Sunday, September 21, 2008

Deliver Us From Evil

This is my third year as a member of the Australian Film Institute, a privilege of sorts that allows me to see all the Australian films released during the past year for free over the span of several weekends. Each of the past two years has delivered its fair share of bottom-of-the-barrel dreck, but each year there is always one title that stands out as truly the worst of the worst. In 2007 it was the dire drug drama West and in 2006 it was the cliche-fest family sport movie Footy Legends. As is par of the course, 2008's festival has given us some doozies in the form of retched comedy The Plex and lead-filled Five Moments of Infidelity, but like the blistering sun there is one title that has shined above all the rest in a truly stunning display of awfulness.

It is my sad duty to report that Paul Cox's Salvation is so very very bad in every conceivable way. Every single frame is rife with problems. So poor was the film that as some of the audience members around me laughed (guffawed even) I felt like I wanted to ask them if they also laugh at Australia's Funniest Home Videos. If you laugh at Salvation then I suppose you'll laugh at anything. Hell, there are even scenes in Salvation where a character watches clips online of Funniest Home Video-style shenanigans! So truly and utterly bad is this movie that I didn't just get up and leave after the 30 minute mark because if I failed to sit through the rest of this nonsense I knew I wouldn't be able to come hope and rip it a new one. You can't say I'm not dedicated, that's for sure.

That this poor, pathetic waste of a movie was directed by Paul Cox, a man who has brought such delights as Innocence and The Diaries of Naslav Njinski, is quite depressing. Sure, his Molokai and Human Touch are infamous in Aussie film circles for being very very bad too, but I'd rather watch the latter film's five minute takes of stalagmites on a cave ceiling on a continuous loop for five hours than I would sit through this garbage in the form of "religious satire". To call it satire, mind you, is perhaps entirely wrong since to form good satire you need to be a little less obvious. And that word - "obvious" - is very much part of why this movie was just so incredibly terrible, but I'll get to that in a moment.

Salvation is about a man whose wife is one of those televangelists you see on late night television. He starts seeing a Russian prostitute with a heart of gold and then that's about it. Not exactly the most enthralling story idea, but it's enough to hang your coat on, yet Cox doesn't just hang a comedic coat onto it. No, he hangs seventeen coats, five hats, a few umbrellas and a poncho. So heavy-handed is the so-called comedy in Salvation that Cox actually resorts to a montage of "hilarious" George W Bush bloopers for absolutely no reason whatsoever. And it just gets worse.

Opening with Woody Allen-liked credits, which include the film's only real funny moment that has to do with Barry Humphries, but I won't ruin it for anybody actually willing to put themselves through the torture of the movie. However, after the first ten minutes I had figured "here we go again" with another dull drama with silly dialogue, seemingly untrained actors and bad pixelated, grainy and fuzzy digital camerawork - you know it when you see it. Yet nothing could have prepared me for the horrors that followed.

I need to take a brief moment to discuss the acting. What acting! I'm not exactly sure what Cox did to these people, but it's like everybody just forgot how to act. Wendy Hughes, Australian acting legend, and so good so recently in The Caterpillar Wish, seems to be giving a parody of a spoof of a performance. Similarly, if I wasn't already aware that Bruce Myles was a professional actor I would dismiss him as a friend that the director gave a break to. Natalia Novikova could well indeed have given a performance on par with Meryl Streep in something before this, but I honestly don't care to check after witnessing the display she puts on here. About as lifeless as a wet paper bag with the personality to match. Kim Gyngell manages to get out unscathed, although he's been doing this same performance for years, most recently on television series such as The Librarians and Very Small Business.

I am not a religious man, and I do enjoy a good laugh at the bible bashing fundamentalists that the film revolves around, but Salvation gives new meaning to the word mean-spirited. It treats all it's characters as puppets put up merely to mock and embarrass. Yes, television evangelicalism is ripe for the picking as an issue for comedy, but this takes it so far beyond the joke that it ceases to be funny and becomes vile and contemptible and just plain sad. As I watched Paul Cox repeat the same jokes over and over again - they're greedy weirdos, basically - I got angry. Comedy, as everyone knows, is subjective, but to subject people to the same joke over 100 minutes is akin it cruel and unusual punishment. And that, my friends, is the bigger sin.

