Friday, August 31, 2007

Happy 18th Birthday, Abhi

Today is the occasion of my oldest son's birthday. He would have been 18, and it brings me much sadness that I cannot enjoy this milestone with him. Some of you may know that last year, Abhi took his own life. I'm not sure if I've come to terms with this yet. Or if I ever will. It is such a tragic waste.

This photo was taken not long before his passing, and it was a very happy family day. In the photo are my daughter, Champaka (now 20) and Abhi. The photo was taken in Lorne, a small sea-side town south-west of Melbourne, after we'd driven to Stephenson's Falls in the Otway Ranges. The scenery and setting is very similar to that in Old Joy. My mother, my partner, our youngest son and I were all together on a rare trip out of the city.

Abhi didn't live with me (his mother and I split when he was very young), but visited regularly. This visit was in October, and on the previous visit we went on a day ride on my motorbike together. I've since found online writings where he said he really enjoyed these activities, which gratifies me a somewhat.

Abhi was a really gentle soul. He was intelligent, creative, funny, considerate, modest and not afraid to be different. He was just finding his own power, and unfortunately he misused that power. He couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel, not realising that he would soon be in a place where he could change things for the better.

I recently came into possession of some of Abhi's school work. In Year 10, he produced a short film he called Simple Actions. I'm told he got top marks in his class for it. By chance, Blogger have just added new functionality to enable the uploading of video clips (as opposed to embedding YouTube clips), and I am pleased to publish Abhi's work below. His film uses Moby's Porcelain, which we coincidentally selected as part of a tribute CD at his funeral.

Simple Actions - a short movie by Abhimanyu Martin (2005)
video

These are some more of Abhi's computer-generated artworks. One is a portrait of his good friend, Bianca, another a self-portrait - he took a photo of himself, traced it then manipulated it using a graphics editor. The other is a fictional heavy metal band tour poster he made as part of a school SAC. He described to me with some pride what the different aspects of the illustration represent (such as parts of a guitar and keyboard), but I can't remember all the details.













Abhi was born on the last day of winter; both he and I were born on the 31st, but of different months. His sister and mother were both born on the 3rd of different months. Both Champaka and Abhi were born in August, so their birthdays were 28 days apart. I'm a numerate person, so while I'm not sure of the significance of these numbers, they resonate for me.

Abhi didn't feel he had very good social skills, and I suspect he felt this most at school. He wasn't interested in conforming or being part of the group, gravitating more towards the more thoughtful and intelligent kids. He had a very good way with children and was very patient with them. He enjoyed teaching things to his younger brother, Alexander, and playing with him. When he accompanied me on the motorbike for group rides, he'd be the only youngster but was very comfortable in the company of adults, occasionally cracking intelligent jokes. We live near the bay and he would enjoy accompanying us for long walks along the water.

Abhi is named after the son of Arjuna, and these are both characters in India's famous epic story Mahabharata. Abhimanyu was a heroic young fighter who died in the battle of Kurukshetra. According to legend, he was only sixteen years of age, and could only be killed when six great warriors broke the strict rules of engagement by ganging up on him.

In the year prior to his death, Abhi made a special point of embracing me when he came to our place, and especially when I dropped him at his mother's, when he would also say "I love you." At first it surprised me, as I didn't expect this show of affection from a seventeen year old boy for his father. I now think it was his way of saying goodbye to me, and that he was planning to leave this world. I miss him terribly.

In memory of Abhi Martin
31.08.89 - 14.12.06

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Week in Review

[Update: I've added a review for Die Hard 4.0, which I've just seen as part of a family outing]

While I had a quiet week with film viewings, I did get to interview Alkinos Tsilimidos, my favourite Australian film-maker on the weekend. This was something I alluded to in my overview of 2006, but have been keeping quietly to myself. I'd been wondering whether I would ever find the time to carry through with it. Now I have the ball rolling.

I am trying to work out how to use Dragon NaturallySpeaking, to automate some of the transcribing. I didn't get to record the entirety of the interview due to teething problems with my new digital voice recorder (my fault, not the technology). I'm hoping to have another meeting with Alkinos soon, to continue the discussion we started. The subject I'm covering with him relates to his work but ultimately is bigger than him and bigger than Melbourne Film Blog. I'm hoping to write an article for Senses of Cinema in relation to his films and the type of film-making that constitutes. My inspiration has been Michael Guillen, with his many interviews at The Evening Class. More later.

FILMS:
  • Dr. Plonk (Rolf de Heer, Australia, 2006)
  • Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, USA, 1950)
  • Die Hard 4.0 (Live Free or Die Hard, Len Wiseman, USA, 2007)
OTHER:
  • Poets Against the War (The Age Melbourne Writer's Festival, Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse)

Sunset Blvd.

Sharp dialogue, clever self- and cross-references, various cameos and a knowing cynicism of Hollywood celebrity mark this classic film that I finally got to see for the first time at Melbourne Cinémathèque. While the film is widely known, I'm told the print we viewed is the only one in Australia, from the National Film and Sound Archives. This is only the second Wilder film I have seen, the other being Irma La Douce, which was nowhere near as gripping and intelligent as this. Great stuff!

Die Hard 4.0
One expects the latest installment of a franchise like Die Hard to be derivative, predictable and unbelievable, so there's no point seeing it without cutting it some slack. Despite some aspects that bothered me, Die Hard 4.0 initially surprised me how engaging and suspenseful it is. Well, at least for the first third of the film. Then, oh dear, there was much to cringe at.

I will say here, though, that in spite of the many, many flaws that unfolded, if you like the earlier Die Hard films, as I do, you're sure to like this. I just think it's a pity there wasn't a bit more thought to make this a more satisfying experience.

So let me mention some of the things that bothered me:
  • Hackneyed racial stereotyping that could be offensive to some. French terrorists? The French are the enemy of the US? Sounds like a right-wing US perspective that bothered me. And a part-Asian kick-ass female bad-gal was similarly potentially offensive to some. There's two aspects to this: one the cross-racial aspect, and two, the depiction of Asians in US films. To the film's credit, it went against the unwritten (politically correct) code that you never beat up a woman. I thought it was great that McClane (Bruce Willis) gave this 'chick' as good as he got. But then his repetitive references to her as an Asian bitch was unnecessary.
  • Hackneyed film and editing style from the MTV school of music video that seems to have swamped US television and blockbuster film-making. You know? Digital photography, accentuated contrast, unnecessarily dark, bleached look, rapid intercutting, unnecessarily shaky camera, even when a car is travelling unrushed. The same old stupid devices that have been done a million times and are so tired and distracting.
  • Derivations that border on plagiarism:
    • A Keannu Reeves-like character (á la The Matrix) who looks like - wait for it - Keannu Reeves in The Matrix (but 15 years younger)
    • An action sequence that manages to borrow/steal from not one, not two, but three films: Speed, True Lies and Terminator 2
  • The film felt the need to spell out what was going to happen about three times
  • A hostage scenario that was predictable from the very beginning, that ended in such a predictable and cringe-worthy way
  • At 130 minutes, the film was way too long. It needed to be edited to 90 minutes max
  • Gratuitous references to terrorism, 9/11 and homeland security
  • A relatively minor point, but people's teeth were too white - I always find that distracting
I will say that I didn't have a problem with the unbelievability of the stunts, most of which I found exciting and well done. I also didn't have a problem with McClane's getting beat up beyond all plausibility. Again, you know this is coming with this franchise. It's kinda funny, and Willis does this quite well, along with his wise-guy humour.

