Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Accidents Happen

Accidents Happen (Andrew Lancaster, Australia, 2009)
This film is quite an achievement, a very clever dysfunctional family black comedy. Its succeeds on at least two fronts. If you didn't know otherwise, there is almost nothing to suggest the film was made in Australia. It's set in Connecticut (as is the novel it is based on, by American-born author now living in Australia, Brian Carbee) and, other than Geena Davis in the lead role, most of the remaining cast are Australians. While it is relatively easy to recreate the American mid-west (cars, flag-poles, etc), it's the seamless use of accents that I found most impressive.

The Australian kitchen-sink dramas (KSDs) of recent years have usually not failed, but not succeeded either. They kind of sit in this nether region where they look nice, have good performances and handle worthy subjects, but never really get off the ground dramatically. Another success of Accidents Happen is that it has taken a genre that has been done to death, and injected pizzazz or oomph. It's got that wow-factor that US quirky indie comedies (QICs) aspire for, but have done to death as much as we've done our KSDs to death, but with a freshness and darkness the QICs lack. You could say that Accidents Happen takes the best of both KSD and QIC genres and leaves out what's hackneyed, and come up with a really fresh oddball film that works.

Davis plays the mother of an accident-prone family. She's bitter, foul-mouthed with wit and is perfect for the role. I've mentioned recently that English-language films don't seem to offer interesting roles for women - most of the interesting roles have fairly limited appeal and are usually chick-flicks. This character is a joy to behold and a gift to Davis (and vice versa), who injects the film with humour, energy and ultimately, warmth.

While the support cast (including Harry Cook and Joel Tobeck) are strong, special mention also goes to Harrison Gilbertson as the youngest son who is most prominent in the film. He's perfect for his role as the good but damaged and guilt-ridden son who parents the mother and puts up with the taunts of his brother (Cook). There's a pathos to the character that is both endearing and moving.

Like most good comedy, the story works because it has a foundation in reality. It's stylised, but underneath we can believe the scenarios presented. I know I can - I've been in multiple serious accidents (god only knows how I survived) and lost a child. The depictions of a family coming to terms with its various misfortunes ring true and are simultaneously funny and tragic.

The film's recurring theme song is terrific; in fact the music throughout is very good - perhaps unsurprising given the director has a musical background. The visuals are also excellent, with some lovely slo-mo shots of various accidents in close-up. The film has a dreamy look about it with the use of lighting and atmospherics. The whole production design has a lovely feel to it.

I noticed David Stratton on At the Movies questioning why an Australian film, made in Australian with mostly Australian actors should depict an American story. I think this is unnecessarily picky. It's not the first local film to do it. Virtually all of the scenes set in America in Mao's Last Dancer were shot in Sydney, for example. It's also not evident that Happy Feet is an Australian production. The Machinist (starring Christian Bale) and Planet 51 both appear to be American films, but are produced in Spain. For me, Accidents Happen showcases what we are capable of in terms of taking on the Americans at their own game and in our ability to adapt and diversify. Hey, we're doing something different and let's celebrate that!

I think the direction the local film industry is taking is a good thing. I've often said that what the industry needs is a steady number of runs on the board, and with Beneath Hill 60 also currently screening, that's two strong local films that local audiences should have no trouble connecting with and feeling good about what we produce. We need films like this, that audiences will go to because they want some good entertainment, and not because they're feeling charitable and a need to support the local industry. If we can continue to do this over a period of time, perhaps we can do what Germany has achieved over the last decade or so: lifted the percentage of local film attendances from around 5% to the current 25%. It's do-able.

Out of interest, I thought I'd peruse the multiplexes to see how widely the film is being screened. I was more than a little surprised to find that neither Hoyts, Greater Union nor Reading were screening it and Village has it on one screen only - the Rivoli (where I saw it), in their smallest cinema, which only has six rows of seats! I just don't get that at all. This seems to be a clear bias against Australian films, even though the casual viewer would have no idea it's not American and even though it's better than most films of the genre from America. There's clearly shit going down here and I'm not impressed with the distinct disregard of the big muscle players.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Festival of German Films 2010 - 2

It's been a Fatih Akin blitz this week, having watched his new comedy and two older films - a music documentary and his dramatic feature debut. I've also revisited The White Ribbon, the must-see film of the festival (though it has a cinematic release just after). All up, there's six films reviewed.
  • Soul Kitchen (Fatih Akin, Germany, 2009)
  • Das Weiße Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke, Austria, 2009)
  • Aimée & Jaguar (Max Färberböck, Germany, 1999)
  • Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey, 2005)
  • Kurz und schmerzlos (Short Sharp Shock, Fatih Akin, Germany, 1998)
  • Die Päpstin (Pope Joan, Sönke Wortmann, Germany/UK/Italy/Spain, 2009)
Soul Kitchen
While Fatih Akin's latest film, a comedy called Soul Kitchen, is being described as very different to his earlier works, it has much in common with his first film, Short Sharp Shock in terms of place, characters and themes. In both films we see signs for Altona, a suburb of Hamburg that appears to crime-ridden and rundown. The restaurant in Soul Kitchen's title looks much like wharf warehouses we see in the earlier film. Adam Bousdoukos plays a petty crim in the earlier film, and the lead in Soul Kitchen, while Moritz Bleibtreu takes on a role similar to Bousdoukos' in the earlier film. And crime and trying to get ahead (honestly for some, by any means for others) are themes in common to both.

