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LATAURO DOES MIFF #1: Great Westerns, Bad Horrors, and Paparazzi Everywhere!

LATAURO DOES MIFF #1: Great Westerns, Bad Horrors, and Paparazzi Everywhere!

The Event: The 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

The Protagonist: Latauro (AICN-Downunder)

The Mission: To put as much work and life on hold as possible to see as many films as humanly possible, most of which are films we would never normally get to see, and may never be seen again. It's Christmas for film geeks!

Today's Lesson: I'm not kidding about it feeling like Christmas. For film geeks who truly love cinema, and not just the surface level bullshit about casting fantasies for a D-grade comic book character or Wednesday grosses for the latest piece-of-shit Hollywood comedy, but seeing great films. Immersing yourself in cinema that does the sort of thing that made you fall in love with movies in the first place. There's no marketing campaign. No baggage. I have no idea what 75% of the films I'm going to are going to be like, and there's nothing more exciting than that.

THE WEDDING PARTY: The big opening night gala kicked off with new Australian film THE WEDDING PARTY (starting an hour after its advertised kick-off time). It's a romantic comedy starring Josh Lawson, Isabel Lucas, and a very impressive supporting cast mostly playing Lawson's family. The film has some very funny moments, and is, overall, handled with a welcome confidence. It does go on a bit too long, though, and some odd structuring turns this high-concept rom-com -- Josh Lawson needs money to stop him and his girlfriend getting evicted, and so marries a beautiful Russian immigrant who needs citizenship! -- into a fairly straightforward ensemble piece. That central plotline is shunted off to the side a bit, introduced in a bit of an off-hand manner, then given the same running time as the plotline about his brother dealing with a B&D obsession, or his sister and her aversion to sex. These plotlines are all charming (charming in the genuine sense, not the pejoratively euphemistic sense), and the cast is brilliant. Lawson has long had a leading man edge about him, and this more than proves he can carry a film, even if the fumbling, nervous manner he has in the film does permeate every single scene whether it's needed or not. I know it sounds like I'm down on the film; I'm not. It has some intrinsic problems, but it is shot beautifully, the cast is uniformly brilliant, and it's consistently funny throughout.

OSADNÉ: The spiritual (though probably unintended) follow-up to last year's brilliant CITIZEN HAVEL, OSADNÉ takes us from HAVEL's look at the heady politics of the Czech Republic Presidency, to one of the smallest towns in Slovakia. The township of Osadné has a small population, and is on the outermost fringes of the European Union. Eager for a spiritual centre, the town's mayor Ladislav Mikulasko (incumbant for over three decades!) and the town's resident Orthodox priest Peter Soroka, enlist the help of a Rusyn advocate (the Rusyns being an ever-diminishing Eastern Slavic group), and head to Brussels to ask the EU for funding. This brilliant, beautiful documentary was a great way to kick off the festival proper. The town is fascinating, its inhabitants even more so. Likely to be one of the best documentaries of the year.

AROUND A SMALL MOUNTAIN: It's amazing that Jacques Rivette is still directing films in his 80s, and even more amazing that his films are still so challenging. MOUNTAIN is a deceptively clever film. The story of an Italian man who becomes obsessed with a touring circus company, it's a film that works almost purely on a subtextual level. The circus is life; life is a performance; the ever-present mountains the silent audience. It sounds dull, and taken at face value it probably would be, but Rivette is very clear in the message he is imparting to us. It is an elegant, elegiac film that gets under your skin in a way you're not expecting.

TEENAGE PAPARAZZO: "Entourage" star Adrian Grenier was present to introduce this documentary, which he directed and features heavily in. Grenier noticed a thirteen-year-old paparazzo snapping away at him one night, and became so intrigued by him he set out to make a documentary. I was expecting something a bit lightweight, but with a tawdry, enjoyable hook. I was not expecting Grenier to skillfully peel away the layer of celebrity culture in a very knowing, very self-aware manner. It's an astonishingly well-made film that looks at Hollywood and gossip magazines and paparazzi through the lens of this precocious teen. Expectations and preconceived notions are challenged. Grenier turns the lens on himself and challenges his own beliefs, as well as exposing himself whenever he uses a propagandist method to make himself look good. I don't know if Grenier had someone very experienced standing over his shoulder, or whether he's just a natural documentarian, but TEENAGE PAPARAZZO is an amazing work.

