The Water Diviner

 

Now you know. They do make films like this anymore. The Water Diviner is a film about an Australian farmer and water diviner (Russell Crowe) who loses three sons on Lone Pine and goes there to use his capacity to commune with the earth to recover their bodies. He does not return empty-handed, but that simple and uplifting tale has been expanded into a combination Beau Geste, The Man from Snowy River, Zorba the Greek, Kim, The Guns of Navarone, Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is also a cry-out-loud weepy. Mr Crowe is putting down a big marker – subtlety will not be the hallmark of his film direction. Well, not a lot in his history suggests shyness.

This is all OK for those who like this kind of thing in the sequence about the lost sons, although on at least one occasion the fearful exuberance comes mortally close to a failure of taste, but by the time that the hero gets to help Ataturk to found modern Turkey with the aid of a cricket bat, some might incline to the view that we have gone over the top once too often. And there is some bleak typing, of a miserable, venal Irish Catholic priest, of insufferably snooty Pom officers, of incorrigibly democratic Australians, of lustful and polygamous Turks, and of bloodthirsty, eye-rolling Greeks. The love interest is carried by a ferociously attractive young woman; whatever other attributes she might have are lost under lines of banality that the screen-play suffers too much from. I thought that the acting honours were taken by the guy playing the Turkish officer – he looked flawless to me from start to finish.

This is all I think what used to called derring-do, but the film has a curious premise – that the hero failed in not doing enough to stop his sons setting off for the slaughterhouse in the bizarre and un-Australian name of King and Country. This whole nation is set to embark on an orgy of celebration of that very sick notion in the centenary of the disaster at a time when it is deploying war machines under the odd name of the Royal Australian Air Force to kill Arabs in a sectarian war that extends to Turkey – and, we are told, the shores of Australia. But whatever else the sons of the water diviner got killed for, I do not think that it was in order that one hundred years on, their descendants might tug their forelocks to a knight or a dame or join in hostilities on the other side of the world on the ipse dixit of the patron du jour.

This Is Where I Leave You

If you look up the word kitsch, you will see references to material that is low-brow and mass-produced, gaudily decorated with icons of the mob, and given to sentimentality and melodrama – something like a shock jock that appeals to those with no taste at all, and little sense of decency. The film This is Where I Leave You sets new levels of vulgarity in this genre that may never be surpassed.  It redefines my notion of a nightmare – spending one hundred minutes with the people in who inflicted this on us to see whether they could increase their insult to my brain and our humanity in person.  Like The Judge, it is a generational tale about a yuppie with a cheating wife who goes back to middle America after a death in the family and confronts his demons and his childhood sweetheart and some intellectually challenged people.  It could have been shot in the same town with the same cast. but the latter film had a theme and two distinguished actors.  This one just keeps getting worse.   It is like the Titanic such a bad film that it holds you enthralled to see whether it can sustain bullshit of such elegant and inevitable refinement.  Good art puts us at home with our humanity.  Kitsch makes us think that the apes are better off.  There is only one redeeming feature.  You get the same feeling with Der Rosenkavalier.  There is not much air between fascism and kitsch – if they can sell this rubbish, selling Hitler would be a breeze.

Venus in a Fur

This film may not be one for the boys, but it is a film for anyone who is into theatre or film, and who goes to either to be entertained. You will hardly ever be as well entertained as you are here. It is also a vindication of aging. The great director Roman Polanski is over eighty and the lead, Emmanuelle Seigner, who is his wife, is nearly fifty – and she is about to reach her prime – in any way you care to nominate. She is well supported by the only other actor, Mathieu Amalric, who does not look entirely unlike Polanski at that age.

The film follows a Broadway play a few years back. There is only one set, a theatre set for auditions. Thomas has written a play based on a nineteenth century novel about sado-masochism. He cannot find anyone from the modern stage to play an Ibsen-like siren-part. Then on a stormy night, Vanda arrives, unannounced, with a bag of tricks, as rough as guts, and larger than life, and ready to challenge all preconceptions about acting, sexiness, and politesse – and you know immediately that Thomas’s life may never be the same, the poor bastard. Vanda bludgeons Thomas into allowing her to start to an audition with him standing in for the male lead. The moment that she converts to the role might take your breath away. She knows the part by heart and Thomas gets sucked in to the point of obsession, and to where she has very much ceased to be the supplicant. Because they go in and out of character until you lose track, the capacity for irony is endless. The night might also be fateful for the fiancé of Thomas – a fiancé: how quaint! – who keeps ringing him to see what is keeping him. His phone rings to the Ride of the Valkyries, and our Thomas was not made to ride in that company. (Who is?) It is then that some of the boys in the audience might start to wonder how this all might end well for Thomas, and look around in case there are some Amazons on the prowl with a spare pair of garlic crushers.

