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Monday
Jan282013

OBITUARY: PATRICIA LOVELL

The international film community is mourning the loss of Australian producer Patricia ‘Pat’ Lovell, who passed away Sunday at her home on Sydney’s northern beaches with her children by her side after a long battle with liver cancer. She was 83.

Lovell parlayed a successful career before the cameras in the early days of Australian television into an internationally recognised role as one of Australia’s most successful film producers.

Having endured an arduous childhood that saw her experience the deaths of several of her siblings and the subsequent divorce of her parents, Lovell discovered the magic of the cinema during term-breaks while attending private school in the central-west town of Armidale. Citing the French classics Les Enfants du Paradis and Le Belle et le Bete as her earliest influences, she was soon expressing her own creativity as an on-screen presenter for the children’s programming division of the national broadcaster, ABC.

It was here that she would create one of Australian televisions most iconic TV pairings, as ‘Miss Pat’ opposite the marionette ‘Mr Squiggle’, a role she played for 15 years (pictured, top). Other jobs included panellist duties as one of the original ‘beauties’ on the hugely successful advice-format panel show, Beauty and The Beast and a six year stint as host of the morning talk-show, Sydney Today.

By the mid 1970s, the well-educated Lovell sought to broaden her industry role. In 1973, she produced the controversial TV doco Monster or Miracle?, a critical assessment of the Sydney Opera House. She established contact with legendary Australian film pioneer Ken G Hall, who would become her mentor. Most importantly, she introduced herself to a young film director named Peter Weir, whose 1971 short film Homesdale had left a lasting impression. Lovell seized upon the opportunity to work with the like-minded Weir and produce an adaptation of one of her favourite works of Australian fiction, Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The film would be an international sensation, become the flagbearer for a period of film production known as ‘Australia’s Film Renaissance’ and remains to this day one of the most successful local productions of all time. Lovell teamed with director Ken Hannam for her follow-up films, the chamber piece Break of Day (1976) and the contemporary thriller Summerfield (1977), before reuniting with Weir to produce the breakout blockbuster, Gallipoli (1979). The first local production to secure a studio distribution deal in the US, it would set star Mel Gibson on course to global fame and ensure Weir (pictured, right, with his 1981 AFI Best Directing award) became one of the world’s most in-demand filmmakers.

Lovell did not follow her film to Hollywood, instead producing Ken Cameron’s version of Helen Garner’s dark, autobiographical novel Monkey Grip (1981), a troubled production that put her in hospital having suffered a nervous breakdown (a period she reflected upon in the 2004 short documentary, Aqua Profonda, which chronicles the making of the film). She would produce only two more works, the 1987 telemovie The Perfectionist (a collaboration with her long time friend, playwrite David Williamson), as well as Trevor Graham’s opera expose Tosca: A Tale of Love and Torture (2000).

Some of her most influential years in the Australian film industry were as Head of Producing Studies at The Australian Film, Television and Radio School, a role she undertook from 1996 to 2003. A holder of both an MBE ann AM for services to the film industry and recipient of the AFI Raymond Longford Award (2004) and National Film and Sound Archive’s Ken G Hall Film Preservation Award (2010), Lovell’s contribution to the stature of the Australian film industry on the world stage is immeasurable.

Tuesday
Dec182012

REMEMBERING ALBIE THOMS

Underground filmmaking pioneer Albie Thoms was given a boisterous farewell in the inner-city suburb of Paddington, honouring a talent whose commitment to freedom of artistic expression helped shape 1970’s Australian film culture.

The event had been planned as a book launch for his dense autobiographical work, My Generation. But the radical auteur succumbed to the frailties of disease on November 28 at the age of 71, thereby turning a publish-date party into a much more vast celebration of a man whose creativity and drive to push the boundaries of our national cinema left an indelible impact upon the direction taken by the Australian film sector. The measure of industry pride in Thoms’ achievements was reflected in a lengthy address by producer Jan Chapman, though her words were effectively drowned out by the partying throng.

