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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Alan Finney’s Cannes Report #3

Philippe Mora and Alan Finney at Cannes 2011

Filmmaker Philippe Mora, left, and Alan Finney catch up at Cannes 2011.

AFI Chair Alan Finney attended the 2011 Cannes Film Festival (11 – 22 May) as a producer and member of the Australian film contingent. As an industry insider since the 1960s, as a filmmaker, distributor and exhibitor, Finney has been to Cannes many times before. This year Alan sent back snapshots, impressions and memories. In this third and final report, he reflects on the state of the international market and on how other territories, particularly the French, manage their business. He checks in with Philippe Mora, makes some observations on piracy, and recommends a couple of fascinating new documentaries.

You can catch the previous Cannes Reports, #1 here or #2 here. Read on for the final installment…

It’s pretty obvious that there’s a feeling out on the streets of Cannes that this has been a strong market (as opposed to a Festival which I’ll leave others to judge).

Plenty of films, together with enthusiastic buyers in a highly competitive mode, and newly emerging markets in Russia and Latin America have resulted in a litany of good deals, a somewhat surprising result given the recent softness of international theatrical performance and declining DVD performance.

Also, of course, China is discussed as one of the growing and increasingly valuable markets. Importation and censorship controls are being addressed and whilst China is not alone in imposing limits on non-domestic films, its quota regime is among the world’s tightest.

The shared opinion seems to be that the rules are changing, though one producer expressed the opinion that a US sale is just as important as it was in the past, because if a film fails in the US it will impact negatively on its business in the rest of the world.

Of course it wouldn’t be the film industry without someone casting doubt on the upbeat mood with the Hollywood Reporter commenting : “While some are hailing this year as a return to the pre-crisis glory days – ‘extraordinary’, ‘huge’ and ‘best-ever’ were the most used adjectives amongst sales heavyweights – there remains the big question of whether Cannes’ hot pre-sale titles, when delivered, can deliver at the box office.”

A Glance at the French Case

Learning how other territories manage their business is always interesting and attending a forum on film and television, I learnt that in 2010, French television contributed 400 million Euros to the French Film Industry. I hope I didn’t hear that incorrectly!

The last time I checked, the French system for financing films seemed unique in Europe:

  • French theatres must show French films for a minimum number of weeks each year;
  • Major TV channels must allocate 3.2% of their turnover to cinema as co-producer (including at least 2.5% to French films);
  • They must broadcast a minimum of 50% of French films and Canal Plus, a very popular pay channel must devote 20% of its turnover to buy the rights of films (12% European minimum including 9% French minimum);
  • On each cinema ticket, an 11% tax is allocated to the “Fonds de Soutien’, which is open to foreign films provided they are co-produced with a French producer.

 At a producers’ breakfast meeting, one speaker told of some buyers making offers based on the Internet Movie Database (IMD) ratings…. a rather strange way to make commercial projections I would have thought.

Anticipating Dali

Salvador Dali and Alan Cumming

Salvador Dali, left, and Alan Cumming, the actor who plays him in Philippe Mora's upcoming 3D biopic, 'Dali'.

I also had a great catch-up with an old friend Philippe Mora who is in Cannes getting buyers excited about his next film Dali, a 3D biopic which will star Alan Cumming as the surrealist artist, and Judy Davis as his wife Gala. This I want to see! You can read more about this fascinating project over at Indiewire.

Piracy

Piracy is also a topic that pops up frequently in conversations and over recent years AFACT (Australian Federation against Copyright Theft) has had a hard fight against Internet Service Providers and hopefully recent news will encourage them to keep up the fight.

The US entertainment industry has thrown its weight behind proposed legislation that would give law enforcement officials and others new authority to move against internet sites that traffic in copyright material without permission. The Bill was introduced Thursday into the US Senate and is called the Protect IP Act, for intellectual property, and it will take aim at foreign-owned sites that trade in pirated material by allowing US authorities to seek court orders directing domestic internet service providers, search engines and others to stop doing business with them.

Alan’s Documentary Picks

Documentary films were also a big topic this year at Cannes. According to a very interesting article in movieScope Magazine, “we live in a golden age of documentary. Worldwide, more docs are being made by more people about more subjects than ever before. The Internet has democratised distribution and marketing.”

Whilst I am leaving movie reviews to others, there are two films I recommend you look out for, two  docos that are very different, but both intriguing.

