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LATAURO DOES MIFF #3: Political Strife, Sex Dolls, And Godard's Decline!

LATAURO DOES MIFF #3: Political Strife, Sex Dolls, and Godard's Decline!

The Event: The 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

The Protagonist: Latauro (AICN-Downunder)

The Mission: To find the hidden gems and unknown classics that can only be found at a festival such as this. Great films with no star power or marketing budget that will only be screened this once before possibly fading into obscurity.

Today's Lesson: 2009 was all about protesters and dissidence and political controversy. The Indonesians protested BALIBO. The Chinese protested 10 CONDITIONS OF LOVE. The Japanese protested THE COVE. I protested ALL ABOUT ACTRESSES, but only because it was awful. There was also a lot of controversy stemming from the Israeli support of the festival, which amounted, in fact, to a single plane ticket for a director. This plane ticket caused Ken Loach to withdraw his film LOOKING FOR ERIC and resulted in a handful of anti-Israeli protesters, some of whom seemed to be confused as to what they were picketing when they turned up to 10 CONDITIONS OF LOVE. This year, the controversy has died down, but the anti-Israelites are still there in front of the cinemas, angry that the State of Israel has anything to do with MIFF, and urging people to join their boycott. Meanwhile, my colleague Luke Buckmaster over at Crikey posted an email exchange between Richard Moore and the producers of SON OF BABYLON (reviewed in the last MIFF roundup), in which they demanded that their film be removed from MIFF because of the Israeli support. It's an extraordinary read, and a truly disappointing one. I have no problem acknowledging that there are legitimate complaints against Israeli policy, but protesting a film festival that has only minimal support from the state is absurd. Especially given MIFF is happily playing films such as SON OF BABYLON, which is apparently a Palestinian co-production. Four films from Iran are screening. I review CARLOS below, in which the main character fights on behalf of Palestine and is neither praised nor condemned by the film for doing so. Festivals like MIFF are, at their very best, designed to bring people together and serve as a cultural meeting of minds. You take off your flags for a couple of weeks and see what everyone else has to say. If you're serious about promoting peace, then the only way that's going to happen is if you continue the discussion. Conditional speech is what causes the problems, and the best thing you can do for your cause is to have a Jew (like, say, me) see a Palestinian film (like, say, SON OF BABYLON) and absolutely adore it (like, say, I did). Kudos to MIFF and Richard Moore for again standing up to this nonsense, and shame on any filmmaker or protester who can't learn to tell the stuff from the stuff.

THE DREAMER: My first film on Friday followed a largely-sleepless night, mostly because I'd stayed up late finishing the previous MIFF installment. Consider the following facts: my brief sleep could better be described as an extended wink; I got to the cinema without enough time to get a much-needed coffee; the cinema itself was packed to the brim with noisy schoolkids. Add to that my dislike of the previous three films I'd seen, and I was in a pretty grumpy mood, ready to hate whatever came on. THE DREAMER -- an Indonesian film about three childhood friends -- had completely different plans in story for me. Disregarding my notion to hate it, the film chose to be unflailingly brilliant form beginning to end, consistently enjoyable, and made with an incredible and unexpected confidence. The score, too, is one of the year's best, proving just how much great music can add to a film. THE DREAMER is one of my favourites of the festival -- hell, of the year -- and had the extremely rare quality of making me want to watch it again immediately after it finished. The best surprise thus far. Distributors: snap this one up. Now.

PIGGIES: THE DREAMER was running late, so I had just enough time to run across the road and up the Forum stairs to catch the beginning of PIGGIES. The caffeine withdrawal was beginning to kick in, but I was still able to enjoy -- if "enjoy" is the right word, and I am certain that it is not -- this raw film about kids and prostitution in a Polish border town. The story of a prepubescent boy corrupted by the decadence around him is a good one, and there are some very clever touches. (For example: in his innocent, pre-corrupted life, he is an avid astronomer. The nightclub in which his corruption begins is called The Zodiac.) The incompatibility of families and children struggling for money while also trying to live a decadent, wasteful lifestyle is a strong, understated one. If the film has a problem, it is that the concept of children slipping so easily into prostitution is treated with such matter-of-factness to be off-putting. I cannot, however, discount the idea that this is the very point of the film. A good film with a very good ending.

