Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Festival of German Films

I had a quick look at the films screening at this year's Festival of German Films, and two titles stood out straight away: Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon and Fatih Akin's Soul Kitchen. I saw The White Ribbon at MIFF last year and have been wondering when this magnificent film will get a release. I'm a big fan of Haneke and The White Ribbon is perhaps his most mature and complex film to date. It looks like cinephiles will have another opportunity to see it before a still unconfirmed theatrical release.

Fatih Akin is one of my favourite German directors. I only discovered him with The Edge of Heaven, which had me in tears multiple times. In fact my 9 year old son also loved it and it had him in tears, too, to my surprise. Soul Kitchen has a confirmed release date of 6 May, just after the end of the festival.

[Edit: it now looks like The White Ribbon also has a 6 May theatrical release]

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Most Dangerous Man in America

The Most Dangerous Man in America:
Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Judith Ehrlich/Rick Goldsmith, USA, 2009
Errol Morris' The Fog of War is a brilliant study of the principals of war and how the US went wrong with its policies in the Vietnam War, as enunciated by its chief architect, Robert McNamara, with parallels applicable to the current Afghanistan/Iraq conflict. The Most Dangerous Man in America is a complementary study from the perspective of Daniel Ellsberg, a Vietnam War strategist who worked under McNamara and was involved in research that was used to justify the war. This is no small story, because the actions of Ellsberg in 1971, when he leaked 7,000 pages of top secret documents to the New York Times and other newspapers, are linked to the Watergate scandal and the ultimate demise of President Richard Nixon.

The film's title are derived from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's description of Ellsberg and the Nixon tapes reveal the then President's contempt for who he considered a traitor. The story is fascinating and it's a wonder that a Hollywood rendition was never made in the mould of say, All the President's Men. The film works cinematically on two levels: firstly, the transformation of Ellsberg from a war hawk to dove and secondly, the suspense as the protagonist goes underground and evades a national hunt for him.

Ellsberg was a marine and later served in Vietnam in order to get first-hand understanding of the war. As a researcher for the government, he had access to policy documents that proved that what was being said in public to justify the war were bald-faced lies that spanned four presidencies. The refusal to abandon the war was clearly to do with a loss of national pride than anything else. As the film unfolds, it's clear that the story has universal application, with relevance to current conflicts. And not just the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Just look at the train bombings in Moscow and the immediate political rhetoric. Politicians say what needs to be said, and what needs to be said is rarely the truth, anywhere in the world (Australia included).

Ellsberg's integrity and personality are most impressive - few would take the personal risks that he did, and there's no doubt he paid a tremendous price for his actions. He was charged with various offenses and became a pariah within his professional circle. He was branded a traitor and "the most dangerous man in America". Apparently Errol Morris contemplated the story for his first feature documentary, and eventually gave his blessings and a 500-page interview. Ultimately, the events depicted in the film led to important precedents confirming First Amendment rights to publish information significant to the people's understanding of government policy.

An aspect of the film that I find most fascinating is that even though it's a struggle to reveal the truth, that's only the start. Ellsberg handed the press the story of the century, but that didn't mean the truth was going to prevail. Rather, the struggle had only just begun. We see that today also. Everyone knows that the war in Iraq was predicated on lies, but we're still there. It reminds me of a faux-documentary, Imamura's A Man Vanishes (1967) in which the audience ultimately learns the story is false but, because the artifice continues, we get sucked back into the fiction. People "want to believe", they want to believe in their leaders and it's often too confronting to accept the truth and then act on it. This film raises all these quandaries.

The story is very well told and it's fascinating in both the context of the period it documents and the contemporary parallels. It has won various international awards and was nominated for the Oscars for best documentary feature. It has an exclusive screening at the Nova from 8 April - highly recommended.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Week in Review - 28/3/10

The offerings at the cinema are so thin at the moment. I did a bit of research and worked out a few films worth seeing at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, but couldn't work any of them into my schedule. Weekends I've been busy with family and weekdays the screenings just haven't been convenient times. So, I've resorted to DVD: three of them this week.

  • A Single Man (Tom Ford, USA, 2009)
  • Daguerréotypes (Agnès Varda, France/West Germany, 1975)
  • Yo también (Me, Too, Alvaro Pastor/Antonio Naharro, Spain, 2009)
  • How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlouis/Chris Sanders, USA, 2010)
  • The Terminator (James Cameron, USA/UK, 1984)
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, USA/France, 1991)
  • Funny Ha Ha (Andrew Bujalski, USA, 2002)

A Single Man
I was planning not to see this film, because the trailer gave the impression that Firth was reprising his glum role in Winterbottom's effective though unremarkable Genova. However, reading Lynden Barber's post on the film, I decided to give it a try and wasn't disappointed.

Yes, Firth is reprising that role, more or less. People have raved about his performance, which is perhaps the best I've seen him - not that that's saying much because he normally imitates a door. Too much is made of an actor's ability to induce tears before the camera. It might be impressive, but it sometimes becomes little more than a party trick (and I'm thinking of Penelope Cruz here).

In this film's case, the acting is fine. What makes the film so watchable, however, is all to do with the film's construct and style and less to do with the acting. I kept thinking of Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - the unconventional approach to how the image is framed and how the story is constructed. The visuals all serve to suck you into the emotions of the story. I don't think it's a substantial film, but definitely worth watching for its unconventionality. It could be accused of style over substance, but I'd say the style is the substance.

Link: Audio interview with Tom Ford

Agnès Varda, documentary, need I say more? The micro-level capturing of a local community, of a life-style perhaps long gone is rivetting. It mirrors thousands or perhaps millions of similar experiences world-wide. I love this woman's work and will jump at any opportunity to see more of it on the big screen. It screened at Melbourne Cinémathèque.

Me, Too
This is the opening night film of La Mirada Film Festival, my favourite Melbourne festival after MIFF and the French Film Festival. It's a curious film in its own right, and moreso as an opening night film - in fact, I'd call that gutsy programming. It blends elements of romantic comedy and black comedy, but is mostly social drama made in a manner that is accessible for a relatively mainstream audience.

Me, Too is unashamedly an 'issue' film, championing the cause of those with Down Syndrome. The story largely follows Daniel (Pablo Pineda) who starts his first job at age 34 in a government social services agency having just completed his university degree. The film challenges preconceptions of those with the condition. The actor factually has it and yet is able to effectively portray the intellect, characteristics and abilities of such a person. It's an impressive accomplishment and certainly challenged my notions.

Laura (Lola Dueñas) is a co-worker with issues of her own that form a tangential story. Both characters are social misfits of very different sorts, and very different backgrounds. While their pairing, so to speak, adds a populist slant to the film, it also serves to further challenge the audience, and there's some anticipation where their relationship might or might not go.

I don't think I'm quite the target audience for Me, Too but found it quite enjoyable nonetheless and appreciated the challenging nature of the story. It's quite ambitious, which is a good thing, but leaves the director with quite a number of threads to manage at the end, which gives the film a slightly overlong ending.

Me, Too opens the La Mirada Film Festival on Thursday 1 April at ACMI. The festival runs to 11 April.

