"Art is not a thing; it is a way."

Elbert Hubbard

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Judgment. We're embedded with this lesson from fairly early on through religious education that to judge is to be wrong. Yet there is a hypocrisy in the very sentiment as identifying one as guilty of judging is in itself making a judgment. Observation is merely reporting the facts, which in itself would be describing the behaviour, but to label the behaviour goes one step further and in effect becomes judgment. We're notorious for doing it but is it that wrong? Isn't opinion important? And aren't opinions about making judgments? Yes, perhaps there is a significant difference in judgment of something and someone but is judgment of anything in a sense a judgment of those behind it? This may seem a somewhat circular and pointless series of questions but what it is leading to is the inevitable sense that we do judge and in some cases pre-judge. Sometimes our judgments prove correct whilst at other times they are proven to be false but what it comes down to is the realisation that whether right or wrong judgment is about the take on something. It is how one interprets and deals with a scenario, situation or subject that becomes the significant issue when judgment takes place.

Take the Sandra Bullock vehicle, The Blind Side, for instance. It's a Sandra Bullock movie. It's about a middle-class white woman, Leigh Anne Tuohy, who rescues a troubled and homeless African-American teen, Michael Oher, and offers him a home. Immediate pre-judgment would suggest a saccharine-coated weeper that would see the African-American teen overcome hardship and go onto greatness and in the end it would seem pre-judgment would be correct. As what occurs during the film's two-hour-plus running time is a series of realisations and advertisements for stereotype-breakdown that leaves one with a confirmation of the cynicism with which one may have entered the viewing.

Sure it is an uplifting tale of sorts but it's a tired one. Sure it is an inspirational tale of sorts but it's a seen one. And sure it is an antidote to the barrage of bleakness that seems to have enveloped the screens of recent times but it's an antidote that leaves no lasting immunity. For The Blind Side is a purely by-the-numbers examination of a difficult social issue with far greater implications than what it is willing to acknowledge.

The problem largely lies in the lacklustre screenplay by director John Lee Hancock. He's no real idea of how to bring depth to this story and creates a world so ordinary in its look that one can't always see the true significance of the story being told. Performances are solid without being great and Bullock's Oscar, SAG, Globe-winning performance is testament to the power of the awards machine rather than the acknowledgement of quality. It's a middle-of-the-run turn that lacks the zing of Julia Roberts' performance in Erin Brockovich, a similar sort of turn, that garnered her her awards run back in the early 2000s.

In the end The Blind Side treads so carefully that it ends up really saying nothing. The Oher story is a far more impressive one than the one that graces this version, which is a shame because one would have thought that with a more original take on the story the message may have stuck around far longer. The Blind Side is mediocre at best.

Far from mediocre but not quite great either is the American remake of the Danish film, Brødre, entitled Brothers. Remakes, particularly American ones, of non-English language films generally garner the true ire of film fanatics. It's therefore no surprise to realise that this adaptation comes to the screen with a lot of expectation that it will fail to live up to its predecessor and therefore be justly lambasted with the criticism aimed at arguably unnecessary remakes. It's interesting then when the pre-judgment is slightly amiss.

Focusing on the return of a scarred war veteran, Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), to his family home, Brothers identifies the trauma one brings home after armed conflict. Returning to his wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and two daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare), Jim Sheridan's take on Sam's return in this familial drama brings considerable shades of grey to the narrative originally written by Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen. For as Sam struggles to come to grips with his family having moved on so too must he as he encounters the damage distance and grief can create when he confronts his brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), about the relationship he has with Grace.

Showcasing the family dynamic, there is a lot to be moved by here, but the film fails to completely convince and that's largely due to the misfire of a performance from Maguire. He simply doesn't have the presence to convince of this man's troubled past. Apart from his one big scene, in which he convincingly applies himself, there is a lot missing from that baleful blue-eyed stare. Compare him to Gyllenhaal and there is no question that his performance just doesn't stack up. The supporting cast is top-notch with Clifton Collins Jr., Sam Shepard and Mare Winningham all good and the two child actors in Madison and Geare outstanding. In the end though Sheridan somehow drops the ball and Brothers ends up being a good film when it in fact should have been great.

It's perhaps then interesting to look at when pre-judgment allows for films to truly shine. In the case of the Australian film, Cedar Boys, that probably lies in the fact that expectation of low-budget Australian fare is never really beyond that of average. It's interesting that this is the case as Australians are renowned in nearly every field with the film industry, yet, when it comes to films being made at home there is always a sense of doom and gloom as to their quality and success. For what it's worth there do tend to be very few 'bad' Australian films but on the other hand there do tend to be very few 'great' Australian films also. This obviously has a lot to do with the size of the industry but it does tend to bring a certain set of expectations that can allow for films to surprise.

In the case of Cedar Boys it's not a great surprise but rather a mild one that a film of low budget can muster what it manages to in the end. For this investigation into the world of Lebanese Australians comes at a time when racial tension between the minority group and the larger white Australian community continues to broil. And for the most part it's an intelligent investigation into the cultural expectations and cultural misnomers present within Australia today. For whilst the gang culture is investigated it's actually the familial and interracial relationships that spark most interest here. This can be attributed more to the performances in these sections of the film with Rachael Taylor an interesting on-screen presence and Les Chantery a real nuanced addition to the goings-on.

In the end the original lowered expectations probably help Cedar
Boys but having said that there is still enough on show here to warrant a sit-through and a significant sense that there is
something to be said about the racial and cultural tensions present in Australia that filmmakers are really trying hard to investigate.

