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Wednesday
Jul022014

REMEMBERING PAUL MAZURSKY

Paul Mazursky carved a unique niche in the contemporary Hollywood landscape. The writer/director, who passed away on June 30 in Los Angeles at the age of 84, was born into a Ukrainian Jewish home in working-class New York, his mother a musician, who gave recitals for dance classes; his father, a hardened labourer. That ‘art/work’ dichotomy infused his cinematic view of his world, from his beginnings as an acting student of Lee Strasberg to stints in stand-up comedy and finally a place amongst Hollywood’s A-list for over two decades.

In a career that spanned 19 films, he boldly tackled modern reworkings of Fellini (Alex in Wonderland, 1970), Truffaut (Willie and Phil, 1980), Shakespeare (Tempest, 1982) and Bergman (Scenes from a Mall, 1991). He has delivered one deeply personal work (1976s desperately undervalued Next Stop, Greenwich Village) and was not without his misguided follies (Columbia Pictures deemed his 1993 film industry satire, The Pickle, “unreleasable”). But more often than not, Mazursky’s words and images captured the zeitgeist, leading to some of the most caustic social satires and compassionate dramatic comedies in American cinema history… 

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
Mazursky had directed the short Last Year at Malibu and penned the script (with co-writer Larry Tucker) for the Peter Sellers 1968 hit, I Love You, Alice B Toklas (Tucker and Mazursky had teamed on TV writing gigs, notably the pilot episode of The Monkees). For his feature directorial debut, he drew upon his experiences at a new-age communal retreat he had visited with his wife. The film, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, captured the tune-in/drop-out, free-love ethos of a rebellious America; it became a blockbuster hit (its US$30million gross equates to US$188million today), wowed critics (the esteemed Pauline Kael called it, “…the liveliest American comedy so far this year…”) and earned 4 Oscar nominations.

Blume in Love (1973) and Harry & Tonto (1974)
The enormous success of his debut gave Mazursky creative freedom, which he frittered away with the bizarre 1970 oddity, Alex in Wonderland (“…self-indulgent emptiness,” said critic Vincent Canby). After a sabbatical in Europe, he returned with two small-scale but insightful works that would re-establish his reputation. Blume in Love, starring George Segal, put a human face on the scourge of Me Generation America, the divorce lawyer, earning Mazursky a WGA nomination; and, Harry and Tonto, the touching story of a displaced old man (Oscar-winner Art Carney), his cat, Tonto and the road-trip they undertake to discover a country that casts aside its elderly in the name of progress.

An Unmarried Woman (1978)
Hitting cinemas with its themes of gender role redefinition and personal freedom at a time when American women were most vocal in the loud, proud fight for equality and independence, Mazursky had his biggest commercial hit ever with An Unmarried Woman. Starring Jill Clayburgh in an iconic, Oscar-nominated performance, the story of Erica and the reclamation of her spirit after her well-to-do Upper East Side marriage crumbles, became a social phenomenon.  Roger Ebert called it, “…one of the funniest, truest, sometimes most heartbreaking movies I've ever seen.”

Moscow on the Hudson (1984) and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)
His ambition went unrewarded when follow-up projects Willie & Phil (1980) and Tempest (1982) tanked, but the country was reshaping itself. Gone was the ‘personal improvement’ mantra of the 1970s, replaced by the Reagan-era ‘red, white and blue’ patriotism that frowned on foreign influence and celebrated gaudy monuments to wealth. Mazursky refocussed his satirical eye accordingly - Moscow on the Hudson (1984) gave Robin Williams his best role in years, as the Russian musician finding the new America not the land of opportunity he was promised; and Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), the smash-hit satire about life amongst LA’s vacuous elite, which rejuvenated the careers of Nick Nolte, Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss.

