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AICN Downunder: Latauro Does MIFF #2!!


The Event: The 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival

The Protagonist: Latauro (AICN-Downunder)

The Mission: To see commit suicide-by-too-many-films. Just how many can I cram into one week? I'm going to find out. But on the way, I shall tell you, the lucky reader, about all the films I see, so that you may discover a hidden gem, or perhaps a hidden turd, that you might not otherwise have discovered.

Today's Lesson:I'm frequently made fun of by some people for my obsession and adoration of MIFF, as well I should be. I go on about it enough. But that's not to say I don't see the flaws when they're there. I was critical of the publicity element of MIFF 2008, and 2009 has slid further into the abyss. They've kept the tagline "Everyone's a critic", one of those neat-sounding phrases that doesn't really work in the function it's supposed to. See, nobody really wants to be a critic. Critics are, by and large, hated, and the idea of aspiring to become one isn't all that universal. Critics are seen as elitist who Don't Like Normal Movies, and that tagline suggests that's the sort of person who would be enticed to go to MIFF. Hardly appealing. But that's not the worst part. The three promo ads created for MIFF 2009 are some of the worst things I've ever seen. I don't find them remotely funny, but humour is subjective, so I won't chastise them too much for that. The worst part about them is that they don't work. The trailers, which can be seen here, feature, respectively, two astronauts, two emo kids, and two wrestlers. In each of the ads, one of the characters talks about how bad the film they just watched is. How the hell is that supposed to make people want to go to the festival? Seriously? These characters find the films they've watched boring, poorly-made, depressing... pretty much living up to the clichés that all non-festival people have about film festivals. Why aren't you celebrating the brilliance of these films? Why isn't that the selling point? Surely this can't be the only format you can think of! Look, it works for me. I'm happy for people to be turned off seeing MIFF films, 'cos it means I have a better chance of getting a good seat, but for MIFF's sake, these ads should be thrown out. Next year, you gotta do something better, because these are just shite.

HOME: Helping to restore my faith in modern French drama is HOME, a wonderfully simple film about a family living in peace next to an abandoned highway. They find it difficult to adjust when the road is opened and their quiet life suddenly becomes very loud. I don't know how a film like this would play on its own, but as part of a festival, it's perfect. I want to call it a palette cleanser, but that's something of a back-handed compliment, isn't it? What I mean is that it's nice to split up the unexpected moments of brilliance (like THE COVE) and the moments of bored frustration (like ALL ABOUT ACTRESSES) with a film that's just plain enjoyable to watch. Oh, it has substance, but that substance is delivered in a wonderfully pleasant and non-taxing manner. A terrific debut from French filmmaker Ursula Meier.

ABOUT ELLY: I can't say I've seen a lot of Iranian cinema. The country's remoteness (attitude, not latitude) makes it easier to see the country as something foreign and different. The start of ABOUT ELLIE, a remarkable character piece about a group of families going on a holiday, immediately breaks all preconceptions. At the risk of sounding naive, they are... just like us. This, as it turns out, is a big misdirection for when those elements unique to Iranian culture (specifically their particular brand of patriarchy) come into play, we're uneasy. Is it a deliberate attempt to challenge our values, or an honest appraisal of how they would react in this situation? These inter-character power structures become not just interesting, but absolutely vital to the plot. You simply could not make this film in Australia or America or any other Western country. Thought it's not as tight as it perhaps should be, this Altmanesque (I use that term too much, I know) mix of comedy, drama and mystery is more than worth the look, and would surely be a more effective diplomatic bridge-biulding exercise than any diplomatic mission. (Incidentally, this film was banned in Iran after actress Golshifteh Farahani appeared in Ridley Scott's BODY OF LIES.)

RED RIDING: 1974: I'm not sure why, but this English film had English subtitles playing over the top. It was incredibly distracting, but also confusing -- who were they for? Not the deaf. Deaf subtitles include sound effects and, occasionally, important music cues, and these didn't. So what purpose did they serve other than to annoy and distract? The film itself is the first part of a trilogy. The second and third films are playing at MIFF over the next two days, and if all goes to play, the reviews should appear below. The only real annoyance is that, for the most part, the film feels like parts one of a trilogy, rather than a film in its own right. Ideally, it should function as both. A journalist investigates the murder of a ten year old girl in 1974 Yorkshire and wonders if it's connected to other, earlier murders. I really enjoyed this handsomely-shot film, but I'll see how I feel later after I've seen parts two and three.

