Film review – Broken (2012)

20 May 2013
Broken: Archie (Tim Roth) and Skunk (Eloise Laurence)

Archie (Tim Roth) and Skunk (Eloise Laurence)

People can be broken physically, emotionally and psychologically and few go through life avoiding being harmed in some way. The 2012 film Broken, adapted from the 2008 novel by Daniel Clay, portrays many different ways humans can suffer. At the centre of the film is a coming-of-age narrative, about an 11-year-old girl known as Skunk (Eloise Laurence) who experiences the cruelty and unfairness of life when she witnesses an act of violence. Within Skunk’s own home and that of her two neighbours, in a small cul-de-sac in suburban England, people are being broken in different ways. As the film unfolds, seamlessly portraying the joy of childhood with the terror of a community made to feel vulnerable, Broken questions why people are damaged and how they can be healed. What emerges is a film that can be shocking, but also deeply comforting in its belief that the truehearted can prevail.

Harper Lee’s seminal 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird was a major influence for Clay when writing Broken and that influence is felt throughout the film. Like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird Skunk lives with her older brother Jed (Bill Milner) and her father Archie (Tim Roth) who is a lawyer. Even the names of the key characters from Broken are similar to their counterparts in Lee’s novel. Another key similarity is the pivotal plot point involving a wrongful accusation of rape, with the introverted Rick Buckley (Robert Emms) being a composite of the falsely accused Tom Robinson character and the reclusive Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley character from To Kill a Mockingbird.

However, it would be a mistake to simply categorise Broken as a modern day To Kill a Mockingbird. The film uses the core characters and basic scenario to set up themes of injustice, family, community and the loss of childhood innocence, but Broken develops the themes and narrative in its own way to beautifully complement To Kill a Mockingbird rather than rehash it. Perhaps most interesting is that Skunk is the focal point throughout Broken rather than her father Archie. While both texts are from the point-of-view of the Scout/Skunk character, To Kill a Mockingbird is centred on Atticus Finch as the moral authority that drives the narrative, while in Broken Skunk is the moral centre. One of the few things that unites the characters in Broken is their affection and love for Skunk.

Although, while caring for Skunk is something most of the characters have in common, Skunk is let down by most of the men in the film at some point. Through experiencing first love, unrequited love and family members experiencing romantic love, she is left feeling hurt, betrayed and abandoned. She learns that her father and brother are sexual beings and this difficult realisation is part of her coming-of-age narrative. However, it is the different expressions of parental love that becomes the most crucial component to Skunk growing-up.

On the one hand Skunk sees the borderline psychotic protective parental love as demonstrated by the brutal Bob Oswald (Rory Kinnear). Fiercely protective of his daughters, whose behaviour suggests they need guidance rather than lenience, Oswald is like a defensive animal. He tears off his shirt before attacking, eats raw ham from the packet and lives in an unfinished house – it is literally a broken home. As a result of his monstrous and delusional protective behaviour, he has raised three similarly viscous daughters who have grown up to view the world with aggression and suspicion.

On the other hand, Skunk receives far more considered parental love from Archie, who is affectionate but also firm. Both Archie and Oswald are single fathers and both are shown to have a tremendous love for their children and fear seeing harm come to them. The difference is Oswald has become savage to the point of terrifying the community while Archie upholds the law, even to the point of assisting a romantic rival because it is the right thing to do. Considering others and responding rationally are viewed in the film as essential for civilisation to prevail.

Notions of what it means to love and what it means to be civilised are not the only grand themes in Broken, as it also explores the question of fate. One of the many strengths of the film is its redemptive undercurrent, where a tragic event places a character in a position where they have the ability to prevent tragedy for others. This in turn invites speculation about what events caused the tragedy in question in the first place, challenging the audience to consider the cause-and-effect relationship between the order of events in the film.

The non-lineal structure of the film furthers this inquiry into how the film is suggesting a relationship between the different events in the film. Most interestingly is the way the film covertly skips over particular events, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions about the aftermath before the film then goes into flashback to fill in the missing details. Sometimes the film crosscuts between the scene about to end and the scene about to start, creating unusual spatial and temporal links.

This fractured – yet highly coherent – approach to the narrative also gives the film an at times dreamlike quality to suggest it is a collection of memories that sometimes overlap. It is not clear if the suggested memories belong to Skunk or Archie, and it is made even more ambiguous by the presence of images depicting Skunk in the future. The end result is to present the period of time the film takes place in as a defining one for Skunk as she begins the not always pleasant transition into adulthood.