Enemies: A Love Story (1989)
Mazursky’s last truly memorable work was his sweet, ‘romantic love triangle’ comedy drama Enemies: A Love Story, adapted from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel by the director and journeyman writer Roger L Simon (The Big Fix, 1978; Bustin’ Loose, 1981). The film failed to click with audiences, but the aging auteur’s love letter to the New York of his boyhood was one of his most critically acclaimed films (Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers said, “This is a stunning film, richly detailed and brilliantly acted”), earning Oscar nominations for the adapted screenplay and leading ladies Lena Olin and Anjelica Huston.

Monday
May192014

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: THE CINEMA OF CINEMA

Festival director Nashen Moodley assumed the role in 2013 and immediately set about expanding the reach and appeal of the Sydney Film Festival programme. But he also knows that the Harbour City cinephiles, who make up the core audience, have to be satisfied too. So SFF2014 presents a wide range of films on films; works that capture the scale and scope of cinema. SCREEN-SPACE looks at the features, documentaries and shorts that turn the camera on the industry itself…

LIFE ITSELF (USA; 118 mins; Dir: Steve James):
Hoop Dreams director Steve James' study of the life and work of the late, great film critic Roger Ebert (pictured, above) beautifully balances its tone between eulogistic reverence and celebratory joie de vivre. Featuring admirers such as Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog; the title is taken from his bestselling memoir, a reworking of his famous quote, “The only thing I love more than movies is…”.

THE LAST IMPRESARIO (Australia; 85 mins; Dir: Gracie Otto)
The wildly charismatic producer Michael White is not a household name, but many of his films are instantly recognizable (among them, Monty Python and The Holy Grail, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s The Hound of The Baskervilles, White Mischief and Nuns on the Run). Director Gracie Otto (pictured, right; Otto with White at the London premiere of the film) retraces the life of a man that became one of the most sought-after A-list raconteurs and confidant to the stars all over the world in her giddy tribute film.  

ABUSE OF WEAKNESS (France, Belgium, Germany; 104 mins; Dir: Catherine Breillat)
Writer/director Catherine Breillat, most famous for sexually confronting explorations of gender politics such as Romance, An Old Mistress and Anatomy of Hell, recounts the true story of that moment when she let an ex-con into her life to star in a project, only to be fleeced and left close to bankruptcy. Isabelle Huppert stars as the director, who adapts her autobiographical tale with trademark frankness.

 

DOUBLE PLAY: JAMES BENNING AND RICHARD LINKLATER (France, Portugal, USA; 70 mins; Dir: Gabe Klinger) Director Gabe Klinger and his subject James Benning (both guests of the Fest) team with iconic maverick director Richard Linklater (whose Boyhood screens at SFF) for this relaxed profile of two iconoclastic talents who also happen to be friends. Bonding over their love of film, baseball and Americana, Benning and Linklater riff together frankly in this casual but deceptively insightful talk-piece.

THE GOLD SPINNERS (Estonia; 72 mins; Dirs: Hardi Volmer, Klur Aarma)
Throughout the 1960’s, Eesti Reklaamfilm was one of the most prolific film production facilities in the USSR. It was run by one Peedu Ojamaa,  a vibrant personality with a head for business and a heart for ‘making the sale.’ In the late 60’s, the Kremlin hired Ojamaa to create a series of commercials in which Soviet life was sold with all the integrity one would expect from the world of advertising. The Gold Spinners brings the hilarious realities of 50 year-old Soviet spruikers to Sydney audiences.

JODOROWSKY’S DUNE (USA, France; 88 mins; Dir: Frank Pavich)
It is considered one of the great missed opportunities in modern cinema; the pairing of surrealist maverick filmmaker, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and the vast vision of author Frank Herbert’s immense sci-fi novel, Dune. Filmmaker Frank Pavich pieces together, with the help of such luminaries as Moebius, Dan O’Bannon, the late H.R. Giger and Jodorowsky himself, a version of what may have eventuated if this insanely ambitious collaboration had materialised.


