Posts by Andrew:
The full title for the razzle-dazzle experience that is Hugh Jackman’s international touring show is Hugh Jackman – The Man. The Music. The Show. But, at the conclusion of the two and a bit hour extravaganza, (that comes with a welcome twenty minute intermission that feels like more of a respite for the audience as it is for the ever singing, ever dancing troupe on stage), one can’t help but consider throwing on a bunch of extra words onto the title: The Legend. The Icon. The Australian. The Ally. Even as I sit here, writing this review, I can’t help but feel like I’m coming up short to describe The Man, Hugh Jackman.
See, sitting down in a packed to the brim 12,000 seat RAC Arena, surrounded by strangers, you can’t help but feel the electric anticipation of the event we’ve all paid for. Or rather, not so much the event, but, as the title suggest, The Man. As a clip reel of Hugh Jackman’s iconic roles plays over the mammoth screens that hang on either side of the stage, you can’t help but realise the immense talent that this one person has. Everything from Australia, to Paperback Hero, to the nine X-Men films he did as Wolverine, to Kate & Leopold, to Les Miserables, and even to Van Helsing, and The Fountain and Prisoners (but no Movie 43, or Viva Laughlin), gets a glimpse. Not only is Jackman a versatile on screen presence, he’s also an immense talent on stage, as we were all set to witness in person.
And, sure enough, talent is exactly what we saw. We knew that’s what we were getting. We knew we were going to be entertained, but what we didn’t know was exactly how we were going to be entertained. For those of us who were lucky enough to catch Jackman’s last tour around Australia as Peter Allen in the ever flamboyant and exciting musical, The Boy From Oz, you had an idea of what you were in for – high energy entertainment that thrills and excites and leaves you dancing down the aisles as you walk out the theatre.
For this show, Hugh Jackman takes the audience along a walk down memory lane, telling his life stories about how he got into acting, the importance of different songs in his life, and aww-inspiring tales about the love that he has for his wife, Deborra-Lee Furness. And, he does so with a wealth of show tunes and iconic musical numbers that have peppered his career, with everything from One Day More from Les Miserables, to Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, to You Will Be Found from Dear Even Hansen, and finally, a frenetic medley of Luck Be a Lady, Singin’ in the Rain, I Got Rhythym, Steppin’ Out With My Baby, Sing Sing Sing, which works to show how important the ‘big number’ musicals were for Jackman’s growth as an artist.
So, again, walking into the arena, you know at the very least that you’re going to be entertained with some enjoyable songs. But, what entertainment! Look, Hugh Jackman may not be the world’s best singer, but what Jackman lacks in vocal brilliance, he more than makes up for with exceptional stage presence, making it feel like he’s embracing everyone in the arena completely. At once, Hugh Jackman can make you feel like he’s singing just for you, but then, at the same time, he will make you feel like you’re united with everyone in the arena. I lost count how many times I would look around the arena and see people singing along with Jackman, or hoisting their phones in the air for a slow number. I won’t lie, there were also more than a few moments where I shed a tear or two from the pure warmth that was thriving in the arena.
This is an all singing, all dancing affair, and by gosh can Hugh Jackman dance. If playing a superhero for almost two decades means that you can move like that, then so be it. While Jackman made a few jokes about husbands being dragged to the show by their wives, it should be known that if there were any such men in the audience, then they should do themselves a favour and book them and their partners in for dancing lessons posthaste, because goodness, if you could even move a little bit like Hugh Jackman, then you will go far.
It takes a genuine talent to wash away the woes of your day and make everything feel just right, and Hugh Jackman, bless him for everything that he does, is that genuine talent. For me, the day leading up to attending the event – one that I’d bought tickets for months before, with the intention of it being a way of celebrating my birthday which would fall the day after – was a torturous one. I’d had a panic attack at work, and was as anxious as ever, feeling like a raw bundle of nerves wrapped up together. It was one of those days. But, walking into the arena with my girlfriend, and feeling that tangible electricity that came from the thousands of excited people lined up for a show, and then, experiencing the show, made all that tension and anxiety wash away. Everything felt right.
And, while I didn’t get a personal moment with Hugh Jackman – The Man – there were many audience members who did. Early on in the show, a front row audience member, Kylie, stood out to Jackman, with him stopping between a story about Deborra-Lee to talk to the person who caught his eye. She’d held up a sign that told her story – Kylie was about to undergo surgery due to breast cancer, and was there at the show to celebrate with her friends. Adorned with glitter and sparkles, this hero stood up, and with the support of Hugh Jackman, she told her story to 11,999 strangers, reminding women to be checked for breast cancer, and assuring to do so earlier rather than later. Without a doubt, there were few dry eyes in the house, and Hugh Jackman, clearly emotionally moved by Kylie’s story, struggled to carry on with his story.
Sitting on the Booker Prize longlist alongside Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale sequel, and a book titled My Sister, The Serial Killer, is Max Porter’s Lanny. At once, this is the story of a curious, wild-minded young boy named Lanny, and yet, it’s also about his parents, Robert and Jolie, and their exhausted lives and yearning desire to just let little Lanny live his life. Through untethered encouragement, Lanny finds a friend within local artist Peter, or as the village that this matchbook of characters find themselves in calls him, Mad Pete. Peter helps teach Lanny how to focus his ever active mind through art, and it’s with this artistic creativity that a curious friendship is created. Meanwhile, living underground, absorbing the lives of everyone in the village, is Dead Papa Toothwort, a spectral figure who possibly exists outside of time, and yet, listens to everything as it happens at once.
This is the first time I’ve engaged with Max Porter’s writing, and gosh, I already feel inadequate in finding the words to describe Lanny. There is an economy to the words that Porter uses to tell the story of Lanny, with his ability to conjure a world that exists between paragraphs, that inhales and exhales in the spaces between words, and I have no idea how he manages to do it. There’s a deceptive simplicity to his writing, never actually describing characters, but instead allowing their thoughts and dialogue to illustrate who they are. Every so often, he’ll slip in the thoughts of other people who live in the village, or through obfuscated text, he writes out the overheard conversations that Dead Papa Toothwort gleans from his underground existence.
Porter’s ability to employ common phrases that we all utter behind closed doors, thinking we’re safe from eavesdroppers, manages to play on the page like he’s teased those exact thoughts out of us while we’re sleeping, running the days events through our minds as we rest, wondering where we went wrong. And yet, these phrases and diatribes that scramble across the pages of the first third of this narrative like a massive word vomit, feel so drawn from life, so real and in-the-moment, that you can’t help but get the feeling of arrogance from Porter’s writing. Through the character of Dead Papa Toothwort, Porter has conjured an entity that witnesses all, and judges all for what they say and think. And through this observant behaviour, Porter manages to cull every, single, word, that is extraneous to the core meaning of every, single, sentence, in the book. You understand who a person is intimately through the use of a phrase, or the minute description of an item. A lifetime is distilled into a sentence, and you feel like you’ve been along for the ride for every moment of that characters life.
