Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Week in Review - 30/9/09

  • Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA/Germany, 2009)
  • Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy, Roberto Rossellini, Italy/France, 1953)
  • Gake no ue no Ponyo (Ponyo, Hayao Mizayaki, Japan, 2008)
  • Eli & Ben (Ori Ravid, Israel, 2008)

Inglourious Basterds
It's not often I see a film more than once, but after reading various articles and interviews with Tarantino, etc, I decided to give this one another go. Other Tarantino films I've seen more than once on the big screen are Pulp Fiction and Death Proof. I didn't enjoy the film more on second viewing, but I noticed and appreciated things more. Things that bothered me on first viewing either bothered me less or not at all. This is Hollywood film-making that we don't see enough of and will probably make it into my top-10 releases of the year. Tremendously entertaining!

Voyage to Italy
This is my second Rossellini film, so I have a long way to get through his oeuvre, but I'm liking what I'm seeing. I was surprised to find Voyage to Italy almost entirely in English. I was also surprised at how much like her mother Isabella Rossellini looks.

The film depicts a marriage in downward spiral. From the Senses of Cinema Annotations, I expected to find a heartless husband (George Sanders) and his long-suffering wife (Ingrid Bergman). Rossellini is clearly more enlightened a film-maker than I expected and there is a great deal of subtlety and balance than the annotations led me to believe.

The small Nova Cinema 7 was full, and it wasn't just children. I was surprised to see, in addition to the young families, teenagers, 20-somethings and older. All for a film that appears to be aimed at a domestic (Japanese) audience aged 4-9 years old. It's a tribute to the film-maker that he can create a world that appeals largely outside its target audience.

I really enjoyed Mizayaki's Spirited Away, though most of his films since seem to have been made with a Western audience in mind and have become increasingly formulaic. No so with Ponyo. If anything, it seems to be going backwards in time. Japan is famous for it's cultural ambiguity. It is one of the most technologically advanced societies on Earth and yet strangely bound to traditions that go back to the Middle Ages. Ponyo's style eschews all the advances in animation and more than ever displays an old-fashioned hand-painted look. Rather than detract from the film, it works well and differentiates the film from the competition (not that Mizayaki has any real contenders).

So, how does Ponyo stack up? Well, don't see the Hollywood dubbed version. I haven't seen it, but it would just destroy the very Japanese look and feel of the film. The magical world that Mizayaki conjures really is endearing. I'd have thought it was aimed at a pre-school to early primary school demographic, but my 8 year old loved it. I found it enjoyable, but I wouldn't go unless I was accompanying a child.

Eli & Ben
This film screened at the Israeli Film Festival, for which one must be over 18 years of age to legally gain entry. Yet, it seems to be aimed squarely at a teenage market. Basically, it's a telemovie (or appears to be), like an extended version of Neighbours, and I thought it was just stupid, stupid, stupid. I could tell this from the opening scene and it didn't get any better. I have nothing else I want to say about it.

The same dreary criticism

So now Michael Coulter, The Age's production editor (whatever that means) is an Andrew Bolt wannabe, criticising the state of Australian cinema. Criticism is not unwanted nor unneeded, but this dross in today's paper is just as tired a criticism as the type of films he's criticising. Coulter's solution, à la Bolt, is to remove public funding and have Australian films funded as per Hollywood. As far as I know, this only works in one country, namely America, and even then, most films coming out of that place are not big success stories.

In particular, these closing comments in the article lead me to not take Coulter seriously:

Personally, I'd be more than happy to see the Australian Film Commission's funding handed over to, say, MICA paramedics, who are at least delivering a demonstrable benefit to society.

Until then, I'll stick with the majority of Australians and vote with my feet - which will take me, likely as not, straight into the next session of Transformers.

Mind you, I agree that we don't need any more mediocre films made to the same old tired formula that we've been pumping out for the last few years. But does Coulter really think we should be producing films like Transformers? I'd rather spend that money on MICA paramedics. The world does not need more mindless trash movies.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

More, and More on Moore

It's been a bit quiet around here lately - pneumonia will do that to you. Mind you, I haven't been particularly unwell, but my energy levels have been a bit low and getting eight hours' sleep each night has been more important than posting every couple of days.

There's actually been a heap of things I've wanted to post about, including events that have come and gone (Russian Resurrection Film Festival), events that are happening now (Three Blind Mice, Israeli Film Festival, Melbourne Writers Festival, Anna May Wong on Film) and upcoming events (Greek Film Festival, Stone Bros.) and more.

Talking about more, via Lynden Barber's Eyes Wired Open, I found this Guardian article by Richard Moore on the Loach-MIFF controversy, which makes for a good read. I whole-heartedly support Richard Moore's position. In the article, he states:
Everyone has been given a royal dispensation from Loach to commit war crimes bar the Israelis. Far be it for me to act as an apologist for Israel but the logical extension of Loach's position is absurd. Aside from ignoring the fact that film festivals fulfil an important role in allowing filmmakers to circumvent national censors, is he saying we can continue to programme films from North Korea, from Iran, from China – but we must boycott Israel? On a moral relativity scale does that mean that Iran's treatment of women is acceptable? Should we keep quiet about how North Korea treats its citizens? Loach disagreed with George Bush's approach to foreign policy; so was it OK to programme American films during the Bush era?

Loach's demands were beyond the pale. As a supporter of independent film and filmmaking he should be ashamed of himself.

This argument is similar to one I posted myself and I agree that Loach should be ashamed. I also agree with Lynden Barber's description of Moore as "something of a hero in the fight to keep festivals free of censorship."