Bousdoukos' role in Short Sharp Shock provided welcome comic relief to a fairly dark story - in this film the comedy takes front row and he play a fairly boofhead sort of role that, despite the somewhat slapstick element, works quite well because of the authenticity of both his role and that of Bleibtreu, who plays his brother recently released from prison on day-release. Bleibtreu's performance is particularly effective, given that he has no Greek background yet channels the characteristics perfectly. I was a bit surprised at how well he resembled both in appearance and behaviour some of my in-laws.

Birol Ünel played an acclaimed role in Akin's Head On (which I have yet to see). In Soul Kitchen, he plays my favourite character - a chef, somewhat like the soup Nazi in Seinfeld - and we don't see enough of him. I like that despite making a light comedy, Akin uses heavy-weight actors like Ünel and Bleibtreu who play it largely straight, while the comedy is in how the story is constructed.

There's actually a lot going on in the story, which I won't detail here. It becomes quite convoluted and one doesn't have to be too astute to see some of the set-ups with the array of characters. The mood of the film is instantly upbeat from the start and never really lets up for its duration. Akin obviously has a fascination with music (his 2005 music documentary Crossing the Bridge is also screening at the festival) and I was impressed with how well a very diverse range of music styles is incorporated into the film.

As someone keen to see more of Akin's films (there's three at the festival and I've now seen them all), the film is definitely worth seeing. However, it's more of a curiosity and I much prefer his more dramatic work. I think the biggest mistake in the film is an overt sex scene which pretty much rules this film out as suitable for children - it's actually a little gratuitous and quite unnecessary. Otherwise, the comedic elements would have made it good for children. This film should appeal to a more mainstream arthouse audience (ie, Palace, etc), and it opens in cinemas on 6 May.

The White Ribbon
As I wrote in my FoGF preview, this was my favourite film at MIFF last year and, outside of the pressure cooker environment of MIFF, it was a joy to revisit it. This time I made more of an effort to follow which children belong to which families, to try to get a better handle on the intrigue. Haneke films frequently raise more questions than they answer, and he provides all the keys to unlock the mysteries he creates, but it's never simple at first glance.

While the film is relatively long (144 minutes) and even though there are long Haneke-signature static takes, it is always compelling. The camera's dwelling on a door while we hear what's on the other side of it is just a beautiful thing to behold. I noticed on this viewing how well constructed and edited the film is. Haneke quite cleverly and seamlessly blends one scene with children into another. It actually taxes the audience and one is forced to take mental count. I love a film that involves the audience, that doesn't hand things on a silver platter and make one work for it.

The film's elderly narrator in the present (one of the young characters in the story) makes a lovely comment at the start - what we are seeing cannot be entirely trusted because the truth is obscured over time. It adds uncertainty to a story which - even based on what we see - is already uncertain. At one stage, we see this character questioning another as to why he is engaged in risky behaviour. The answer to this question might offer insight into some of the mysteries that unfold, but the other's silence frustrates his pursuit of the truth. The whole film is like a 'whodunnit' where we try to solve these mysteries. And yet, that's not really what the film is about - it's really a parable about the nature of people, the causes of evil culminating in two world wars, and ultimately an examination of current world events - all without a mention of war. This is my kind of film - one of the three best to be released in theatres for the year so far (the others being A Prophet and Animal Kingdom, opening in June). The White Ribbon opens in cinemas on 6 May.

Aimée & Jaguar
This moving 1999 film is part of the festival's 'Berlin Based' stream and was followed by a Q&A with the author of the non-fiction book (Erica Fischer) that the film is based on. It's about a woman whose soldier husband is absent and who takes a lover that is not only a woman but a Jew. The story is so fantastic that, were it not true (and reportedly accurate), one might have trouble swallowing it.

I don't recall seeing any Holocaust depictions in Germany during the war. There have been many films from many countries depicting the subject and I always assumed that Jews were pretty much eliminated from Germany - or the cities at least - by the time the early stages of World War II had commenced. Certainly there was a nasty round-up of Jews well before that time in Germany. So it came as a surprise to me to see that Jews were still very much a part of a clandestine life in Berlin so late during the war (late 1944).

The cinematography is excellent, giving a strong feel for the period and the performances are mostly good. The story seems just a little melodramatic at times.

The author of the book, Erica Fischer, fielded questions after the screening. She mentioned that there were some elements of the story she wasn't entirely happy with but accepted the director's discretion in changing some details to make the story more cinematic. She said that the dialogue is very true to the book. She made up some of the dialogue in the book, but it's all based on interviews she did with the real-life Lilly Wust (d. 2006) and research she did on historical documents. The film is mostly concerned with the relationship between Wust and Felice Schragenheim, but the book contains much historic material such as photographs and documents.

Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul
I really enjoyed this Fatih Akin music documentary. Perhaps in tracing his own ethnic roots, Akin is exploring the soul of the city of Istanbul. Music is clearly important to him, and he treats the subject with much respect in this film. Many artists of various styles - traditional, modern and in-between - are depicted and interviewed. There is much crossover or fusion between styles and it's quite moving to see rap artists talk with respect about pop artists. Or the meaning and significance of their work. Rap in Turkey, for example, eschews the gansta elements of American rap and is more interested in contemporary social and political issues. The film is not particularly coherent in telling a story, but works as a sort of map of the different styles and influences in Istanbul.

