19 November 1995

Dead Man (1995)

Turning his back on his favoured scenarios of studied inner city querkiness, former cult hero Jim Jarmusch has made a western. Thank god. Another arcane excercise in by-the-numbers chic like his 1991 flop Night On Earth, and it would be curtains in tinseltown, of the “you’ll never bore audiences again” variety.

Set late last century in the amoral, anarchic American frontier, Dead Man is actually a cross-genre concoction - a western road movie. Acting dynamo Johnny Depp (what can’t this man do?) stars as William Blake - the accountant, not the poet. Straightlaced Blake travels to the frayed edge of the frontier, to a misbegotten hole called Machine, where he expects to take up employment at the local steel works. But fate is unkind, and soon Blake finds himself shot, on the run, wanted for murder and at the mercy ‘Nobody’, (Gary Farmer) a wise and enigmatic Native American who, assuming Blake to be the poet and not the accountant, is only too pleased to become his fellow traveller to... who knows where.

The film then settles into a journey into darkest night as Nobody guides the wounded, dying Blake through a ravaged landscape full of decaying reminders of white man’s savagry, to his final resting place in ‘the spirit world’. On the way, Blake becomes a kind of accidental avenging angel, casually wreaking vengeance on any ‘stupid white man’ who crosses their path. Adding interest to the narrative, these two archetypical christian pilgrims are pursued by ‘three wise gunmen’, led with distinction by a suitably consumptive Lance Henricksen (The Terminator, Hard Target).

While again bearing his trademark flaws of a painfully slow narrative, a camera that uncomfortably lingers, and a steadfast refusal to yell ‘cut!’, Jarmusch turns these negatives to his advantage in Dead Man. The film induces a strange, intoxicating semi-conciousness as it meanders and saunters its way home. Yet Jarmusch also puts the viewer on guard by punctuating the sparseness and silence with moments of extreme, graphic violence.

Death indeed stalks each frame, helped immeasurably by Robby Müller’s stark, brooding black and white cinematography and Neil Young’s other worldly splashes of inspired guitar licks, dropped in like emotional bombs from hell to augment the drama.

Farmer, who is Native American, is a revelation as Nobody, bringing a quiet dignity and defiant indignation to the ‘faithful injun’ role. Depp carries the film almost on sheer charisma and is perfectly cast as the ‘poet of atrocity’ wreaking vengeance on the guilty before ascending to a better world. Amusing cameos from the likes of Crispin Glover, Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, Alfred Molina, Gabriel Byrne and Iggy Pop are but small treats to savour on the way.

As a spiritual meditation, Dean Man is confused and a little flaky - the nihilism and sense of loss really lead nowhere beyond the end credits. As a political indictment of colonialism, it is more convincing, and eminently worthy. As film art it is effective, often funny and ultimately quite moving.

As entertainment, it’s thirty minutes too long.

Michael Hutak


First published in Beat magazine.

18 October 1995

Metal Skin (1994)

Stars Aden Young, Ben Mendelsohn, Tara Morice, Nadine Garner

Australian writer/director Geoffrey Wright's new film has been a long-time-coming and judging by it's savagery, he's had plenty on his mind. Like his promising 1992 debut Romper Stomper, it takes place on society's frayed edges, but where Romper's forthright engagement with racism struck a nerve, Metal Skin's confused and ugly vision of the world risks alienating audiences with its jaundiced world view.

Motorheads expecting "Days of Thunder Down Under" will be disappointed. The hotted up Chargers and GTR-XU1's career impressively around desolate streets but are secondary in screen-time to the main game: broken lives, doomed love, social disintegration. The kids are bad, their parents are mad, and everyone's one push away from the edge.

Set in the inner-urban wastelands of a bleaker-than-usual contemporary Melbourne, Metal Skin follows four troubled twenty-somethings as they walk the tightrope of love and fall off, one by one. There's lots of snogging and lots of sex, but all four are either unloved, unlovable or degrees of both.

Revhead misfit 'Psycho' Joey (Young) is in love with Roslyn (Garner), but she's in an destructive relationship with drag-racing anti-hero Dazey (Mendelsohn). Sevina (Morice), a delusional black magic devotee, in turn loves Dazey, who uses, then rejects her.

After an impressive first half spent chiselling these characters, building their connections and their world, Wright literally loses the plot, lets the whole shebang off the leash and the film spins out into a series of gory, ugly and hysterical episodes.

This is a pity for the gifted Young, who continues to deliver outstanding performances in ordinary films. Morice, Mendelsohn and Garner also do extremely well to draw genuine pathos from their near comic-book characters.

On a technical level the film is equally impressive in design, cinematography, and editing, with action sequences that pack a punch not seen in local cinema since Mad Max 1. But all these noble efforts of cast and crew are wasted in a script which gives in to the decadence it seeks to portray, lamely opting to trundle out a bunch of downbeat melodramatic cliches - from an homage to the "tower scene" in Hitchcock's Vertigo down to the ultra-violent car chase finale.

