May 20, 2015

Desert stormed

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). A pagan city built on slavery (Vehicular Valhalla, Temple of Vroom), Jawas on motorbikes and a motorcycle matriarchy, spiky cars that ate Paris (homage to Peter Weir), slave wives who could be in beer or burger commercials, armies that travel with their own heavy-metal guitarist and grotesque old Australian men still running the world, or what’s left of it. After a gap of more than 30 years, George Miller locates the very same exciting, funny and lurid Mad Max sensibility, just bigger, louder, faster, wilder – in every sense, better. Max (now Tom Hardy, more sidelined in his own story than he ever was before) is still nearly mute and the entire thing is told almost without dialogue, such is the elemental nature of it (part-western, part-sci fi). The desert is brighter and wider. If anything, Miller’s original scenario has become even more topical and plausible since the 1980s: these are myths of the near to immediate salvage-punk future. Ridiculously great, either way. Who would want to bother with the heavily-CGI’d and intellectually vacant Marvel blockbusters after catching a whiff of this? 

May 18, 2015

Top 10 films about journalism

Last year one of the country’s leading journalism educators asked me to compile a top 10 of the best films about journalism. It didn’t run – long story – so here it is. One little update since late 2014: George Clooney’s Hack Attack movie might be a contender in the future, if they can get around the problem of not upsetting Rupert …

Until someone makes a movie out of Dirty Politics (working title: The Rawshark Redemption), this list will have to stand as one possible selection of the 10 best films about journalism. Is it noteworthy that the majority of these dramas are based on fact, and only a couple could be said to be entirely fictional? Yet there are no documentaries in the line-up. Also, every journalism film has a moral to impart, or maybe just conveys a depressing reality about the business. 

All the Presidents Men (Alan J Pakula, 1976). This list is alphabetical but even if it were not, this would probably still be at the top. The 1970s was the heyday of the disenchanted paranoia thriller – Pakula also gave us Klute and The Parallax View – and All the President’s Men is all about what Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) do in the shadows. Nixon is the monster. Journalism gets results.

Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000). Seventies debauchery has never looked as squeaky clean as it does in Crowe’s fictionalised account of his life as a cub reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. The band he is tracking is a blend of Led Zeppelin and the Eagles, the groupies have hearts of gold and the drugs aren’t killing anyone yet. But will the kid get his cover story? Actual rock journalism legend Lester Bangs (who later died of an overdose) is impersonated by the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman (who later died of an overdose). Journalism can ruin your life.

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). This is partly an epic in-joke at the expense of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, himself a tyrannical and charismatic ink-stained giant from the golden age of newspapers. In this account as well as in real life, he provided the war. Journalism is an egomaniacal pursuit. One egomaniac recognised another.

La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960). This classic gave us the paparazzi, both as a word and as an idea. Marcello Mastroianni is the handsome, jaded reporter in Rome as the 1950s give way to the 1960s. His beat is celebrity (Anita Ekberg at the airport and splashing in the fountain) and superstition (the kids with their Madonna sighting). We learn that journalism is a job for cynics,  hedonists and depressives. See also: Antonioni’s The Passenger, which you forget is sort of about journalism until you remember its other title, Professione: Reporter.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998). The drugs do work. Do people still want to be Hunter S Thompson? Both a drug-addled genius and a libertarian blowhard, Thompson is played by Johnny Depp, who does the voice and the walk as a kind of Gonzo cartoon. Gilliam doesn’t stint on the hallucinations and even manages to get some end-of-the-counterculture poignancy into this long weekend bender. Journalism can ruin your life but never really feels like work. For best results, watch with The Rum Diary (2011), in which a younger, straighter Hunter S Thompson, again played by Depp, is working on a chaotic newspaper in Puerto Rico. It’s like a square prequel.

The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999). Al Pacino should be in more films about journalism. He plays real-life investigative reporter Lowell Bergman in a dramatisation of how 60 Minutes persuaded a whistle-blower to tell all about big tobacco. That whistle-blower is played by Russell Crowe in what is still the best acting of his film career. Like Pakula in the 70s, Mann turns shadow-chasing editorial legwork into the stuff of a gripping paranoid thriller. Journalism gets results and can even change the world.