FILM SOCIALISME: I skipped the screening of Phillip Noyce's SALT to see what may be the final ever film by Jean-Luc Godard. After finally getting a coffee (hooray!), my headache abated and we took our seats. We were then treated to the best introduction to a film ever given: "Jean-Luc Godard has decided," said the MIFF representative, "to remove all the verbs form the subtitles. So they are, in fact, meant to look like that." He removed the verbs. Take a moment to consider that fact. Although I'd suggest Godard doesn't know what a verb is, because there are plenty of them in there. This is, perhaps, indicative of Godard's insanity, a concept I had not considered until sitting through FILM SOCIALISME. The film is a collection of discordant sounds and images, loosely based around a sea voyage and (I think) a garage. The kind part of me wants to put the whole film down to an enormous brain fart, a sort-of Altzeimer's free association. You do not want to hear what the unkind part of me thinks. If I sound a bit aggressive and pissed off, it's because the film itself is deliberately aggressive against the audience (as if the verb removal didn't clue us all off before the thing even started). It's one of those yawn-inducing "Fuck you, Hollywood!" films that imagine themselves to be clever, unaware that they exist on a lower artistic rung than STEP UP 3D or FURRY VENGENACE, to pick two recent examples. It's embarrassing that the director of such classics as BREATHLESS and CONTEMPT should turn into such a parody of himself, but it could be worse: ...uh... he could kill people? I almost want to apologise to David Lynch for my intense dislike of INLAND EMPIRE, a similar example of an unedited brain spilled loosely onto a film strip, because Lynch's film is positively brilliant next to this one. A middle-aged man behind me commented before the film that he'd always wanted to see a Godard film, and this was his first. That statement make me want to retroactively laugh and cry at the same time. I've spoken about this film way too much, so I'll leave it at this: Jean-Luc Godard has clearly lost his mind. It would have been less depressing to watch him drool in an armchair for two hours.

I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS: After a very rare empty session that allowed my partner and I to actually go and have a proper sit-down dinner somewhere (instead of the usual hit-and-run fast food-eating-in-line of the past week), we sat ourselves down for I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS, the long-awaited love story starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor. As with WORLD'S GREATEST DAD, this feels a year too late: in 2009 I was complaining that the film hadn't been programmed. What, exactly, is the hold-up? After seeing the film, this remains a mystery to me. The film is written and directed with utter brilliance by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (writers of BAD SANTA). I had high expectations going in, and they were somehow exceeded. It's played for laughs throughout, but it's deceptively deft direction: given much of the subject matter, it would be so easy to get the tone of any given scene wrong, yet every moment is a suspiciously-perfect masterstroke. Jim Carrey is perfect as Steven Russell, and Ewan McGregor almost steals the entire film from him as the titular Phillip Morris. The full house crowd responded to it with consistently loud laughter in all the right places, making me wonder why this film has not seen a release. It's got two bankable stars and is one of the most genuinely funny comedies to come out of America in years. Surely it can't be something as idiotic as "audiences aren't ready for gay mainstream cinema", because I can list a dozen examples off the top of my head that prove this untrue. The rights are currently held by Roadshow, and the first person to stick their hand up and suggest a wide release with lots of promotion on a key date is going to be proven to be an extremely savvy operator. That something this good could languish on a shelf somewhere is as horrifically hilarious as anything in this brilliant, brilliant film.

TETRO: I was very seriously considering skipping this film. The session began at 9:15pm, and my punishing schedule and lack of sleep was beginning to take its toll. Add to that some bad things I'd heard from friends who attended an earlier session and the inevitable association with the Godard earlier in the day (ie: a once-great filmmaker continuing their fall from grace), and the two-hour-plus running seemed like it would be an exercise in self-punishment. Walking back to the car at 11:45pm on the precipitous Friday night, my partner and I looked at each other and said almost simultaneously: "Can you believe we almost didn't see that?" Francis Ford Coppola's TETRO elicited the same response in me that MATCH POINT did: a filmmaker whose work stands among the best of cinema completely reinventing themselves from the ground up and finding a long-untapped well of energy. TETRO is the story of Bennie (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, the spitting image of Emile Hirsch) who tracks down his long-long brother Angelo (Vincent Gallo) in Buenos Aires. The film has such a tremendously potent sense of place (forgive me yet another subjective aside: the depiction of Buenos Aires gave me the same heady thrill that the Cuban scenes from GUYS AND DOLLS gave me, so a small degree of nostalgia was probably in play here). The black and white cinematography is juxtaposed perfectly with glorious technicoloured 4:3 flashbacks one presumes are designed to recall THE RED SHOES and TALES OF HOFFMAN. The presumption is proven accurate as the film progresses, with the references overt and unashamed. Although I am not enough of an expert in the Coppola family to proclaim it to be autobiographical, I do know enough to comfortably claim that Coppola has poured a lot of himself into it. In the future, when people try to uncover the real FFC, it will be TETRO above all else that reveals the man himself. The third act of the film is an odd beast: although narratively-discordant, it is thematically-perfect, with every beat of the finale an inevitability based on all the threads woven earlier. It may sound like a backhanded compliment to refer to the film as a minor classic, but that's exactly what it is. THE GODFATHER and APOCALYPSE NOW may loom large over cinema's history, but TETRO is a remarkable work that reinstates Coppola as a master of his craft.