The main characters of Peter, Robert, and Jolie, are all beautiful creations who are tangible, living and breathing people. When Lanny goes missing, one particular conversation that Jolie has with her neighbour is stunning reading. By its pure nature, a book lives within the mind, and this conversation that Jolie has with her neighbour is one that exists within their own minds; the neighbour judges, presumes, second guesses her oddly named neighbour, all the while Jolie runs through a rambling routine of prejudices herself, all existing within the goal of finding her missing son. Max Porter writes with the knowledge that he’s a good writer – maybe even with the arrogance of being a great writer. He knows it, and by gosh is he keen on letting you know it too. Porter’s writing is so brilliant and assured, so precise and knowing, that you can’t help but feel him peering over your shoulder as you read along, every so often chiming in to note how well he wrote this sentence, and remarking about how good that turn of phrase was.
Through the three ‘parts’ of Lanny, we see the world we live in from entirely different perspectives. There’s a looking glass vibe to these characters, where you can’t help but reflect on your own life and judge your own thoughts about the world around you. Max Porter clearly wishes us to reflect on societies prejudices that we all have about that slightly odd single man who lives down the road, or the tussle-haired mother who can’t seem to control her kid, or our opinion on that really weird kid who lives down the road. He wants us to look at ourselves and question whether our prejudices are right or wrong, and for the most part, Lanny manages to do exactly that.
With a wealth of narrative flourishes that make up the view of Dead Papa Toothwort, and a masterfully economical use of the English language, one can’t help but feel the perceived prestige and self-knowing brilliance just drip off the page. It’s a failure in myself that I can’t help but look at this text and feel that it’s almost too good, and it’s because the echo of the clattering on the keyboard from the writers hands are so clearly heard as you’re reading. You feel the presence of the author more than you feel the presence of the book. But when the writing is this good, when the characters are this believable and relatable, isn’t that kind of arrogance allowed? Isn’t this metaphysical literature version of ‘big dick energy’ accepted? For some, sure. For me, while I did thoroughly enjoy this book, and I respect its value, I’m not sure if it’s enough. If anything, it has forced me to attempt to write a deeper review for it, of which I can only hope I have managed to do so.
And what of arrogance? If arrogance is inspirational, then isn’t it justified? If it sets a benchmark for someone to be better than it, or to try attain the same level of brilliance that deserves such arrogance, then isn’t that ok? As long as the arrogance isn’t exclusitory or of the gate keeping kind, then surely it’s a welcome arrogance? In the case of Max Porter, I find that this kind of arrogance is fine. After all, he’s created a novel as engaging, as creatively impressive, as enjoyable to read, as Lanny. I guess if I managed to do the same feat, I’d be arrogant too.Purchase Lanny Here.
Director Ari Aster exploded on the horror scene with his unsettling, performance driven flick Hereditary. Encompassing a disjointed, fractured narrative was a powerhouse performance from Toni Collette, who managed to harness her best capital A Acting skills, and devoured every single piece of scenery doing so. Look, Hereditary is a film that is a mish-mash of genre tropes – madness, splashes of horrific gore, spirits, possession, strange kids – and, in the moment, it works a treat. With a wealth of good ingredients that are thrown together by someone who once ate a great meal and figured they could do the same thing at home, Hereditary can’t help but feel half-baked. There’s a strong hint of what the original meal looked and tasted like, but it feels decidedly not right.
I say this as a way of breaching the fact that Midsommar, Aster’s second feature, is an equally fractured, unfocused film that thrives in the moment, yet crumbles apart when reflected upon. As with Hereditary, Midsommar focuses on a mentally unstable woman who has lost her parents. Florence Pugh takes main stage as Dani, someone who we meet already at the end of her tether. Ever concerned about her bipolar sister, who has once again gone missing and is unresponsive to messages or phone calls, Dani relies on her fatigued and frustrated boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor). He’s a mildly sympathetic partner, beleaguered by a group of friends (William Jackson Harper, Will Poulter, Vilhelm Blomgren) who badger him to dump Dani. ‘All she does is call you’, they say to him as they’re out for drinks, with Poulter’s cock-driven Mark suggesting that Christian could be going out with a barmaid for the night instead of having to field phone calls from Dani. These intellectual dude-bros are anthropology students who envisage grander, smarter lives for themselves, and at the invitation of Vilhelm Blomgren’s Pelle, they head off to Sweden, to help Harper’s Josh write his thesis on European midsummer customs. In a bid to stave off a deeper depressive state, Dani joins the ‘boys’ on the trip – after all, a bit extended sun and fresh air should surely help her out with her understandably mournful demeanour.
And it’s here that I can’t help but stray into spoiler territory. If you enjoyed Hereditary, then sure, head along and see Midsommar. It’s a fascinating film that left me excited and entertained. The ‘horror in the daytime’ element of the film is why this film works, and it’s a testament to Aster’s skills that he manages to tease out, and then masterfully manipulate, an elongated tension that surprisingly works well over its two and a bit hour runtime.
So, spoilers for both Hereditary and Midsommar…
Midsommar presents a curious continuation of Ari Aster’s interest in following those who unwillingly embark on a path to heightened power. With Hereditary, he dragged a tortured family along a path to where a fractured son becomes a possessed King. In a film that’s replete with exaggerated horror tropes, it’s this final reveal that this was all a ploy by some cult to find a suitable host for some spirit to rest in and become their King. Yet, the cult, and in turn, the ‘King’, are not the villains of the piece, instead, it’s the broken family unit that are the enemies.
The way Ari Aster utilises mental health problems in his films is quite fascinating. There’s a vague sense that he’s being respectful to those who live with mental health problems, but then, he utilises heightened emotional outbursts that many who live with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or any other mental health problem, as a way of creating dramatic tension. He manipulates the audience by putting them on edge by presenting clearly unstable people in unstable situations. You can see the logical path that the characters should take – Dani should receive proper medical care and treatment, helping her through her grief and trauma – but Aster is more interested in presenting the ‘worst case scenario’ for these characters, and then rolling the dice to see what kind of trauma they’ll further be subjected to. Is this entertainment? More importantly, is this ethical entertainment?
Florence Pugh, just like Toni Collette, gives a full bodied, emotionally draining performance. She delivers a searing portrayal of someone living through grief and depression and finding themselves thrust into a situation where nothing but further grief and depression is heaped on her, leaving Dani in a situation where – after quite literally losing everything – she is free to lose the last thing that she holds dear – her mind. Yet, unlike Collette, Pugh never overacts, instead, giving a powerfully nuanced performance that appears to exist in a completely different film than the one she finds herself in. A gradually fracturing mind is hard to portray on screen, and yet, Pugh manages to embody this trauma brilliantly.
