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Tuesday, 30 August 2016

An Update on AFTRS - The Degree Programs Strike Back

This Film Alert post and this Film Alert post were two of a number on this blog which drew attention to the state of the Australian Film Television & Radio School (AFTRS) and the educational direction it had been pursuing by the time that the appointment of CEO Sandra Levy, from 2007 to 2015, came to an end. In brief, during Levy’s term, AFTRS abandoned the Bachelor and Masters Degree Programs which had existed at AFTRS from 1984 to 2009. 

However, by the end of Levy’s time there were reports of some consternation being registered about what was happening at the venerable institution. In the absence of any expressed vision from the school itself, the consternation had begun to focus especially on what AFTRS has actually been doing over the last decade when it abandoned the aforesaid Degree Programs, and whether it had allowed standards to slip, lost sight of its primary objectives, failed to produce any film-makers of note and degenerated in its teaching into a soft TAFE-like institution offering courses of high cost to the taxpayer but low value to the industry and the society into which the scores of certificate holders head.

That post finished with a list of films made by graduates. It was intended as a shorthand way of taking a serious look at just what AFTRS did in the distant past and what it was up to at the very moment a new CEO had arrived.

Neil Peplow, AFTRS CEO since September 2015
Confirmation of AFTRS new direction under CEO Neil Peplow seems to have been revealed in two scoops in the online film news site Inside Film. The first is an interview with Peplow which says in part:

What’s the third prong?
After the BA there’s the Graduate Certificates as well as the discipline-specific MA.
There’s been a gap there for a couple of years.
Effectively it’s back to the future. The MA Screen 2017 will have 11 disciplines, and there’ll be six students in each discipline. Highly merit-selected. 
Are those streams different in any substantial way to the old discipline-specific MA offerings?
We’ve recognised that collaboration is increasingly important in the way that people are producing content. There’s more fluidity between disciplines. Previously they’d all been delivered in a siloed way; the head of discipline developed the course and it was delivered. Whereas now there’ll be one person in charge of the entire Masters’ program and then we effectively deliver the disciplines within that. So that’s the major difference. It’s not eleven separate courses. It’s one course with eleven specific disciplines within it. We’re now hiring discipline heads, and those heads of discipline will inform the curriculum at each level. So previously they’d only inform one course. But [now] they’ll inform the MA, the graduate certificates, the BA, the diplomas and even the Open short course program. They’ll have an overview of their discipline across everything we’re delivering. So they can control the gradient. 
To reinforce this, Inside Film has a follow up story announcing the first occupants of a double figure number of new senior appointments, with a likely cost to the taxpayer of close to a couple of $mill per annum. You can read about it here.

Keen and optimistic observers are currently happy to accept the CEO’s word that it’s back to the future. 

Monday, 29 August 2016

AFI Screenings 2016 - A FEW LESS MEN...more humour, more vulgarity....

For the official start of AFI/AACTA screenings,  dubbed a month long 'festival' of Australian cinema and a moment for you to see $100 million or more of your taxes at work, there were speeches thanking many sponsors and then introductions of some of those involved in the evening's entertainment. The stars, three Brits who also appeared in the previous iteration involving these characters titled A Few Best Men  (Stephan Elliott, Australia/GB, 2011), were nowhere to be seen. We had to make do with veteran Lynn Curran and a young  and glamorous female actor whose name doesn't get on the credits at the start of the film but which did appear, listing her playing a character named 'Janet' in the cast list at the end. Am I trying to say that the opening of the AFI screenings, notwithstanding the near full house in V-Max2 at Bondi Junction, was low key well... I guess I am.

That low key continued throughout the movie. On the other hand, I doubt if AFI members are its primary demographic. At least I hope not because the laughter level was modest indeed. There were two sort of droll moments. One involved a sex scene with Lynn Curran and a combi van. The other involved Shane Jacobson in his cameo leading to some cross dressing. The rest, in which the humour relies rather a lot on the employment of the words "fuck", "fucking" and "fucked" for alleged comic effect, passed without any noticeable reactions which suggested the audience found it funny. Maybe I was sitting in the old folks section and any tittering, especially at the very extended dick jokes, didn't reach me

...... or,put it another way, reviving the bare  bones of an earlier comic extravaganza, one which sold quite well around the world as well as taking some local funds, seems less of a success. It is a film which, not to put too fine a point on it, is utterly dreadful.