Works of his, most often produced under the legendary Ubu Films banner or whilst Thoms was a central figure in the free-spirited Sydney Filmmakers Co-op,  include such avant-garde classics as Poem 25, Blunderball or from Dr. Nofinger with Hate, A Sketch on Abigayl's Belly, Bluto, Bolero, In Key and Australia’s first feature-length underground film, Marinetti. Ubu screenings, first at the Greek Community Theatre opposite St Vincent's Hospital on Oxford Street then at a townhouse in Ann Street, Surry Hills, were pivotal events that brought together artists, authors and filmmakers in the bohemian inner-city.

Thoms love of surfing led to his involvement in the iconic beach-magazine ‘Tracks’ and the revered book, Surfmovies (he would use the name for a 1981 film profiling the sport). He also spent time as an integral cog in the industry machine when he developed projects for the Australian Film Commission. And he wasn’t above earning a quid on the side in true Aussie fashion, directing episodes of the TV series, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. He also authored what many consider the definitive dissection of Australia’s film sub-culture in his book, Polemics for a New Cinema.   

The farewell at the historic Paddington Town Hall was an evening during which old friends (among them Bruce Beresford, Richard Neville and David Elfick) and new admirers (Claudia Karvan) gathered to remember a man who was as an Australian film industry trailblazer, an individual of unique social vision and, most importantly, a warm and committed family man.  

 

Lara Thoms, daughter: “Dad had us in his 40s, which allowed him to move from avant-garde filmmaker to radical suburban parent without too many people noticing. He unconditionally supported us, from driving 20 kilometres so as I could attend drama classes where I played Snugglepot in Snugglepot and Cuddlepie to supporting me when I wanted to lead rich young high schools out of the school in protest against Pauline Hanson. He always promoted himself as an anarchist, which drew opposing opinions in leafy Mosman. Dad was still working on his book at his computer on the day that he died.”

Gillian Armstrong, director: “When I first came to Sydney, I heard about The Filmmakers Co-op. I’d heard that on Sunday nights they would run your film, so I took my little film up these little stairs and I was incredibly nervous; I didn’t know anyone. After the film finished, two people turned around and said...something wonderful. The two people who turned around were Albie Thoms and Jane Oehr. It was the start of my screenings here in Sydney and Albie and I became very close friends.”

Bryan Brown, star of Thom’s 1981 film Palm Beach (pictured, right): “I got back from living in London in the late 70s and I wanted to be an actor. I was also writing so I submitted a script to the Australian Film Commission and I went to see three people about it. One was Albie Thoms, one was Jane Oehr; I can’t remember who the other one was. Albie said it was a piece of shit. Jane liked it, said I had a lot going for me. I’ve always like Jane.”

(Above: ABC news interview with Thoms and Martin Sharp, 1971.)
My Generation is available through Media 21 Publishing.

Friday
Dec142012

2013 GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATIONS

The breadth of award season contenders came into sharp focus with the announcement of the 2013 Golden Globe nominations overnight in Los Angeles. The bookie favourites are solidifying; bolters like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen have emerged; and, once-fancied contenders (The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit, Cloud Atlas) are fading fast.


With the exception of Salmon Fishing..., which got less than stellar notices and did only ok business, there are no particularly out-there, Pia Zadora-like nominations, which were announced by Jessica Alba, Megan Fox and Ed Helms at the Beverly Hilton in front of the the Hollywood Foreign Press voting body.

Most nominations went to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (7, the most ever for a Spielberg-directed film), which is firming as front-runner for Oscar honours, followed by Django Unchained (5), Argo (5), Silver Linings Playbook (4), Les Miserables (4), Zero Dark Thirty (4; pictured, right), The Master (3) and Life of Pi (3).

As usual, the real news is in the much-touted names that didn’t get a nod. This year, that dubious honour can be bestowed upon Ben Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild and its leading lady, Quvenzhane Wallis; Matthew McConnaughey for either Killer Joe or Magic Mike; director’s David O Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and Tom Hooper (Les Miserables); Michael Haneke and the cast of Amour (although it did score a Foreign Language Film notice); lead actress Leslie Mann and Judd Apatow’s script for This is 40; Anthony Hopkins’ Hitchcock; Javier Bardem’s electrifying turn as Skyfall’s villain; and, writer/director Rian Johnson for Looper.