How to Train Your Dragon
This is quite a likeable film, if you're part of the target market. My 9 year old son has read five of the books in the series and he thoroughly enjoyed it. It's not completely faithful to the source material, but is true to the spirit (on his say so - I've not read any of them). I like that the film doesn't market itself on any 'name' actors. The voice actors are all thoroughly competent and enjoyable without a single Tom Hanks, Mike Myers, George Clooney, Cameron Diaz or Miley Cyrus among them - thank god. I usually find the use of celebrities for voice actors a distraction.

This is a Dreamworks production, so you know it's going to be fairly conventional and mainstream. It's full of cliches, but that's not a negative. It is aimed at fans of the book and its lovely visuals don't disappoint - some of the scenes are quite reminiscent of Avatar. For what it's worth, my son gives it five out of five stars, but in his words, "dragons are my favourite fantasy creature". I think it's a good film for primary school age children and younger, and parents should find it enjoyable enough.

The Terminator
I first watched this on video in the early 90s and was struck by the power of the story, and still am. Much has dated in the film, but not necessarily to its detriment. The clothing, hair, makeup, music and colloquialisms all reveal a certain period. The film's special effects are the most dated, but I'm inclined to cut some slack here, because the film has to be looked at in context of time. Just like King Kong (1933) - the SFX are a joke by today's standards, but because the story is so good, and the film employs the best technology of its time, there's a certain reverence one may have for it (well, I do).

Arnie and Linda Hamilton are both so young in this flick, and little is done to Arnie to endear him to us. His hair style is terrible and basically he's just an unstoppable killing machine. There's something particularly terrifying about his character, a cyborg that will stop at nothing, neither bullets, fire nor explosions. His is a primal stereotype, the stuff of nightmares, more like the stuff of the horror genre - like say a zombie or vampire, only scarier. Perhaps this is one of the reasons this story works so well - it combines science fiction with drama, action, suspense and its own brand of horror. As Sarah Connor says, you could go crazy thinking about the logic (because ultimately the logic of it fails), but it's a great concept nonetheless.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Perhaps it's my 52" flat screen television, or my improved powers of observation because this film - long my favourite in the genre (action/SFX/sci-fi) - betrayed flaws I hadn't seen previously. Mind you, it's been many years since I saw this last. The technology has dated compared to what's currently available to film-makers, but it still holds up extremely well. Unlike similar types of films today, the SFX are used gratuitously, in a showy manner to showcase the technology without necessarily furthering the narrative. Hollow Man (2000) is a classic example of this.

In T2, Cameron employs the technology sparingly, only when needed. The story is always first and when the SFX appear, they are so organic to the narrative that one can't help but be impressed and absorbed in what's transpiring.

With what's available now, the SFX in T2 are not as impressive now, and one can see the 'seams' that weren't so obvious nearly twenty years ago. Like Arnie's character cutting his arm, or the face damaged by bullets (sometimes it's his face with prosthetics over the top, other times it's actually a mask).

Watching both Terminator films back-to-back (and for me, the franchise ends with the second), the humour stands out in spite of the terror. Both films have parallel trajectories and often parallel incidents. For example, Arnie appears first in both (obviously a trick in the second), getting clothes from punks in the first and bikies in the second. When Arnie throws the bikie onto the stove, it's like the blackest of black humour to see this guy burning himself. Yet when we next see Arnie in his clothes, they're all immaculate, like they're straight off the racks, all to the tune of "Bad to the Bone". It's quite a blast, really.

For the integrity of the franchise, they really should have stopped at 2. I saw 3 and it was just a shadow of the originals, milking blood out of a stone. I didn't even bother with Terminator Salvation. T2 is a very rare example of a sequel bettering the original, though on these viewings, I thought that T1 has bridged some of the gap. When I want to see a blockbuster, this is how I like to see them done.

Funny Ha Ha
This Bujalski film is reputedly the first of what is now known as mumblecore, a so-called movement of independent film-making. It seems to borrow heavily from the aesthetics, narrative style and low-budgets of John Cassavetes' work as well as the so-called Dogme school (without the rules). I can't say I'm a big fan of some Dogme but I do love Cassavetes' films. Unsurprisingly, the elements of the film that seem to borrow more from Dogme bother me while the strengths of the film have more in common with Cassavetes.

The devices that initially gave me reservations are the deliberate camera shake, the sometimes poor sound and the unusual framing characters often have part or all of their heads cut off. These were initially distracting but as the story and character development unfolded, I developed some empathy and emotional engagement and the distraction reduced. It didn't go away completely, but I started thinking about what is Bujalski trying to achieve.

Is it a variation of cinéma vérité, where we're taking a fly-on-the-wall perspective, as if we're present but obscured to the characters in some way? Or is Bujalski skewing the camera, in a sense like what Hal Hartley does with his camera rotations, albeit differently - in this case pointing the camera down slightly? Is he challenging the audience, and its conventional expectations of how a picture should look? Or just being different, to differentiate himself? Or trying to create a different aesthetic, consciously emulating Dogme? Maybe it's a bit of all of the above. I reserve my judgements for now and would like more exposure to mumblecore in general and Bujalski in particular.

I find it hard to believe that the sound could not have been better, without too much cost or effort. This appears to be an example of true guerilla film-making (ie, making it as cheaply and quickly as possible) and/or it's deliberately compromising (ie, reducing) the quality at times to disguise the genuine flaws.

The grainy 16mm film has a nice grungy aesthetic, and despite the high level of emotional honesty and social realism, some care has gone into the visuals with the use of colour and frame composition that I found enjoyable to watch. The story itself is well told. We follow Marnie, a 24 year old who loses her job, pines for someone who seems just out of reach and basically is struggling to find her place in an adult world. She parties and hangs out with her friends but, despite her attractiveness (think Natalie Portman), appears onely and confused. I don't think its fair to call this a slacker film, partly because the characters are not true slackers and partly because of the degree of realism is so Cassavetes-esque (think of the part that alcohol plays in his films).

I like that such an engaging film can be made on clearly a very low budget - perhaps some will find it too much like a student film. I also like that it addresses the very real and contemporary concerns of a particular demographic, which unsurprisingly is the demographic of the director (who plays a not insignificant role in the film, as a potential love interest), namely the early to mid twenties. In this sense, it serves as a kind of document, a documentary-like film very much unlike anything typically made about or for this demographic.

The film has a chastity you mightn't expect. Love and yearning are a strong theme, and mixed with excesses in alcohol, one wouldn't be too surprised where this could leave. There is no explicit sex or sexuality and little more than a kiss on-screen. The use of profanity is also very minimal, an element that is all the more noticeable when it occasionally occurs. This is much more representative of the middle-America it depicts than the populist Hollywood cinema that wildly exaggerates profanity. While we in Australia think we know American culture through TV and cinema, the real America does not engage in public cussing and sex as depicted in the media.

