Critical Round-up

VOX POP: The Babadook

Production still from The Babadook (Source: Icon)

It may be a dying art these days, but anyone of a certain age will likely remember those advertorials where punters were asked what they thought of a film as they left a screening. Well, our semi-regular Vox Pop column is updating that notion for the 21st century by attempting to gauge the mood of the Twitterverse about Australian films in the UK, putting it somewhere between criticism by consensus and an opinionated free-for-all.

Jennifer Kent’s pop-up book scarefest The Babadook landed in British and Irish cinemas on Friday (in what constituted the widest release of an Australian film here for some time). The critics may have lauded it with four and five star reviews, and early indications suggest that it has had a strong opening weekend, but lets see what the punters thought.

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Vox Pop: 100 Bloody Acres at FrightFest

Morgan's Organics - 100 Bloody Acres

So, I’m not long back from the UK premiere of the Cairnes Brothers’ splatter comedy 100 Bloody Acres, which had an enthusiastic reception from the ever-excellent crowds at Film4 FrightFest, Britain’s biggest (and best) celebration of all things horror and genre.

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Critical Round-up: Like Minds

English actor Eddie Redmayne’s recent leading role in the gently delightful My Week With Marilyn reminded me of the mostly forgotten, rather mixed-up Australia-UK co-production in which he made his feature film debut, Like Minds (2006). Watching the film a couple of years back, I was struck by just how much it muddled its Australian and British provenance, and it seems I wasn’t alone. The following is a critical round-up previously published on my Screen Addict blog:

Like Minds [aka Murderous Intent]
d.  Gregory J. Read / 2006 / Australia-UK / 110 mins

Still from Like Minds

Having directed a string of acclaimed documentaries in the 1990s, Australian filmmaker Gregory J. Read cut his fiction teeth with producer credits on a handful of Australian features, including Jon Hewitt’s gritty, underrated Redball (1999). Modest in its means – and similar in scale to Hewitt’s police procedural – Read’s feature debut, Like Minds, is a capable but flawed thriller which reportedly started life as a documentary on the private lives of psychopaths.

Indebted to a particular strain of collegiate secret society films (Dead Poet’s Society, The Skulls, et. al.), Like Minds follows Alex (Eddie Redmayne), a clever student at a prestigious Yorkshire boarding school who is heavily implicated in a web of murder and deceit. Sally (Toni Collette) is a forensic psychologist tasked with determining whether Alex should face trial for murder, but as Alex’s story unfolds, so do details of the Knights Templar and a string of grisly secrets.

Although largely filmed in South Australia, Like Minds was the first Australian/United Kingdom co-production to be set in Britain for over a decade and understandably benefits from its position in a culture steeped in historical intrigue. But aside from the involvement of key cast and crew, there is little here to suggest the films worth as an example of specifically Australian cinema. (Which is not to suggest, of course, that Australian filmmakers should confine themselves to ‘typically’ Australian narratives or only tell ‘truly’ Australian stories, merely that such a film – set in England and presented essentially as a genre piece – will have little hope of appealing directly to Australian sensibilities as anything other than a minor British genre film.)

And somewhat understandably, Australian critical reaction hinted at the inherent difficulty of selling an Australian film set in England, and suggested that a confused provenance might have contributed directly to a drop in overall quality.

In a largely negative review for the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Byrnes had reservations about some of the central performances, and admitted difficulty in adjusting to the setting:

There’s no reason Australian actors can’t play English characters in an English story. It worked in an American setting with L.A. Confidential, after all, but it’s jarring here. I thought the film was set in Australia for most of the first reel, which was odd, because we don’t have many places as cold, old and damp as the school these boys attend. I kept thinking it must be one of those old colleges in Adelaide or Hobart, during a particularly nasty winter.

Driving his point home, Byrnes concludes the review with an astute observation of the industrial conditions which no doubt bore influence upon the production:

Many of the film’s decisions appear to have been driven by external pressures to do with funding and selling. Every film has to balance those pressures, but Like Minds succumbs to them. It’s a bit of an Austro-British pudding, in fact, possibly due to the need to fit the requirements of funding bodies on different sides of the world. The script wasn’t ready, in any case.