Watching this movie, I felt like I was watching a poor film school production - no offense to anyone in film school - with everyone seemingly still learning how to do things such as "act", "direct", "write" and basically anything associated with making movies. When even one of the actresses in the movie walks out after her brief scene is through, you know you have a problem. I can't even tell you her name since the movie doesn't have an IMDb page. Perhaps if it never gets one we can all pretend as if it never existed in the first place. Please. F


Paul Martin said...

Wow, you really did hate this, didn't you Glenn? I didn't like it at all - I could have walked out at any point, but didn't - but I hated West (last year) much more.

I thought the acting and the dialogue was terrible, too theatrical and it seemed like it was made for TV (it's going straight to DVD). I liked Gyngell's performance. I couldn't buy into any of this film at all. The relationship with the brothers, the husband and the prostitute, it was all so facile, puerile even.

It's my first Cox and I won't write him off, but I'll be a little prepared next time. I spoke to several people who didn't mind it. They all said it's typical of Cox and if you don't like this you won't like his others.

Glenn said...

I have liked some of his others though (Innocence with Bud Tingwell and Julia Blake and his superb experimental doco of sorts Nijinsky) but... ugh. A man I was speaking to during the last two sessions on Saturday actually liked Salvation, but didn't like Cox's last film Human Touch.

The biggest problem Salvation has (apart from the terrible acting and awful camera work - damn betacam!) is that there's no light and shade at all. It's just "hahah religious people are idiots!!! you're stupid if you have faith!" etc.

Still, Footy Legends is even worse.

cordelia said...

I have seen all of Paul Cox' films, including 'Salvation' which was released on March 19 here in Sydney.

Cox' style of movie making will never be commercial, but the problem with his later film lies elsewhere: His two big successes,'Man of Flowers' and 'Lonely Hearts', were not written by him while all his later films were, giving Cox the chance to become autobiographic ('My first Wife') indulgent and sentimental (all of his later Feature Films). Cox simply isn't a script writer nor, most likely, a good director of actors. How is it possible that the wonderful Wendy Hughes got away with such an overdrawn performance as seen in 'Salvation'?
Had Cox been less autodidactic, had he collaborated with good script writers, his film career could have been outstanding and ongoing.

Nick Cowan said...

Paul Cox is one of the masters of modern cinema & SALVATION ranks amongst his best work. Funny, moving, philosophical & engrossing. Highly recommended.

It is a shame that Cox is afflicted by the tall poppy syndrome in Australia. Perhaps his films are too real & challenging for some audiences.

Glenn said...

Nick, I'm glad you got enjoyment out of Salvation, but I hardly think you can claim Paul Cox has been the victim of tall poppy syndrome. Especially since he has never particularly reached any particularly large degree of success (unlike actual victims of tall poppy syndrome. recent examples could be Kidman and Luhrmann).

I'd argue thought that the film is anything close to being "real". If this is real then I'd like to know where you and Paul Cox live since nobody in Salvation came close to being within a days distance of reality.

Nick said...

Paul Cox has received tremendous success with some of his films - INNOCENCE, A WOMAN'S TALE, MAN OF FLOWERS, VINCENT. I agree that Baz & Nicole are also victims of the tall poppy syndrome & respect & admire them as artists. I thought AUSTRALIA was one of the best films of 08. If Paul Cox isn't a victim of the tall poppy syndrome could you explain to me why most of his films aren't available on DVD in his own country (yet have been released on DVD in foreign countries)? Why does Screen Australia provide little to no financial support for his films? Why are Australian audiences so unwilling to support his pictures yet international audiences & critics embrace them?

I found the characters in SALVATION totally believable & multifaceted (as did Roger Ebert, who will be posting a favorable review of the film on his website in the near future) - perhaps your definition of reality differs from mine.

You cite the camera work in SALVATION as awful, it might interest you to know that it was performed by the wonderfully talented Ian Jones (DOP for The Tracker, Ten Canoes & Rabbit Proof Fence) & shot on a Digital HD cam, not a Betacam - although that hardly matters as plenty of great films are shot on both formats.