I did watch Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation on the (very) big screen at the Astor a while ago, but didn't appreciate it at the time (pun not intended) - perhaps my consequent discovery of Cassavetes helps me to better understand his work now. I thought this film might be a bit raw (aesthetically) for the missus, but she also likes it. For now, I hold on to my above-mentioned reservations about mumblecore and look forward to discovering more. Funny Ha Ha seems like a good place to start. It offers hope that a new generation of 'indie' film-makers is emerging.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

On moderations

A while ago I turned on moderation of comments on this blog. First for posts older than 14 days, then 4 days, then 3. Basically, I was getting spammed by fuckheads who know that no-one is going to read their bullshit cheap electronics, sex and other promotions but assuming (perhaps falsely) that Google web-crawlers would pick up their links and promote their website rankings on Google searches. First, most of these spam posts have incorrect HTML tags and don't post as links. Secondly, I highly doubt that web-crawlers pick up blog posts. If use Google blog search on my own blog, it only searches the actual posts and not the comments. And I've never had a Google search return any blog comments. In other words, these spamorons are like graffiti taggers, or dogs pissing to mark their territory which no-one is going to take an iota of notice of, and only serve to make the blogosphere a less pleasant experience.

Most of the spam I received was on older posts and my reducing the age of posts requiring moderation, I reduced the amount of spam I had to remove. Though these pissants should be whipped for their transgressions, it gives me much satisfaction to catch their nuisance work in the net of moderation. Still, some was still getting through - perhaps one or more of my 'followers' is a spammer. So now I'm moderating all posts. My apologies to those who comment from time to time. It means your comments won't appear immediately, but it's a small price to pay. The spam is still coming, but you'll never see it, and it is reducing as these morons realise they're wasting their time (though I imagine it's largely automated).

Friday, March 26, 2010


OK, Blogger have provided some new templates that allow much more flexibility to the design of a blog. I want to stick with green. Colour is important for me in many aspects of my life and with the passage of time, I've gravitated towards different colours.

I 'see' colour, something I mentioned in my 'Change of Plans'. Even as a child colour was important to me and I have vivid recollections of care taken to arrange toys, pencils, jelly beans, smarties, etc in order, often the colours of the rainbow. As an adult, I similarly arrange my clothes, especially shirts, socks and underwear. I do virtually all the cooking in my household, and I take care to cook also with a sense of visuals in terms of colour.

I didn't seek it, but major life changes (a divorce) nearly twenty years ago, awoke in me a perception of colour I hadn't been aware of before. At this time, purple appeared to me and was prominent in my life, reflecting the changes I was undergoing. I still have affection for all colours, but purple became dominant. Later life changes brought blue to prominence and yet later changes elevated green. That's where I am now and I find that given an option between green and another colour, I'll more than likely choose green. Now, I'm not going to get into colour therapy and interpretations here, but if you're open to this aspect of metaphysics, you'll have some idea of the significance of all this.

This is all a round-about way of saying that this is why I chose green for my blog's colour scheme when I started it back in October 2006, and why I've decided to stick with it. I like the crispness of this new makeover, and Blogger have made it much more flexible to make changes. I might experiment a little, trying to avoid too many changes. So far, I've made the blog width as wide as I can and added another column. Cosmetics aren't too important to me - content is my main interest - though I do want to make navigating this site as pleasant an experience as possible. Feel free to offer any comments on the makeover.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Week in Review - 21/3/10

  • Roma (Federico Fellini, Italy/France, 1972)
  • À l’origine (In The Beginning, Xavier Giannoli, France, 2009)
  • Je suis heureux que ma mère soit vivante (I'm Glad My Mother is Alive, Claude Miller & Nathan Miller, France, 2009)
  • Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, USA, 1968)
Reading the Cinémathèque Annotations on Film from Senses of Cinema has aided me in understanding the work of the idiosyncratic Fellini. For what it's worth, as a Melbourne Cinémathèque committee member, I'm the one who prints these out and takes them to ACMI for the weekly screenings - it's a humble job, but someone's got to do it.

Fellini reminds me a little of Almodóvar. They both grew up in rural villages, they have similar senses of humour, their work is camp and fixates on big-breasted and big-assed women. Fellini's work is more autobiographical and less conventionally structured while Almodóvar gravitates towards melodrama of a soap opera nature, but mixes his genres. Fellini, despite his carnivalesque imagery (a cliche, I know) and fondness for the grotesque, seems to have a more serious underlying intent. But as I wrote about Amarcord last week, I still don't connect with his work.

This week, I had a more positive outlook on his work and enjoyed the start of the film. There's no doubt that Fellini has a wicked sense of humour. The child pissing in the theatre is an amusing incident that I presume is an example of the director's recollections. The various sexual allusions also lighten the screen. The film also serves as a fascinating document, such as the underground scenes.

As the film progresses, however, it feels like it drags on much more than necessary. The vaudeville scene, for example, just goes on and on. There's no sense of economy in the film, especially in terms of the audience's time. With various vignettes (skits, if you like), there's little to hold the film together emotionally. It has a run time over two hours, but it feels like it should finish before 90 minutes. I found myself uncomfortable in my seat and eager for it to finish for about 45 minutes.

Planet of the Apes
I was a mere eight years old when this film first released and I've always had the fondest of memories of it. I never saw any of the sequels, nor the remake, but the TV series was essential viewing in its during throughout the 1970s. With the passage of time, the film has well and truly dated, especially the technology, the outfits and the sets. The film's key strength is an abundance of ideas that capture another era. Released in the same year as 2001: A Space Odyssey, these two films would make excellent companion pieces for their questioning of the nature of civilisation - who and what we are, and where we come from.

Planet of the Apes is clearly allegorical, taking aim at society and two of its most corrupt pillars: politics and religion. It's two thousand years in the future and human civilisation has clearly all but destroyed itself, allowing another species to dominate. The apes have developed their own societies, seemingly barbaric but strikingly similar to our own. Justice is replaced by the rationale of convenience and spirituality is replaced by lies and dogma. There's even an indirect dig at the Joseph McCarthy, HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities) and it's Hollywood blacklisting.

The film looks crude compared to my recollections of it and it's full of Charlton Heston cornball. He was one of my heroes of the 1970s, in films like Earthquake, Poseidon Adventure and Omega Man. But damn he looks charming and it's a joy to see him again in action. I really enjoyed watching this and plan to catch up on the sequels.

French Film Festival 2010 - 12 (I'm Glad My Mother is Alive)

Je suis heureux que ma mère soit vivante (I'm Glad My Mother is Alive, Claude Miller & Nathan Miller, France, 2009)
My last film of the French Film Festival was a disappointment. It's not a bad film, but not a good one either. I was surprised at the size of the audience at the Como - it was nearly full - given the film is reasonably serious and certainly not of the mainstream populist variety that normally pulls in the big numbers.

The film announces at the start that it's "based on a true story" and I made a mention to the missus that that's always a concern. It's sometimes an indication that the film-maker is going to attempt to pull a swifty on the audience and get away with things because, after all, it's a true story. And so it came to pass, at least partly.

