Published at: July 27, 2009, 11:07 a.m. CST by merrick
LATAURO DOES MIFF #1
The Event: The 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival
The Protagonist: Latauro (AICN-Downunder)
The Mission: To see as many films as possible. To discover cinematic gems that would have remained otherwise hidden. To seek out new life and new civ-- Wait, not that. This: to get excited about actual films instead of marketing and pre-existing properties, and to try to pass that excitement on to you, the reader. And also, to do so in a more concise manner than previous years, given I'm seeing about 75 all up.
Today's Lesson: MIFF is awesome. Two weeks to immerse yourself in world cinema, see stuff you've never seen before, and do it all with like-minded friends who also prefer movies to sleep. There were a few notable absences in the programme, however. Where was WORLD'S GREATEST DAD? Where was GRACE? Where was HAMLET 2, PAPER HEART, TIME CRIMES, I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS, BRIGHT STAR, PONYO, and THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR PARNASSUS? There are probably a myriad of practical reasons why these couldn't come to MIFF, but whenever I find myself watching something crap (see below -- there are some real stinkers), I couldn't help but think that I could be watching TIME CRIMES right now. That looked awesome. But complaints aside, it's time to get stuck it. This is, after all, a time of celebration...
BALIBO: It's MIFF again! So many days spent circling sessions, crossing out others, panicking 'cos that Park Chan-Wook session clashes with that ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES film that looked really good... But it's finally here, and I'm all tuxedoed up for the opening night gala. Packed into the grand Hamer Hall, we're looking at the screen from a very odd angle. Nevertheless, we soon adjusted, and I was treated to my second viewing of Robert Connolly's BALIBO, MIFF's opening night film. If you saw my last column, you already know that BALIBO is my pick thus far for film of the year. The second viewing only cemented that. Though it lacked the visceral punch that the first viewing had (and should always have), the second viewing somehow made the film even better. More details were fleshed out, and with the benefit of knowing all the events and how they play out, character and foreshadows are more noticeable. But great as the film was, it was overshadowed by a speech from José Ramos Horta, the President of East Timor, who was there for the screening and is a main character in the film (again, I'll say: Oscar Isaac completely steals the show as Horta). Seeing the man himself speak was a fairly incredible experience, and really brought home the reality of the movie.
THE COVE: Screw red carpet events and free champagne and rooms full of celebrities who won't be going to any other MIFF sessions! The festival proper began the next day, and we kicked off with THE COVE. How to describe this film? "If the world sees this, they'd put a stop to it immediately," says one of the fishermen to Ric O'Barry in this documentary (or words to that effect). As with last year and TRUMBO, I made the mistake of starting the festival with a brilliant, unbelievable documentary that probably won't be topped over the next two weeks. God, if you thought AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH was a call to arms, wait until you see this film. This doco about a cove in Japan where dolphin slaughters regularly take place is infinitely more exciting than that synopsis suggests. It's as much a story of how this group managed to get tangible proof of what these fishermen were up to as anything, and though I scoffed when it was described as the "OCEAN'S 11 of documentaries", it really is. It's moving, exciting, and will change the way you look at the world. That's not just a crappy pull quote; I'm not saying that lightly. It is MUST SEE in the most emphatic way possible.
ALL ABOUT ACTRESSES: Unworthily recalling ALL ABOUT EVE, this is a vapid, unfocused mess of a film that has no idea whether it's a mockumentary or a narrative. Somehow, it manages to combine the worst elements of both, and its limp opening is no match for its limp middle or limp ending. This is supposedly a comedy, yet there's not actually one funny moment in the entire thing. A French actress, apparently playing herself, follows a lot of other French actresses about to capture the detail of their lives. Apparently, the vain self-obsession that causes Hollywood to make so many films and TV shows about what it's like to make movies and TV shows isn't just confined to Hollywood. With some notable exceptions (SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, SUNSET BOULEVARD, THE PLAYER, BARTON FINK, STATE AND MAIN, ADAPTATION, and probably a couple of others I've forgotten) so many of these films take "Write about what you know" and turn it into "Write about what nobody cares about". ALL ABOUT ACTRESSES is the worst of the lot. It's two hours of whining and moaning about how hard it is to be an actress working in the movies. Snore. And it tries to redeem itself by becoming self-aware and saying how bad the documentary-within-the-film is. Sorry, but I'm not buying it. You're not in on the joke. You are the joke.ABA is not an ironically bad film; it's just a bad film.
