Monthly Archives: January 2009

Picking the Classics

Jaime J. Weinman has touched on a topic that fascinates me: trying to pick the movies that will be classics of the future. He has two posts on the topic: one looking at wannabe classics that turn out not to be (here), and one about the process of trying to pick what will hold up later on (here).

This is a topic that interests me a lot; too much, in fact to do it justice right now. But I thought I’d post a couple of quick thoughts in reaction to Weinman’s pieces, since otherwise who knows when I’d get around to it. (For long-time readers, I warn right now that I am going to be repeating all sorts of things I’ve said before that are scattered through the site.)

Weinman has noted the obvious category of movies that don’t age well: Oscar-baiting issues pieces, or middlebrow art films. This is a longstanding observation and complaint and I couldn’t put it better than Pauline Kael who in her landmark 1969 essay “Trash, Art and the Movies” complained about critics praising “ghastly ‘tour-de-force’ performances, movies based on ‘distinguished’ stage successes or prize-winning novels, or movies that are ‘worthwhile,’ that make a ‘contribution’ – ‘serious’ messagy movies.”

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Yackandandah Motor Garage

Garage Yackandandah

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Exhibition Review: Setting the Scene

Setting the Scene (ACMI, 4 December 2008 – 19 April 2009)

I went along to the Setting the Scene: Film Design from Metropolis to Australia exhibition at ACMI with high hopes and keen interest. The exhibition covers production design in cinema, including the use of sets, locations, and virtual environments. It’s a fantastic and under-explored topic, and one in which I have a lot of interest. As an urban planner, the use of locations and the depiction of our spatial environment interests me a lot (I’ve touched on it in pieces for this site such as this), and the postgraduate research I’m currently doing is focused on these sorts of ideas.

The good aspects of the exhibition flow directly from the inherent strength of the subject matter, and some interesting exhibits. There are things here that film buffs will get a real kick out seeing, such as original design drawings for the modernist house from Tati’s Mon Oncle (as well as a large model of the house); recreated sets from Australia; and – although these have basically nothing to do with the topic of the exhibition – models of vehicles and machines from Speed Racer and the Matrix sequels. The exhibition’s origins as an exhibit by the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin is in evidence in the strong focus on European examples: that’s fine, although the fusion between those parts of the exhibition and the material added by ACMI occasionally feels a little awkward. If all you are interested in is seeing some interesting behind-the-scenes material, some good production stills, and a brief gloss over the topic, you might find the exhibition worthwhile.

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3-D or Not 3-D?

I saw Bolt the other day. I won’t get a chance to review it properly, but I will note for the record that it’s enjoyable without being especially memorable. It’s a testament to the professionalism of the creative people at Pixar / Disney: having torn the film down and rebuilt it halfway through production, they still made it slick and fun and involving. Nevertheless, there’s an unmistakable by-the-numbers feel about it: there’s not much sense that anyone had any real passion for this story. Toy Story, you sensed, reflected real interests of John Lasseter; The Incredibles unmistakably meant something to Brad Bird; and Finding Nemo‘s story doubtless had personal meaning to Andrew Stanton. But with Bolt the original director was gone, and it really feels like they only made the film because they didn’t want to write off all the story development. So it’s fun, but passionless.

The most interesting thing about it is actually the 3-D. I have seen a few reviews, like Jim Schembri’s and Stuart Wilson’s, really complement the process. I’m afraid, however, that I don’t buy it. It’s true that it’s way better than old 1950s red-blue 3-D, but that’s faint praise. Beyond the novelty value, does it actually improve the movie experience?

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Fair Dinkum

Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008)

I’m late to the party on Australia, so this is going to be a belated defence of it. While it’s true that it has generally been positively reviewed (at least in its home country), when a film is as hyped as this one is, faint praise damns. Mix in a few very prominent or particularly negative reviews (such as Luke Buckmaster’s over at InFilm Australia, here), the less-than-expected box-office, and the complete dissipation of any Oscar buzz, and I think it’s fair to say that a sense of disappointment has built around Australia. This was part of the reason that I was so late in seeing the film. I had been pumped for it after seeing the trailers, but it had slipped down in my priorities as it became clearer that Luhrmann hadn’t pulled a rabbit out of his hat and produced a masterpiece. When I finally did see it, though, I was pleasantly surprised. Taken on its own terms, Australia is of course no classic, but it is nevertheless highly enjoyable.

What’s fun about it is how ambitious it is: Luhrmann has mixed up elements of the Australian western (The Man From Snow River), effects-laden war film (Pearl Harbour), epic love story / melodrama (Gone With the Wind), leftist social drama (Rabbit Proof Fence), and more old-fashioned attempts to negotiate Australia’s relationship with its indigenous inhabitants (Jedda), and filtered these disparate influences though the heightened style familiar from Luhrmann’s previous work. Try something like that without it being a little bit of a muddle and you’ve made a bona fide classic. As it is, you do feel the gears change, occasionally gratingly, but what’s surprising is how often it does come together. The film is involving, wonderfully shot, and always entertaining.

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The Zoo

At Melbourne Zoo.

Life in the Zoo

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Stay Frosty

Frost / Nixon (Ron Howard, 2008)

Ron Howard might well be the perfect studio director. There are lots of better filmmakers around, but Howard is a studio head’s dream: talented, reliable, professional. Even a supposedly quintessentially commercial filmmaker like Steven Spielberg will deliver films that are either much better (Jaws) or much worse (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) then they ought to be given the material; Howard, however, does exactly what he is asked just about every time. Give him a light and frothy Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel script and he’ll give you Splash or Parenthood; an undistinguished action script and he’ll give you Backdraft; a popular but stupid potboiler and he’ll make The Da Vinci Code; a too-tricky-for-its-own-good Akiva Goldsman prestige drama and he’ll win you Best Picture with A Beautiful Mind; a solid space based docu-drama and it’s Apollo 13; and so on, and on. The point is, with those and other films, Howard brought out what was there. He didn’t pull rabbits out of his hat when scripts were lacking, either, but that’s no insult, because he made every one of those films impeccably: some just had more going for them than others. And so it is with Frost / Nixon. Handed an adaptation of a stage play built around two extremely impressive performances, he has delivered an immaculately made film that preserves those performances for posterity.

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