AN ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK: I've not seen THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT, the 1975 telemovie about the life of Quentin Crisp, to which this film is a sequel. John Hurt is Quentin Crisp, an aging gay crossdresser who has been summoned to New York to appear on stage and impart his witticisms to a captive crowd of enlightened 1980s folks rejoicing in the fact that homosexuality is no longer illegal. The main problem with the film is that it hinges on Crisp being witty -- and he is, but not nearly as much as the script wants us to believe. it's not just that every two minutes we see some wide-eyed orbital character remark on how witty Crisp is (show, don't tell!), but rather than the context is shaky. This particular brand of Oscar Wilde-esque retort is best delivered in response to an abrasive, real world. ENGLISHMAN's script is, unfortunately, filled with setups that feel less like a piece of dialogue and more like the belaboured first line of a joke. As such, the wit stops being witty, regardless of how great John hurt's delivery is. Hurt, one of the most consistently great and underappreciated actors working today, is completely natural as Crisp. That Hurt is a great actor comes as no surprise; that he looks exactly like Maggie Smith when he puts on makeup does. I'm unfamiliar with the real-life Crisp, but I feel that this far too inconsequential a telling of what rudimentary amount of research tells me was a very interesting man. It's a lightweight film that feels like it was knocked off over a weekend -- inoffensive, occasionally amusing, but ultimately forgettable.

HUMPDAY: Imagine Owen Wilson and Ron Livingston in the most naturalistic Kevin Smith film ever. That's HUMPDAY. Possibly the biggest crowd-pleaser of the festival, HUMPDAY is a great introduction to writer/director Lynne Shelton, who has created a brilliantly original and consistently hilarious film for her fourth feature (I've not seen WE GO WAY BACK, WHAT THE FUNNY or MY EFFORTLESS BRILLIANCE, but now hope to). The story of two straight friends who drunkenly dare one another to have sex with the other on camera for an art project rockets along at a pitch-perfect pace. With natural, seemingly-improvised dialogue, the film is surprisingly real given its setup, and was the best way to end Day Four of the festival. Immeasurably better than 95% of Hollywood comedies, HUMPDAY is undoubtedly the next cult thing.

STILL WALKING: I hadn't planned to see this Japanese film -- the story of a family unable to move on from the death of their son sounded like an unappealing slog, no matter how worthy or amazing it ended up being. But my girlfriend had a ticket to it, and there was nothing else on, so along I went. I was caught by surprise; a slog, this film most definitely is not. It's incredibly funny; not just smattering of humour throughout the drama, but it could almost be classified as a comedy. The characters are all so brilliantly drawn, each with their own distinct personality (as opposed to different shades of the writer's psyche made manifest). It did feel a tad long -- the natural end feels as if it comes a long time before the final credits -- but it's a complaint that does not destract from the quality of the film. I'm reminded that even I sometimes have unfair stereotypical views of foreign dramas, and that those views are frequently and wonderfully subverted.

LAND OF MADNESS: The story of a French region of towns plagued by insanity and murders sounds amazing, but this doco doesn't quite live up to the heights that premise suggests. It's essentially a series of stories, first-hand accounts of the murders themselves, and as such it sort-of works. The interviews aren't terribly extensive, and the links between them -- though compelling -- are spurious and unsupported by any evidence, theories, or even batshit crazy guesses. So really, just a few morbid anecdotes, then. Aside from a terrific coda in which the director is openly challenged on-screen by an associate (his wife?) about the merits of the film we've just watched, this is an oddly unengaging and fairly mundane film that does little to deliver on its promise.

RED RIDING: 1980: Those bloody subtitles are back. We were trying to figure out why they're there, and the latest theory is that they're for an American audience unable to deal with Yorkshire accents, but given film ssuch as TRAINSPOTTING were able to slip past without subtitles, why begin now? I know I'm harping on about it, but it really is very distracting, and, thus far, inexplicable. Nevertheless, the second part of the RED RIDING trilogy is a big step-up from the first part. Directed by MAN ON WIRE's James Marsh, the story picks up with Peter Hunter (the brilliant Paddy Considine) looking into the Yorkshire Ripper case years after the events of the previous films. I'm now desperate for tomorrow's concluding chapter. Both the first two films have finished in a way that suggests the story is over. Where the hell is this thing going to go? I can't wait to find out.

