you’re a friend. It’s lovely.

AFI: You don’t get people coming up to you and saying: ‘How could you not have loved such-and-such a film?’

Margaret Pomeranz: No. Occasionally, very occasionally, people come up and take issue in a really engaged way. They’re not attacking, but they want to talk about a film that you haven’t liked and they’ve really liked. But generally, there’s just great enthusiasm for the program. It’s surprised me, it really surprised me. But we’ve been in people’s lounge rooms for 25 years. You know, there are 25-year olds who’ve grown up with us. We’ve been part of young people’s lives for all their lives if they’re interested in film and they’ve been following the program, and a lot of them have. It’s incredible. We’re an institution, we’re institutionalised!

AFI: In a good way! And what advice would you have for a young film reviewer who’s trying to make a start?

Margaret Pomeranz: I suppose it’s the same advice that you give a filmmaker. Just watch a lot of cinema. See how the good ones do it. See how the bad ones do it. Have a film education. We’ve introduced this ‘Classics’ segment on At The Movies, and the response to that has been really extraordinary. I mean, people want to learn about cinema. They do want to be led towards really fantastic films of the past. And I think good filmmakers know what the greats have done in the past and they can learn from them.

AFI: You said something very interesting in your 2010 Hector Crawford Memorial Lecture, bemoaning Australian filmmakers’ traditional reticence to pack an emotional punch and to explore things like sex and intimacy.  Do you think we’re heading away from that tendency or is it still a problem?

Margaret Pomeranz: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t want to make blanket criticisms, but I think it is a trend. And I noticed it in Canadian films too.  Perhaps it’s because we’ve inherited that ‘Britishness’, that reticence, which the Americans just shrugged off, embracing their new world and everything that was free in it, including emotion. But I do think that it’s not an area that Australians feel competent to explore – ideas of intense emotion, intense love. But, I have to say that I’ve just recently seen Griff the Invisible, and it’s beautiful. It is really a compassionate, wonderful little film. So, you know, with films like that, maybe things are changing.

AFI: From an AFI perspective, you’ve been engaged with the AFI Awards in various ways for a long time. What are your memories of those early years when you produced the awards when they were broadcast on SBS?

Margaret Pomeranz: Oh yes, I pounded the floor backstage and wrung my hands whenever anybody went over their allotted time for their thank you speech! It was a massive undertaking.  I had never done anything like that before, so it was a huge learning curve for me. But fortunately, Denny Lawrence was the AFI Chair at the time and I’d known him for a long time and we got on very well. I was able to speak up about things and become really engaged in the process, which was lovely.

AFI: From your perspective now, as a film reviewer now, what are the importance of the AFI Awards?

Margaret Pomeranz: I think they’re really important, because it focuses the nation’s attention on our cinema and highlights the grand achievements in the particular year. It’s good for individual films, but I think it’s also good for the country as a whole to have their interests pricked at certain moments and this is the big moment in the year for Australian film. In the early days when I came back to Australia from overseas, I’d go to the AFI Awards. Actually at that time I had a screen writing credit so I was able to vote in the screen writing category. And I’d go to the AFI Awards screening and you’d get to see all the films released in that year. Everybody in the film industry went. It was a great informal forum for the discussion of film. Now I’m looking forward to seeing the actual Awards being in Sydney for a change.

AFI: The glamour, the glamour! We look forward to seeing you there. Thanks for talking with us.

Margaret Pomeranz: My pleasure.

MORE INFORMATION

At the Movies screens on ABC TV every Wednesday night at 10.00pm and is repeated on Sundays at 6.00pm.

Margaret and David: 25 Years Talking Movies is exhibited at ACMI in Melbourne from 17 August until 4 December 2011. The 25 year anniversary episode of At the Movies will screen on ABC1 on 26 October. Visit abc.net.au for further info.

‘Let’s agree to disagree’ – A great piece posted on the ACMI Blog, with David and Margaret offering their 25 most memorable and most forgettable film experiences. Also, some terrific photos from the early years.

 

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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