An adopted boy cannot find peace with his adoptive family, because of the rejection he feels. He needs some kind of resolution and seeks out his birth mother. What eventually transpires is quite a jolt, because nothing preceding it prepares one. This climax, if you will, is perhaps the best moment of the film but doesn't save the rest of it from mediocrity. Not an overwhelming mediocrity, but a pervading sense that the story's potential is not being realised. It's not helped by the very dull cinematography, which I presume is the result of a cheap transfer from digital camera to 35mm film (not that I profess any expertise in these technical elements).

The performances are generally OK. The problem is that the screenplay is a bit flat and the direction is certainly not inspirational. The whole film seems like it's made for TV and would probably do better in that format, perhaps screened over consecutive nights on the small screen.

After the screening, I bumped into first Peter Krausz, chair of the Australian Film Critics Association. I think Peter and I are two of the most dedicated to promoting world cinema in Melbourne through our respective media. I shared with him my opinion that this year's festival has the best programming ever, to which he agreed.

Shortly after, Patrice Pauc, director of Alliance Française stopped by and I put this to him. I was wondering if it was just a coincidence, due to the availability of titles from many renowned directors, or whether it was a concerted effort by AF to broaden the appeal of the festival beyond cinéma populaire to cinéma d'auteur. Patrice mentioned that, among other things, it's largely due to the maturing of the relationships that the festival programmers (primarily in Sydney) have established with the French distributors. All-in-all, I had a wonderful time with this year's festival and hope to see the quality of the programming continue for the following years.

I saw 22 films at the festival this year, exactly double the number of the previous two years. My quick reference guide gives my opinions at a glance of each of the films I've seen. In short, there are two must-sees: Robert Guédiguian's The Army of Crime and Mia Hansen-Love's Father of My Children. These are both definitely worth hunting down. The number of highly recommended films is quite awesome - seven, no less - and includes proven and veteran film directors such as Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais, Tony Gatlif, Christophe Honoré, Claire Denis, François Ozon and Denis Dercourt. That makes nine top quality films in just over two weeks - not bad going at all.

Of the remaining films I saw, I count one as good (Queen to Play) and six as good fun (mostly children's films and comedies). There's six I'd have been quite happy not to have seen at all: three that are OK but flawed and three that I downright didn't like at all. I actually hated Anything for Her and In the Beginning. So that makes 16 out of 22 films that I was happy with, a much better success rate than I've had at MIFF in recent years.

FFF2010 Quick Reference Guide

This year I previewed ten films prior to the opening of the French Film Festival, and that number is growing as I get to more of the screenings. My comments on each film (or you can click on the individual links below) never include spoilers, but if you don't have the time to check these out and just want a quick one-liner recommendation, here are my thoughts at a glance:

  • The Army of Crime. Robert Guédiguian at his best, with his take on a true French Resistance story.
  • Father of My Children. Quite sublime, works on multiple levels. Justly compared to Summer Hours.
  • Ricky. A beautiful addition to the oeuvre of one of France's most interesting directors, screening in Melbourne at ACMI.
  • White Material. If, like me, you're a Claire Denis fan, this is must-see. For others, as per my category title, it's still definitely worth-seeing.
  • Wild Grass. An eclectic take on love and longing that may be must-see for Alain Resnais devotees - I'm not yet, but my affection is growing after seeing this.
  • Making Plans for Lena. Honoré at his best, one of his most accessible yet uncompromising films.
  • Tomorrow at Dawn. Very clever psychological thriller worthy of Hitchcock.
  • Bellamy. More Hitcockian influence, but slow-burn and more mystery than suspense.
  • Korkoro. A new multi-layer angle on WWII, combining gypsies and the resistance.

  • OSS 177, Lost in Rio. Just for laughs, a James Bond-type spoof.
  • First Snow. Good one to see with your kids.
  • Every Jack Has a Jill. Silly title, silly film but worth seeing for Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds).
  • Lucky Luke. Good fun for kids; gets a bit silly for adults-only.
  • Micmacs. Good fun for all ages; not his best but probably Jeunet's most mainstream film.
  • Little Nicolas. Entertaining, one for the kids.

Friday, March 19, 2010

French Film Festival 2010 - 11

Ah, the festival is on the last stretch with just this weekend to go. Actually, there's a few more screenings into next week. Here's my report on two more films, with one to go (I'm Glad My Mother is Alive, produced by Jacques Audiard) on Sunday. I would've seen the Coco Chanel film on Saturday, but it's sold out (and is getting a release anyway).
  • Le petit Nicolas (Little Nicolas, Laurent Tirard, 2009)
  • À l’origine (In The Beginning, Xavier Giannoli, France, 2009)

Little Nicolas
I saw this children's film with my French teacher, who was interested to see the adaptation from the children's story book that his mother read to him as a child. He says it's true to the spirit of the source material but, like me, didn't find it anything special. The story-book mood is invoked by the opening credits and the children's performances are all what I suppose might be called charming. My nine-year old son would probably like it because it depicts the exploits of boys his age. There were lots of laughs in the audience, but this really is a film for pre-teenagers and their parents only.

In the Beginning
"It's all fake", despairs 'Philippe' (François Cluzet), realising that his sham/scam to build a road through a rural town is placing him out of his depth - he's usually a petty thief. The trouble is, around the same time, that's how I felt about the film as a whole. It's totally implausible and, though it claims to be based on a true story (which it may well be), this story has so many gaping plot holes in it, you could drive an road construction excavator through it.

For example, the basic premise that a small-time crim would not take the ample opportunities he had to take the money and run (which he'd done hundreds of times before). Or Philippe is knee-deep in mud and the rain is bucketing down. He hysterically calls out to the workers to keep on working, the rain has stopped. Or the shooting of a man, in which a company vehicle is left at the scene, but the police do nothing to track our man - incredulous. Or a wide shot of a construction site where the rain is pouring down - but only in the middle (from the overhead sprinklers) and not on either side. A man is covered in petrol after an accident and is trapped. The petrol catches fire, but our man is still save-able. There's an explosion - surely the guy is dead? No, there's one more chance, he's dragged to safety and another big explosion - utter garbage. If you want to get picky, there's a multitude of details about road construction, but let's not go there - most would be unaware of the ridiculousness of this aspect. For me, it looked like they were just driving some equipment around a field looking busy, but really doing nothing.

Emmanuelle Devos is always good value and adds real credibility to her role as the town's mayor, Stéphane. Unfortunately she is wasted and there is no on-screen chemistry between her and Philippe. Gérard Depardieu still has some gravity in his small role as a crim, though his obesity is a regular distraction in recent films. I really wish, for his own sake, that he'd lose some weight - otherwise his career will not last must longer. It's painful to watch.

I note that François Cluzet was the main character in Ne le dis à personne/Tell No One, one of my three worst films of 2007. In the Beginning will easily make my worst 10 of this year. I wrote of Tell No One at the time: "125 painful minutes. That's what I endured, though it seemed much longer." There's more in that post, and so much of it could be said of this film, like: "after about 20 minutes I was looking at my watch, and at 45 minutes I was thinking it must be coming to an end (only to be disappointed to see how little time had passed)." I also tired of this film by the 45 minute mark and was restless for the remaining hour and a half - yes, it's bloody long. My verdict: avoid at all costs (though every overseas review I've looked at raves about it - go figure).