As Midsommar meanders on, Aster eagerness to present a commune as a cult can’t help but feel like an overwrought facsimile of The Wicker Man. The comparisons are blatant – both are films about a major sacrifice being made to ensure that a ‘crop’ is bountiful for the next harvest – and yet, for all of Aster’s desire to make Midsommar unique, he can’t help but muddy his own waters, making his intentions, and narrative, unclear. There is a grand attempt at creating a lore here that is deep and historic, but Aster stumbles more that soars, with some nitpicking points that required clarity – if this celebration only occurs every ninety years, then who carries on the tradition if people are required to ‘die’ at the age of seventy two? And, in turn, if this sacrifice only happens every ninety years, then what happens to the eighty nine other harvests that occur in between those years? Maybe a future viewing, or the much promoted ‘directors cut’ (which sounds awfully like A24 merely trying to out-gross Hereditary but pulling an Avengers: Endgame move and putting out an extended cut for the Midsommar faithfuls to help drive that box office up a little more), will help illuminate these plot foibles.
I feel I should explain what the cult is about, but there’s so much deliberate vagueness employed that it’s hard to actually say other than this is a remote Swedish cult who believe that death is an honour, and that God-like genius comes from inbreeding. They also believe in ethical harvesting, and good food production, as well as encouraging the production of very impressive clothing. Oh, they’re also pretty good at creating art as well. Aster’s production design (thanks to Henrik Svensson) is – just like Hereditary – absolutely sublime. Aster employs a meticulous eye for beautiful architecture, alongside pristine nature shots, proving that if he somehow fails as a director, he could quite easily establish a commune for Instagram influencers to visit and take glamorous selfies at, and he’d be just as successful.
But, wrapped up in this fable about grief and life and death is a fumbled exploration of the honour in dying. It’s impossible to assess Midsommar and not come away with a damningly view of the line that Aster has drawn from a daughter murdering her parents in their sleep, and then taking her own life, through past the line of the two seventy two year old commune-ites (I struggle to call them cultists, although it may appear this is what Aster wishes them to be known as) who jump off a cliff to their horrific, gore driven deaths, all the way to the end point of two men sacrificing themselves alongside five unwilling ‘tributes’. It’s unclear – at least on first watch – what Aster is saying about death. Is it better to have lived a life knowing when your end point is, embracing all the joy that life brings, and then marking a point where you will cease to exist? What is he saying about mental illness here other than, sure sucks to be you, have you ever thought about embracing madness? Maybe then you’ll be truly free? I am willing to be proven wrong about this, but after rolling this film around on my tongue for a week, I can’t help but feel that Aster is willing to manipulate the dramatic elements of living with a mental illness so he can employ them in his fictional narrative horror-rides.
I want to stress, as my review is failing to display this, I thoroughly enjoyed Midsommar while I was watching it. I found the performances across the board brilliant, with Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor in particular being standouts, and a note that Will Poulter has never been creepier. Ari Aster is an assured director who clearly is comfortable behind the camera, and it’s his technical ability and visual style that helps the viewer ignore many of the issues his films have. When paired alongside his editor, Lucian Johnston, and cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski, Ari Aster becomes a major force to be reckoned with, crafting some of the finest horror creations this side of The Babadook and The Witch. As modern horror seeks to cement its new figureheads, Ari Aster certainly has earned his place at the table where he, alongside Mike Flanagan, Robert Eggers, and Jennifer Kent, have all earned their opportunity to live deliciously.
But, while I found the experience of Midsommar suitably torturous and unsettling, I still have the right to ask whether sitting down and watching another woman suffer with an untreated mental illness, as she is surrounded by unsympathetic people, and as further trauma is heaped on her for two and a half hours, (excuse the fractured sentence), is that ethical? Is it right to mine mental illness for the use of amplifying horror in films? Sure, Aster is respectful, and yes, he clearly makes those who do nothing to help Dani into villains, with their comeuppance being well deserved, but again, does that make it right? If anything, with a brutal partial decapitation in Hereditary and two head crushing sequences in Midsommar, Aster genuinely has something against the human head (or, rather, mind).
I can only shrug, and suggest that you head along to see Midsommar and make up your own mind.
Director: Ari Aster
Cast: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper
Writer: Ari Aster
It’s been a while since I’ve immersed myself in the field of ‘edutainment’ – that is, entertainment that educates. While I like to consider myself fairly ofay with all forms of cinema, the realm of films that exist to teach and inform people (particularly students and families) about parts of the world has long eluded me. So when the chance to review the WA made and Indian ocean focused documentary, Whale Super Highway, came up, I jumped at the opportunity. Not only would it be a welcome occasion to catch what is going on in the world of Australian made edutainment, but it’d also give me a chance to find out what the deal is with ‘The Dome’, the format of choice that Whale Super Highway would be screened in.
The film itself is a beautifully captured film about the migration pattern of the Humpback whale. Following these aquatic giants for parts of their journey from the peak of Western Australia, right down to the icy colds of Antarctica, are a wealth of knowledgeable marine interested folks, including whale expert Chris Burton, and Marine Mammal Scientist Bec Wellard. I’ll touch on the footage in a moment, because at times it’s visually overwhelming, but before that, it’s worthwhile noting that the ‘educational’ part of this edutainment film never actually feels like you’re being taught anything. Thanks to the narration by Marta Dusseldorp, you always feel like you’re being taken along for a nice stroll – or, rather, swim – through the waters off the West Australian coast, and in turn, the information you’re provided about these majestic giants feels like you’re being included in their world, rather than dictated to.
In turn, this makes moments where you learn all about whale poo and snot all the more entertaining. Sure, there’s an aspect to this that feels purely directed at the kids in the audience, but heck, I still got a solid chuckle over hearing all manner of facts about how what goes into a whale comes out. And, thanks to the infrequent use of CGI imagery, and because of the visual aspect of ‘The Dome’ cinema that Whale Super Highway is being presented in, there’s a icky joyousness to the visual of being surrounded in pink whale poop. Scenes like this go far in showing how well a little bit of scatological humour goes.
But, it’s not all laughs, as there’s a welcome reminder about the impact humans have on the world of whales. With the increasing impact of climate change affecting us all, Whale Super Highway works to remind audiences that it’s not just us that will be harmed by an ever warming climate. And, with facts that’ll surprise any Perthian (such as the massive underwater gulf that’s right on our doorstep) who catches this entertaining flick at Cinefest Oz or at screenings that’ll take place at Freo’s Maritime Museum, there’s a welcome reminder that this isn’t something that takes place in some far off country, but instead, it’s supremely local.
