Friday, July 29, 2016

A Punter's View of MIFF 2016

MIFF is back for 2016, with many venues, many films, many events, and possibly their best ever poster. And, once again, I am ready to take a good chunk of it on, armed with a tattered program, a tattered hoodie, a tattered (or, at least, malfunctioning) phone, and a large supply of mints.

I don't like queues so I invariably arrive one minute before curtain, and end up down the front. So if you hear a rattling lolly tin from the cheap seats, we could be in the same session. Reviews to follow, ratings out of five.

Viva MIFF 2016!








Rates: * * * *


Rates: * * *

Slack Bay is an odd place. At the head of an estuary in windswept, provincial France, the location serves as a meeting point for the different strata of society; there are the impoverished locals, the wealthy tourists, and the stolid middle class, represented by a couple of inept policemen. 

There are also cannibals, an androgynous cross dressing youth, a series of murders, and repeated strange incidents, where people are lifted into the air and hang in the sky, like balloons. 

The events and characters are a puzzle, most of which is never explained. The movie is a comedy, with some fairly heavy handed satire, but is only fitfully amusing. While it is hard to categorise, it most closely resembles an old fashioned farce, jazzed up with graphic violence.

But with a two hour plus running time, the leisurely pace counts against the frenzied atmosphere that the film strains for. The minimal plot develops slowly, and the longer this goes the less engaging the characters become. 


Rates: * * * * 1/2

In late middle age Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) has reached a summit of sorts; she is an esteemed professor of philosophy, married to an equally distinguished academic, with two well adjusted kids and a successful second career editing a series of acclaimed reference books. Her life is busy but comfortable, prosperous and orderly. 

But change is on the way.

In short order her husband leaves her for a younger woman, her publisher cancels her contract, and her kids leave home for university. Even her elderly mother, with whom she has a fractious relationship, has a nasty fall and passes away. In a half hour of run time, all of the key planks of Nathalie's life have fallen away.

But instead of despair, or much angst, what Nathalie finds after these turbulent events is a kind of peace; a quiet time to reset and reconsider her assumptions. 

Isabelle Huppert is a masterful actor, and here she delivers a masterful performance, effortlessly commanding the screen and turning Nathalie into a three dimensional figure. She is backed by luminous locations in Paris and the French countryside, gorgeously shot and framed by cinematographer Denis Lenoir and director Mia Hansen-Love. This is not a complicated movie, its themes are simple and well worn, but it is so expertly made, and the acting so effortless, that it approaches a kind of perfection.


Rates: * * * *

The people of Istanbul have an unusual relationship with cats. Or, is it that the cats of Istanbul have an unusual relationship with people?  

The cats roam the streets, and live independent, full lives; they explore, they sleep, they raise their kittens. As presented here, they belong to no one, but willingly share their lives with people, often several of them simultaneously. 

In many cases they simply appear in people's lives, almost by magic; 

'He walked up the street and just came in here one day,' says a cafe owner, who adopted the tubby arrival, and now feeds it smoked turkey and manchego cheese.

'I call her the pyschopath!' says another with glee, reveling in his cat's reputation as a toughie, who even bullies her 'husband.'

The cats come, they bestow their presence and, you assume, on another day, they move on again. This seems in keeping with the atmosphere of Istanbul itself, which is presented as a timeless place, where life has its own rhythm. Using cats to highlight this trait is a clever idea, which is executed with disarming grace. If you love cats, and even if you do not, you will most likely leave this with a massive grin, plastered across your face. Kedi!


Rates: * * * * *

Winfried Conradi is an elderly German music teacher who goes his own way. Overweight, rumpled, and highly eccentric, he navigates his modest life according to a tune only he can hear.

On a whim, he decides to visit his high flying corporate daughter, Ines, at her latest posting in Bucharest. The two are estranged, and share an awkward weekend together, with Ines largely distracted with work. But rather than simply return to Germany, Winfried hatches a bizarre scheme to get more of his daughter's attention. He dons a pair of novelty teeth, reinvents himself as life coach 'Toni Erdmann', and begins ingratiating himself with Ines' colleagues and clients.

Somewhat misleadingly billed as an uproarious comedy, while 'Toni Erdman' has some inspired comic moments (including a much talked about nude scene), this is a film that offers a lot more than just laughs. Punctuating the humour are some honest, sad, melancholy scenes as the characters size each other other up, and come to see themselves each reflected in the other. These ring true, and struck


Rates: * * * *

It's December 14, 2012, and the citizens of Newtown, Connecticut are going about their comfortable, middle class lives.

At around 9am Adam Lanza, an insular 20 year old with a history of mental health problems, shoots and kills his mother in her bedroom at the house they share. He then drives her car to one of Newtown's elementary schools, Sandy Hook, and proceeds to murder 20 students and six members of staff. When police arrive and surround the school, he shoots himself.

