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The Brag Online Has MOVED!

In Blog, Brag 364 (May 31), Brag 366 (June 14) on June 14, 2010 at 3:20 pm

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Film Review: Fish Tank

In Arts, Film Reviews on May 31, 2010 at 11:27 am

Fish Tank
Released May 27

Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank.

Set within the same socio-economic ballpark as Harry Brown’s housing estates, Fish Tank looks like a picnic by comparison. Whereas Daniel Barber shows us the hellish underbelly of London’s infamous ‘Elephant and Castle’, rife with pitiless violence, underage prostitution and the pointy end of the drug trade, Andrea Arnold is more interested in the casual neglect that afflicts a large swathe of the UK’s youth; and Fish Tank is a far richer film in terms of character and construction.

Mia (newcomer Katie Jarvis) is fifteen, a highschool drop-out, and pops cans of lager like most kids her age pop cola. She lives in a tiny flat in a housing estate, with her booze-soaked mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and younger sister Tyler. In her spare time Mia sneaks off to an abandoned neighbouring high-rise and practises her dance moves – relentlessly. Her one spark of sunshine is the promise of a better life that this one talent holds forth.

As with her Oscar-winning short Wasp and her Cannes-winning debut feature Red Road (both visions of women surviving the physical and emotional minefields of life in a low-income and high-crime urban jungle), Arnold excels as a storyteller within this territory. Bolstered by Katie Jarvis’ incredibly natural performance, the director creates a heroine who is vulnerable, cheeky, tough and fragile – no mere cipher; even the film’s most potent symbol (the horse chained-up in an abandoned lot) feels natural, rather than laboured.

Fish Tank is most confronting when it explores the usually-taboo area of underage sex. When Joanne brings home Connor (Michael Fassbender – Hunger), a laid-back lover twice Mia’s age, awakening sexuality and desire for a father figure push Mia into his arms; the emotional fall-out for mother and daughter pushes the teen to make a tough decision, at a turning point in her life.

Mercifully, Arnold’s mood is optimistic; Mia is a survivor, with 150% spunk – despite a total lack of parental affirmations and institutional guidance. When she is unexpectedly put in her mother’s position, Mia manages to make better decisions. Mia’s life might be bleak, but things are definitely looking up.

4/5 Dee Jefferson

Film Review: The Secret in Their Eyes

In Arts, Film Reviews on May 31, 2010 at 11:23 am

The Secret in Their Eyes
Released May 27

The winner of the 2010 Best Foreign Language Oscar, Argentinean thriller, El Secreto de Sus Ojos is a rich, textured look at love, loss and memory. Set in 1999 Buenos Aires, the film looks at the people involved in a criminal case twenty years earlier, during Argentina’s military dictatorship, that was hampered by political and personal vendettas.

Popular Argentinean actor Ricardo Darín (Nine Queens – 2005) plays Benjamin Espósito, a retired state prosecution investigator. Still haunted by a 25-year-old case, he tries to exorcise his demons by writing a novel about the brutal rape and murder of a 23-year-old schoolteacher and the subsequent messy investigation. The story unfolds in flashbacks, edited through Benjamin’s memories, to reveal a plot that is about so much more than one miscarriage of justice.

The lives of Irene Ménendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil) Benjamin’s superior and love interest, Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago) the teacher’s bereaved husband and Pablo Sandoval (Guillermo Francella) Benjamin’s alcoholic work colleague are all forever interwoven through this murder enquiry, with tragic consequences.

The Secret in Their Eyes has been masterfully structured by screenwriter/director Juan Jose Campenella, with each layer of memory peeled back to reveal something new, making the film completely compelling for its long 126 mins running time. The camera work is remarkable especially in the huge football stadium scene and in the smaller intimate lift sequence. Both scenes ramp up the film’s suspense, leaving you breathless for very different reasons.

Adapted from a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, the film, while uniquely Argentinean in its setting, offers universally understood insights into memory and regret. Campenella has embedded very real menace and intrigue into a protracted love story, aided by the impressive ensemble cast. This is a film capable of completely absorbing you into its twists and turns as it explores the intricacies and extremities of what the search for justice truly means.

Beth Wilson

Film Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street

In Arts, Brag 364 (May 31), Film Reviews on May 31, 2010 at 11:20 am

A Nightmare on Elm Street
Released May 20.

“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep,” said Nancy in the original 1984 A Nightmare on Elm Street – advice that must be heeded if one is make it through this dour reimagining of Wes Craven‘s classic.