Roger Corman at Cannes 2011

Roger Corman, centre, attends the premiere of documentary 'Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel' at Cannes 2011.

First, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel. It was well worth standing in line for over an hour along with hundreds of Roger Corman fans to see this movie! I not only remember Corman’s films from late 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s,but also ushered at some of them in Melbourne, and then was later involved in marketing others in the early days of Roadshow Distributors.

For those unfamliar with Roger Corman’s unique career, he began in 1949 with a job at 20th Century Fox and worked his way up to become a story analyst but after he received no credit for notes he made on a screenplay he abandoned the Studio path and started “no Budget” films. His first film was Monster from the Ocean Floor in 1953 which led to a lengthy relationship with American International Pictures (AIP), where he produced and directed films for years. His films were always profitable so he accessed larger budgets and in the ’60s he developed a long string of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. He made the first biker movie (Wild Angels) and the first “drug” movie (The Trip). Then there was The Intruder, a movie about integration in the South, but unable to find a financier willing to touch the subject, it was self-funded and self-produced. Corman later left AIP to form his own company, New World Pictures, which not only produced Corman signature entertainment but also distributed renowned foreign films in the US, helping to introduce American audiences to Kurosawa, Truffaut, Bergman, and Fellini. Corman then sold New World and formed Concorde-New Horizon which is still in business today.

Corman’s World contains interviews with some big Hollywood names, including Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich and Ron Howard. Roger and his wife Julie attended the screening and introduced the film as did Peter Fonda. The response from the crowd was enormous.

Conan O'Brien on tour in 'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

Conan O'Brien on tour in the documentary 'Conan O'Brien Can't Stop'.

The second documentary I’d like to highlight, is Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, which follows  the former Tonight Show host on a  two-month, 32-city comedy-and-music variety-show tour (“Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television”) shortly after his split with NBC in 2010. His staff are key characters in the film such as Andy Richter, Jeff Ross and his ever-understanding assistant, Sona Movsesian and we catch up with stars such as Jim Carrey, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  The back-stage encounters with his team are funny and fascinating. Conan is obviously a complex and complicated person – but that’s what being a comic is all about.

Finally, back to the AFI….

Its also been good to chat with the Australians attending the Festival about the role of the AFI and the exciting challenges we face in making it relevant to all sectors of our very broad industry. Overall the filmmakers see value in the AFI as a body that can do more than just present awards once a year, and thankfully they seem willing to work with us in becoming an energetic and relevant organisation. The years ahead are going to hard work but it will be worth it.

Stay tuned for further developments.

Alan Finney’s Cannes Report #2

View from Screen Australia office at Cannes

The view from the Screen Australia office at Cannes

AFI Chair Alan Finney,  is currently attending the 2011 Cannes Film Festival (11 – 22 May) as a producer and member of the Australian film contingent. As an industry insider since the 1960s, as a filmmaker, distributor and exhibitor, Finney has been to Cannes many times before. This year Alan is sending back snapshots, impressions and memories. In this second report, he catches up with some old friends and attends a forum debating the merits of Video on Demand (VOD) versus a traditional windows approach to distribution. You can catch the previous Cannes Report here or read on for the latest…

My favourite memory of Cannes is probably the launch of Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, back in 1994, and it was the exposure they got here, followed by terrific screenings back home that really kicked off their success.

Now there are so many Australians here which is terrific – producers, distributors and government film body representatives and a lot of “veteran friends” who still come to the festival to stay in touch with the worldwide industry. And of course, there are icons such as David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz who are stars in their own right. It was also great to bump into Anthony LaPaglia in the street as we hadn’t worked together since Brilliant Lies, directed by the late and great Richard Franklin and based on the David Williamson play.

The place for Aussies to congregate is naturally at the Screen Australia office, perched high up and with great views of Cannes. Screen Australia CEO Ruth Harley and her team are most hospitable, and as well as being a spot to catch up with friends and business contacts, there are many functions to which filmmakers from other countries are invited and the communication opportunities are most beneficial. What also pleased me was the number of young Australian filmmakers who I met in this office, most at the Festival for the first time. Some of them are here with short film experience, while others are attending, just with plans to make features and using the experience to sound out possible opportunities and strategies.

