4 August 2010
I’ve broken my 3-film-maximum-per-day rule again and saw four films at MIFF yesterday. Two films about teenagers, a documentary and a mockumentary.
I Killed My Mother
The highlight of the day was the French-Canadian film I Killed My Mother about a 16-year-old boy’s turbulent relationship with his single mother. Despite being underlit, I enjoyed this comedy/drama for being so funny, perceptive and painfully familiar. The mother is irritating and the boy is frequently obnoxious and yet I felt sympathy for them both, strongly recognising the dynamics creating the conflict between the two of them. I think a lot of people will also identify with the situations that are present in this film either as parents or as children. It’s the sort of film that you probably shouldn’t see with somebody you are related to.
The other film I saw dealing with being a teenager was The Myth of the American Sleepover, an American indi teen film that seemed determined to not be a teen film. Like so many films of the genre – from American Graffiti to Dazed and Confused to even Can’t Hardly Wait – it is an ensemble film with multiple narratives set over one night. So determined to demythologise the world of teenagers and to focus on the mundane and unfulfilled aspects of their lives, the film’s restraint and reliance on non-professional actors ends up creating something that often feels stilted and unintentionally absurd rather than naturalistic.
Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam
Frankly, I’d rather see films about kids who are angry, rebellious and have something to say. That’s all delivered in the documentary Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam. The film is at pains to state that taqwacore is a diverse movement that, like punk and Islam, is frequently misunderstood, vilified and misrepresented. The most general description may be that it is designed to create something good out of pissing off both conservative American and conservative Islam. Despite coming dangerously close at times to glorifying a rather contrived view of punk culture, the doco ultimately achieves its desire to demonstrate the power of music to empower and bring people together. It’s energy is very infectious.
Being a very big fan of director Shane Meadows and actor Paddy Considine, I was very much looking forward to their collaboration on the improvised mockumentary Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee, where Considine plays a roady who is promoting a new rapper. Even at 70 minutes this still felt like a drawn out single joke that should have really just been a one off sketch. Plenty of people in the audience I saw this with seemed to be having a good time but it did nothing for me. I suppose I can’t like them all!
© Thomas Caldwell, 2010
3 August 2010
The Lost Thing
As I’ve mentioned previously I was on the jury this year for the Melbourne International Film Festival Shorts Awards with fellow jury members Alan Finney and Wendy Haslem. During a fun ceremony on Sunday night, hosted by Colin Lane, the following winning films were announced:
Jury Special Mention: Out Of Love
Melbourne Airport Award for Emerging Australian Filmmaker: The Kiss
MIFF Award for Best Experimental Short Film: Long Live The New Flesh
MIFF Award for Best Documentary Short Film: The Mystery Of Flying Kicks
MIFF Award for Best Animation Short Film: Angry Man
Cinema Nova Award for Best Fiction Short Film: Autumn Man
Film Victoria Erwin Rado Award for Best Australian Short Film: Franswa Sharl
City of Melbourne Grand Prix for Best MIFF Short Film: The Lost Thing
With the exception of Out Of Love all the above films will screen at the Best MIFF Shorts Screening this Sunday and I can’t recommend that session enough.
Yesterday I got back into seeing feature films, starting with two OK films and ending on a very strong one.
Based on a true story, The Robber is about an Austrian man obsessed with two things – running and robbing banks. There is something slightly cold and detached about this film and the rather subdued acting keeps you at an arms length for the entire film. There are some exhilarating bursts of action and in particular some of the on foot chase sequences echo the effective use of first person cinematography that Kathryn Bigelow is so skilled at delivering. However, overall The Robber never fully connects in the way that you feel it should.
While watching the hitman farce Wild Target I was surprised at how much I remembered from the original 1993 French film Cible émouvante. In this new English remake Bill Nighy plays the lead role of the professional hitman that Jean Rochefort played originally and he is an excellent choice with his wonderful comedic timing. The rest of the cast aren’t as well suited but they are likeable enough to make this remake work reasonable well. Weirdly, the fact that the very black humour – where somebody getting murdered is often the punchline – seems so suited to the English sensibility, makes it actually less funny than it was when done by the French where it felt so outrageous by comparison.