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

It's not often I do a separate post on such a mainstream film, but I wanted to brain dump by initial thoughts and here they are:

I don't think Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's finest work, but I love anything he turns his hands to, including this. It does have some of the structure of Kill Bill and, like it, its main weaknesses are the indulgences and lack of tight disciple of most of his other films.

The violence is the most explicit of any Tarantino film and I question how often we needed to see a head scalped. Especially the last one, the activity could have take place off-screen with just the sounds and it would have been more effective.

In my mind, Tarantino seemed more than ever to be attempting to subvert genres. The opening credits exemplify that with the western font and Morricone-like score. The credits then changed to a contemporary arthouse-style before changing once again to a 1970's style. Throughout the film, Tarantino would appear to follow one genre convention, but then mix it with another, usually from a different period. This was most obvious with the music choices, but there were other details, which elude me right now.

The music is generally very good, though one track towards the end - I'm not sure who it was, but it sounded a little like Nick Cave - seemed right out of place.

Like any Tarantino film, it's largely dialogue driven, and is always entertaining. I like the way he assembles the chapters, which adds different angles and scenarios to exploit cinematically. The start is quite subdued but effective, and the growing momentum creates quite a lot of excitement as time progresses. Unfortunately, he can't maintain the momentum, and this is where I think Tarantino's indulgences are slightly his undoing (but by no means fatally). I found the last half hour to be a little laborious, dragged on more than necessary, which shouldn't be the case, given the climax scenario.

The performances were strong throughout with some really imaginative characterisations created by Tarantino and well-executed by the respective cast. The multi-lingual aspect is a fresh infusion by Tarantino and works just fine. The details of three fingers is an interesting cultural element that recalls the early dialogue in Pulp Fiction about Le Big Mac.

The climactic ending underscores how much this film is a fantasy, given how much it defies the historical record. But it's a lovely indulgence and I thought the Jewish aspect was real cute, given that the Weinstein producers are obviously Jewish.

All in all, I found the film really satisfying and would be happy to see it again. However, I doubt it will stand up to the multiple viewings that most of Tarantino's other films do. It is definitely one of the most entertaining films of the year, a real 'movie', which is what QT does best. In fact, his films (including this one) are 'hyper-movies', the very best examples of how entertaining movies can be.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Week in Review - 16/8/09

Illness is often the prime motivator for me to watch DVDs, and so this week I watched two. It was a very strange week, in which one day I thought I might die, and the next I was almost back to normal. As I wrote, not dead yet.

  • Tyson (James Toback, USA, 2008)
  • Coraline (Henry Selick, USA, 2009)
  • Apache (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1954)
  • L'avventura (The Adventure, Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy/France, 1960)


Suffering post-MIFF film withdrawal, I had to see something on the big screen, but my need was not so bad that I would resort to most of the pulp screening at the moment. I figured I'd see this documentary that also screened at MIFF and it's not too bad at all. I'm not big on boxing by any stretch of the imagination but what makes this documentary so compelling is the honesty and introspectiveness of the film's subject.

Tyson is completely up-front about his inner world and what motivated him at different stages of his life. He fell into fighting out of fear of being attacked. He desired various things, the tokens of success. When he denies having raped the woman for whom he was convicted and jailed, he says it with the conviction of an innocent man. While I never admired the animalism of Tyson, I found him a character I could empathise with, which is quite an achievement by Toback.

Coraline 3D
The last time I saw a 3D movie, it was at the same Sun Theatre and it was again without knowing that the session was 3D. The initial response of myself and the missus was disappointment. Disappointment that it was costing $3 more per ticket and disappointment that we'd have to don those stupid bloody glasses. So how was the experience?

Well, you'd think that paying those extra dollars would get you a nice clean pair of glasses, perhaps sealed in a plastic bag. No such luck. These glasses are all greasy and sweaty, with smudges all over the lenses. It's DIY cleaning, a real downer, like turning up at the local cafe and finding you have to remove the previous customer's dirty plates and wipe the table yourself.

The glasses are quite bulky and as excellent as Coraline's 3D effects may be, one is always aware of the intrusion of the glasses on the cinema experience. It's both a gateway to the experience and a ball and chain that detracts from it. When all is said and done, there seems to be no net benefit.

Still, the 8yo kid loved the effects, which have certainly improved since we last saw Bolt. In that film, the 3D effects seemed to be concentrated at the start and end of the film, and pretty thin in-between. I don't know if it's because the technology has improved, or whether Coraline had a better budget, but there's no denying that the effects are impressive. But if the technology were to proliferate and become more common, I think one would bore of it. I think the appeal is wholly because it is uncommon.

Another problem with 3D is that it's not really 3D. Rather, the film-makers are very selective as to what to make appear in 3D, which gives the illusion of 3D, but it always feels inadequate. To really get absorbed into the 3D world, the whole image needs to be treated with the 3D effects. Until then, the 3D effects are a distraction from the story as one's consciousness is drawn to analysing what is 3D and what isn't.

In conclusion, even if the tickets were the same price, I'd prefer the regular cinema experience. The main reason is that I find that the glasses intrude on the experience, making me conscious of being in a cinema and preventing my absorption in the story. That I have to pay extra for the experience is a strong negative.

The film itself is very enjoyable and well-done. I haven't read the story, and after seeing the film, I asked my son if he'd like me to buy the book (which was selling in the bookshop across the road from the cinema). He liked the film but his answer was no, to my surprise.

The film is basically a horror story for kids. The idea of an alternate, happy world where everyone has button eyes, and your entering the world means relinquishing your own eyes certainly has the potential for nightmares. Alexander had no problems with that element, so maybe it's more of a problem for some young 'uns. The film's visuals are nice and the story satisfying for adults as much as children.

