Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Punter's Guide to MIFF

Or... what I saw at the Melbourne International Film Festival, 2013.


Rates:  *  *

The 62nd MIFF opened with the latest from acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Aldomovar, which marked a return to the raunchy, uninhibited comedies that put him on the map. It's a shame then that this film mostly fails to titillate or shock, and so compares unfavourably with the director's earlier work. There are some laughs to be had - as the crew of a stricken airliner try to distract each other from their plight with drunken craziness - but the film misfires too often for these antics to ever rise above the mediocre. One of the world's finest directors spinning his wheels.


Rates:  *  * 

A large fishing trawler ploughs the North Atlantic; the crew unspool nets, haul them back in and then dismember their catch in the most brutal way imaginable, leaving a trail of blood and fish bits in the boat's wake. This German documentary takes a cinema verite approach to working life at sea, focusing on the purely aural and visual elements of men at large in a vast, wild domain. But despite some eye popping moments, this hypnotic film largely fails to enthrall, as too much screen time is given over to... not very much. A real time sequence of a crew member falling asleep watching TV says plenty about the reaction the film is likely to engender.


Rates:  *  *  *  *

Kate (Olivia Wilde) is like the poster child for a savvy generation; she has a cool job - marketing for a micro brewery - hip clothes, an upbeat attitude and a sharp line in witty comebacks with her equally up to date co-workers. The only dull spot in her busy life is her plodding boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingstone), who's so earnest he seems to move in slow motion, and to who she is obviously not well suited. Flirtation and distraction come in the form of one of her colleagues, the energetic Luke (Jake Johnson), whose eye wanders from his own girlfriend when Kate and Chris split up. Director Joe Swanberg starts with some obvious romantic comedy tropes, but then deftly diverts them in unexpected ways, en route to a refreshingly mature conclusion. The director has a wonderful grasp of his characters and their lives, and is greatly aided by a series of charismatic performances from his cast. An absolute winner.


Rates:  *  *  * 

Following the death of her father, sullen teenager India (Mia Wasikowska) retreats further into her layered inner world; indifferent to both her tormentors at school and her neurotic mother Eve (Nicole Kidman). Her closeted existence is disturbed by the arrival of her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a handsome and beguiling presence she is both repelled by and attracted to. There's style to burn in this flamboyantly presented but otherwise unsatisfying melodrama, the first English language film from Korean director Chan-wook Park ('Oldboy'). India and Charlie's relationship is intriguing up to a point, and the story features several twists, but the characters are one note, and the thin plot always feels secondary to the film's look. . 


Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

Three war deserters in 16th century England become unlikely comrades when they abandon the fighting and set off in search of a pint. They are soon waylaid and forced into the service of O'Neill (Michael Smiley), a well armed Irish occultist searching for a magical treasure he is convinced is buried nearby. British director Ben Wheatley has become something of a MIFF favourite ('Kill List,' 'Sightseers') and his latest is a batty, surreal period piece that is equally funny and inscrutable. The dialogue, acting and cinematography are all first rate, but the ultimate object of the exercise, like the buried item the lads are searching for, remains elusive. 


Rates:  *  *  *  *  1/2

In 1964 a nuclear war has devastated the Northern Hemisphere and destroyed most of civilisation as we know it. Anything not annihilated in the initial flash is subject to creeping death, as radioactive fallout slowly spreads across the globe. Melbourne, the world's most southern major city, is the last known pocket of human existence, and the inhabitants nervously busy themselves as they wait for the inevitable. Stanley Kramer's bleak end of the world story has lost none of it's edge, even after fifty years, and presents a devastating portrait of a series of lives caught in a terrible circumstance. As well as providing a fine showcase for some of the leading Hollywood talent of the day - Anthony Perkins, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire are particularly fine - and despite a typically inert, plank of wood effort from Gregory Peck, On the Beach works equally well as both a piece of social commentary and a heartbreaking human drama. A bona fide classic.