I went to see the South Korean film Poetry at the last minute mainly because I’d heard it compared to last year’s Mother. Stylistically far more naturalistic that Mother it does contain some thematic similarities. Discovering that she is displaying the earlier signs of Alzheimer’s and finding out that her grandson, whom she cares for, was involved in a horrible crime, a woman in her 60s turns to poetry to find some kind of beauty in life. Apparently inspired by a real event, Poetry reminded me of River’s Edge and the Australian play Blackrock with its social critique. The gently paced film is a blend of poetic observations about the natural world and very sad observations about social culpability. The central performance by Yoon Jeong-hee, a star of 1960s and 1970s Korean cinema, is what grounds this film and gives it such a moving emotional core.
© Thomas Caldwell, 2010
29 July 2010
I went against my own advice yesterday by seeing four films at MIFF and three of them back-to-back (although the excellent scheduling this year means that you still get decent breaks between most sessions). I saw two very mediative films (one in a good way and one not so much) but also two of the best films I have seen this year making yesterday my best day at MIFF so far.
Lourdes depicts the various rivalries, resentments and jealousies that are bubbling under the surface of an organised pilgrimage group who have gone to Lourdes in the French Pyrenees Mountains. At the centre of the film is Christine, a woman whose Multiple Sclerosis makes her one of the most disadvantaged members of the group. She is played by Sylvie Testud who gives a lovely, understated performance. Lourdes is a slow burning film that rewards patience as it builds up to its very powerful conclusion. I was certainly completely taken aback by how emotional I was feeling during the film’s final five minutes making Lourdes one of my favourites within the festival so far.
The first of yesterday’s two meditative films was Dreamland, the latest by Australian filmmaker Ivan Sen. The screening was introduced by producer David Jowsey who made it clear that the film was not a conventional narrative but more a “no budget”, experimental soundscape to be experienced on a sensory level. This was a very good description as little happens in this film about a man searching, presumably for alien life, in the Nevada desert surrounding the infamous Area 51. Dreamland would have benefited from a shorter running time but within the film are some wonderful sequences using timelapse photography and eerie stock footage. The sound design is magnificent and the one dialogue scene is surprisingly moving. Think the final section of 2001: A Space Odyssey with a touch of Paris, Texas.
While by no means essential viewing at least Dreamland maintained my interest, which is more than I can say for Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, a documentary about the fascination that the Japanese apparently have with insects. The broader cultural, social and historical contexts of this fascination are presented but as Beetle Queen becomes increasingly philosophical it becomes far too laboured and repetitive. There is only so long you can endure listening to haiku and watching Japanese people mucking around with bugs.
Son of Babylon
The other film I saw yesterday was one I almost skipped so that I could go to a media screening of The Loved Ones (which screened at MIFF last year and is reportedly fantastic). I’m so glad I stayed in the city to instead see Son of Babylon as it is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Set in Iraq in 2003 just after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, a boy and his grandmother search for the boy’s father. The war torn countryside and burning cities they travel through have the same look and feel to them as you’d expect from a post-Apocalypse film. While Son of Babylon contains some very confronting content it doesn’t have the same social-realist, miserablism feel that often characterise so many of the films made in the Middle East. The more devastating aspects of the story are slowly revealed so that their impact is one of deep sadness rather than horror or depression. The characters are also wonderful people and the kindness and shared sorrow that the boy and his grandmother experience from the various people they meet is beautiful. Son of Babylon resonates with a deep and powerful sense of humanity and is a must-see film.
© Thomas Caldwell, 2010
28 July 2010
I feel it has been remiss of me not to have mentioned the Dante’s Inferno retrospective program of films by Joe Dante until now. Gremlins and Innerspace and certainly childhood favourites of mine and I’m hoping to catch the latter purely for nostalgic reasons. I also very fondly remember watching Gremlins 2: The New Batch while originally studying cinema as it’s a wonderful example of the type of parody, pastiche, self reflexivity and pop culture referencing that would come to define the 1990s with the Wayne’s World films and the massively successful The Simpsons. Highly recommended if you’ve never seen it before.