And maybe that’s what I’m most buzzed about with Whale Super Highway. The local aspect of the story being told reminds us that while we’re busy at work, living our lives on land, raising kids, or hiking the hills, there’s a perpetual migration occurring right in our waters of some beautiful, giant mammals that deserve our attention and respect.
Which leads me to ‘The Dome’: this is a fully immersive dome cinema that encompasses your entire vision. From the outside, it’s deceptively small, but when you enter it and sit down in your chair, you suddenly become overwhelmed with the world of the whales. As someone who can’t us virtual reality headsets, this gave me the immersive feeling that that does, but without the nausea and unsteadiness that comes with that experience. This is a great, unique experience, that’ll certainly excite kids to no end, and will easily keep any adult entertained too. I had a wonderful time learning about the migration of the whales, and the visuals alone really help immerse you in this world.
If you’re in Busselton while Cinefest Oz is on, make sure to catch the screenings down there, and don’t miss the world premiere on Wednesday August 28th.
Director: Julia Redwood
Director of Photography: Jon Shaw
Narrator: Marta Dusseldorp
Andrew was able to catch up with Aussie icon, Bryan Brown, on his press tour for his new film, Palm Beach. This is a new film by Rachel Ward about a group of friends coming together to celebrate a birthday. It’s currently in Australian cinemas.
Andrew’s review can be read here.
If you stand over a certain grate on a fairly innocuous concrete island in Times Square, New York City, you’ll experience something unique and memorable. This grate looks exactly like every other subway grate in the city, a crosshatch of metal that allows the slurry of New York rain and snow to flow down into the sewers and away from the bustling tourist trap that is the neon lit Times Square. Yet, there’s something unique about it that distinguishes it apart from every other subway grate – a low hum emanates from the grate, at once sounding like an impending subway train, but then, once you’ve stood in the sound for thirty seconds or so, you realise it’s something entirely unique. It absorbs you, encompassing your body and mind and oddly washes the loud noise of New York City away from you and places you outside of Times Square. Somehow, you become a character from a JG Ballard novel, existing within the world, and yet, existing without the world.
Five years ago, I stood atop this grate in an empty snow covered Times Square as night embraced the city. New York was oddly quiet that evening, and after an indistinct day between Christmas and New Years, I found myself comforted by this hum. For those who haven’t been to Times Square, it is as energetic and frenetic as you’d imagine. It carries an obnoxious level of excess and endless promotion of things to buy buy buy, and is negatively teeming with people who have no idea what an inside voice is, so for me, when I stood in a disturbingly quiet Times Square as the snow fell patiently onto the pavement, I found a clarity and a fascinating embrace with this sound that has been projected into the city that never sleeps for over forty years.
Designed as an art installation-cum-social experiment by artist Max Neuhaus in 1977, this hum is only noticeable if you actually look out for it. Even if you engage in the activities of being a humble tourist, slack jawed and overwhelmed by the enormity of Times Square, unaware that an art installation is present under your feet, it will still be there, living, day and night, endlessly sounding out into the existence of America.
I think about this sound a lot, how through its unobtrusive presence people unwillingly engage with it daily. I think about how for those who seek it out, it can be a welcome respite from the madness of an ever changing, ever active city. And, I think about how important the presence and existence of public art is. The existence of this sound in New York has tethered a wealth of memories for me to that city, memories that will carry on in my mind longer than many that I would presume to hold as precious.
This moment in my history was brought back with vivid realisation three-quarters of the way through Samantha Lang’s documentary It All Started With a Stale Sandwich, a film about the 50-year history of Kaldor Public Arts Projects, as guided by Hungarian-born Australian, John Kaldor. As the film progresses chronologically through the works that Kaldor Public Arts Projects has put on, we’re presented with a glimpse into the work of performance artist Marina Abramović. For her Marina Abramović: In Residence show in 2015, Abramović created an exhibition space that forced participants and attendees to be present in the moment. The visitors presence in the art space enforced them to abandon their digital worlds for the duration of their visit. Whether that be for ten minutes as they sit staring at a yellow board, or for six hours as they obsessively separate black and white grains of rice, marking down a count of each grain, Abramović had created a space where the visitors were willed into a state of focus.
What, on paper, sounds like work, or the act of tedium, is in fact the opposite. Abramović has long been an artist who has engaged the viewer or visitor with art that challenges, confronts, and transforms those who participate with it. Notably, her performance The Artist is Present piece, which had one person experiencing the act of just sitting and staring in silence at Abramović herself, forced people to sit in silence, and to sit with someone else experiencing the presence of another person. There is a wealth of discussions and explorations about the value of Abramović’s art out there on the internet, and while I’ve not had the privilege of experiencing her work in person, the footage of this exhibition in 2015 drew me back to being centred and focused in Times Square. That hum forced me to focus on myself, and Abramović’s work intends to do the same as well. By putting you in the moment, by making you the art, you then look within yourself to be entertained, informed, engaged, and, most importantly, to get in touch with yourself.
Abramović, and the many other artists who have created works for Kaldor Public Arts Projects, want to present the world in a different light. The art is always extending a hand out to the viewer, encouraging engagement, offering a polite request to view the world a little differently for a while. And this is the glory of someone like John Kaldor. He has created the possibility for a different view point of the world to be experienced on a public level. As is mentioned in the film, there’s an openness to staging these exhibitions in public spaces, away from the prestige of the art museum. Where a painting or a statue in a museum will have the artists name attached to it, and an explanation of what the painting is about, or who the artist is and what this painting or statue means to them, these public art projects are devoid of such a label. This openness means that the art is no longer the artists, but instead, is the publics to engage with, to appreciate, to craft new memories of as it exists in that space for a brief period of time in history.
In turn, when being interviewed for this documentary, John Kaldor requested that the focus be on the artists and the art, and not on him. And while this is a noble request, it’s clear that through the 50-year existence of Kaldor Public Art Projects, John is as important to this narrative as the artists are. The title, It All Started With a Stale Sandwich refers to the lunch that Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and his wife Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon gave John when they first met in a New York studio in 1968. The hum that I affectionately recall when I think of New York hadn’t existed then, and wouldn’t for almost a decade, but I would like to think that Neuhaus’ installation came from the same mind pond that Christo’s Wrapped Coast installation came from.
The exhibition involved blanketing a two-and-a-half kilometre stretch of Little Bay, a remote town on the NSW coast, in fabric and rope. The effect is eerie and quite fascinating to watch unfurl in the documentary. It’s like someone erased a slice of the landscape, pouring a mass of white out over the rocks and omitting their presence from life. At the time, it was the largest single artwork in the world. This was the first of the projects that Kaldor crafted under the Art Project banner, and as an expensive public art installation, caused the consternation of the media and the public. ‘Why isn’t the money being spent on the local hospital?’ was the cry in the media. And, thankfully, Samantha Lang interviews some of the nurses who worked at the local hospital at the time, and their view helps provide a welcome context to the artwork. Some of the nurses hated it, slipping off in the night to cut the ropes, and others loved it.
