Wednesday, 7 December 2016

DIRECTOR INTERVIEW: MATTHEW HOLMES THE LEGEND OF BEN HALL



Matthew Holmes had always wanted to make an Australian western; a fascination with Australia's colonial and bushranger history since his early teens planting the seeds for a Ned Kelly film. But when someone else made that film (Gregor Jordan's 2003 feature starring Heath Ledger), a life-long dream seem quashed.

“Then someone told me 'there are a lot more bushrangers out there than Ned Kelly'. After doing some research, I learnt there are some pretty fascinating characters out there. And after discovering Ben Hall in 2007, I've had that [film] as my goal all along,” Holmes says.

The Legend of Ben Hall, a mostly privately-funded, 140-minute film, is a retelling of the last nine months in the life of the bushranger who, despite his gang terrorising New South Wales in the 1860s, never actually took a life. "It could have been blind luck that he never killed anybody. But I believe he had a code, and had an aversion to taking lives,” Holmes suggests.

And yes, he is prepared for the criticisms, should they come, about "glorifying" a criminal. “My goal was to break down the romanticism of it. It's a fascinating story and that's why I'm telling it. I'm not trying to judge it, right or wrong, or put Ben Hall on a pedestal. Nor am I trying to tear him down. I'm just trying to study him and say, 'here is a fascinating man, let's look at him warts and all', and let the audience decide."

“With Ben Hall, I tried to make something very realistic, and we stuck very closely to the historical accuracy of the story. We played it exactly as I believe it was, not only to make it entertaining as a film but a faithful adaptation of history," Holmes explains. Helping to immerse audiences in the story is the lack of big name Australian actors. Relative newcomer Jack Martin, making his feature film debut, plays the title role; cast as much for his resemblance to the man as for his acting ability.

“I wanted to get people who looked as close to a carbon copy of the historical person as I could. The fact that they're all unknown and fresh faces helps the audience make that leap, that 'I'm watching Ben Hall and his gang now', because they have no other reference for these actors, which is good in that sense,” Holmes says, though admitting it's a double-edged sword when it comes to marketing and sales. “It's harder to sell the film in the market place because we don't have Hugh Jackman on the poster. But as a person who goes to the movies, I really don't care who's in it, I just care that they're good."

And Holmes can't wait for audiences to see his film; The Legend of Ben Hall set to premiere in Forbes, the town where Ben Hall is buried, just weeks after our chat. “I'm really looking forward to just showing people. I've been sitting on the film for so long, waiting to show people, this for me is the exciting time: I've done the hard work, now I finally get to show it to an audience. I'm actually really excited about it."

The Legend of Ben Hall (Pinnacle Films) is in select cinemas now.

This interview also appeas in the December issue of Cafe Reporter magazine.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

THOUGHTS ON HACKSAW RIDGE AND BILLY LYNN'S LONG HALFTIME WALK



Two war films, directed by two Oscar-winning directors, Hacksaw Ridge (Icon Films), by Mel Gibson, and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Sony Pictures), by Ang Lee, couldn't be more different: the former an old school Hollywood film based on a true story of one soldier's beliefs under fire in WW2; the latter embracing new technology to tell a fictional tale of one soldier's struggle to come to terms with his worldview after deployment in Iraq in 2004.

Based on the exploits of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector who enlisted in World War II as a medic, saving 70 lives in one day during the battle of Okinawa, and several more in the ensuing days - and all whilst refusing to carry a gun -- Hacksaw Ridge plays like a propaganda film, one as much about patriotism as it is faith; perhaps more so the latter given it is a Mel Gibson film, and its lead is played by Brit, Andrew Garfield. (The film was also shot in Australia, and boasts an extensive local cast in supporting (Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths plays Doss's parent) and minor roles.)

That casting is both distracting and a little cringe-inducing (more so, one suspects, for Australian audiences) in the film's first half, which concerns itself with Doss's domestic life and his romance with Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer).

Ostracized by his platoon, and sounded out for abuse by his drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn), Doss refuses to quit, even when imprisoned and threatened with a court marshal.But it's in the theatre of war where Doss excels. So, too, the film. As the bullets fly and various limbs do, too, Hacksaw Ridge -- and Gibson -- comes into its own. Brutal and bloody, Gibson doesn't skimp on the horrors of war, and it's a good thing that the director chose to be old fashioned in his approach and didn't follow Lee down the 3D route.


Based on the novel by Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is more of a satire of the propaganda surrounding war, and the need to sell it to the folks back home. But Ang Lee's film isn't quite as barbed as one would hope; the director more concerned with exploring new film technology than critiquing America's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Since winning an Oscar for the 3D visual extravaganza Life of Pi (2012), Lee has wanted to further push the envelope; choosing to shoot Billy Lynn not just in 3D but at 120 frames per second, for a more immersive and 'real' experience. (The 120fps won't be too immersive for those of us who found Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy to be an ugly, over-lit eyesore.)