Basically, the first third of the film is exciting, the second third is flat and the end is embarrassingly trying to find a way out of a mess, and relying on ridiculous contrivances and derivations to get there. It's a shame, because if the film had stayed on the track it started on, many of the flaws could easily have been overlooked, and it would easily have been a four or more star film (for the genre). It's still good fun for what it is, and vastly superior to that other franchise, James Bond. Good as a time-filler or a break from all those bleak and slow films at MIFF.

Poets Against the War
While I'm not particularly interested in poetry, I am vehemently opposed to the war in Iraq (and war in general) and wanted to show my support. I was alerted to this event by Alison Croggon, who was one of the speakers at the event, the others being J.S Harry and Barry Hill.

I can honestly say I am a poetry philistine and that I got more out of the Q&A afterwards. In answer to to questions from the audience at the end, the three speakers were in agreement that there is no difference in approach to writing poetry about war or any other subject. The other stand-out point made was that writing about political matters generally needs to be discreet rather than overt. Quotes were made from Orwell, that I can't recall in enough detail to try to paraphrase here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Dr. Plonk

Dr. Plonk (Rolf de Heer, Australia, 2007)
Dr. Plonk was selected as the opening night film of the AFI screenings, in which members get to view all the year's films eligible for voting for the annual AFI awards. It screened simultaneously in two cinemas at the Como cinema, and was introduced by the director himself (I spoke to him briefly at the catered event following). The AFI also provided showbags from the sponsors, including various L'Oreal cosmetics and the DVD of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

Rolf de Heer explained that there were at least three reasons he made this film:
  • He found the stock in a fridge going to waste, and decided to use it. When I asked him about it later, he said it was about ten years past its expiry date. It was colour film that I presume was converted to black and white in post-production.
  • He wanted to make a film that was a tribute to the films he loved in his childhood, such as The Keystone Kops.
  • After the difficulties of some of his earlier films, he wanted to make something that would be fun to make and fun for the actors to be involved in. As an aside, he mentioned that it was much more difficult than expected.
While I live in hope for Australian films, I can't say that I'm a big fan of much of our output. Rolf de Heer is an Australian director whose work does interest me. I've only seen three of his films, and each was completely different:
  • The Old Man Who Read Loves Stories (2001). I saw this in 2004 at the Nova cinema, with a Q&A session with the director. De Heer described some of the many problems he had making this film with an international cast in the jungles of French Guiana. Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Timothy Spall and Hugo Weaving, it was ambitious and both an unusual and an interestingly different film.
  • Ten Canoes (2006). This is a really unique Australian film that tells an indigenous story in a way that these people voiced so publicly. It won the Un certain regard (Special Jury prize) at Cannes 2006 as well as 6 AFI awards (for best film, director, screenplay, cinematography, editing and sound). It was also my no.3 favourite film for 2006 (after Em 4 Jay and The King).
  • Dr. Plonk
I was pleasantly surprised by Dr. Plonk. At first glance, the images promoting the film looked a little cringe-worthy. I was also a little sceptical at the idea of reproducing the silent-era style in a contemporary film.

De Heer told me after the film's screening that when he presented the film to a group of school children in Adelaide, the general consensus was positive, even though most of them didn't understand the concept of silent film. One student asked why no-one was talking! As an aside, I find the director a modest and unassuming gentleman.

I think this is excellent family entertainment. Often the word 'family' is used in conjunction with children's films, but I mean it in the context of 'all-ages'. Baby-boomers and older will relate to the obvious homage to The Keystone Kops (which I also enjoyed as a child) and the early films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

De Heer has done a remarkable job of producing a contemporary film that is not only a faithful reproduction of the style and mood of these historic films (including classic slapstick, stunts and acrobatics), but also manages to fuse contemporary issues. Set in 1907, Dr. Plonk creates a time machine that travels 100 years into the future in order to gather proof that the world will indeed end in 2008. De Heer displays excellent judgement in subtly presenting political points in a way that doesn't detract from the mood of the film or offend people's sensibilities.

The casting was spot on. The three main characters were Dr. Plonk (Nigel Lunghi), his lowly assistant Paulus (played as comic relief by Paul Blackwell) and Mrs. Plonk (Magda Szubanski). South Australian premier Mike Rann appears in a cameo role as the present day Prime Minister Short, and Wayne Anthoney plays Prime Minister Stalk in 1907. The film also takes a humorous look at who our next prime minister will be.

Some of the classic devices of silent films used by de Heer include: humiliation of a superior towards his subordinate (including lots of bum-kicking), a performing animal, altered film speed, a slight flickering look to the film as the light intensity varies (emulating the imperfections of the technique of the day) and absurdly simple props (like a wooden box with a lever as the time machine).

There's a point around half way into the film where if gets a little flat, and I suspect some contemporary audiences - particularly those with little experience of silent film - may get a little impatient. Having recently seen some Keaton shorts at Melbourne Cinémathèque, as well as Keaton's The General at the Astor a year or so ago, I thought this was still consistent with the films of that era. The music was enjoyable and appropriate, yet a little whacky - it was performed by the Stiletto Sisters.

All in all, I found the film a real treat, well conceived and executed. I intend taking my six year old son to see it and I'm sure he'll be laughing his head off at the good old-fashioned gags that leave most modern comedies for dead. This film is 83 minutes of refreshingly good old-fashioned entertainment. Dr. Plonk opens in cinemas on 30 August.

Link: Philippa Hawker interviews Rolf de Heer

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Week in Review

It's almost a relief to be doing my weekly review, after the 19 day intensity of MIFF. I'm going to try to reduce the number of films I see (seriously, I find it hard not to go to more) as time is really scarce, and I'm not putting the time into my French studies that it really needs. I'm roughly planning to get to France in a year or two, for a visit at least.

