The first weekend of MIFF was one of extremes, delivering what will be a highlight of my film-going year but also delivering a major lowlight that resulted in one of my rare walk-outs.
However, first I just want to mention that it is such a pity that more Australians won’t get to see World’s Greatest Dad in a cinema with an audience. It won’t be getting a general release and is instead coming out straight to DVD to be eventually lost in the comedy shelves of hire stores. It is a shame because World’s Greatest Dad is an excellent black comedy-drama that draws upon a very taboo subject to elicit both laughs and moments of poignancy. Robin Williams plays a classic sympathetic loser character and it’s probably the best thing he has done in at least a decade if not longer. World’s Greatest Dad certainly steers into some very edgy territory but it works as well as it does because Williams is so endearing and because the film never uses shock tactics despite having ample opportunity to do so. Comedy this brave is a rare thing and a lot funnier than the majority of the stuff that gets a general release.
My festival highlight so far, however, was the screening of Psycho on Saturday night with a live orchestra performing the score. Psycho is of course a great masterpiece but seeing it with the live music enhanced the experience tremendously. It was also great being in an audience of people, some of who clearly had never seen the film before, and witnessing their gasps and delighted shrieks of terror!
The low light was on Sunday morning with one of the films I was most looking forward to: Nikita Mikhalkov’s Exodus – Burnt by the Sun 2. I saw the original Burnt by the Sun in 1995 during the first MIFF I ever attended and it is a film I have revisited several times since so that it has become one of my all time favourites. I wasn’t expecting this sequel to capture the beauty, sincerity and moving mix of the personal and the political to the same extent but I was not expecting it to be so bloated, self-indulgent, trite and manipulative. While the original was a touching film about a family set against the background of the Stalinist purges, this new film is a second rate overblown World War II adventure. I’ve sat through worse films than Exodus but not ones that threaten to ruin my feelings towards a film that I cherish so much. Around about the halfway point, Exodus has a flashback scene that uses some of the footage from the original film, reminding me how much I still love it, and this resulted in a wave of depression that compelled me to leave the cinema before any more damage was done.
My Sunday was significantly redeemed by the French/Australian film The Tree: an enjoyable low key, slow burning film with fine performances from Charlotte Gainsbourg and the various young actors playing her children. The set-up it is not too dissimilar to The Boys Are Back in that it depicts the day-to-day life of a family living in rural Australia trying to cope with the death of one of the parents. The belief held by some family members, that the dead parent’s soul has entered the larger-than-life tree growing next to the family home, is explored gently without every slipping into full-blown Magical Realism. The Tree has a tranquil naturalism that is warm and sincere.
Finally, while The Trotsky is not in the same league as World’s Greatest Dad it is nevertheless another enjoyable comedy that went places that mainstream comedy doesn’t. Jay Baruchel (whom I’m liking more and more in every film I see him in) plays a teenage boy convinced that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky and seeks to unionise his new school. While patchy at points it contains lots of laughs, is more than a single joke film and ends up being quite a rousing film about overcoming apathy to achieve social change.