For better or worse, Billy Lynn will not be shown in Australian cinemas in its 120fps, 4K or even 3D format, so the technology is really neither here nor there, and Lee's film will have to rely solely on story to engage its audience. (Why Lee felt this story required the new technology to tell it may only be answered by seeing it in the intended format.)

Private Billy Lynn (also played by a Brit, newcomer Joe Alwyn), following his heroics in Iraq which were captured on film and went viral, has been brought home, along with his Bravo platoon, for a victory tour culminating in a halftime celebration at a Dallas football match. Set over the course of a day, Billy flashes back to events in Iraq, and that fateful day, as well as to his homecoming in Stovall, Texas, and his chats on the porch with his anti-war sister (Kristen Stewart), who feels partly responsible for Billy's enlisting in the first place.

Ultimately, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk delivers a 'support the troops, not the war' kind of message, with the uncomfortable suggestion that having seen action, the only place a soldier will ever truly feel at peace again is at war, and with their fellow soldiers.

That's a common theme in both films, for even the initially despised Desmond Doss comes to be embraced by his platoon. And it's pretty hard not to embrace Garfield's 'aw shucks' portrayal of Doss, giving us much more to work with than Alwyn's mostly internalized performance as Billy.

And as a side-by-side comparison of war films, Hacksaw Ridge is the slightest of victors.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

FILM REVIEW: I, DANIEL BLAKE



Transmission Films

The title for Ken Loach's latest social drama, penned by regular collaborator Paul Laverty and winner of this year's Palme D'or, reads like the opening line to someone's last will and testament.

But the death being examined by Loach isn't that of the titular Daniel, a widower recovering from a heart attack and caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to government assistance. It is the death of compassion in a country where conservative bureaucracy rules and duty of care has been abandoned; its citizens are no longer seen as people but clients, mere numbers.

Ruled unfit to work by his doctor, Daniel (a terrific 'every man' performance by Dave Johns) must apply for unemployment benefits. But the welfare department's own health care professionals have deemed him fit to look for work (You can raise your arms abover your head? You're good to go!), which he must do in order to receive financial aid.

It's during the first of many frustrating visits to the employment office where he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), who, with her two young children, has been relocated to Newcastle from London; social services unable to find her accommodation in that city and prepared to move her north in spite of existing family connections in one place and no job prospects in the other. She, too, is just a number.

Daniel and Katie form an instant friendship: the elder man finding purpose in repairing her rundown apartment and helping out with the kids; she with not just a babysitter but a father figure who encourages her job search efforts and desire to continue her studies.

But if the system is frustrating for Daniel, its effects on Katie are worse. Unable to afford enough food she often goes without meals, leading to a heartbreaking scene in a food bank. The situation gets even worse for Katie, her suffering not unlike that of a heroine in a 1940s Hollywood melodrama.

But what is melodrama but heightened reality? Loach and Laverty are very much focused on the reality of modern Britain, and a bureaucracy where every decision seems to be ruled upon by 'The Decisionmaker'; an anonymous entity like something out of a dystopian sci-fi film.

Not that I, Daniel Blake is all doom and gloom; the film celebrates the little guy and grassroots community support. But it has no sympathy for big government, nor should it. It's an angry film, and Australian audiences will not be able to comfort themselves with the thought that 'at least it's not like that here'. Too late, Australia, we're already there.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

FILM REVIEW: BRIDGET JONES'S BABY



Universal Pictures

Bridget Jones is back! That is, the Bridget from the first film, 2001's Bridget Jones's Diary, and not the seemingly brain-damaged Bridget from the 2004 sequel Edge of Reason.

A little older (aren't we all) if not much wiser, Bridget (Renee Zellweger) is once again single; her relationship with Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) having ended in the interim with the human rights lawyer now married to someone else.

And what of Hugh Grant's pervy publisher Daniel Cleaver? He's out of the picture -- literally. (Grant opting to make a film with Meryl Streep rather than return to this franchise.)

But Bridget, now with a successful career behind the scenes of television news, still finds herself preoccupied with the competing attentions of two men: Darcy, and online romance guru Jack Quant (Patrick Dempsey), one of whom is the father of Bridget's unexpected and wholly unplanned for baby.

Mildly amusing, Bridget Jones's Baby succeeds mostly on the audience's prior relationship with, and good will towards Bridget. You can't help but root for the hopelessly romantic singleton who is often her own worst enemy. And Zellweger, who hasn't been seen on screen lately, easily slips back into the role; once again nailing the accent and making us care about a woman who, now in her 40s, refuses to give up on the idea of Prince Charming (Bechdel Test be damned!).