Punk and other four-let­ter words

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - Evan Wil­liams

We are the Best! (MA15+) Limited re­lease The House of Magic (G) Na­tional re­lease

TH­ESE days it’s pos­si­ble to date a film fairly ac­cu­rately by the sort of global dis­as­ters peo­ple talk about. This is es­pe­cially true when the char­ac­ters are young and im­pres­sion­able. In con­tem­po­rary set­tings, the talk is likely to be of cli­mate change and melt­ing icecaps. In

a Swedish film writ­ten and di­rected by Lukas Moodys­son, the young­sters are wor­ried about pol­luted soil and nu­clear melt­downs.

And yes, that would put the ac­tion in the early 1980s — to be pre­cise, in Stock­holm in 1982, as an open­ing ti­tle in­forms us. Those were the days when punk rock was rid­ing a wave of pop­u­lar­ity; it’s a mu­si­cal genre that ranks high on my per­sonal list of global dis­as­ters, but a lot of kids loved it. As­pir­ing bands con­sisted almost ex­clu­sively of teenage boys, whose anti-es­tab­lish­ment lean­ings were re­flected in body-pierc­ing and mo­hawk hair­cuts. Their idols were the Sex Pis­tols and their songs were fast and noisy with plenty of shouted vo­cals. Thank good­ness we’ve heard the last of them.

In Moodys­son’s film, the sex­ual stereo­types are re­versed. Our punk rock­ers are two 13-yearold girls, and the fact they look more like pre­pubescent boys may be part of an elab­o­rate joke. When we first meet Bobo (Mira Barkham­mar) and Klara (Mira Grosin), they are fed up with school and the dreary rou­tines of fam­ily life. Their mu­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion has con­sisted mainly of bang­ing sticks on old saucepans, but we are in no doubt of their in­nate mu­si­cal tal­ents. They de­vise a tune­less song called “Hate the Sport” — a protest against school sports in a world of poverty and op­pres­sion — and plan to per­form it at a school con­cert. But first they have to per­suade Hed­vig (Liv LeMoyne) to join them. Hed­vig pos­sesses beau­ti­ful long hair and a cheap gui­tar. Sooner or later, that hair will have to go, and when fi­nally it does — crudely hacked off to the dis­may of Hed­vig’s mother — Hed­vig be­comes the pret­ti­est boy in the band.

Moodys­son is among the most ad­mired of Swedish film­mak­ers and seems to have a spe­cial affin­ity with the emo­tional en­tan­gle­ments of young women. His break­through film, whose ti­tle I must po­litely ren­der as F..king Amal (also known as Show Me Love), was about an awk­ward love af­fair be­tween two teenage girls. To­gether (2000) looked at life in a Scan­di­na­vian com­mune, and the un­for­get­table Lilya 4-Ever (2002) fol­lowed the un­happy for­tunes of a young Rus­sian woman kid­napped as a sex slave. In this company, We are the Best! stands out as eas­ily his most en­gag­ing and ex­u­ber­ant work, but it’s a cu­ri­ously un­even one. It’s not that for much of the time the girls are shout­ing un­la­dy­like ob­scen­i­ties (the lyrics of one of their songs, “Brezh­nev and Rea­gan”, seem to con­sist en­tirely of four-let­ter words). That’s punk, I sup­pose; and what­ever else it is, We are the Best! isn’t meant to be a con­ven­tional mu­si­cal.