Westerns are a re-discovery for me. I pretty much grew up on a regular diet of 1950s westerns in my childhood; they screened and re-screened regularly on Sunday mornings on Channel 9 and consequently I grew not to take them seriously. I don't know much about Aldrich, nor much about American history. This film's use of caucasians with face-paint is both amusing and yet effective. I understand the cultural implications, and that native Americans would not have appealed to cinema audiences of the day.

The film has both an air of camp and seriousness and Aldrich seemed determined to depict the Apaches in a sympathetic light, something I imagine was quite rare for the day. I wonder how historically correct it is.

While I didn't like Antonioni's The Passenger, Zabriskie Point impressed me and so does this 1960 film. It's focus on the idle middle-class and their sexual shenanigans reminds me of Buñuel's obsessions with a similar demographic, though the mood is very different.

The mood is very dour, a type of mystery as a woman goes missing and her friends try to find her (if she is still alive). Antonioni is one of my favourite Italian film-makers, especially given that I'm not a big fan of that country's cinema. In fact, I generally don't like the dubbing of Italian films, something I barely noticed in this film. The characters are well-drawn, the narrative is beautifully elusive and the observational nature of the camera is very enticing. The visuals are stunning. I look forward to discovering more of this director's work.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Not Dead Yet

Over the last couple of days, I was again reminded of my (or rather the collective 'our') frailty when I was hit hard and hit swiftly by a bout of pneumonia. Not that I needed any reminders, as my accident earlier in the year is never far from my thoughts.

It all started mid-MIFF when, like Glenn at Stale Popcorn, I got knocked down by a virus. I figured I was run-down, typical MIFF-fatigue. I slowed down, cut back on films, got more rest and seemed to be OK before the festival was over. I returned to work on Monday but on Wednesday found I was getting the same shivers I had the week before. I left work early and crashed out that night, sleeping for the best part of 12 hours, sleep punctuated by fever and pains in the chest.

I took Thursday off work but by lunch-time the chest pain had escalated. My friend David is staying with me and promptly took me to the local hospital. Fortunately, the emergency ward was quiet and I received prompt attention. It seems I have a chest infection, hence the pain, and a chest X-ray confirmed I have a slight case of pneumonia. I was given a script for antibiotics and Panadeine Forte and told to take Friday off.

Thursday night was hell. I took the pain-killers. Panadeine Forte was more than enough after my motorcycle accident, but they did nothing for my chest pains. Movement was painful, breathing was painful, coughing all but impossible. The missus took the morning off work and took me back to hospital where they prescribed OxyNorm, a stronger morphine-based painkiller.

I took the tablets when I got home and rested, trying to catch up on the sleep I didn't get the previous night. The missus had gone to work, David had gone for his daily walk and I dozed off on the couch for an hour. When I woke, it seemed the painkillers had had no effect and the pain in my chest had escalated to the point that I found it difficult to breath at all. I wasn't exactly panicking, but I was a bit freaked out. It was a struggle just to get take each shallow breath, and I was trying to withstand the pain of taking deeper ones.

I phoned David, but struggled to talk. I just blurted out enough to get him panicking, and he ran back the three kilometres he was from home. I knew he would be freaked out, and unable to communicate effectively, I wrote this note for him:
It's hard to talk & breathe

I'm in a lot of pain

I just took another pain-killer

I'm trying to take deeper breaths which may alleviate the pain, but is itself painful

We may need to go to Footscray Hosp. at short notice - I'll let you know
My intention was to allay his fears, but he panicked anyway. He picked up the phone to call an ambulance but I told him not to. I was prepared to continue exercise my breathing but he wanted me to go straight to hospital. I agreed for him to take me, but told him not to panic. Twice on the way there, I had to tell him to slow down.

David dropped me at the door of Emergency and parked. When I entered, the triage nurse was dealing with a patient who seemed non-urgent so I interrupted and said "I'm having difficulty breathing". Another nurse came over and got me on oxygen which relieved the pain in my chest by reducing the need for deeper breaths. This was 3pm.

I didn't leave hospital until nearly 11pm, and I'm not going to bore you with everything that happened over those eight hours. It would bore me writing it. Anyone who has experienced a public hospital would understand.

My first hospital visit was at Williamstown, a quaint little institution that is a throwback to what life was like before Kennett and his massive hospital and school closures. I mentioned to a nurse that it's amazing this place still exists and her response was that it's probably the Bracks factor. Steve Bracks was, of course, the State Premier and it was probably his influence that kept it open. It's also ironic that the Federal Health Minister is also the local member of parliament.

After my second visit to hospital, on the Friday morning, I was told that if my condition escalates, I should go to Footscray, because Williamstown doesn't have any overnight beds. We'd headed for Footscray, because a hospital stay seemed likely.

At Footscray, I was sitting in the waiting area of Emergency with an oxygen mask. Eventually the oxygen ran out but even though the triage nurse was told, nothing was done about it. I was breathing OK by then, so no point was made of it. It was about two hours before they took me into the Emergency Ward. Again I was put on oxygen and the cool gas was relieving.

The missus and the kid arrived and the kid cried when he saw me in pain. I had to reassure him and told him I was in pain but would be OK. Over the next few hours I did a lot of sitting and lying around, dozing when I could. A chest X-ray confirmed that I had only a mild case of pneumonia, which didn't seem explain the amount of pain I was in. I was given two or three morphine shots which relieved the pain markedly, but not completely. I had a CT scan of my chest to see if there was any lung clot, but that came back all clear.

Normally, hospitals are not a place one wants to spend any time unnecessarily. On this occasion, I felt safe being there - they have the oxygen and the painkillers, even if their procedural systems are inadequate. All my vital signs were OK, so I was discharged.