FILMS:
  • Ratatouille (Brad Bird, USA, 2007)
  • Love Serenade (Shirley Barrett, Australia, 1996)
  • The Home Song Stories (Tony Ayres, Australia, 2007) + Q&A
VIDEO:
  • Everynight... Everynight (Alkinos Tsilimidos, Australia, 1994)

Ratatouille
I generally like Pixar films, and Ratatouille looks like it will be a very popular film among the young 'uns. I was at the Australian premiere at ACMI, and many of the invitation-only audience were children (we received our invite on account of our suggestions for children's programming). I've never heard my six year old son laugh so unrestrained in a cinema before.

Pixar films are gorgeous to look at. The visual in Ratatouille are simply stunning, and the characters are mostly interesting. While the film is sure to be popular with the school holiday crowds (its September 6 release is a couple of weeks before the start of term holidays), I find the story a bit tired. It relies on stereotypes and over-used plot devices that, like the previous Cars, are just a bit too safe. A degree of narrative inventiveness and darkness that manifested in say, The Incredibles and Finding Nemo are nowhere to be seen in this film. Some aspects were too predictable and the 'but wait, there's more' dragged the film on way too long for a young audience (and an adult one, too, for that matter).

Children's film is a subject I care about, and while Ratatouille is entertaining and bound to be popular, I also feel it's a wasted opportunity to nurture children's minds. Rather it seems to be grooming them for the mediocrity that Hollywood pumps out for older generations. To the film's credit, it avoids the unnecessary (and for me, distracting) use of celebrity voices, using mostly 'unknowns', though Peter O'Toole is used effectively as the food critic.

ACMI director Tony Sweeney introduced the film, which was preceded by a seven-minute short called Lifted as well as a preview of Pixar's blockbuster for next year, about a robot called Wall-E. Lifted depicts an alien kidnapping gone wrong, and had the kind of edge that Ratatouille lacked.

Here's some tidbits about Ratatouille that may be of interest (courtesy of Disney):
  • The Pizza Planet Truck, which first made an appearance in Toy Story, has made a cameo in nearly every Pixar film. In Ratatouille, the infamous Pizza Planet Truck can be seen on a bridge over the Seine during the scene in which Skinner is chasing Remy.
  • The number A113, which refers to Brad Bird and John Lasseter's former classroom at CalArts, makes an appearance in every Pixar film. A113 also appears in Ratatouille, but you'll have to look carefully for yourself to find it.
  • Pixar's official "Good Luck Charm," actor John Ratzenberger, makes another appearance in Ratatouille as the head waiter, Mustafa. John's voice has appeared in every Pixar movie.
  • The character Bomb Voyage from The Incredibles makes two appearances in Ratatouille. He appears as a mime on the bridge by Notre Dame when Linguini and Colette skate past. Bomb Voyage's second appearance is the front-page headline and photo on the newspaper Colette is reading with the Solene Le Claire review.
  • "Bar Des 7 Chanceux" is a storefront seen on the streets of Paris. It is named for the "Lucky 7 Lounge," a homemade secret lounge inside Pixar Animation Studios.

Love Serenade

Wow, how did I ever miss this little gem on first release? While overlooked for the minor AFI award categories it was nominated in, it won the Golden Camera at Cannes 1996. It's the first film by Shirley Barrett, whose only other feature film (Walk the Talk) was made four years later, but appears not to have been released locally.

I was encouraged to see
Love Serenade on someone else's recommendation. It has a number of features and devices that I usually deplore in Australian films yet manages to use them to great effect. For example, the soundtrack of 'easy listening' music (with the likes of Barry White and Tom Jones) is in your face, yet like the Abba music in Muriel's Wedding, it works well with the narrative. The strength of the film is in the intelligent script (also by Barrett) and excellent character development.

Two lonely sisters fight for the attention of a city radio announcer that has moved to their quiet Riverland town. These three are the main characters, though the local Chinese restaurant owner (for whom the younger sister, played by Miranda Otto, works) is a very curious secondary character.

The film's visuals are very nice, the acting is spot on, and the quirkiness of the characters works a treat. The dialogue is sharp and original, with an underlying honesty that resonates and engages. The end is so abrupt and unexpected; it completely took me by surprise. The final shot leaves a sense of the bizarre. This is not mind-blowing cinema, but is a good example of low-budget Australian cinema done very well. This film is well-worth seeking for a pleasant evening's entertainment.

Link: Article about Shirley Barrett in The Age

Everynight... Everynight
I finally hunted down a copy of Alkinos Tsilimidos' first feature film on video and borrowed it from the ACMI Lending Collection. Let me qualify that since seeing Tom White (2004) and especially Em 4 Jay (2006), I'm a big fan of this director's work. In fact, he is my favourite Australian director, and Em 4 Jay my equal favourite Australian film (the other being Rowan Woods' The Boys).

After seeing Em 4 Jay, I purchased Silent Partner on DVD. It has much in common with all of Tsilimidos' feature films, most notably its concern with the dregs of society. Unlike his other works, this film is most obviously comedic, and for me not as strong as his more gritty social realist works. What surprised me about Everynight... Everynight, is how gritty and uncompromising it is, something that Em 4 Jay appears to be a return to. Yet in spite of the bleak narrative in both these films, let there be no doubt that humour (and much of it) is to be found.

Shot in stunning black and white by Toby Oliver (cinematographer on all four of Tsilimidos' films), the film grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. The fact that it's loosely based on an actual story is chilling. Co-written by Tsilimidos and Ray Mooney, it's derived from the play by Mooney who experienced first-hand Pentridge Prison's notorious H-division (where the film is set). This is the only Tsilimidos feature film where playwright Daniel Keene was not involved in the writing.

The film portrays Dale (by Tsilimidos regular, David Field), a fictionalised version of Christopher Dale Flannery, before he became the infamous hit-man who disappeared in 1985 without a trace, believed murdered. The fact that the film is dedicated to a notorious criminal is interesting, to say the least. For me, it confirms the director's sense of humanity - even the so-called scum of the earth are humans and due the dignity of being treated as such. That's something that later Royal Commissions have uncovered that prisoners were denied.

Like all of the director's films, the dialogue is full of authentic coarse language, the language of the streets and gutters inhabited by the lowest of the low. When we meet Dale on remand at Pentridge for assault, he appears to be a lost cause, but not yet the ruthless killer he was to become. Maybe Tsilimidos is suggesting the penal system, rather than rehabilitating him, assisted him down this path. The main antagonist is a prison officer, Berriman, played with chilling brutality and authenticity by the ubiquitous Bill Hunter. Hunter is almost a legend in Australian cinema, often playing affable larrikins, as he did in Tom White. I wrote at the time of Tom White's release that that was perhaps one of Hunter's best ever performances. His performance in Everynight... Everynight is at least on a par, and one of the best hatred-filled psychopathic depictions I have seen. It's right up there with Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Unlike David Lynch's landmark film, there is none of the surrealism - just gritty reality (though aesthetically stylised), which makes it even more scary.