Short Sharp Shock
This is Fatih Akin's feature debut and has a lot in common with the Australian film, Cedar Boys. Gabriel (of Turkish background) has just got out of prison and hooks up with his petty thieving mates Costa (Greek) and Bobby (Serbian). Bobby wants to go big-time and work for the Albanian mafia while Gabriel wants to go straight and maybe return to his homeland.

As mentioned above, Costa provides some light relief to what is fairly dark material - not surprising given it's a film by Fatih Akin, and this early piece shows all the hallmarks that he has mastered in his more recent films. Akin also has a cameo role as a drug dealer (that's him on the right in the photo), also as a bit of light relief.

Akin's films always seem to be on the go, with a lot of energy and music to match. This is quite an ambitious debut, grabbing quite a lot of dramatic elements - there are various dynamics with sisters and girlfriends complicating matters, parents and religion, and of course multiple ethnicities. The various ethnicities of the three mates were almost irrelevant in the sense that these guys bonded regardless, and is very reminiscent of major Australian cities (certainly mine, Melbourne).

Having seen Akin's more recent work first, I come to this film from a different perspective than someone who saw this one first. I still think that I would have liked it for its themes and it definitely signposted the talent that has further developed. It's a very worthwhile film.

Pope Joan
The audience seemed to be enjoying this film, laughing in all the right places, etc. It looks very nice as a period film (9th Century Europe) and has an impressive international cast (including David Wenham in a significant role). But it did nothing for me and I could tell pretty much from the start that I wasn't going to like it (but I tried, I swear!).

The biggest problems for me were a lack of subtlety, over-theatrics and plausibility. The story is about a woman who pretends to be a man and becomes the Pope. The director, who answered questions afterwards, said he believed the story may be based on truth, but now doubts it. I think it's highly implausible, and the way much of the story panned out required a pretty big stretch in suspending disbelief.

I really didn't like the way characters were almost caricatures. It betrays a distrust in an audience's ability to perceive the obvious, that everything has to be spelt out in huge letters, so to speak. A father isn't just unreasonable, he's not just brutal, but he's massively brutal. Bad guys looked like bad guys, really bad guys. And so it continued throughout the film, and it all felt so theatrical - actors performing on a stage. But that's me, and a mainstream audience will lap it up.

Looking at both this film and Visions, and seeing what a black history the Church has, one has to question why any sane person would want to be part of such an organisation. So much of its history has been founded on violence and treachery.

Cross-posted on Club Troppo

The Week in Review - 25/4/10

My Week in Review will be short this time around - most of the films I've seen this week are from the Festival of German Films and reviewed separately. I'm also more time poor than usual.

FILMS:
  • Beneath Hill 60 (Jeremy Sims, Australia, 2010)
  • Soul Kitchen (Fatih Akin, Germany, 2009)
  • Das Weiße Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke, Austria, 2009)
  • Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy, France/West Germany, 1964)
  • La baie des anges (The Bay of Angels, Jacques Demy, France, 1963)
  • Aimée & Jaguar (Max Färberböck, Germany, 1999)
  • Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey, 2005)
  • Kurz und schmerzlos (Short Sharp Shock, Fatih Akin, Germany, 1998)
DVD:
  • The Twilight Zone (Series 1, 1959)
Beneath Hill 60
Director Jeremy Sims must have a thing about confined spaces. First it was Last Train to Freo, which took place almost entirely in a single railway carriage, and now it's Beneath Hill 60, largely confined to the tunnels and trenches of World War I. Based on the diaries of Oliver Woodward, it's about the true story of the Queensland mining engineers that were recruited specifically to dig beneath the enemy in Europe and blow up with explosives their strategic positions - in this case Hill 60 in Belgium.

The cinematography is very nice, and if the sets look real, it's because it was shot largely underground and in trenches. It must have been grueling for the actors who are often covered in mud. While the film has been criticised by some for cutting periodically to Woodward and his future wife in Queensland just prior to the war, I think it offers both a relief to the audience of the claustrophia of the tunnels and also offers a wider palette of drama to appeal to audiences. It may not be as gutsy a war film as some, but it's certainly a view of war from a perspective that we've not seen before and the most remarkable thing is that it's never been made into a film before. It seems that the hype and jingoism of Gallipoli has overshadowed other worthy stories.

The film has been criticised for the intrusive use of music. I agree, but fortunately it's only in two or three places. Unfortunately, they're key moments and I just wished they'd toned it down a little, even though it's not fatal. I also thought the friction between Woodward and his superior officer (Chris Haywood) was a little cliched.

The most pleasant surprise for me was how well Sims utilised Brendan Cowell. I recently applauded David Michôd's clever use of Ben Mendelsohn in Animal Kingdom, and similarly Cowell has been used against type. His laid-back Aussie bloke persona worked very well as social satire in television's Life Support but it seems that every role since has boxed him into the same character. In Beneath Hill 60 he plays it straight, with none of those cliched mannerisms.

I've often mentioned the homogeny of Australian films in recent years, and how 2009 may have been a turning point by injecting diversity into the films being made here. Beneath Hill 60 is also a welcome addition to the variety of films that Australian audiences can embrace, and international audiences, too, for that matter.