Part of the joy of watching a film as grand in scope, and yet, completely focused, as It All Started With a Stale Sandwich is experiencing the endless fascination that the subject of the film has for their chosen endeavour. John Kaldor is a wonderful character to spend time with, and his endless enthusiasm and intrigue for art and all its varied forms is positively infectious. As he looks back at the world late-sixties Australia, he laments over the abuse that he and his family received for being ‘foreigners’. They were refugees then, and as such, Australians would inevitably have a go at them for being ‘refos’. John smiles as he tells this story, lamenting that Australia has become a lot more multicultural since then, and there’s certainly a lot more ‘refos’ here now.
In turn, architect Penelope Seidler talks about the difference between then and now, and how the art world, let alone the world in general, simply didn’t know about or accept Indigenous voices. In a well-meaning statement, Seidler says, ‘I’d never seen an aborigine, they weren’t exactly lurking around the north shore’, and then continues to say that she, and many others, have so much to learn and understand about the world. Seidler talks about a different time, a different world, and while it’s clear that art alone has not been the changing force for more Indigenous voices to be heard around the world, it’s clear that it certainly helped in some regards.
To the CHILDREN OF AUSTRALIA
In the hope of enlisting their sympathies for the many
Beautiful and frolicsome creatures of their fair land;
Whose extinction through ruthless destruction is surely being accomplished.
ETHEL PEDLEY Sydney 1896
So opens Yoram Gross’ animated film, Dot and the Kangaroo. It’s the same preface that opens Ethel Pedley’s posthumously published children’s book of the same name, of which the film is adapted from. Dot and the Kangaroo was Pedley’s only novel, and was written with Ethel’s belief of the conservation of Australia’s flora and fauna. It’s frightening that this brief preface, written over 100 years ago, resonates so strongly in today’s society.
The narrative is simple – Dot (voiced by Barbara Frawley) is a young girl who lives with her family on an outback homestead. One day, much to her mothers disapproval, Dot heads off into the bush to retrieve some grass for her rabbit, and on her travels, tumbles down a slope and ends up in the world of Australian fauna. Lost, frightened, and far from home, Dot feels dwarfed by the world she finds herself in, and as animals start to loom and peer over her with curiosity, a humble kangaroo comes forward and gives Dot a plant root to chew on. As Dot munches away on the nourishing treat, she finds herself able to understand what the creatures are saying, and in turn, is able to converse with them. Dot finds out that the kind kangaroo had lost her joey, and will happily help Dot find her way back home.
Before we move onto the narrative themes of Dot and the Kangaroo, let’s briefly touch on the animation style of the Yoram Gross Film Studio. Established with his wife Sandra, the Yoram Gross Film Studio helped create some of the most enduring Australian animated films, with the nine Dot films and the creation of the iconic Blinky Bill films being the most notable. Dot and the Kangaroo combined both live action footage of the landscapes of the Blue Mountains with hand drawn animated characters who interacted with the natural environments. This pairing of animation and live action landscapes helped with the immersion into the story of Dot and her understanding and appreciation of the world she lives within thanks to the many Australian animals she encounters.
Through modern eyes, the animation is a little bit crude – you can’t help but notice the shape of Dot’s head change radically from scene to scene – but that doesn’t mean it’s any less endearing. The animals in particular are expressive creations that are a real treat to watch and spend time with. Kangaroo (Joan Bruce) carries an impressive level of empathy and compassion for Dot and her plight, which in turn makes Kangaroo a wonderfully kind and engaging guide through the world of Australian fauna. Kangaroo’s kindness helps the intended child audience see that the Australian bush is not to be feared, but instead welcomed and embraced.
After Kangaroo gives Dot that first bite of the plant root that helps open her eyes to the Australian bush, she warns her not to eat too much, for the root is the ‘food of understanding’ and to eat too much would mean that Dot would know too much. Dot enquires whether it’s even possible to know too much, and Kangaroo replies ‘oh indeed, yes, and it will make you miserable’. And yet, as Dot learns more about the inhabitants of the bush, she becomes more empathetic and yearns to live with these different creatures she’s formed a bond with. For Kangaroo, the surrogate child that Dot becomes helps mend the loss of her joey, and it’s this relationship that will be the one that breaks the viewers hearts. In an audacious move for a kids film, Yoram Gross opens the film with Dot crying, and closes the film with Dot crying – yet, while the film ends on heartbreaking note, this is not a dour affair, with frequent moments of joy and harmony.
Continuing on with that sad conclusion for a moment, where Dot is returned home, mourning the end of the relationship she had with Kangaroo, just like Kangaroo mourns the loss of her joey, we’re presented with one of the most glorious moments in Australian film history. Kangaroo transforms from an animated Kangaroo into real footage of a Kangaroo, at once creating a powerful image that reminds the viewer of the reality of the narrative they’ve just seen, all the while showing the permanent disconnect that Dot will have with nature from now on – she knows the truth about nature, but will never become one with it again. This is, of course, not true, given that Dot went onto have nine films in total, with the last entries taking her to Hollywood, and to, erm, Space, but for this one film, we’re left with a powerful image that should inspire viewers to live a better, more environmentally compassionate life.
Dot, as the child audience surrogate, learns about the harmonic and united world of nature. As she tells Kangaroo about the animals the come up near her house – the bugs, the possums, the small eager critters –, thanks to Barbara Frawley’s wonderful voice work, you can hear Dot’s realisation about how united her world is with nature. You can hear the connection that the actions of her human world influence a completely different world that so many feign to not understand. As day rolls into night, and then day again, Dot’s disappearance from home causes further concern from her father and his friend. Their fear of the bush is palpable. One gets so sick he could almost perish – his ignorance of how to live off the land is astonishing.
And that’s not to say that the bush isn’t to be feared, as we’re told in one genuinely terrifying song about the Bunyip. This is a song I’d somehow managed to obliterate from my mind since seeing this film as a child. Now I’ve revisited it, I fear I’ll not be able to shake the image. And, I’ll be less likely to shake the joyful singing of some ducks who sing about being terrified and hungry, or the quite adorable platypus couple who sing about how unique and bizarre they are. The songs don’t always work, but they needn’t work for this thirty-something year old – they are, after all, kids songs, and their repetitive enjoyable nature is good enough. With that said, the Willy Wagtail singing ‘clickity clack’ is downright painful to listen to, and the image of a booty-shaking Koala earlier on is also an eyebrow raiser. But, I’m applying 21st century goggles to a decidedly 20th (almost 19th) century story.