Last night I went to a screening of three of Dante’s short works including It’s a Good Life, his excellent contribution to Twilight Zone: The Movie. The rather unremarkable western Lightning was also screened but the highlight was Dante’s 2005 zombie soldier film Homecoming. Made for the cable television series Masters of Horror, Homecoming is about dead American soldiers who come back to walk among the living in order to vote in the next election to get rid of the Republican party for sending them to their deaths. The satire is as blunt as it comes but Dante is clearly not trying to be subtle. Extremely funny and subversive, Homecoming addresses media manipulation, spin doctoring, the religious right, election rigging and concealing information from the public. Is anybody in any doubt that zombie films can provide incredible social commentary? I just wish Homecoming was made into a feature.
I also went to see Bibliothèque Pascal, by Hungarian director Szabolcs Hajdu. It’s about a woman who is sold into the sex trade and forced to work in a very exclusive club that caters to various literary fantasies (she starts off playing the part of Joan of Arc from Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan). Bibliothèque Pascal has a similar heightened reality/Magical Realist feel to it as many of the films by Emir Kusturica and leading up to the club scenes this lush combination of music, colour and absurdity is very seductive. However, when the action does move to the club where the women (and young men and children) are kept against their will, drugged, beaten and raped, the high level of artistic stylisation left me feeling a little uncomfortable. I wasn’t so sure about the fact that such scenarios were being used to create extravagant tableaux. However, the more I consider Bibliothèque Pascal the more I appreciate it for challenging me the way that is has. After all, being challenged and provoked is a big part of what festivals like MIFF are all about.
© Thomas Caldwell, 2010
27 July 2010
I sat down last night for the final MIFF Shorts Awards deliberations with my fellow judges Alan Finney and Wendy Haslem. After lots of robust discussion, where we were all willing to have our minds changed by each other’s differing perspectives, I believe we’ve made excellent decisions about what films should win what awards. I think audiences will enjoy the diversity and high quality of all these films so come along next Sunday for the awards and screenings. There is also a repeat screening the following Sunday.
Before the judging I saw The Messenger, a film I had moderate expectations for and basically only saw because it was one of the few films I hadn’t seen that was nominated for a couple of Academy Awards this year. I’m so glad I went as it is one of the best film I have ever seen about soldiers who have returned home. It alternates between being a fun buddy film to a painful exposé of how families react when confronted with the news that their loved ones have died while fighting. Most significantly is how plausibly The Messenger humanises these tough-guy soldier types by showing that deep inside they are broken people experiencing immense repressed pain.
[EDIT 21/11/2010: Read a full review of The Messenger]
I also saw The Housemaid last night and wasn’t as impressed by it as I was hoping I would be. Director Im Sang-soo was at the screening to introduce his film, and also took questions afterwards, and he frequently talked about how it is a critique of South Korean society, in particular the gap between a new class of super rich and the working classes. This is certainly reflected in The Housemaid where a young maid becomes seemingly gladly subservient to a wealthy family, including making herself sexually available to the husband. All of this was fine and the film was very engaging but I found it increasingly heavy handed, obvious and melodramatic. That may have been the point I suppose and possibly exactly what other people have liked about it but it left me feeling a little unsatisfied.
[EDIT 24/10/2010: Read a full review of The Housemaid]
© Thomas Caldwell, 2010
24 July 2010
MIFF is now underway I’ve seen a Danish film about gay Neo-Nazis, a Japanese film about an inflatable sex doll that comes to life and two Australian genre films: a sex-comedy where you get to see Steve Bisley’s naked ass in the opening minute, and an action/Western where you get to see Steve Bisley being a badass with the only banging coming from his gun.
Before the festival started I was sent some DVD screeners and Brotherhood was the only one I had time to watch. It’s sort of a forbidden love story where the lovers are men who are active members of a Neo Nazi club. It is let down by some slightly unconvincing character development including one of the men very quickly adopting the violent ethos of the gang despite previously being against it and with the lovers very rapidly surrendering themselves to their passions despite it being so substantially contradictory to their bigoted attitude. However, performances are very strong and the homoerotic nature of male bonding is explored in some interesting ways. The sex scenes also have an energy to them that is both tender, raw and not often depicted in such an honest way. However, this is no Brokeback Mountain and it is certainly no Romper Stomper, American History X or This Is England either.