RED HILL: RED HILL pissed me off in the exact same way that TRUMBO pissed me off two years earlier: I do not want to see what may well be the best film of the festival on the first day! I came out of both films realising that over the next two weeks, very little would top it. RED HILL is an Australian western, one that I perceived from the trailer as being a local NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (and although I had to dash out before the Q&A, I'm told the director mentioned that was his intent). RED HILL has a familiar plot, but it uses this to its advantage. Sure, its story beats are the same as that old western you loved, but I guarantee there were seven films that did the same story before that. RED HILL impresses because it uses its archetypes to its advantage. Writer/director Patrick Hughes nails every single moment throughout the film, and in the few times you think he's about to misstep, he turns the moment to his advantage. It's amazing stuff, and a perfect visceral thrill from beginning to end. On its own, RED HILL is an extraordinary film; as part of the broader picture of New Australian Cinema, it is an exciting new piece to the puzzle. See it.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT: Day Two of MIFF begun with me getting up extra early to record the latest installment of my podcast. After that, I had a quick lunch, met a producer I'd only ever spoken to online, and headed back to the Forum in time to see THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT. Between this film and MOTHER & CHILD, 2010 is all about reminding us how great Annette Bening can be. She and Julianne Moore are perfectly cast as a middle-aged couple whose children want to find their biological gather. The characters are all richly drawn, avoiding stereotype and predictable, two-dimensional reactions. Although the story that unfolds feels very familiar in its beats and turns, the filmmakers remain interested enough in the character to prevent us from ever losing interest. A shade too long, KIDS is at its best as a portrayal of a complex, believable family in distinctly un-melodramatic strife.

THE DELIAN MODE: I am something of a "Doctor Who" fan. Quite a something, in fact. Seeing there was a documentary on Delia Derbyshire, the woman whose prioneering of electronic music and sound turned Ron Grainger's already-great "Doctor Who" theme into the Greatest TV Theme Of All Time, I had to attend. The doco is a really nice look at Delia's life, her work, and her legacy, and is remarkably unsentimental. It is a wonderful insight into a person whose accomplishments I remained largely ignorant of Brilliant stuff...

THE FAMILY JAMS: ...that was, unfortunately, paired in the same session with another short doco, THE FAMILY MODE. Much like 2008's William S Burroughs "documentary" WORDS OF WISDOM, this is a film that cleartly coasted into the festival based purely on its subject matter. THe film follws pre-stardom Devendra Barnhart and Joanna Newsom as they tour with the band Vetiver in the style of a travelling family troupe. Filmmaker Kevin Barker is clearly very happy to be friends with famous people, and his film is a self-indulgent, poorly-shot -- and hey, I like verité, but this is was just shit -- wank. It has all the impact of some guy you've never met telling you lots of not-very-interesting stories about his friends. I'm a fan of Barnhart, and I admire Newsome, but this severely tested my patience. The first bad film of the festival!

MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED!: The big question amongst many of us was: what sort of film will this be? Mark Hartley's NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD was great (hell, it was my favourite film of 2008), and MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED! sounded like the same film, only set in the Malaysian film industry. Was Hartley using the kudos he'd received from NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD to make a film about an obscure subject that might not otherwise see the light of day, or was he playing it safe and making the same film over again to play to his fanbase? After the film, I sort-of want to say both. MACHETE MAIDENS is almost identical to NOT QUITE, and that is both the best and most disappointing thing about it. Still, divorcing the film from what Hartley's done beforehand and what we all think he should do next, it is a fabulous documentary that is both informative and hilarious in equal measure. You come out wanting to quote half the clips they show, but there are too many to remember. I'd have loved to stick around for the Q&A, but we had to dash back to the Greater Union for another important film documentary...

SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY: This was a must-see, if only so we could ensure we achieved our annual Movie Documentary John Waters Sighting. (I think he does nothing but appear in docos, but as he's usually the best thing about them, I do not mind at all.) There's surprisingly little to say about the film itself. It is an extremely competent, comprehensive, enjoyable film that does exactly what you want it to. We look at William Castle's life and career, hear from prominent fans who remember what it was like, hear from his family members, and get a complete look at a man many of us (myself included) only knew from his films and his legend. "Competent" sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise, but given how many of these sorts of films tend to fall flat, it's meant as a high compliment. Definitely worth checking out.