Dale enters Pentridge on remand for assault but is assigned indefinitely to H-division for swearing at the prison governor. H-division had been taken over by sadistic prison officers who revel in the humiliation and dehumanisation of its residents. They take any opportunity to beat the prisoners viciously and relentlessly. In effect, they have become worse criminals than those they are overseeing. It brings to mind the soldiers we send to war zones (think Abu Ghraib), and the effects this must have on them reassimilating into normal society.

The array of characters that fills Tsilimidos' H-division (it was filmed in the then recently closed HM Prison Geelong), the brilliant character development and idiosyncratic dialogue add immensely to the appeal of the film. Haunting music that reflects the underdog, by Paul Kelly (who also contributed to the next two Tsilimidos films), also adds nicely. The lighting and dark shadows are reminiscent of 1940's film noir, and there is a timelessness to the look of the film. I love the way one of the prisoners screams out from his cell "you fucking poof-tah!!!". And how Dale defiantly 'resigns', not just from prison, but from life.

This film shook me with its believable content and also surprised me with the technical expertise that I have come to recognise in Tsilimidos' later films. I find it unfortunate that his name is not more readily recognised, and that his films are not more widely distributed.

Everynight... Everynight is being re-released on DVD by Shock DVD around September/October. It is an historic Australian film and I highly recommend it.

The Home Song Stories
Tony Ayre's Walking on Water (2002) received many rave reviews upon its release but I was underwhelmed by it. His latest film, The Home Song Stories, which recently screened to acclaim at MIFF, hits the mark that was missed in his earlier film. This is a much more assured work, and a much more personal one, depicting the director's difficult childhood. I have heard it compared to Romulus, My Father, and both share some common themes. I attended a preview screening today, which was following by a Q&A session with the director, producer and two of the stars. The time I have available to me at present can't do justice to the event, so I will leave the details to a separate post during the week. In short, this film is moving, well-made and depicts some universal themes.

October events added to Calendar

The Melbourne Film Blog calendar of film events (in the sidebar) has been updated with dates for October. Some upcoming highlights include:
  • The Italian Film Festival screening at Palace Como, Westgarth and Balwyn cinemas (19 September to 8 October)
  • ACMI's Focus on François Ozon (4 - 14 October)
  • ACMI's Seniors Film Festival (8 - 12 October)
  • ACMI's Focus on Catherine Breillat (starts 25 October to date TBC)
  • Opening 4 October: Away From Her (Sarah Polley)
  • Opening 25 October: Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg) & Waitress (Adrienne Shelley)

Monday, August 13, 2007

MIFF Day 19 (final day)

[Edit: comments to This Is England and The Silence have been added]

My final day of MIFF was pretty intense, but I was prepared for it by reducing the number of screenings I attended in the last week (two films on each of two days, one on each of the rest). Sunday saw me at four screenings, the most I've done in a day ever ("ha pooey", I hear some of you say, "I regularly do five, six or even seven!"). Well, four is a lot for me, and I'm not in a hurry to do it again.

I'm back at work, so time is a bit precious. I'm posting two reviews now, and will update this as I can with the others. Some time during the week, I'll also post an overview of MIFF.

Mister Lonely (Harmony Korine, UK/France, 2007)
In spite of some early projection problems and mixed reviews of Mister Lonely, the latest film by wunderkind Harmony Korine was not only one of the stand-out films for me at MIFF, but one of my favourites of the year thus far. My experience of his work to date is limited to his writing of Larry Clark’s Kids (1995, at age 20) and his directorial debut Gummo (1997). The former I saw relatively recently and impressed me with its gritty realism, while the latter surprised me on its theatrical release with its bleakness.

Mister Lonely is a much more colourful film than anything I’ve associated with Korine. Its visuals (such as set design, camera angles and cinematography) are very pleasing, accentuated by its seemingly unrelated parallel narratives and absurdist premise. A Michael Jackson impersonator in France meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, who introduces him to a Scottish commune full of various impersonators. While superficially the film appears to be frivolous, clearly it has deeper social comments to make about identity, loneliness and alienation, issues the director has been reportedly grappling with personally.

The other narrative relates to a group of missionaries in Panama, with Werner Herzog portraying a priest, Father Umbrillo, delivering food aid by plane, assisted by various nuns. While the connection between the dual narratives is unclear, this story is strangely surreal, visually alluring and entertaining. I've spent a week or so in Panama, including flying over the jungle in a small plane, but I didn't recognise the locale at the time (I thought it might have been the Caribbean).

There was a small flat spot towards the end of the film, but for most of the film’s 112 minutes, I had a big smile that was hard to wipe off my face. Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Temple, James Dean, Little Red Riding Hood, Queen Elizabeth, the Pope, The Three Stooges, Abraham Lincoln, Madonna and what I presume was a childhood version of Michael Jackson were all there.

The humour and irony are used with a clever and skillful blend of under- and over-statement. There is an underlying subtle sadness to some of the characters who, in spite of their eccentric alter egos, remain ordinary people that an audience can relate to. The film is intelligent and emotionally honest. One part is particularly close to the bone for me and brought tears to my eyes. This is probably Korine’s most accessible and enjoyable film. It deserves a theatrical release.

This was the second and final screening of Mister Lonely as part of MIFF's International Panorama. Link: Interview with Harmony Korine

Trailer for Mister Lonely
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The Man From London (Béla Tarr, France/Germany/Hungary/UK, 2007)
Like Mister Lonely, this part of MIFF’s ‘Come to Cannes’ screenings of films that recently debuted at Cannes. And once again I was surprised at how good this was, considering I’d heard some negative or indifferent murmurs about it. It goes to show that you never can judge a film until you’ve seen it yourself. This is my first ever attendance at a screening of a Béla Tarr film.

The Man From London is clearly a highly stylised homage to film noir of the 1940s. The lush black and white photography, using classic noir shadows and imagery is a feast for the eyes. The camera work is slow, fluid and dynamic, with very long takes in which little seems to happen. Combined with a mesmerising score slightly reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti’s sounds on Twin Peaks, a mood of ever-growing suspense and menace is created that powerfully engages from start to finish.

The basic premise of the film is that Maloin, a night harbour worker (played by Miroslav Krobot) witnesses some treachery between a disembarking passenger of a ship (the man in the title) and another man on-shore. A death may have occurred and when Maloin investigates, he becomes involved in an intrigue from which he cannot extricate himself.