The film’s director Rufus Norris has a background directing theatre, yet displays considerable talent as a filmmaker in his approach to not just the unconventional editing, but other elements of film style such as the cinematography. During the early scenes of the film, the adult characters are frequently shot from Skunk’s height so that their heads are cut off by the top of the frame. In the scene where Skunk has her first kiss with her boyfriend Dillon (George Sargeant), the pair stand up without the camera following them so their heads are similarly briefly out of frame. The camera then pans up and the technique of viewing adults from below slips away from the film, suggesting Skunk’s entry into the adult world.

The design and style of the film is also carefully crafted to deliver Skunk’s perspective of a world that is harsh, but also full of childlike wonder. Norris uses an unusual blend of social realist style shots with moments that are almost neo-romantic. In particular, the junkyard where Skunk hangs out is filled with broken cars and yet filmed with warm and soft light to present her imaginative view of the yard. Tellingly, a place filled with broken objects is one that Skunk can see beauty in.

Broken is a film of thematic, narrative and stylistic complexity that manages to remain highly accessible. The theme of learning to grow up nobly in a world of unfairness is very effectively transposed from To Kill a Mockingbird, but Broken pleasingly takes its own direction to deliver a very moving look at parental love. While a character such as Archie is comparable to Atticus Finch in terms of honour and inner strength, making Skunk the focus of the story was an inspired decision. By framing such universal issues such as the power of forgiveness, redemption and love through a coming-of-age narrative of a generous and kind 11-year-old girl, Broken delivers a moving and thoughtful cinema experience.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

6 December 2012
Gilderoy (Toby Jones)

Gilderoy (Toby Jones)

As film production and exhibition rapidly embraces digital technologies, more and more contemporary films are paying homage to earlier modes of production when films were shot and screened on film. Hugo, The Artist, Holy Motors, Argo and Frankenweenie are some of the recent films that have in their own way acknowledged the power of cinema from different eras. Now Berberian Sound Studio pays tribute to analogue sound recording and giallo films; the wonderfully pulpy Italian crime thriller and horror films that were most prolific during the 1970s.  The second feature by British writer/director Peter Strickland, Berberian Sound Studio is named after the film’s setting: a fictional Italian post-production studio doing the post-synched audio recording for a particularly nasty 1976 giallo film titled The Equestrian Vortex. For reasons never fully explained, the studio hires Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a mild mannered sound engineer from England, to work on the elaborate sound mix. Used to working on pleasant documentaries about the English countryside and writing letters to his mother, Gilderoy struggles to cope with the aggressive behaviour of his Italian co-workers and the gruesome content of the film.

Strickland ensures that the audience never see any of The Equestrian Vortex, aside from its psychedelic title sequence. Instead the audience hear the scenes being described, see Gilderoy’s reaction to it and witness the sound effects being created. Berberian Sound Studio convincingly demonstrates how effective cinema can be even when the mechanics of how it is made are completely exposed. Like being enchanted by a puppet even when the puppeteer is on full display, the squelching sound of watermelons being smashed to convey trauma to the body and the ripping sound of radish stalks being pulled out to convey hair being torn from the head, are still gruesome. Along with various other classic sound effect techniques, the film also depicts human voice actors providing not only the dialogue, but also the haunting singing used for the soundtrack as well as the deranged vocal sounds of the supernatural characters. The entire illusion of how sound is created and manipulated in cinema is on complete display in Berberian Sound Studio and yet this somehow enhances its mystique.

As well as the magnificent sound design, Berberian Sound Studio is visually impressive with the claustrophobic and darkly lit sound studio set enhancing the menace that Gilderoy feels from The Equestrian Vortex and some of his co-workers. Graphic matches and match-on-action edits between the scenes in the studio and the scenes in Gilderoy’s small room, bring together the various settings to create a sense of never-ending work, where The Equestrian Vortex relentlessly intrudes into Gilderoy’s psyche. As the physical spaces in Berberian Sound Studio collapse into each other through the editing and production design, Gilderoy loses the ability to discern between the objective world, the world of The Equestrian Vortex and his own unconscious. This blurring of the boundaries ultimately makes Berberian Sound Studio a dark psychological thriller, from the perspective of a highly unreliable and unstable protagonist.

