Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Punter's View of MIFF

I'm not a film critic. I'm no sort of film expert. I don't know very much about very much.

But I like movies. And, if you live in Melbourne and you like the flickers, MIFF is where it's at. Three weeks, hundreds of films and an endless supply of mints. That's right, I like my mints too. So if you hear a mint tin rattling while you're sitting in the dark at MIFF, good chance that's me.

Anyway, the following are my thoughts on what I'm catching this year, as I catch them...


Rates:  *  *  1/2

James 'Whitey' Bulger was a hoodlum who cut a swathe through Boston for five decades, terrorising his enemies and turning himself into an underworld celebrity. On the run for the last 15 years of his spree, the FBI listed him as public enemy # 2, immediately behind Osama Bin Laden. In a sphere where notoriety is synonymous with success, he made it right to the top.

But when he was finally caught in 2012, Whitey had a surprise in store for his captors; he claimed that high level law enforcement officers had protected him from prosecution for years, pretending he was an informant so they could use him in a variety of corrupt schemes. These allegations get an airing as Whitey goes on trial for murder, triggering some very strange behaviour from the District Attorney's office. A cover up in the middle of a high profile murder trial is so audacious as to seem utterly absurd, but the film makers have a lot of evidence to indicate this is exactly what happened.

Whitey opens with a truly bravura moment - one of the gangsters victims recounts being attacked by him - but after this remarkable start, the film soon settles into a well worn, overly familiar groove. The corruption that the film makers sniff out is interesting, and undoubtedly in the public interest, but their recounting of it is pedestrian. Worse, by focusing the film so narrowly, we miss the opportunity to get a greater sense of this nefarious individual, his life and influence. 

This film may appeal more to an audience already familiar with the basics of the Whitey story, but in any other context it seems too slight to sustain a full feature. Not without its merits, but disappointing overall.


Rates:  *  *  * 

Having suddenly lost her sight to a degenerative illness, middle aged, middle class school teacher Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) has retreated from the world. Cocooned in the apartment she shares with her workaholic husband Morten (Henrik Rafaelsen), frustrated and bored, she finds escape by concocting an elaborate, internal fantasy. In this, she imagines a lonely young single mother, Elin (Vera Vitali), also struggling as her sight fails, starting an affair with Morten after they meet in an internet chat room. Slowly, the two stories start to converge as it is revealed both 'reality' and 'fantasy' contain elements of each other, and that Ingrid is not a very reliable witness.

This chilly, carefully constructed Norwegian drama has an elaborate facade, but a somewhat plodding narrative. While it is easy to feel for Ingrid, her reserved nature, and difficulty expressing herself outside of her day dreaming, makes her a hard character to fully invest in. Sporting a much livelier character, Elin's parallel plotline proves much more satisfying, aided enormously by a wonderful, heartbreaking performance from Vitali. The game way she tackles all of the obstacles life puts in front of her stands in stark contrast to Ingrid's reticence, which I suppose is the point, but this can't help but make one strand more interesting than the other.

Writer/Director Eskil Vogt has some fun wrong footing the audience, and there are some great lightbulb moments, which probably explains the (mostly) rave reviews this has received. But while there are some fine elements here, this mostly feels like a collection of good ideas that don't quite translate into a fully fledged movie.


Rates:  *  *  *

In an isolated, rural part of Iran, a group of university students converge on a lake for a relaxing weekend of camping and kite fighting. But on the property next door, strange things are afoot; menacing Babak (Babak Karimi) and his two offsiders run mysterious errands in the forest, and seem to have designs on the campers themselves...

The set up for Fish & Cat suggests a classic teen camp slasher flick but, while there are elements of this, what this movie delivers is something far stranger. For starters, the entire film is shot in one continuous take, which writer/director Shahram Mokri employs as a device to mess with the audience's sense of time and space. The character's walk carefully constructed paths that loop back on themselves, the camera shifting from one character to the other as they intersect, which dislocates the narrative and allows the action to be depicted from multiple points of view.

Which doesn't really give a sense of it. 