The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe, 1984). An important film for what it told us about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and so on, but there is also a glamour and seductiveness about its sweat-soaked images of foreign correspondents, played here by Sam Waterston, John Malkovich (almost never better) and Julian Sands. See also: Salvador, The Quiet American and The Year of Living Dangerously. Journalism takes you (dangerous) places.

Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976). One of the great media catchphrases – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” – came out of this hysterical 70s satire of the TV business, which seemed ridiculously prescient simply by imagining the worst. What would happen if a news anchor suddenly flipped out and told the truth? See also: Broadcast News. Journalism? It’s just a branch of entertainment.

Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander McKendrick, 1957). There is a vicious and amoral gossip columnist (Burt Lancaster) and there is the shameless lackey and gossip peddler who hangs off him (Tony Curtis). Some stories never get old and there are few depictions of the news machine that are less virtuous than this black comedy. It’s overdone but it also has a horrible exactness. Journalism can be a filthy business.

Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007). Two San Francisco newspaper men become obsessed with finding the Zodiac Killer, long after he stops being a story. One is an alcoholic crime reporter (Robert Downey Jr) and the other is an earnest cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal). The film is itself obsessive; Fincher is hung up on detail and relates to their doggedness. Journalism is sometimes about failure.

May 16, 2015

And it was all fire

Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981). Like dreaming something dark, confusing and violent and struggling to make sense of it later. Nicol Williamson’s charismatic Merlin is initially your guide through it – all the shouting, fire and hacking off of limbs – before he is treacherously sidelined by a girlish (only 35) Helen Mirren as Morgana. Everything here is collapsing and doomed even as it starts; some of the images feel very deep, primal, raw and original. You can’t stop thinking that somewhere in here too is the outline or maybe the corpse of Boorman’s abandoned Lord of the Rings: what kind of film would that have been? 

May 10, 2015

Not sane

The Water Diviner (Russell Crowe, 2014). This post-Gallipoli reconciliation fantasy would make sense only if Crowe’s Joshua Cooper was not meant to be sane. But I don’t think the Crowe directorial style, whatever that is, allows for that kind of ambiguity.

May 8, 2015

A brief history of the future

Mad Max (George Miller, 1979). Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981). Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (George Miller and George Ogilvie, 1985).

Will Mad Max: Fury Road  the year’s other much-anticipated sci-fi reboot  be a futuristic story actually set in the past? George Miller’s cheap, brutal original appeared in 1979 and was set “a few years from now”. Which was when? The 1980s or, at most, the 90s? On depopulated roads outside Melbourne, leather-clad road cops driving Ford Falcons battled Droog-ish motorcycle gangs, but nothing about the action or locations actually suggested a futuristic setting. Max Rockatansky seems initially to be the meekest rather than the maddest of the cops and for most of the running time, future star Mel Gibson is the youngest and most innocent-looking grown-up on screen (Joanne Samuel, who plays Max’s wife, was just a year younger but a more experienced actor). The domestic scenes are mostly excruciating and the Ocker humour is not integrated as seamlessly into the Roger Corman-ish action as it would be in Miller’s second and best Mad Max film, but the absurd and daring car scenes were already the selling point and Miller demonstrated that he immediately a rare knack for the choreography of action (before dabbling in cinema, he trained as a doctor which reportedly gave him an insight into how car crash victims look). The creation of Max as a western-style avenging hero late in the second half is also the creation of Mel Gibson as movie star, mirrored perhaps by the creation of George Miller, versatile director. Audaciously, it was a debut film that presented itself as a prequel.

Over time, the films became more cluttered and the back story was extended. The bikers in the relatively minimal first movie were just rough sketches of the bikers in the much more ambitious and sophisticated second, which pushed Max deeper into the desert. A newsreel prologue and voice-over sets out the legend, a long story to do with wars and oil shortages, but when are we? The famous black V8 Interceptor is now dusty and beaten-up, Gibson’s leather outfit is in tatters and there seem to be no other cops left anywhere. Gibson looks more than two years older, but still he barely speaks. In Gibson’s acting, speech has usually revealed an underlying vulnerability or insecurity, or is Max’s near muteness in this film really a symptom of his lasting trauma? But then, what does he need to say? Either way, the film is effective enough, and elemental enough, to communicate almost without dialogue.