Monday, March 15, 2010

French Film Festival 2010 - 10 (Korkoro)

Korkoro (Liberté !, Tony Gatlif, France, 2009)
I've seen half a dozen or so of Tony Gatlif's films and I've enjoyed them all - in fact his previous film, Transylvania, was my equal favourite cinema release of 2008. While Gatlif's work documents the way of the Roma (gypsies), the themes are universal to me: celebrations of music, culture, ethnicity and so on. It's the dramatic and visual way in which Gatlif portrays these elements that has much impact for me.

Korkoro (which means liberty in what I presume is Romanian) certainly doesn't disappoint. The visuals are beautifully rendered, and the frame is used wonderfully - sometimes with extreme close-ups, sometimes panoramic. Like Robert Guédiguian's latest film, The Army of Crime, the film is set during World War II. According to the end credits, an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 of Europe's 2 million pre-war gypsies died at the hands of the Nazis. This story follows a wandering family of 15 of those.

The Germans in occupied France decreed a law forbidding the movement of itinerants and this family find themselves stranded in a town where they seasonally perform farm work, before they are imprisoned in a camp. The family has the sympathy of the town's mayor - who provides land for the family - and the local teacher, Mademoiselle Lundi (Marie-Josée Croze), who is based on the real-life resistance fighter Yvette Lundy.

I love this film. Not only does it have all the trademark Gatlif traits: wild depictions of gypsy life, wild music and spurts of insanity, but its presentation of the rarely depicted and tragic part that the Roma played in WWII combine to make this a lovely story.

Some of the visuals are amazing, like a sick horse and its gypsy treatment (it'll have you wondering how the hell they got animals to 'act'). The cinematography is superb. The acting is strong and Croze's role is especially beautifully understated. Well worth seeing.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

French Film Festival 2010 - 9 (Bellamy)

Bellamy (Claude Chabrol, France, 2009)
Chabrol's reverence for Hitchcock is well-known and the influence is evident from the start of this film. Unlike a Hitchcock film, though, this is more about mystery than suspense, and it's more about the journey than the destination. The film's characters seem to inhabit a parallel universe, much like our own, but where they don't respond quite as you'd expect, confounding the audience but adding to and prolonging the mystery.

A man is dead under suspicious circumstances and the killer may or may not be known to a holidaying police inspector, Paul Bellamy (Gérard Depardieu, playing one of the best roles I've seen from him in recent years). The director strings us along, letting events unfold in no particular hurry. The very particular construction of the narrative sort of reminds me a little of the Alain Resnais films I've seen in that there's a very obvious artifice, an artifice that also bothered me a little in Chabrol's Nightcap/Merci pour le chocolat. I think I was wrong to expect realism in these films and my expectations blinded me to what is being conveyed.

I'm not claiming a mastery of understanding yet, but I sense that the Chabrol's intention is to play with the audience. The story is a puzzle, sign-posted at the outset with Bellamy attempting to complete a crossword puzzle. It also feels like a game of chess, with characters being moved across the board, circling and counter-circling, with various intrusions to our expectations. Our suspicions are sometimes aroused and we cannot always expect certain outcomes. Whatever the outcome - and I certainly wouldn't want to divulge it - there is a satisfying finale, if you're prepared for unconventionality. The performances in the film are all fine but it's the writing and direction that really shine. A warning, though - the film's ambiguity and unconventional story-telling won't be to everyone's liking. You must be able to suspend disbelief to appreciate the film.

Castaway with David Stratton

Last night I attended ACMI's Desert Island Flicks with David Stratton. I'm really enjoying this new ACMI regular event, where a film personality discusses the five films they'd want to have if marooned on a desert island.

First thing, DS apologised for cheating. His selection was five that affected him so deeply that they had changed his life in some way. This is, for me, what film is largely about - part of a larger dialogue about life and life issues.

DS is probably most well-known as the co-host of TV's At The Movies and it's previous SBS incarnation, The Movie Show, for the last twenty-four years. He helmed the Sydney Film Festival for 18 years from 1966 to 1983, during which time he championed the 'last New Wave' of Australian cinema and fought against parochial film censorship. As a precursor to his weekly time slot with Margaret Pomeranz, DS also championed world cinema on SBS with presentations on SBS of World Cinema and Movie Classic selections. During this time, he had unusual freedom to present a treaure-house of films that introduced many to a different world of cinema, and he mentioned during the evening that some of these were technically banned in this country.

The evening was introduced and moderated by the very informed and informative Deb Verhoeven. She mentioned that DS was born in 1939 and came to Australia in 1963 at age 24 as a '£10 pom' (ie in receipt of assisted passage).

DS's selections are basically a short autobiography. He mentioned that five is an arbitrary number - he could have just as easily selected 10, 20 or 100, but that we'd be there until after midnight. Here then is his selection:

1. Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, USA, 1946)
As a young child during the war, DS grew up with his father absent. Living in Andover, Hampshire, he developed a love of cinema from his grandmother, who took him to the movies four or five times a week. Much to his mother's disapproval, the grandmother had no sense of censorship and would take him to anything. This film left a powerful impact on the 6 year old Stratton mind, with it's melodrama full of immoral characters, and left him "mildly traumatised".

2. Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1955)
As a 16 or 17 year old living in Birmingham, DS was aghast to realise that, despite no shortage of cinemas in the city, he'd seen everything screening. By this time he had become consumed with cinema and pretty much lived to see the next film. It was at this time that he discovered film societies and crossed town to see Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944). He joined up for the monthly screenings and the next month he discovered foreign language films with Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night.

As a "lusty teenager", DS was taken by the overt sensuality and consequently had a crush one of the beautiful actresses (whose name I don't recall). Most importantly, he was introduced to a whole other world of film that has had a profound influence in his life.

3. Loves of a Blonde (Milos Forman, Czechoslovakia, 1965)
It was 1966 and DS was the director of the Sydney Film Festival. The nature of censorship in this country at that time meant that virtually every film for public exhibition had cuts, even innocuous films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This continued until 1971 when Don Chipp became the Minister for Customs. According to DS, the two preceding ministers were idiots.

The nature of censorship meant that quite often, the first time DS would see a film was in the less than ideal environment of the censor's office as they would comment on various scenes to be cut. The censor demanded about 20 cuts to Loves of a Blonde. DS wrote an intemperate letter to the censor, effectively calling him an arsehole, that he had a hideous point-of-view that insinuated a dirty perspective of the film.

The next day, DS received a phone call (I think) from the censor's assistant who said the censor was extremely insulted and that if the film was to be shown, the cuts must be made. DS complied but decided to never again screen a film with any censor's cuts. While screening a clip from the film, DS commented on where cuts were made, and really, they showed how prudish and unnecessary the censors were.

4. Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Konen/Gene Kelly, 1952)
It is well known that Singin' in the Rain is DS's favourite film. At the time, he was living in Chelsea and was immersing himself in MGM musicals. This one struck him for its being highly cinematic and has stayed with him. He estimates that he's seen it some 50-60 times. An element that is important to him is that it is about the transition from the silent era to sound, and that silent films are an art form that is not much understood by contemporary audiences. He spoke at some length on this subject.