The Twilight Zone
I've been watching this first series intermittently over the last week or so. It's kinda kitsch, of course, but fascinating as well. It's got the film noir-type voiceover, it's got the cold-war/space invasion paranoia of the era, along with the trivialisation of new-age concepts we take for granted now. It's also highly moralistic - not all episodes, but many have a paternalistic attitude in upholding society's values, a somewhat last breath for the Hays code, perhaps. Anyway, as a forerunner to shows like The Invaders, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and X-Files, it's great viewing. I've bought the definitive set and plan to watch all six series.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Animal Kingdom premiere

I've already written about Animal Kingdom, the Sundance award-winning film that is one of the most exciting local productions in decades. It releases nationally on 3 June. For a chance to win a double pass to the film's 'red carpet' premiere (on 24 May in Melbourne or 25 May in Sydney) and attend the after-party, check out this site.

Williamstown Literary Festival

I wouldn't normally post about what is for me a local festival, but this one may be of interest to readers here because it includes film and film-related events. I believe the Williamstown Literary Festival has been a regular event since 2005, but it's never been on my radar until now. I normally find out about it after the fact but this year one of my local bookshops sent out an email promoting it.

Festival guests include film directors Ana Kokkinos and Paul Cox (whose My First Wife will be screening along with a Q&A), actor William McInnes, Danny Katz, Waleed Aly (one of my favourite social commentators, a very eloquent speaker), Steve Bracks, Thomas Caldwell (one of my favourite film critics and bloggers), Marieke Hardy, Catherine Deveny, children's author Andy Griffiths (Zombie Butts from Uranus!) and many others who I'm sure those more in tune with the literary world will be more familiar with. In short, it's a damn impressive line-up, taking place mostly over the weekend of 1 & 2 May at Williamstown Town Hall [map]. And events cost a mere $7 ($5 concession) with some events free.

I'm going to take my son to some of the free kids events (he's a voracious reader and an Andy Griffiths fan) and I also want to attend the Paul Cox screening, hear Ana Kokkinos speak (with a panel) about "place and culture in film and literature", Steve Bracks and Waleed Aly talk about "life, politics" and more, and a few other events.

Check out the full program online or download the PDF. Check out the festival website.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Week in Review - 18/4/10

Another week heavy with film - the stand-out is Man with a Movie Camera which screened at Melbourne Cinémathèque on Wednesday, an amazing film given it's place in history. Starting this week is a three-week season of films by (and one about) Jacques Demy, which I'm looking forward to - I've seen none of his work. My reviews of the two German films listed below can be found on my preview of the Festival of German Films.

FILMS:
  • Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, USA, 2010)
  • A Serious Man (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, USA/UK/France, 2009)
  • Good Hair (Jeff Stilson, USA, 2009)
  • Madeo (Mother, Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2009)
  • Chelovek s kino-apparatom (Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, USSR, 1929)
  • Aelita (Yakov Protazanov, USSR, 1924)
  • Le concert (The Concert, Radu Mihaileanu, France/Italy/Romania/Belgium, 2009)
DVD/BLU-RAY*:
  • Sturm (Storm, Hans-Christian Schmid, Germany/Denmark/Netherlands, 2009)
  • Vision - Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen (Vision, Margarethe von Trotta, Germany/France, 2009)
  • *Nikita (La Femme Nikita, Luc Besson, France/Italy, 1990)
  • In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, UK/USA, 2008)
Greenberg
I prefer this latest Baumbach film to his previous Margot at the Wedding (which I found a bit dull) but not as much as The Squid and the Whale, which I think more compellingly captured some home truths. This latest film seems to aspire in part with mumblecore, particularly with the character of Florence (played wonderfully by Greta Gerwig), the themes of adult lack of direction in life, and perhaps alluded to by the appearance of mumblecore wunderkind Mark Duplass. But it's not really mumblecore per se, as Greenberg (Ben Stiller in a solid and welcome serious role) is in his forties, as are his friends. And the heavy use of soundtrack music also gives it a different aesthetic.

I like that the film is nuanced and demonstrates Baumbach's eye for details within dysfunctional relationships. Given that the titular character has recently spent time in a psychiatric institution, it's not quite as universal a story as Baumbach's previous films. What is universal getting to a point in life and realising that things have not gone to plan, and of opportunities lost.

Baumbach is a thoughtful film-maker and has a take on life that for me is real. There's an underlying truthfulness to his films, one that many of his compatriots are not prepared to handle so frankly. Yet this film doesn't fully grab me. I would have preferred the film give more time to Gerwig's role. Stiller performs surprisingly convincingly, given the puerile material he normally works with, but his deliberately unlikeable character lacks something - there's a kind of monotony to it whereby he's going nowhere, though that seems to be the point of the role. This film will likely appeal mostly to fans of Baumbach, mumblecore and Stiller.

A Serious Man
This screened as part of double feature with Greenberg at Nova. I can see how they make good companion pieces, but I don't understand why (1) Greenberg is getting advance screenings as a double, (2) the advance screenings are over the course of a week and not just a weekend, (3) the film has no confirmed release date, and (4) it's screening only during the day (when most people are at work). Though I'd seen A Serious Man already and have it on Blu-ray, I decided to stay and see it again on the big screen.