For all their mood­i­ness and iras­ci­bil­ity, the girls come across as warm and be­liev­able, and there are funny mo­ments when they take to the streets to raise money for a new gui­tar. They ar­gue about the ex­is­tence of God, re­mind­ing me of the lat­est Woody Allen film. (Moodys­son, who is both a com­mit­ted fem­i­nist and a de­vout Christian, might have of­fered them a lit­tle more guid­ance here.) When Hed­vig and Bobo fall for Klara’s hand­some older brother, Moodys­son shows a keen eye for the per­ils of ado­les­cent in­fat­u­a­tion, but I wish he had con­cen­trated more on the girls’ mu­si­cal de­vel­op­ment. There are plenty of good mod­els here — Alan Parker’s The Com­mit­ments; the out­cast kids set­ting up a rock band in Todd Graff’s Band­slam; Richard Lin­klater’s won­der­ful School of Rock. In We Are the Best! Moodys­son could have spent a lit­tle more time pre­par­ing us for that tri­umphant fi­nal con­cert. In one scene I spot­ted a wall poster for ABBA, the most fa­mous of all Swedish pop groups. ABBA cer­tainly were no punks, but it would have been great to hear one of their songs.

is an an­i­mated ad­ven­ture film for chil­dren, a Hol­ly­wood-Bel­gian co-pro­duc­tion with Amer­i­can voices, di­rected by 3-D an­i­ma­tion spe­cial­ists Ben Stassen and Jeremy De­gru­son. And kids will love it.

But how much will they love it? We’re a cou­ple of hun­dred me­tres above the ground. It’s taken us a few seconds to get here, whisked sound­lessly aloft in a sealed cage. Doors open au­to­mat­i­cally to re­veal a world of cli­mate-con­trolled com­fort with wall-mounted screens keep­ing us abreast of de­vel­op­ments in Syria and Iraq. I’m not talk­ing about the film here, but the lit­tle cin­ema where I saw it, tucked away some­where in the Syd­ney CBD. And I won­dered: can The House of Magic be any more mag­i­cal than to­day’s world of dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy? What is there now to amaze young au­di­ences, most of whom will go the cin­ema with their mo­bile phones and iPads and find them more ab­sorb­ing than the movie? Are they so ac­cus­tomed to the magic of the real world that the world of the imag­i­na­tion is start­ing to look rou­tine?

I don’t know, and I don’t want to sound por­ten­tous, but the ques­tion both­ers me. I en­joyed The House of Magic, but what weight should be given to the views of an el­derly male critic who would rather read a book than look at a tablet

The House of Magic


We are the and whose no­tions of cin­e­matic magic were shaped largely by The Wizard of Oz about 70 years ago?

The House of Magic may not be in the same class as Toy Story, but it’s lively and charm­ing and de­light­ful to look at. It’s the story of Thun­der, a cat aban­doned in an af­flu­ent-look­ing neigh­bour­hood while still young. After some hazardous ad­ven­tures, he takes refuge in the grand old man­sion of an el­derly ma­gi­cian known as Un­cle Lawrence, who lives with a host of small an­i­mals, au­toma­tons, clever toys and other play­ful con­trap­tions.

Nat­u­rally, the other an­i­mals re­sent the ar­rival of Thun­der and do their best to keep Un­cle Lawrence ig­no­rance of his pres­ence. Ac­cord­ing to Jack Rab­bit and Mag­gie Mouse, “the old man gets all mushy and lovey-dovey with cats”. Cat peo­ple will un­der­stand, of course; con­firmed dog peo­ple may not care as much for the film as I did. Its only ca­nine character is a rather noisy and both­er­some chi­huahua.

Voiced by Mur­ray Blue, Thun­der is the cutest of crea­tures, with the full range of fe­line ex­pres­sions — smug, coy, dis­dain­ful, play­ful, cu­ri­ous — deftly re­alised by the an­i­ma­tor’s art. Para­pet-prowl­ing, al­ley-chas­ing and var­i­ous cliff-hang­ing predica­ments ac­count for most of the ac­tion, but there’s a plot of sorts in­volv­ing Un­cle Lawrence’s de­vi­ous nephew, who is al­ler­gic to cats and plots to have the old house de­mol­ished. It goes with­out say­ing that Thun­der, be­ing smarter than any of the hu­man char­ac­ters, ral­lies his an­i­mal com­pan­ions to thwart the wicked nephew’s plans.

I haven’t seen a more cap­ti­vat­ing kids’ film for a long time … well, not since Toy Story, per­haps not since The Wizard of Oz.

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