VAN DIEMEN'S LAND: I didn't see the Melburnian short film HELL'S FATE that won the short film prize at MIFF 2008 (although I did see Melbourne feature film GATES OF HELL, made in the same year -- go figure!). VAN DIEMEN'S LAND is the feature-length version of that short, and I'll admit, I was barracking for the home town team. That doesn't mean I'm not prepared to eviscerate it if it sucks, mind, although I was completely unprepared for my eventual reaction. My reaction, it turned out, was two reactions. Bifurcated, possibly contradictory, opinions! What to do? Review both, I suppose. Why I Didn't Like It: It feels like a long short film, in that it's a twenty minute film with a lot of padding. There are no emotional highs or lows, just a sort-of constant flatness. You don't really connect with any of the characters, and the film doesn't so much end as it stops. Why I Liked It: Firstly, it looks amazing. Australia produces a surprising number of ugly films -- if they all looked this good, I'd be pretty happy. Secondly, it feels real. Rather than applying some sort of contrived formulaic structure to the proceedings, the filmmakers do a brilliant job of showing what it would actually be like. It would be monotonous. The murders would be clumsy, ugly, and likely with no suspenseful build-up. It's terrifically restrained, and although it's based on the possibly unreliable testimony of the sole survivor (I won't spoil it for you, but the film is based on the true story of escaped convicts in 19th Century Tasmania), it feels like the most honest depiction possible of these events. Phew. Confused? Me too. When I'm torn between dueling opinions of a film, I usually rely on the process of critiquing to sort it out in my head. This time, alas, I'm still torn. Basically, you should go see it yourself, then, if you don't mind, try to sway me with your opinions. It's reverse reviewing! Could be a new trend.

THE BURROWERS: If you can't get your hands on a film print, or a high-quality digital print, you shouldn't be projecting a film onto a big screen. The betacam sp copy of THE BURROWERS looked like shit, and made the film's nighttime scenes almost impossible to define. That concludes my problems with this film, a brilliant and unexpected Western horror that took me completely by surprise. I'd forgotten all but the title by the time the lights went down, even forgetting the excited testimony of my friend a few hours earlier, as he eagerly anticipated seeing man-god Clancy Brown once again on the big screen. The film follows a group of men who, SEARCHERs-style, go off in search of a family they believe have been taken by Indians. Amongst their number is the great William Mapother, who has always been great as creepy villains, but here proves he can do roguish, charming heroes as well as anyone. (To say he's very similar to Captain Mal Reynolds is doing a disservice to Mapother's performance, although the comparison are hard to shake.) I won't spoil a frame of this superbly-writtten, highly-original film, only to say that it is essential viewing. Oh, and it has one of the ballsiest fucking endings I've ever seen attempted. And it works. A great film to end a great day.

BURMA VJ: Seeing between four and six films each day can be a bit tiring, and so my girlfriend and I took a break in the morning for a press screening of UP (likely reviewed when AICN-Downunder resumes normal programming). Seeing a film was a nice break, but it was soon back to intense filmgoing for us! BURMA VJ was my first MIFF film of the day, and what a contrast to UP. This very well-made doco looks at the video journalists in Burma who have recorded the massacres and atrocities there. I bitch about our press a lot (and rightly so in most cases), but I'm often reminded of how lucky I am to be living in a country with freedom of the press. Too frequently, we gear about the oppression that comes with government-run media; we almost never hear about the horrors of a country that bans journalism altogether. The 2007 protests, which feel like yesterday, were captured by an underground group of journalists; essentially a network of citizen with handicams trying not to get caught. Citizens are beaten, imprisoned, killed for protesting the poverty and oppression they live in. The footage is unbelievable, and the story of them getting it just as amazing. Another film that must be sought out.