In the first two films, Gibson takes a serious beating and stoically goes on, much like the bloodied, enduring heroes of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, which Gibson would eventually direct. People have speculated about a mad masochism. In a neo-western about lawlessness and a threatened, civilised community in the wilderness (made up largely of the plummier-voiced Australian actors), the warriors have Mohawks and the storytelling reveals obvious debts to Ford, Kurosawa and Lucas. All is petrol, speed and fire and the final truck chase is still one of action cinema’s greatest achievements. The good news is that the visual language Miller established in Mad Max 2 is the one adopted in Mad Max: Fury Road, if the trailers are anything to go by. And Tom Hardy’s rebooted or renewed Max is the same character, which puts the new story within the same span of time rather than moving ahead a generation, as Star Wars has. So, when are we up to now, with Fury Road? The 2000s?

I know that seems literal, and that Miller was always more concerned, as the series went on, with creating future legends rather than parallel or possible histories. The story grew bigger still and the scale grander in the third, less fondly remembered Mad Max. With its stunt casting (Tina Turner as matriarch of Bartertown, located even deeper in the desert) Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome risks being remembered as one of those 80s rock star fantasy movies, alongside LabyrinthDune and, if we can stretch the 80s into the early 90s, Freejack. Not the best company. The now carless Gibson has become Max of Arabia, driving camels and wearing Bedouin robes (black ones, naturally). Bartertown looks like the setting of Duran Duran’s pretentious Wild Boys clip. Gibson’s hair is longer, as though he is warming up for Braveheart; the tone is generally softer and less violent, and the story of a tribe of lost children seems to draw heavily from Russell Hoban’s classic Riddley Walker while looking ahead to Spielberg’s much less classic Hook. The man with almost no name has now become nearly messianic, spoken of in stories and myths (is this film the straighter, Ocker El Topo?). While Mad Max 2 still feels timeless, you suspect that topicality has dated the third film: rather than oil shortages, Beyond Thunderdome has a very specific mid-80s mood of nuclear fear, which does give us a spooky sense of a ruined, hazy Sydney lit by fires.

Did any other action trilogy ever drift so far from its initial premise? So maybe it does need a correction or adjustment, back to Max 2.0. Along those lines, some Beyond Thunderdome dialogue leaps out.  Aunty Entity (Tina Turner): “What did you do before this?” Max (Mel Gibson): “I was a cop, a driver.” How long ago all that seemed by 1985. 

May 4, 2015

Strange birds

Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014). I preferred this to Bennett Miller’s more celebrated, more pretentious Capote. Maybe this is Capote’s gloomier, colder, quieter brother: no one comes out of this story a success. It’s about male pride, painful loneliness, failures and humiliations, with superb acting from Steve Carell as the eagle-beaked eccentric billionaire John du Pont and from – less surprisingly for most – Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum and Vanessa Redgrave in supporting parts. The mood is funereal throughout, but earned. 

May 2, 2015

Transitional states

Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2010). You can see why Birdman’s many fans (I’m one) thought that Inarritu needed to lighten up after the ever decreasing doom and seriousness of 21 Grams, Babel and (especially) Biutiful, but are the worlds on screen really so different? Or is Michael Keaton’s tormented, charismatic, supernaturally-inspired Riggan in Birdman just the comic inverse of the increasingly ruined Uxbal (Javier Bardem) in Biutiful? Breakdowns (personality, marriage, career) played for laughs not as tragedy. Wise children, dreams, drug moments, transitional states. 

May 1, 2015

Year of the drummer

Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014). Music school teacher as drill sergeant or high school football coach and operating without – thank goodness – any kind of justifying back story. We would also have accepted Full Metal Jazz. You can call it a single-minded film about single-mindedness ­­– and the dad and the girlfriend are as perfunctory for us as they are for Andrew (Miles Teller) – but you should admire its confidence. 

April 30, 2015

Rope over abyss

Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014). Chinese gangsters in black suits and ties, French cops, imaginary drugs, racist horror, casual and obnoxious violence, Tree of Life fantasy, borderline experimental structures and edits, berserk pseudo-science and high-speed nonsense and Scarlett Johansson growing ever more post-human in her third and easily worst advanced-being film of 2014 (after Her and Under the Skin) but better still than anything she gets to do for Joss Whedon. 