The performance of Seigner is breathtaking. She does not command the camera – the camera salutes her. Her dominance – again in any way you like – is complete, although Mathieu Amalric is also flawless. Her presence and her mannerisms reminded me a lot of Gerard Depardieu and I say that in the warmest possible way. The play keeps trashing boundaries. It is a stunning night at the theatre – in the cinema – where we are privileged to be with great stars at the height of their powers. It is just that some of the boys might need a shot of something as a steadier on the way home.

For that matter, there may be something in it for the Sisters. I am not talking about sado-masochism, which I find at best unhappily tasteless and wasteful, like an angry drunk, but about the fact that this show revels in the celebration that women can be feminine in so many ways. Sex may not make the world go round, but it does see that the world stays peopled which is, as another play reminds us, an imperative.

The Judge

 

What is said to be the first rule of advocacy is that if you have good point, make it, and don’t spoil it with a dud point – or just bury it. It is good advice for any writer and any film-maker. One problem with The Judge is that there are too many currants in the bun, and that is one reason that it is far too long, at two hours twenty minutes. It is a father and son story that is full of improbability and schmalz, and as a trial story it is almost wildly loose – and we could have done without the leering, Satanic a prosecutor with a hang-up. But I enjoyed the film, a lot. A trial film cannot be all bad if it makes a ritual out of a young attorney throwing up each morning before court, and then gives us a commentary on the etiquette of throwing up. The hero – and he is there to undergo a rite of return – is a country boy made good – after a fashion. He is a glib smart-arse who gives the law a bad name. He goes back home to bury his mother and ends confronting himself, his past and his family when he acts for his father, the long-time judge of the town, on a murder charge. The hero is played by Robert Downey Junior who has real screen presence. Downey is impressive in that he impresses his role on you. His father is played by Robert Duvall at a stage in his career where you are going bad if you are not moved. Downey does hold your and the camera’s attention – he reminded me a lot of Dirk Bogarde. Duvall is a seriously good actor and he ends up wearing my version of a Stetson hat. Some of the schmalz is over the top, but two women have very good sexy parts, and I thought that the film used very fine actors to make enough contact with the facts of life to keep me well entertained and thinking about it fondly for the thirty minute drive home through the bush. Daylesford is a town on a lake and would be about the size of the town where this film was shot, but I do not think that it sports a diner with women behind the bar quite as sexy as those in the film. The cinema is however run on the free list as a community project and we should encourage it.

Whiplash

Whiplash is a rite of passage film. A young student is put to the test by a hard instructor to see if he can make it. It is like An Officer and a Gentleman, except that this hero wants to be a musician and the hard man is a cruel psychopath who is intent on breaking young people by publicly humiliating them. The cruelty involves insulting students by their family history or sexuality in the crudest and most hateful terms. It is obviously therefore outside the law, but one disquieting feature of this film is the absence of fraternal support among the victims. This gives the film, which drags, a 1984 feel. Are they all so driven that they will face breakdown rather than failing – or showing support for one of their own? Are these young Americans driven to the same suicidal depths as young Asian students are fabled to be? The plot is rarely credible and always corny. We hope that the young man can play the drums because he is a walking time-bomb socially, and God has made him accident prone. To accept this movie, you will have to accept two premises. First, genius might have to be brought out by bastardization. Secondly, cruelty that gets results is justified, even while its victims pile up. Both propositions are offensive, but the second is also pure bullshit. Geniuses are born. The best thing that teachers can do is not to block them. The notion that Charlie Parker, the twentieth century version of Mozart-Lite, became the genius of ‘Bird’ because a pro threw something at him is moonshine fit for the Batman cartoons before the kids’ flicks. Bastardization is outlawed now for officers’ schools after generations of proof of its evil that even the army could not duck. To suggest that it might work on artists is worse than silly. The United States should have a class action for defamation.