We got home around 11pm. I hadn't eaten for twelve hours, and didn't feel particularly inclined to, but had a bit of toast to keep up the blood-sugar levels. I braced myself for another tough night's sleep and took a dose of OxyNorm and Nurofen (anti-imflammatory). I had nine hours of unbroken sleep and am now breathing normally - there's just a slight hint of pain on a deep breath. What a difference twelve hours can make.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

What's on

Just a reminder that The Limits of Control is still on, having (unfortunately) opened the day before MIFF. I think it's better than anything I saw during the whole of MIFF, with perhaps only Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon equalling it. So now MIFF is over, you're all probably a bit fatigued and not rushing out to see anything. But, when you do, I highly recommend this beautiful film by Jim Jarmusch. I doubt you'll see a better looking film all year. Catch it while it's on the big screen.

"Courageous" Richard Moore

Love him or hate him as you please, but I was impressed by Richard Moore's handling of both Ken Loach's and the Chinese government's bully-boy tactics. The Age reports that Moore's handling of The 10 Conditions of Love has received world attention.
New Yorker magazine film writer Richard Brody, in a column entitled ''We are all Melburnian'', urged the world's leading film festivals, including Toronto, New York and Venice, to program the film to ''affirm their solidarity with the Melbourne Festival and with its courageous director, Richard Moore, against government pressure''.
I felt proud of Moore's stance and am pleased that he has received international recognition. Hopefully the film at the centre of the dispute will now get even more prominent attention.

MIFF 2009 - an Overview

So, how was your MIFF? I went to 35 sessions, one non-film session and saw two of the films outside of the festival. I didn't see many films that impressed me, which was disappointing. Whether that's a reflection of the films overall or my choices, I don't know.

Illness stunted my experience, but I looked after myself and got my health back as quickly as possible and consequently saw more films at the tail-end of the festival than I usually do.

I don't think much of this year's retrospectives. Anna Karina is a pretty face but the five films I saw in that stream all ended up in my "OK But Nothing Special" category. And I figure the Post Punk retrospective was a cost-cutting measure (films cheap to procure), and I saw none of them. They simply didn't interest me at all. On the plus side, I worked out what it is I don't like about Jean-Luc Godard's work, even if that makes me prone to being considered a film philistine. Godard fans seem to share his intolerance for convention, and his anger at people for not getting him and his ideas.

Some prominent names produced films that I enjoyed, even if they weren't showstoppers:
Manoel de Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum, Alkinos Tsilimidos' Blind Company (perhaps my biggest disappointment, as this was my most anticipated film), Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard and Hirokazu Kore-eda's Still Walking.

There seemed to be a lack of solid films that pack a powerful punch. Perhaps I needed more fun films for variety, like Zift. I even considered catching the second screening of Inglourious Basterds, but couldn't justify a 10:30PM start for a two and a half hour film that opens widely in a less than two weeks.

My favourite of the festival is Haneke's The White Ribbon and nothing came close. Not only is the film very much a Haneke film (and I love his work), but it's also very different to anything I've seen from him. It's complex, intelligent, visually arresting and has a lot to say, without saying it directly. And special mention to Dogtooth, the only other really solid film for me.

So, all up I saw 35 or 36 films (one on DVD while I was sick), compared to 41 I saw each of the previous two years. It was never about quantity and I was happy with the number I saw. I could have crammed another couple in this evening, but with work tomorrow, I knew I'd be sorry.

Next year I think I'll try to watch one or two sessions of shorts. I saw three documentaries this year, which is three more than my previous couple of years. That was a good move, but I don't know if I'd increase that next year. In past years, I found focusing too much on one region (eg Neighbourhood Watch) resulted in too many films that were too alike. I cut back on that stream this year, but there still seemed to be a lot of films that were just OK. Maybe I need to try some horror (ie, Night Shift). Maybe I should try more mainstream films, but I still feel no inclination to go out of my way for films I know are getting a release.

Putting things into perspective, I don't expect films at MIFF to be 'knock-outs'. It's all about the diversity, seeing films from places one normally wouldn't, or of a quality that just don't get released otherwise.

In the weeks leading up to and including MIFF, I received five to ten times my normal traffic to this site. I appreciate that others can take advantage of my efforts and I also appreciate the feedback and comments that others have posted. The intention of this blog is really to do my small bit to galvanise some sort of local film culture, some appreciation of film 'off the beaten track'. I'm hoping that one or two people, maybe more, will keep dropping by post-MIFF and add your 2c worth. There's a lot more film blogs around now than when I started nearly three years ago and hopefully we can see this part of the film culture/community grow.

I have a particular perspective on cinema (and I acknowledge that I need to post some kind of mission statement). It sometimes comes across in my posts, often not. There's limitations to the time and effort I can put into any given post. It is a voluntary (unpaid) labour of love. I am, however, open to criticism, other opinions, debate, enlightenment.

As I've posted elsewhere, numbers seemed to be up significantly this year. Sessions during business hours seemed much better attended than the last couple of years and at least 114 sessions sold out this year (compared to 37 last year). This last weekend, virtually every evening session was sold out.

MIFF scheduled an extra 15 minutes between sessions this year and I thought the results of this were profound. First, it often allowed a stretch of legs between films and it also gave an important buffer for films running late, often due to technical hitches. I never found myself having to race between venues with a couple of minutes to spare. The practical result for me was that there was only one occasion where a film I attended started late. And the festival now has a policy of holding up all films if one film runs late, so one doesn't have to leave a film early to catch the next one. The logistics of the festival from this perspective ran extremely smoothly as far as I am concerned, the best I've seen yet (kudos to those responsible).