It’s not that the concept hasn’t more mileage – even after eight films (if you count Freddy vs. Jason), the stripey-jumpered, bladefingered, disfigured Freddy Krueger remains as iconic as ever, and the dream-stalking premise offers endless scope for visual ingenuity. It’s more that this movie is a victim of the Michael Bay’s homogenising horror remake machine, Platinum Dunes, the production company that’s already sapped the audacious low-budget character from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror and Friday the 13th.

Similarly this new version of Nightmare feels less like the work of the stylish musicvideo director Samuel Bayer than that of a committee, rehashing the expected slasher tropes with little originality. Even the famous set pieces, such as the iconic telekinetic bedroom slaying and the vision of Freddy’s hand emerging from the bathtub are mishandled in the absence of Craven’s specific timing. Worse, the film fails to deliver scares beyond the lazy and predictable loud noise-designed-to-make-you-jump gimmick, which quickly becomes more grating than frightening.

Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger, scary in the original, a one-liner joke machine in the sequels of diminishing returns, is replaced here by Jackie Earle Haley’s more sinister and realistic creation. Oddly though, Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer’s script has made him more sympathetic than mythical, turning the kids’ parents – those responsible for Krueger’s burn-victim appearance – into the real villains. Like the feeble attempts to characterise the 20-somethings targeted by Freddy, this is a thread that’s left hanging.

Haley, rehashing his Rorschach growl from Watchmen is, however, solid as Kruger, and Rooney Mara is effective as protagonist Nancy. The rest of the cast are merely non-descript fodder for Krueger’s knives; there’s no future Johnny Depp lurking in the background here. Regrettably too, this version also removes any is-it-or-isn’t-it a dream ambiguity that made the original so compelling, completely wasting what is still one of the most intriguing premises of any horror. This new Nightmare is just that.

Joshua Blackman

Film Review: Robin Hood

In Arts, Film Reviews on May 24, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Robin Hood
Released May 13

In one sense, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood is fresh – a ‘prequel’ to the typical Sherwood Forest story, and Robin as you’ve never seen him before; in another, it’s anything but – a mishmash of things you’ve seen plenty of times before. But being a historical action epic starring Russell Crowe as a common soldier who leads an uprising, goes on to fight side-by-side with kings, before becoming an outlaw – it’s fair to say that Scott has given the Robin Hood legend the Gladiator treatment. This is a distinct departure from the camp, comic and swashbuckling incarnations from the past – from Douglas Fairbanks to Disney, Errol Flynn to Sean Connery, and (who could forget) Kevin Costner’s ‘Prince of Thieves’.

That’s not to say this film is bad – with Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, Scott has proven his passion and proficiency for historical epics with superbly shot battle sequences, and a heady mix of political machinations, romance, sex and blood. Robin Hood follows this mould, while never quite filling it (by comparison to Gladiator). While he surrounds the legend with lots of interesting historical detail, and ties it to the origins of England’s Magna Carta (a charter of liberties that marks the birth of modern constitutional law), I found it hard to muster much interest in the actual characters, despite good performances.

Crowe plays Robin ‘Longstride’ as a warrior, with considerably more heft than cheeky wit; Cate Blanchett gives her typically nuanced inflection to Marion (a glint of the eye here, a raised eyebrow there, perhaps a hint of amusement around the corners of her mouth), although the period setting and the steely nerve at the centre of her performance call to mind Elizabeth. There are some fun scenes between the two, and even a couple of genuinely romantic moments – but no real urst.

If it’s an adventure you want, that’s what you’ll get – but not much more!

Dee Jefferson

Film Review: Food Inc

In Arts, Film Reviews on May 24, 2010 at 11:28 am

Food Inc.
Opens May 20

Warning: this film will make your next visit to the supermarket very fraught. Robert Kenner’s Academy Award-nominated documentary raises questions about what we eat, and where it comes from, ultimately looking at unveiling the hidden truths of modern food production.

Narrated by activists and investigative journalists Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma) this documentary covers vast territories from the complete industrialisation of farming and genetic ownership of crops, to concerns over governance and ever increasing corporate power. This is an issue film, so don’t expect objective musing. The filmmakers want their audiences to change their lifestyles and they aren’t afraid to use shock tactics.

