My 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival top ten

sorcerer-truck-on-bridgeThe Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) kicks off in few days. As usual, there’s a packed program full of cinematic goodness. If you’re wanting to check some films out but are stumped as to what to see, here’s my ten picks.

Sorcerer, 1977

The newly remastered print of Sorcerer, William Freidkin’s 1977 homage to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 classic, The Wages of Fear, is up there as one of my top MIFF picks for the festival. The story is about a group of four men, each of them on the run from various sins committed in their past life, who are hired to transport a truck load of volatile dynamite across an incredibly hostile stretch of Central American jungle. Freidkin may be better known as the director of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) but this hard boiled slice of pure cinematic noir is, in my opinion, his best film.

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films - 2014

I really enjoyed Mark Hartley’s documentaries, Not Quite Hollywood (2008), about Australia’s Ozsploitation film scene, and Machete Maidens Unleashed (2010), his look at American film making in the Philippines in the seventies and eighties, so expectations are high for this one. Electric Boogaloo is the story of Cannon Films, the Hollywood B-studio responsible for such cinema gems as Lifeforce (1985) and the pre-Rambo, Rambo film, Missing In Action (1984).

A Hard Day - 2014

As regular readers of this site will know, I’m a major fan of South Korean crime cinema. A Hard Day redefines the motion of a tough day at the office when a police detective has to deal with a divorce notice from his wife, his mother passing away and an internal police investigation into allegations he is corrupt in the space of 24 hours. As if that wasn’t enough, he accidentally hits and kills a pedestrian. He tries to cover the death up, but someone has witnessed the act.

Black Coal, Thin Ice - 2014

I have been hearing good things about Black Coal, Thin Ice for months. The third film by director Yi’nan Dao, this gritty noir is the tale of a former cop, now a alcoholic security guard, who is haunted by a failed murder investigation he was involved in five years earlier. When bodies start appearing again, murdered in similar circumstances, the ex-cop sees the possibility of making up for past mistakes.

The Legend Maker - 2014

Despite not knowing anything about the Ian Pringle, the writer and director of The Legend Maker, this independent Australian crime film looks great. It concerns an ageing forger who wants to get out of the game and is under threat of death from a thug known as the Croat.

Whitey: The United States of America v. James Buglar – 2014

Another film I’ve heard a lot about, this documentary centres on the trial of legendary Boston criminal, James Whitey Buglar. Buglar terrorised the city in a criminal career spanning thirty years, including murdering over a dozen people. Despite this he was given an almost free reign by the FBI and local police, who never charged him with so much as a misdemeanour. This documentary examines why.

Phase IV – 1974

Phase IV is the only film ever directed by Saul Bass, the man behind the opening credits of such classic films as Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). It revolves around desert ants that suddenly develop collective intelligence and begin to attack humans. It is up to two scientists and a stray girl they rescue from the ants to save human kind. Phase IV is a cult favourite and is showing at MIFF with the recently discovered original ending (removed by studio executives) restored in all its glory.

Jodorowsky’s Dream

The story of possibly the greatest film ever not made, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to make a movie of Frank Herbert’s sprawling science fiction novel, Dune. It’s also a wonderful meditation on the joy of unrestrained creativity.

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten - 2014

A look at Cambodia’s marvellous and vibrant pre-1975 rock music scene, almost completely eradicated during the short by bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge. I’ve previously written about this music and the people who made it. The director, John Pirozzi, also did the cinematography for City of Ghosts, a 2002 crime film shot in Phnom Penh, so I’m expecting a terrific documentary and some wonderful imagery.

Concerning Violence – 2014

Swedish director Goran Olsson’s documentary is an homage to and examination of African liberation struggles of the sixties and seventies, based on Franz Fanon’s influential The Wretched of the Earth. Again, advance buzz on this documentary has been good. Perhaps not the most obvious film to see at MIFF, but I can’t help feeling current events in Africa make this film a must see.

Pulp Friday: The Country Club Set

The Country Club set“When married life started to bore her – Virginia turned to a teenager for kicks.”

Today’s Pulp Friday is a wonderful example of early sixties pulp sleaze, The Country Club Set by Elaine Dorian.

The story is about a devious middled aged woman who engages in an affair with a young male tennis player she picks up at the local country club. It was published by Beacon Books in 1963, the same year as the Charles Webb’s blockbuster, The Graduate, appeared, and was perhaps an attempt to cash in on its success.

‘Elaine Doran’ appears to have been a pen name for a writer called Isabel Moore, who wrote for a couple of decades, including penning a number of sleaze pulps for Beacon in the early sixties, titles like The Sex Cure, Second Time Wife and Double Trouble.

She appears to have made no secret of her writing activities and a November 2, 1962 article in the Schenectady Gazette, the local paper of Schenectady County in the US state of New York, reported, “obscene words and threats” where painted on her house after The Sex Cure appeared in print. The book was a take on the behind the scenes sexual activities of the upper strata of her local area, Cooperstown.”

Moore had been warned that something would happen and was staying with friends when the graffiti attack happened.

“Police chief William Ross said the threats and obscenities were sprayed on all four sides of the house in letters a foot high. The lettering indicated that three of four people did it, he said. ‘That book shook up the town real well,’ Ross said.”