Finally, below I've tried to group the films I saw at MIFF according to rough categorisations which are not necessarily accurate, but useful for me. So, how did you go? How was your MIFF experience in 2009?

Pick of the Festival
  • Dogtooth
  • White Ribbon, The
Good Viewing
  • Beaches of Agnès, The
  • Best of the MIFF Shorts
  • Eastern Plays
  • Hurt Locker, The
  • Lake, A
  • Tales from the Golden Age
Good Fun
  • Red Riding: 1974
  • Red Riding: 1980
  • Zift
Quietly Satisfying
  • 35 Shots of Rum
  • Blind Company
  • Bluebeard
  • Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl
  • Man Who Came With the Snow, The
  • Still Walking
  • Whispering of the Trees, The
OK But Nothing Special
  • Alphaville
  • Anna
  • Balibo
  • Chinese Roulette
  • Fish Tank
  • Katalin Varga
  • Maid, The
  • Morphia
  • Pierrot le fou
  • Sweet Rush
  • Tony Manero
  • Villa Amalia
  • Woman is a Woman, A
  • Away We Go
  • Double Take
  • Hansel and Gretel
  • Home
  • Red Riding: 1983
  • Who's Afraid of the Wolf?

MIFF 2009 Day 17 - 9/8/09

  • Kynodontas (Dogtooth, Giorgos Lanthimos, Greece, 2009)
  • Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, UK, 2009)
Here's a director with something to say, and a novel way of saying it. We've read stories in the paper of parents who have locked their children up for years, decades even. How do they get away with it, we ask ourselves. This film explores that scenario, with middle-age, middle-class parents struggling to keep a lid on their three twenty-something children. The film is sparse, interspersed at times with the unexpected, including violence.

Fulfilling the sexual needs of three adults is a logistic nightmare, and the film treads that ground also with restraint, but increasing horror. The significance of the film's title becomes evident at the rather brutal but ambiguous ending. This is a disturbing film, that affected me for some time as I walked the streets after the screening. It's also one of my favourites.

Fish Tank
I'm over social realism. Let me re-phrase that; I'm over Ken Loach-style social realism. You know, the foul-mouthed kids on the housing estate, the booze, the drugs, the sex, the violence. There's nothing wrong with Fish Tank, but it feels like a road we've been down so many times before. Arnold puts a couple of spins of her own into the story, especially the one where our teenage protagonist takes a young girl into dangerous territory, with the audience teetering on the edge of their seats. There's also some great dialogue (such as the younger sister's profanity). But I still felt for most of the film's duration (and the 120+ minutes felt very long), "so what?".

Saturday, August 08, 2009

MIFF going gangbusters

The demand for tickets as MIFF approaches final day is amazing. I have a Screen Legend membership, so I can get into sold out sessions, but trying to get a ticket for the missus on this last weekend has been a nightmare. I cannot recall any year where it's been so hard. Nearly every session tonight was sold out, and those that weren't were invariably 'selling fast'.

According to my records (ascertained by my monitoring of sold out/selling fast sessions), 115 sessions have sold out at MIFF 2009, compared to 37 last year. Given all the technical hitches (Chinese hackers and denial-of-service attacks) and logistic nightmares (withdrawal of several films, including Ken Loach's Looking For Eric and various Chinese films), Richard Moore and the MIFF board must be very pleased with the results. MIFF was boasting 185,000 tickets sold last year, so my guess is that the number should approach or exceed 200,000 by the time the festival ends tomorrow night.

MIFF 2009 Day 16 - 8/8/09

  • La nana (The Maid, Sebastián Silva, Chile, 2008)
  • Zift (Javor Gadev, Bulgaria, 2008)
  • Das Flüstern der Bäume (The Whispering of the Trees, Tom Lemke, Chile/Germany, 2007) + Salt (Michael Angus/Murray Fredericks, Australia, 2009)
The Maid
Psychopaths are everywhere, even in our own homes. That's the message of this film about Raquel, a jaded and bitter maid to a middle-class Chilean family who's been around a little too long. Twenty years in fact, since a year before the oldest daughter was born. When the parents decide to get another maid in to assist Raquel, she sabotages all their endeavours but the mother is too attached to let Raquel go.

I found the film a little frustrating, because I hate this kind of character (I've seen my share of corportate psychopaths) and wanted to see successive maids overcome the obstacles put in their way. I also hated how the maid mostly gets her way each step of the way, but none of this is a reflection of the film. It's an OK story, nothing special and the film was enjoyable enough without showing any great insights.

Film noir, Bulgarian-style. Aside from some sub-titles that disappeared into the print, this is a tremendously enjoyable and satisfying film that uses every noir cliche, but uses it with style, tongue-in-cheek and with a strong, dark Balkan flavour.

I was keen to see this short (28') on recommendation and also after winning a festival award (don't ask me which one). The visuals of Lake Eyre, including time-lapse photography are absolutely inspirational and I'd love to be able to recreate what Murray Fredericks has. I also loved the personal nature of his story, the video-journal nature of his record and his frankness. A beautiful story and film that I highly recommend. This screened prior to The Whispering of the Trees. Check out the official website for some amazing examples of the time-lapse photography.

The Whispering of the Trees
I knew nothing about this film and went sight unseen on the strength of its accompanying Salt. I had planned to attend the Closing Night film, Bran Nue Dae, but figured I'll see it when it gets its inevitable (but yet unscheduled) release. With a fascination for indigenous cultures, I found it a very endearing documentary, about a slowly disappearing culture in southern Chile and Argentina. This remote community survives entirely by their harvesting of pine nuts, a dangerous job that has sustained them for generations.