A STORY OF CHILDREN AND FILM (UK; 101 mins; Dir: Mark Cousins)
Mark Cousins’ ongoing obsession with the world of cinema (he compiled the landmark 2011 series, The Story of Film: An Odyssey) focusses in on the depiction of children onscreen in his latest work. The ultimate clip montage reworked into a moving, funny tribute to child actors, A Story of Children and Film sources 53 films from 28 countries, from much-loved classics (ET The Extra-Terrestrial; The 400 Blows) to barely-seen revelations (the Iranian tearjerker, The Boot; Astrid Henning-Jensen’s Palu Alone in the World).

SUPERMENSCH: THE LEGEND OF SHEP GORDON (USA; 85 mins; Mike Myers)
Comedy superstar Mike Myers (Wayne’s World, Austin Powers) makes his directorial debut with this biographical profile of one of Hollywood’s most charismatic talent agents, the legendary Shep Gordon (pictured, right; with the director at the Toronto premiere). Packed with superstar cameos and recollections from his most famous clients, Myers paints a portrait of a man who weaved a personal seam of integrity and vitality in a world of joyous hedonism and A-list indulgence.

JUNKED (Australia; 11 mins; Dir: Gus Berger)
In 2008, director Gus Berger (pictured, left) captured the formation of a British music mivement with his lauded doco, Duke Vin and the Birth of Ska. With Junked, it is the sad demise of traditional 35mm film projection at the iconic George Revival Cinema in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda that Berger’s camera captures with insight, affection and melancholy. One of Australia's great revival picture palaces held out in the face of the digital incursion into the exhibition sector; the Melbourne-based filmmaker was there as the reels of film unspolled.

Session information and ticket sales for all the screenings can be found at the Sydney Film Festival website here.

Thursday
May082014

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: 'WOW MOMENTS' IN THE 2014 PROGRAM

The SOR crowd at the launch of the 2014 Sydney Film Festival (SFF) program were suitably impressed this years statistics – 183 titles from 47 countries, 15 world premieres and 122 Australian premieres amongst them. There was almost a sense of relief when the announcement came that high-profile titles such as David Michod’s The Rover, Dreamworks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon 2, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and The Dardennes Brother’s Two Days One Night would screen, many direct from The Croisette. But what were the real gems, some hidden deep within the program, that suggests the 61st edition of SFF is every true cinephile’s dream…?

BIGSCREEN SOCCER

With the greatest event on the international sports calendar, The World Cup, only weeks away, it should come as no surprise that SFF 2014 catches a little football fever. French sporty splatter-pic Goal of the Dead mashes zombie-apocalypse tropes with Euro-soccer action; Romanian director Corneliu Porumboui commentates uncut footage of a snowbound 1988 game in the bracingly unique The Second Game; two football-mad nations, Italy and Argentina, co-produce Paolo Zucca’s monochromatic farce, The Referee; and, the documentary Next Goal Wins (pictured, above), which charts the resurrection of the Samoan national side after their record-breaking 31-0 loss to Australia in 2001.

THE FILMS OF ISAO TAKAHATA
The animation veteran never achieved the mainstream profile of his Ghibli Studios contemporary, Hiyao Miyazaki, but Isao Takahata (pictured, right) is just as revered in his homeland and amongst aficionados of Japanese cell-art. Arguably his greatest achievement, the heartbreaking survival story Grave of the Fireflies, will screen in the Salute to Studio Ghibli retrospective; his most recent work, the moving, majestic fable The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, will be a Special Presentation screening at the appropriately grand State Theatre.

