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LATAURO DOES MIFF #2: Psychopathic Killers, Lost Boys, and Mumbled To My Very Core!

LATAURO DOES MIFF #2: Psychopathic Killers, Lost Boys, and Mumbled To My Very Core!

The Event: The 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

The Protagonist: Latauro (AICN-Downunder)

The Mission: To try to survive a punishing schedule of great films and potentially-great films, and hopefully give you an idea of the best ones to look out for.

Today's Lesson: I didn't mean to book seventy-five films. I did fewer than seventy last year, and this year I decided to tone it down a bit. The problem is that some of the best films I saw last year and the year before were ones I picked on a whim, or wandered into because I had a gap in the schedule. These yielded unexpected and glorious surprises, and it's hard to shake that memory when it comes time to book. Every film suddenly jumps out at you as a potential favourite, and you think: "What if I missed STILL WALKING? What if I'd had lunch instead of seeing SILENT WEDDING? What if I hadn't bothered with THE MAN WHO CAME WITH THE SNOW?" Suddenly, you're filling every spare minute you have, and you're seeing more films in two-and-a-half weeks than most people see in two-and-a-half years. You start to arrive at the same conclusion that everyone else did: you are insane. But then you see films like those mentioned above, and you remember why you did this. You shout "Je ne regrette rien!" to the sky, which does little to dissuade your friends from the notion that part of your brain has fallen out. God, I love film festivals.

GENIUS WITHIN: THE INNER LIFE OF GLENN GOULD: Monday kicked off with a documentary about the legendary pianist Glenn Gould. It's a fascinating story, and Gould comes off as the progenitor of the dishevelled 20th century handsome tortured genius. There's a ton of archived material, so nearly every story is accompanied by reference film, which always makes a big difference. The doco is fantastic, but it does lack a narrative thrust needed for the feature format. This is especially noticeable in the second half, in the inevitable "fall and decline" part of the story, when the film becomes more a series of anecdotes strung together chronologically. This will not bother many, but it does detract from the pace of an otherwise-brilliant film that is enlightening and entertaining throughout.

WORLD'S GREATEST DAD: It was very surprising to see this appear in the festival. Not just because I was complaining a year ago that it wasn't part of the MIFF 2009 schedule, but also because by the time you're reading this, it will have come out on DVD in Australia. Still, Bobcat Goldthwaite's extremely black comedy is worth the wait. It's Robin Williams in the sort of role we wish he'd do more of. To recount the story would ruin a terrific early twist that clearly shocked some members of the audience, so to play it safe I'll keep shtum. It's also a reminder how few truly black comedies we get these days. We find ourselves laughing at the most horrendous things, and hating ourselves for doing so. But Goldthwaite's real skill comes in the moments where he unexpectedly hits us square in the gut. There's some masterful direction in here, and there are scenes of impact that you just never see coming. The film does feel one shade away from greatness, though: the speech at the end is a bit too predictable, and you feel the film could have gone out on a bit of a harsher note, but these are relatively minor quibbles. WORLD'S GREATEST DAD is a brilliant, hilarious film that puts most Hollywood comedies to utter shame.

THE HOUSEMAID (2010): I've asked this before, but it bears repeating: what the hell are they putting in the water in South Korea? I know they're probably just exporting the best, but most countries do that anyway, and South Korea's best is better than anyone else's best. (No, I don't want to edit that sentence for clarity.) Director Im Sang-soo (who introduced the film and gave a Q&A afterwards) remade a classic Korean film from 1960 (which I'll be reviewing towards the end of the festival). The result is an extraordinarily powerful look at the class system in South Korea and the power struggles that exist between them. Sang-soo's direction is intense, and the performances are universally top-notch. A sudden and almost-baffling ending leaves a slightly-confused taste in the mouth, but THE HOUSEMAID remains one of the highlights of the festival.

THE GENIUS AND THE BOYS: You can't find a much more incendiary topic for a documentary than a Nobel Prize-winning scientist accused of paeophilia. THE GENIUS AND THE BOYS knows this, and approaches D. Carleton Gajdusek's story cleverly. His childhood, education and career are related to us before the scandal is discussed in any sort of detail, forcing us to examine our own morals: do we condemn the undeniably-great medical breakthroughs the man accomplished because of unrelated crimes? Can we distinguish between the two? For the most part, the documentary takes a benign, objective position, but a late turn in the voice over sharply condemns him. It's sad, not because the condemnation is unearned, but because the braver and more impressive choice would have been to let us find our own conclusions. Gajdusek, after all, condemns himself in one of the most frightening interviews any interview has every captured. It's a bold and truly powerful film that leaves you shocked.

THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP: Screenwriter Peter Morgan is a tough one for me. I love his writing, but have a big, personal bugbear with it: his work is almost always historical revisionism. To many, historical accuracy does not affect the quality of the film, but willful alterations always bother me. THE QUEEN did not -- it was clearly an elegy with no claim to unimpeachable fact, an unabashed examinations of what it is like to be in that position, using real people as avatars. David Pearce (whom Morgan adapted for THE DAMNED UNITED), for example, does this to an insidious level, where no elegant metaphor is locatable, and altered lives are presented as fact. DAMNED UNITED was a clear entry into my top ten of the year before my awareness of the alterations soured me on it. Make of that what you will, but it's important you know my mindset when going into SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP. Morgan's look at the relationship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton is more easily-forgivable in its presumptions, given the sheer amount of material in the public arena. Although structured like a one act play -- I would later learn it was made for TV -- and lacking any real dramatic tension, the film is still, nonetheless, a very interesting and entertaining piece. The dialogue jumps out at you, and the performances are uniformly brilliant. Sheen is again spot-on as Blair, Helen McCrory is terrific as Cherie, and Hope Davis absolutely embodies Hilary, to an almost frightening degree. Dennis Quaid has the toughest job as Bill Clinton, but reaches beyond the obvious tics and affectations to give a real performance. SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP is not groundbreaking in the way we often hope political dramas will be, but it is very good and certainly worth the time.

BEESWAX: The latest in the somewhat-dubious Mumblecore movement is an affable film about two sisters living in Austin, Texas (why does that city ring a bell...?). The characters are charismatic and photogenic without being obviously or traditionally attractive, and they carry the film well. However, those looking for action, or even some kind of point, may find themselves irritated by this film. Intriguing is the sudden way it stops and starts. The film, like life, has no beginning or end beyond the arbitrary signposts we retroactively place. If this is indeed writer/director Andrew Bujalski's point (and I suspect it probably is), it's a good one, although not really enough to sustain the film entire. Character pieces with no high concept plot pushing them along can work very well, yet this one feels as if something key is missing. They spend an awful lot of time on phones, which robs many scenes of any potential drama. In terms of Mumblecore rankings, it's better than THE EXPLODING GIRL, not as good as HUMPDAY, and is more polished than IN SEARCH OF A MIDNIGHT KISS, and whilst I somewhat enjoyed my time with it, it's not exactly the success I had heard about going in.

MAI MAI MIRACLE: Wednesday kicked off early, first with awful traffic, then with MAI MAI MIRACLE, an anime that, to these fairly-ignorant eyes, deliberately sets out to recall Hayao Miyazaki. (I've seen other anime, but to me it begins and ends with Miyazaki. Nobody tell Scott Green.) It's a sweet film about young kids living in a remote Japanese town, and although it leaps from idea to idea with little regard for narrative structure, it remains charming and engaging throughout. Plus, the score is fantastic.

BOY: I rarely pay much attention to Box Office takings, but in doing the regular Box Office section of AICN-Downunder, I couldn't help but notice a film called BOY in the top spot week after week, month after month. What, I frequently asked myself, was this film? Turns out it's a brilliant, beautiful work of genius from Taika Waititi, the director of the fantastic Oscar-nominated short TWO CARS, ONE NIGHT, as well as the feature EAGLE VS SHARK and episode of "Flight of the Conchords". It's not hard to see why this film -- a New Zealand comedy-drama about a young boy awaiting the return of his absent father -- inspired people to come back over and over again. It's incredibly funny in a consistently inventive way, and Waititi maintains this quality from beginning to end. The best film to come out of New Zealand since Frodo inquired into Mordor's jewellery return policy.

THE TWO HORSES OF GENGHIS KHAN: This was something of a surprise session for me, one I booked in because I had a free spot in the schedule. Outside of the title, the only fact I knew about TWO HORSES was that it was a documentary, a fact that turned out to be completely wrong. Well, mostly wrong. The only thing separating this film from a doco is lots of camera coverage. It's the story of a woman trying to track down an almost-forgotten Mongolian folk song her grandmother had loved. It's a very nice film, albeit a bit slow. (Or, if you're in an extremely relaxed mode, it's perfectly paced. Everything's relative.) The beautiful ending and calm demeanour make this something of a palette cleanser. Of course, the film itself is hoping to stand out from the pack, but in the context of a festival, it takes an entirely different, but no less important, position.