MIFF 2009 Day 15 - 7/8/09

Today I had the pleasure of having lunch with Lynden Barber from Eyes Wired Open who has braved the southern climes to interview MIFF director Richard Moore for SBS, visit the Len Lye exhibition at ACMI (his article) and cram as many films into the weekend that he can. It was the first time we'd met other than online and I I took him on a little walking tour of Melbourne's laneways before catching Fassbinder's Chinese Roulette. I highly recommend his Eyes Wired Open as one of the best Australian film blogs.
  • Chinesisches Roulette (Chinese Roulette, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany/France, 1976)
  • Best of the MIFF Shorts
  • Un lac (A Lake, Philippe Grandrieux, France, 2008)
Chinese Roulette
In some respects, I feel similarly towards Fassbinder as I do towards Godard. Other than Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, little of Fassbinder's work touches me and - like Godard's films - feels designed to remain distant. Chinese Roulette is unmistakably Fassbinder: the melodrama, the score, the sexual innuendo, the camp undertones.

Anna Karina's role demands little of her. She plays the husband's mistress and speaks a few words of German here and there. As in Godard's films, it appears her role is little more than window-dressing, pretty as she is.

The film encapsulates an era, and is fascinating in that context. The story is a bit of a romp and enjoyable enough. Like Godard, I don't feel I know enough about Fassbinder's intent to discuss the film further, but am happy to be enlightened by others. I enjoyed the film, but it was nothing special.

Best of the MIFF Shorts
I didn't realise that this session was largely taken up by the awards ceremony, so we only got to see six shorts:
  • Instead of Abracadabra
    A Swedish comedy (with a zany sense of humour guaranteed to appeal to Australian audiences) about a young layabout whose amateur magic shows sometimes put relatives in hospital.
  • Next Floor
    The silent era styeled credits preface a film without dialogue. The visuals recall any number of gothic horror films and the style is almost Greenaway.
  • Two Men
    A simple premise is explored in a novel fashion, a kind of what-if, indigenous style.
  • Necessary Games
    I can't say I'm a big fan for experimental cinema, though this one is intriguing.
  • The Cat Piano
    Inventive, entertaining, film noir with a voiceover by Nick Cave - how could you go wrong?
  • Slaves
    The animation does an excellent job of making a dark subject accessible. Who'd have thought that the terrible things described are taking place today?
Memo to self: next year, include at least one shorts session in my program.

A Lake
"It's like sticking knitting needles into your eyes" is how one walk-out described this film to me, though I found it captivating. I just had to capture that response, which I find amusing, and fair enough. I noticed quite a number of walk-outs and I don't blame any of them.

A Lake is a difficult film: the hand-held camera has a tendency at times to replicate the experience of the epileptic protagonist. There's not a whole lot happening. Our man cuts down trees in the snow. The visuals are staggeringly beautiful. His fits are increasing in frequency, which he reveals to his sister (with whom he has a sexual fixation), but not his mother.

The film is dark, brooding and again, difficult. Yet somehow compelling.

Friday, August 07, 2009

MIFF 2009 Day 14 - 6/8/09

  • Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura (Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/France/Spain, 2009)
  • La barbe bleue (Bluebeard, Catherine Breillat, France, 2009)
Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl
There's a timelessness to this relatively short (63 minutes) story by the world's oldest working film-maker (100 years old). A man is narrating to a stranger on a train the story of his meeting and breaking-up with the titular girl. It's based on a novel that the director makes a point of crediting. I have no idea how old the novel is, but I sense it could be several decades old. And yet, the story also works well as a contemporary story. At this stage of the festival, I find both the length and the nature of the story quite enjoyable.

I'm not familiar with the story of Bluebeard though apparently this is a fairly faithful retelling by Breillat. The period setting is like a continuation of her previous film, An Old Mistress, though both are completely different films. Bluebeard doesn't have quite the same richness of visuals that An Old Mistress does and the stories are very different.

Breillat superimposes the telling of Bluebeard with another more contemporary story of two sisters, set in the recent past. One of the sisters is called Catherine and I suspect it may be semi-autobiographical.

The film seems a minor work for Breillat. There's some obvious social commentary at the start when the girls are removed from their strict Catholic private school as a result of the death of their father. Other than that, it's pretty much pure story-telling that I found worth-seeing on its own merits as well as being part of Breillat's body of work.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

MIFF 2009 Day 13 - 5/8/09

  • Eastern Plays (Kamen Kalev, Bulgaria, 2009)
  • Villa Amalia (Benoît Jacquot, France/Switzerland, 2009)
Eastern Plays
The cliched MIFF blurb for this film didn't give me high expectations and yet I was surprising satisfied by this small film that contains a little bit of a lot of elements that I like about festival films. The ideological divide between brothers fortunately wasn't the main thrust of the film and consequently didn't intrude on the overall narrative.

The protagonist, Itzo, is a likeable enough guy - it seems. Then, inexplicably, he becomes a real asshole, the result - we discover - of his being a recovering junkie. The film deals with the nature of relationships, communication, cultural acceptance, politics and violence. The story doesn't seem to dwell too much on any one issue, avoiding any overt didactism but clearly making some points to be pondered.

Coming from a country I know next to nothing about, and covering many of the universal social issues that appeal to me and in a skillful manner, this is a very enjoyable film and worth seeing.

Villa Amalia
A woman (Isabelle Huppert) walks out of her man, her house, her life when she discovers her lover of 15 years is cheating on her. The plot seems to share common threads with Three Colours: Blue, one of my two favourite films, or Haneke's The Pianist (also starring Huppert) but is not as strong as either of those two films. I initially thought that Huppert's character may be suffering mental illness, as her reactions to her infidelity seem very extreme. But there are mysteries that need to be unearthed.