Tilda Swinton plays Maloin’s wife, though her voice is dubbed over in Hungarian. The film was part-English produced, so maybe a name known to English-speaking audiences was required to market the film. The role was small, and I always find Swinton an interesting actor, so it was a curiosity to see her in this role. In general the tired and worn-out characters looked terrific on film, with a timeless quality that matched the aesthetics of the decaying town.

This is not a film for everyone, as it requires some patience and appreciation for aesthetics over action, and there is not a whole lot of the latter. While the film’s major strength is its visuals, they serve to subtly drive the slow-burn suspense. I was surprised when people started walking out of the film, first one by one, then after an hour about twenty or so walked out in unison. I estimate 60 people left, around 10% of the audience at the sold-out Forum screening. I was equally surprised that so few walked out of Inland Empire (I counted only four, about 1% of the also sold-out ACMI screening). Still, what’s a good film or a good film festival without walk-outs? Many of my favourite films have had them. I have read that this is not one of Tarr's best films. Well, I loved it and must seek out his others.

This was the second and final screening of The Man From London as part of MIFF's International Panorama.


This is England (Shane Meadows, England, 2000)
This is the third film I have seen by Shane Meadows, the others being TwentyFourSeven (1997) and A Room for Romeo Brass (1999). Both these films had a local theatrical release, though the latter I saw at MIFF in 1998. All three of these films are coming-of-age stories revolving around young males from poor working-class areas.

Reviews around town seem to be universally proclaiming This Is England as the best film yet by Shane Meadows. I disagree. I found the film very enjoyable, gritty at times and with some excellent performances (especially by thirteen-year old Thomas Turgoose as Shaun, and Stephen Graham as Combo), but it was no better than Meadows' solid drama in TwentyFourSeven, in which Bob Hoskins portrays a boxer who trains disadvantaged boys to keep them off the street.

This Is England is reportedly Meadows' most autobiographical film. Clearly he had a dismal upbringing, and each of his films is uplifting, probably a reflection of the director's raising himself out of despair. While some of the recent accolades proclaim Meadows as the natural successor to Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Again, I disagree. All three directors often portray the same working class, but Meadows' films are clearly more optimistic than Loach and Leigh, more stylised and thus less naturalistic. His films are more accessible to mainstream audiences. I consider them good mainstream entertainment, whereas Loach and Leigh are definitely arthouse film-makers.

Was the film a good choice as closing film? I suppose the answer depends on one's criteria for selection. In support, the opening and closing night films are entertaining and relevant but I find it a little odd that both have been selected with theatrical releases so close to MIFF. Sicko opened on wide release on August 9 before the festival had finished, while This Is England opened on August 16.

Prior to the film's screening, there were addresses by Claire Dobbin, Gavin Jennings (the new Minister of Innovation, replacing John Brumby who has assumed the role of Premier) and Richard Moore. Jennings was the only speaker who spoke without notes; he is a very competent and humorous speaker.

The Silence (Tystnaden, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1963)
The Silence was one of the four surprise screenings on the final day, a tribute to the recently departed Bergman. Unfortunately, This Is England finished late and I missed the first ten minutes or so of The Silence. While I'm told I didn't miss much, I felt a little disoriented at first and it took me a while to understand what was going on.

The film didn't engage me as much as the only other Bergman I've seen, Wild Strawberries. It did look nice and the tense perversity was handled well. As a film by a significant director, there's probably not a lot I can add at this point, but I look forward to exploring more of his works.

Link: Index of MIFF films reviewed

Saturday, August 11, 2007

MIFF Day 18

The second last day of MIFF 2007, and only one film attended today, but it was a corker. If I attend the four films I've booked for tomorrow, it'll be the first time I've done four in a day. I don't really care to cram films into one day; it's just turned out that way. Two of the films are films that debuted at Cannes: Bela Tarr's The Man From London and Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely. The others are the official closing night film, Shane Meadows' This is England and the nod of respect to the recently departed Ingmar Bergman, The Silence. If I make it to all four screenings, it'll be a late night tomorrow, and with work the next morning, I'm not sure how quickly I will get my report posted.

Snow Angels (David Gordon Green, Canada, 2007)
It feels like it's been a while since a film brought me to tears, and while I wasn't expecting this excellent drama to sneak up on me like it did, it did, and I cried. At first Snow Angels gives the impression it is going to be another slightly left-of-centre American indie film (though it's Canadian), the type that gets touted as a Sundance film. It's not quite quirky, and certainly no Little Miss Sunshine, but a little idiosyncratic. It reminds me ever so slightly of Offset, a film that screened at the German Film Festival in Melbourne this year. Both films give the appearance of going down a well-worn track, yet skillfully avoid clichés and stereotypes, delivering emotional truths and naturalistic scenarios against expectation.

The film focuses on a number of inter-twined relationships within a small town. Glenn (Sam Rockwell, in perhaps the performance of his career thus far) and Annie (Kate Beckinsale, also excellent) are the main characters - their separation has caused much grief. Annie is finding love elsewhere, while Glenn can't let go. There is also a young child in the middle. Other characters have drama of their own. Arthur (Michael Angarano) is experiencing first love with Lila (Olivia Thirlby). The nuanced character development is excellent. There is no good guy/bad guy thing happening - these are real people who are capable of both good and bad (to put it simply).

The story is very accessible and many people will relate to the unfolding drama. What I didn't expect was for some of the realistic interactions and the tragic outcomes. What seems to start as a light and pleasing film packs a powerful punch that left me affected for some time after. For me, the film recalls others such as Paul Schraeder's Affliction and James Marsh's The King. Snow Angels is more accessible than both those films.

I've not seen any previous films by David Gordon Green, though I did note that he was credited as a producer of Shotgun Stories, one of my favourite films at MIFF this year. This film is a real gem and deserves a theatrical release. Hopefully Hopscotch, Madman or one of the other local distributors will pick it up. It should do well at the Palace, Nova or Kino cinemas.

This was the second and final screening of Snow Angels as part of MIFF's International Panorama.


Links: Index of MIFF films reviewed to date / MIFF website

Friday, August 10, 2007

MIFF Day 17

Seventeen days down and two to go. I can't wait to get back to normality. Film festivals are intense and, for me, some anxiety. I had four sessions booked for today, two that I decided last week I wouldn't attend, and cancelled another today, leaving just Lars von Trier's The Boss of It All. The reason? Sleep deprivation. I got to bed early enough, but with certain things on my mind, I was still awake at 2.30am so got up to do some things and didn't get to bed until 5am. I'm feeling like shit.

On the plus side, I met up with Trent from Sydney for the first time and saw the film together at the glorious Regent, my favourite MIFF venue.

I'm a little disappointed that I'm not going to go to Imamura's The Pornographers tomorrow, as I have other things to do. I haven't missed any of the Japanese retrospectives so far, but such is life, and life goes on.