I noticed a lot of small details that I missed on first screening, but otherwise, I don't think I gleaned much that I didn't on first viewing. The Yiddish story at the beginning remains my favourite part and the main story to me seems to be all about the Jewish identity, and the indefinable aspects of Jewish culture. I love that the Rabbis are very matter-of-fact as opposed to a false saintliness that their Christian counterparts often assume. I'll have to watch this again on the Blu-ray with the extras.

Good Hair
I wasn't going to see this documentary at ACMI, but changed my mind after the missus showed me the Chris Rock clip from YouTube below. It has nothing to do with Good Hair, but it demonstrated to me how intelligent and insightful Rock is.

Good Hair is about black American women's obsession with their hair and the lengths they go to in order to have "good hair", i.e., like Asian or European women's hair. Rock ensures the material is always entertaining without allowing his personality to shadow the material. It effectively presents information that should surprise audiences, for example, how much these women spend on hair products, how widespread their obsessions are, and what these products are made from and where they are sourced.

I've read criticisms that the film isn't balanced but I don't think a documentary necessarily has to have a counter view to be worthy. Rock presents various pieces of information, clearly has his own view, but leaves it to both his subjects and audience to make up their own mind. It's definitely worth a look.

The following clip is for my pleasure, and if you like it too, that's a bonus. Here's Chris Rock in full-flight stand-up.

..

Mother
There was a lot of buzz about this film coming out of MIFF last year and I was happy to catch it out of the pressure-cooker environment of a major festival, which gives one a bit more space to appreciate it. There's been comparisons to Hitchcock and others and they're all valid. The film looks nice, confounds expectations quite cleverly (but not too cleverly) and is definitely worth seeing. Like Bong's previous film, I like it, but not as much as others seem to. Kudos to the Nova cinema for giving it a chance to find a non-festival audience. The Nova has so many screenings these days that no-one else is supporting, so in support of diversity, it behooves us to support these small-run screenings so that Nova keeps putting them on.

Man with a Movie Camera
This is one of the most amazing silent-era films I've seen, a veritable masterpiece. I had no idea that cinema was so introspective and developed at such an early stage. Vertov sets out to prove that cinema is an art distinct from literature and theatre by proclaiming that this film includes no sets, no inter-titles and no actors (with a brief exception). The film is mostly documentary in form, but not entirely. It has elements that are socially anthropological and it is also self-reflexive, including elements that are about the process of making a film. The array of techniques on display is awesome and puts Paul Greengrass to shame (hand-held doesn't have to look like shit).

Watching it at Cinémathèque, I was frequently reminded of social realist and essay films such as the works of Agnès Varda, Chris Marker and others. I imagine this film would have been treasured by the early social realist movement in Australia, who were largely influenced by Soviet cinema and communism.

I was also amazed at how Russian society at that time looked almost indistinguishable from say American society, with all the trappings of bourgeois life - bikinis, hair salons, dressing up, art deco artwork and architecture, etc. Equally fascinating is Vertov's presumed intention of capturing the seemingly banal; he must have known that this would document a particular place and time. It's focus on machinery in action is reminiscent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, made two years earlier. Of course, what may appear banal today, is not necessarily banal even in the near future. I thought this title was available from Criterion but can't find it online. I'd like to get this on DVD or (preferably) Blu-ray. If anyone can point me in the right direction, that'd be great.

Aelita
I was getting pretty tired by the time this first Russian sci-fi (silent) film screened at Cinémathèque. It's worth seeing if one has the chance, particularly on the big screen, but it didn't engage me anywhere near as much as Man with a Movie Camera. It's futuristic sets also remind one of Metropolis, but was made three years before.

The Concert
This comedic drama (or dramatic comedy) has a central conceit that is basically an impossible premise (though the director claims it is based partly on factual incidents). One's ability to enjoy the film is - initally, at least - dependent on one's ability to suspend disbelief, which shouldn't be a problem for the mainstream audience it targets. A former orchestra conductor for the Bolshoi Orchestra witholds an invitation by the Chantelet Theatre, and brings together all his old friends from the Soviet era to perform in Paris in place of the actual orchestra.

There is social and political parody of the Soviet era, which Mihaileanu allows the audience to absorb without feeling they're being preached to. The film's first third is largely slapstick and enjoyable enough, though a bit formulaic. The middle is a bit flat before the film really kicks into gear, when the luminous Mélanie Laurent charismatically consumes the screen (as she always does). Along with the wonderful musical element, the film surprisingly grabs the audience in a way I didn't expect, and it had me in tears. Mind you, Mihaileanu's more serious Live and Become also had a similar effect on me. This film is clearly aimed at the Palace demographic and I imagine it will be well-received. It's not must-see for cinephiles, but it's not bad fun either. It opens in cinemas on 29 April.

Nikita
I was pleasantly surprised to find that this Luc Besson film stands up quite well after twenty years. It was the first French film I saw that emulated Hollywood blockbusters and I thought it had an edginess that Hollywood lacks. On this second viewing, my observation was that the film shifts between cartoonish violence not so different to a good James Bond film (and it's been a long time since there's been a good one of those) and drama in which the character development and actor performances are just so real. Small details, like Nikita's torn nylons and bleeding leg for example, are a nice touch that Hollywood would normally gloss over. These elements give the film gravitas that one doesn't usually associate with the genre.