The Wedding Party
A multi narrative Australian film with interconnecting stories about love and sex, The Wedding Party is like a Melbournian Love Actually. This is not a good thing. It is overlong, too tame and not really that funny, sexy or romantic. The acting is very good with Nadine Garner and Adam Zwar in particular turning in really strong performances but overall I had trouble enjoying The Wedding Party despite really wanting to. Maybe it is simply not my sort of film but from what I’ve heard from most other people that I’ve spoken to I don’t think I am alone in feeling so disappointed about this year’s opening night film.
On the other hand, seeing the Australian Red Hill was a lot more enjoyable but this time I think I am somewhat in the minority for simply liking it rather than absolutely loving it. However, I mostly did enjoy this small town revenge story and the heavy use of Western iconography in the film’s visual style, music and narrative worked really well. There were just one or two elements that pulled me out of the film’s gritty tone but Red Hill is still a strong film and I can’t wait to see what writer/director Patrick Hughes does next.
[EDIT 5/12/2010: Read a full review of Red Hill]
I was looking forward to seeing Air Doll, a drama about an inflatable sex doll that “finds a heart” and comes to life. The film is mainly observational with the doll being a deliberately obvious metaphor for having an empty life, allowing your life to be defined by others and the ways people find substitutes for real intimacy. Air Doll is not whimsical or light hearted, and one macabre scene towards the end of the film almost ruined it for me, but it overall possesses a very tranquil sweetness. By the time the film reached the very end I was surprised by just how moved I was by its gentleness and sadness.
© Thomas Caldwell, 2010
22 July 2010
Notes on some of the MIFF films getting a general release
I used to recommend that people don’t go to films in the festival that already have an Australian distributor attached to them (and are therefore likely to get released) because that was a waste of a ticket but I don’t abide by that anymore. For a start, seeing a film at the festival is so much more enjoyable than going to a regular session at the local cinema. There’s more a sense of occasion plus festival audiences seem to be less inclined to talk, play with their phones and eat three course meals throughout the film. Also, because not all the films always end up getting cinematic releases – especially the ones that have no confirmed release date yet. As Cerise Howard notes on her list of films with Australian distributors, many of them may be destined to go straight to DVD.
Two of the films in the festival that I’ve seen that are getting released soon are The Special Relationship and Despicable Me. The Special Relationship is a dramatisation of the dynamic between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton while Despicable Me is a 3D computer animation about a super villain, sort of in the vein of The Incredibles. Both are films worth seeing but not ones I’d personally give priority to at the festival.
Of more interest is Debra Granik’s new film Winter’s Bone about a teenage girl trying to track down her methamphetamine-making father in the ultra poor Missouri mountains community that she has the misfortunate of living in. I’m still not sure how I feel about this film because I found it such a depressing experience, although it also functions as a strong and tense mystery. There is a lot to admire about Winter’s Bone but I’m not so sure if I enjoyed it – although I guess that is sort of the point.
The other mystery of sorts that I’ve seen is Roman Polanski’s new film, the very atmospheric The Ghost Writer. While not in the same league as classics such as Repulsion and Chinatown, The Ghost Writer is one of Polanski’s better straightforward genre films.
I remember seeing New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s acclaimed short film Two Cars, One Night at a MIFF opening night years ago and absolutely loved it (it was certainly far superior to Somersault, which was meant to be the main attraction). While I wasn’t a big fan of Waititi’s first feature film Eagle vs Shark, his new film Boy is absolutely wonderful. It is so genuine and funny that it is little wonder it has taken the New Zealand box office by storm. Highly recommended.
The two MIFF films that I have seen that I am most excited about are the Cronenbergian Splice and Michael Winterbottom’s new film The Killer Inside Me, a neo noir with shades of Kiss Me Deadly and No County For Old Men. I suspect many others will not share my enthusiasm for both films to the same extent and these are certainly not films for everybody. While the visceral horror of Splice is more transgressively fun than anything seriously confronting, the violence in The Killer Inside Me is some of the most shocking violence I’ve seen in cinema for a very long time. However, I loved them both and will probably include them on my top ten films of 2010 list at the end of the year.
© Thomas Caldwell, 2010