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AICN Downunder: Latauro Does MIFF #4!!


The Event: The 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival

The Protagonist: Latauro (AICN-Downunder)

The Mission: How many films can you watch in a little over two weeks, without completely ruining your physical well-being? This year, I'm going to find out. Except I'm not caring a whole lot about the physical well-being thing.

Today's Lesson: If each year of MIFF can be characterised by an event or theme, then the theme of the 58th Melbourne International Film Festival is surely that of political dissent. When Ken Loach pulled his film, LOOKING FOR ERIC, at the last moment in order to protest of Israeli's financial support of the festival, we thought that would be the big story. And it certainly is a big one. I've been wanting to see Ken Loach's films for quite some time, and I still plan to, but it's hard to respect the man's stance. Being angry at Israel for its policies towards Palestinians is valid. That I can respect. Refusing to participate in an apolitical festival because of tangental Israeli involvement (in this case, the cost of director Tatia Rosenthal's plane ticket), I cannot. Art and politics can't and shouldn't be divorced, but if you're going to refuse to participate in any event that has even the vaguest hint of connection to any country with a spotty human rights record, then brother, you're going to find yourself staying at home quite a lot. It's also fair to say that Loach has disavowed himself of the right to complain about censorship ever again. Once you've censored your own work for idiotic political reasons, you open the door for everyone else to do the same.

But that's not the biggest political MIFF news. By now you've heard of China's anger at MIFF playing 10 CONDITIONS OF LOVE, the documentary about the oppressed Uighers. China claims the Uighers are all terrorists, and that any film about them should not be played. Festival director Richard Moore was phoned by a woman from the Chinese consulate, and told that he had to give a valid reason to play the film. No, he told them, you have to give me a valid reason not to play it. After a ridiculous list of reasons was spouted, then repeated, Moore hung up on her. "Sports Tonight" should have made it their Play Of The Day.

However, it didn't end there. Filmmakers from China and Hong Kong all pulled their films out of MIFF in protest, and Chinese hackers have repeatedly hit the MIFF website and caused all kinds of havoc. This isn't just due to the film itself playing, but to the fact that the documentary's subject, Rebiya Kadeer, is flying in as a guest of the festival. Kadeer, China claims, is an instigator of violence, which, coming from the Chinese government, carries as much weight as a two year old blaming his toys for the mess on the carpet. Australia's ambassador to China has been called in for what some news organisations described as a "dressing down". I can't help but wonder where our fucking balls are. We're getting dressed down? Why isn't the Chinese ambassador being called in to be repudiated about the website hacking, the obvious pressure on filmmakers to withdraw their films from MIFF, and, I don't know, the thousands of Uighers who have mysteriously disappeared over the years? Oh, I forgot: China owns the world.

I'll be seeing 10 CONDITIONS this coming weekend, amongst what I understand will be an awful lot of security. Am I nervous? Perhaps a little, but not nearly enough to prevent me from seeing this film. Terror and political intimidation only works if we let it. So I might just go and see 10 CONDITIONS a second time.

CITIZEN HAVEL: Well, this is one of the most incredible documentaries I've ever seen, largely because of the scale of it. The film opens in 1993 on the night when Vaclav Havel, the last President of Czechoslovakia, is elected the first President of the Czech Republic. The film ends in 2003, just after he has left office. The power of this documentary is not just due to its almost-unprecedented scope -- unless you're Terrence Malick, the idea of spending ten years on a film is probably a bit daunting -- but the access that the filmmakers are granted. We see some extremely private moments, almost as if Havel is unaware of the camera crew (despite occasionally offering them a drink or some food). Despite his extraordinary history (he was a playwright who was jailed for his anti-communist stance, and was then swept to power under the 1989 Velvet Revolution), it's hard not to see him as an almost comic character. His politeness is nearly his undoing; there are moments where he nearly bows to pressure from political opponents because he thinks it would be rude to do otherwise. His advisors are constantly reminding him that he is the President and can act with more authority, but this incredibly amusing and endearing streak of gentility lasts throughout the film entire. Then-President Bill Clinton visits with Madeleine Albright, the Rolling Stones play a concert and then have lunch with President Havel (the moment where Ronnie Wood and Havel discuss Czech restaurants is priceless), and he works out that by seating his wife next to the flirtatious Jacques Chirac, he can curb any objectionable behaviour from the French during multi-nation dinners. Most of the time, you cannot believe what you're watching, which makes this documentary so extraordinary. Easily one of the best this year.