Like my recent viewing of Besson's Léon, I had a lot of fun watching this. The film introduces us to Victor (Jean Reno) who re-surfaces as Léon in a full-bodied role in Léon. Nikita was remade by Hollywood, with Bridget Fonda as the lead, but I couldn't bring myself to see it.

In Bruges
Looks good, good characters, good fun. And lots of profanity. Not much else to say. Except that it's nice to see Ralph Fiennes playing something other than a broody, whiny prick.

On refugees & asylum seekers

Rant warning ahead
[beginning of rant] When John Howard was in office, he saw that the best way to head off the political threat of the redneck policies of Pauline Hansen was to outdo her at her own game. Now that Labour has no balls to stand up to the nasty political games of Tony Abbott, whose party makes chess pieces out of other people's suffering, Rudd is trying outdo the Libs at their pernicious game. I can only hope that Rudd is a transitional leader and that in the not-too-distant future, a more visionary leader will assume the mantle and reveal the Liberals for what they are: blood-sucking sycophants, menaces to society who will screw anyone or anything for political advantage. [end of rant]

Jafar Panahi under arrest

While checking out the Cannes festival website, I was disturbed to stumble upon this article about the Iranian government's detention/imprisonment of renowned film-maker Jafar Panahi. The director of such celebrated films as The Circle and Crimson Gold, he is clearly a director of great integrity and social conscience. Given the widespread support that Roman Polanski received for his detention pending extradition for his alleged crimes, it's most disappointing that Panahi's case is all but absent from the mainstream media. The Iranian government's claims that Panahi has been detained for security reasons seems flimsy at best.

From Google News:
Panahi arrested for making anti-regime film: minister

TEHRAN — Iran's culture minister said on Wednesday that the award-winning filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested because he was making an anti-regime film, the ISNA news agency reported.

"The culture and Islamic guidance ministry asked the judiciary and the security authorities about the arrest of Mr Panahi and they told us that it is a security case," Mohammad Hosseini told ISNA.

"They informed us that this director was making a film against the regime and it was about the events that followed election," he added, referring to the unrest which rocked Iran after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year.

It is the first time that an Iranian official has given an explanation of the basis for Panahi's arrest.

But in an interview with AFP in mid-March, Panahi's wife, Tahereh Saeedi, denied that Panahi was making a film about post-election events, saying: "The film was being shot inside the house and had nothing to do with the regime."

She added that at that time prosecutors had yet to press any charges against her husband.

Soon after Panahi's arrest, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said the filmmaker had not been detained for political reasons or because he was an artist but because he was "accused of some crimes and arrested with another person following an order by a judge."

According to opposition websites, Panahi was arrested along with 16 other people, including his wife and daughter and six human rights activists. Fourteen of those detained have been freed so far.

A vocal backer of the opposition movement, Panahi was arrested when security forces raided his Tehran home on March 1.

Fifty Iranian filmmakers and artists signed a letter in mid-March urging the authorities to release him.

Panahi, 49, is known for his gritty, socially critical movies such as "The Circle," which bagged the 2000 Venice Golden Lion award, "Crimson Gold" and "Offside," winner of the 2006 Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival.

In February, the authorities banned Panahi from leaving the country to attend the Berlin Film Festival.

Cannes 2010 lineup

The following are the films and juries announced thus far for the Festival du Cannes 2010, running from 12 - 23 May. Any, in case you didn't know, that's Juliette Binoche featured in the official poster. For a serious festival, Robin Hood sounds like a joke as an opening night film but then, Cannes is all about controversy and commercialism as it is about art. There's a number of titles that interest me (all of them really, but some more than others) and at least this gives us a glimpse of what might appear at MIFF later in the year. The lists below are not final - the complete lists will be available a week prior to the festival's start.

Opening film
Robin Hood (Ridley SCOTT) - out of competition

Competition Section
Poetry
(Lee Chang-dong)
Fair Game
(Doug Liman)
Un homme qui crie (A Screaming Man, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)
Another Year
(Mike Leigh)
Biutiful
(Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Tournée
(Mathieu Amalric)
Copie conforme (Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami)
The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo)
Long Boonmee raleuk chat (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Utomlyonnye Solntsem 2 (Burnt by the Sun, Nikita Mikhalkov)
Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois)
Outrage (Takeshi Kitano)
Hors la loi (Outside the Law, Rachid Bouchareb)
La princesse de Monpensier (The Princess of Montpensier, Bertrand Tavernier)
My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa)
La Nostra Vita (Daniele Luchetti)

Jury
Tim BURTON – Director / USA (PRESIDENT)
Kate BECKINSALE – Actress / United Kingdom
Giovanna MEZZOGIORNO – Actress / Italy
Alberto BARBERA – Director of the National Museum of Cinema / Italy
Emmanuel CARRERE – Author – Screenwriter – Director / France
Benicio DEL TORO – Actor / Porto Rico
Victor ERICE – Director/ Spain
Shekhar KAPUR – Director – Actor – Producer / India