In The Age, with an info-box that designates the film as British, Jim Schembri’s slightly more optimistic three-star review leaves discussion of provenance to the final paragraph, with a further implication that the choice of setting was largely a matter of industrial necessity.

Although Like Minds is set in England it is essentially an Australian film. Read is a Melbourne-born Sydneysider who had to shoot half the film in England to secure financing. It’s one of the realities of filmmaking, though one wonders how much more effective the movie’s sense of foreboding would have been had it been set in the sunny climes of Oz rather than in the cliched gloom of Britain.

Reviewing the film for ABC-TV’s At the Movies, Margaret Pomeranz was similarly perplexed by what she deemed an unnecessary choice of setting:

It’s a little puzzling that this majority Australian co-production isn’t set in one of Australia’s schools, where it would have worked just as well, but in England; but that’s not the only puzzle the film offers.

Opinions such as this seemed unlikely to change once the film was released in the UK, with some British critics finding the peculiar mix of Australian talent and English subject matter equally confounding. In his brief two-star review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw described Like Minds as an

Australian psycho-thriller set in a British public school for boys, or conceivably in one of Australia’s poshified, pommified versions of the same thing.

Meanwhile, in The Observer, Philip French commenced his review by implicating that the confused national identity of the film was linked inextricably to its quality:

This Anglo-Australian thriller, set entirely in England but partly filmed Down Under, is convoluted, addled and unconvincing.

It is undoubtedly easy, of course, for critics to pick holes in films which they believe to be inferior, and it’s no surprise that the more negative the review, the more pointed the criticism of Like Minds‘ complex industrial identity. Co-production agreements are put in place in order to drive collaboration between film industries, and to allow countries to share knowledge, skills, expertise and, crucially, stories. When official co-productions really succeed – and lets face it, that is a rare occurrence – they have the ability to lay bare the common humanity that draws us all together, and the cultural schisms that ensure the world remains a place of endless discovery. When they fail, however, they do so with a distinct lack of passion and a complete ignobility of purpose.

Beyond the Same Old Clichés

Over the last few years, it has been possible to detect a marginal yet significant shift in the Australian media’s attitude towards homegrown cinema. Every now and again, though, comes a piece (or a writer) that seemingly cannot help but revert to the tired old clichés about the industrial prospects of Australian cinema and its relationship with local audiences.

This past weekend, The Sydney Morning Herald published an article titled ‘Beyond The Same Old Stories‘ in which David Dale traces the cinemagoing habits of Australians over the past year. An author, journalist and lecturer in communications at UTS, Dale has predominantly written about food and travel, although an official biography describes him as ‘Australia’s most respected and most entertaining commentator on popular culture’. Whilst I couldn’t vouch for the veracity of either claim, he has written about Australian popular culture for a variety of Fairfax outlets, with most pieces also appearing on his blog The Tribal Mind, where he comments on the wide spectrum of Australian society and culture.

For ‘Beyond the Same Old Stories’ – a pre-subbed version of which had been published a day earlier on The Tribal Mind as ‘How Australia Went to the Movies in 2011‘ – Dale analyses the relative fortunes of Australia’s cinema exhibition market over the last twelve months. As well as bemoaning the usual Hollywood repetition, he praises what he considers to be the most original ideas to have emanated from the world of cinema over that period, singling out Midnight in Paris, Bridesmaids and The Guard, amongst others.

But Dale also makes an assertion that, despite the expectation of another year-on-year increase in revenue collected from the Australian box office, Australian audiences have ‘lost interest in our own creations’. Trotting out the statistics to back up his argument, Dale shows that 2010 saw five Australian features grossing over $4m locally (the greatest number of any year since the turn of the millennium), whereas this year has seen only Red Dog achieving that feat, sitting solitary atop a table of supposed failures and near misses like a Kelpie in the outback. Red Dog may well be the ‘Crocodile Dundee of the 21st century, reaching deep into the collective unconscious’, but according to Dale, ‘this year, the cultural cringe was back’.