Overall there’s a really positive attitude to our home-grown product, and this is appropriate and necessary if we are to continue encouraging and supporting our filmmakers, both established and those preparing to get into the rough and tumble world of getting projects up onto the big or small screen.

The American Pavillion

The American Pavillion - a place to eat, drink, connect to Wifi and attend industry panels and seminars

There is a really interesting venue called The American Pavillion, and by registering for a not too heavy fee, you can mingle, buy things to eat and drink, use free Wifi and also attend information sessions such as one I did. The subject matter was ‘Indie Film Innovators: Keeping up with the New Thinking in Distribution’ (See participants below*). A wide range of topics were discussed including (naturally) the issue of day and date theatrical and Video on Demand (VOD) release strategies.

The panel were in fact split on this question, some seeing keeping [separate theatrical and DVD] windows as a necessary way to recoup the production investment and value the theatrical publicity which helps VOD and gives the release high profile.

Those in favour of day and date release argue that they have to be where their customers are and that their film should be on as many ‘monetised’ (the new buzzword) channels as possible. They believe that consumers are platform agnostic. They also see the impact of piracy which is encouraged if a film plays in limited locations in its theatrical life. The most sensible view seemed to be that the question of a window approach depends on the movie itself, and that this decision should be on a title by title basis.

A related subject discussed, of course, was social networking and the way it has changed how audiences learn about and become excited about films.

*Indie Film Innovators: Keeping up with New Thinking in Distribution. Participants: Jon Fougner (Facebook), Tim League (Alamo Drafthouse), Shawn Bercuson (PreScreen), David Fenkel (Oscilloscope), Berry Meyerowitz (Phase Four). Moderated by: Scott Macaulay (Editor-in-chief, Filmmaker Magazine).

Below: Alan’s Snapshots from The American Pavillion at Cannes

 

 

Alan Finney’s Cannes Report #1

Blue skies on the French Riviera

AFI Chair Alan Finney,  is currently attending the 2011 Cannes Film Festival (11 – 22 May) as a producer and member of the Australian film contingent. As an industry insider since the 1960s, as a filmmaker, distributor and exhibitor, Finney has been to Cannes many times before, often with a view to sourcing films to bring back to our local screens. But as he tells us in the following report, it’s been a while since he walked the Croisette, and this visit is different in a number of ways.  Here are some snapshots and first impressions.

Festival-goers on the steps of the Palais beneath this year's face of the Festival and honouree, Faye Dunaway (photographed in 1970)

Not having been at the Cannes Festival since 1997, it’s a strange experience returning, especially not being a “Buyer” and attending endless meetings with Sales Agents, attending screenings  and schmoozing with smart practitioners who were incredibly friendly, but at the same time always seemed to be casting their eyes on your company cheque book.

First impressions involve memories of things that are exactly the same but gradually one realises that also there are substantial changes in the Festival as a significant industry event.

Yes, there are more “Star moments”, accompanied by lots of limos, plenty of police protection, blocked off roadways and tons of swooning fans…. and Yes (again)…these are mainly Hollywood “icons” (which means anyone that’s been in at least one movie previously.

Queuing up outside the Palais

Maybe its just my fading recall but I don’t remember as many people at the Palais at 7:15am lining up for screenings surrounded by others holding signs asking for tickets for screenings

This strength of the international box office is due in part to a growing middle class in four key markets: Brazil, Russia, India and China.

What is obviously new is the sheer volume of product from so many territories and an often heard question from Aussie friends here is “What is going to happen to them all?” as there’s no way they’re all going to make it onto the big, perhaps even the little, screen.

On a more positive note, there seems more confidence in the independent film market [in relation to] mainstream product and also (as covered in the Hollywood Reporter) several films that have underperformed in the US in recent months have done huge business overseas, from small independent films to studio tent-pole titles. This strength of the international box office is due in part to a growing middle class in four key markets: Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Stalls at the Marché du Film (Film Marketplace) which runs alongside the Festival

Overall there seems to be an optimistic mood for the future as the World Theatrical Box Office for 2011’s first quarter was only 7% of last year’s record breaking result and whilst the major US studios experienced a drop internationally of 24% for the first three months of this year, mainly due to the absence of equivalent titles such AvatarAlice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans, the total international market for all films was up 1% on last year mainly fed by the strong performance of indigenous movies.

It’s also been great to catch up with a lot of Australians enjoying the Festival and more about that in the next report.