Un Certain Regard Section
Adrienn Pál (Ágnes Kocsis)
Blue Valentine* (Derek Cianfrance)
Udaan* (Vikramaditya Motwane)
Octubre* (Daniel Vega & Diego Vega)
Filme socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard)
Chatroom (Hideo Nakata)
Rizhao Chongqing (Chongqing Blues, Xiaoshuai Wang)
Ha Ha Ha (Hong Sang-soo)
Aurora (Cristi Puiu)
Rebecca H. (Return to the Dogs) (Lodge Kerrigan)
O estranho caso de Angélica (Angelica, Manoel de Oliveira)
Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats, Xavier Dolan)
Life Above All (Oliver Schmitz)
Los labios (The Lips, Iván Fund & Santiago Loza)
R U There (David Verbeek)
Simon Werner a disparu... (Simon Werner Disappeared…*, Fabrice Gobert)
Marti, dupa craciun (Tuesday, After Christmas, Radu Muntean)
Unter dir die Stadt (The City Below, Christoph Hochhäusler)
* 1st film

Jury
Claire DENIS - Director / France (PRESIDENT)

Out of Competition
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Oliver Stone)
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen)
Tamara Drewe (Stephen Frears)

Midnight Screenings
Kaboom (Greg Arraki)
L'autre monde (Black Heaven, Gilles Marchand)

Special Screenings
Inside Job
(Charles Ferguson)
Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (Sophie Fiennes)
Nostalgia de la luz (Nostalgia for the Light, Patricio Guzman)
Draquila - l'Italia che trema (Sabina Guzzanti)
Chantrapas (Otar Iosseliani)
Abel* (Diego Luna)
5 x favela por nos mesmos (Manaira Carneiro, Wagner Novais, Rodrigo Felha, Cacau Amaral, Luciano Vidigal, Cadu Barcelos, Luciana Bezerra)

Cinéfondation and Short Film Jury
Atom EGOYAN - Director/Canada (PRESIDENT)
Emmanuelle DEVOS - Actress/France
Dinara DROUKAROVA - Actress/Russia
Carlos DIEGUES - Director/Brazil
Marc RECHA - Director/Spain

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Festival of German Films - Festival Guests

As an addendum to my FoGF 2010 Preview, I thought I'd cut and paste a media release regarding the festival's guests:
Famed Director SÖNKE WORTMANN & Acclaimed Feminist Writer ERICA FISCHER in Oz for AUDI FESTIVAL OF GERMAN FILMS 2010

Now celebrating its 9th year, the AUDI FESTIVAL OF GERMAN FILMS returns in late April with its most dynamic line-up to date. Boasting more than 30 new movies – most of which have never before been screened in Australia, the Festival will commence in Sydney on April 21 and tour Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth until May 9 Our 2010 guests include renowned German Director Sönke Wortmann (THE MIRACLE OF BERN, MAYBE, MAYBE NOT, ALONE AMONG WOMEN) and noted feminist author, Erica Fischer, who both speak excellent English.

Wortmann will introduce screenings of his latest film, POPE JOAN, starring Johanna Wokalek (THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX), David Wenham and John Goodman, whilst Fischer will present special screenings of the classic 1999 feature AIMÉE & JAGUAR, based on her best-selling 1994 novel, Aimée & Jaguar: A Love Story.

SÖNKE WORTMANN (In Melbourne Tuesday 27 April & Sydney on Thursday 29 April)
Sönke Wortmann is one of Germany’s most successful directors and producers, who has shaped German cinema since the 1990s. Wortmann has received numerous awards, including the Bambi for MAYBE, MAYBE NOT (Der bewegte Mann), the Bayerischer Filmpreis for THE MIRACLE OF BERN (Das Wunder von Bern) as well as the Bambi and the Adolf-Grimme-Preis for his documentary of the FIFA World Cup 2006: DEUTSCHLAND. EIN SOMMERMÄRCHEN. His second big passion is: Soccer – a topic he has very successfully brought to the big screen. His international blockbuster POPE JOAN (Die Päpstin), was a major box-office success in Germany in 2009 and will have its Australian premiere during the Festival.

ERICA FISCHER (Available now in Sydney and in Melbourne on Friday 23 April) Erica Fischer was born in England, where her Jewish- Austrian parents found exile during WW2. She was a founding member of the New Women’s Movement in Vienna, participating as activist, theorist and speaker in various events and demonstrations and co-founded the feminist magazine AUF – Eine Frauenzeitschrift (A Woman’s Magazine) as well as the women’s bookstore Frauenzimmer. Fischer is the author of more than 12 books, among them Aimée & Jaguar - a real-life love story of two women in war-troubled Germany. Published in 1994, it was a major success and has since been translated into 20 languages and in 1998 was made into a major film, which screens in the Festival. Erica Fischer presently lives in Berlin and works as a freelance author, interpreter and journalist.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Festival of German Films 2010 - Preview

The Festival of German Films 2010 opens with Fatih Akin's new comedy Soul Kitchen at the Como cinema on Thursday 22 April. The FoGF has gradually increased on popularity, and more by serious programming rather than populist. In fact, I suspect this has had an influence on the French Film Festival, which has until recently had too much of a focus (in my opinion) on popular mainstream cinema. Don't get me wrong, the FoGF is showcasing films that audiences will find appealing; it's just that the festival doesn't shy away from edgier themes.

