An artificial but beating heart

Review of Alita: Battle Angel

Directed by Robert Rodriguez; starring Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz

One cannot but approach Alita: Battle Angel with a certain amount of apprehension. The original anime, made by Yukito Kishiro, was not short of cybernetic action but at its heart was a surprisingly tender love story. The new version is twice as long, incredibly expensive, and directed by Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, El Mariachi), a fellow not known for subtlety. The movie’s trailers hint at a series of spectacularly pointless CGI fight scenes. Even more, Hollywood’s last attempt to make a blockbuster out of an anime, Ghost in the Shell, was an extended exercise in largely missing the point.

Alita #1But as it turns out Rodriguez (overseen by producer James Cameron) does a pretty good job of keeping the essence of the source material while adding the best that modern technology has to offer. Rosa Salazar, who has previously appeared mainly in supporting roles in so-so films, turns in a solid performance, although with CGI-enlarged eyes and a metallic body she does not always have much to work with.

The cyborg Alita, or at least a small part of her, is rescued from the scrap heap by compassionate Doctor Ido (Christoph Waltz), and while her memory is gone she soon reveals the talents of a super soldier. This allows Rodriguez to stage a succession of truly remarkable fights and races, and there are plenty of villains – uber-sleeze Mahershala Ali, smooth-talking Ed Skrein, and snarling Jackie Earle Haley – to contend with. There is also Jennifer Connelly, who was grown out of her pretty-girl looks into an interesting character actress – although here she comes to a very unpleasant end. Salazar manages to balance Alita’s cybernetic strength and human frailty as she struggles to define herself. There is even some fun along the way, such as her first encounter with an orange, and later with chocolate.Alita #6

And the visual look of the movie is undeniably stunning, whether it is the background details of Iron City or the hi-tech savagery of the Motorball stadium. In a tiny but beautiful scene, Alita slices a tear in half as it falls. There is a note at the end of the credits that the movie required hundreds of thousands of hours of work, and that sounds credible.

The weakest point of the movie is Keean Johnson, as Alita’s crush interest Hugo. He is hunky but rather bland; the character in the anime version had more depth, and his obsession with reaching the sky city of Zalem made sense. With Johnson it feels more like a plot device, a sudden change of mind to provide a conclusion. In fact, the whole movie begins to struggle in its final stages, perhaps because of the need to provide a pathway to the inevitable sequel.

Alita might not be the triumph that its makers wanted but it is still a success, and it is good to see another movie (after, for example, Bumblebee) in which it is a complex young woman who does the rescuing and the sacrificing, the fighting and the thinking. Hollywood does not always get the emotional tone right but in Alita Rodriguez and Cameron did not get it wrong, either.


Inventing glamour

Appearing on Culture Concept Circle site, October 2017


Costumes show a remarkable journey

Edith Head in studio.jpegOver 70 costumes created by Hollywood legend Edith Head are on display in a remarkable show at the Bendigo Art Gallery. Head’s career spanned five decades and included nearly a thousand films, first at Paramount Studios and then at Universal Studios. She was largely responsible for associating Hollywood with fashion, glamour, and sophistication.

The exhibition includes costumes made for stars like Gloria Swanson, Natalie Wood, Dorothy Lamour, Hedy Lamarr and Veronica Lake. Moving easily between lush, flowing dresses and tailored suits, Head had a particular knack for adding telling details, such as beads or pleats. She was able to disguise apparent flaws in actresses’ bodies by using cut, drape and pattern, and made a point of understanding the character being played so the outfit was appropriate.

Although much of her work was contemporary with the time she also worked on period EH - Joan Fontaine The Emperor Waltz.jpegfilms, including huge productions such as The Ten Commandments and Samson and Delilah. Head was able to produce sensual costumes while meeting the strict requirements of the censors of the era.

An odd piece is a gown designed for Bob Hope when he pretends to be a woman in Casanova’s Big Night. The dress not only had to hang fairly well on Hope’s large frame but also had to be tough enough to withstand several comedic pratfalls.

But most male actors usually had to supply their own clothes. An exception was the Head-designed jacket worn by Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, which was – and still is – both casual and classical.