Another moment of fear is the presence of the oddly grey, and questionably dehumanised presentations of Indigenous people. Utilising dingoes to help them hunt, the Indigenous men work to track down and kill Kangaroo for food. During the Bunyip song sequence, Yoram Gross brings the imagery of Indigenous art to life, helping children be aware that Australia has an Indigenous history with a wealth of stories that come from the nature that First Nations people live within. And while the dingo hunt sequence is terrifying – after all, we empathise with the anthrompomorphised Kangaroo and don’t wish to see her turned into food – it works to remind that there are people who live off the land, and rely on the creatures that exist there to live.
This is all conjecture, and I feel I’m stretching a bit here, but I can’t shake the feeling that when you watch the chase scene through the perspective of Ethel Pedley’s words – whose extinction through ruthless destruction – that the Indigenous people are being turned into minor villains of the piece. The white men, ever ignorant of the land, who we see momentarily rip rip, woodchipping their way through the forest, turning hundred year old trees into firewood, are less villainous. Possibly Yoram Gross was less eager to make white people the villains in a kids film, but it’s hard not to see that Dot’s perspective of her family, and her existence on this land is changed because of her experience, and possibly through her eyes, her parents are to be judged or scorned for their behaviours.
It’s clear that, just like Ethel Pedley, Yoram Gross is an empathetic creator. He clearly wants to encourage respect for the planet, and respect for one another. Gross’ story is one that should be held up high and that everyone should be aware of – especially in this ever increasingly dark and dangerous world that we are living in, where America has become home to the concentration camps that are not too dissimilar from the world that Gross’ family fled from in World War II. Gross’ family was on Oskar Schindler’s list, and after moving from hiding place to hiding place, they managed to escape the Nazi regime. Flash forward to 1968, and Yoram Gross with his wife and family moved to Australia, where they established the Yoram Gross Film Studio. Through his films, Gross was clearly someone who hoped to engage the youth of Australia, and the world, with an environmental message that hoped to instil a positive, caring, empathetic life path for them.
Given the over forty year legacy of the film Dot and the Kangaroo, and for Ethel Pedley, who never got to see the impact of her book, one can’t help but hope that there has been a wealth of children (and adults alike who come to these stories later in life) who have had their viewpoint positively changed. Sure, the animation is often rudimentary, and the songs irritate a little more than entertain, but the core message of care and respect for the environment, and the kind and compassionate character of Kangaroo, make this a film that deserves a prime place in Australian film history.
The stories of Yoram Gross, of Ethel Pedley, and of the character of Dot, are all narratives that show a trio of people who have nothing but hope and sympathy for the future of Australia. Hope that there is respect and care given to the environment, but sympathy for the realisation that for the future of Australians, the destructive nature of mankind will mean that as each generation succeeds another generation, there will be less of nature for them to appreciate and admire. If there’s one enduring message of Dot and the Kangaroo that is worth remembering, it is that we are not alone on this planet, and that there is a whole ecosystem that exists outside of our four walled, neon lit environments that we call work and home. If only those in power could remember this more often.
Director: Yoram Gross
Cast: Barbara Frawley, Joan Bruce, Spike Milligan
Writers: Yoram Gross, John Palmer (Based onthe book Dot and the Kangaroo by Ethel Pedley)
The power of enduring stories is that they can be reshaped, remoulded, transmogrified, and morphed throughout time to become echoes of what they once were. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one such story, having had countless retellings of this timeless tale of a doomed prince throughout the years, with everyone from Laurence Olivier, to Kenneth Branagh, to Matthew Broderick as an animated lion, bringing this exceptionally bloody tale to life. In Australian director Claire McCarthy’s spin on this story, Hamlet is played by the increasingly reliable George MacKay, but this time round, the focus is not on Hamlet, but instead – as the title suggests – his equally doomed partner, Ophelia. And so here we are, in 2019, another retelling of Hamlet, but under the title of Ophelia.
History has long doomed Ophelia to a terrible death, but under the guidance of author Lisa Klein and co-writer Semi Chellas, the two work together to adapt Klein’s book which carefully brings dignity and respect to the legacy of Ophelia. No longer is she a woman driven mad by grief, but instead an observant handmaiden who falls in love with a prince, and in turn, both are thrust into a desperate and dangerous set of events that they cannot control. While the narrative of Hamlet is one that is familiar to most, it’s impressive that Klein and Chellas manage to weave together a script that honours Shakespeare’s dialogue, while also managing to make Hamlet’s story feel new and surprising.
The titular Ophelia is played by Daisy Ridley, and immediately it’s clear that she relishes the chance to play this deep character, enjoying the chance she gets to perform with some kind of grounded normalcy, away from the realm of science-fiction and digital trickery that we’ve all come to know her for. There’s a tricky line when it comes to portraying someone who is merely observing a plot going by, and Daisy Ridley manages to hover over that line well, imbuing Ophelia with enough character and purpose to ensure that once the plot genuinely kicks into gear, she’s the driver of her own narrative.
Ridley is well supported by seasoned actors Naomi Watts and Clive Owen. Watts plays Gertrude, clearly relishing the chance to adorn herself in sumptuous period attire. The costume design by Massimo Cantini Parrini and makeup by Alessandro Bertolazzi goes into overdrive many a time, with Watts, Ridley, and Owen all looking period appropriate for such a story. Clive Owen maybe overplays his hand as the obviously villainous Claudius a little too much, but this could merely be Owen attempting to honour the hyper-dramatised stage roots of Hamlet.
While society may not have been yearning for a revisionist take on Hamlet, it is a welcome addition to the ever growing recontextualisation of women’s stories throughout history. With Margaret Atwood taking the narrative of the Odyssey, and focusing it on the perspective of Penelope in The Penelopiad, to Natalie Haynes book A Thousand Ships which explores the untold stories of women in the Trojan War, there is a desire and a need to explore these hidden stories of women throughout time. After all, history is a hyper-masculine realm, with most stories being carried on throughout time about great men who have conquered the lands of the worlds, all the while their wives or lovers remained at home, doting on whatever child they had back there.
To carry on the Australian skew, due to the Aussie roots of director Claire McCarthy, I would also like to remind of the existence of the brilliant book Devil’s Ballast, a Perth written book about Anne Bonny, a pirate whose life has long been overshadowed by other notorious pirates of her era. This uncovering of untold and hidden stories of women throughout time is reason alone why Ophelia carries great value. It delivers a welcome perspective to the tale of the long considered ‘mad wife’ of Ophelia, and it’s thanks to the wonderful performance from Daisy Ridley that this is so.
