Reviews

Three Blind Mice

Three Blind Mice follows the adventures of three 20something sailors in Sydney for one night.


Three Blind Mice

Director: Matthew Newton
Cast: Ewen Leslie, Toby Schmitz, Matthew Newton
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: IFC Films
First date: 2008
US Release Date: 2009-03-18 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

Editor’s note: Three Blind Mice is part of a collaboration between IFC and SXSW, bringing selected titles from the Festival to TV via “IFC Festival Direct,” on demand. Available as of March 18th.

In the Australian Navy, asserts Harry (Matthew Newton), "you need permission to grow a beard." He's obtained such permission, he says, by way of explaining his scruffy face to a crew of new acquaintances and fellow cardplayers. That these hard-talking toughs are unimpressed -- but his story or his look -- hardly bothers Harry. He and Dean (Toby Schmitz) are out on the town one last time before they're deploying to "the Gulf," and he's determined to show off his manly man-ness.

He has ample opportunity to perform it in Three Blind Mice, which follows the adventures of three 20something sailors in Sydney for one night. Written and directed by Newton, the film is part standard male-bonding tale and part deconstruction of same. Working through their own mutual commitments and recent, still-raw betrayals, the boys are also figuring out what it means to be military and masculine, as these are related but not quite equivalent measures.

Harry, Dean, and Sam (Ewen Leslie) enter the film in a wide low angle shot, dumping their gear in the hotel room they've taken, in order to collapse, complain, and ready themselves for the evening. No sooner has Sam disappeared into the shower than his friends start talking about him, contending that "Someone snitched on him," leading to an apparently harrowing punishment. Dean hangs his head as he worries about his part in the abuse ("I was following orders") and Harry is quick to condemn his treachery ("Thank you, Dr. Goebbels"). When Sam emerges from the bathroom wearing only a towel on his waist, the effects of the ritual are painfully visible -- red welts on his back -- silencing the incipient talk about responsibility, morality, and duty.

Still, these themes are laced through the film that follows. Their night includes some predictable episodes and some less usual: Sam calls his mother Bernie (Jacki Weaver), his one side of the conversation enough to indicate its schematic trajectory: "Mum, don't cry," "I'm not going back," "You don't understand, mum, they almost killed me out there," and of course, "I'm sorry I'm such a fucking embarrassment." These couple of minutes also set up the minimalist plot going forward: Sam will leave his mates behind -- taking up with a pretty, self-confident waitress, Emma (Gracie Otto) -- and they will more or less pursue him, worried that he will be AWOL and so, bring on himself more disgrace and difficulty.

Emma plays the too-familiar role of healthy outsider, her flirtations with Sam throughout the film hinting at what's possible outside the confines of the Navy and boy-boy camaraderie. He confesses to her bits and pieces of the trauma now shaping him, beginning with, "I cried in front of the whole crew, I cried like a girl," and Emma provides the support she's supposed to, soothing and distracting him. Still, Sam is resolutely unable to act on the possibility Emma embodies, a reluctance indicating his personal confusions but also the schizzy context in which he's immersed. Reduced to such abjection before his peers, Sam can never recover their respect or his own confidence.

The absurdity of his dilemma -- as well as its triteness -- is manifest when Dean makes his own confession, in front of his fiancée Sally (Pia Miranda) and her parents Kath (Heather Mitchell) and Fred (Barry Otto). Pressed to come up with a story about the Navy as he and Harry sit with these ignorant civilians in a late-night restaurant booth, Dean unleashes on his future family a brutal, matter-of-factly narrated recap of what he and an officer did to Sam. Kath is horrified ("That's torture!" "That's disgusting!"), but her husband assures her this is what happens among men ("The Navy's like the Force," he declares, at which point she disparages the Force as well as his flagging virility).

If Dean's story isn't, as he says, "dinner conversation," what happens after is probably more disturbing. Here mother and daughter act out their own versions of man-supportive dysfunction, Sally strolling serenely with her man, complaining briefly about her lack of social life without him, but happy to snuggle up to this fellow she's just learned has vilely maltreated his mate. At the same time, Kath begins trying to seduce Harry, her husband in tow, a disquieting and sloppy-drunk display that hardly bothers the young, self-styled womanizer (who has made clear his own attraction to older, "skanky" women). It appears that no one can be heroic or noble or even essentially decent in this universe, at least until Sam does right by a pimp who means to inflict yet more dire injury on him.

But Sam's integrity is only the exception that proves the rule in Three Blind Mice. As its title suggests, the movie is all about the ways that social order is a function of deception and illusion, violence and repression. As men learn to become men within this order, they can hardly hope to emerge intact.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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