MOTHER: For my money, the two most exciting directors (I usually hate that term, but it's a necessary evil) both happen to be from South Korea. Much has been said of Park Chan-Wook's brilliance, and rightly so; but it's about time that Bong Joon-ho became a household name. Following the amazing MEMORIES OF MURDER and THE HOST, Joon-ho has made his best film yet. MOTHER is the story of an aging South Korean woman who must prove that her son (cursed with both beauty and possible mental disabilities) did not commit a murder that everyone in the town believes he did. Joon-ho has crafted one of the best murder mystery procedurals I've ever seen, largely because the protagonist is a decidedly un-Miss Marple-like old woman. At just over two hours, there's not a single moment I would cut out of it. It's pretty much perfect from start to finish, and a shoo-in for the year's best list. Utterly brilliant.

SHADOW PLAY: THE MAKING OF ANTON CORBIJN: Until the film was introduced by its executive producer, I didn't realise this was a Melbourne production. You wouldn't really know it to watch the film, either. This wonderfully-made documentary looks at the work of Anton Corbijn, examining how he became the director he is, and looking at his career via the making of CONTROL. The interviews are insightful, the construction is excellent, and Corbijn himself, clearly uneasy talking about himself, is surprisingly verbose. I went into this documentary wanting to know how Corbijn's career had started and developed, and I got exactly what I wanted. A very satisfying doco, and a great end to a great (albeit shortened) day.

THE EXPLODING GIRL: Following the fairly well-made short PIÑATA, came THE EXPLODING GIRL. I picked this one largely because it featured Zoe Kazan, so damned good in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. It's the sort of bizarre logic I often chide others for, a fact that became clear about half an hour into this film when I realised nothing was going to happen. Look, I do think, to some extent, there are objectively good and bad films. I can recognise good films I dislike and bad films I like. A good film is one that meets its own expectations, sets its own goals and kicks them perfectly. THE EXPLODING GIRL works, but only because its goals are subterranean. It doesn't really want to be anything more than a look at two middle-class kids who do absolutely nothing from scene to scene, and so, I suppose, it works. I get what it's trying to be. It's trying to be this minimalist character piece where you're just dying to see these two kids realise they should be together, but -- and here's where I completely contradict what I said, like, two sentences ago -- you just don't care. Not one iota. Neither of these kids has any real problems to speak of, beyond the typical "Does she like me?" stuff that would be boring if they were your close friends. There's no conflict. There's no real event beyond a lot of phone calls to this girl's estranged boyfriend. Nothing fucking happens. Minimalism is very hard to pull off, a fact that I now appreciate after sitting through THE EXPLODING GIRL.

IT MIGHT GET LOUD: You know that list of Great Music Documentaries? Make some room on it. IT MIGHT GET LOUD, which is about ninety minutes of Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White sitting around talking about the electric guitar, is one of the best films of MIFF, brilliantly entertaining at every turn. I have a feeling that this doco would still appeal to people who aren't fans of the artists, but it's hard to tell as, personally adoring all three, I was enthralled. From Jack's device of teaching his nine year old self how to rock, to the footage of a sixteen-year-old James Page, to The Edge's almost-scientific approach to getting the sound in his head out of his guitar, there's not a moment in this film that isn't fantastic. I can't wait to get this film on Blu-Ray, partly for the re-watch, but mostly so we can see all the parts of that discussion that didn't make it into the film. There's surely a ton of material waiting to be added. The highlight of the film: the look on Jack's face when he realises he's watching Jimmy Page playing Whole Lotta Love only inches away from him. Beautiful.