JAMES BENNING: THE VISIONARY OUTSIDER
Existing in a rarefied cinematic ether full of visions that dance between mainstream film language and avant garde experimentalism, Milwaukee-born Benning is an enigma in international cinema. Nick Bradshaw in Sight and Sound magazine observed, “James Benning’s movies pose an idealistic challenge, a spur to unattainably pure observation.” For four decades, his works have explored the American geo-political landscape through the lens of a patriot, albeit one that questions the murky ethics and humanist impact of his society. “All my films,” he has said, “are an attempt to ask, how liberated am I? Where did I come from? How am I progressing?” Benning will attend, along with director Gabe Kinger, who will introduce his documentary Double Play, a ‘Dinner with Andre’-style pairing of Benning and Richard Linklater.

SNOWPIERCER
No great shock that Bong Joon-Ho’s action epic will play in competition; the director’s long history with SFF dates back to 2004’s Memories of Murder, and the critically-acclaimed film has been a smash-hit in his home market, South Korea. The surprise, and a very pleasant one, is that local distributor Roadshow Films (notorious for sending hard-to-market niche product straight to DVD) will screen the director’s cut ahead of a planned Australian theatrical season. Starring Chris Evans, the film has only just set a US release date of June 27 after a protracted edit-suite war with distributor Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ Weinstein.

THE iMOM
Imagine Spike Jonze Her by way of Chris Columbus’ Bicentennial Man and you have Ariel Martin’s The iMom, just one of the stand-out finalists of this years Dendy Short Film awards. Fresh off its feting at Flickerfest, Martin’s imaginative take on hi-tech parenting will compete with new works from such talents as Warwick Young (Stuffed), Dave Wade (Welcome to Iron Knob) and Jessica Harris (Crochet Noir).

EXHIBITION: ROSEBUD
Thanks largely to the boundless enthusiasm of organiser Mathieu Ravier, the Festival meeting spot The Hub has become a vibrant space in which patrons can unwind and engage in buff banter. In 2014, it welcomes photo-art exhibition Rosebud, from famed lensman Hugh Carpenter, so named after the (spoiler alert) sled in Welles’ Citizen Kane. His work captures celebrities with the one item in their possession that they believe helps define them or holds some significant meaning.

WILLOW CREEK
It runs a lean 78 minutes, utilises the increasingly tiresome ‘found footage’ device, stars no-name actors Alexie Gilmore (pictured right) and Bryce Johnson and riffs on the hoary old ‘Bigfoot’ legend; not to mention it is directed by that comic from Police Academy 2 with the shrill, barking voice, Bobcat Goldthwait. So why is Willow Creek shaping up as the giddy thrill-ride of the always popular Freak Me Out program strand? It has some competition, though – Jerome Sable’s blackly-funny musical theatre/slasher effort, Stage Fright; Japan/Indonesia co-production, Killers, from the twisted minds of The Mo Brothers; and, the long overdue snowbound-zombie sequel, Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead.

Full details of the Sydney Film Festival 2014 program and ticket sales can be found here.   

Monday
Apr282014

AMITABH BACHCHAN AND THE LEGEND OF DEEWAAR

On the eve of iconic Indian superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s appearance at the opening night of the 2014 Indian Film Festival Melbourne (IFFM), SCREEN-SPACE takes a retrospective glance at the late Yash Chopra’s epic 1975 crime-drama, Deewaar, the film that made Bachchan a star and crafted the creative template for the Bollywood industry to this day.

Often spoken of as ‘India’s The Godfather’, Chopra’s seamless vision of the script by the legendary writing team of Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar (pictured, below right) proves utterly timeless, as relevant and captivating to both eastern and western audiences today as it was nearly 40 years ago. The legacy of the film courses through the very lifeblood of modern Indian cinema; in addition to the global status of leading men Shashi Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan (pictured above; from left, with co-star Nirupa Roy), the archetypal portrayal of strong matriarch figureheads in modern Indian cinema and the box-office goldmine that is the Bollywood crime melodrama can also be attributed to the long shadow cast by this intimate yet sweeping multi-generational epic.