April 27, 2015

Phones, laptops, airports

Fifth Estate (Bill Condon, 2013). A new media landscape of mobile phones and laptops, anonymous airports and noisy newsrooms. The mostly unloved WikiLeaks film never quite works out which WikiLeaks story it should tell, so writer Josh Singer (The West Wing) creates an ungainly blend of a Julian Assange/Daniel Berg buddy film, an abbreviated account of how some big newspapers scored a big story, a clumsy meditation on information and how it flows and a Homeland-ish thriller about State Department sources who may (or may not) be in danger. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Assange is an awkward, messianic, driven, antisocial figure, which means that Cumberbatch has probably nailed him – his Australian accent is unwaveringly bang-on, too – and I enjoyed David Thewlis’ portrayal of the Guardian’s Nick Davies as the archetypal bolshy, wry, sarcastic, no-bullshit journo. But the film makes the fatal mistake of assuming that everyone else is as concerned as Berg (played by Daniel Bruhl) was with questions about whether he or Assange was the true moral centre of WikiLeaks – on this evidence, it doesn’t appear that Assange was really too bothered, either. There is a lot of duelling laptops. How long ago it all seems. 

April 25, 2015

Too late

Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2013). Kelly Reichardt’s stories are inconclusive, they drift. She likes looking at the world through car windows. There is an unhurried pace to the films and a sense that her isolated characters could easily disappear. So it is in Night Moves. You might initially have doubts about the sullen protagonist (Jesse Eisenberg at his most, er, sullen) but he suits the growing sense of pessimism. Compare and contrast with a film from the 1970s. Here, any kind of hope or activism is an illusion. It’s already too late and there’s already too much to do. 

April 23, 2015


The Salt of the Earth (Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders, 2014). There is a kind of profundity that comes easily or flows naturally in The Salt of the Earth – an intensely visual film in which all the best analogies are literary. 

April 21, 2015

April 19, 2015

Lysergic properties

The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013). The entirely reasonable psychedelic shifts of Waltzing with Bashir go much, much further in The Congress, breaking out past the limits of time, space, history and identity towards a counter-cultural science-fiction theory of everything. Brave, serious, dazzling and entirely unreasonable. Pictured: Robin Wright, star and subject, in a preparatory moment with a helpful guide. 

April 18, 2015

New life

The Immigrant (James Gray, 2013). Old stories retold as though the base material of the immigrant experience is melodrama purified by time and distance. Unusually, Joaquin Phoenix is never quite right in it (less unusually, neither is Jeremy Renner). But this is a Marion Cotillard vehicle, and a better one for her even than Two Days, One Night to which it almost seems related: she is defiant, frail, sorrowful, haunted, even holy (see above). The thing looks ravishing too with its shooting by Darius Khondji and its obvious and intended Godfather Part II/Once Upon a Time in America richness. The yellow light of history and a cold, brown city. 

April 1, 2015

The whole world is outside this room

Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014). “One day we will know everything.” The hotel room is a non-place, it could be anywhere in the world, and it is probably brighter than you pictured (did you think the curtains would be closed?). The whistleblower appears abruptly in the story and disappears just as abruptly. The narrator and director is never on camera. Sometimes they are just initials in messages, or off-screen voices. Journalist Glenn Greenwald is the most willing to put himself in the public eye, perhaps the most able to bear the weight. Over the course of those strange days in Hong Kong, the outside world slowly closes in, until it is right at the door.

March 31, 2015

Southern death cult

Devil’s Knot (Atom Egoyan, 2013). It’s almost refreshing to see a take on the West Memphis Three case that isn’t all about the Satanic charisma of Death Row survivor and New Age philosopher Damien Echols. Instead, Egoyan and writers Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, adapting a book of the same name by true crime writer Mara Leveritt, return us to the moment of the murders and remind us of the real victims, telling the story through its impact on grieving mother Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon, at home) and, less successfully, investigator Ron Lax (a sleepy-looking Colin Firth). The specific context of hopelessly inept or simply corrupt Arkansas law enforcement, dubious “Satanic panic” experts and deeply entrenched Christian fundamentalism is laid out comprehensively and Egoyan juggles enough sub-plots to nod towards at least three other suspects, including the mysterious blood-covered man in the bathroom of the Bojangles restaurant. But Egoyan followers won’t be able to escape the feeling that he got into this tricky emotional territory – grieving communities, disappeared children – so much more effectively in Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter (does it help that two Exotica veterans, Elias Koteas and Bruce Greenwood, are here in support roles?). Those films felt like deep and lasting wounds; this is more surface-level.