Amongst the ‘near misses’ in 2011 was Sanctum, which returned over 10% of its budget at the domestic box office with a robust $3.8m, falling just below that magical $4m mark. Meanwhile, another film that fell just short of reaching $4m at the Australian box office is curiously absent from Dale’s snidely titled list of ‘The Best Australia Could Do’. Despite earlier being singled it for its originality and included on a list of ‘The Surprise Successes’, Oranges and Sunshine makes no appearance on Dale’s local production list; a strange omission at best. An official Australia-UK co-production, it tells a uniquely Australian story (albeit whilst also being a uniquely British story) and is largely set down under, which surely is enough to qualify it as ‘Australian’? And even if the omission is a question of financial provenance, it should be noted that one of the five $4m-plus titles of 2010 is the Warner Bros. backed Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, which IMDB.com lists as being both a US and Australian production. Quibbles aside, the comparison of year-on-year box office takings for an entire nation is one thing, but making the same like-for-like comparisons for one nation’s small to medium-sized production industry is another thing entirely.

Dale’s attempts at insightful criticism don’t stop on Australian shores, however, with his suggestion that ‘there was one more bright spot in 2011 for which Australia can claim credit – the quirkiness of The Guard‘. Dale repeats writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s assertion that the bitter experience of bringing his his script for Ned Kelly to the screen (with director Gregor Jordan at the helm), led to a vow that he would, in future, direct all his own scripts. Needless to say, the notion that Australia might somehow ‘claim credit’ for The Guard is as preposterous as it is misguided.

Of course, this tendency towards hyperbole is not necessarily new to Dale, who earlier this year managed to spin the box office success of Red Dog into a trite piece underpinned by a vague rhetoric that ‘Australians are notorious for hating their own movies but loving their own actors.’ In fact, sweeping generalisations and cliché seem to be the name of the game, with Dale using the same article to suggest that the fifteen all-time highest grossing Australian films at the local box office – along with the ten highest grossers of the last ten years – indicate that:

Australians love locally-made flicks at two extremes of a spectrum:

1 The film should look as if it comes from anywhere else but here – what George Miller calls “an international movie” such as Happy Feet, Babe, Moulin Rouge, and Mao’s Last Dancer.

OR

2 It should look as mythically ocker as Kevin Rudd would like to be, depicting bush battlers and brave women coated in red dust, plus noble Aborigines and funny-talking immigrants – a fantasyland for the most suburbanised nation on earth.

Of course, such ludicrously broad statements are only possible when you move into the realm of gross generalisation and remove any sense of context or shade. Amongst the titles on Dale’s all-time Top 15 list, neither Strictly Ballroom or Picnic at Hanging Rock fit comfortably into these two categories, and you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would consider The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or Young Einstein to be ‘mythically ocker’ or ‘looking as if it comes from anywhere else but here’. As for the Top 10 from the last ten years, Tomorrow When the War Began, Bran Nue Dae and Rabbit Proof Fence are rooted in their Australianess but totally removed from Dale’s ‘mythically ocker’ category (despite this category’s curious caveat for ‘noble Aborigines and funny talking immigrants’).

It seems that David Dale is content to resort to a raft of lazy clichés traditionally so typical of the mass media response to the shifting fortunes of Australian film. And yet the crucial fault with his overall take on local cinema is not this reliance on blithe cliché and the tendency to over-simplify matters, but the fact that he does so whilst criticising Australian popular cinema (and by extension, Australian audiences) for doing precisely the same thing. Thus, whilst some sections of the Australian media have come a long way in their more balanced appreciation of every facet of Australia’s cinematic landscape, perhaps we are still some way off taking a more nuanced approach to how we consume, think about and discuss Australian cinema. Then again, perhaps nuance simply isn’t something that sells newspapers. Or movies, come to think of it.