The Boss of It All (Direktøren for det hele, Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 2006)
I went into this film with very modest expectations. Other than von Trier's Breaking the Waves, nothing I've seen of his since has overly impressed me. Not that I thought any of them were bad, but they just haven't engaged me much.

The Boss of It All turns out to be quite a smart and enjoyable comedy, somewhat farcical in the vein of François Veber's The Dinner Game. The director doesn't take it seriously at all, taking the mickey out of himself, doing a self-referential voice-over about his act of filming in which we see him and the cameraman reflected in the window of the office building that is the setting of the film.

The basic premise is that a Danish CEO is attempting to sell his business to a Finnish buyer, and has hired an actor to fill in as the phantom owner. It's completely preposterous, but good characterisations, humour and intelligent setups make for a lot of fun. As I said about Fay Grim, there's so little intelligent comedy around these days, so I found it refreshing. Just what the doctor ordered as treatment for MIFF-fatigue.

Just a small point in passing: the two protagonists look like younger versions of Derryn Hinch and Geoffrey Rush.

This was the second and final screening of The Boss of It All as part of MIFF's International Panorama. Link: Official website.


Links: Index of MIFF films reviewed to date / MIFF website

Thursday, August 09, 2007

MIFF Day 16

Day 16, and MIFF-fatigue is taking its toll. Over the length of MIFF, I booked quite a few sessions in the Neighbourhood Watch section, and there seems to be homogeny among the Asian films selected. I do like contemplative cinema in general, but in the intense context of a festival, I'm finding them a bit much of the same. Several of the films I've seen (such as yesterday's Syndromes and a Century) may make a better impression on me in a non-festival context.

Memo to myself: next year, book films from some of the sections I wouldn't normally, like this year's Full Moon Fever and Forbidden Pleasures. I want to see Teeth (which is part of Forbidden Pleasures), but didn't book it because it has a local release planned. I've heard it's a lot of fun.

I had three films booked for today, but because of the fatigue, I decided to drop two of them and do something non-film related (like car-shopping for the missus). It was a good break and I found it liberating. I rode around town on my motorbike for something other than the short ride to the city. So, I missed The Night of the Sunflowers (which Matt Clayfield tells me was OK, but nothing special), and Kim Ki-duk's Time (which others, including Matt, haven't been impressed with). The one film I saw was great.

A Man Vanishes (Ningen Johatsu, Shohei Imamura, Japan, 1967)
I found this in some ways a remarkable film, made with self-conscious introspection about cinema documentary, the role of it and the inherent dishonesty of the medium. The film's genesis was a genuine research into the phenomenon of people who simply disappear from their lives in contemporary Japan.

The film plays as a genuine documentary based on a real case, only to be revealled towards the end as a fictionalised dramatisation. The film pre-empts the 'reality' format of current television by four decades. It's unclear to me how much of the story is true, which characters are real and which are actors, and how much it is based on reality.

Even though I knew some of the nature of the film before seeing it, I as still duped and bewildered, the lines between reality and fiction completely blurred. That was the director's stated intention, and the point was profoundly made. I am accustomed to directors blurring documentary and fiction like Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line or Krzysztof Kiewslowski's Curriculum Vitae, and Imamura must have been a pioneer with the concept.

The end of the film is particularly poignant, and even after we are realise we have been manipulated about what is the truth, the on-screen dialogue continues to confound us. Brilliant film-making!

A Man Vanishes had a single screening at MIFF as part of the Shohei Imamura retrospective.
Also still to be screened: The Pornographers.


Links: Index of MIFF films reviewed to date / MIFF website

The Jammed opens at Cinema Nova

With MIFF drawing towards its close, it's worth bearing in mind a couple of post-MIFF events. I recently had the opportunity to view The Jammed by Dee McLachlan. This film is based on actual court transcripts and other research about human trafficking in Australia. Filmed mostly in Melbourne, I found it compelling and relevant. Its willingness to tackle some harsh issues in a serious manner overshadow any of its relatively minor flaws and deserves an audience.

At the time I saw it, it had no confirmed distribution, but now Cinema Nova is screening it. It premieres at the Nova on Thursday 16 August at 6.45pm. The director will be on hand to discuss the film with the audience. Check the website for further details.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

MIFF Day 15

Intentions of Murder (aka Unholy Desire, Akai satsui, Shohei Imamura, Japan, 1964)
This is my fifth Imamura film viewed at MIFF and I feel like I'm just starting to get a handle on 'where he's at'. Intentions of Murder has many trademarks of Imamura, such as people struggling at the bottom of the social foodchain, adultery, treachery, sex and violence. The protagonist is not a classic beauty nor a powerless victim, but a feisty and large-framed woman who fights back. In contrast, the men in her life appear like weak-willed weasles.

What I like about Imamura is his matter-of-fact depictions of struggle, a theme I find connects people through the medium of film. It is the one thing, perhaps more than any other, that unites people of all different races, gender, political persuasions and social standing. While all people struggle, but in different ways, it is easier to depict among the lower social orders - the middle and upper classes are more able to give an air of being free from struggle.

In depicting the struggles of the characters in Intentions of Murder, we get to see the day-to-day activities of ordinary people from another culture, and from another time. This aspect is depicted with a beautiful aesthetic, particularly with the glorious black and white cinematography. At 150 minutes, I found the film a little long, but having been up late the previous night watching Inland Empire may have been a factor in that. It is, however, one of my favourites of Imamura's thus far, alongside Vengeance is Mine and The Ballad of Narayama.

Intentions of Murder had a single screening at MIFF as part of the Shohei Imamura retrospective.
Also still to be screened: A Man Vanishes & The Pornographers.

Syndromes and a Century (Sang sattawat, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/France/Austria, 2006)
This film was preceded by a significant amount of online buzz. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps I've seen too many contemplative Asian films at MIFF. Syndromes and a Century is a nice, poetic film that is visually pleasing, observational and (I suspect) some meanings that may have eluded me. But it just didn't engage me.

The film is semi-autobiographical, based on the director's childhood recollections of living in a hospital - his parents were both doctors. I find it remarkable that this completely inoffensive film is banned in its native Thailand. I'd be interested to revisit this some time in the future, away from the blitz of festival films.

This was the second and final screening of Syndromes and a Century as part of MIFF's Neighbourhood Watch.

Links: Index of MIFF films reviewed to date / MIFF website

MIFF Surprise Films Announced

This year's surprise films have been revealled. They all screen at 9.30pm on the final day, Sunday 12 August. They are:

ACMI: The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975)
Forum: The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)
Greater Union: Out of the Blue (Robert Sarkies, 2006)
Capitol: Teeth (re-screening)

I actually blindly booked my ticket at the Forum weeks ago, and by sheer luck, it's my pick of those revealled so far. I've only seen Bergman's Wild Strawberries, which screened at Melbourne Cinémathèque, and impressed me. The Passenger is the only film by Antonioni that I've seen, and I didn't like it. I found it contrived and unbelievable that a world correspondent could trade places like that. Obviously these two films are screening as homages to these screen greats who have both passed away recently.