As the frequently sadistic content of The Equestrian Vortex begins to permeate into Gilderoy’s mind, the dynamics of the studio personnel are seen to reflect the content of the film they are working on. The female actors hired to record the voices of the various victims are bullied by the bad-tempered Francesco (Cosimo Fusco), who demands they scream more authentically and belittles them for having only been hired because the director Santini (Antonio Mancino) slept with them. As the tortures inflicted upon the characters in the film-within-the-film intensify, Francesco’s behaviour also gets worse as do his strategies for getting the women to scream the way he would like them to. Gilderoy also suffers substantially, having to endure Francesco’s condescension and criticism as well as Santini’s passive-aggressiveness and defensiveness about the artistic merit of the film, which Santini refuses to acknowledge as a horror. The violence staged on film begins to reflect the emotional abuse behind the scenes.

Berberian Sound Studio is a masterfully made film that will please audio experts, cinephiles and horror fans, especially fans of films from the era made by directors such as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava. The film lovingly presents the analogue sound recording and mixing process in just the right level of detail to entrance enthusiasts without being overly technical. The exhilarating sense of dread that Strickland coaxes from the audience through sound alone is very impressive as are the moments when the film demonstrates how much sound can give meaning to the visuals: when Gilderoy is splashed with tomato soup it is impossible to think of anything other than blood, shots of the decaying vegetables used for sound effects disturbingly evoke the frailty of the human body. The film becomes increasingly non-lineal and subjective as the boundaries between the truth and fiction collapse for Gilderoy. However, audiences happy to surrender to the craft on display will have no problem indulging in Berberian Sound Studio’s aural and visual pleasures. And if there was any doubt about the best way to appreciate such a film – or any film for that matter – a red sign frequently flashes in the darkness with a very clear and simple instruction to the viewer: SILENZIO.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Attack the Block (2011)

29 November 2011
Attack the Block: Moses (John Boyega), Sam (Jodie Whittaker) and Brewis (Luke Treadaway)

Moses (John Boyega), Sam (Jodie Whittaker) and Brewis (Luke Treadaway)

Somewhere on a council estate in South London, hostile aliens have fallen from the sky. A local teenage gang take it upon themselves to fight off the unwanted visitors, but quickly discover they are outnumbered by the pitch-black, bear-like creatures with glowing, razor sharp teeth. Set to a distinctively British electronica soundtrack, courtesy of Basement Jaxx, Attack the Block is a fast-paced and inventive action/science-fiction film with an unconventional set of heroes. Making his feature film directorial début, writer/director Joe Cornish does a remarkable job cutting straight to the excitement and keeping it constant while ensuring that character and narrative development occurs simultaneously. It’s also a film with plenty to say about perceptions and attitudes towards class in England, but the message is contained within the chase and fight scenes.

The gang of teenagers are not the type of characters often seen as the heroic protagonists in action films. Kids like the ones featured in Attack the Block usually feature in social-realist films such as Fish Tank and many of the films of Ken Loach, or far worse, in utterly uncommendable films such as Harry Brown where they are portrayed unquestionably as animalistic villains who deserve to be murdered. Attack the Block doesn’t pretend the kids are saints or defend them as simply being misunderstood or troubled. In fact, they are introduced mugging Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a nurse and their neighbour, to establish that they aren’t loveable misfits. They are also the initial aggressors towards the creatures and a major theme of the film is that all actions have consequences.

Attack the Block: Ron (Nick Frost) and Brewis (Luke Treadaway)

Ron (Nick Frost) and Brewis (Luke Treadaway)

However, Attack the Block is never preachy or didactic and there aren’t any easy explanations on offer for why the kids are out mugging innocent people. They are never explicitly redeemed or excused, but through the victim/aggressor dynamic that the film explores the boys are certainly humanised to have identities beyond that of criminals. The later experiences shared by gang leader Moses (John Boyega) and Sam while fighting off the invaders facilitate mutual awareness and empathy that goes beyond the first perceptions that the film deliberately offers in the opening sequences. Attack the Block overtly sets itself a challenge by making its protagonists unsympathetic at the beginning and a major part of the film’s skill is in endearing them to the audience without resorting to trite social messages.