THE ILLUSIONIST: Contrary to what people assume, it's not my grueling MIFF schedule that's killing me, but fitting other stuff in around it. Which, I suppose, is arguably the same thing. I was up until past 3am trying to troubleshoot some technical nonsense on my podcast, and began Saturday even more exhausted than I was on my Friday. Luckily, I began with THE ILLUSIONIST, the new animated French film from Sylvain Chomet (THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE). If you discount Pixar and Ghibli, the best animated film from the past decade was TRIPLETS, and so I entered ILLUSIONIST with high epectations. Which were, I'm delighted to say, met. This gorgeous film, based on a screenplay by Jacques Tati, is pure brilliance. And I don't feel the need to go into any more detail beyond insisting that you catch it whenever you get the chance. Although, if you've seen BELLEVILLE, it's probably already on your radar.

THE TREE: I skipped Jake Scott's WELCOME TO THE RILEYS to see the brilliant Stephen Fry give a talk at the former MIFF venue The Regent, and had just enough time to run to the Greater Union to catch THE TREE, the Australian film with Charlotte Gainsbourg that closed out this year's Cannes. It's a film that you feel should impress more than it does. It's based ona novel, which is not surprising given the ideas clearly lend themselves more to literature than to cinema. The acting oscillates from excellent to spotty, although it is great to see Martin Csokas play a person after his unintentionally-comical turn in SOUTH SOLITARY. Though by no means bad, it is remarkably straightforward and, well, unremarkable. The proceedings are strangely inert and workmanlike, and the central concept feels shunted to the side for much of the movie. Still, it does rank ahead of ANTICHRIST in the Films Charlotte Gainbroug Gets Intimate With a Tree genre, so there's that.

BLANK CITY: This was intended to play at MIFF '09, but after the sessions were cancelled (for reasons that escape my memory), it returned in the 2010 programme. The film is a documentary about the so-called No Wave movement of the late 70s and 80s, where a large group of artists collaborated and co-habitated in the then-slums of East New York. The doco itself is well-made enough: it follows the conventions of telling the story of the movement via clips and interviews with both those who were involved and John Waters. (John Waters, for those paying attention, is becoming the Wilhelm Scream of movie docos.) The problem with the film is the subject matter itself. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that it's less of a movement and more of, well, a circlejerk. Rather than being genuinely weird, they spend all of their energy trying to convince you that they're weird, and mostly come off as try-hard hipsters desperate for legitimacy. There are exceptions to this, like Jim Jarmusch, who comes off as the only director who cared about making a good film, as opposed to just sticking it to Squares. The main problem is that they seem to be constantly in search of something to rebel against, wanting to echo the counter-culture movement that came before them and already covered the same rebellious ground. They focus most of their ire on landlords who are understandably pissed that no rent had been paid, and as such represent the ebbed tide that Hunter S. Thompson wrote of, coming into existence long after the high watermark had been reached and branded. Most telling is the woman who speaks gleefully of how she blew up the World Trade Centre in her 1980s film, but seemed to have trouble reconciling that with her sorrow on September 11, 2001. That lack of deep self-awareness -- realising there was an incongruity there, but being unable to fully grasp what it is -- represents the shallowness and inconsequence of this... well, I'm at loathe to say "movement", but for lack of a better term. It sounds like they all had a great time living together and doing lots of drugs, but this not legitimise what was produced, nor the somewhat-pathetic reasons they had for making it. The end result was, for me, one of moderate irritation.