I've often mentioned my appreciation for Huppert as an actress and this role seems like it's cut out for her. Perhaps too much so, to the extent that it seems a little cliched, as if the part were written especially to showcase the talents we know so very well. I tried not to dwell on these thoughts while watching the film, but they sometimes haunted me, which I found a little distracting. Which is not to say that the performance isn't good, because it is. The story keeps an air of mystery which, shrouded in the film's gorgeous visuals, works quite well.

I enjoyed the film. It doesn't aim particularly high, but nor does it need to. What it sets out to achieve, it does it well. In that respect, I could describe it as another 'quietly satisfying' film like, Still Walking.

MIFF 2009 Day 12 - 4/8/09

Due to illness, I dropped Yuri's Day and The Nun from my schedule but watched Morphia in the comfort of my own lounge-room, thanks to a preview screener for the Russian Resurrection Film Festival. As for The Nun, I generally love Rivette, though I heard the print was at best ordinary. I finally ventured out for the 9:15PM screening of The White Ribbon and was questioning my sanity - sick as a dog and staying up to midnight for the screening. But I'm glad I did - it remains my favourite film of the festival so far. Coincidentally, both films I saw are set in the same period.
  • Morfiy (Morphia, Aleksey Balabanov, Russia, 2008)
  • Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke, Austria, 2009)
Morphia is a technically impressive film – the period reproduction in particular is awesome. Set in Siberia at the outset of the Russian Revolution, a talented young doctor is sent on his first assignment to a small provincial hospital in which he is the sole doctor. After an allergic reaction to a diphtheria vaccination, he is given morphine, to which he gradually becomes addicted.

Despite obvious strengths, the film may be a challenge for some audiences. An amputation and a tracheotomy are particularly gruesome. The constant snow and blizzards also have a chilling effect. Perhaps most significant is that there are virtually no redeemable characters and the main protagonist is a lying drug addict, and we never really get insights into his inner world. The director seems intent on keeping us out in the cold, in more ways that one. I couldn't warm to it, I found it disturbing and had to watch something light afterwards.

The White Ribbon
The White Ribbon is perhaps Michael Haneke's most mature and entrancing film. That's quite some claim, given the awesome body of work he has created (in my mind, there is no such thing as a bad Haneke film). It encompasses or flirts with a number of themes and genres already covered in his earlier films (such as social realism, horror, crime, thriller, supernatural), perhaps playing with our expectations and yet subverting them, but never in a cheap, contrived manner. Haneke plays it straight with the audience, but you never really know where he's going. What's important with this film is to focus not on the destination, but the journey.

This is a film in which you really need to concentrate, take note of who is who (and there's a lot of people to keep a track of) and which children belong to who. There's also a lot of children, who play some stunning roles. Some of them may be victims, some of them innocent bystanders and some of them something more sinister. If evil exists, can you blame the children? Or the often well-meant but deluded parents. Some of the imagery used is amazing, in particular the chastised boy with the simple cross on the wall behind him. Many times the camera takes a point of view shot to very good effect. The characterisations, period detail and reproduction of mannerisms and social mores are all at the very highest levels of achievement and it's not hard to see why this film was awarded Cannes' highest honour.

The story is superficially much more conventional than one associates with Haneke. At first it seems a slightly rambling, rustic, rural tale. A subversion of expectations? Maybe.

Eventually, like Hidden, the film has something to say about politics, and more besides. There are broadsides at religion and society in general. At the outset of the start of World War I, Haneke seems to suggest that the brutality of the next two wars over thirty years could perhaps be traced to the cruel ways that humans treat each other on the micro level: within villages, communities and families. The film is shot in black and white, a bold choice by Haneke, but it works very well. It resembles a Carl Dreyer film (think Gertrude) or even Bergman.

MIFF 2009 Day 11 - 3/8/09

Still unwell, I missed Film is a Girl & a Gun and Dogtooth, and there was a no-show by Claire Denis for her talk with Philippa Hawker. On the strength of Beau travail, one of my favourite French films, I just couldn't miss 35 Shots of Rum.
  • 35 rhums (35 Shots of Rum, Claire Denis, France/Germany, 2008)

35 Shots of Rum
I sense that there's a lot more I could write about this film than I will, because I don't have the time to ponder and research it. It's clearly a very personal film for Denis, who was due to introduce it and attend a Q&A, but didn't show. Apparently she's preparing her latest film for screening in competition at Venice. But Michelle Carey conveyed a few words about the film, and how the story basically is about her grandmother who died, leaving her grandfather to raise her mother.

This is another 'quietly satisfying' film that is observational and captures some of the minutiae within relationships. A father and daughter struggle to let go of each other, each pursues another or is pursued. People make advances, counter advances, there are rejections. Love, pain, it's all there.

MIFF 2009 Day 10 - 2/8/09

  • Blind Company (Alkinos Tsilimidos, Australia, 2009)
Blind Company
I first discovered Tsilimidos' work with Tom White, a film that impressed me with it's beautiful visuals, humour and humanistic narrative. That film also changed the way I looked at the homeless. Coming soon after Candy and Little Fish, I didn't have high expectations for Em 4 Jay, a film about a couple of drug addicts. I was so over drug addicts and yet this film blew me out of the water. Again photographed by Toby Oliver, the visuals are just amazing but it's once again the deeply humanistic story-telling that won me over, and this remains my equal favourite Australian film. It may then be no surprise to hear that Blind Company was my most anticipated film at MIFF this year.