MIFF 2016 (4) - Shaun Heenan's Diary for Days 7&8 - Hansen-Love, Herzog, Almodovar ....and GIRL ASLEEP

Day Seven
Girl Asleep (Rosemary Myers, Australia, 2015)
Filmed in a style which simultaneously imitates both 80s Australian television and live theatre, this debut feature finds a new way to tell a story we’ve seen many times before. Bethany Whitmore is great as Greta, a teenage girl growing up in a world that’s starting to confuse her. Conflict at home and school are dealt with metaphorically in a fantasy forest, presented in a deliberately-stagey way. It’s a kind-hearted, enjoyable film which isn’t afraid to be a little silly. The film has been covered in more detail elsewhere on this blog ( Recommended.

Things to Come (Mia Hansen-Løve, France/Germany, 2016)
Isabelle Huppert in Things to Come
Isabelle Huppert’s wonderfully subtle performance as philosophy professor Nathalie is the driving force behind this drama. She stands as a solid object, weathering what must be the worst year of her life as people die, relationships end and her professional career begins to slip away from her. We see that this hurts her, but she keeps the reaction internal, making this a moving film, but not an overly dramatic one. There’s also much to ponder in her friendship with an ex-student who challenges her views on life. Highly recommended.

Albüm (Mehmet Can Mertoğlu, Turkey/France/Romania, 2016)
An exercise in misery just barely funny enough to keep an audience on its side. A Turkish couple is unable to conceive, and goes to great lengths to avoid letting people know they are planning to adopt. Before the adoption, they travel to various locations, taking holiday photos with a fake pregnancy belly, which is good for a few laughs. It’s a slow film, filled with long takes I didn’t always understand the purpose of, but there are some very funny/utterly horrific moments towards the end which are worth seeing. Very mildly recommended.

Muito Romântico (Melissa Dullius & Gustavo Jahn, Germany/Brazil, 2016)
An ‘experimental’ film, which too often seems like a label designed for films crafted entirely from random footage. This is a vaguely autobiographical film about a Brazilian couple who travel to Berlin by sea, shot on 16mm film over the course of a decade. There are individual moments which held my interest briefly, largely for visual reasons, but as a general rule I have a fairly low tolerance for this style of film. Strongly not recommended, but if you told me you loved it, I’d believe you.

Day Eight
A Dragon Arrives! (Mani Haghighi, Iran, 2016)
I was a little hesitant to include this film in my schedule since it comes from Mani Haghighi, whose previous film Modest Reception (2012) proved too cynical and depressing for me (this from a Lars von Trier fan, by the way). This is a much more enjoyable film, telling the story of an Iranian detective in the 1960s. He appears to have fashioned himself after the heroes in American films of the era: sunglasses, hat and Chevrolet, and the film’s thumping soundtrack helps sell the style. The film’s central mystery is potentially supernatural, and these elements work well. Meta elements featuring interviews with the film’s crew are much less successful. Mildly recommended.

Apprentice (Boo Junfeng, Singapore/Germany/France/Hong Kong/Qatar, 2016)
Showing here after playing in Un Certain Regard at Cannes and in competition at Sydney, Apprentice presents a deeply troubling scenario, but stacks the deck just a little too heavily with its plot. This is the story of young prison guard Aiman who finds himself taken under the wing of an executioner. We learn early on that this executioner hanged Aiman’s father, and when this becomes the focus, the plot actively detracts from a film which was strong enough without the added twist. The film takes its time, letting us feel the grimness of the situation as Aiman learns the science of breaking a man’s neck while hanging him. The film stands as a statement against the death penalty simply by making us look at the process, and to think about it, without actually needing to say anything political. Recommended.

Mimosas (Oliver Laxe, Spain/Morocco/France/Qatar, 2016)
Winner of the Grand Prize in the Cannes Critics’ Week sidebar, this was my favourite randomly-selected discovery at MIFF. In this truly unusual film, someone who appears to be a guardian angel (or culturally appropriate equivalent) travels by taxi into the mountains of Morocco, where he is tasked with helping two men deliver the body of a sheik for burial. It’s a slowly-paced, spiritually-focused film positioned mostly as an arduous trek through beautiful, inhospitable locations. The film also features an odd brand of humour, as this is the angel’s first mission, and he’s kind of terrible at his job. My audience didn’t seem very receptive to this one, which is their loss. Highly recommended.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog, USA, 2016)
Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog freely admits he doesn’t understand many things about the internet and its technology, but here he has made a broadly-focused documentary on that very subject. This takes the form of short segments, each exploring different aspects of web technology. One sees a famous hacker telling stories of his glory days outsmarting the FBI, one takes a look at teens affected by addiction to videogames and one particularly horrifying segment sees Herzog interview the family who had photos of their dead daughter’s body emailed to them over and over by heartless internet trolls. It’s all a bit scattershot, and Herzog for the first time risks becoming the distracting comic relief in his own film, but there are moments here we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Herzog (jokingly?) asks his participants if the internet could ever dream of itself. I’m not sure that question deserves one good answer, but the film offers us three. Mildly recommended.

Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 2016)

An unusually simple story for Almodóvar to tell, this Palme d’Or nominee is presented largely in flashback, as the distraught titular character tries to reconnect with her estranged daughter through an explanatory letter. It’s a romantic and tragic tale, told with all of the director’s usual visual flair. It’s enjoyable and involving, and the film ends very well. This is Almodóvar at his least abrasive. It’s less ambitious than usual for him (and certainly less sexually transgressive) and the result is a modest success, even if it feels like a footnote in his career. Recommended.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

On Blu-ray - More of MONTEREY POP brought back to life and rediscovered by Rod Bishop

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (2009) – the Outtakes

Janis Joplin at Monterey, 1967
Recently, I told an old friend I had finally purchased Criterion’s Blu-ray box set of The Complete Monterey Pop Festival, nearly seven years after its release or 14 years since the initial DVD release.
 “Ahh…” he said, “I remember Monterey Pop. I wrote a very unfavourable review of it back in the day…who was that woman that just went on shrieking and shrieking?”
“You mean Janis Joplin?”
“That’s her! All I could think was get this woman off the stage! Just dreadful.”
The exchange left me to wonder what other surprising opinions my friend of 40 years might one day utter. My father once referred to Bob Dylan’s voice as sounding “like a dingo caught in a fence”. But that was my father. I expected that sort of thing from him.
If you’re still reading this, you probably saw Monterey Pop (1968) decades ago. I doubt that it gets many new viewers these days. So what makes the “Complete” version complete? First up, it’s not complete. Performances are missing from Johnny Rivers, The Paupers, Lou Rawls, Beverly, The Steve Miller Band, Moby Grape, The Group With No Name and The Grateful Dead. The latter might be the biggest loss as Michael Lydon in Newsweek wrote of their set at Monterey: “I have never heard anything in music that could be said to be qualitatively better than the performance of The Grateful Dead.” For their part, The Dead apparently decided D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of the world’s first rock festival was “too commercial” for their taste.
As expected, the image quality on the two Criterion Blu-rays is impressive, but it’s the quality of the sound that excels. Mastered from Eddie Kramer’s 8-track recordings, two or three options (Original uncompressed PCM Stereo; Remixed uncompressed PCM Stereo; Remixed DTS-HD Master 5.1) are offered across the two Blu-ray discs.
The stellar inclusion is two hours of performances (The Outtakes) not included in the original film.
A band I’ve never heard of, The Association, opened the three-day festival. Dressed like bank clerks, introducing themselves like a proto Kraftwerk they perform “Along Comes Mary” with Frank Zappa-like flourishes. A couple of Simon and Garfunkel songs (“Homeward Bound”, “The Sounds of Silence”) are impeccably delivered by the folkies; Country Joe and The Fish play some more of their odd acid rock; Al Kooper (“Wake Me, Shake Me”) is close to magnificent; The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (“Driftin’ Blues”) sound better than I’ve ever heard them and the less said about Quicksilver Messenger Service the better.
The line-up for Mike Bloomfield’s raucous The Electric Flag (“Drinkin’Wine”) gave their first and last performance at Monterey; The Byrds manage Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” quite well, but struggle with the rest of their set; Laura Nyro’s competent jazz vocals seem out of place and The Jefferson Airplane, as expected, storm through “Somebody to Love”.
The stand-out inclusion in these Outtakes is The Blues Project (“The Flute Thing”) delivering some remarkable flute-led jazz-rock fusion, often reminiscent of European Medieval music. Buffalo Springfield is lacklustre with “For What It’s Worth” but The Who, in the their first ever American appearance, rip through “Substitute”, “Summertime Blues” and an exceptional “A Quick One While He’s Away”. Six songs are added from The Mamas and The Papas, including a guest spot from Scott McKenzie (“San Francisco”). Mama Cass even provides some stand-up comedy lines. Rounding out these two hours of outtakes are four pitch perfect songs from Tiny Tim in the Festival’s Green Room, filmed only with illumination from a cigarette lighter. I’d watch Tiny Tim in the dark.

On a separate disc are twenty minutes of Otis Redding and the complete set from The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The full Newsweek article by Michael Lydon, written a day after the Festival’s end, is included and doesn’t hold back on bagging the musicians. Hugh Masekela’s trumpet playing is described as “only slightly better than his voice” and Johnny Rivers is “dressed like an L.A. hippie, who had the gall to sing The Beatles ‘Help’ twice”. Lydon’s piece is also informative – Ravi Shankar’s set lasted a mammoth three hours. And the Board of Governors for the Festival? Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, John Phillips, Smokey Robinson, Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney. Who knew?