THE WHITE RIBBON: I can imagine a moment in pre-production when somebody went up to Michael Haneke and asked why he wanted to make this film. "Well," he responds in my imagination, "I'd really, really like to win the Palme D'Or." Obtuse I may be, but I spent most of the film trying to find the key driving force of this film was, to no avail. Why would you want to make it? Where is the moment that reveals the passion? I'd figured out the twist (such as it is) within the first fifteen minutes, and so I was on the lookout for the themes that enrich this moment, bring out its inherent irony. There were none. It's a surprisingly standard depiction of an early 20th Century German town (ie: respectable on the outside, sordid on the inside), with no real sense of continuity or momentum between the scenes. Even the look of it left me cold. Black and white photography can be beautiful, yet here it looks like somebody simply turned the colour balance way down. After the awful 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS, I think it's clear that I'm not having a lot of luck with recent Palm D'Or winners. (Note: every one of my reviews should be taken with a grain of salt, but this time I'll save you the bother and provide it myself. Four of my friends who saw the film with me all felt the opposite, loving the quiet stoicism as well as the photography. And they're all a lot smarter than I am, so take from that what you will.)

THE MAID: This terrifically-made Peruvian film is incredibly simple -- it's the story of a maid to an upper class family, paranoid about the changes in the household she's served for twenty years. This took out the Grand Jury Prize and the Special Jury Prize for Catalina Saavedra's performance at the Sundance Film Festival, and it's not hard to see why. Funny, poignant (in the good way, not the irritating way), and a nice antidote to those character pieces about nothing.

MORPHIA: "Features one of the best endings of the Festival," boasted the MIFF Guide, ensuring that this odd Russian film about a doctor in a remote village circa 1912 would play to a packed house. If I were director Alexey Balabanov (who took over from Seregei Bodrov Jnr when he died in pre-production), I'd be simultaneously happy that the reviewer had liked it, and angry at the loaded expectations the audience now had. Though the film is entertaining in its own manner, and definitely has a cool Jarmuschesque aesthetic going on, it's not, in fact, the best ending of the Festival. It's not even the best ending of the day, and I've only seen one other film so far. There's nothing wrong with it, and, like the rest of the film, it's neither brilliant nor terrible, but it's not really something that's going to really stick with me for days to come.

ANTI-CHRIST: Critics are always accused of bias, particularly when their opinion differs from that of the reader. The correct response is, of course, yes, we are biased. Just like you. We have some handle on what we like and don't like, otherwise our opinions would be of no worth. (Moreso.) Everybody has some sort of bias before they see a film; the only dishonest thing is not to admit it. So, here's mine, upfront: I fucking hate Lars von Trier. I hate his movies, I hate his other movies, and I hate the movies he's yet to make. That's not to say I'm no open-minded, though. But, after years of proclaiming his work to be unwatchable garbage, it's only with ANTI-CHRIST that I've finally figured out what I actually think of him, See, ANTI-CHRIST is the closest he's ever come to actual filmmaking. There are moments in the film, particularly in the opening, that are sublimely good, verging on the great. For the first time, I've seen the hints of a talented filmmaker, and nobody is more surprised at this than I. What I've realised about Lars von Trier is that far from being the brave director that he is often proclaimed to be, he is, in fact, the most afraid. The artifices he puts in his movies have the distinct odour of a man terrified of his own work, terrified of its reception. For instance, with his comedy THE BOSS OF IT ALL, he addresses the camera at various intervals, and shoots using his terrible Automavision, so that any accusation that suggests the film is not funny can be deflected with claims of irony or postmodernism. DOGVILLE is shot on ugly digital video with lines on the floor supplanting sets, so nobody would notice it's the third or fourth time he's made that exact same story. With ANTI-CHRIST, he's finally embracing a style, fearlessly directing sequences with techniques that, to my complete surprise, actually enhance the story. The slow-mo prologue is incredible; the distorted wood, perfectly creepy; the imagined fantasy scenes are beautiful. This, I feel, is tremendous progress. Sadly, though, it's mostly let down by his usual tricks. Jump cuts and camera shakes give inappropriate moments of self-conscious vérité; they simply don't fit in this film, but that I can live with. No, his biggest weakness is his desperation to shock people. Graphic sex, graphic violence, a graphic combination of sex and violence, the film's title... it's all too desperate, and undoes most of the work he did so well in the beginning. The problem with this stuff is that beyond the initial moment of impact, it's not that shocking. I'm no more shocked by extreme sex in Lars von Trier films than I am by a 13 year old shouting "cunt!" at people and drawing genitalia in his maths book. And that's the point: anyone can come up with this stuff. The only shocking or edgy part is the context, and that's why ANTI-CHRIST is fairly standard. What would have been shocking is if he hadn't bothered with that stuff, and had instead delivered on the promise of the opening sequence: the promise of a powerful film that wouldn't need to resort to cheap graphic imagery in order to get a reaction. That would have shocked me.