There is always a fear with big issue films that viewers will be overwhelmed by the breadth of the problems and will, in the end, do nothing upon leaving the cinema, and in some ways Food Inc. falls into this trap by trying to cover too much. Factory farming, FDA inaction, corn monopoly, farming subsidies, health concerns, cost of healthy food, consumerism and advertising, seed ownership, genetically modified food, migrant working rights, the list goes on and while these issues all link into one another it is a lot to take in, in a short amount of time (94 mins).

It is, however, hard to ignore footage of chickens grown to monstrous commercial proportions, unable to stand; or the factory slaughterhouses that treat both their employees and products (animals) with inhuman detachment. Very personal accounts from Barbara Kowalcyk, whose two-year-old son, Kevin died from E.coli poisoning after eating a contaminated hamburger; and seed-cleaner Moe Parr, whose livelihood has been destroyed by agricultural giant Monsanto’s patenting practices – are poignant individual illustrations of the larger issues.

Food Inc. does what all good documentaries should; it makes you stop and think. This film is focused on America and its food industry and while it is easy to bury our heads in the sand and think of the problem as contained there, you have to wonder with Australian’s obesity statistics if we too don’t have an unhealthy food industry.

Beth Wilson

Film Review: Iron Man 2

In Arts, Blog, Film Reviews on May 11, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Iron Man 2
Released April 29

Tony Stark’s arrogant wisecracking millionaire is back, now with more characters and a nasty villain in the form of Mickey Rourke’s electrifying Whiplash. Stark’s Iron Man is no longer the only superhero in the ‘verse, with SHIELD’s eye-patched Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) frequently citing the virtues of his superhero boy band (the film’s description, not mine), the Avengers. It’s exciting to know that this sequel to the 2008 surprise hit is part of a universe that also includes Thor and Captain America, even if doing so diffuses its impact as a stand-alone movie.

Screenwriter Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder) dispenses with the tight, traditional plotting of the original, but excels in charting our superhero’s rut of rebellious self-loathing. He also has a knack for the unrequited sexual tension between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, which both Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow expertly navigate like a snappy couple from a ’30s screwball comedy. They’re joined by an expanded cast which includes Sam Rockwell (Moon), Don Cheadle and Scarlett Johansson. Rockwell in particular excels as Justin Hammer, Stark’s industrious rival in the weapons manufacturing biz.

The story centres on Stark’s strained relationship with his adoring public and friends. This is partly due to his caustic personality being more visible – and receiving more screen time – than his metallic counterpart. Surprisingly, thanks to some cheeky dialogue and personal stakes (Stark’s arc reactor – the shiny, glowy orb in his chest keeping him alive – is failing), this is not to the films detriment. The action, when it does come, is as exciting as the first, especially in an exhilarating early scene at the Monaco Grand Prix where the wronged Whiplash slices’n’dices some vintage racers.

There’s a lot going on in Ironman 2, but director Jon Favreau infuses each sequence with enough wit, energy and flippancy (like the hysterical perpetual-motion desk toy that literally comes between Pepper and Stark), that he deftly prevents it from becoming like the overstuffed mess of Spiderman 3.

Joshua Blackman

Theatre Review: The Power of Yes (Belvoir)

In Arts, Blog, Brag 360 (May 3), Theatre Reviews on May 11, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Photo: Heidrun Lohr

The Power of Yes
Until May 30 @ Belvoir St

A play by David Hare, about the Global Financial Crisis, is a fairly irresistible proposition for any theatre company, I imagine. Commissioned by London’s prestigious National Theatre in 2008, The Power of Yes holds forth the tantalising prospect of debunking all the jargon and hysteria around one of this decade’s defining historical moments, where capitalism fell to its knees.

The challenge, however, is making The Power of Yes sparkle on stage like it does on the page. Hare has transposed his interviews with various players in the realm of finance into characters (in some cases using their own words as dialogue), and has arranged the resulting information in a roughly chronological timeline, from 80s Thatcherism to the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Hare inserts himself into the script, where he acts as a guide; adopting a position of financial ignorance, he asks questions on our behalf. What, for instance, are these ‘credit default swaps’, or ‘securitised credit arrangements’, that everyone’s been talking about? Ultimately, however, Hare is trying to get to the psychological root of this madness that we call the financial sector.

Director Sam Strong does an admirable job of making this production more than just twelve people talking about finance. For example, balloons become not only colourful counterpoints to the parade of suits, but handy visual aids for illustrating the bundling, slicing and dicing of financial assets (not to mention the more obvious financial metaphors). The set itself feels like a classroom or lecture theatre, in which we and ‘The Author’ (Brian Lipson) are the students, listening to a rotating cycle of lecturers – from politicians to financial journalists, fund managers, bankers, and financial entrepreneurs like George Soros. Apart from the Author, the characters are in more-or-less constant movement on and off stage and across it, maintaining a certain energy and rhythm to the exchanges.