Rates:  *  *  *  *

Kathleen Hanna is a punk. A feminist. An activist. An artist. An energetic person with high ideals and an uncompromising attitude to espousing them. This 'Kickstarter' funded bio pic gives air to many different facets of Hanna's life and features wonderful footage of her shouting spoken word at college alongside clips of her manic performances fronting band Bikini Kill. While the presentation is straight forward, this documentary succeeds because of the quality of the assembled footage, the pulsating soundtrack it's set to and by allowing us to spend extensive time with the subject herself, rather than just a parade of lauded talking heads. You can clearly see why someone would want to make a documentary about Kathleen Hanna, and the audience is richer because someone did. 


Rates:  *  *  *  *

Omar is an average young man on the verge of adulthood; he works a menial job, hangs out with his friends, lives with his family and daydreams about marrying his sweetheart, Nadia. But Omar lives in the occupied West Bank, and so this ordinary existence stands in stark contrast to his surroundings; where soldiers and automatic weapons form part of the scenery. The clash between hope and violent reality drives this wrenching drama, as our likable protagonist is faced with a series of impossible choices, balancing survival against his conscience. Filmed on location, the urban wasteland of contemporary Palestine lends an immediacy to this gripping film, depicting the struggle for survival in one of the world's most hostile places.


Rates:  *  *  *  *  1/2

At a certain point in most people's lives they have questions about themselves; their roots, their history, the lives of their parents. Canadian director - and sometime actor - Sarah Polley's probing of these basic questions provides the foundation of this documentary, but her gentle investigation soon takes a number of turns away from the expected as hidden family secrets are exposed (criminal to be revealed here). Utilising interviews with her extended family and their friends, and minimalistic re-enactments, Polley creates a family portrait remarkable for its depth and candour, and distinguished by the range of emotions on display. Joy, pain, sorrow and love all have their place in this story and it's a testament to the skills of the film maker that the audience can truly feel that they have shared in these moments. An outstanding, heartfelt movie.


Rates:  *  *  *  * 

China is the world's most populous country and its economic miracle child; three decades of modernisation has transformed a rural, isolated backwater into a global powerhouse. But these rapid changes have not come without cost. A Touch of Sin shows life in contemporary China through four loosely linked stories, each depicting a central character struggling to cope with the pressures of their daily lives. Each day is a fist fight; for food, for money, shelter, survival. In such a harsh, unforgiving environment, the violence the characters resort to (taken from real life events) seems entirely understandable and eventually becomes just another element of the background noise of a hyperactive society. A powerful, thought provoking film, full of remarkable performances and indelible imagery. Sure to be one of the year's most talked about movies.


Rates:  *  *  *

Reserved Alvin (Paul Rudd) and slacker Lance (Emile Hirsch) have been thrown together for the summer, working as a two man crew repairing roads damaged in a bushfire in Texas. They spend their days painting lane markings and hammering reflector poles, and their nights irritating each other over a campfire. After one minute of this, you can guess that by the end of another ninety minutes they'll be firm friends. Director David Gordon Green's lackadaisical odd-couple comedy has a few chuckles and an engagingly offbeat tone, but never strays far enough from it's well worn path to catch fire. The two leads are in top form, but don't have enough to work with. 


Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to France from abroad to finalise a long overdue divorce from his wife Marie (Berenice Bejo), who is now living with the melancholy Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his young son. Over the course of a few days, memories and melodrama collide as the characters sort through their lives and try and untangle the mess they have made of their emotions. Director Asghar Farhadi created a sensation two years ago with the Oscar winning A Separation and this, his follow up, mines similar territory to mostly successful effect. Although, after a stunning first half the film does become mired in a needlessly didactic examination of certain plot points (who sent those crucial emails!). This narrative works best when the characters are left to explore their feelings, which the actors convey with effortless, subtle brilliance.


Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

A military coup in Indonesia in the 1960's triggered an era of vengeance and oppression as opponents of the new order were branded Communists and sentenced to death. This bloody work was carried out by the country's criminal element; gangsters and petty thieves who were armed, legitimised and given free reign to achieve the new  Government's ends. Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary examines a few of these killers in the present day and finds them unabashed about their bloody past and, astonishingly, lionised by their communities as national heroes of a sort. The surreal atmosphere of the film is taken to an extreme when the men are encouraged to re-enact their crimes and commence making a film of their own, recounting the days when they were 'killing happily.' An undoubtedly striking and unique film, with many moments that are simply jaw dropping, the overall impact is diluted somewhat by the monolithic length and the toll spending this much time with such vile people takes.