DS also mentioned his awe of Gene Kelly and how he met him in Australia and he hadn't appeared to age at all - especially his hair colour had remained unchanged over the decades. He later interviewed Kelly at his home in Beverly Hills and when a short bald man answered the door, he realied that Kelly had previously been wearing a wig. DS's admiration for the man was not just due to his great on-screen talent but also because he was a very genuine man whose politics DS respected. Kelly's wife had been black-listed during the dark McCarthy era and Kelly had been active in supporting those artists.

5. The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977)
During his directorship of the Sydney Film Festival, DS championed the works of many Australian directors, including Peter Weir, Gillian Armstrong and Paul Cox. He became friends with several of them, including Weir, who allowed him on the set during the making of The Last Wave. In one kitchen scene, filmed in an actual house, there was not enough room for the cast and crew for DS to sit in, and so he crouched under the table at David Gulpilil's feet.

The night's proceedings then turned to a Q&A session. Some of what transpired is as follows:
  • In reponse to a question about the relevance of film criticism, DS mentioned the recent sacking of Todd McCarthy from Variety magazine after 31 years and that he (himself having written for the magazine for 20 years), wrote an intemperate letter of complaint.
  • It was revealed that as of 2008, DS had seen some 125,000 films (it's well-known that he records every film he's ever seen, even as a child - something I do myself, though I started my list in 1995).
  • DS is hoping to make it to 25 years with Margaret Pomeranz, which will make them the longest on-screen film criticism partnership. This will be sometime next year. Later I asked if he had anything planned beyond that to which he replied that he's 70 years old and on his last legs. I suggested maybe he could go back to his roots and champion the films he loves rather than what he clearly finds a chore at times, having to see the latest Sandra Bullock or queasy-cam (his term) Paul Greengrass film. DS went into some length about his early days at SBS and the unparalleled freedom he enjoyed in those days. He didn't think that freedom was possible today, and certainly not at the ABC. Without going into details, he was clearly unhappy with how he and Margaret were treated at the end of their stay at SBS.
  • In answer to a question DS mentioned that bad films have always been made, but that decades ago, the bad films were better than most of what is produced today. It's hard to argue against that, in my opinion.
  • In answer to a question about the onscreen chemistry with his co-host, DS mentioned that only twice did the show have to be stopped because their arguing got out of hand. Both times it was Margaret getting out of hand - surprise, surprise!
  • DS mentioned that hand-held camera work evolved from TV but that's it out of control and caters to a young audience. He described it as a video game style and that Paul Greengrass had made a living out of it (I can't watch his films). The Hurt Locker was mentioned as a film where the hand-held work wasn't too distracting and that modern directors should look at cinematographers like Haskell Wexler to see how hand-held should be done.
  • He wondered whether viewers get bored with his complaints about hand-held camera. I called out that it's always appreciated and others in the audience nodded in agreement.
  • The big film festivals like Sydney and Melbourne now show too many films - half of them aren't worth seeing (which I've written on before, and agree with). Previously, Sydney would screen about 50 films, and nearly half of them would get a theatrical release.
  • For DS, much of the magic of cinema has gone. Partly that's a reflection of himself (as I've often said, some kinds of magic can only happen once), and partly it's because films aren't as good as they used to be. What once received general wide release, can't even garner an arthouse release - this has of course been mentioned in multiple spheres in recent times, a lament many of us share.
  • The best fun DS has had in his professional life has been the ten-year course he's run at the University of Sydney, covering the history of cinema, with about 100 attendees. He's started a second ten-year course, and about 30% of the students are repeats from his first course. He loves the personal interaction and the research he does to present the course. Unfortunately, he hasn't yet worked out how to clone himself for us Melbournians.
The evening was very different to the previous debut event with Adam Elliot (I plan to write on that - I was preoccupied with other things at the time). That's a reflection of the individuals being highlighted as much as the different vocations. With Adam Elliot, it was fascinating to see how his selections were a reflection of his work (or rather, vice versa) whereas with David Stratton, his selections were more about the path his life had taken.

The next Desert Island Flicks sessions will be with journalist Chris Masters, followed by indigenous elder Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin and then director Tim Burton. I highly recommend them, and with a limit of 80 seats per session, you need to get in early.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Title translations

I've pointed out how poorly foreign language films are translated into English. Not so much translated as re-badged. As a student of French, I notice it mostly on French titles.

Entre les murs
became The Class which I find quite bland and lacking in the poignancy of the literal Between The Walls.

Just last night I posted about Non ma fille tu n’iras pas danser renamed Making Plans for Lena, which has nothing on the literal No My Daughter, You Will Not Dance. Given Lena's relationship with her father and given the way her life is unfolding, the literal meaning is so much deeper.

[Edit: my French teacher has corrected my translation. It should be No My Daughter, You Will Not Go Dancing]

Another French Film Festival title I mentioned was Jusqu’à toi (literally, To You) which is renamed Every Jack Has A Jill for us Anglophones. How they come up with a cutesy English title like that is beyond me. It's just so cute without bearing any (or little) relation to the film. "To You" doesn't give much away, I suppose. Perhaps it doesn't titillate the mind of the target audience like "Every Jack Has a Jill".

One of the worst cases of title bastardisation I can recall is Catherine Breillat's À ma soeur (For My Sister) being renamed as Fat Girl, a title that makes it sound like it's a silly romantic comedy rather than the serious drama it is.

I suppose I'm a purist, and I prefer to use either the original title as intended by the film-maker, or at least a literal translation. It's all about respect for the art and the artist. With the French Film Festival currently in full steam (and I've seen 17 of the films so far), it's not unusual that I'm thinking about this. But what prompted this post was the recognition that this renaming is not a phenomenon that is unique to English bastardisation of foreign titles.

Balibo has been renamed The Balibo Conspiracy for overseas distribution. And, The Hurt Locker has been translated into French as Demineurs, literally Bomb Disposal Experts - pretty bland and generic, I suppose, compared to the original title. I noticed it in an email from French Amazon, which I subscribe to.

While I prefer the English title, I've got to say that the French artwork is a big improvement on the American. That one big single image says it all with impact, and even the colouration is quite fascinating. The American version disperses the impact, trying to have bit both ways - explosion and the GI Joe aesthetic with Jeremy Renner in the foreground.

But, I digress. Back to renaming - what about you, do you have any weird renamings you'd like to share?

French Film Festival 2010 - 8 (Tomorrow at Dawn)

Demain dès l’aube (Tomorrow at Dawn, Denis Dercourt, France, 2009)
I missed seeing Denis Dercourt's previous film La tourneuse de pages/The Page Turner, though I heard it's a good solid thriller. Well, after seeing his latest work, I feel like I need to search out his others. This is really good, intelligent, genre film-making.

I'm not going to describe any of the plot. I went into the cinema with no idea of what period the film is set, or what it's about. The less you know, the more you will enjoy it. For me, as a consequence, there was a bit of working out what I was actually seeing. Things are not always what they seem, but that's not due to silly trickery but rather, it's the skillful manner in which the director chooses to feed us information. It's really quite a ride.

