FilmJuice has my review of Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Wish You Were Here, an Australian mystery/drama that is not to be confused with David Leland’s oddball British tragedy of the same name.
Set between Australia and Cambodia, Wish You Were Here is a great-looking film that is hamstrung by its director’s self-indulgence and borderline racism. The plot revolves around a pair of Australian couples who visit Cambodia and have a great old time until one of the group disappears. Understandably distraught, the remaining holiday makers limp back home and begin worrying about the disappearance of their friend and the fact that reporting his disappearance to the authorities might shine a light not only on their illegal activities but also their dysfunctional relationships. I say that the film is borderline racist as it falls into the familiar trap of using a non-white culture as backdrop for the breakdown of white middle-class lives. Colourful marketplaces, yay! Maimed beggars and brown dudes with machine guns, boo!
However, more interesting than Darcy-Smith’s use of lazy racist stereotypes is his failure to fuse the mystery and kitchen sink drama genres:
Darcy-Smith’s mistake lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of the differences between mysteries and dramas: The focus of a mystery is on leading the audience through a particular narrative while the focus of a drama is on unravelling the complexities of character. While psychological mysteries can sustain a hybridisation of the two genres, Wish You Were Here is ultimately a story about a missing tourist and not an exploration of why the characters are the way that they are. As you would expect from a plot structured around a missing person narrative, the characters only have as much depth as that central mystery requires meaning that while Darcy-Smith gives his actors vast amounts of time in which to explore their characters, the characters they are exploring are neither particularly deep nor particularly interesting. If Darcy-Smith wanted to direct a character-based drama then he should have written a script about character and not about an extraneous mystery. In a way, it’s a bit like turning up at the cinema to watch Avengers 2 only to discover that the director has decided to focus on the inner life of the bloke who drives the aircraft carrier. There’s nothing wrong with making a film about the bloke who drives the aircraft carrier but if you do then at least go to the trouble of working from a script that explores the character’s background and how they got recruited into SHIELD. Don’t just turn on the camera, leave them emote and expect the audience to be as fascinated by the results as the people doing the acting! That would make for a dull Avengers 2 and it certainly makes for a dull Wish You Were Here.
It is interesting that positive reviews of this film tend to point to the central performances of Joel Edgerton and Felicity Price as while both do well and are accorded a good deal of time and space, neither character is particularly complex or engaging. They’re just vaguely unhappy middle-class people who can’t talk about their problems. In truth, I’m not convinced that either performance was really all that worthy of commentary, though I do think that Darcy-Smith made their performances the focus of the film.
FilmJuice have my review of Donald Cammell’s thriller White of the Eye.
Donald Cammell is arguably best known for his first film Performance in which an east end geezer moves in with a jaded rock star and loses his values and identity in a world of sex, drugs and faded Edwardian interiors. Set in small town Arizona, White of the Eye could not be more different in so far as it conceals its artistic intentions beneath a thick genre glaze. The glaze in question is that a serial killer is moving from house to house murdering wealthy attractive women. Hired by the husbands of wealthy attractive women to install expensive sound systems, the film’s protagonist is sucked into the investigation despite his claims of innocent. Rather than following this narrative line in a conventional manner, Cammell slows things down to a crawl and begins to explore the protagonist’s history and relationships in exquisitely stylised detail:
Cammell’s film opens on a montage that feels like a dozen 1980s music videos crammed into a pot and reduced down to an inky sludge. Hints of ZZ Top collide with notes of Duran Duran as red wine splashes across tiles, blood arcs through the air and eyes are drawn to stocking-clad legs, pastel interiors and improbably geometric patterns. If, as Marianne Faithful once said, Performance took 1960s Chelsea and placed it under glass, White of the Eye takes the surface gloss of 1980s MTV and turns it into a living, breathing, bleeding world.
While the film itself is pretty damn fine, I was amused by the fact that the documentary included on the disc about Cammell made him seem like a complete and utter cock as it spends well over an hour talking about how much he enjoyed hanging about with aristocrats having loads of sex and taking loads of drugs. I appreciate that this might well have seemed incredibly transgressive and important to people in the 1960s but nowadays it just sounds like the Bullingdon club on spring break.
It seems difficult to talk about a Kevin Smith film without also talking about Kevin Smith. Since his debut Clerks (1994), Smith has excelled in the art of bundling himself up with his artistic output: When Smith made Clerks, he was making a film about himself, when Smith made Chasing Amy (1997), he was making a film about something that happened to him and when Smith made Dogma (1999), he was making a very personal statement about his own religious beliefs. Aside from a habit of making very personal and autobiographical films, Smith has also been very open about the experience of making films and the experience of… well… being Kevin Smith. When Peter Biskind wanted to write a book about the dark side of Miramax, Smith was there to provide him with quotes. When the critics sharpened their knives and leapt on Jersey Girl (2004) and Cop Out (2010), Smith made it quite clear what he thought about film critics and the industry as a whole. Smith is the logical consequence of the cult of the auteur: the director who makes every detail of his life available in the hope that this might somehow make his films seem more interesting. A habitual over-sharer, tantrum-thrower and general emotional incontinent, Smith is a wonderful figure to write about and when he announced that he would fund, make and distribute Red State alone, writers could not help but write about Smith’s latest project. Which is somewhat odd given that this is arguably Smith’s least personal film to date. Red State finds Smith attempting to reboot his directorial career by moving into the thriller genre.
I adore thriller and horror films because, in my view, they come very close to being what Alfred Hitchcock once described as ‘pure cinema’. Thrillers are all about drawing upon plot, actors, dialogue, theme and cinematography to enclose the audience in a bubble of pure cinematic affect. A good thriller drags you halfway out of your seat and keeps you crouching in the darkness, because of this, thrillers frequently demand a high standard of technical filmmaking. A thriller cannot hide behind lavish special effects, celebrated performances or noble themes… it has to work as a piece of art. Despite containing some brilliantly realised elements, Red State is one of the most technically dysfunctional films that I have ever had the misfortune of seeing.
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Videovista have my review of Brendan Muldowney’s Irish thriller Savage:
The concept of a crisis in masculinity is undeniably an interesting one but Savage seems more of a victim of this crisis than a commentary upon it. Having asked the question of what it means to be a man in the modern world, Muldowney fails to see past male complicity in patriarchal oppression and so he struggles to come up with any conceptions of masculinity that are not anchored in adolescent willy-worrying and cartoonish levels of violence.
Savage‘s problem is reflected in Jonathan Liu’s recent piece for The New York Observer:
From the back row, looking at the sea of shiny pink scalps, it was easy to chalk up the whole scene to a category error: Someone mistaking the biographical decline of a man—namely himself—for a historical Decline of Men. Yet, strange as it may sound, grown men still have influence—if only on not-grown men—and should perhaps not be cut the slack reserved for the subjugated and infantilized.
In other words, it is difficult to delve into the issue of what it means to be a man in the 21st century without such delving coming across as either a misogynistic entitlement whine, an attempt at historical revisionism or (as is the case with Savage) slavish adherence to popular prejudice and received wisdom.
VideoVista has my review of King of The Hill (El Rey De La Montana). Not the long-running animated comedy but rather a taught and atmospheric Spanish thriller directed by Gonzalo-Lopez Gallago.
King of the Hill, along with a number of other films I have reviewed in the last year, suggest that Europe is going through something of a genre boom at the moment. Britain and France are churning out genre films like nobody’s business and places like Spain and Norway are following suit. Sadly, while a lot of these films are very well directed indeed, not that many of them are well written and King of the Hill is further evidence of that observation’s validity.