RED RIDING: 1983: Still with the fucking subtitles, but not to matter. This trilogy, as written by Tony Gilroy, has wrapped up in an interesting way. I'd argue the films have got better as they went along, but there were still some problems with part three. This film jumps about in a non-linear fashion, which is usually something I enjoy, except here there are no visual clues to suggest whether it's present day or a flashback we're watching. As such, the character arc of David Morrissey and the order in which various facts come to light are fairly mudled. Or perhaps it was just me. I'm told that David Pearce, the writer of the book upon which these films are based, is a bit like the British James Elroy, filling in the gaps of true life crime stories with reasoned speculation. One bit goes a bit too far for me, though, and I don't know whether to blame Pearce, Gilroy, or the people who were actually there. A medium is brought in, and she seems to be a real one? Dramatic? Maybe, but every time she communes with the dead girls and blulrts out a piece of evidence thanks to psychic energy alone, I felt as if I wasn't really getting the tru version of events. And, in retrospect, after seeing the films from a distance, I can see that about a lot of other elements as well. As a piece of drama, the films are pretty good, though not great; I just don't trust them as a record of accuracy. Still, I'd say they're definitely worth a look.

AWAY WE GO: I've talked about Ken Loach's idiotic decision to remove his film, LOOKING FOR ERIC, from MIFF for political reasons, but one good thing came of his misguided self-consorship: the last-minute addition of Sam Mendes's AWAY WE GO. I knew absolutely nothing about this film, largely by design. All I need to hear is "Directed by Sam Mendes" and my ticket is bought. I don't bother with the synopsis or anything, given is strike rate is, in my eyes, flawless. As it turned out, my ticket was inadvertently bought, which was a great surprise. That strike rate? Secure. After the completely brilliant and mostly misunderstood REVOLUTIONARY ROAD earlier this year (going by the Australian release date), he's gone for a smaller, hilarious character piece about a couple that falls pregnant. The casting is completely left-field, but there isn't a weak spot in the entire film. John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are both perfect as the main couple, and carry the weigh of the film without incident. A fantastic, beautiful, and very funny film that, for those scoring at home, puts Mendes at five for five.

THE HURT LOCKER: I don't understand it when people say they don't like old movies, or Westerns, or romantic comedies, or, in the case of one friend, anything that's set in space. If a film is done well, it should be great regardless of the genre. I used to think I didn't like horror films until I saw THE SHINING, THE EXORCIST, THE OMEN and ROSEMARY'S BABY. You just need to see the good ones. Here's the problem: I know know what a good war movie looks like any more. I know what they used to look like, but the elements that made a good war movie in 1943 don't necessarily apply today. Particularly, and specifically, when you're talking about current conflicts (a caveat that allows me to exclude various works of brilliance such as THREE KINGS, "Band of Brothers", and JARHEAD). How do you talk about an ongoing conflict whilst it's still going on without it turning into some sort of propaganda? Can it be done? What does a good example of that look like? LIONS FOR LAMBS? The schizophrenic THE KINGDOM? LIONS FOR LAMBS was the most disturbingly overt piece of politicisng I've seen in a long time, whereas THE KINGDOM didn't know what it wanted to be. I thought those first five minutes were absolutely inspired -- where the history of the West's relationship with the Middle East is explained succinctly during the opening titles -- but the last twenty minutes descended into a standard search and rescue missions. We may as well have been watching SWAT, a fact that made that opening sequence look like an embarrassed attempt to look deeply political and relevant. I say all this because THE HURT LOCKER shows how it can be done. This film about the life and stressed of soldiers serving in Iraw works on so many levels. Viscerally, it is as good a combat film as you'll see, brilliantly tense throughout. Psychologically, it's as deep a look inside a soldier's psyche as anything else, but those wishing for a straight-out action film could easily go the running time without noticing it. Politically... well, that's the hot button, isn't it? There is a deep political subtext here, but it's not your standard pro- or anti- war agenda. It dares us to have an opinion, then challenges it at every turn, perpetually reminding us that we know nothing. I've always really like Kathryn Bigelow, I just never realised she was this good. THE HURT LOCKER is an incredible film and is, for my money, the first great film about the second Gulf War.

Not including that non-MIFF media screening, that's twenty-eight films down. See you all in three days for all sorts of Soderberghian, Tarantinoish and zombie Nazi-filled goodness!



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