Now, this is a genre film, a thriller and there are clear set-ups. I sometimes found myself thinking, "Why is he going down this path? Can't he see where this will take him" or "No! Don't do that". Despite the constructs, my heart remained firmly in my mouth for much of the film's duration. The constructs are very clever, not in a tricksy way, but in an intelligent manner that a discerning audience can still suspend disbelief.

There are elements to the film that are combined in a very thoughtful and original manner. Dercourt, himself a musician, has music as a central intrinsic element of the narrative. There are relationship issues on more than one front, there's death and dying (or the possibility of it) also on more than one front. There's an almost Fight Club element to some role-playing gone haywire. This is strong genre film-making and there's not a wasted moment on the screen. I like this film a lot.

The Last Station

The Last Station (Michael Hoffman, UK/Germany/Russia, 2009)
When discussing a film, it's important to consider it in context, such as its intended audience. While The Last Station is no doubt a well-made film, I'm not part of the target audience, so I'll find myself pointing out the things that didn't work for me. The target audience is the demographic that flock to historic, epic, melodramatic films at places like the Como and Nova, usually middle-class and middle-aged. The Last Station is not epic, does tend towards melodrama but is clearly historic and for me, that's the most intriguing aspect.

Leo Tolstoy is, of course, the famous author of War and Peace (which I remember my mother reading when I was a child) and Anna Karenina. I've read neither, though this film will no doubt inspire a wave of sales of books by the author.

The film's story unfolds as a new secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), an ardent admirer of the great Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) is despatched to the author's country estate where he lives with his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren), children, servants and followers. Plummer and Mirren are, of course, competent actors and they each do an admirable job. Perhaps it's because they are so well-known, but for me they never fully inhabit their characters. My favourite character is Masha, a spunky free-spirit played by Kerry Condon. She breathes the most life into the film, though we don't see enough of her.

The real problem is McAvoy's character. The whole story is revealed from his perspective so, structurally he is our tour guide through the film. I've always found McAvoy a weak actor and a one-trick pony. He plays pretty much the same role, whether it's this film, Atonement or The Last King of Scotland (the similarities with this latter film are striking). He has a naivete about him that always rings false for me. It's a contrivance of character as a clunky device to reveal the story in a particular (hackneyed) manner. I find him quite irritating at times.

Another weakness of the film for me is its overt British sensibility. It was apparently shot on location, but for all an audience knows, it could have been filmed in the British country-side. The only indications that it is a Russian story is the mode of dress, and road signs and newspapers in Russian script. Everything else is so staid, so-o-o-o damn British. That everyone (including Plummer and Giamatti as Vladimir Chertkov) also use British accents isn't a problem per se (though Giamatti's occasional introduction of a light Russian accent from time to time is distracting). No, it's not the accents - it's the British staidness that is so common in period films. The French are adept at period depictions, and the British might be OK at British period, but Russian period à la Britain just doesn't work for me. It's like we never really penetrate or involve ourselves in that moment. But I doubt this will be a problem for the target audience.

[Edit: I've been thinking about the film and decided to add the following]
The film lacks subtlety, and here's some examples:
  • It wasn't enough to be told that Tolstoy's various assistants record everything about his waking life. We not only see this frequently, but whenever we do, we also hear the scratching of quill on paper in a magnified fashion.
  • We are introduced to the device of Valentin sneezing whenever he feels nervous. So guess what, whenever he is nervous, he sneezes, his nervousness is amplified (in case we don't make the connection) and often someone makes a comment about he must be nervous. OK, I get it already!
  • Characters tell us what we're going to see. Hey, cinema is a visual art - we can see what's going on without being told. Give the audience some credit.
  • I've mentioned McAvoy's earnestness. At times he heaves with his breathing, or looks about wide-eyed. Tolstoy describes him as "a better Tolstoy than I am" to point out his fervour. All these devices heavily underscore Valentin's transformation from a naive puritan to a more open-minded person, without trusting that the audience will get it without heavy-handed sign-posting.
I've probably failed to discuss this film in the context that I described in my opening of this post. But these are my impressions. You may consider it a bit facile of me to now say that I think that few, if any, of what I call flaws will bother a mainstream audience. I still think that this will be well-received by the audience it's likely to attract. And it's not a bad film; it's just not my thing.

The Last Station opens on 1 April

Tuesday, March 09, 2010


Brothers (Jim Sheridan, USA, 2009)
I have a soft spot for Jim Sheridan. When I started out watching films in the early 1990s, his My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father were significant films for me. I have no idea what I would think of them were I to see them again. By chance, when I was in Manhattan, New York City in December 2003, the first film I watched was Sheridan's In America about his own arrival in the Big Apple some years earlier. I didn't think it was a great film, but I enjoyed it for what it is and related to the experience of arriving in the same unique city.

I could say that Brothers is a disappointment, but despite using some pretty big cliches and being overtly manipulative, it's actually a damn fine movie for it's intended (mainstream) audience. The film is itself a remake of a film of the same title (Brødre/Brothers, Susanne Bier) which screened at MIFF a few years ago and I think also had a later limited release. I haven't seen the original but as this film unfolded, I recognised the plot and vaguely recalled seeing the trailer. All this was a little distracting, but I tried to put that out of my mind.

I suppose the problem for me was that I knew what was coming. Ultimately though, I don't think this is really an issue because the film is so contrived that you can pretty much predict where it's going to go. As some supporters of Scorsese's Shutter Island have validly pointed out, it's not a fault to know where the film is going - it's watching how expertly it gets there. I won't compare Sheridan's film with Scorsese, but the point has some validity here.

What makes the film so damn watchable is that it has three of the best young America actors of their generation: Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman. Now, I've had about as much fascination with Portman as I have with Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds), ie, a lot. I love how Portman has great presence without any embellishment. She's no big-bosomed babette, but she has a real charm that exudes intelligence and attitude. She's used very well in Brothers as the wife of a soldier (Maguire) deployed in Afghanistan. There is one occasion where I thought she was unnecessarily dolled up, but fortunately it wasn't excessive.

Gyllenhaal plays the loser brother who fills a gap in the family's life when the marine brother doesn't return from duty. Unknown to everyone, he's alive and being tortured by the Taliban, only to return later a very damaged man. Now, a mainstream audience is going to love this film when it's released next week (I was at a MIFF members' free screening. A plug for MIFF here - if you're not a member, you get invites to half a dozen or more of these each year).

I'd like to point out three events in the film that had my eyes rolling, that place the film clearly in the mainstream sphere. These details shouldn't bother the target audience, but they bothered me. I really had to suspend my critical faculties in order to enjoy the film (which I still did because, well, I suspended my critical faculties - duh). I'm not going to be specific but when you see the film, you'll know what I'm talking about.

1). While captured, Maguire's character does something shocking. It didn't seem plausible to me, but it's central to the rest of the story.
2). At a family gathering, the six year old daughter says something to her father that a child of that age could not possibly know to say.
3. A letter is written at the start of the film, and the timing of its opening really brings to mind soppy melodramas like The Notebook and Dear John (though I confess to having seen neither).