Out of the Blue and Teeth have already screened at MIFF and are getting an encore.

MIFF Day 14

Tuesday August 7, the day Inland Empire premiered in Melbourne at MIFF. And it was worth the wait. More below, and more to come when time permits.

Distance (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2001)
This is the last of the Kore-eda screenings at MIFF. Time constraints prevent me writing in detail right now about this film or the retrospective as a whole, and I hope to do this some time soon. The film is very quiet and a bit of a strange beast as it's slightly obscure narrative unfolds, switching between at least three different time frames.

Basically, it's about people associated with a cult that was responsible for the mass poisoning of the water supply some years earlier. It's not concerned with the criminal act itself as much as the interactions between these five people. It has a common aesthetic with the other Kore-eda films, though each film in his body is very different from the others. Once the dust has settled on MIFF, I'd like to revisit this and all the other Kore-eda titles to appreciate them without the crowd of other films in my mind. Briefly, Distance is another quite but powerful film.

Distance was the final screening of the Hirokazu Kore-eda retrospective at MIFF.

Inland Empire (David Lynch, USA, 2006)
Where were you on Friday 13 July at 11am? I was at my computer at work booking tickets for Inland Empire. I was a man on a mission. To hell with the other 267 films - must... book... Inland... Empire. In my naivete, I feared the film would sell out on day one of tickets going on sale. In actuality, it took a week or two, the first film to completely sell out.

Last night I arrived at ACMI half an hour early to find a huge queue, the longest I have seen there ever. I was at the bottom of the stairs (the cinema is upstairs), and the ushers had managed to get the queue to spiral around the stairs, around the perimeter of the ACMI space until it wound up near the box office. It was a sight. I still managed to get a prime seat close to where I normally sit.

Well, was it worth it? Was I disappointed? Yes to the first and a qualified no to the second. Look, not only is this Lynch's most cutting edge film to date but I'm going to put myself out on a limb and say this is an historically important work. Whether cinema history will come to regard it as same, only time will tell.

Some of my anticipated fears were realised. I'm not a fan of digital film-making, though there have been notable exceptions. Last year's Em 4 Jay was my favourite film of the year, and it was shot on high definition digital camera. It wasn't evident to me at all, and I later learnt that it underwent an expensive labour-intensive transfer process to film, the first Australian film to achieve this (which was done by the lab at little or no cost to the production). Still Life's use of digital cameras was more evident but remains my favourite film at MIFF so far. (Incidentally, it's second screening had to be replaced last night when the print didn't turn up.)

Lynch films usually incorporate lush, vibrant visuals. His use of HD digital on Inland Empire is well-known, and reviews of the film from overseas had pre-warned me that this film would not share the same aesthetics. One online reviewer described the experience as akin to "looking through four screen doors". These types of reactions did prepare me, and I was able to cut the film some slack.

Lynch is using a new medium and he's not afraid to experiment. Not afraid? Hell, he's charged full bore into the medium with enthusiasm, pushing various boundaries, achieving new effects. Focus and composition are some of the obvious experimentations. Digital looks different, and Lynch has used a whole range of manipulations of the medium to try to harness it. Some aspects won't appeal to all, including myself.

It somehow doesn't sound quite right calling Inland Empire an experimental film, as those two words conjure up visual incoherence, an euphemism for something that didn't quite work or a project that belongs at a cinematheque rather than a regular cinema. Inland Empire IS an experimental film by a highly competent master. Any incoherence is more a matter of creative freedom that Lynch has allowed himself, more so than any other feature film with his name on it.

This film takes the surrealism and investigations of consciousness and identity in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, and ups the ante to a whole new level. Don't think you can come out of this film understanding it. You can't, and (as I wrote about Lost Highway) that I believe is the intention and part of the enjoyment of the experience. This is seriously freaky shit - much more so than Lost Highway, which until now I have considered Lynch's least accessible film (and, I might add, my favourite film of all time). So not only has Lynch experimented with a new medium, but he's also experimented with cinema narrative. This is why I think this film is so important, in spite of its flaws.

What is the film about, I imagine you asking. Already much reported, this is not easy to answer. All I can do is quote Lynch, it's about "a woman in trouble". Thematically, it is closest to Mulholland Drive. Laura Dern certainly puts in a remarkable performance, and this is well and truly her chance in the spotlight. Lynch is brilliant in his placement of actors. He intuitively knows that we have expectations of someone's screen history, and totally reinvents it by placing the actor in a completely different setting to what we're accustomed to. What Lynch did for Bill Pullman in Lost Highway he has done for Dern in Inland Empire. With due respect, I don't think either of these actors has done much of note with any other director.

It was great to see Grace Zabriskie (Sarah Palmer in Twin Peaks) in a small but powerful and convincing role, a little like some of the bizarre metaphysical characters from Twin Peaks or Robert Blake's Mystery Man in Lost Highway. Harry Dean Stanton, Jeremy Irons and Justin Theroux all had good support roles.

Lynch aficionados will recognise many of his other devices as he further explores themes developed in earlier films. While there's a common aesthetic to any Lynch film, Inland Empire deviates more than any other from what people have come to expect of him. The recognisable sound of Angelo Badalamenti's music is there, but less obviously. The brilliant fusion and placement of music is still there, but also used with mostly restraint yet at times extravagance, particularly the end. And speaking of the end, this one is truly different to anything Lynch has done, with a kind of homage that references the film itself as well as others, particularly Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. Speaking in strange tongues we have seen in Twin Peaks, but in this film we have a foreign language (Polish) at times, with subtitles.

In short - because this post is just about my initial impressions and I'll have more to write about Inland Empire after my second or third viewing (the DVD is on its way) - I think this is a brilliant piece of work by Lynch. It's not my favourite. It's probably even not in my top five. It is, however, an important film that commands respect. The digital medium has a long way to go, and Lynch is in the forefront of those pioneering the creative use of it.

I'm now racing out the door to see my next MIFF session. If I can make the time, I'm going to see Inland Empire again tomorrow night (even though the session is long sold out, my festival pass gives me a prime reserved seat if I choose to use it).

Inland Empire screened as part of MIFF's International Panorama. It screens again on Thursday 9 August at 9.15pm at the Forum Theatre. Official website.