Australian’s Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts are flying the flag for the Down Under industry. Watts scored a Lead Actress nomination for her role in the tsunami drama The Impossible; Kidman was a double nominee, for her small-town vamp in Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (gaining serious momentum after her recent SAG nod; pictured, left) and in Philip Kaufman’s telemovie, Hemingway and Gellhorn.

The Golden Globes ceremony will be hosted by actresses Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and will be announced on January 13.      

BEST MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
ARGO
DJANGO UNCHAINED
LIFE OF PI
LINCOLN
ZERO DARK THIRTY

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
JESSICA CHASTAIN, ZERO DARK THIRTY
MARION COTILLARD, RUST AND BONE
HELEN MIRREN, HITCHCOCK
NAOMI WATTS, THE IMPOSSIBLE
RACHEL WEISZ, THE DEEP BLUE SEA

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, LINCOLN
RICHARD GERE, ARBITRAGE
JOHN HAWKES, THE SESSIONS
JOAQUIN PHOENIX, THE MASTER
DENZEL WASHINGTON, FLIGHT

BEST MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL
LES MISERABLES
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
MOONRISE KINGDOM
SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
EMILY BLUNT, SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN
JUDI DENCH, THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL
JENNIFER LAWRENCE, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
MAGGIE SMITH, QUARTET
MERYL STREEP, HOPE SPRINGS

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
JACK BLACK, BERNIE
BRADLEY COOPER, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
HUGH JACKMAN, LES MISERABLES
EWAN MCGREGOR, SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN
BILL MURRAY, HYDE PARK ON HUDSON

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
BRAVE
FRANKENWEENIE
HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA
RISE OF THE GUARDIANS
WRECK-IT RALPH

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
AMOUR (AUSTRIA)
A ROYAL AFFAIR (DENMARK)
THE INTOUCHABLES (FRANCE)
KON-TIKI (NORWAY/UK/DENMARK)
RUST AND BONE (FRANCE)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MOTION PICTURE
AMY ADAMS, THE MASTER
SALLY FIELD, LINCOLN
ANNE HATHAWAY, LES MISERABLES
HELEN HUNT, THE SESSIONS
NICOLE KIDMAN, THE PAPERBOY

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MOTION PICTURE
ALAN ARKIN, ARGO
LEONARDO DICAPRIO, DJANGO UNCHAINED
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, THE MASTER
TOMMY LEE JONES, LINCOLN
CHRISTOPH WALTZ, DJANGO UNCHAINED

BEST DIRECTOR – MOTION PICTURE
BEN AFFLECK, ARGO
KATHRYN BIGELOW, ZERO DARK THIRTY
ANG LEE, LIFE OF PI
STEVEN SPIELBERG, LINCOLN
QUENTIN TARANTINO, DJANGO UNCHAINED

BEST SCREENPLAY – MOTION PICTURE
MARK BOAL, ZERO DARK THIRTY
TONY KUSHNER, LINCOLN
DAVID O. RUSSELL, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
QUENTIN TARANTINO, DJANGO UNCHAINED
CHRIS TERRIO, ARGO

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – MOTION PICTURE
MYCHAEL DANNA, LIFE OF PI
ALEXANDRE DESPLAT, ARGO
DARIO MARIANELLI, ANNA KARENINA
TOM TYKWER, CLOUD ATLAS
JOHNNY KLIMEK, REINHOLD HEIL
JOHN WILLIAMS, LINCOLN

BEST ORIGINAL SONG – MOTION PICTURE
FOR YOU, ACT OF VALOR
Music by: Monty Powell, Keith Urban Lyrics by: Monty Powell, Keith Urban
NOT RUNNING ANYMORE, STAND UP GUYS
Music by: Jon Bon Jovi Lyrics by: Jon Bon Jovi
SAFE & SOUND, THE HUNGER GAMES
Music by: Taylor Swift, John Paul White, Joy Williams, T Bone Burnett Lyrics by: Taylor Swift, John Paul White, Joy Williams, T Bone Burnett
SKYFALL, SKYFALL
Music by: Adele, Paul Epworth Lyrics by: Adele, Paul Epworth
SUDDENLY, LES MISERABLES
Music by: Claude-Michel Schonberg Lyrics by: Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg

Sunday
Nov182012

DOES FRANCHISE FAME STILL BECKON FOR DANA AND FOX?