What can add expectation and a sense of pre-judgment to anything is the collection of praise already heralded upon something by those who have already borne witness. Frozen River came to Australian shores wracked with expectation as a double Oscar nominee. Investigating the world of people smuggling, Frozen River takes hold of a small community and lets the inherent social and economic problems tell its story.

Featuring a forceful and honest turn from Melissa Leo as single mum, Ray,
the film takes us on a journey as a mother is forced to contribute to a significant social problem to solve her own. Supported by a criminally unheralded Misty Upham as Lila, a Native American involved in the scheme, and her moral compass in her son T.J., a very good Charlie McDermott, Ray faces the internal demons of her decisions and repercussions of both her actions and inactions.

As a film, Frozen River works marvellously. It's filmed nicely amidst the freezing locale of the St. Lawrence River and bears no sense of pretension or self-importance that seems to dog so many independent films. Courtney Hunt's screenplay and direction are quite fine and as she lets her story unfold and her actors
flourish, one cannot help but be grateful that, on this occasion, the expectation was more than adequately met.

It's the case too with the Australian film, Last Ride, that the burden of expectation comes thick and in this case two-fold. For whilst it too bears awards expectation - the film saw its star Hugo Weaving AFI nominated - it also carries the very expectation of its star. For Weaving is a familiar name in Australian film on both sides of the artistic fence. From the Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix to the world-wide smash of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy to smaller Australian commercial successes in the likes of The Adventures Of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert to even smaller arthouse fare such as Proof and arguably Little Fish, Weaving brings weight. He's an actor's actor, usually convincingly immersing himself within a role to the point where one forgets who it is that is present on the screen.

So it should be no surprise here either that, in the end, Last Ride also meets and in some circumstances exceeds expectation. For whilst the story is not a particularly original one, the
father-son relationship developed on screen is one of significant depth and understanding. For
the sense of fear of Weaving's Kev is ever present through his menacing and quiet turn. The fact that it works is largely due to the strong supporting performance of young Tom Russell as his son, Chook. The swimming scene alone is enough to identify the trouble within their relationship. The fact that the relationship doesn't even really need scenes like that or the incredibly odd scenery of the nigh-missing Lake Gairdner in South Australia to be utterly convincing is testament to the chemistry between the two actors.

Director Glendyn Ivin uses his actors well with even those in
smaller roles, John Brumpton and Anita Hegh, delivering exceptionally and he embraces the camerawork of cinematographer Greig Fraser - a crackerjack new arrival with his work on the Campion vehicle Bright Star also mindblowingly good - wholeheartedly, which in turn lets this rather small story
unfold quite interestingly amidst this sometimes huge backdrop. Last Ride delivers and it delivers in spades.

Which is also what can be said of the French bio-pic, Seraphine. Another film to hit Australian shores bearing awards-weight burden after it beat out a red-hot field (The Class, I've Loved You So Long, Paris and A Christmas Tale amongst others) at the Cesar Awards to win Best Picture, the Yolande Moreau starrer is a quiet and odd little film embracing both the worlds of silence and sound within the creative process.

Seraphine Louis, a French artist within the naive movement, known also
as Seraphine de Senlis came to prominence after her work was discovered in one of the houses she cleaned. Biopics bring with them their own set of expectations but what sets Seraphine apart from the majority of others is the lack of the vulgarity of the obviousness of the torment that propels her to complete her work. For whilst she suffered from a diagnosed mental illness later in her life the focus of the film isn't this but rather the way her creative process developed.

Moreau, in the lead role, is astonishing in a performance that will likely go down as one of the decade's best. Strikingly odd but amazingly lacking in quirk or an overly mannered sense of delivery this is a truly lived-in turn. The fact that one is kept at a distance from Seraphine's process is even greater testament to Moreau's ability to make the viewer care.

The support is also spot-on with Ulrich Tukur once again proving that apart from perhaps Neils Arestrup he is Europe's best go-to man in cinema and Adelaide Leroux is memorable as the caring Minouche.

What one garners from Seraphine at its conclusion is that the creative process is one filled with pain. For some it is an avenue to let it go. For others it is a way to embrace it. For Seraphine it appeared to be a means to meet both and in the end at a purely superficial level it is her story and this particular telling of it that proves no matter what the weight, the burden will be carried if the heart of the matter is kept protected and left true. No sugar-coating will keep a viewer entranced or convinced even if the expectation and pre-judgement are ones of universal acclaim. It may blind at first but in time the shine dulls and the truth does win out. In the case of Seraphine it is clear the truth is already present.




John Lee Hancock


Sandra Bullock

Tim McGraw

Quinton Aaron

Jae Head

Lily Collins

Ray McKinnon

Kim Dickens

Adriane Lenox

Kathy Bates

129 min





Jim Sheridan


Tobey Maguire

Jake Gyllenhaal

Natalie Portman

Sam Shepard

Mare Winningham

Bailee Madison

Taylor Geare

Patrick John Flueger

Clifton Collins Jr.

Carey Mulligan

105 min





Serhat Caradee


Rachael Taylor

Martin Henderson

Bren Foster

Les Chantery

Daniel Amalm

Dan Mor

Serhat Caradee

Ian Roberts

Waddah Sari

100 min





Courtney Hunt


Melissa Leo

Misty Upham

Charlie McDermott

Michael O'Keefe

Mark Boone Junior

97 min





Glendyn Ivin


John Brumpton

Mick Coulthard

Rachel Francis

Anita Hegh

Adam Morgan

Levine Ngatokorua

Chrissie Page

Kelton Pell

Tom Russell

Sonya Suares

Hugo Weaving

90 min





Martin Provost


Yolande Moreau

Ulrich Tukur

Anne Bennent

Genevieve Mnich

Nico Rogner

Adelaide Leroux

125 min

France ׀ Belgium