The techniques at use in this film probably defy concise explanation, beyond stating that they are unique, and have an almost hypnotic effect. And the first half of Fish & Cat, where the looping structure is established and a sense of dread is palpable, is very strong and completely absorbing. But this gives way to an overly talky second half, where the tension ebbs away and the repetitive nature of the film becomes tiresome. At 137 minutes, ultimately we get just too much of a good thing.

Still, the film makers clever touches mean there is a lot to enjoy here, particularly for punters who think they've seen it all.


Rates:  *  *  *  *  1/2

Marcel and Bob are long standing friends on the edge of society. Living in a small village in rural Belgium, they pass their days in slow motion; chatting, walking in the forest and drinking vast quantities of rum. Marcel's wife leaves him for another man, Bob tentatively tries to reconnect with his twenty something son... and they both drink vast quantities of rum. 

And that's about it.

It's obvious from the above that plot is not the key element in this subtle, beautifully observed character study, a film made even more remarkable for being a documentary. Although how the film makers - Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koeverden - found their subjects is anyone's guess. At first glance there is nothing remarkable, nor even very interesting, about this average pair of Joe Nobody's.

But as the film progresses, the largely unobtrusive camera teases out hidden elements of each man's character, and reveals much about the wider society they live in. There are no great climaxes, no obvious life lessons and only a little melodrama, and yet the film only gets more engrossing, the longer it goes. Much as the main characters themselves tackle their lives, the pleasure of this movie is in many small details, and shared moments. 

A highly unusual film, with profound depths.


Rates:  *  *  *  *  1/2

Lili (Zsofia Psotta) has two fairly lousy parents; separated, her mother is off to Australia for three months with her lover, dumping her at short notice on her taciturn, emotionally withered father Daniel (Sandor Zsoter). Conflict arrives immediately in the shape of Lili's dog, a lovable mutt called Hagen, who Daniel can't stand. After one tense day, Daniel abandons Hagen on a curbside, unwittingly reproducing the act that had brought Lili to him, and making an enemy of his daughter.

But Hagen is a resourceful pooch, and makes out surprisingly well on his own; he quickly falls in with a large group of other abandoned dogs and they roam the backstreets of Budapest, scratching up a bit to eat and getting into mischief. Their adventures take a dark turn as Hagen is dragged into an underground dog fighting ring, then abandoned in a nightmarish shelter. Faced with a grim end, Hagen triggers an uprising among the other abused animals, and they turn the tables on their tormentors in a surreal and thrilling fashion.

That all of White God  serves as a fairly straightforward metaphor for what oppressors everywhere do to the oppressed, in no way detracts from the simple power of the concept. And director Kornel Mundruczo engineers ample opportunities to reinforce his message, with different variations on the same theme; parents mistreating their children, bullies mistreating gypsies, society picking on cross breed dogs. The hopeful part is the uprising bit, and the clear lesson from history that the mistreated will only tolerate what is done to them for so long.

The presentation of these ideas takes the viewer on a wide ranging journey; from the hypnotic stillness of the opening sequence to the dynamic chaos at the end. In a remarkable performance, Psotta provides a central plank binding the narrative, and much is communicated about what is happening by the fluctuating expressions on her young face. Budapest too, provides a handsome backdrop and has been ravishingly photographed.

Bold, bizarre and stylish, White God is undoubtedly one of the most original, and thought provoking, films of the year.


Rates:  *  *  *  *

Established in 1925, Virunga National Park was Africa's first National Park and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Area in 1979. Pride of the park is a population of mountain gorillas - exceedingly fragile and increasingly rare - but a wide variety of rare flora and fauna make the park their home.

Virunga is also dead centre in one of the world's trouble spots; armed militia, leftover from the Congolese and Rwandan civil wars, operate with impunity, refugees from both conflicts roam the area, and poor people of all descriptions prey on the park's animals, poaching them for black market trophies.

This earnest, frequently soaring, documentary seeks to highlight these differing influences on the park, the positive and negative, by focusing on a dedicated group of people striving to protect it. On the frontlines are the park's rangers, who go out on patrol armed to the teeth, never knowing when violent conflict will erupt (at one point, the film mentions that 130 rangers have been killed in active duty). While in the background, a hard working French journalist (Melanie Gouby) tries to uncover the corrupt efforts of British firm SOCO to mine for oil within the park's boundaries (an action prohibited by Congolese law).