I never took much notice of Colin Friels until I saw him play the titular role in Tom White, in which he magnificently demonstrates frailty and an understated desperation. Once again he takes centre stage in Blind Company as Geoff Brewster, who is living in isolation at the family beach cottage, waiting for inevitable death. Geoff's quiet daily routine is thrown into turmoil when his nephew, Josh (Nick Barkla), arrives unannounced and consequently engages in antagonistic behaviour.

Tsilimidos is a competent and assured director. With Blind Company, he is in no hurry to reveal the secrets of its characters, but that shouldn't test the patience of the film's target audience. The story is basically a relationship slow-burn that reminds me a little of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's style of narrative in films like Climates or Three Monkeys.

The performances are, as expected, convincing. Friels is always good value and his role as a dying academic is full of ambiguity. Nick Barkla gets to show his range. He was completely convincing as the junky in Em 4 Jay. In Blind Company, he is almost as convincing as the Porsche-driving reckless son of privileged parents - somewhat a yuppy.

I presume it was Adam Arkapaw's cinematography on Julius Avery's excellent award-winning (Cannes Jury Prize, no less) Jerrycan that caught the eye of Tsilimidos. His camera work has a very Eastern European aesthetic about it. The outdoor shots are reminiscent of Christopher Doyle's beach scenes in Paranoid Park and have the strongest visuals.

Indoors, however, is a different matter, and while there is a reliance on natural light, the camera exposure often leaves characters in silhouette. The effect is to shroud the film in darkness which distances the audience. This is the single-most flaw in the film.

I spoke to the director briefly after the film and he confirmed that Toby Oliver was unavailable. Being the film's premiere screening and Alkinos being pre-occupied post-screening, and me being sick, I didn't get the opportunity to discuss further. There was to have been a Q&A session which didn't happen because the film ran late. Apparently there will be one at a future screening, which I will aim to attend.

Overall, the film is worth-seeing and another fine addition to the country's body of work. It's especially worth seeing as part of the director's body of work, even if it isn't his best film. Tom White and Em 4 Jay were always going to be hard to beat.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

More on 10 Conditions of Love

Thanks to the intransigent and bully-boy tactics of the Chinese government, the little film The 10 Conditions of Love, which might have otherwise flown under the radar, has received exposure that money cannot buy. Originally programmed with a single screening, Chinese protests raised its profile and it was given a second screening at Greater Union 6 on Saturday 8 August, 4:45PM, which promptly sold out. GU6 is the largest MIFF venue and has a capacity of about 763. Now MIFF has announced the film is being moved to a larger venue to accommodate the demand for the film. It's now screening same time at the Melbourne Town Hall (the capacity, I don't know).

Also, in today's Age, Uighur leader to launch film in spirit of peace.

A hiccup

MIFF-fatigue got a grip of me this year like no other. It started on Friday afternoon when I suddenly lost my voice, just as I was introducing myself to a well-respected local author. OK, I figured, I'm not getting enough sleep, and aimed to rectify that. Despite the best of endeavours, I've been pretty sick and since Sunday, only attending one screening per day. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and think it will be back to normal tomorrow. And hopefully I'll have a few reviews up. I've just got back from seeing Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon - the best MIFF 2009 film I've seen yet.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

MIFF Ticket Sales

Anecdotally, I've been noticing that the mid-week daytime ticket sales have been looking strong. Most of my screenings during business hours have been at the Forum, where the house has been very busy indeed. My analysis of sold out sessions also looks pretty strong. So far, 43 sessions have sold out compared to only 15 for the same period last year. I realise that sold out sessions don't give a complete picture, but MIFF has got to be happy with numbers like that. Apparently, last year 185,000 sessions were booked; it'll be interesting to see how that compares with the final figures for 2009.

Coincidentally, 43 sessions have sold out for the last week of the festival (tomorrow to Closing Night), which compares to 23 for the same period last year. And the number can only increase.

MIFF 2009 Day 9 - 1/8/09

I'd planned to see the Roy Andersson shorts but MIFF-fatigue got the better of me and I took the early part of the day off. I wasn't impressed with either film I did see.
  • Hansel and Gretel (Yim Phil-Sung, South Korea, 2007)
  • Double Take (Johan Grimonprez, Belgium/Germany/Netherlands, 2009)
Hansel and Gretel
Koreans are great with horror, when they get it right. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them. It looks great, but the story is a narrative mess and is way too long. A man crashes his car on an isolated road and is lead by a child through the forest where he is taken to a remote cottage. The film re-imagines the Hansel and Gretel tale, subverting expectations along the way. It starts out almost farcical and perhaps would have been better had it stayed that way. When the story becomes darker, its horror never quite convinces. The story is all over the place and I found it very unsatisfying. It's my least favourite film at MIFF yet.

Double Take
I imagine there's a large festival demand for films like this one, but Double Take did nothing for me. Basically it's a visual essay with what I felt had very little to say and padded the film's very long 80 minutes much like a reality TV show - the way the same scene is repeated over and over again.

OK, Hitch had body doubles. OK, The Birds is a metaphor for the Soviet threat and tapped into people's anxieties of the era. And OK, JFK was assassinated because of his liberal stance on the Cold War. I could see it all coming a mile away, and it took so long to make its points, and it made them without substance. This is not my kind of film at all - neither satisfying as a documentary and nor for its playful manipulation of Hitchcock's signature image.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

More Chinese shenanigans

"Online sales are currently offline due to a Denial of Service attack of Chinese origin."
- MIFF ticketing website

"China summons Australia over Uighur leader visit"
- ABC News Online

With ticketing information offline, I'm unable to update my 'sold out/selling fast' page.

[Update 1-Aug 11:43 AM]: the MIFF ticketing site went back up but is currently down again. The Age reports on a concerted effort to sabotage MIFF by the Chinese.