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.

Sass and Suitability: Sarah Snook

When Sarah Snook walked onto the stage in January to collect the AACTA Award for Best Lead Actress in a Television Drama, there was a flurry of whispers along the lines of: “Who’s that girl?” The young flame-haired actress in the spectacular red Lisa Ho gown certainly looked the part, taking to the podium of the Sydney Opera House with grace and humour; but many in the audience had missed her standout performance in the ABC telemovie Sisters of War where she played a spunky Australian nurse caught up in the World War II invasion of New Guinea by the Japanese. (Here’s our video interview with Snook in the media room just moments after she accepted the award.)

Careful observers might have recognised Snook from her work on Australian television (Blood BrothersSpirited Season 2, Packed to the Rafters, All Saints) and from some brief scenes in Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (she played Emily Browning’s disgruntled flatmate). Insiders also knew that Sarah Snook was the Australian actress who attracted international headlines when she was shortlisted for David Fincher’s version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Nicknamed ‘the Australian Emma Stone’, the Adelaide-raised Snook ultimately lost out to Rooney Mara for the role, but the buzz around the protracted casting process put her name on the casting map. She’s just finished shooting her first lead role in a US feature, the horror/thriller Jessabelle directed by Kevin Greutert (Saw 3D).

Here in Australia, you can see Sarah Snook right now at a cinema near you, where she stars in the new biological clock comedy Not Suitable for Children. Snook plays ‘Stevie’, the friend and flatmate to Ryan Kwanten’s irresponsible party boy, ‘Jonah’. When Jonah discovers he’s about to become infertile due to testicular cancer treatment, he embarks on a mad quest to fulfil his dream of fatherhood. Written by Michael Lucas (Offspring) and directed by Peter Templeman (The Saviour), it’s sweet and funny, with genuine chemistry between the leads and a great soundtrack offsetting the youthful energy of an inner-city share-house in Sydney’s Newtown.

“The thing I most liked about this character was her sass,” says Snook on the phone from Sunset Boulevard, where she’s having a short holiday with her musician boyfriend, after shooting Jessabelle. “Stevie totally holds her own against the boys and I really responded to the feistiness in the material. There is that mix of sweetness and sexiness, which is very hard to play, actually – the light and dark of that.”

Party animals: Ryan Corr, Sarah Snook and Ryan Kwanten in NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN.

As Stevie, Snook plays a woman who’s adamant she doesn’t want children, while Ryan Kwanten plays a man who’s biological clock is ticking like a time bomb – an inversion of the stereotype where it’s the woman who’s desperate to reproduce, and the man who’s reluctant and commitment-phobic. Does Snook think this might be reflecting a cultural shift?

“I’m not sure it’s necessarily typical, or that it’s a trend,” she says, “but there’s definitely a male biological clock. We tend to focus on the female biological clock because it’s such a physical thing with physical limits. But I think it is definitely a concern for men to find a partner who is of the right age that they can start a family with.”

She agrees that it’s also true that there are ‘normal’ women who don’t want children. “I have a number of female friends who are not interested in having children. They’re happy to have a long term relationship with a partner, and to play a part in the lives of children within their circle, but they’re just not interested in having children themselves. For me, I want children myself. But for some women, they’re just not interested in that. Sometimes it’s an ethical choice, and sometimes it’s a personal one.”

The candid sex scenes in Not Suitable for Children are beautifully handled, but perhaps they were a little awkward to shoot. How did Snook cope with the filming of these? “Ah yeah….” She says with a laugh. “You know it’s an unusual situation to put yourself into and definitely there are insecurities. But Ryan Kwanten is probably one of the best people to do them with given that he’s done so many sex scenes with True Blood! His advice was to remember that it’s just a film and you’ve got to look after yourself and be comfortable with what you do.”

“Ryan Kwanten is probably one of the best people to do them with given that he’s done so many sex scenes with TRUE BLOOD!” – Sarah Snook

For a 24-year-old who’s only been out of NIDA for four years (she graduated in 2008) Snook seems remarkably grounded. She’s confident but not cocky; friendly and approachable, but careful with what she reveals. Asked about the Dragon Tattoo casting process she’s philosophical about the way it worked out.

“That was a whirlwind experience and at the time I didn’t realise what a big deal it was,” says Snook. “My name was thrown into a mix of relatively unknown actresses for the role. I did five auditions back in Australia and then got flown over to the States twice and did two screen tests for the director and the producers, including a chemistry test with Daniel Craig. When I got back to Australia I got the call to tell me I didn’t have the part, but I think I won really! There was definitely a lucky star involved in all of that in terms of getting my name out there.”

Sarah Snook holding her AACTA Award for SISTERS OF WAR. January 2012.

Also handy in getting her name ‘out there’ was the AACTA Award win. “I think winning an AACTA Award definitely does open doors, ” she says. “I really noticed the difference when I came over here in February after the Awards. It was not just a talking point, but it was really respected by the American casting agents.”

Asked whether it’s a daunting process auditioning in the US compared with Australia, Snook is again understated. “It’s slightly different. There’s the sheer volume of casting agents over here, so it’s harder to feel like you develop a  personal rapport with someone. Also, there’s the fact that as an Australian, you’re an outsider and there’s always the question of whether the producers are willing to go that extra mile to get you a visa to work on their film.”

Obviously the producers of Jessabelle were keen enough to go that extra mile to have Snook on board for the two months it took to shoot the film, a shoot which she describes as “super fun”.

“It’s the funniest contradiction with horror films and tragedies,” she says. “They’re often the most fun to shoot because everything is so heightened and dramatic and scary that the best way to lighten things up is to just have a laugh. The set can be a very funny place to be. You get to fight ghosts and ghouls and get covered in slime and blood! I play a character who has been in a a pretty horrific crash and has lost the use of her legs, so she’s in a wheelchair for most of the film – which results in some very interesting blocking choices for many of the scenes. I think it will be out in April next year.”

Did she always want to be an actress? Snook laughs and says, “I’d like to say no, but I think to be honest, yes. I started doing it as a kid and had to decide if I wanted to do it as a hobby or a career, and I chose career.” The training at NIDA proved invaluable not just on a professional but on a personal level. “One of the most important things you learn in the first semester there is that even if you don’t end up becoming an actor, you’ll definitely end up becoming a better person. It’s true. You become a better human. You learn about the history of humans and how they express themselves. And even if you don’t use that in terms of a career or in a theatrical way, that’s a good education to have.”

As for what’s next, Snook is not sure, but doesn’t sound particularly concerned, either. “When you’re an actor it’s never as regular as 9 to 5 every day. When you are employed, you know that in just a few months’ time you’ll be unemployed again. It’s a very strange thing, but luckily I’ve had fairly steady work.”

Would she like to extend her reach beyond acting to other areas of filmmaking? “I’ve never really thought to explore directing, but if I had a director I could work with as a producer in a director/producer partnership, I’d consider that. In a lot of the work I’ve done, the producer has had more of a creative role, rather than just being about the money side, and I quite like that.”

And as for working in Australia or the US? She’s wisely keeping her options open. “We’ll see what happens. There’s a lot of great stuff going on at home in Australia, and I want to be a part of that.”

Not Suitable for Children released in Australia on 12 July, 2012.

You may also be in interested in our our interview with Peter Templeman, director of Not Suitable for Children.

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