Director: Claire McCarthy
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen
Writers: Lisa Klein, Semi Chellas, (based on the book Ophelia by Semi Chellas, and Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
It’s always fascinating to see how non-Australian directors handle Australian stories. What views do they bring to Australia, and how do those views inform the Australian story they intend to tell? Ted Kotcheff delivered a searing takedown of the Aussie bloke with Wake in Fright, a caustic assessment that ocker-masculinity is struggling to shake decades after its release. Michael Powell ended his illustrious career with They’re A Weird Mob, and brought a migrants view to Australia with an endearing skew. Around the same time, Italian director Flavio Mogherini modernised the true story of Linda Agostini in the giallo-lite The Pyjama Girl Case.
Considered one of the more bizarre crime stories within Australia’s history, the tragedy of Linda Agostini endured long after her death. In 1934, a man walking his bull discovered the body of a woman dressed in yellow silk pyjamas. She had been beaten and shot, and then to further the disregard for her life, she was set on fire. This made identifying her difficult, and to help with their investigation, the body was placed in formalin and put on display for the public to come and try identify her. For a decade, the identity of the body remained a mystery, until dental analysis could finally match the name of Linda Agostini.
The relevance of what Linda Agostini was wearing at the time of her death goes into the societal views about women in the 1930’s. For a woman to be wearing silk pyjamas, she was considered to be exotic, and a woman ‘of the night’; the sort of woman who would entertain multiple men at a time. This judgemental view extended to the way police presented her body – as if she were a carnival attraction, just a tent or two down from the bearded lady or the sword swallowing man. While the crude nature of early forensic science and police work allowed this apparently well intentioned endeavour of a public display of a corpse to occur, it still leaves a bad taste in your mouth, giving the impression that there was little respect for the deceased. With the early 1900’s societal view of sex workers or sexually adventurous women being a predominantly derogatory one, there could conceivably be a public shaming aspect to this glorified presentation of the body. These news reel clips from 1939 explore the difficulties that police and the public faced when attempting to identify Linda Agostini’s body.
This is all a long way of saying that Flavio Mogherini’s The Pyjama Girl Case makes for a curious, and very strange narrative about Linda Agostini. Or, rather, a fictionalised version of Linda Agostini, given the film takes place in 1970’s Sydney. Placed right in the midst of the sexual revolution, this version of a mysterious case leans lightly on the lurid genre trappings of giallo cinema, with a firm wealth of skin on display (mostly from lead actress Dalila Di Lazzaro), a brilliant score by Riz Ortolani, and some mild moments of gore. The low body count and infrequent acts of violence may make giallo fans feel that this is far from being worthy of the title of giallo, but the visual style and superb cinematography certainly puts it in the same ilk as its genre brethren.
The Pyjama Girl Case presents a world in transition, constantly in flux. The quiet metropolis of Sydney is presented with no one in sight. Sexual openness is embraced. A shot of the Sydney Opera House beautifully portrays the glorious architecture of the (at the time) newly erected building as a uniting entity, bringing two people together. It’s a fleeting moment, but there’s a clear intonation of a new era for Sydney. Yet, with this said, there is still an unending derision directed towards immigrants, with white ‘Australians’ being eagerly obnoxious to those who come to this country for a better life. Given this takes place just over a decade after They’re a Weird Mob, it’s clear how little has changed. And, given that I’m writing this in the year 2019, well, it’s desperately sad that our view has still not changed.
When retired detective, Inspector Timson (Ray Milland), is asked to assist with the case, he finds himself both perplexed and disgusted by the way that police work has morphed over time. The reliance on psychoanalysis to help find culprits, or understand the motif behind suspects, is met with clear derision. He can’t understand why on earth police officers don’t just get their feet on the ground and ask hard hitting questions. Mogherini appears to agree with Timson’s opinion, with the newer detectives being presented as uptight, tie wearing, suit adorned, well groomed men. They do engage in police brutality when they meet an outwardly repulsive suspect, clearly thinking that if they meet him at his level, then they’ll get a confession out of him.
As Timson visits the embalmed corpse of Dalila Di Lazzaro’s Linda surrogate, he’s clearly disturbed by the disrespect given to this unfortunate soul. In this sequence, arguably the finest and most disturbing in the film, a swath of people make their way past the publicly presented body of this unknown person. One woman faints, many men ogle and leer at her naked form, and one man even goes underneath the glass box that she is encased in, attempting to get a glimpse of every single angle of her body. It’s horrifying to watch, exceptionally disturbing and unpleasant, and it’s Ray Milland aghast face at the end that reinforces just how absurd this very real situation is. Somehow, the question of why this is occurring in the seventies, and not the 1930’s as it happened in real life, never comes into your mind.
While The Pyjama Girl Case isn’t high cinema, it is most certainly an interesting presentation of a woman trying to find her place in the world. Di Lazzaro presents Linda as a free living woman, one who has multiple partners, and who clearly has her own mental health issues. The men she spends time with deliver momentary affection towards Linda, giving her a taste of what it might feel like to be loved, adored, desired, and cared for, but instead, all of the men that she’s with merely want her body and the public presentation of what it means to be with an attractive woman. There is clear empathy for Linda, elevating this film above your average giallo fare, where the women are usually fodder for a killer, being dispatched with all kinds of sensational brutality.
Given the death of Linda occurs as the climax of the film, we’ve had a good hour and a bit to learn who she is as a person, and understand why she finds herself in the situations that she does. Her main partner, Antonio (Michele Placido), genuinely loves Linda, but he also has his own issues to deal with, and Mogherini and co-writer Rafael Sanchez Campoy try to give Placido something tangible to work with. He’s still a frequently unpleasant person, saddled with an equally unpleasant friend, Roy (Howard Ross), who coerces and manipulates Antonio into an act of brutality.
The possibility of violence hangs in the air, genuinely allowing the viewer to appreciate the lingering threat that comes for women with men in society. At the start of the climax, Linda is put into a desperately depressing situation, and Mogherini masterfully suggests the path that boys follow as they turn into men by contrasting an image of a table of boy scouts at a diner, with the exceptionally unsettling and repulsive sight of Tito Garcia’s sweaty patron. The act of sex that he, and two other men, engage in with Linda is presented in such a noxious, grotesque and disturbing manner – this is quite simply one of the most off putting depictions of sex I’ve seen on film. Linda is a mere object to these men, and the disturbing realisation from the youngest of the men (a mere teen, really) that this is the path that he is expected to follow in his life as a man, helps cement the films perspective that society has been cruel to both Linda, Linda Agostini, and to women in general.
One song lingers over the soundtrack, its singer lamenting that, ‘because I’m a woman, vacant beaches are enticing’. This is a decidedly mournful pop song, one that would feel out of place in most giallo films. If given the chance and free from the desire to be loved, Linda would gladly live in a world without men, but this is not the reality that is offered her, or many other women.