IN THE LOOP: It's likely you haven't heard of Peter Capaldi, and if I'm honest, I had to look up his name to make sure I had it right. He's a brilliant character actor who has done a lot of British television, generally appears in guest spots on various programmes. After seeing him in a significant role in the third season of "Torchwood", I thought, "Man, this guy could totally carry his own film." Little did I know that IN THE LOOP, a film I'd already booked into see at that point, had him front and centre, completely owning the screen every moment he's on it. And that's saying something. This is a very smart, funny political satire that looks like a Robert Altman episode of "Yes, Minister", and there's not a character or actor who doesn't land their part. Every line is a marvel, bitingly funny, and an amazing ensemble of actors, most of whom I did not recognise, never fail to make the most of every moment. That makes it all the more impressive that Capaldi stand out, and tells me that he's even better than I'd originally thought. Hilarious and cutting, IN THE LOOP is the sort of film you watch when you want your comedy funny instead of just loud.
THIRST: My friends and I declared, about a year ago, a moratorium on vampires. Post-Whedon, there's been no new take on the concept that's interested me. And yes, I gave "True Blood" and FUCKING TWILIGHT a try, but both just confirmed how much I didn't need to see vampires on screen for a very long time. Then LET THE RIGHT ONE IN came out, and I had to make that the exception to the rule. Now Park Chan-Wook, easily one of the most interesting and unmissable directors working today, has made THIRST, and I'm forced to hand out another caveat. THIRST is the story of a South Korean Catholic priest who is given a blood transfusion that turns him into a vampire. Actually, it's a lot more complex than that, both in terms of plot and subtext, but I won't go into that here. Park Chan-Wook has made a brilliant, though not perfect, film about lust and repression, and it's as unexpectedly funny as anything else he's done.
KIMJONGILIA: This film kicked my second full day of MIFF, and I can't say the day was brilliant. Between parking woes, a lost diary, and various out-of-order bathrooms, Sunday sort-of sucked. I say "sort-of", because how much can a day of watching movies with your significant other really suck? It wasn't completely without redeeming features, much like KIMJONGILIA, a doco about Kim Jong Il's North Korea and the people who escaped it. It was a decent effort, but the production values were fairly shoddy and the construction was haphazard. There was no real overarching story being told here, it was just a group of interviews strung together to remind us how bad North Korea is. I'm not indifferent to the plight of these people; the point of this review is that I'm indifferent to the film itself, which fails to live up to any sort of satisfying narrative standard.
THE BEACHES OF AGNES: Standing line for BEACHES, I noticed a camera crew talking to people as they went in. As I passed, they stopped and asked what I thought of the controversy with China and MIFF (which I've talked about on AICN, and will cover in more detail later). I ineloquently said something about how they're not going to stop me from seeing 10 CONDITIONS OF LOVE, and went into the cinema. The interview was immediately forgotten as the lights went down and the film began. Sometimes "self-indulgent" is not a pejorative. Sometimes, it can be a compliment, and it is as a compliment that I describe BEACHES OF AGNES as such. In the same gloriously personal way that Guy Maddin's brilliant MY WINNIPEG told his own life story, here director Agnes Varda (age 80, though you wouldn't know it to watch the film) talks about where she grew up, touches on important periods of her life, and generally keeps us enthralled for nearly two hours. She's such a captivating character, and the way she tells her stories is just as interesting as the stories themselves. Whenever she lapses into artifice, she calls herself out on it, holding a mirror up to herself both literally and metaphorically. This is the first films I've seen from Varda, who was involved in the French New Wave movement, but it won't be the last. A truly satisfying, wonderful experience, and exactly what film festivals should be all about.