FOUR LIONS: The day ended with one of my most highly-anticipated films of MIFF, Chris Morris's FOUR LIONS. There are so many comedians who operate under the assumption that they are "edgy" because they make lots of forced references to things they think are taboo. Chris Morris is one of the few who actually is, shining a sharp, satirical spotlight on our own hypocrisies. FOUR LIONS, his first film as director and co-writer, is possibly the bravest skewering of cultural mores since LIFE OF BRIAN. When comedy shows or films proudly proclaim they have no political correctness, it usually means they like making fun of a politician's obesity. FOUR LIONS genuinely discards political correctness, but in an exceptionally smart way, not allowing a single likable character, refusing to present anyone who (a) plays into our own comfortable stereotyped beliefs, or (b) allaying any white or middle-class guilt by having a "Good Muslim" or a "White Politician Who Actually Does Get It". There are so safe havens in this film, and this -- the story of four suicide bombers trying to attack a London target -- is all the better for it. I probably missed about 50% of the jokes because I was laughing at the other ones, which is simply an excuse to see it again. I don't mind calling it early: FOUR LIONS is the comedy of the year.

PLEASE GIVE: After finally catching up on sleep, I headed in to see PLEASE GIVE, the latest film from Nicole Holofcener (FRIENDS WITH MONEY). She's long-been almost the anti-Nancy Meyers, with films full of real characters, believable situations, and great dialogue. She also casts really well, with mainstay Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet doing typically great work. PLEASE GIVE is almost similar to FOUR LIONS in the way is shines a spotlight on perceived hypocricies without letting anyone off the hook, imposing a conclusion, or passing judgment. Add to that a strangely-foreshadowed cameo from Sarah Vowell, and you have another great film from Holofcener that stands head and shoulders above most other American dramas.

CARLOS PART ONE: The trilogy of CARLOS films is played in one long hit, and whilst it may make more sense to review them as one complete entity, I'm going to be sitting here for over six hours and I don't want to be docked for my time devoted by compressing them. For the most part, I'm reviewing these films as I go, on a notepad between sessions. CARLOS is directed by Olivier Assayas (IRMA VEP, SUMMER HOURS), originally as a three-part series of French telemovies, and it does feel a little small scale. Or, rather, the scale is big, but there is a necessary grandeur missing. So far, I'm finding it very good, but not as gripping as I'd hope given the amount of time I'm giving over to it. Still, Edgar Ramirezis good in the lead role, and part one became more engaging as it went along, so I'm hoping it really kicks off with part two.

CARLOS PART TWO: Because nearly everybody is staying for all three parts, there's an interesting group dynamic forming between sessions, a camaraderie that comes from us all Being In This Thing Together. sThis is perhaps the most interesting part of the whole experience. Although it's picked up a lot in part two with some great scenes, there is still something quite flat about it. The sequence in which they attempt to land the plane from country to country could have been so much greater than it was, but there is a deliberate restraint that evens it all out into a peak-less, trough-less sameness. The debates and politics seem to run into one another, and could have been more exciting or interesting. Despite all this, I am actually finding it a lot more enjoyable than I was, and I'm very curious -- although not exactly desperate -- to see part three.

CARLOS PART THREE: Perhaps I was being to harsh on them. Part three had, like parts one and two, some absolutely cracking scenes. Really great moments. It's just that they're held together with uninspired mortar, which makes my reaction an understandably confused one. It's rare to say this, but I honestly feel these films would, in fact, work better on TV. They are very good, but ultimately I was left with a feeling of "Yeah, nice", which is not really what you want to feel after giving over five-and-a-half hours of your life (more with the breaks between them). It's got a real CHE vibe to it, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but nor is it the highest compliment I can bestow. Worth checking out on DVD.

AIR DOLL: I'll talk about the venues later, but it's safe to say that Greater Union 3 has the worst reputation of any MIFF cinemas this year. If you were still doubting my commitment to the festival, I entered the cinema at 2:15pm for CARLOS and left it at 11:30pm at the conclusion of AIR DOLL. Same seat, same everything. (Naturally there were toilet breaks and lots of stretching between films, two facts which shame me.) I was pretty tired, but there was no chance of me missing AIR DOLL, given it was directed by the great Hirokazu Koreeda (STILL WALKING). The place was packed, and the audience appeared to love the story of Nozomi (Doona Bae from THE HOST), a plastic sex doll who unexpectedly comes to life one morning. Koreeda adapted the screenplay from a manga by Yoshiie Goda, and the result is easily one of the best films of 2010. It's the film Jean-Pierre Jeunet is going to be upset he didn't make, a modern fairytale that doesn't airbrush life's uglier aspects, but manages to maintain an certain innocence throughout. Myriad themes are expertly handled -- loneliness, emptiness, aging, beauty, sexism -- in a deep and complex manner, without ever once distracting from the simple core story. It's tremendous stuff, and a great way to end a long day and a long weekend.

And that is officially the half-way point of the festival reached! I'll check back in around Wednesday with more promising films.



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