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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Cinema isn't the place to pull punches

Cinemimi[Saturday, February 04, 2012]

Marriage mayhem ... Laura Brent, Olivia Newton-John and Rebel Wilson in A Few Best Men.

Critics owe it to viewers to treat Australian films like any other, writes Garry Maddox.

SINCE the director Geoffrey Wright famously tipped a glass of wine over David Stratton for refusing to rate the controversial skinhead drama Romper Stomper two decades ago, the relationship between Australian filmmakers and critics has often been testy.

A savage review of a Hollywood movie hardly matters given the momentum they have when they reach Australian cinemas, courtesy of expensive marketing campaigns that include TV advertising, glossy magazine covers and tours by the stars.

But in the comparatively small Australian industry, where lower-profile films often depend on critical support, should reviewers treat this country's releases more sympathetically?
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A decade ago, there was a widespread view that, in the words of Margaret Pomeranz from At The Movies, ''Australian films deserve a little bit more tenderness than the American films that are thrust down our throats''.

That attitude sometimes still applies but, with the explosion of criticism on the internet, many reviewers have no reservations about being tough-minded.

Three years ago, there was another outbreak of hostilities when a screenwriter named Jimmy The Exploder had two bluntly dismissive words for the Fairfax reviewer Jim Schembri when he accepted a prize for The Black Balloon at the AFI Awards.

This week, the director Stephan Elliott accused the same critic of a personal attack in a review that described A Few Best Men as ''unreleasable'' and ''a witless, brainless, gormless, senseless, tasteless and - worst of all - laughless comedy''.

Speaking at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, Elliott said he was thrilled that some critics had seen the film for what it was - ''a big dumb stupid piece of entertainment''.

But he accused Schembri of writing with ''hate'', saying: ''It's a very, very, very small industry and we must be handled with kid gloves. I came back to support it. Just enough of not supporting it.''

Despite that brutal review, A Few Best Men opened strongly, taking $1.8 million, last weekend. And despite Elliott's comments, filmgoers no doubt prefer critics they trust rather than those who see themselves as part of the promotional effort.

The Herald's Paul Byrnes, winner of the 2007 Pascall Prize for criticism, believes reviewers don't have a responsibility to the industry. ''They have a responsibility to their readers, to tell them what they see and think without fear,'' he says.

''Boosting the film industry may be something I'd like to do but it's not my job. Be honest and unmerciful, as Lester Bangs says in Almost Famous … What Stephan wants would be the quickest way to make the film industry worse, not better.''

While Elliott had ''no further comment'', the leading Australian director Phil Noyce, who has been making movies in this country and Hollywood since the 1970s, also believes film-goers need to trust reviewers.

''We return to the ones who inform us with honesty and passion,'' he says. ''We avoid those who obviously don't enjoy movies.

''Filmmakers would like all reviews of their work to be positive, but thank God it doesn't work out that way and there's a healthy debate amongst reviewers.''

But Noyce is pragmatic enough to recognise that reviews are only a small part of a film connecting with an audience.

''One good TV ad attracts more audience than any bad review denies us,'' he says. ''And two hours of Twitter exchanges have more sway over box office than either reviews or ads.''

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