ALPHAVILLE: There are few things I love more than peppering my MIFF with a few retrospectives, and I couldn't resist ALPHAVILLE. I'd been wanting to see it for years, and the description -- French detective noir meets science fiction -- was very tempting. And yet, I felt myself underwhelmed. Perhaps it was the uncomfortable seats in the Greater Union (as bitched about last year), or the leak in the roof that I'm fairly sure was coming from the upstairs men's room. There were moments of sheer brilliance, but there were moments that left me cold. There was, however, enough in there for me to feel that a second viewing might reveal itself as the masterpiece I was expecting. I'll let you know if and when that happens, because I have the distinct feeling that I've just let something wonderful pass me by. Until then, I can say there's no denying its influence on the best SF of the past few decades, including LA JETEE, BRAZIL and BLADE RUNNER. The screening was followed by a Q&A with star Anna Karina, which was fairly unenlightening. I found several text messages on my phone informing me that the vox pop interview I'd given before BEACHES OF AGNES had just played (albeit as a brief two second grab during a larger story) on SBS news across the country. That happened fast, I thought, and was one of those surreal moments that actually fit in with the tone of the festival.
LETTER TO ANNA: Last year, I noted that a meritless documentary about William S. Burroughs had obviously been accepted to MIFF because of the subject matter, not the film itself. I suspect the same can be said for KIMJONGILIA and LETTER TO ANNA, both of which tackle important, worthy topics in a fairly uninspired manner. LETTER TO ANNA should have been great. It should have been a powerful film, because its subject -- outspoken Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in 2006 -- deserves it. Her story is incredible; this documentary is not. Dueling narration from director Eric Bergkraut and Susan Sarandon (for the English language version of the film) muddles whether this is supposed to be a documentary for the audience, or a letter addressed specifically for Politkovskaya. The events of her life are told in a random manner, with shocking revelations delivered with all the excitement of a technical fault. You can see there's a great story hidden in there, but Bergkraut fumbles it. The sense of outrage we should have felt by the film's end was, instead, a sense of relief that the damn thing was finally over.
VICTORIA: If I'd thought I was having a bad day up to this point, boy, I was in for a shock. Watching this film directed by Anna Karina, I thought, "I can't possibly review this... Karina seems like such a charming woman, and she was part of the whole French New Wave... how can I honestly talk about how bad this film is?". This is one of the most amateur feature films I've ever seen, in terms of story, dialogue, production values, the whole thing. What I later realised was the "twist" was guessed by the entire audience within the first two minutes, and that's one of the highlights because that bit, at least, makes some kind of sense. The rest is just rubbish. (God, this is painful to write.) I tried excusing it thusly: The film is shot on video, and looks too "real". Perhaps if this was shot on film, was in black and white, was from fifty years ago, perhaps then it would have some sort of otherworldly quality to it, the way all old cinema does. Perhaps that's when this film should have been made! Alas, I am making excuses. Clearly, this film played at MIFF as a trade-off to get Karina out so she could talk about her other work as part of the MIFF retrospective. It's a trade-off that has not benefitted MIFF, or audience members. My Girl Friday and I dashed out of the cinema before the Q&A, because we just couldn't take it. On the way out, we ran into a friend who had just seen MARTYRS. He described MARTYRS to us, and we described VICTORIA to him, each of us trying to convince the other that we'd just had the worse cinema experience. We parted company, each convinced we'd won, each hoping that Monday would contain better fare.