It is the worst mass shooting at a high school in US History.

This film focuses on the aftermath, as parents, policeman, students and witnesses try to comprehend what has happened. Many admit that this is a fruitless task, a hopeless objective. One grieving mother says her life is divided in two; 'Everything that came before 12.14, and everything that came after.' A father who lost a son says, 'I am resigned to the fact that I will never get over this. I will never put it behind me.' 

It's emotionally raw stuff, and the first part of the film (featuring cc footage of the attack, and 911 call recordings) is brutally intense. Later, the movie shifts to a rumination on grief and mourning, as the survivors find different ways to cope.


Rates: * * * *

Lampedusa is a small island situated about halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. Its location makes it an accidental destination for tens of thousands of refugees each year; Africans who are fleeing poverty and strife in rickety boats. This clear eyed documentary juxtaposes the nightmarish experiences of several boatloads of arrivals, against the placid, everyday life of the island's permanent inhabitants. 

The comparison could hardly be more stark.

Director Gianfranco Rosi deftly catches the languid rhythms of island life, his camera unobtrusively following several locals as they work, talk and play. This is placed alongside frantic images of refugees being digested by the system, scenes which range from anarchic, to sad, to utterly horrifying (there are a few truly shocking moments, where you could hear the whole cinema go silent). The combination is potent, and serves to underline the tragedy at the heart of the European migrant crisis; where two groups of people inhabit the same geographic location, but only one set is treated as human. 


Rates: * * * * 1/2

Susan and Anne are best friends, and wannabe artists (one a photographer, the other a writer) sharing an apartment in 70s New York. They lean on each other as they navigate the currents of daily life - boyfriends, university, service industry jobs - while they try and make it in the city's cut throat arts scene. But Anne disrupts this dynamic when she falls in love and gets married, moving out to the suburbs to start a family. The friends stay in touch, still feel close, but struggle as their new lives pull them in different directions,

If the above synopsis sounds familiar - think 'Girls', or 'Frances Ha', or countless others - it may be because this low budget indy from 1978 has been a key influence for many subsequent writers and directors. Claudia Weill's film crafts a lovely, low key portrait of young people grappling with life's slippery challenges, that is funny, an timeless. As the independent Susan, Melanie Mayron anchors the film with an entirely unaffected performance, and the supporting cast - featuring Bob Balaban, Eli Wallach and a very young Christopher Guest - strike all the right notes, as the other players in her life.

Warm and charming, with the occasional slice of everyday heartbreak, this film is an absolute winner, in every respect. Screening as part of the 'Gaining Ground' program, highlighting pioneering works from female film makers in what remains a very blokey industry. Highly recommended.


Rates: * * * *

In a remote seaside village, young Nicholas lives in quiet seclusion with his mother. But something, or many things, are not right here; there are no adult men, for one thing, and Nicholas' mother sustains him with a diet of green sludge and ink water, for another. She is also up to something kinky on the beach every night. Most ominous of all, there is an unidentified facility nearby, where all of the village mothers take their sons for regular... treatment.

Deliberately paced, this brooding film is equal parts horror, sci fi and mediation. Do the events depicted take place on an Earth of the future? An alien world? Or a parallel dimension? There are clues, but no answers, and part of the fun is trying to determine what all of the puzzle pieces actually mean (for me, the title is probably the most relevant clue). 

Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic (wife of Gasper Noe) has invested loving care in the visual design; the shots are beautifully assembled, with particular attention paid to framing (there are also repeated, stunning, visual references to a starfish, another clue). And the ragged production design and stark location add further to the film's impact. Darkly cerebral and quietly wild.



Rates: * * *

In the late 60's, nerdy CIA agents Matt and Owen have the unlikeliest jobs in the agency; they run the AV department, and make films about completed cases. Bored with this marginal assignment. they talk their way onto 'Operation Zipper', the search for a Russian spy embedded at NASA. But rather than an enemy agent, their investigation uncovers shortcomings in the American space program. And so Operation Zipper becomes Operation Avalanche, as our goofy heroes help fake the Apollo moon landings. With a home made capsule, and a lot of imported sand ('a rich brown sand, like molasses'), the space fakery is delivered successfully... leaving the boys somewhat expendable.

Writer, director and star Matt Johnson delivered in a big way with his first film 'The Dirties', in 2014; a jet black comedy that took aim at America's culture of violence. This, his follow up, fails to hit those heights, although it still delivers some dorky laughs, and its ramshackle, DIY ethic is hard to dislike. But the boys are simply not believable as CIA agents, and the whole thing falls a bit flat.

With a wandering narrative, some odd musical interludes, and a jarringly serious finale, this is, ultimately, a bit of a mess. But an amiable mess, from a young film maker with a lot of talent.

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