RUBBER: The four documentaries of the day were bookended by narrative films, and RUBBER was the perfect film to see after a documentary on William Castle. Here's the setup: a psychokinetic car tyre goes on a killing rampage. Schlocky, glorious, b-grade stuff, right? What the synopsis doesn't tell you is that the film is also something of a surrealist, self-aware being. I don't want to say too much for fear of ruining the revelations, but saying this film is about a killer tyre on a rampage is like saying JAWS is about a naked woman going swimming. It is a very, very odd film, and I'm not sure where I stand on it. I saw it with people who loved it and with people who really, really didn't, and I think I agree with one of them, but which? Is this an incredibly clever film or an incredibly stupid one? Is it brilliant in its surrealism, or is it just weird for the sake of weird? Is its message too on-the-nose or underdeveloped? I'm still trying to figure it out. This is a slow burning film, and it may be a while before I figure it out. Tell you what, though, it was a sold out 11:30pm session, and the crowd just ate it up. Almost certainly the best way to see it.

VIDEOCRACY: It's interesting to see unintentional themes emerge across otherwise-unrelated films at a festival. Sunday kicked off with a documentary about Italy's obsession with fame and celebrity. It's a perfect companion piece to TEENAGE PAPARAZZO, and almost makes America's culture of celebrity pale in comparison. At first, the film seems unfocused, jumping from a fame-seeking mechanic to a powerful talent agent to the head of a paparazzi empire, with Italian President/media mogul Sylvio Berlusconi an ever-present figure. It is, however, pulled in together by the end in an expert way. A fantastic, insightful, and appropriately disturbing documentary.

MEDAL OF HONOUR: At first, this Romanian drama seems like it's heading toward the overly-dour: an elderly man whose wife and son won't speak to him discovers he is receiving a medal for his efforts during World War Two, and encounters bureaucratic red tape. Thankfully, it is so much more than that. The lead performance by Victor Rebengiuc (from MIFF 2009's glorious SILENT WEDDING) is profoundly touching, the film is consistently funny, and it has one of the most understated and beautiful final shots I've seen in a very long time. A gorgeous film that deserves an out-of-festival release.

AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE: My favourite working filmmaker is Steven Soderbergh, and I'm happy to see him do anything: mainstream, arthouse, docos, it doesn't matter -- his unique style and instincts always shine through. His documentary on Spalding Gray is an exercise in editing, cobbled entirely together from archived footage. It's an ingenious way to tell a life story, and one that could only be done with a few people. Gray essentially made a living talking about his life, and those stories are sewn together into a chronologically-satisfying whole. Given Gray has told many of the same anecdotes over the course of his life, a single story may well be told by intercutting between Old Gray, then Young Gray, then Middle-Aged Gray. It's affecting, and an almost-disconcerting way of jumping around in time whilst still remaining faithful to the timeline of his life. The film is a reminder of how great Soderbergh is at minimalism, and how satisfying it can be when an interesting subject is told in a matter befitting their work and life.

SILENT HOUSE: The ambition is to be applauded: a feature-length horror film in one single shot is an idea that should inspire creativity and invention. Unfortunately, the execution leaves everything to be desired. It lags for too long, failing to create tension in any real sense. The scares are pedestrian and familiar, and the camerawork completely diffuses the potential horror: when our lead girl is creeping around the scary house, the camera moves around corners we do not. As such, we cannot see the events from her point of view, and remain completely divorced from what she is experiencing. The conceit of a single-take film is ruined by a sequence entirely in black, some suspect fades, an end credit sequences that uses edits (!) -- albeit edits of photographs, montage-style -- to give us new information. Maybe I'm being anal about it, but the claim of the film being in a single shot goes immediately out the window during its end credits. Mix in a "twist" that only works if you ignore the entirety of the preceding film, and you have a horror film that aims admirably high, but ultimately fails to deliver.

THE INVENTION OF DR NAKAMATS: This one hour documentary about the most prolific inventor living today (or possibly in history) is something of a crowd-pleaser. It's a funny look at a man who seems to be either brilliant, or insane, or both. He is a loving family man, but also a shameless self-promoter, seemingly obsessed with his ongoing legacy. In the lead up to his 80th birthday in 2008, we see him prepare a new invention, give speeches, and deal with businessmen eager to use his inventions to make money. It's a funny character piece, but one that occasionally seems a bit mean-spirited. Some edits are there to make him look silly, which is quite disappointing (although almost forgivable when it becomes clear Nakamats knows exactly what they are up to). It would have been nice to delve more into his more prominent inventions (such as the original floppy disc), and given the film's short running time, the extra information would have been welcome. But this is a very enjoyable, very funny film about a man you couldn't possibly invent.

The screen is now blurring before my eyes, so that's probably enough for now. I'll check back in soon with more... if I survive.

Watch me live-tweet the festival here!


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