Cordelia also contains some factual inaccuracies in her post. Cox co-wrote MAN OF FLOWERS with Bob Ellis & LONELY HEARTS with John Clarke. Cox continued to collaborate on his scripts after these films, he co-wrote MY FIRST WIFE with Bob Ellis, LUST & REVENGE with John Clarke, CACTUS with Bob Ellis, Norman Kaye & Morris Lurie, GOLDEN BRAID with Barry Dickins & Molokai was written by John Briley. Cox is a highly talented writer in his own right, I recommend his book REFLECTIONS & regard it as one of the greatest books written about cinema.

Paul Cox is also a highly talented director of actors. Some of the leading actors from around the World are so willing to appear in his films that they'll even accept a minor walk-on cameo role. He employs only the finest actors & with many of them (Chris Haywood, Norman Kaye, Wendy Hughes, Sheila Florence) he captures their most accomplished performance on film.

I have nothing but the highest respect for Paul Cox. He is a masterful cinematic artist, shamefully underrated in Australia, with a filmography that is comprehensive & consistently brilliant. I look forward to seeing his future releases.

Glenn Dunks said...

Nick, I'll address this in points.

1. Yes, Cox has had success, but he's also had plenty of movies that have failed at the box office ("Salvation" being just one). It's only natural that over a career that long that tides will turn, but that doesn't mean it is "tall poppy syndrome". TPS is when your success has become so great that audiences stop seeing you as "one of them" and turn on your. I don't think Cox was ever popular enough to really qualify.

2. The fact that some of his movies haven't been released on DVD can be a result of many things. There have surely been a lot of production companies involved with his projects over the years and there can be a mass of rights issues as well as companies having gone bankrupt over the years. There's also the possibility of no good prints being available or various things like that.

3. I don't know why Screen Australia (or it's previous forms) haven't helped fund his work. I don't work for them, why would I know?

4. The review of one other critic such as Roger Ebert is not going to be enough to suddenly realise I've been wrong about Salvation. That's silly and not sure why his opinion should have any baring on mine. He's given 3.5/4 star reviews to about 70% of movies from this year (perhaps an exaggeration, but it sure feels that way sometimes).

5. Australians barely even support their films at all, why should Paul Cox be any different? Besides, his films can be very "arthouse" (just look at Salvation or Human Touch or Nijinski as examples of that) and don't appeal to people. International audiences? Hmmm, well, do you have figures for box office totals that his films have gotten from foreign territories?

6. Ian Jones is indeed a great DP. Doesn't mean he can't make ugly looking films from time to time. Whatever the camera was that he was using it made the film's use of natural light look unappealing and grotesque.

7. In regards to Cordelia's comment, the story goes that his screenplay for Lonely Hearts was far more sombre and serious until Phillip Adams, the producer, brought in John Clarke. Obviously I don't know how much of his scrips came from Cox himself though.

8. In regards to actors, that may be the case, but I still think everybody gives atrocious performances in Salvation. Just because a director is great once or twice or seven times, doesn't mean they will be every time.

9. I've said before that I have liked some of Cox's films in the past, but Salvation is just not one of them. I admire your passion for Cox and his work, but this movie is disastrous in every way. I hope he rebounds in the future.

Paul Martin said...

It gets down to taste, really. Some serious cinephiles I've spoken to have the highest regard for Cox and his films, but they just don't resonate with me.

I love Jarmusch and especially his latest, The Limits of Control, but Ebert hates it (1/2 star). You connect with a director's work or you don't. I don't understand where Cox is at and why he writes and directs the way he does. I just don't get it, I suppose.

In defence of Salvation, I liked what Wendy Hughes' character was depicting but, as I say above, it was all so over-the-top theatrical.

I can understand OS audiences liking this more than local audiences. For a start, Australians have little regard for local films; a film really has to succeed to get a local following. Secondly, we have a kind of cringe towards our own culture and don't like to see it on screen. I know I'm generalising, but I don't want to qualify everything I write. Outsiders will see our culture differently to how we see it, and it has an interest for them that we don't have.