While both narrative strands hit their mark, it is the ranger's that is the most compelling; many have remarkable back stories and the relationship they have built with Virunga's gorilla population is incredible to see. Some of the gorilla's simply see these men as their parents, and their playfulness and need for affection is entirely captivating. The backstory is more straightforward - corporate corruption is, sadly, no longer shocking - but the case against the multinational is well made.

A fine, well crafted documentary that sheds light on a neglected corner of the world. Find out more.


Rates:  *  *  *  *

The naked prisoners would be looking up at the showers from which no water spouted, or perhaps at the floor wondering why there were no drains. It took some moments for the gas to have much effect. But soon the inmates became aware that it was issuing from the perforations in the vents. It was then that they usually panicked, crowding away from the pipes and finally stampeding towards the huge metal door where they piled up in one blue, clammy, blood-spattered pyramid, clawing and mauling each other even in death.

 - William L. Shirer, 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich'.

The holocaust is one of the most terrible events from all of human history, and one of the most extensively covered. I always wonder, just how all of the thousands of words and countless movies about this tragedy could ever hope to convey such an event. The terror, the loss, the suffering; all available mediums seem somehow inadequate, regardless of how potent they may be (and the excerpt above is from a chapter on the Final Solution, which is undoubtedly the most horrifying thing I've ever read). 

Nevertheless, it is important to remember, and in this vein comes this powerful, thoroughly shocking documentary. Filmed in 1945 as the Allies liberated camps across Germany, the footage was originally deemed too disturbing for a wide audience, particularly as America and England shifted their focus to fighting communism (in which fight they hoped to enlist as much of Germany as possible). 

Painstakingly re-assembled in the last decade by an expert team at London's Imperial War Museum, the finished product is an imperfect movie, but a telling historical document. There are scenes and images in this that will remain indelibly burned into your memory, and may haunt your dreams. The subject matter seems particularly pertinent, as other MIFF films (and the nightly news) remind us of ongoing conflicts around the world, where different groups of people find any excuse to do terrible things to each other. 

A disturbing indictment of the worst of human nature, and something well worth reflecting on.


Rates:  *  *  *  *

When a two-bit robbery goes amiss, rebellious Kylie (Morgana O'Reilly) finds herself sentenced to eight months house arrest with her long estranged mother. Tedium ensues; Kylie spends empty days in front of the teev, broken only by the rekindling of some long standing arguments.

Only... Kylie's mother lives in a big, creepy old house. And there are some weird noises from the far corners late at night. And Kylie's mother soon says, 'I'm not the only one who used to think this house is haunted!'

From this well worn, haunted house template springs this uproarious horror film, which neatly balances scares and plot twists with a wicked sense of humour. The first half is all sharp set up, as the characters and the creepiness are established, but the film really cuts loose in the run home, as the reveal behind all the shenanigans breaks in several unexpected directions at once. Nothing is as it seems, but everything maintains its own loopy logic, making for a story that is giddy fun but still makes sense.

The film is anchored by O'Reilly, cute and fiesty in equal measure, and she is well served by two great supporting players; Glen Paul Waru, hilarious as a security guard who fancies himself an amateur ghost buster, and especially Rima Te Wiata, flat out fabulous as Kylie's verbose, eccentric mother. 

Ultimately, the film works better as a comedy than a straight out horror flick, but both elements are well served. A deadpan comic treat.


Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

Korean homicide detective Go Geon-Soo (Lee Sun-Kyun) is having a hard day that would've tested The Beatles flippant resolve; his wife has divorced him, his mother has passed away, internal affairs have found something incriminating in his desk and he's been caught drink driving. Oh yeah, and he ran over and killed a pedestrian while driving home. His increasingly frenetic efforts to extricate himself from these jams brings him into conflict with Detective Chang-min, a hard ass who moonlights as an underworld crime kingpin.

Fast, funny and engaging, A Hard Day (originally titled Take It To The End) is reminiscent of classic genre fare like Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys, but distinguishes itself with a very warped sense of humour. Black comedy abounds in the unfolding action (witness the Python-esque demise of one of Soo's colleagues), topped with mordant digs at the hierarchical nature of Korean society.