The exhibition includes movie clips featuring Head’s costumes as well as a short film, in which Head appears, explaining the role of tEH - Olivia deHavilland The Heiress.jpeghe costume designer in the movie-making process.

Despite her association with glamour, Head was very unassuming in her own wardrobe, wearing only black, white, beige and brown. This was, she said, so the star she was dressing remained the centre of attention. However, her contribution was recognised to the extent of her receiving eight Oscars over her career, the largest number ever won by a woman.


The Costume Designer: Edith Head and Hollywood is on at the Bendigo Art Gallery until 21 January 2018. It is a ticketed exhibition.

Hokusai show displays breadth of expression and influence

Appearing on Culture Concept website, July 2017

Image #1

A major show at the National Gallery of Victoria (International) displays over 170 works of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), one of Japan’s most influential and prolific artists. It is the first major presentation of Hokusai works in Australia, although the NGV has been building its own collection of Hokusai prints since 1909.

The exhibition, a collaboration between the NGV and the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, spans the artist’s entire career. It mainly comprises woodblock prints but includes rare paintings on silk and hand-printed illustrated books known as manga.

Wayne Crothers, Curator of Asian Art at the NGV and a Hokusai expert, notes that the exhibition features full sets of all of the artist’s major projects. “It starts with about eighteen works representing his early development,” he says. “The main core of the exhibition covers from 1831 to 1836, his most productive period. Interestingly, that was when he was between 70 and 75.”Image #2

Hokusai’s most well-known (in the West) image is The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, done in 1830 and one of a series called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. But Crothers points out that in Japan another image from the same series, known as Red Fuji, is actually the more popular. While a number of his series dealt with the natural world, including waterfalls, rivers, islands and flowers, he often portrayed ordinary people at work, such as labourers or fishermen. One of his images of a fisherman is thought to be a self-portrait. Other works, such as his prints illustrating ghost tales or his comic books re-telling popular stories, display his sense of humour.Image #3

Even though many of these images are 170 years old or more, they remain crisp and vibrant. Hokusai was quick to adopt new colours, especially Prussian Blue, that were becoming available through trade with the West in his lifetime. He was also interested in Western theories on perspective, and his work introduced a sense of depth to the Japanese pictorial aesthetic, traditionally two-dimensional.

Hokusai remains influential in Japanese and Asian art. There is, in fact, a 2015 anime movie called Miss Hokusai, about the artist, his life and his times, told through his daughter. It is available from url

Image #5

Hokusai is currently on display at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, and will continue until 15 October 2017.

  Dine show displays breadth, versatility, and creativity

Appearing on Culture Concept site, July 2017



Jim Dine is sometimes categorised as a Pop artist but a new exhibition of his prints at the National Gallery Victoria (International) shows the real breadth and creativity of his work. Jim Dine: A Life in Print displays 100 works covering 45 years. The prints are part of a gift of 249 works donated by the artist to the NGV collection.

Dine originally became known as one of the group of New York artists including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in the 1960s, although he never saw his work as ‘Pop’. But the grouping is understandable, as Dine often chose everyday objects as his subject matter. He produced, for example, a long series of prints of dressing gowns, originally derived from an advertisement.Dine Robes

At another level, he also produced extremely realistic drawings and prints of tools, such as hammers, saws, axes, and even nutcrackers. This interest in mechanical processes, which also informed his precise attitude towards printmaking, stemmed from his upbringing: he was raised by his grandparents, who owned a hardware store.

However, as his work evolved through the 1980s he became more experimental, combining printing techniques to obtain certain effects and “interfering” (his word) in the printing process to produce one-off rather than replicated prints. He also began to use innovative materials. Blue Crommelynck Gate (1982) is a lithograph printed with black and silver ink on a surface painted with synthetic polymer, for instance. In this sense, Dine presaged the current trends of printmaking towards mono-prints and the fusion of commercial with fine art techniques.Blue Crommely Gate 1982

Along the way, Dine drew on subjects as varied as skulls, birds and the Eiffel Tower (he is now based in Paris) for prints and drawings. He has also produced portraits and self-portraits, usually as lithographs.