Rates:  *  1/2

After the suicide of a close friend, sea captain Marco (a sturdy Vincent Lindon) quits his job and returns to the city to watch over the remnants of the man's family. He finds the dead man's widow and daughter in dire straights and soon traces the root of their problems to local business tycoon Edouard (Michel Supor), a slimey sexual pervert on whom Marco vows revenge. Director Claire Denis delivers this lurid melodrama in her familiar fragmented style and while this remains as captivating as ever, beneath the dash of the presentation is a ponderous, plodding narrative. The characters are all thoroughly unlikable and their desultory interactions meander slowly toward a disappointingly straight forward conclusion. Fundamentally; people are awful and do terrible things to each other for the most selfish of reasons, a common enough movie theme that you've seen given much more interesting treatment.


Rates:  *  *  *  *  1/2

The Thief may have conceived the perfect crime; he poisons his victims with a parasitic worm that induces a catatonic state, leaving them vulnerable to outside manipulation. He then politely asks them to hand over all of their money and departs with this in a suitcase, leaving the helpless sucker to deal with the resulting psychological trauma, but no memory of his presence. Independent American director Shane Carruth returns with his second feature, nine years after cult favourite Primer, the sort of film for which a concise summary is almost impossible. After a moderately straight forward first act, still full of more ideas than most feature films can encompass, the movie then embarks on an ambitious, complex examination of relationships, reality and patterns of behaviour. And... pigs. Many, many pigs. A bold, at times outlandish, film that is in equal parts disturbing, funny, tender and tragic, but is never less than fascinating. The director also contributes a neat acting turn as Jeff. 


Rates:  *  *  * 

Bob (Casey Affleck) and Ruth (Rooney Mara) are a low rent, likable outlaw couple in rural Texas. When they are cornered by the law, Bob shoulders the blame for their crimes and goes to jail, leaving Ruth to reinvent herself as a straight laced mother to their young child. Several years pass before Bob breaks out of prison, and joins a long line of escaped movie convicts heading for a home that no longer exists, except in his mind. A well rendered slow burn featuring fine performances from Affleck and Ben Foster (as a well intentioned deputy) and luminous cinematography, Saints mixes some effective moments with an uninspired story to middling effect.


Rates:  *  *  *  *

In the wake of a massive, civilisation ending catastrophe (implied to be a meteor impact in the Northern hemisphere), residents of Perth, Western Australia face up to the end with varying degrees of stoicism. Perennial fuck up James (Nathan Phillips) wants to spend the day partying with his friends, but a chance encounter with a distressed young girl (brilliantly played by Angourie Rice), provides him with one last opportunity to show his previously hidden good qualities. This terrific, low budget Australian film serves as showcase for talent on both sides of the camera, and provides moments of excitement and tension along with less expected elements of pathos. Echoing On the Beach but with a contemporary mentality, Hours provides a particularly fine example of the sort of local film we don't see often enough. Winner of The Age critics award for best local feature.


Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

George Burrarwanga was a rock star; handsome, charismatic, energetic, difficult, temperamental and frequently drunk. George's story is at the heart of this documentary, which charts the successes and failures of his primary musical outlet: Warumpi Band. Formed in 1980 and playing a stomping mix of country and classic rock, Warumpi Band struck a small blow for Indigenous Rights when they became the first band to get an Inidgenous language song onto the charts. Given a straightforward presentation, this film is brought to life by thrilling footage from various Warumpi gigs, and by the intriguing dynamic that existed between George and his fellow band co-founder Neil Murray, men who could scarcely be less alike but who forged an enduring bond with their music.


Rates:  *  *  *  *

Oscar Grant is an average young man from the Bay Area of San Francisco; he lives with his girlfriend and their daughter (who he dotes on), frets about money, hangs out with his friends and his extended, tight knit family. But Oscar is also a man with a temper and a past, elements of which trigger a truly shocking tragedy on New Years Eve 2009, when he is shot and killed by transit police. This simple, powerful film - a true story - starts with the crime and then flashes back and so every scene is infused with a sense of impending doom. Some of Oscar's shortcomings as a person may be glossed over, but his final day reveals much about the workings of contemporary American society, and his demise indicates that there is still an enormous of work required towards true racial equality in that country. The parallels for an Australian audience are obvious.