The Sex Set was published in 1962 and you can see cover here. On the front cover it says: “For the rich, beautiful women of the suburban fast set, young Doctor Justine Riley had a favourite prescription. Rips the mask from doctors who mix women and medicine.”

As The Country Club Set and other books followed The Sex Set, the attack obviously did not deter her from continuing to write.

There is no record of whether the local police discovered who was responsible for the graffiti.

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Sorting through the cultural blood and guts of Game of Thrones

Kull 3Like many writers, I’ve attended my share of panels where publishing insiders share their experience about the industry, what they are looking for, what’s selling, etc. The most honest thing I ever heard came from a young up-and-comer from a mid-level publishing house with a strong focus on quality literature, who, when it came to his turn to speak, said, ‘We don’t know what’s big at the moment. If we did, we’d be doing more of it.’

This comment has stuck with me due to its frankness. It occurred to me again when recently asked what I thought about HBO’s latest blockbuster, Game of Thrones. It’s successful and, no doubt, if television studios could afford to, they’d be doing a lot more of it. Case in point is the historical mini-series, The Vikings, clearly marketed as a smaller-scale version of GoT.

Game of Thrones is interesting on many levels. The very first episode contains incestuous sex, the discovery of which resulted in a ten-year-old boy being casually thrown from a tower and crippled for life. Subsequent episodes contain graphic violence, torture, child marriage, slavery and rape. It has garnered mainstream acclaim (including 19 nominations Emmy nominations in 2014), as well as being watched by people whose taste (if my experience is anything to go by) usually veers to the high culture end of the scale.

So I don’t want to say that someone can’t listen to Radio National or like Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and watch Game of Thrones as well. But there is a dissonance at play that, to me, is about the different way we consume screen culture as opposed to what we read in books. I had a similar reaction to the success of Breaking Bad, the story of a duplicitous, homicidal, hard drug-dealer, and Hannibal, with its graphic depiction of psychological and physical violence.

You can read the rest of the piece here on the Overland Magazine site.

And if you want more, I’ll be sorting through the cultural blood and guts of the hit TV show on a panel at the upcoming Bendigo Writers Festival. Entitled, ‘Is Game of Thrones Any Good?’, it will also feature Professor of Journalism Lawrie Zion and journalist Jane Sullivan.

The panel will take place from 3-4 pm at the Old Fire Station, on Sunday 10th August. More information about this and the other amazing events at the Bendigo Writers Festival is available here.

Backroads noir in the Australian outback: David Michôd’s The Rover

madmax-1aAustralian director David Michôd’s second film, The Rover, is part of a rich heritage of Australian dystopian cinema that combines the destructive power of cars with the country’s harsh, sparsely populated rural areas and desert interior. A gritty crime drama, it is among the small group of Australian films with a true noir sensibility — a bleak atmosphere and a narrative where events start badly and end up worse — on a brief list that also includes Michôd’s debut 2010 effort, Animal Kingdom.

The Rover is set in the Australian outback 10 years after an unspecified global financial collapse. It opens with a lone, unnamed traveler (Guy Pearce) sitting behind the wheel of his dusty Holden Commodore car, before going into a roadside café. The traveler’s gaunt, weather-beaten features, the café’s ramshackle appearance, its silent, heavily armed Asian owners, and the Cambodian love song booming through the establishment’s aged speakers combine to create a feeling of impending menace and a sense of geographical and cultural confusion.

The film suddenly shifts to three men driving through the desert, fleeing an unspecified crime gone wrong. One of the men, Henry (Scoot McNairy), is angry about having to leave his brother, Rey (Robert Pattinson, of Twilightfame), for dead at the scene of the crime. The argument becomes physical, distracting the third man, the driver, and their vehicle veers off the road. The three men emerge from their car and grab the first alternative vehicle they see, which just happens to belong to the lone traveler, and take off again.

You can read the rest of this piece here at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Pulp Friday: The Hands of Orlac

The Hands of Orlac“Had a brilliant skin graft left him with a murderer’s hands? A tense and eerie film starring Mel Ferrer.”

French writer Maurice Renard’s 1920 novel The Hands of Orlac concerned a concert pianist called Paul Orlac who loses his hands in a terrible accident and is given new ones in a transplant. Unbeknownst to him, the donor was a recently deceased murderer. Not only is Orlac unable to play piano with his new hands, but he slowly starts to assume the deceased murderer’s predisposition for killing.

The Hands of Orlac was filmed as a movie three times. A silent movie, The Hands of Orlac, was made in 1924 by Austrian director Robert Weine. A US version appeared in 1935 as Mad Love. A British/French production starring Christopher Lee and Mel Ferrer was made in 1960.

Today’s Pulp Friday offering is the 1962 local Horwitz edition of the Four Square Books paperback tie in to the British/French movie.

The name of the author, which you might not be able to discern from the cover scan, was Robert Bateman. Bateman was a UK writer who worked in radio and TV. He also wrote a number of novels, including this one.

And please note, I will be giving an illustrated talk on Australian pulp fiction from the fifties, sixties and seventies as part of the upcoming Melbourne Writers Festival. The talk will take place at 4pm on August 30, at the NGV. Tickets are available at the Melbourne Writers Festival website here.

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