Film Carew: Melbourne International Film Festival Edition 5

17 August 2012 | 4:55 pm | Anthony Carew

As of this typing, I have currently seen 96 films from the MIFF program; so my head feels full and weighty, like a sponge filled with water (the human brain, coincidentally enough, is largely water and vaguely sponge-like, literally; oh, the multi-layered metaphor).

As of this typing, I have currently seen 96 films from the MIFF program; so my head feels full and weighty, like a sponge filled with water (the human brain, coincidentally enough, is largely water and vaguely sponge-like, literally; oh, the multi-layered metaphor). As always, the film festival experience is one of excess; there's 200+ films in the program, and the weight of them sometimes feels insurmountable. Come Sunday morn, after doing the just-added screening of Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways, I may just collapse in a heap.

Friday 17 August

Best Intentions (1.30pm, Forum): In a directorial decision of inspired idiosyncrasy, Adrian Sitaru shoots his film from an ever-shifting array of POV shots; irregularly passing the perspective back-and-forth throughout roomsful of people. They're all watching a 'good' son trying to demand adequate care for his ailing mother in the sketchy Romanian health system, and invariably creating more problems than he's solving.

Charles Bradley: Soul Of America (9pm, GU 4):  “Inspirational” tale of a sexagenarian soul-singer rescued from James Brown tribute shows and 'discovered' anew for white people. The story is tired and contrived, and the music feels utterly ersatz to me; a sad parody of recreationist pastiche employing an old person for bloggable authenticity.

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God Bless America (9pm, GU 3): Bobcat Goldthwait's piece of prime provocation seems extra-provocative, now, thanks to recent real-life tragedy: a scene in which his Bonnie and Clyde-esque counter-cultural crusaders —gunning down reality TV stars, neo-con talking-heads, sports-radio blowhards, Westboro-esque hate preachers, etc— turn their weapons on cinema patrons seeming shocking, now, in the wake of the Dark Knight Rises shootings. It's a liberal fantasy whose hideous violence throws the challenge back at liberal viewers; this, really, a piece of parodic All-American mass-murder. Shooting people for any crusade is, obviously, horrific and unjustifiable. Unless someone wanted to shoot Dave Mustaine...

Happy End (6.30pm, Kino): Tedious Swedish kitchen-sink drama is grim upon grim upon grim, to the point where it reminds me of awful actor-directed vehicles as Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth, Tim Roth's The War Zone, and Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur; an unholy trinity whose dim-witted devotion to drunken miserablism play as sad parodies of British realism.

The Imposter (6.30pm, GU 5): Whilst it leans a little too heavily on dramatic recreation to be truly satisfying, Bart Layton's Errol Morris-aping documentary chronicles the bizarre true, tall tale of the disappearance of a Texan teen and his years-later 'reappearance' in the form of a 20-something Frenchman. There's life-imitates-art shades of The Return Of Martin Guerre, here, but the film never coheres into a persuasive singular work; even if its final shot —an obsessed private investigator endlessly digging holes in the dirt, searching for a body that'll never be found— is a brilliant one.

In The Company Of Eric Rohmer (6.30pm, GU 4): The title betrays the deference and reverence of Marie Rivière's portrait of the French new-wave institution in his final days; the film using its intimate access to —and intimacy with— the filmmaker to merely, contentedly, hang out in his presence. Throughout, it loosely surveys his hyper-prolific filmography, but it feels a lot like skating over it; the snippets of pictures playing better for those who've already seen them, not those who haven't. Thus: a film strictly for fans.

The Intouchables (6.30pm, GU 6): Crowd-pleasin' dreck from France that is, roughly, a variation on 'see, a white man drives a car like this!' jokes; in which a fast-talkin', soul-lovin', jive-talkin' African immigrant becomes the personal driver for a rich, uptight, highbrow, wheelchair-bound whiteman. Want to see a comic riff on how art is really expensive, or opera singers really fat? You've come to the right place! Possibly MIFF's most shameful piece of programming; this is craven commercial cinema of zero artistic merit.

The Law In These Parts (11am, Forum): Sober, meticulous, incredibly weighty discussion piece with those men given the unenviable task of authoring, interpreting, and maintaining law in Occupied Palestine; Ra'anan Alexandrowicz's documentary looking these men in the eye and asking the most difficult of questions re: morals, order, justice, race, power. It feels like a cross-examination, and the subjects range from the conflicted to the self-righteous to the repentant; the film a fascinating study in the very definitions of law.