One of the most successful television franchises of all time has struggled to convert small-screen cultist into big-screen ticket buyers. Will there ever be a third X-Files movie?

Forty-something fans who were glued to their TV screens from the moment Chris Carter’s iconic TV series The X-Files landed in 1993 felt their hearts skip a beat a few months back. The two stars, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, both stated on the record that a third X-Files film is being pitched to 20th Century Fox by Carter and that both would be happy to revisit their beloved characters. But the question needs to be asked – is 20th Century Fox all that interested?

In an interview with Collider.com to promote his new low-budget film Goats, Duchovny expressed dismay at the studios reluctance to nurture the franchise. “I would love to do another film, or more,” he told interviewer Christina Radisch. “I think we’re all game for it.  I know I’m kind of perplexed that Fox isn’t more [enthusiastic].  Here’s a homegrown property that you don’t have to go buy, like fucking Green Lantern or something, to make it.  Here you’ve got an actual action franchise that’s your own.  It’s weird to me, but I’m not an executive.” A far more circumspect Anderson addressed the issue at a Canadian fan expo in August. “I met with Chris before coming here and it’s looking pretty good," she teased. “We have to convince Fox.”

Writer/producer Frank Spotnitz (pictured, right), a creative force behind both the films and the TV series, went on the record with Collider, saying, “"I don't think it's too late, but I think it's going to be, pretty soon," he claimed. "I'm still agitating with everyone I can grab to say, 'Let's make this movie while we still can!' I've been saying for years now that I feel it's a cultural crime that they have not finished the series." 

At the height of the series popularity, the studio offered up a big-budget big-screen version that set the chemistry-rich FBI pair of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully against the kind of vast canvas that fans would lay awake at night dreaming of (full disclosure – I’m an X-Files tragic). The 1998 film, titled The X-Files: Fight the Future and directed by Carter working with a budget of close to US$70million, grossed a solid US$84million domestically/US$105million internationally.

It was considered a perfectly acceptable starting point for a franchise that had a devoted fanbase. But news of the inevitable sequel was slow to emerge. Carter and his cast got into heated pay disputes with the studio, precipitating Duchovny’s departure and a steady decline in ratings (cast additions including Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish failed to halt the momentum).

Finally, in 2007, Fox greenlit and fast-tracked The X-Files: I Want to Believe, the sequel many thought would never materialize. The popularity of the series was still strong (thanks to DVD sales, which to this day prove a cash-cow for the studio), but this film was to be a much more modestly budgeted effort (about US$25million). Instead of the effects-heavy set-pieces that filled the first film (exploding buildings; spacecraft breaking through glacial drifts), I Want to Believe played like a late- season episode (also, the casting of lovable comedian Billy Connolly as a peadaphilic Catholic priest with psychic powers was perhaps, in hindsight, a bit misguided).

The plotline, a riff on the Frankenstein legend that involved Russian blackmarketeers trading in body parts, was dark, free of the supernatural/alien kicker that fans loved and decidedly small-screen stuff (and very icky). In the 2008 summer of such blockbusters as The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Wall-E and Kung Fu Panda, fanboy appetites were well and truly sated by the time Mulder and Scully’s latest thriller emerged in late July to mediocre reviews; it took US$20million.

Despite a fervent fanbase who want to believe there is box-office pull left in their heroes, no official word has been offered from 20th Century Fox as to whether a third X-Files movie is being developed.

Sunday
Sep092012

ANIMATION IN BLACK AND WHITE: ARE HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS RACIST?

The third installment of the Madagascar franchise again raises questions as to whether or not Hollywood studios all to often rely upon racially-based humour and coarse ethnic characterisations in their animated blockbusters. At best, it represents lazy, uninspired writing; at worst, the implications are extremely worrying...

Madagascar 3 clearly exists to milk further cash from the animated family-film demographic already enamoured with the adventures of Alix, Melman, Marty and Gloria. Dreamworks Animation cartoons are generally awful (the Kung Fu Panda films being the exception that proves the rule) and reek of ambition-free, focus-group origination. Directors Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon hurl colour and movement at the screen to appease the kids (taking their cue from Pixar’s worst, Cars 2) but, with no discernible adherence to plot, comedy or character, it’s an endurance test for parents.

