Father Geek here with our first report from MIFF and a look at 3 of their featured flicks. I've seen "Howl" and really loved it. Anyway, here's Latauro and his 1st look inside this year's MIFF...
AICN-DOWNUNDER: 2005 MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REPORT #1
Hey all. Sorry this has come a bit late. There was some confusion as to whether this was going to be included in the regular AICN-D column, and when the thing ended up being late it seemed best to split this up a bit.
It's been a pretty awesome MIFF this year. My first glance over the program was a little disappointing (No SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE? No ARISTOCRATS? No LAST DAYS?), but closer inspection revealed more films than I had time to see.
I've missed films such as PRIMER and NIGHTWATCH (though I'll be seeing them soon through other means), documentary MURDERBALL, the premier of Australian drama LITTLE FISH, and all the little gems you see on a whim, the ones that end up being the best discoveries of the year.
I perhaps booked a little hastily, grabbing sessions to the films I was most eagre to see, even if they are scheduled for general release later this year. What can I say? I have no patience.
Here's the first batch of reviews. These will be continued over the coming week, with the last instalment featuring a pretty cool non-review surprise...
HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE Reviewed by Latauro
There's a moment in SPIRITED AWAY, the film that really inserted Miyazaki's name into the general consciousness, when Chihiro is walking down a set of partially-submerged train tracks. It's not an important moment, not is it a moment that most filmmakers would dwell on. Its effect was, however, powerful, and others I've spoken to say they also noticed it. The beauty of the scenery, the clarity of the gentle splashing sounds, and the realistic mundaneness of it all made the entire thing palpable; this was a story about monsters and demons and magic, and I felt like I was right there with her.
It's Miyazaki's biggest strength, that ability to put you right there beside the characters, and its used in all of his films. Moments like Mei running around in the background whilst her father works in MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO, or Pazu and Sheeta running away from that cliff-side house in LAPUTA; the one thing you can be guaranteed of when going into one of Miyazaki's films is that he will quite figuratively transport you to whichever world he chooses.
HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE has more of these moments than any other film he's made (although there are one or two from his filmography that I've not yet seen). As with SPIRITED AWAY, the film is less story, more premise. Once that premise has been established (in this case, a girl with low self-esteem is turned into an old woman and so becomes the housekeeper for a powerful wizard), we launch into a series of tales that weave in and out. Some characters disappear for nearly an hour, others only have a minute of screen time. (In particular, keep an eye out for Sofi's sister, who is quite clearly the town bike - great character work for such a brief role!)
HOWL'S does occasionally fall into the trap that most anime falls into, with a few things not clearly explained. For instance, is Howl playing both sides of the war? Or is he masquerading as different wizards for the one side? Who is he fighting, exactly? These issues are a little murky, and the resolution of these storylines in the last minute or so of the film is slightly silly, but don't worry - they're not deal-breakers.
I'd love to launch into why this is such a great film, easily one of the best Miyazaki's made (which, in itself, is high praise), but there's so much joy to be had from discovery. It's best to be surprised by the detail of the Moving Castle, and the creature that runs it, and the moment that caused the theatre I was in (completely full, easily hundreds upon hundreds) to - oh hell, I'm going to say it - howl with laughter.
I'm going to stress that it's a family film, and also stress that it's a good thing. The term "family film" holds a lot of negative connotations within the geek community, almost as if every film would naturally contain a lot of sex, violence, swearing and phenting if the suits hadn't cut it down for a general release. Of course, Miyazaki (along with Pixar) generally gets a passing grade which makes up for this stereotype, and I'd like to reinforce that here. I first discovered Miyazaki when I went to see PRINCESS MONONOKE at the Astor, and I was blown away. I'd always enjoyed Manga on some level, but here was something entirely different. I couldn't believe what I'd just seen. Luckily, I saw the Japanese language version (I recently saw the English language version and loathed it... amazing how something like that can make such a huge difference). Like MONONOKE, HOWL'S contains an amazing sense of wonder and fantasy, but not at the cost of its central message: that it's not easy being old. It's a fairly mature, but not preachy, message that is clearly designed to expand, just a little, the tolerance of the younger folk in the audience. This film is everything a family film should be.
MYSTERIOUS SKIN Reviewed by Latauro
MYSTERIOUS SKIN was one of those films I knew absolutely nothing about going in. It's rare that I can watch the credits and be surprised at the names popping up in the cast list. Michelle Trachtenberg? Elisabeth Shue? Joseph Gorden-Levitt? Fair enough, then. The film is narrated by its two protagonists, and we jump back and forth between them. Brian and Neil were both abused by their Little League baseball coach, and both reacted in very different ways. Brian blanked out for five hours, and woke with no idea what had happened. After a while, he decides that he'd been abducted by aliens, and searches for others who might have had similar experiences. Neil remembers it as the happiest time of his life, proudly telling people that he was coach's favourite, and grew up seeking similar encounters with older men.