The Red And The Black (4.30pm, Kino): Very, very slight experimental essay movie plays as open homage to the nouvelle vague, with a 'playful' tone that is, really, a succession of academic in-jokes for those who care.

Violeta Went To Heaven (1.30pm, ACMI 2): Andrés Wood's portrait of Chilean folk-music titan Violeta Parra —a figure of nationalist pride in her homeland— manages to make it out of the ghetto of the musician's biopic semi-unscathed; its timeframe-skipping, flight-of-fantasy-taking, oft-grim assemblage recalling —in both form and theme— Olivier Dahan's La Vie En Rose; just with more Andean landscapes and political exile.

Saturday 18 August

Faust (4pm, GU 5): Alexsandr Sokurov's reputation as grand auteur has long seemed ill-deserved to me; I mean, I really liked Moloch and all, but his films often play as fruity, painfully theatrical, and stagy in extremis; over-egged and grotesque to the taste even when supposedly stark and minimalist. His unending adaptation of Goethe's text makes 134 minutes feel like a form of mild torture; and once again makes me question anyone claiming Sokurov's greatness.

Himizu (9pm, Forum): Sion Sono's has made some ridiculously pieces of delirious provocation —even if his supposed 'idiosyncrasy' plays up to Crazy Japanese steoreotypes— but any fond memories of, like, Suicide Club will be swamped under the insufferable crapness of Himizu. Though set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland riffing on recent nuclear fears in his homeland, Sono fumbles the topical text badly; this film a painful parade of unfunny, annoying caricatures endlessly screeching in every scene.

Pola X (4pm, ACMI 2): Pola X sometimes has the feeling of a grand debacle, but any cineaste will take its trip into excess, absurdity, and crazy theatricality with a smile on their dial. Here, MIFF's retrospectivised auteur, Leos Carax, starts out shooting a soap-operatic period piece, all white linens, white teeth, green lawns, and greenbacks, before its wealthy scion takes a trip into the literal darkness; the film going through the looking-glass in an astonishing sequence in which he walks into a dark wood

Postcards From The Zoo (9pm, ACMI 1): Effectively mixing socio-realism with magic-realism, the highly-stylised work of Indonesian auteur Edwin (yes, iconic singular) is a parable on those alienated by culture at large, and the enclaves of creativity or flights into fantasy that shield them from, say, oppressive governments and rising fundamentalism. And, yes, it largely takes place in a zoo; though this is a zoo from a shadowy near-future, more like the classic touring-circus model of cinematic depiction.

Ruby Sparks (1.30pm, GU 3): At its beginnings, this feels almost like Garden State or some other hideous indie brom-com; Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the people who made the reprehensible Little Miss Sunshine, offering some Mannequin-esque male fantasy-piece about a struggling writer who authors his own fantasy woman to life. Yet, then Zoe Kazan's screenplay reveals its true subterfuge, tearing down masculine cinematic conceits, Manic Pixie Dream Girls, and on-screen fantasy fulfilment from within; become a dark parable about masculine expectation, dominion, and control.

Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap (9pm, ACMI 2): Ice-T's directorial debut (yes, I really just typed that) can be viewed —and heard— in a glass-half-full/empty fashion. Hearing rap's originators talk, boast, and spit to-camera a cappella has an undeniable entertainment factor. Yet, it's such a conservative reading of such a conservative genre that it starts to feel oppressive. Of course, given hip-hop heads want nothing more than being told what to do (think the aerobics class instruction-following of the liveshow: “put your hands in the air!”, “when I say hey, you say ho!”, etc), conversation fans of the conservative genre will likely be enraptured.

This Ain't California (4pm, GU 3): In East Berlin, the early-'80s arrival of skateboarding (or, as the from German translation would awesomely go: rollerboarding) was a definitive counter-cultural epoch; a symbol of youth culture, individualism, rebellion, and freedom on four wheels. Marten Pesiel's picture excels as history piece, but when it tends towards the personal (and, of course, the nostalgic) it feels less vital.

Undefeated (11am, GU 6): You know a film is in trouble when it's most incisive thematic moment comes from internet comment-thread trolls. Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin's high-school football team documentary won an Oscar for its mediocre feelgood-ism, its Inspirational story of a righteous Christian coach turning a historical awful, public-school team into a regional power apparently reminding the Academy's old people of the horrendously shit The Blindside (which also won an Oscar, amazingly). Then, fleetingly, the filmmaker's show a puff-piece newspaper article chronicling the poor black kid living with the affluent white coach, and someone underneath addresses what the real theme of the film should've been: why is it the kids who are good at sports that get all the opportunity? Why is it that this benevolent charity just seems like exploitation? Why does the landscape of popular American sports —football, basketball, baseball— retain an uneasy relationship with the models of slavery?

