Thursday, July 29, 2010

MIFF day 6

A quick entry ahead of some more MIFFing this evening and tomorrow.

I popped into 3RRR today to deliver an instalment of “A Fistful of Celluloid” outside of my regular fortnightly schedule, something that customarily happens mid-MIFF, the better to keep SmartArts listeners abreast of Melbourne film culture's flagship event, as it unfurls.

Anyone who caught my segment late this morning will have heard me recount some of my festival highlights to date, as well as my and Richard Watts' recommendations for the week-and-a-half of the festival still to run. Of the former: you read it here first anyway, folks! And of the latter, if you missed it: I've not much time right now to put it all into words (airtime is a lot more compact, at least for this little black duck, than writing time). For I needs get me to MIFF!

(A major disadvantage of hometown festival-going: my travelling distance to the festival tends to be rather greater than when at an overseas event, when the festival tends to put you up somewhere very central. Oh woe betide me the day I got forced out, through rent hike-inducing renovations, of my long-time dwelling in Fitzroy those couple of years back. Sunny Thornbury, for all its charms, is quite a distance to MIFF. But forgive me; I have digressed.)

Son of Babylon

One of my recommendations was less for something that still has another screening to go, but was rather for something that's had both of its appointed screenings at MIFF, but which I'd like the festival to seriously consider filling one of the “surprise” slots with on the final day of the festival: Son of Babylon (d. Mohamed Al-Daradj).

I'm kicking myself for not seeing it a second time, having being so blown away by it at its world premiere last October in Abu Dhabi. It was the stuff of standing ovations then, and I can't help but wonder how it is has been playing in Melbourne, so much further removed from the harsh realities that the fictional elements of Son of Babylon in no way cloak (or aim to).

It's an incredible piece of true guerrilla filmmaking, shot illegally in Iraq, but in no way haphazardly, on locations that are all too real, detailing the quest across that country of an old Kurdish woman (who can't speak Arabic) and her grandson (who, fortunately, can) to find his father, a soldier in the 1991 Gulf War, who might very well have perished and wound up in any one of the hundreds of mass graves being excavated all across what was already then (immediately post-Saddam) well and truly a war-torn country.

It's a truly heartbreaking film, and has a conclusion where the intersection of fictional and non-fictional elements within the film – already deeply distressing throughout – assumes whole new, ghastly dimensions. A scene of physical contact between the old woman and some bones – whose? – who'll ever know? – in one gravesite late in the piece sent a chill down my spine like nothing ever has done before it.

Shit. I'm running out of time, and I had really wanted initially to write principally about The Trotsky, a great fun new Canadian comedy from director Jacob Tierney in which a young high school lad believes himself the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky, and charts his life accordingly...

The Trotsky

Imagine, if you will, the love child of Wes Anderson's Rushmore and Lindsay Anderson's If...., and you've got The Trotsky. Surely some local distributor will yet get with the program and pick this one up; it's got box office appeal in spades. The cast are all hugely appealing, with Jay Baruchel a necessarily fantastic lead, and Emily Hampshire is terrific as Alexandra, the older woman whom “fate” has decreed must yet be the (first) love of Leon's life; the romantic comedic elements of this film could have gone so horribly wrong, and it's a testament to her that they went oh so very right. Perhaps the film is just slightly overlong, but I - and a full house yesterday at the Forum - nonetheless enjoyed it tremendously.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Plainer sailing: MIFF Day 5

I took all of Monday off – from work, from MIFF – the better to rid myself of an all too common cold. It still hasn't completely left me, but I felt more myself come Tuesday, and saw the following three films, with only a minor online ticketing glitch running interference. Certainly my Tuesday's MIFFing ran an awful lot more smoothly than the weekend's just gone.

The Day Will Come (d. Susanne Schneider)

The Day Will Come

In which the backbone to a skeleton rattling itself into a frenzy on its way out of a closet adopts the form of a capricious, increasingly tiresome young woman hellbent on inflicting as much psychological damage as possible upon a woman and her family whom she has never previously met.

I didn't care very much for this German potboiler, although I have to say it held my attention until its rather flat ending. It's just that its drama was all played to too histrionic a pitch for my tastes and consequently I really couldn't warm to the characters, nor ultimately much care about what made them tick, what had made certain amongst them do possibly terrible things which they might have covered up for many a long year, nor care overly about what they would do upon the disclosure of these matters.


The singular new Hungarian film Bibliothèque Pascal (d. Szabolcs Hajdu) begins looking for all the world like it'll be a heavy kitchen sinker, with half-Romanian, half-Hungarian Mona (the striking Orsolya Török-Illyés) having to relate to a probably well-intentioned beardy Hungarian bureaucrat just what misfortunes befall her such that she had to abandon her little girl, leaving her in the care of an abusive aunt, from whom she'd like to retrieve her.