Even in his eighties, Dine continues to create prints, as well as paintings and sculptures. He has, he says, a wealth of ideas for new works and no plan to stop creating.

Dine self 2008 litho



The show Jim Dine: A Life in Print is on display at the NGV International until 15 October 2017.


Impact of a smile

Appearing on Culture Concept website, June 2017

Buddha’s Smile – NGV Exhibition Review

The National Gallery of Victoria has brought together a number of key works from its collection for the exhibition Buddha’s Smile, ranging from centuries-old antiquities to contemporary pieces.

In fact, the first thing that visitors to the exhibition see is a peculiar but oddly harmonious pairing: a large digital print on aluminium by Chinese-Australian artist Liu Xiaoxian, Our Gods, Laughing Buddha, and a miniature porcelain figurine of Budai, the Laughing Buddha,  from China’s Qing dynasty period.

There are pieces from countries across Asia, reflecting the influence of Buddhism. The title of the show is drawn from the Sanskrit epic The Legend of Ashoka, in which Ashoka, the great ruler and unifier of India, as well as a convert to Buddhism, says:

The Buddha smiled and varicoloured rays of light extended from the smile, up to the gods in heaven and down to the various hells, where warmth brought relief to those suffering in the cold hells and its coolness brought relief to those in the hot hells.


The NGV’s Wayne Crothers, who curated the show, notes the critical role played by Asoka in the spread of Buddhism. “He sent Buddhist missionaries not only to the nearby regions known today as Kashmir and Afghanistan but also as far afield as Syria, Egypt and Greece,” he says. “This early transmigration of Buddhist philosophy was soon followed by the transmission of Hinayana Buddhism to Sri Lanka, Burma and the rest of South-East Asia; and the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism to China via central Asian trade routes in the first century, and to Korea and Japan in the sixth century.

“From Nepal and China during the seventh century Buddhism was introduced to Tibet, where a specific school of Buddhism, known as Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, became widely practised.”

A striking Tibeto-Chinese piece is Avalokiteshvara, from the 17th-18th century, which incorporates gilt-bronze and semi-precious stones.  A beautifully graceful sculpture, Guanyin, is from the Jin dynasty period (1115-1234) in China.  A Chinese painting, ink on silk, White robed Guanyin in a landscape, is from the early 14th century.

Buddhism remains a critical influence on modern artists in Asia.

“Takashi Murakami references the Japanese tradition of Zen painting to create his manga-inspired mixed-media works using woodblock print, silkscreen print and platinum leaf,” notes Crothers. “Yoon Kwang-cho employed the Korean ceramic traditions of earthenware with a slip-glazing to create his Vase, Impermanence.

“Buddha’s spirit has transcended time and geography in many forms, such as the hand gestures, abstract forms, written scripts, illustrated narratives, devotional objects and symbolic pictorial elements on display in this exhibition,  Crothers says. “But the oldest and purest transmission of Buddha’s revelation of enlightenment, however, might found in the simple gesture of a smile.”



Ghost story

Ghost in the Shell

Directed by Rupert Sanders; starring Scarlett Johansson, Michael Pitt

To many fans of anime, Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 classic Ghost in the Shell holds a special place, due to its stunning visual quality and sophisticated, if incredibly convoluted, narrative. The idea of remaking it as a live-action blockbuster raises difficult questions, most importantly whether it should be done at all. For the new version, director Rupert Sanders has probably done the right thing by moving away from the original story while trying to keep the essential characters and physical texture.

Set in an un-named Asian city (although a large part of the film was made in Hong Kong; the anime was set in a futuristic version of Tokyo), the central character (Scarlett Johansson) is known mainly as Major (in the anime she is the Major, which turns out to be a crucial detail). A human mind in a high-performance android body, she works in Section 9, an anti-terrorism agency headed by Arimake (played by Beat Takeshi, who appears to be enjoying himself immensely). She was told that her original body was so badly damaged in a terrorist attack that it could not be saved, but she continues to experience ‘glitches’, apparently memory fragments. Something is wrong.