ECCENTRICITIES OF A BLOND-HAIRED GIRL: Before you alter your position on the age of retirement, you might want to consider that the director of this film, Manoel de Oliveira, is 100 years old. That's not a typo: he's actually 1000. Wait, that is a typo. He's 100. This 63-minutes film about an accountant in love with a girl he can see from his window has about 31.5 minutes of material all up. It's charmingly archaic, and only really works if you continually remind yourself that the director's age is in triple figures. The ending, however, is the best bit: it finishes with the abruptness of a man who forgot how the story ends and so stopped telling it.

DEFAMATION: I'm not going to go into the details of my own personal Judaism, but it's safe to say that my interest in DEFAMATION, a doco about anti-Semitism in the world, was more academic than personal. I certainly didn't expect to come out with the emotions that I did -- not necessarily questioning my own opinions and feelings, but more acutely aware of my place in the world. I was sceptical when it began; for the first few minutes, I perceived a bias against the idea of an all-permeating anti-Semitism, which immediately had me take the opposite viewpoint. But as Yoav Shamir's doco progresses, it becomes clear that he's much smarter than that. He carefully sets himself up as someone genuinely curious to find out how much anti-Jewish sentiment there actually is in the world. He ends up with what I was surprised to find to be a balanced, fair doco. Neither side is shown to be flawless or with any sort of monopoly on the truth. Each player has their hypocricies brought front and centre. What is the Jewish relationship to racism? Is anti-Semitism the same as anti-Zionism? Does any criticism of Israeli policy count as anti-Zionism? The answers, inconclusive as they may be, will surely anger a lot of people, but this is a film that should be seen by all.

THE MAN WHO CAME WITH THE SNOW: My reason for picking MAN WHO CAME WITH THE SNOW was even more spurious than my reason for picking EXPLODING GIRL: the picture that accompanied the description of MAN... in the MIFF Guide reminded me of the town from the start of THE LADY VANISHES, and I fucking love THE LADY VANISHES. But why not? You're supposed to use random reasoning at a festival when you're filling out the numbers. It's how you surprise yourself. In this instance, it was a brilliant surprise. This Iranian-French film (told in Farsi) is set at a bar in what looks like a very remote part of the world. Amidst the usual sullen locals are two children of roughly five or six, who I'm delighted to describe as ragamuffins (I love that word -- it's such a polite way of describing a poverty-stricken child). This brother-and-sister duo hustle to little success, trying to sell "salty, delicious, cheap" pistachios to the locals. They soon focus their attention on a sullen stranger (the one from the title), a man no one's seen before. He is different things to different people; he's dangerous, or he's a saviour, or he's a mark. All without him saying a word or doing much of anything besides drinking beer. I've criticised films for not doing anything, but this film knows how to not do anything. At 75 minutes, the film is neither too short nor too long; it is bizarrely entertaining from start to finish. The true mark of a good film? I'm eager to revisit it. A wonderful film definitely worth seeking out.