The Power of Yes presents a captivating story, and is far more enlightening than the bulk of journalism about the GFC. At the end of the day, however, the nature of this beast is that it’s very “talky”, so staying tuned-in for the duration does, at times, feel like a struggle – albeit worthwhile!

Dee Jefferson

Theatre Review: Honour (STC)

In Arts, Brag 360 (May 3), Theatre Reviews on May 11, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Until May 29 at Drama Theatre, SOH.

In Honour, a marriage of 32 years between one-time author Honor (Wendy Hughes) and seasoned journalist George (William Zappa), is torn apart after the intrusion of sexy young media graduate Claudia (Paula Arundell). Looking on sceptically from the sidelines is their daughter Sophie (Yael Stone), who is almost the same age as her father’s new lover.

This production continues what might be a trend in the Sydney Theatre Company’s Opera House programming: like Tom Stoppard’s Travesties and Yazmina Reza’s God of Carnage, Joanna Murray Smith’s play is ostensibly pitch-perfect for a middle-class, middle-aged, well-educated audience (who can knowingly chuckle about references to Derrida and Foucault).

That’s not to say that this play is bland – the writing is elegant and insightful, the narrative is cleverly structured, and it delves into the real pain of a marital breakdown. So real, in fact, that I got the distinct feeling this was too close to the bone for many – the exposition of gender roles (women who sacrifice their careers while men ‘sow their oats’, for example), in particular, elicited bleak chuckles from the audience.

Director Lee Lewis (That Face – Company B) highlights the play’s strengths by paring back the set to a simple geometric structure of beech-wood poles – no distractions obscuring the ideas being explored. At the same time, it somehow evokes two financially comfortable baby-boomers from the intellectual class, with that hint of a retro Danish aesthetic.

At its most interesting, Honour invites us to examine our values around career and relationships, and at an even deeper level, our understanding of love – which is contrasted with passion. Are you really in love with that person, or do you just love how they make you feel? For Claudia, love is the ability to undo the other person – or their inability to cope without you. These ideas are universally interesting, regardless of age or circumstance. That said – while the performances are solid, 90 minutes of people intellectualising their relationships is not everyone’s idea of riveting theatre.

Dee Jefferson

Theatre Review: Way to Heaven (Griffin)

In Arts, Blog, Theatre Reviews on May 3, 2010 at 1:20 pm

L-R: Marko Jovanovic, Lexi Freiman, Ben Lorshy, Josh Lorshy (photo credit: Heidrun Löhr)

Way To Heaven
Until May 8 at SBW Stables/Griffin

It’s 1942, and a Red Cross inspector is invited by the Nazis to visit a Jewish ghetto near Berlin. He tours the town and sees normality: couples court, children play, vendors sell their wares. Conditions are tough but acceptable, the inspector reports. The inspector is wrong.

Juan Mayorga’s Way to Heaven, co-produced by Griffin Independent and Ride On Theatre, is a darkly-focussed meditation based on the true story of a Czechoslovakian concentration camp called Terezin (or Theresienstadt). Of the 144,000 Jews sent there, it’s estimated just 17,247 survived.

A nervy Nicholas Hope (Bad Boy Bubby) brilliantly depicts the Red Cross inspector, who is wracked by guilt. “I didn’t see anything …” he implores, “what else could I have done?” The stage light falls on the audience too, casting us as involuntary judge and jury of his confessional.

The action switches to the camp, where the chief Nazi Commandant (Nathan Lovejoy) and a reluctant Jewish detainee appointed as liaison between the Nazis and the captive Jews (Terry Serio) are workshopping the scenes of the grand deception. The Commandant plunges with gusto into his role as “director” – repressing his feelings of horror about the task at hand. As he polishes and re-polishes the artifice, shuffling his “actors” around the camp in anticipation of the inspector’s visit, he retreats deeper into the delusion that he is, in fact, creating a splendid work of art.

The play’s pacing suffers slightly from its own theatrical conceit – as the Commandant labours over scenes, the play labours too, weighed down by repetitive rehearsals and an unvarying script. Yet it remains an intriguing, clever, unique piece of theatre with a cautionary, contemporary undercurrent, phrased best by Mayorga: “The invisibility of horror is an ongoing subject in our lives”.

Kate Hennessy