Metal Skin is a glorious failure, an exiting disappointment. It's own newspaper ads admit as much when they scream that "everything is about to got totally out of control. "And so it does, but to what end remains a mystery.

Rating B-.


First published in Beat Magazine

1 September 1995

Interview: Alex de la Inglesia

Alex de la Inglesia interviewed by Michael Hutak, September 1995


If nothing else, Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Inglesia is in your face.

“I hate the real violence but I love the violence in the cinema. Violence is necessary in all artistic creation. Violence is part of humanity. Shakespeare works with the same idea. There is no drama without violence. My mum is violent, my dad is violent - the best thing to do is laugh.”

Emerging from the patronage of countryman Pedro Almodovar, Inglesia is on the phone promoting his latest film, Day of the Beast, an occult/sci-fi/splatter black comedy, which won six Spanish Academy Awards and has just opened locally. It tells the unlikely tale of a middle aged Madrid priest who discovers the antichrist is about to be born. He enlists the services of a tabloid TV host and a death metal freak in a desperate and hilarious attempt to stave off Satan and save the world. In the best Spanish traditions of the theatre of cruelty, gory, grizzly, and garish are words that spring to mind. And funny. Very funny.

“Day of the Beast is a local story - a story about the chaos that exists today in Spain. I set myself a hard task - to make an action film with an old man as the star. It is black humour - oil and water. The old man discovers a big secret, that the world is going to end, and this is too big a task for him.”

Portrayed as a decaying, morally bankrupt sespit, Madrid comes off very poorly in Inglesia’s vision, but “it’s not just a critique of cities, the problem is the people. When you put so many people together.

“The worst people are the normal people - who watch TV and go to the supermarket. I prefer people who say ‘I am not normal’. I’m afraid of the people who are satisfied.” When I ask if these people aren’t precisely his audience he lets out a strangely evil laugh, like I’ve caught him out. “I don’t think of my audience. I think of me. I try to explain the story, that’s all - like Hitchcock, the best director in the world,” he says, before adding cheerfully, “People enjoy it when you insult them. Ha, ha.”

While he may have disdain for the common man, his two features to date have been box office hits with the great unwashed in his native country. Day of the Beast, which cost just $US2 million, was the most successful local film in Spain last season. His first film, Militant Action, produced by Almodovar, was also a hit. “It was about handicapped terrorists who attack normal people. It’s a black comedy.”

Inglesia describes himself as a country boy who went to Madrid to draw comic books. He then started working in film, first as a set designer, then as an art director, before he got his big break when Spanish film’s most famous bad boy Almodovar read his script for Militant Action and offered to produce. “This is the best thing about Almodovar,” says Inglesia without missing a beat, “We have nothing in common at all. He loves Douglas Sirk. He is homosexual. Almodovar is not a person who likes followers.”

Talking from Mexico on the set of his latest film, Inglesia’s enthusiasm for his chosen craft pummels infectiously down the phoneline, his pidgen English struggling to match the obvious speed with which the ideas are coursing maniacly through his head.

“I have one or two proposals in Hollywood. Little movies I can make in Spain. I can do anything I want in Spain. I have no limits.” Coincidental to Australia, Spain swung to the right in elections earlier this year after 13 years of socialist government. “It was a very open country,” he laments, “in the last 20 years it was a cultural paradise, now it’s like the finish - the party’s over.

“That’s why I’m working in Mexico. In my next movie all the people are talking about God. It’s so funny. It’s a road movie with an android sex slave and a nymphomaniac girl of 12 years. But we needed more money - the budget is $US6 million which is very expensive for Spain so we are making it in America. Ciby2000 has the rights.”

“If I work in Hollywood I want a big budget. The most thing I love is sci-fi movies. But I want to do something not commercial - very violent, very sexy. Sci fi now is pathetic. When you have $US50 million budgets you have to make a family movie. This is not me.

“I work fast, I’m afraid to respect things. It is dangerous. I don't believe in talent, I only believe in work. I am only learning now - I have only made two movies. Movies aren’t mystical, they are work. I think if you make 80 movies, then you are a good director. The most important thing is work.”



First published in Beat magazine

30 January 1995

Mallrats (1995)

Generation X would have to be the most over-determined, self-reflexive and onanistic demographic since the last one, the Boomers, whom all devout Xer’s openly despise but secretly envy. To this reviewer’s great relief, Mall Rats isn't another world-weary rumination on the nihilistic collective consciousness of a disinherited Generation X.
Instead, tyro writer/director Kevin Smith, the uncanny X-er who made such a critical splash with the super low-budget Clerks, wants to be the John Hughes of the nineties. This is no slur.
With Mall Rats Smith produces a worthy successor to such 80s teen movie benchmarks as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Valley Girl and Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. His formula of dry, witty repartee drenched in a self-reflexive solution of pop culture references has been augmented this time round with a heavy dose of slapstick. It’s not everyone’s schtick, but I laughed.