Rates:  *  *  *  * 1/2

Heading for home after an extended stretch at sea, the listless crew of a Norwegian cargo ship have their tedious routine shattered when they are hijacked by Somali pirates. Escalating events on the ship are compounded by the drama at corporate headquarters, where a controlling CEO (Soren Malling) takes personal charge of the negotiations and quickly finds himself out of his depth. This taught, tightly directed thriller starts slowly and then ratchets up the tension in the second half, particularly when focusing on the plight of the ship's easy going cook Mikkel (a superb Johan Phillip Asbaek). The film achieves a level of realism that is completely absorbing and gives a gripping depiction of different personality types cracking under pressure. A top shelf, if harrowing, movie experience.


Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

A computer chess tournament in the early 80's draws a small but intense crowd of misfits, oddballs and programmers to a regional hotel for a weekend of nerdy competition, with as much going on in the rooms after hours as on the chess boards. American mumblecore favourite Andrew Bujalski's latest low-fi comedy is little more than a series of vignettes; many of them hilarious, a number just inexplicable. The cast go a long way to putting this movie over with a series of engaging performances, although Myles Paige is a particular standout as the antagonistic Michael Papageorge. A treat if you're attuned to it sensibility, a baffling exercise if not.


Rates:  *  *  1/2

A lone sailor in the Southern Indian ocean strikes disaster when his small vessel collides with a stray cargo container, fatally breaching its hull. From this point on, nearly every moment is taken up with his struggle to survive, battling storms, fatigue and a series of indifferent cargo ship captains. Hollywood legend Robert Redford is the whole show in this curious man against nature film - which provided MIFF's closing night - and his now craggy good looks neatly complement the rugged grandeur of the untamed wilderness around him. But despite some good scenes and some radiant backdrops, the movie is only partly successful. The little we know about Redford's character, the man is not even named, is not enough to make us really care about his fate, which lends proceedings an aimlessness, despite all the dangers he has to face. An interesting idea for a movie that doesn't quite work.


Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

Homeless Dwight (Macon Blair) seems to have settled at the bottom of the heap; he sleeps in a junked car, rifles through garbage bags for food and periodically breaks and enters. But there is more to Dwight than first appears, and he is shortly shaken out of his torpor when he is notified of the release of the man convicted of murdering his parents twenty years before. Dwight's thirst for vengeance triggers a tense cycle of tit-for-tat violence with the man's family, that soon spirals wildly out of control. This stylish, intelligent, gripping thriller boasts a terrific first half and a wonderful central performance from the expressive Blair, although the second half is more predictable and so less compelling. Up and coming director Jeremy Saulnier has crafted a tough minded film with many surprises and a welcome streak of jet black comedy and looks a talent to watch out for in the future.


Rates:  *  1/2

Dedicated Sarah (Brit Marling) works as an undercover agent for a large, shadowy private security firm. Her latest assignment is to infiltrate the anarchist group 'The East,' who have been making a name for themselves by targeting a series of high profile corporations. Co-writer Marling and director Zal Batmanglij struck gold in 2011 with The Sound of My Voice - one of my favourite films of its year - but after a good start, this follow up is disappointing in almost every respect. Neither the anarchists nor their surprisingly lame 'jams' (pranks) provide much juice and Sarah's crisis - will she allow her new friends to be arrested? - is handled in the most perfunctory way imaginable. Obvious and heavy handed, this is a considerable waste of time and talent.

And that's where I left MIFF this year, having spent a considerable amount of time in the dark and having consumed about 40 000 Eclipse mints in the process. My favourite movies were Upstream Colour and Stories We Tell, both of which will get a wider release, while the major disappointments were the turgid Bastards and the insipid The East, both of which I wanted to be so much better. And, as always, there were far too many films that I just couldn't get to, most of which will hopefully find their way onto other screens in the months ahead.

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