The secondary characters of course aren’t as fleshed out as Sam and Moses, but they are still appealing and recognisable social types. Drug dealer Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) desperately wants to be an American gangsta, his deputy dealer Ron (Nick Frost) is a loveable stoner and buyer Brewis (Luke Treadaway) is an awkward middle-class kid caught up in the chaos. The closest the film gets to direct class critique is through the Brewis character who is affectionately mocked for wanting to selectively appropriate aspects of the estate culture – the drugs and music – while being terrified of other aspects – the poverty and crime. Cornish is never cruel about the way Brewis is depicted, continuing the film’s non-judgemental approach towards its characters. Cornish is possibly also mindful that while Sam or Moses are the characters most audiences will lean towards identifying with, large segments of them probably have a lot more in common with Brewis.

Attack the Block

Visually Attack the Block is effective on a number of levels. Cornish uses the apartment block’s corridors, stairwells, elevators and small rooms to create several thrilling sequences. The film offers more shocks than real scares, but the creatures look suitably menacing and mysterious. The film is also very atmospherically lit to create lots of suspenseful glows in the distance. This visual style along with the film’s fully rounded characters, energetic music, unpredictability, subtle social commentary and integration of exposition within action makes Attack the Block an extremely strong feature film début for Cornish. It’s also breathtakingly good fun.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Fire in Babylon (2010)

15 September 2011

Fire in BabylonFrom the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s, the West Indies dominated Test Cricket with an undefeated streak that lasted longer than that of any other professional sporting team. This UK documentary charts the progression of the team throughout the 1970s from an almost novelty group of players, who were condescendingly regarded as ‘Calypso Cricketers’, to the disciplined, athletic and fearsome team that would come to dominate the sport. An energetic blend of archival footage, music and contemporary talking head interviews explores the development of the team and their immense political relevance to the Caribbean people whose recent struggles for independence mirrored civil rights movements in the USA and later South Africa.

Like the recent Formula One documentary Senna and the 1996 boxing documentary When We Were Kings, Fire in Babylon explores the politics in and away from the game. At one point the West Indies star batsman Viv Richards is even compared to the subject of When We Were Kings Muhammad Ali, due to Richards’s decision to turn down an extremely large sum of money to play in Apartheid South Africa. Tracing the origins of cricket within the Caribbean nations as something introduced by the English aristocracy as a symbol of colonialist rule, the film demonstrates why it was so significant for the West Indies team to master the sport. By beating the English cricket team, the descendants of former slaves were beating the descendants of the former colonialists at their own game.

While the English cricket team feature in Fire in Babylon as a primary antagonist, especially Tony Greig who in 1976 insensitively stated he wanted to make the West Indians ‘grovel’, the Australian team are also presented as a major foe. In particular, the fast bowlers Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee are depicted in the stock footage and photos to appear almost animalistic with the aggressive bowling techniques that they introduced to the game. The fact that the West Indies bowlers were later widely criticised for adopting similar techniques, which significantly contributed to their early and ongoing wins, is a double-standard that the film doesn’t let slip by.

Fire in BabylonThe large collection of interviews assembled for this film create a wonderfully cohesive impression of the team as a fully function single unit that still comprised of individual players. Specific players do get mentioned, but overall the film paints a picture of the team as a single character, which is important considering how they collectively began representing African independence both within the Caribbean and within various communities living in England during a time of racial tensions. At first glance, the amount of screen time given to musical performances and interviews with musicians seems odd, but it establishes the cultural effect the team had and how what the team stood for was articulated through popular art forms such as music. Bob Marley and the team were reportedly mutual fans of each other and former Wailers band member Bunny Wailer features extensively in the interviews.

At the very least, Fire in Babylon is a great film because is so effectively conveys a love for the game that even complete non-cricket fans should find enticing. The West Indies team do begin the film as the classic underdogs so watching them overcome early adversity and humiliations is compelling and satisfying. The excitement of the games is frequently conveyed by rapidly crosscutting between game footage and the various interviewees enthusiastically recounting what happened. Their energy is infectious and is what makes the blend of sport, music and politics in Fire in Babylon that extra little bit special. Like all great documentaries, Fire in Babylon transcends its immediate subject matter to be a film with universal appeal.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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An interview with Jim Loach, the director of Oranges and Sunshine

12 June 2011
Oranges and Sunshine director Jim Loach

Oranges and Sunshine director Jim Loach

Over 130,000 children were deported from the UK as part of various Child Migration Schemes. It is estimated that Australia received 7,000 children between 1912 and 1970. Many of these children were sent without the consent or knowledge of their parents. Once in Australia the children were used for cheap labour and many were abused.