Which makes The Pyjama Girl Case a quietly depressing affair. It feels unique in the world of horror, outwardly rejecting acts of violence and making us consider our desire to see death and torture, forcing us to realise that these narratives can come from a place of truth. For this film, the modernisation of Linda Agostini’s story feels mildly apt, and thankfully, Mogherini works hard to qualify the life of Linda. Whether this is justified or not via the implementation of fictionalised elements is up to the viewer to decide. As Australia’s Black Dahlia-esque case, there is a curious level of intrigue and mystery that comes with such a long, enduring mystery.
Given this is a more subdued, quiet, and dour horror film than expected from this era, it carries a uniquely Australian vibe to it. And, with that in mind, as Australia’s sole giallo film, with the historical relevance in mind, this is well worth a look.
Director: Flavio Mogherini
Cast: Dalila Di Lazzaro, Ray Milland, Michele Placido
Writers: Flavio Mogherini, Rafael Sanchez Campoy
For the majority of film reviewers in Australia, Palm Beach is not a film aimed at them. With a huge wealth of older reviewers having been costed out of the industry due to decreasing wages and because of no-cost upstarts like myself, there remains a field of Gen-Xers and millennials who spew out words as best as they can, and slap the label of ‘criticism’ on it. For them, it’s easy to punch down on a film like Palm Beach – a movie that celebrates the boomer generation, a film that celebrates financial success and white superiority. Palm Beach is not a film for most of us reviewers out there, the thirty to forty somethings who hold a grudge against the older generations for, well, everything that’s happened to this planet.
And, y’know what, that’s perfectly fine.
Co-written by Joanna Murray-Smith and director Rachel Ward, Palm Beach unites lifelong friends Bryan Brown and Sam Neill once again, alongside such well known faces as Greta Scacchi, Aaron Jeffery, Heather Mitchell, Jacqueline McKenzie, and as the token Hollywood actor getting a paid holiday in Australia, Richard E. Grant. The plot is simple – Bryan Brown’s Frank is having a birthday, so with his excess wealth, he’s jetted in his old bandmates from around the globe to come have a good time with him. As expected when a bit of booze gets thrown into the mix, there’s a couple of minor altercations that cause some drama that will naturally be resolved about five to ten minutes before the credits roll.
We’ve seen this before – namely, it’s pulling from the same duck pond that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Finding Your Feet came from – and under the direction of Rachel Ward, there’s really nothing exceptionally new within Palm Beach. Which is why it’s so easy to pick apart, and also why you’ll see a lot of punching down against this film from other reviewers. Look, it’s considered uncouth to rag on other reviewers in your own review of a film – after all, I’m here to talk about Palm Beach, not what my fellow critics have to say about a film – but, I do feel I have to defend Palm Beach a bit. Yes, it’s a film about privilege and it sure is as white as the Bonneville salt flats, but it’s also a film that holds some value and importance for Australian audiences and Australian cinema as a whole.
A year ago I wrote about the importance of making films for the ‘grey dollar’ market in Australia, and it seems fortuitously, Palm Beach has stumbled along to help fill the market for the older Australian audiences. As I mentioned in that piece, diversity is important and necessary for the art of cinema to evolve, but the harsh reality is that diversity doesn’t exactly light up the box office. So, when a film like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel makes $21 million at the Aussie box office, it makes pure sense to try and chase that audience with a film that’s marketed directly towards them. Palm Beach is jam pack full of trademark moments that make films like this so enduring to older audiences – there’s a pumping soundtrack that transports viewers to their youth, there’s countless scenes of lamenting how times have changed, there’s endless reminiscing about the past and how good things were, there’s the celebration of family, with a keen focus on kids and grandkids.
The generic setting of a reunion at a birthday party is ripe for all kinds of relatable motifs, and yet, Rachel Ward and co. know how to make those generic moments feel real and genuine. It’s not surprising then to know that many of the moments are pulled from real life, with both Ward and Bryan Brown’s real life relationships being mined for both comedic and dramatic beats that carry some weight. It’s this wading pool depth that helps make Palm Beach much more than just an older version of an Adam Sandler and friends film (it’s not hard to imagine the Venn diagram where Palm Beach overlaps with Grown Ups).
Palm Beach never properly interrogates what it means to be an early retiree, never fully digging its fingers into what it means to be a boomer in a society where they have become the villains of the world, but it at least does touch on the unexpected fragility of men. Frank lives with anxiety and depression, and yet, terrified that he’ll appear weak if he talks about this with anyone else, he hides his medication away in his man cave. He worked hard to be able to afford the luxury of retiring early, but now in the throes of retirement, he finds himself devoid of purpose and relevance. The friendly familial jabs about him being a cranky old bugger thrust at him at his birthday dinner hit like powerful barbs, piercing his once impenetrable exterior.
The characters here have to grapple with the realisation that they’re growing old and that life isn’t what they thought it would be. Heather Mitchell’s actress Eva is coming to realisation that she’s only able to play the role of a grandmother now, while her partner Billy (Richard E. Grant) has come to realisation that the music his band made back in the day is only profitable when applied to a incontinence pad ad. Less focused is the alcoholism that Jacqueline McKenzie’s Bridget is saddled with. She drinks endlessly, but surprisingly, this is never commented on, with it instead becoming clear that this is a group of people who wilfully ignore problems that exist directly in front of them. Greta Scacchi’s Charlotte is processing her ageing attractiveness to Frank after her breast cancer surgery. And finally, Sam Neill’s Leo is reckoning with a fling that he had with Charlotte some twenty years ago.
If this all sounds deep and contemplative, then Palm Beach wants to assure you that it’s far from that. Instead, it operates in the mildly vague wheelhouse of familiarity, and it does so with an earnest air of light heartedness. And that’s why this is an important film. This is for the older audiences, the 10am on a Monday morning crowd who head along with their friends for a social outing followed by tea and coffee. As the credits roll, you can almost hear their chatter as they shuffle out the cinema, with their remarks about how their partner is like this and how relatable that was.
I want to add – to my fellow film critics, you’re not wrong. I’m not dismissing your views on this film as everything you have said is right. It is all of those things that you say it is, and a little bit more, and maybe I’m pandering to an audience that doesn’t require pandering, but is there not value in telling these stories for an audience that is craving them?
Yes, it’s a film that celebrates privilege, and yes, it’s an exceptionally white film, but Palm Beach is a film that delivers for the market that is craving this kind of material. Namely, a market that will pay to go and see movies in the cinema to see themselves on screen. For that point alone, I celebrate the existence of this film. I celebrate its deceptive mediocrity, and welcome many more of these films in the future. For the Australian film industry to thrive, we need these kinds of money makers – the films that help make the diverse content possible.
Director: Rachel Ward
Cast: Bryan Brown, Greta Scacchi, Sam Neill
Writers: Rachel Ward, Joanna Murray-Smith