Chopra establishes his film’s thematic elements of family, honour, social standing and revenge in a deftly handled extended prologue. Anand (Satyen Kappu) is a working class husband to Sumitra (Nirupa Roy) and father of two sons, Ravi and Vijay. As the leader of a strike against his corrupt boss, he is forced to sign an agreement against his will that ends the strikes and betrays his co-workers, none of which know the truth – the boss had threatened to kill Anand’s family had he refused the agreement. Shamed before his people, Anand leaves and his family is forced to flee to a life of destitution on the streets of Mumbai.

As the boys grow into manhood, their lives take divergent paths. Vijay (an impossibly charismatic Bachchan, in one of Indian film’s great performances; pictured, left) is swept up into the world of crime, amassing an enormous though immoral wealth and falling for bad-girl Anita (Parveen Babi); Ravi (a wonderfully animated Kapoor) ascends to the upper echelons of the police force with his integrity and reputation beyond reproach, his life enriched by the beautiful Veera (Neetu Singh). Inevitably, the brother’s personal and professional lives collide, the impact and conflict felt no more profoundly than in the heart of their ageing mother.

Yash Chopra’s control over the more melodramatic elements of his sweeping narratives became less important to the director over time, but here he displays a sublime technical prowess and storytelling fluency that ensures the heart and soul of his film is never compromised by the genre machinations. There are certainly some florid leaps made in the film’s chronology and logic (not uncommon at all in even the greatest of Bollywood films), but Chopra (pictured, right; in 2007) and his cast skim by them with never a backwards glance. Even after a weighty 176 minutes, the denouement is a richly emotional, deeply satisfying one.

Watching the film retrospectively, one is struck by how polished it looks and vibrantly plays out. Deewaar set several new standards for Indian cinema, not least of which being Babi’s ‘bad girl’ archetype, whose indulgent immorality shattered decades of meek female non-roles and pushed her into the international spotlight (pictured, left; the actress on the cover of TIME magazine, July 1976). The film emerges after 40 years as a work of global standing, while its impersonators within the Bollywood sector are too numerous to mention (including remakes in both Telugu and Tamil dialects). Despite originating from a film culture that at the time went largely unseen in western society, Deewaar exhibited the auteuristic flair that was redefining the film language of the day. Decades later, modern directors adopt its narrative beats and filmic energy; it exhibits a clear influence over such works as Brian De Palma’s Scarface and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.

Despite Chopra’s masterpiece sweeping seven categories at the 1976 Filmfare Indian Film Awards, Amitabh Bachchan did not score a Best Actor trophy for his landmark portrayal (it went to Sanjeev Kumar for the political drama, Aandhi); organisers have remedied this, with Bachchan now the most nominated actor of all time with 39 nods. It is a body of screen work and level of stardom that goes unmatched to this day and would not exist without his portrayal of Vijay Verma in Deewaar, unarguably a major work of cultural and artistic importance.

Amitabh Bachchan will attend the Opening Night ceremony and the Awards function this week at the IFFM. Further details are available at the event website here.

Tuesday
Mar252014

LITTLE WOMEN: IS SHAILENE WOODLEY TOO YOUNG FOR STARDOM?

At 21, Shailene Woodley was carrying a potential tentpole blockbuster. In November 2012, she was deep into production on Divergent (pictured, below) and still hot off her Oscar-nominated performance in The Descendants. Superstardom comes a lot sooner nowadays; Kristen Stewart (Twilight; Snow White & The Huntsman) and Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games; Silver Linings Playbook) were both A-list stars before they turned 21. But what of the screen goddesses of days gone by? Some, like Shirley Temple or Jodie Foster, were well into (or well past) their movie careers. But were the career paths of other great actresses mapped out for them by that tender age of 21…?

JULIA ROBERTS:
Happy 21st! October 28, 1988
Her debut, the girl band drama Satisfaction, had just bombed, yet everyone was talking about the young actress who had stolen the limelight in the arthouse ensemble hit, Mystic Pizza. Insider word was that her performance in Herbert Ross’ adaptation of Robert Harling’s play, Steel Magnolias (pictured, right; with co-star Sally Field), was going to be her breakout performance. By early 1989, Roberts was preparing to star in her first romantic comedy…Disney’s reworking of the old ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ plotline.  