PIERROT LE FOU: There's a lot to be said for the gonzo style of journalism, particularly in the context of reviewing an entire film festival, but I sort of played that record to death last year, and how much do you really need to hear about my parking woes? I'll try to tone it down from this point onwards. My Monday began with another 1960s Godard film, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina. The session was running half an hour behind (which would impact the rest of the day's programming across all the cinemas, as well as the moods of all the patrons), but when it finally began, we were treated to one of the best restoration jobs of a 1960s film I've ever seen. The thing looks and sounds amazing. The actual film itself is an intriguing mishmash. Parts work, other parts don't. It feels like the natural progression from BREATHLESS, a feeling perpetuated by the appearance of Belmondo. Whereas BREATHLESS feels like the intense work of a hungry artist (and as such, is represented by a likeminded central character), PIERROT feels like the frustrated work of someone whose time and success has brought about a sort-of creative ennui. And there's only five years the difference between the two. Belmondo's Ferdinand is bored by his life and the successful people around him, and throws away his money to go on the run with Karina's Marianne and live a more peaceful, down-to-earth life. It's an interesting counterpoint to Godard's earlier film, even if it's not really a success. There are some brilliant moments, such as the singing man on the pier towards the end o the film, and some bizarrely uncomfortable moments, like the yellowface Karina adopts when she acts out a scene from the Vietnam war. The oddest feeling was knowing that although ALPHAVILLE was undoubtedly a better film, I actually got more out of PIERROT LE FOU.
MOMMO: My first real random pick of the festival, this Turkish film about a ten year old brother looking after his younger sister in a remote village doesn't break a whole lot of new ground. It's a fairly clichéd film -- in terms of a lay opinion on what would make a Turkish film -- but it works. There's really nothing in the entire film I would criticise. So why does the film do more than just break even in my opinion? The two central kids are brilliant on-screen, not just in performance, but in how photogenic they are. The little girl in particular, Ayse, absolutely adores her older brother, and you can see why, as he goes out of his way to give her everything he possibly can. Every time Ayse looks up at him with those enormous brown eyes, it's difficult not to get a bit melty. This won't rewrite the history books, or create a surge of interest in Turkish cinema, but it's a lovely little film that kinda made my day.
MOON: I have to thank whichever reviewer it was (I think either on AICN or CHUD) who said that you should avoid not just spoilers for MOON, but the synopsis as well. Good enough for me, thought I, and so I went in only knowing the name of the film, its director, and a handful of cast members. I'm glad, too. This film is essentially a cross between 2001 and "Red Dwarf" (bet you never thought you'd see that in print), a perfectly-paced science fiction film that actually is science fiction. You know, as opposed to a story with lasers that happens to be set in space, as most modern SF seems to be. Director Duncan Jones and writer Nathan Parker have created a wonderful film that exists purely on its own terms. Despite the influences, the style and mood of the film is all its own, and even now as I write about it, I find myself looking forward to a second viewing. Also, it doesn't hurt that Jones cast Matt Berry, albeit in a blink-and-you-miss it role. Anything with Matt Berry in gets an automatic thumbs up from me, so the film being brilliant just happens to be a nice bonus.
IT CAME FROM KUCHAR: Wow. I'd never heard of the Kuchar brothers before, but I doubt I'll ever forget them. These two are underground cult filmmakers in the truest sense, making the schlockiest stuff I've ever seen committed to film, and managing to do so with both a sense of humour and a complete obliviousness to their own lives. This documentary about the Kuchars is one of the funniest films I've seen in a long time, and unlike last year's I THINK WE'RE ALONE NOW, the documentary is laughing affectionately alongside them, rather than mean-spiritedly at them. The film contains interviews with John Waters, who is now contractually obliged to appear in every documentary about cinema I see these days, Atom Egoyan, Wayne Wang, the awesome Buck Henry, and Guy Maddin, whose brilliant appearance in this almost makes up for the fact that he doesn't have a film playing in MIFF this year. The audience was in absolutely hysterics, and I think everyone came out with a deep affection for these guys. For real film fans, this can be added to the "unmissable" pile.
And that's all I can manage for now. See you all in a few days time...