A Hard Day knows exactly what it is, and delivers within those parameters, making for an entertaining 90 minutes. Beware the US remake, undoubtedly being hatched in some studio think tank as I write.


Rates:  *  *  *  1/2

Dean (Josh McConville) is a nerdy bloke who takes his fiesty girlfriend Lana (Hannah Marshall) to the world's most unappealing hotel for their anniversary.

Dean (Josh McConville) is a technology genius who invents a time machine and then travels back in time to woo his long suffering girlfriend, Lana (Hannah Marshall), back.

Dean (Josh McConville) is an emotional wreck who has never recovered from being dumped by his girlfriend, Lana (Hannah Marshall), for another man.

Dean (Josh McConville) is an incurable romantic who spends a year in the company of his girlfriend Lana (Hannah Marshall), as they discover the depth of their feelings for each other.

Dean (Josh McConville) stands at the centre of a maelstrom of time paradoxes, largely of his own devising, but to give away any more of the plot would be to do the film a disservice. For this clever, low budget Australian flick contains a lot of surprises, and many nifty twists, as it uncoils. First time director Hugh Sullivan makes terrific use of his limited resources and is well served by his cast; McConville and Marshall, both veteran TV actors, deliver likable turns and show plenty of chemistry, while Alex Dimitrades is hilarious in a supporting role as Lana's terminally dense ex.

While the film starts to run out of steam in the final third, this is mostly a very successful exercise in modestly aimed film making. Hopefully a pointer for bigger things for all involved.


Rates: * * * * 1/2

You've met Matt and Owen before; the picked on kids, the bullied, the outcasts, the oddballs. Talented, smart and funny, their abilities are almost totally unrecognised in a high school culture focused on popularity and sporting prowess. This dorky duo cope by leaning on each other, and taking pleasure in a self created alternative world filled with classic movies, cult TV shows and self deprecating black humour.

Both are also sustained, to varying degrees, by elaborate revenge fantasies about taking down their tormentors, the Dirties of the title. Although Matt is the more obsessed of the two; Owen really just wants to fit in, and maybe sneak a date with his dream girl classmate. As the boys drift apart, Matt's last grip on grounded reality begins to slip...

That you can see where The Dirties is headed (broadly) in no way detracts from the overall impact of this dynamic, debate inducing movie. Multi talented Matt Johnson  drives the project; writing, directing, editing, producing and starring and shines in all areas, although his indelible performance as the manic main character leaves the deepest impression. Matt's rapid fire dialogue and ludicrous ideas are funny, stupid and brilliant, all at once.

We've seen high school shooting movies before, but never quite like this. The film mines the high school misfit territory for uproarious comedy and then, at a well judged moment, shifts the tone into something much darker. A lot of ideas are percolating behind the narrative, and no little social commentary. Provocative and thrilling.


Rates: * * * * 1/2

Six year old Mason (Ellar Coltrane)  inhabits a very familiar domestic world. His parents are separated, his mother (Patrica Arquette) struggling to balance parental duties alongside her other responsibilities, his slacker dad (Ethan Hawke) popping up from time to time in his black GTO. Mason goes to school, hangs out with his friends, fights with his sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter) plays computer games, puzzles over the behaviour of the adults around him and slowly, slowly starts to grow up. In three hours, 12 years and the main character's boyhood pass, leaving him poised on the verge of adulthood by film's end.

Filmed in installments over a dozen years, director Richard Linklater's remarkable new film is a one of kind take on the classic coming of age tale. With deft segue ways between the yearly sections (effectively a collection of short movies, edited together) we watch the characters physically age and emotionally mature. While Mason's development is at the forefront, all of the main characters take us on a journey; trying new things, surviving reversals, reflecting on what has happened to them. The sense of time passing is palpable and each character's mini story believable and engaging. The four principals all shine; with two terrific performances from newcomers Coltrane and Linklater well matched with the work of Arquette and Hawke, who both have their best roles in ages.