Bibliothèque Pascal

Mona then inhabits, to say the least, the highly unlikely story she spins to explain her unfortunate lot in life, not unlike Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) in Dario Argento's Suspiria, a somnambulist wandering compassless in a bad dream, a dream with elements undoubtedly not far removed from some pour souls' realities, such as those enslaved by trans-European sex traffickers, some of whom may well be servicing societal elites engaging in – let's not call it "torture porn" activities but, rather, "porn torture", here a debasing of complete strangers who have been dehumanised through having forced upon them the broken English personae of literary figures in fetish accoutrements.

It's a fascinating film full of great characterisations, disturbing scenarios and eye-opening flights of magic realist fancy. Special mention should be made of Shamgar Amram, a more handsome but equally charming Alfred Molina in the role of Pascal, the proprietor of the eponymous Liverpool-based sex club which the Mona of her own story finds herself transported to, and veteran Romanian actor Razvan Vasilescu as her story's Mona's unconscionable but charismatic father.

Osadné (d. Marko Skop)

Alas, I saw Bibliothèque Pascal all on my lonesome, and, as much as I'd like to, I haven't yet been able to chew it over with anybody else. A not uncommon festival malaise.

For me, part of the greatest pleasure of a film festival comes from those too rare times when a film is seen, and digested, in company that significantly enriches and elevates the filmgoing experience. Sometimes such occasions are wholly serendipitous; other times, as with this, they are the result of some good forward planning.

On learning a few weeks ago there would be some films in this year's MIFF of interest to Melbourne's Czech community, I got mobilised. I passed on details of the pertinent sessions to my Czech teacher, who in turn passed them on to the rest of her students and to other interested parties and, before long, she had organised quite the MIFF-bound posse.


Seeing this documentary on Osadné, a tiny and remote Slovakian village, becoming even less populous with each passing year, en masse – and enjoying a pilsner or two with a few fellow Czech- and Slovakophiles afterwards – was a very happy conjunction of a quality film and perfect company to share it with, making for my most enjoyable experience at this year's MIFF so far.

Osadné is a very wry look at a little village on its last legs, focusing principally on its leading movers and shakers: the 36 year-incumbent mayor of the town; its Orthodox priest, and a Rusyn activist keen to see his ethnic minority's culture live on in this tiny hamlet where most of the inhabitants are of Rusyn stock.

Over several months, plans are made – and even in part realised – to put Osadné on the map, involving bringing its charms to the attention of the bigwigs in Brussels, and hopefully, in turn, luring some of those same bigwigs, including one-time Czechoslovak cosmonaut Vladimír Remek, to Osadné in the hope that they might bestow some EU largesse upon it, such that they could build a "chapel of grief" there: a surefire, revivifying tourist attraction!

There's a lot in Osadné that's really very sad, but it's a very humourous and affectionate documentary too. A small film, to be sure, but one highly recommended, and one seen with the more folks hailing from, or, like me, obsessed by, that part of the world, the better.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

MIFF's guest schedule is now online

Pedro Costa
Further, and a quick corrective, to a bit of high horse action in my last post re MIFF's folly in omitting details of guests' attendances at screenings from its program: MIFF has just uploaded a comprehensive guest schedule to its website.

While these details haven't (yet) been added to the online entries for each of the corresponding individual sessions, this is still a very helpful development. Better still, the schedule discloses a few very welcome surprises, with none more welcome than the news that Pedro Costa is expected in town for the single screening of his Jeanne Balibar-fixated new feature, Ne Change Rien. (It's a shame that it clashes with Clara Law and producer Eddie Fong dropping in for a screening of their newie, Like a Dream, but c'est la vie.)

I'll also be sure to attend this Sunday's screening of Matinee, safe in the knowledge that Joe Dante will be in attendance. He'll be present for several other screenings of his films yet too, from Friday onwards. I also look forward to Shaun Tan's introduction to his short film, The Lost Thing, which is a part of the Animation Shorts 1 package.

Not before time, but nonetheless: hurrah, hurrah!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Of maladies affecting humans and festivals: MIFF days 2 and 3

Perhaps it's better to fall sick at the very outset of MIFF, rather than in its midst, as has long been my custom. The administrative chaos that seems invariably to plague the festival's first weekend, and the day or two prior, is probably best engaged with to a minimum anyway, even if, as a veteran festival-goer, I usually know how to side-step some of the worst of it.


A quick catalogue of problems besetting the opening weekend would have to include, but not be limited to, an alarmingly wide variety of projection mishaps; films running hopelessly out of kilter with the schedule; unannounced switchings of cinemas for concurrent screenings; the festival club being shut when it's expected to be open; and, worst of all, evidently dreadful communication to the poor folks at the coalface, those kindly volunteers who have the unenviable task of tending to all those stroppy punters when armed with too little information to effectively defuse matters and tempers.

A factor in the chaos especially evident at the Greater Union cinemas on Saturday night is the dreadful oversight in omitting from the program details of guests' attendances at screenings for introductions and Q&As. Not just because, natch, that information is of interest to everybody attending the festival – and can be a dealbreaker with respect to choosing one session over a simultaneous other – but also because a session's running time is greatly impacted upon by the presence of a guest, something which is helpful to factor in when booking back-to-back sessions in advance.