DREAMLAND: Iven Sen's underrated BENEATH CLOUDS is the reason I booked in DREAMLAND, and the result could not have been more unexpected. Sen going from BENEATH CLOUDS to DREAMLAND is like Warwick Thorton going from SAMSON AND DELILAH to KOYAANISQATSI. DREAMLAND Is a largely story-free film about a man exploring the desert near Area 51. The local fascination with aliens features heavily, and the man's motives remain mysterious. It is billed as a soundscape film. Long-time readers may recall my loathing of a similarly-billed "soundscape" film back in 2006, Lisandro Alonso's FANTASMA, but this is a different beast entirely. Sen has a clear idea in mind, and the pretentious and grammatically-incorrect title cards that open and close the film aside, it's a stunning film. Influences from Kubrick and Lynch to Herzog and Jarmusch are easy to infer. DREAMLAND is a beautiful film that will no doubt piss off many.

SON OF BABYLON: Even though I hate the types of reductive ranking that infests film critiquing, I'm as guilty of it as anyone. With that quasi-apology out of the way, allow me to proclaim the twelve-year-old kid who stars in this (and I cannot locate his name, I'm afraid) as having given the best performance of the year. This pre-teen Iraqi kid can do grief, sarcasm, cheekiness, stoicism, you name it, and better than actors thrice his age. He plays a kid who, along with his grandmother, is searching for his lon-missing father in 2003, three weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The film never over-indulges in grief, nor does it have even a moment of insincerity. It is passionate, endearing, and the sort of perfect gem you pray to catch at a festival like this. One of the essential films of 2010.

CHLOE: My sixth consecutive film of the day is my twenty-eighth film of the festival thus far, my second MIFF film with Julianne Moore, and my second ever Atom Egoyan film. Despite my desires to see his earlier work (particularly THE SWEET HEREAFTER), all I'd seen was 2005's intrinsically-flawed WHERE THE TRUTH LIES. CHLOE is an interesting one. As a drama, it's very silly. As a melodrama, it mostly works. As a morality tale, it's deeply confused. In fact, the bizarre twists, behaviour and style only makes sense when it's revealed in the closing credits that it's a remake of a French film. For some reason, the inexplicable always seems more logical when that title card comes up. With my forays this year into the back catalogue of Douglas Sirk and Kenji Mizoguchi, my eye for melodrama is more developed than it was, and I'm convinced it's the hardest genre to pull off. Unlike the traditionally plague-ridden genres of fantasy and science fiction, melodrama has no obvious clues to let the audience in on the secret. The conventions of melodrama are silly if seen as a drama, and much of CHLOE falls victim to this. Some clever twists, great acting, and wonderful score aside, it never quite works as a whole.

ADRIFT: My massive day of six films was followed up by a smaller day of two films (albeit, still filled with other tasks, just not MIFF-related ones). The first film was ADRIFT, a Vietnamese film about sexual repression and very little else. From what little I gather, this is a taboo-breaking film for Vietnam, but stripped of that context, it is an appropriately-flaccid film in which practically nothing happens. The tense family dynamic scenes in the beginning would be great within the context of a better film. Although no single element falls flat, it does feel like it lacks a certain everything. The final shot, obviously designed to be a moment of high-impact understatement, completely fails to understand what came before it, and in itself thoroughly embodies the lack of movement in this film.

THE KILLER INSIDE ME: My second film didn't fare much better. Look, I am a huge Michael Winterbottom fan. I think that, along with Soderbergh, he's the most unpredictable and self-challenging filmmaker working today. That's the reason I booked in KILLER INSIDE ME (also, I missed the press screening). Even when Winterbottom fails, he fails in a way that is more interesting than some directors' successes. Also, I was convinced based on the early word that I'd be amongst its defenders. I was surprised, then, at how much the film did not work. There are moments that do, and the potential shines out of every single scene, but Winterbottom seems almost upset with the material he's directing, and approaches it in an aggressive manner that should theoretically echo main character Lou Ford's approach to life, but merely results in a massive misfire. Casey Affleck plays Ford (again!), something of a psychopathic killer. We are never given any real insight into Ford's psychosis, nor does our lack of insight produce any sort of compelling mystery. It simply keeps us as arm's length, which is exactly what the ridiculous musical cues and strange pacing does as well. Many individual elements work well: the violence has the sort of impact that should put most glamourised Hollywood punches to shame, and no attempt is made to turn Ford into any sort of anti-hero by playing to our sympathies. These bright spots are, sadly, lost within a film that feels like a shadow of a far-greater film.

That's all for now. Apologies for the inevitable errors in the above, but I'm now operating on about eight hours sleep, a figure that would be impressive were it not spread over a week. See you in a few days...


Watch me live-tweet the festival here!


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