Sunday 19 August

Alps (6.30pm, GU 5): After Dogtooth broke the world's collective brain and turned Greek cinema from global joke to inspired underground uprising, Yorgos Lanthimos returns with another glorious display of his deadpan vision of a world turned meta-theatrical.

Best Intentions (1.30pm, GU 4): See above.

Dead Europe (6.30pm, GU 6): To truly bring Christos Tsiolakas' novel to screen, Dead Europe would probably have to be 400 minutes long, like the televised Slap. Instead, Tony Krawitz strips things down to a bare 80 minutes, extracting the genre-ish skeleton and, in turn, all the text's actual heft. There's still fire and ire aplenty, still a Greek-Australian descending into the ghostly underworld of Europe's history of exile and exploitation; but it feels slight and somewhat silly, on screen. It's certainly not aided by Ewen Leslie's lead turn, in which he conveys psychological torment and cursed self-destruction by acting like an annoyed teenager; “What the fuck!” he yelps, in the midst of a pseudo-exorcism, and it's unintentionally funny.

Girimunho (4pm, ACMI 2): Minor piece of ethnographic cinema from rural Brazil will hold minor charms for those who use cinema as a window onto other realities, but little for others. Its spartan, gentle minimalism viewing small-town scenes, traditions, and landscapes through the tired eyes of its central matriarch, but there's an absence of the artfulness that could've raised this to more profound, thematically meaningful heights.

God Bless America (6.30pm, GU 3): See above.

In Another Country (6.30pm, Forum): Like his obvious influences, Woody Allen and Eric Rohmer, Hong Sang-soo is hyper-prolific, having turned out 13 films in 16 years; and ten in the last ten. But he's probably more comparable, career-wise, to The Ramones; having a formula and sticking to it monomaniacally; effectively making the same film over and over and over.

Into The Abyss (11am, GU 6): It's fun watching Werner Herzog gab with anyone, and the German's natural inquisitiveness undoes so much of the weightiness here; Herzog chronicling the crimes of two Texan crims who committed horrendous crimes in their teenage years, with one in his final days on death row. Herzog's a little too attracted to their tough-guy tales (though it fits his profile; “it is not a significant bullet”, et al), but he engages with them —and their relatives, relatives of their victims, and associated lawmen— genuinely and, at times, unexpectedly.

The Intouchables (4pm, Forum): See above.

Our Children (1.30pm, Forum): It's hard to recommend, exactly, Joachim Lafosse's claustrophobic family saga, especially given its final reel is utterly smothering, and its final revelation carry the most brutal of implications (which is completely 'spoiled' in the MIFF program notes, sadly). Yet something this thematically dense, psychologically complex, brilliantly acted, and carefully directed deserves recommending for those down for a painful time; Our Children one of MIFF's dramatic highlights.

Step Up To The Plate (4.45pm, Kino): The MasterChef era has bred an ever-rising tide of documentaries like Paul Lacoste's Entre Les Bras (cue: “a more accurate translation of the title would be...”), an observationist potrait of a three-star'd chef preparing to hand over his restaurant to his son; thus, the traditional being succeeded by the progressive. Blessedly, Lacoste knows when to just sit and watch; silently observing the artful preparations of infinitesimally-precise dishes.

We Are Legion: The Story Of The Hacktivists (6.30pm, GU 4): What could've been an embarrassing portrait of cool renegades — in the vain of the dreadlock wigs, fake piercings, and non-permanent tatts of the immortal '95 youth-culture fiasco Hackers — instead becomes a thoughtful exploration of the 'democratisating' power of the internet and how that plays out in actual political democracies worldwide. Brian Knappenberger does little to editorialise, and calls the motivations of the central hacker collective, Anonymous, into question; but here social activism is, in contrast to its portrayal in mass media, actually given the due weight it deserves.

Wuthering Heights (6.30pm, ACMI 2): I'm pretty sure no one called Heathcliff a “fookin' nigga” in Emily Brontë's original, right? So it goes with Andrea Arnold's blessedly-radical take on the tired text; throwing out the prim properness of the English period-piece for a grim, grimy, guttural take on tortured love amidst the rural squalor of rural 19th century Yorkshire. The environment is the star of the show, and the centre of the mise-en-scène: Arnold placing her youthful paramours in vast landscapes, forever peering away from the humans at flora, fauna, and firmamant; the absence of score and scant dialogue leaving room for sound-design obsessed with the howling gales of the wiley, windy moors.