Links: Index of MIFF films reviewed to date / MIFF website

Monday, August 06, 2007

MIFF Day 13

Eijanaika (Shohei Imamura, Japan, 1981)
This is classic Imamura: prostituition, criminals, racketeering, bribes, murder and more. This is Imamura's Japan, what he considers the real Japan. The other Japan - the postcard perfect one - is a figment of the imagination. I like this perspective. It reminds me of the dishonesty inherent in society, how people like to project their perfect family life, when in actuality it's all a facade.

The struggles of the protagonists were captivating. It's nineteenth century Japan, and Genji (Shigeru Izumiya) returns after being missing six years at sea. His wife Ine (Kaori Momoi) has left the village and found work in a carnival in Edo (current Tokyo). The carnival is owned by a criminal who keeps Ine as his mistress. Genji reunites with Ine, but life is complicated and their endeavours are thwarted in various ways.

I found the plot convoluted, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I did have problems following all the relationships and the various political and treacherous intrigues. It contributed to an interesting and engaging plot. I did find the film a little long, and when it morphed into a musical at the end, it was uplifiting but inconsistent with the rest of the film. I'm probably putting myself in the firing line in saying this (I know Imamura has a lot of passionate fans), but the end just didn't work for me, even though I enjoyed the 'rude' aspects (there was a can-can dance like you've never seen before). I probably need to see this film again at another time.

Eijanaika had a single screening at MIFF as part of the Shohei Imamura retrospective.
Also still to be screened: Intentions of Murder, A Man Vanishes & The Pornographers.

Links: Index of MIFF films reviewed to date / MIFF website

MIFF Day 12

Half Moon (Niwemang, Bahman Ghobadi, Iran/Iraq/Austria/France, 2006)
Half Moon is a road movie with a difference. An elderly man Moma (portrayed with great range and nuance by Ismail Ghaffari), a celebrity singer in his native Iraqi Kurdistan, sets out by bus from Iran with an entourage of his musician sons to his homeland to perform in a large public concert. With seven months of rehearsals, official permits and visas carefully arranged, nothing could go wrong, right? Well, this is border country between bitter enemies Iran, Iraq and the highly marginalised Kurds who are basically a dispossessed people without a country and held in contempt by both countries as well as Turkey. This film illustrates what can go wrong.

While beautifully filmed in some beautifully stark landscapes, the real richness of Half Moon - like most Iranian films screened here - is in the simplicity of the story and the attention to detail to the struggles of seemingly mundane activities. The cultural aspects are especially fascinating. The authority of Moma as the family patriarch is evident; his middle aged sons all hold him in high esteem and cower before him. Not unexpectedly, as Iran does not allow women to sing in public, there are specific issues with involving a woman in such a cultural endeavour.

The family and social dynamics depicted breathe life into this little gem of a film. Music is a universal language that binds people, so when contempt is shown by the Iranian border guards, it has a powerful effect on the audience. My in-laws are similarly musicians of a dispossessed people (Pontians, Greek orthodox who once lived in Turkey), so I could relate well to the scenario in the film. The subtle politics in the film relate to the current state in the region, and it's regrettable that the film has been banned in Iran (the government considers it pro-separatist).

It was interesting to see the advancement of technologies such as cell phones and wireless internet laptops creeping into these otherwise isolated communities. The film is full of beautifully understated performances and naturalistic humour and drama. I highly recommend it and, like most Iranian films I have seen, is something I would take my six year old son to see (were it to get a theatrical release).

Half Moon screened as part of MIFF's International Panorama. It screens again on Friday 10 August at 5pm at the Forum Theatre.

Links: Interview with the director / And another / Official website

Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin, USA/Canada, 2006)
With the exception of a few brief seemingly random shots, Brand Upon the Brain! is shot (or made to appear in post-production to be shot) in grainy black and white. The look is reminiscent of David Lynch's Eraserhead, a classic that may have been an influence, though the style is quite different. Maddin's film uses much more frenetic editing techniques, particularly frequent cutting to create an abrasive subliminal effect from which the title appears to be derived.

I use the term 'abrasive' and for some people that might be a negative, but I found it effective. The film uses captions and along with a neo-silent-era visual design, it has the effect of a coherent experimental film with a bizarre horror narrative. A man, Guy, returns to the island orphanage of his parents after a thirty year absence, on the request of his dying mother. It turns out the parents were subjecting the orphans to some peculiar activities from which Guy escaped.

I found the design, high-contrast lighting and editing techniques effective in conveying a bizarre nightmare-type of story, a horror film that is not entirely original in narrative nor design, yet original in its presentation. I liked the voice-over narration by Isabelle Rosellini. There are some very attractive characterisations and depictions of inoffensive perversity. It's not an earth-shattering highlight of MIFF, but is a good film to enhance the diversity of screenings in a festival context. Definitely worth a look.

Brand Upon the Brain! screened as part of MIFF's International Panorama. It screens again on Wednesday 8 August at 9.20pm at the Forum Theatre.

Links: Offical website / Interview with the director

Fay Grim (Hal Hartley, USA, 2006)
Fay Grim is the continuation of a story begun ten years earlier with Hartley's Henry Fool. I haven't seen the earlier film, and I don't know if that's a good thing or not. I can only regard the current film on its own merits.

For most people, Hal Hartley's style of film-making is something that you either like or you don't. His combination of action, drama, absurdity and dry, ironic humour really resonates with me, and Fay Grim is no exception. It has an air of sharply-written intelligent parody that had myself and many in the audience laughing out loud. For the first half of the film it was relentless and delivered with deadpan straightness. It's a style of humour sadly lacking in cinemas and a welcome relief to the mindless teen comedies that Hollywood pumps out like pancakes.

During the second half of the film, the humour starts to thin as the film morphs into an international espionage/conspiracy thriller. Whether this was Hartley's intention or whether he ran out of ideas is not clear, but I think a bit of editing or re-writing to cut fifteen minutes off the film would have maintained the film's original momentum.

The performances were generally good, particularly Parker Posey and Jeff Goldblum, who had the most screen time. Saffron Burrows, James Urbaniak, Carl Montgomery and Elina Löwensohn all played good support roles. The film's visuals were nice (set in New York, Paris, Berlin and Istanbul) and the music (also by Hartley) was good without being intrusive. The camera angles are mostly off-kilter and point up at the characters - a device that seems designed to accentuate the absurdity of the plot. It initially distracted me as I tried to follow which way the camera was skewed, but then when I just went with the flow it was fine. The film is well-written and I enjoyed this it immensely. If you like Hartley's earlier work, you'll probably like this.

Fay Grim screened as part of MIFF's International Panorama. It screens again on Saturday 11 August at 9.40pm at the Regent Theatre. It also has some kind of future local release, though it's unclear whether it will be theatrical or DVD, or when. Official website.

Links: Index of MIFF films reviewed to date / MIFF website