While the film's epic length finally begins to tell towards the end (there is, perhaps, one emotional climax too many), this is undoubtedly one of the years best films and may well be this versatile director's masterpiece. A film with a lot of depth and resonance, and much re-watch value. Brilliant.


Rates: * * * *

Ella is a rare, ethereal beauty; Jake a brawny, handsome hulk. When an errant dodgem car pitches these two together they (quite literally) fly into each others arms and fly away, their lives joined and transformed into a endless, passionate embrace. Morning coffee becomes a joyous dance, love making an operatic rhapsody.

Trouble enters this happy picture when Jake suspects Ella of adultery. His woe soon gives way to anger, manifested in an epic spree of womanising, the cheatin' of the title. Ella's attempts to right the ship take in a lot of tears, a contract killer and an underground magician called The Great Merto. All works out in the end, although nothing that happens en route is at all predictable.

Bill Plympton is a legendary, one man animation studio and his latest effort bears all of his trademarks; his hand drawn images have a rough, sketchy beauty and his flights of fancy dazzle on the big screen. His grand, over-the-top approach seems excessively broad at first, but beneath the splash of the presentation beats a heart of true emotional resonance. Jake and Ella are unreal creations, but their joy and sorrow become entirely tangible, and more engaging as the film progresses. You can't help but will them back towards each other, as the film moves to its conclusion.

A surprising, funny and inventive film, the work of a true artist.


Rates: * * * *

Buried beneath the border between Switzerland and France, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the one of the largest and most complex things ever built by our species; 27 kilometres long, 25 years in construction, the product of 10 000 scientists and engineers producing hundreds of thousands of individually crafted parts. The scale of this remarkable project is bigger than putting a man on the moon, and has been compared to building the pyramids. The stakes are high, as some of the planets best minds hope the LHC may be able to unlock the fundamental mysteries of science; the origin and fate of the universe, the nature of matter, why everything around us is like it is.

This assured documentary takes us inside the LHC, starting with a light touch (but thrilling) general history of particle science, before focusing on some of the genius' who will put the machine to use. It's probably to be expected that the featured scientists are a little eccentric, but this doesn't detract from the goofy pleasure of spending time with them; a staff hip hop band that raps about the big bang, two physicists from Princeton who understand everything in their field but can't work out a simple piece of public art. The last stage of the movie captures the moment the LHC is finally turned on - something the more hysterical press had warned may cause Armageddon - which stands as a time capsule for this historic moment.

While the presentation of Particle Fever is straightforward, it is very well put together and is particularly successful in breaking complex ideas down into digestible portions. The subject matter is fascinating and the sense of standing at an important moment, on the verge of great discovery, is perfectly captured. Rich food for thought.


Rates: * *

Boston 1975: In a parallel dimension, a lone wolf psycho terrorises the city with a series of seemingly random bombings, killing thousands. In dogged, if inept, pursuit is Temporal Agent Miles (Ethan Hawke), a hard bitten film noir cop with a time travelling violin case. Crossing his path at a key moment is John Doe (Sarah Snook), a tough minded misfit with a bizarre backstory.

And really, the violin case is just the beginning, as this loopy film sheds any semblance of credibility in the opening minute and, in place of this, substitutes an endless bombardment of silly characters, scenes and dialogue. Suffice to say that the thumbnail sketch of the plot above gives the merest hint of what is to come, as space travel, gender reassignment, manifest destiny, true love, time paradoxes and the nature of good and evil are all given a dizzy spin.

Through it all, Hawke does a good job of keeping his character on an earnest middle course, although I was less taken with co-lead Snook's turn than others have been ('brilliant' is the early word from elsewhere). Snook's character goes on a long, emotive, wildly improbable journey, and this sums up how I found her performance; captivating at times, unconvincing at others, uneven overall. She certainly tries hard, as do the creative duo behind the film; Brisbane writer/directors Michael and Peter Spierig (identical twin brothers) throw everything they've got at this, some of which works, a lot of which doesn't. There's no shortage of enthusiasm though, and it's hard to be too tough on a movie where the principle villain is given a name like 'Fizzle Bomber.'

Beware the Fizzle Bomber! I'm hoping to see that on the poster, when this comes to the multiplex.