But there is a more pertinent and deeply troubling reason to look upon Madagascar 3 with derision. The reliance upon crass racial stereotypes in the script by Darnell and indie-film poster boy Noah Baumbach (pictured, right) is remarkable in this day and age of cultural sensitivity. But Madagascar 3 goes there, unashamedly inflicting upon the littlies some of the most broadly distorting depictions of race you are likely to see in 2012.

Our heroes – with whom we are familiar after the box office success of Madagascars 1 (very good) and 2 (underwhelming) – are all descendants of the continent of Africa. But their specific origins have never been identified; despite being a continent comprised of 47 countries, it appears to be enough to bundle them together as just ‘African’. They are just from ‘over there’. Though they longed for their homeland in the previous films, by #3 nothing about them says they are happy with their place of birth, portrayed as a dusty, barren wasteland. In fact, the film begins with them pining to get back ‘home’, aka New York City Zoo.

At the start of the second act when the slim plot presents itself and our heroes join a circus train, a whole new wave of stereotypical ‘foreign’ animals join the fray. A Beningni-esque idiot seal who is Italian for no apparent reason (no seal species are native to Italian coastal regions); a tiger that recalls the Dolph Lundgren ‘Drago’ character from that Reagan-era travesty, Rocky 4; a pack of crotchety ‘cockney’ dogs.

Oh, and we’ve already met the film’s villain, Chantel Dubois (pictured, left), a snivelly, conniving French animal control officer. It is a caricature so grotesque it is inconceivable that any French actress of note would have been party to it; instead, Frances McDormand steps in to Clouseau-up her resume. That the organisers of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival saw fit to roll out the red carpet for the cast and crew is utterly bewildering, given the French film industry’s views on a) Hollywood’s bullying dominance of the world film market, and b) the portrayal of French characters in the most anachronistic of guises.

Before you come at me with “Oh, it’s just a kids’ movie”, I ask you to consider the impact that the cartoon characters of every modern generation’s childhood have had upon their collective psyche. Try getting fresh incarnations of a Pepe le Pew or a Hong Kong Phooey (or, for that matter, that deep south racist, Foghorn Leghorn) on Saturday morning television today. Such grotesque manifestations have been banished to the ironic realms of Adult Swim or Family Guy.

And it is not the first time that Hollywood animators have been questioned about their racially insensitive characterisations. The Disney Studio has sporadically copped flak for its insensitivity to, or downright exploitation of, ethnic stereotypes in films like Dumbo, The Jungle Book, Lady and The Tramp, Oliver and Company, Aladdin, Pocahontas (pictured, right), Tarzan, Mulan, The Lion King and The Princess and The Frog. Pixar has dodged the issue of racial stereotyping in its films by largely making every lead character a white male (less racist, but certainly exhibiting a narrow field of vision); much was made of the recent film Brave and the fact it was the first Pixar heroine in 25 years (and feel free to discuss amongst yourself the portrayal of that film’s Scottish characters).

Dreamworks took a lot of heat for its Italo-American sea life in the Mafia-themed Shark Tale and, as aesthetically lovely as the films are, the aforementioned Kung Fu Panda series has its fair share of questionable ethnic prosaism. But commentators have been particularly scathing of Dreamworks’ use of African-American voice actors to ‘urbanize’ support characters such as Chris Rock as Madagascar’s sassy, dippy zebra Marty or, perhaps most famously, Eddie Murphy’s Donkey (pictured, right) from the Shrek franchise. Accusations centring on these characters perpetuating the ‘minstrel’ archetype litter the blogsosphere.

Critics seem to generally give animated films a pass mark when judging character traits, largely ignoring obvious ‘ethnic comedy’ because it is all in the name of making kids laugh. I’m all for kids laughing, of course, but also hope that none of our future leaders are forming opinions of foreign cultures based upon the picture Hollywood paints. Imagine the following dialogue between parent and child after viewing Madagascar 3: “Mommy, why did the seal talk funny and act so stupid?”, “He was Italian, honey.”