BLACK DYNAMITE: This is the film I mostly hoped that the direly unfunny UNDERCOVER BROTHER would be. 70s Blaxploitation films are ripe for the spoofing, but too many films don't really get how to spoof them. BLACK DYNAMITE isn't exactly an exception, but nor is it more of the same. The first half hour is very promising: Blaxploitation conventions are skewed brilliantly, and Michael Jai White finally erases all memories of SPAWN with his hilarious performance. After that, though, the film forgets its own rules. Yes, the bit with the boom ducking into shot is funny, but BLACK DYNAMITE initially set itself up as a genuine relic of the 70s, and moments like that are too broad. Its downfall is that it tries too damn hard, and abandons itself in favour of jokes that don't really belong. It's funny, but not nearly as funny as it should be, or thinks it is.

HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN: It was the description of this film as being "consistently banned on video and DVD since its 1969 release" that made this an automatic booking. Also, the trailer that played at the MIFF media launch made it look like the best kind of fucked up there is. So, what the hell is it? Well, the best description I can think of is that it's a 1960s Japanese version of "The Island of Dr Moreau", directed by David Lynch as a homage to Hitchcock. The crowd was certainly eating it up, but I'm still not sure if I was. Parts of it were brilliantly terrible, and I found the whole experience entertaining... but something wasn't right. I think it was the fact that there were a number of scenes that were played for laughs; the sort of laughs that felt like "This will be really funny to audiences in forty years, so let's ramp up the comedy!". The humour in watching films like this is that they're so wrapped up in their own world, they're oblivious to the comedy they're creating; HORRORS feels like it's in on the joke, which sort-of ruined the experience for me. (And no, I don't routinely laugh at old films for the sake of it, but... well, check out this film and you'll see what I mean.) It works, but it works as a piece of history, a time capsule of extremism and boundary-pushing, circa 1969.

HOME MOVIE: First, allow me to take a bow: HOME MOVIE was the seventh film of the day. Before Thursday's six MIFF sessions, Girl Friday and I went along to a non-MIFF media screening of PONYO, and, exhausted, weren't sure if we were going to make it. We did, however, but true credit has go to Friday, who did the whole thing with a fairly awful head cold. At 11:30pm, thirteen and a half hours after our first film of the day had begun, we sat down in the Greater Union cinema to watch HOME MOVIE, a mockumentary horror about a family living in the woods. I know why people make mockumentaries -- particularly the "found footage" kind -- as they can be incredibly effective, but they're so damn hard to get right. There are two important elements you need in a found footage mocko. First, you need dialogue that doesn't sound like it's been scripted. If I don't believe the characters are talking naturally, then the entire conceit of the film is wasted. Second, you need a compelling reason for the characters to continue filming during what will certainly turn out to be some sort of adversity. HOME MOVIE doesn't really sell either of these ideas; for the most part, you don't buy that they'd continue to operate the camera. It's also oddly formulaic for this sort of film: dad starts recording, puts on a funny accent for the camera, the kids do something horrific, camera stops recording. Then, months later, we pick up again, and the above events play out the same way. It's a really odd formula, but it almost works. The creepiness of the kids is sold well, and though I didn't have any jump-out-of-my-skin moments, there are some nice reveals. I think I enjoyed it most of all in the context of the day's films: they couldn't have been more different, and HOME MOVIE was a nice way to end it.

Only one MIFF entry left to go! (Unless I do a separate Best/Worst list, which I'm considering.) Three more days of wonderful, intense film watching before we get our lives back. I'm not sure whether I'm looking forward to it or dreading it...





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