The most striking thing about the narrative is where it chooses to take the two boys. A real temptation would be to push them further, make them into opposites. One is fucked up, one leads a normal life. One liked it, one hated it. Many directors would attempt to push them in those directions, but Araki resists that. As different as they are, the boys are not two precisely opposite extremes. They've just gone in two of the many directions that victims could go in, and both stories are fascinating.
The performances are a bit of a mismatch, though. Michelle Trachtenberg isn't terribly convincing as Neil's best friend. I don't think it's necessarily her fault. She's given some of the clunkiest awkward dialogue in the film, and there aren't many places to take it. Brady Corbet is very good as Brian. Jeff Licon, playing the boy who befriends both Neil and Brian, is pretty awful. He's clearly too inexperienced for this sort of role in a film this weighty, and it drags the film down a bit. Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe from season three of "24") is brilliantly unselfconscious as a "fellow alien abductee"; she's a real highlight.
As for Joseph Gordon-Levitt... Well, I knew his work from "3rd Rock From the Sun" and TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU, and he was very good in both of those, but neither suggested him for a role like this. Does he pull it off? Well, it's the best performance I've seen this year, even better than Cheadle in HOTEL RWANDA. His performance goes far beyond the understated; by that, I mean a lot of statuettes seem to go to people who play historical figures, the disabled, or the traumatised, to actors who either overplay or underplay the intensity of the scenes. Levitt doesn't rest on the strength of the character, but creates Neil's physicality, his movements, everything. It's one of the most detailed and complex performances I think I've ever seen.
It's a powerful film, and, as you'd expect, extremely confronting at times. It's a fascinating look at how two people deal with an abuse from their past, but it's the ending that really sets it apart. Without giving it away, the choices made in the final five minutes of the film truly elevate it to something special.
DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE Reviewed by "Moderately Good Dictator"
In the mid 1960's Nile Perch were introduced into Lake Victoria in Tanzania as a "little science experiment". The perch has since multiplied rapidly and is now exported commercially to the European Union. Darwin's Nightmare interviews fisherman, factories owners, ex soldiers, Russian pilots, street kids and prostitutes in order to tell the tale of this remarkable industry.
This documentary brings to light the human face of Africa's problems and the interviews are powerful and affecting. Unfortunately however it is, like many post Michael Moore documentaries, hampered by its own activism. The filmmakers go in trying to find evidence of arms being smuggled to the war in the Congo in exchange for perch exports. They find very little evidence of beyond a little innuendo and rumors. In spite of the pre-conceived ambitions of the filmmaker's a profoundly moving and important story is played out in Darwin's Nightmare.
The story is the profoundly ambivalent results of economic development and western aid in the lakes district of Tanzania. On one hand, exporting Nile Perch brings thousands of jobs to poor Tanzanian ex farmers who other wise might have faced starvation caused by crop failure. On the other hand, the trade has bought extensive social dislocation; prostitution, alcohol abuse and parents abandoning their children. In addition, rigorous processing of the perch fillets to reach EU health standards inflates their price to the extent that local people cannot afford them and are forced instead to buy fried fish heads processed in vile conditions.
All this is illustrated through the simple yet effective measure of letting local people tell their stories to the camera. All the interviews are very high quality and leave you with the impression that the people involved are just doing what they can to get by.
Three interviews in particular stay with you long after you leave the cinema. First is an interview with Eliza a Tanzanian prostitute who services the cargo pilots and fishing captains. She tells of how her mother died and her father disappeared forcing her into prostitution to survive. She says she would like to go back to school to study computers. The second haunting interview was with an anonymous village woman whose husband and child has already died of AIDS and is dying herself. When she says (through a translator) "I can't eat anymore", the look on her face tells you she is contemplating her own death and I deny anyone to keep a dry eye. The third remarkable interview is with Raphael a veteran of the Ugandan war and guard of the National Fisheries Research Institute. His job is to shoot anyone who breaks into the institute with poison arrows. He wishes he could get a less dangerous office job. He tells how the only good work is in the army and common people wish for a war so they can be drafted .When asked whether he was reluctant to kill people during the war, he looks quizzical and says, "In war death is what is needed".
It is the voices of people such as Eliza and Raphael that makes Darwin's Nightmare compelling viewing and it is a pity the filmmakers didn't really see that in there urge to make a simple political statement.