In spite of these three events, and in spite of some pretty heavy-handed use of soundtrack music, each of these three actors (and Sam Shepard in a good support role) are so convincing that I could buy into the story. A strong element of the film is that it's a story about people, about relationships. War is what is imposed on them and affects their relationships; the film is not an overt critique on the so-called war on terror. For that I applaud it, though you can read between the lines any way you like. War is not a nice thing.

Monday, March 08, 2010

French Film Festival 2010 - 7

  • Micmacs à tire-larigot (Micmacs, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France, 2009)
  • Non ma fille tu n’iras pas danser (Making Plans For Lena, Christophe Honoré, 2009)
I love Jeunet's films, all of them. I love his consistent retro style, the aesthetically pleasing urban and industrial decay, his bizarre characters and their equally weird looks and idiosyncrasies and the predilection for darker themes. Underlying them one senses a real love for the underdog in society and what injustices (or indeed, evils) one has to sometimes overcome.

Micmacs is a Warner Brothers production and it seems that the alignment with a big studio has required some modifications to what Jeunet may otherwise have created. Have no doubt, all the Jeunet signature devices and traits are all there - in bucket-loads. It does seem, though, to be self-consciously catering to a wider market and the film obviously has a bigger budget than his previous films.

Jeunet has assembled several of his easily recognisable actors that he's used in previous films. He's also cheekily referenced some of those films, most noticeably a short homage to Delicatessen. In fact, there seem to be a number of other filmic references. One of the characters is called Buster, for example, possibly a reference to Buster Keaton, whose influence can be felt.

The film is a visual delight, as you'd expect and I'm sure will do very well when it's released just after the French Film Festival ends. I know that every screening at the festival has had strong demand and the session I attended sold out quite some time prior - something I'm not accustomed to seeing at the Kino. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a sold-out session at the Kino until now. Micmacs is perhaps not quite as dark (thematically) as other Jeunet films and is a little more family-friendly, though less so than Amelie. My son loved it, though I found it less satisfying than his previous films. My verdict: good fun.

Making Plans For Lena
This Honoré fellow doesn't pull any punches with his films. Love them or hate them, you've gotta respect the guy and his work. For me, Ma mère is perhaps the most powerful, transgressive film I've seen. It's a hard film to watch, but it's an amazing piece of work. Dans Paris/Inside Paris is a bleak film about a depressive young man that I found difficult and Les chansons d'amour/Love Songs is a strange musical. All these films are gutsy and now we have Non ma fille, tu n'iras pas danser, literally "No My Daughter, You Will Not Dance" but titled Making Plans for Lena for us Anglophones. Having seen the film, I love the original title, which has so much more poignant meaning. I can't really articulate definitively how it relates to the story, but it feels so right.

[Edit: my French teacher has corrected my translation. It should be No My Daughter, You Will Not Go Dancing]

The film starts with a family get-together in the grand-parents' country home before and it immediately reminded me of Summer Hours. Hah! How wrong could I be. This is no light middle-class tale - this is a story about the struggles of people in relationships, about selfishness and conflict, love and contentment. But mostly conflict, and in this regard it reminded me of relationships in trouble in Sam Mendes' painfully honest Revolutionary Road.

I have a take on this film, that I feel is close to Honoré's intention, and I'm sure it will be contentious. Some might consider it misogynistic, and if that's what you think, so be it. Honoré depicts - brutally honestly in my opinion, various conflicts that all involve women.

Léna is a self-destructive and selfish woman. She's also very troubled. She left her husband without warning, taking the two young children with her and ultimately divorces. When needed, she calls upon him at short notice and places demands upon him as if they were still married. Yet she still chides and belittles him.

Léna's relationships with her family are no better. She is close to her father, but is resentful, critical and argumentative with her mother, sister and brother. She has allowed herself to be dominated by an overwhelming selfishness, a ME-ME-ME complex. She wants everything, and she wants it her way. If she is incapable of achieving what she wants, she gets angry with whoever is around for their inability to fulfill her. Regrettably, I have experienced all this first-hand.

I think it is a phenomenon of Western society that women often develop what I call a princess bitch syndrome, or PBS for short. Don't take offence if I use 'women' in a general sense. I don't mean all women and I don't want to qualify myself every time I use the word 'women'.

Women often want it all. They know (and often joke about) it, men know it, and it's simply denial not to acknowledge it. Socially, we rationalise it, we justify it ("it's a woman's right to change her mind" and similar). A common saying is that there's only two words a man needs to have a happy marriage, "yes, dear". Now, I'm all for chivalry, and I extend courtesy towards people of any gender. But the idea that a woman can treat a man like a door mat and he'll just say "yes, dear" - sorry that's just wrong, just like the idea that the customer is always right.

People find harmony within relationships by balancing difference proclivities and through compromises that leaving each person feeling equal and treated fairly. Where there is no approximation of equality and fairness, there is unlikely to be harmony. I'm not really discussing much of Making Plans for Lena, but these are the themes it raises for me.

Just as Revolutionary Road confirmed to me that Sam Mendes' American Beauty was no accident and is based on great insights that matured in the later film, Honoré's Making Plans for Lena cements in my mind how insightful a person he is. Honore's film paints on a much broader canvas, looking beyond a single marriage and yet focusing on just one woman and how she relates to people around her, including her (ex) husband.

The acting in the film is excellent, with Léna portrayed by Chiara Mastroianni and a solid ensemble support cast including Marina Foïs, Marie-Christine Barrault, Jean-Marc Barr and Fred Ulysse. The film's backbone is the writing, which is credite to the director and Geneviève Brisac. It has a mostly linear structure but jumps in time (but not back) and also includes a bizarre though enjoyable digression as a child narrates a story, a folk tale that relates to the themes of the main story.

Christophe Honoré is a director I have a lot of respect for. This latest film is a lot more accessible to audiences than most of his films that I've seen and I found it both enjoyable and thought-provoking. I doubt you'll ever see this on the big screen outside of a festival (or ACMI). Highly recommended.

A call for suggestions at MQFF

I've attended a number of sessions at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival in past years, though not recent ones. Perhaps I didn't research sufficiently and got put off by some of the fairly camp or grotesque excesses. I never liked the caricature that TV's Melrose Place became, nor the gay somewhat equivalent, Queer as Folk. It's not the sexual orientation that bothers me, but what I might snobbishly call the quality of what's on offer.

Now, I noticed that last year MQFF screened François Ozon's A Time to Leave, about a gay photographer who has a terminal disease and finds his own way to say goodbye to those he loves. For me, this is universal cinema, and the sort of film I'm happy to see at MQFF. I had a look at this year's extensive program - I believe there's 100 sessions - and there's no way I can properly research that volume of films. I've tried to make it easier by only looking at sessions that I can fit into my schedule and eliminating the genres that don't interest me in the slightest. The difficult part now is to separate the wheat from the chaff of those remaining.

My question is, are you going to MQFF? And if you are, have you looked at the programme and have any suggestions? If so, I'd love to see them.