For if ever there's a session that will run overtime, leading to timetable blow-outs and the end of one session overlapping the start of another, and consequent high dudgeon, it's one where there's a Q&A running... more so when it's hot on the tail of the same. Forewarned would be to be forearmed.

Instead, what ought to be a leisurely, even festive, traipse from one cinema to the next, and to the next, and to the next, undertaken in good company and with a comfortable velvety cushion of time between each, soon becomes a series of stressful, solo sprints from one dodgy Greater Union cinema to the still litter-strewn next, with planned rendezvous falling by the wayside all along the way, each with their own fallout to have to deal with down the line, and the still warm corpses of wholly good-hearted, well-intentioned, trampled volunteers riddling the corridors at every turn...

Alright, I may have taken a little license in that last paragraph. But would you begrudge me that after what I've been through? Would you?

Enough griping and histrionics. Onto the films seen at MIFF over the weekend.

The Housemaid (with director Im Sang-soo in attendance)

The Housemaid
Mr. Im sure is one assured filmmaker. I really admired his 2005 political thriller, The President's Last Bang, and I suspect his latest is as strong a narrative work as I'm likely to catch all MIFF. A reworking of Kim Ki-young's revered 50-year-old film of the same name, The Housemaid gives us a glimpse of life as experienced by South Korea's ultra-rich elite, whose money, they believe – just as everywhere else – gives them license to make problems simply disappear, even when those problems run to unplanned pregnancies consequent of the father of the house knocking up the hired help.

(Semi-spoilers ahead)

The film ends in the most extraordinary fashion, with quite the unexpected double-whammy. A most unexpected form of revenge is chased down with a hallucinatory, fish-eyed bit of culture-crossed weirdness, and I almost wish Mr. Im hadn't been there to illuminate (!) the symbolism of these final two scenes. Sometimes things are best left a mystery, or at least left to chew over for a while afterwards.

Survival of the Dead

Better than 2007's Diary of, Survival of the Dead is still pretty throwaway. Credit to George Romero though for being able nonetheless to generate a couple of good startles that ran right through the entire audience. Tellingly, though, neither were generated by the appearance of zombies.

Social commentary about the pointlessness of allowing feuds to span generations aside, Survival was played mostly for laughs; seems there are still more ways to skin a zombie. But Survival just can't be taken very seriously, and knows it; hence one particularly risible reveal late in the piece that you almost have to admire, for all its dreadful brazenness.



Ah, now this is the very stuff of film festivals, where truly original works, rare though they are, can surface and find an audience to champion them. Quentin Dupieux' Rubber is a film-within-a-film, with an audience within the film viewing that film-within-a-film through binoculars... What they're watching unfold is a story recounting a few dramatic days in the life of a lovelorn, psychokinetic killer tyre. No, really.

Enlivened by a high body count ever ascending the food chain, Rubber is hilarious, and even its occasional longueurs work to its advantage, as each new outrageous, often highly reflexive plot development catches you completely by surprise. Very original, very clever and very, very silly indeed, I adored Rubber. It's to my 2010 MIFF what Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar's A Town Called Panic was to last year's. Wunderbar!

Film Socialisme

Jean-Luc Godard nowadays holds the unusual distinction of being both able to fill, and, not long after, empty, a cinema, quicker than any other filmmaker on the planet.

Still stricken with a cold, I didn't head to MIFF at all by day on Sunday, saving all of my strength for a 7pm screening of that impossibly smug, humourless, curmudgeonly old fuck Godard's latest exercise in obfuscatory intellectual bully-boyism.

Having had only a little time to reflect upon it, I right now rather wish I hadn't bothered with it at all. Especially as it so drained me that I didn't feel I had the energy to watch the only MIFF screening of Ben Russell's Let Each One Go Where He May. I was very taken by his experimental works at MIFF in 2008, but opted instead to head across the road, to a sleepy festival club, to cheer myself with good company and a couple of medicinal glasses of extortionately priced house red. Now that was a couple of hours well spent – cheers Tara and Richard!

Film Socialisme

I really can't be bothered giving Godard the benefit of the doubt, as do so many others, and trouble to give his latest (last?) film multiple viewings down the track (ideally, I expect, after crash courses in as many as three or four other languages), in order to make sense of this latest clusterfuck opus. Instead, I'll give a quick account of those few elements of the film I could glean some pleasure from in the then-and-now of last night: some beautiful HD cinematography aboard an ocean liner and looking out to sea; all manner of textural play with the digital medium and its variable coarseness; an on again, off again soundtrack intriguingly panned to extremes; the appearance of Patti Smith, two kittens, a llama and a mule.

The whole well publicised business of the reduction of the subtitles to the merest, most pidginesque approximation in English of some things voiced on the soundtrack is not a manoeuvre I'm about to exalt any time soon.

For those who'd like a little more meat and less gristle to a consideration of what might be Godard's swansong, head to the ill-named but essential MUBI (né The Auteurs) for coverage of Film Socialisme every bit as exhaustive as I found it tiresome. Give me the Godard of Weekend (1967) over his latter day Joycean cine-logorrhea any day!