MERYL STREEP:
Happy 21st! June 22, 1970

One year before graduating from the all-female Vassar College, the young woman that would become the greatest actress of her generation was taking on any role she could in school productions. Most notably, she played the title role in August Strindberg’s play Miss Julie (pictured, left), Frosine in the original production of The Miser and was preparing for her graduating performance as Sarah Millwood in The London Merchant. Her first film role, opposite Jane Fonda in Julia, was seven years away.

CATHERINE DENEUVE:
Happy 21st! October 22, 1964

Deneuve had been working steadily since her teens; she was 13 when cast in Andre Hunebelle’s 1957 film Les Collegiennes. Her exquisite beauty and flawless talent was not lost on the French producers, who would cast her in seven movies over three years. In late 1963, the 20 year-old began production on The Umbrellas’ of Cherbourg, director Jacques Demy’s groundbreaking romantic-musical that would become an international sensation. At 21, Deneuve was European cinema’s hottest starlet.

JULIETTE BINOCHE:
Happy 21st! March 9, 1985
The miracle of filming with Jean-Luc Godard was tempered by the controversy surrounding what would be Juliette Binoche’s second feature film. The actress turned 21 a few weeks after Hail Mary (pictured, right), the great director’s modern spin on immaculate conception, premiered across Europe to howls of religious protest. The ingénue buried herself in work, completing seven movies in three years; the workload lead to her acclaimed US movie debut, opposite Daniel Day Lewis in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in 1988.

AISHWARYA RAI:
Happy 21st! November 1, 1994

Despite a modelling career that saw her represent key brands such as Pepsi and Ford in one of the world’s biggest markets, it would not be until 1997 that Indian cinema’s most successful actress debuted onscreen in a series of films that included Iruvar, The Duo and …Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya (for which she would win the Screen Award for Best Newcomer). In 1994, the 21 year-old Rai was coping with the adulation of a nation after having been crowned Miss World (pictured, left).

HELEN MIRREN:
Happy 21st! July 26, 1966

The future Dame was barely dipping her toes in Britain’s cinematic waters at the age of 21. It would be the year she first stepped in front of a camera, with an uncredited bit part in the Norman Wisdom comedy vehicle, Press for Time. But her reputation as one of England’s great theatrical hopes was well established. By the time she started work in late 1966 on her second film, Australian expat director Don Levy’s Herostratus (featured, below), she had conquered the role of Cleopatra for the National Youth Theatre and was invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. The 21 year-old Mirren made such an impact, she became the subject of John Goldschmidt’s documentary, Doing Her Own Thing (1970).

BETTE DAVIS:
Happy 21st! April 5, 1929

The actress that many refer to as ‘The First Lady of The American Screen’ had not stood before a camera when she turned 21 in April of 1929. That would be the year that she would introduce herself to New York audiences in her Broadway debut, Broken Dishes. It would not be until 1931 that Davis would make her first screen appearance in the Universal melodrama The Bad Sister (pictured, right), opposite a charismatic leading man named Humphrey Bogart.

LOUISE BROOKS:
Happy 21st! November 14, 1927
Arguably the most iconic actress of the first quarter-century of cinema, Brooks had survived a miserable childhood in Kansas to be an acclaimed dancer; in 1925 at the age of 19, she landed a featured role with the famous Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. Her beguiling beauty and offscreen reputation (at age 20, she had a well-publicised liaison with Charlie Chaplin) ensured film work was steady; by 21, she had eleven film credits and was being noticed by some of Europe’s leading filmmakers. Highest amongst those was GW Pabst, the German who would cast Brooks, nearing her 22nd birthday, in her iconic role of Lulu in 1929’s Pandora’s Box.