Which leads us to the performance of Johansson. There has been controversy around casting a Western actress as a Japanese – or at least Asian – character, but in the movie itself this does not come across as an issue, perhaps because there are other Western actors, including the chief villain, the wonderfully named Dr Cutter (Peter Ferninando). The problem is more that Johansson does not seem to be able to convey the emotional depth required by this troubled, lonely figure. The original character seemed to do better. Sorry, Scarlett, you’ve been out-acted by a cartoon.

Her strength is the high-tech action scenes. Aided by a skin-tight camouflage suit that effectively makes her invisible she tears through any number of bad guys. But when she is confronted by über-hacker Kuze (Michael Pitt, doing a lot with not very much), who holds crucial keys to her own past, she is reduced to puzzled stares and mumbled questions.

Eventually, the path leads her back to her origin – and the name she discovers, ‘her’ name – is that of the character in the anime. Indeed, it might be possible to read the movie as a back-story prequel to the anime.

Despite the flaws, there is much to like here. Sanders reiterates many of the famous anime scenes: the cybernetic finger-enhancements of a secretary, a massive plane slowly passing over trashed-up buildings, Major vanishing into the background as she plummets earthwards. The visual clash between the glittering city of skyscrapers and holograms, set against as the shadowy junkiness of the back alleys, works perfectly.

So even those who are not sci-fi buffs, and have never watched an anime, will find Ghost in the Shell enjoyable. It is not great, but it’s pretty good.

Affirmation in the Figure


A new exhibition by highly-regarded Melbourne artist Godwin Bradbeer blends old and new, with works exploring his career-long interest in figure drawing and its emotional impact.

Episodes: Then & Now is at the James Makin Gallery in Collingwood, which has held a number of shows of Bradbeer’s work.

“I think this show is lighter than most of my previous shows, less blunt, perhaps less masculine and less self-consciously iconic,” he says. “Several works are the antithesis of ‘gravitas’.  But I should say emphasise that I do not feel entirely in control of the mood of my work. In the studio I am invariably trying to make a beautiful work of art that is credible and affirming to any viewer. The hundreds and the thousands of modifications that shift a work forward or backward, into and out of light, toward nobility or abjection are filtered through our various cultures of wonder, magnificence, and apologia-1000-tearsstupidity.”

Several of the works, like Apoligia – 1000 Tears, are in a vein that Bradbeer has worked in for many years, close-up examinations of the head and face, burnished and stylised to the point of abstraction. Others, like Femme 2, have a dynamic, graceful aspect.

The show includes an unusual self-portrait, in which he depicts himself a “modern Achilles”, complete with an arrow in his heel.

“This is perhaps the only drawing that I have done that made me laugh,” Bradbeer notes. “The ridiculous pose is loosely derived from a photo of Leonard Cohen doing up his shoelace.”femme-2

Bradbeer usually uses media such as chinagraph and pastel, often rubbing oxide powder into the paper to achieve a soft, deep effect. But he continues to explore different approaches, and has a strong interest in digital technologies. This brought him to reconsider a number of drawings made in his student days. Originally done on cheap paper, they are now extremely fragile, but he saw the possibility of resurrection. A number of these works are included in the show.

“The original drawings were photographed or scanned at high resolution and then enhanced in various ways. Despite the heavy tonal nature of most of my later work, when I was young I particularly liked to draw in line, sometimes on the threshold of visibility. My purpose in enhancing the images was to raise contrast and accent the damage of time, which seemed to contain its own truth,” Bradbeer says.woman-rising

Episodes: Then and Now runs until 25 February. The James Makin Gallery has also announced another exhibition, Godwin Bradbeer: Stigma and Enigma, to be held at the Deakin University Art Gallery, Burwood campus, from 8 March until 13 April. This exhibition comprises over twenty large and rarely seen works including monumental drawings on paper, unique artist books, wall drawings and chalk on blackboard artworks. The exhibition spans across four decades with works sourced from private collections with a focus on the fragile nature of Bradbeer’s drawing practice and his ongoing subject of the body.