In 1986 an English social worker named Margaret Humphreys discovered and then exposed the scheme despite immense pressure from very powerful groups who had a vested interest in it being kept quite. The new Australian/UK co-production Oranges and Sunshine, by director Jim Loach, tells Margaret’s story (who is still working to reunited lost family members).

This interview was recorded on Friday 27 May 2011 and then played on Film Buff’s Forecast (Triple R, 3RRR 102.7FM) on Saturday 11 June 2011.

Download link (running time = 13:47)

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Film review – Oranges and Sunshine (2010)

7 June 2011
Oranges and Sunshine: Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson)

Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson)

It must be challenging to make a film that spreads awareness about an important issue while still adhering to the traditional cinematic narrative conventions that are necessary to maintain dramatic interest. In Oranges and Sunshine, a UK/Australia co-production, director Jim Loach and writer Rona Munro get the balance right. The issue they depict is the shameful deportation of an estimated 7000 children from the UK to Australia from 1912 to 1970. The children were often sent without the consent or knowledge of their parents. As one of the former child migrant characters says, they were promised oranges and sunshine, but once in Australia they were used for cheap labour and many were abused.

Instead of being set during the 1940s or 1950s, when the majority of the child migration occurred, Oranges and Sunshine is set during the late 1980s and follows the work done by English social worker Margaret Humphreys, played by Emily Watson in the film. Margaret’s investigation into the scheme, while she worked at reuniting lost family members, provides a perfect narrative structure for the audience to learn about what happened at the same time that she does. We share not only her furious disbelief at the exploitation and injustice, but also her drive to find out more.

Oranges and Sunshine: Jack (Hugo Weaving) and Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson)

Jack (Hugo Weaving) and Margaret (Emily Watson)

Loach’s restrained direction and excellent casting allows the film to express how the scheme affected people’s lives without it ever becoming melodramatic or sentimental. The film is understated without ever being obtuse so that the audience gets an impression of the harm done to many of the children without it being unnecessarily laboured. The main two former child migrant characters whom Margaret works with are both men of a similar age; Jack played by Hugo Weaving and Len played by David Wenham. While loosely based on real people Jack and Len are composite characters used to represent two of the broadly different types of responses Margaret encountered. Both have damaged souls, but while Jack is quiet and fragile, Len is aggressively defensive. As the three leads Watson, Weaving and Wenham are uniformly excellent, but in one of Weaving’s key scenes he delivers what is possibly his finest performance to date.

Towards the end of Oranges and Sunshine Margaret warns Len not to expect some kind of cathartic moment that will neatly resolve or vindicate his experiences. This echoes the sentiments of the real life Margaret Humphreys who regards her work in finding missing family members and campaigning for an enquiry as simply part of her on-going day job. To the credit of the film, it doesn’t undermine Margaret’s sentiments by concluding with a traditional moment of narrative closure, and yet it does provide a climatic final scene that validates Margaret’s work up until that point. It’s a deft touch to provide a scene that is so dramatically satisfying without betraying the overall idea that the story is not done yet.

Oranges and Sunshine: Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) and Len (David Wenham)

Margaret (Emily Watson) and Len (David Wenham)

With Oranges and Sunshine Jim Loach has announced himself a distinctive cinematic voice who is able to handle complex and difficult subject matter with sensitivity and skill. His film functions as both entertainment and as a piece of social awareness that goes beyond the confines of the cinema. Perhaps most impressive is that in an era where popular culture is rediscovering and reinterpreting so many superhero narratives, Oranges and Sunshine highlights the work of a real life hero. Margaret Humphreys may not have superpowers but amid all the cynicism and feelings of powerlessness in the world, her courage and determination against a great injustice is truly inspiring.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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An interview with Tom Hooper, the director of The King’s Speech

20 December 2010
The King's Speech director Tom Hooper

The King's Speech director Tom Hooper

In The King’s Speech, Colin Firth plays King George VI who unexpectedly became the king of England after his father’s death and his brother’s abdication. With a cripplingly debilitating speech impediment he worked extensively with an Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), to prepare him for a life of public speaking.

This interview was recorded on Wednesday 15 December 2010 and then played on Film Buff’s Forecast (Triple R, 3RRR 102.7FM) on Saturday 18 December 2010.

Download link (interview running time = 10:01)

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