I spoke briefly to festival director, Klaus Krischok from the Goethe Institute, about his criteria for selecting films for the festival. This year for the first time, there are different streams. He acknowledged my suggestion that the Culinary Comedies was chosen largely because of Akin's new film. (Akin is, of course, well-known for his sublime serious dramatic films like The Edge of Heaven and Head On.) Not only have other comedies been selected with a culinary theme, but film-goers will have a rare opportunity to see earlier films by Akin: Crossing the Bridge - The Sound of Istanbul, a documentary from 2005, and Short Sharp Shock, an inter-cultural drama from 1998 (These are both top of my list of films I want to see at the festival).

Another stream is 'Berlin Based', films focusing on Berlin. I've seen the first episode of The Wolves of Berlin, reviewed below, and hope to see the remaining two episodes during the festival. In answer to my question about his criteria for the 'German Currents' films, Klaus said that history and politics are strong themes that he feels that make German cinema distinctive. His three top recommendations for the festival are: When We Leave, Soul Kitchen and My Words, My Lies - My Love.

Of the following films that I've previewed, my pick are The White Ribbon as 'must-see', and Whisky with Vodka, Vision, Storm and The Wolves of Berlin as 'worth-seeing'.

In addition to screenings of 33 films, there will be panel discussions for Storm and The White Ribbon, and Sönke Wortmann, who has three films screening at the festival, and feminist author Erica Fischer, author of Aimée & Jaguar, will also be in attendance.

  • Die Tür (The Door, Anno Saul, Germany, 2009)
  • Die Standesbeamtin (Will You Marry Us?, Micha Lewinsky, Switzerland, 2009)
  • John Rabe (Florian Gallenberger, France/China/Germany, 2009)
  • Schwerkraft (Gravity, Maximilian Erlenwein, Germany, 2009)
  • Whisky mit Wodka (Whisky with Vodka, Andreas Dresen, Germany, 2009)
  • Die Wölfe: Nichts kann uns trennen (The Wolves of Berlin: Part One - Nothing Can Part Us, Friedemann Fromm, Germany, 2009)
  • Sturm (Storm, Hans-Christian Schmid, Germany/Denmark/Netherlands, 2009)
  • Vision - Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen (Vision, Margarethe von Trotta, Germany/France, 2009)
  • Das Weiße Band (The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke, Austria, 2009)
The Door
An artist loses his young daughter and gets another chance at making things right when he finds a doorway that takes him to another place. I suppose this paranormal thriller has parallels with films like The Terminator or Donnie Darko (without the sci-fi or special effects), with ideas that could have been used more effectively than they are here. On a micro-level, the acting is generally proficient, and the film looks nice enough. The problem is in the difficulty that a discerning audience will have in suspending disbelief at certain key moments, and it's the writing that is the weak point. Ultimately, the film should be entertaining for a mainstream audience but disappointing for cinephiles.

Will You Marry Us?
A civil celebrant is having marital problems and is asked by an old love interest to perform his marriage ceremony. This Swiss film is more romantic than comedy, though the film's premise and English title certainly suggests romantic comedy. The nature of markets, I suppose, means that distributors or film programming requires that genre labels be applied. All the contrived devices and predictable trajectory of the rom-com are employed. Yet the film remains a touch above the Hollywood standard by slightly understating the narrative and keeping the humour to a minimum. The visuals are lovely and there's a deliberate production theme using yellow primarily and the occasional use of the other primary colours. Anyone who enjoys romantic comedies shouldn't be disappointed with this.

John Rabe
This is a big studio film, a kind of cross between two Steven Spielberg films - Empire of the Sun and Schindler's List. It certainly looks good, depicting John Rabe, a German industrialist living in Nangking when it was invaded by the Japanese in 1937. He is credited with the saving of some 200,000 Chinese lives through his part in creating a safe zone. The 'Rape of Nangking' is a contentious issue between China and Japan. Japan has yet to fully acknowledge the extent of its wartime atrocities which include pillage, rape and mass murder - some 300,000 are estimated to have been killed in 6 weeks.

The film certainly works well cinematically if you're looking for a Spielberg-like war film. The more brutal aspects are largely sanitised for the big screen, though we do see glimpses of beheadings and mass executions, but very little is hinted at about the extent of rape.

I've never been particularly cognisant of this chapter in history, and it seems that Rabe has been an under-appreciated hero, despite his Nazi-party affiliations. Mind you, he hadn't lived in Germany for some thirty years prior and after his return to his homeland, he was silenced by the Nazis, had his diaries confiscated, and died a pauper in 1950. However, he remains a well-known hero in China.

The film benefits from an international cast, many of whom I recognised in films from their respective countries. Much of the dialogue is in English. I'm in no position to judge the film's historical accuracy, but it succeeded in prompting me to do some cursory research on its content. John Rabe's wins include best film and best actor at the German Film Awards.

Gravity
This is a strange film, strange as in I can't quite work out what the director is trying to achieve. A sociopathic bank loans officer experiences an existential crisis after a customer blows out his brains during a meeting with him, and takes to part-time crime with a former associate, while simultaneously trying to reignite an old relationship with a woman who he's been stalking.

The film looks nice enough, the acting is certainly adequate, but the story is just weird. It plays out mostly as drama and thriller but it doesn't quite cut it as either genre because there's a strong level of unreality (largely due to massive implausibilities), and one senses there's an attempt at black comedy, perhaps styled on the Coen brothers. The film is clearly aimed at a young, hip audience, evidenced by the music choices and other visual elements but there's still something not quite right. Comedy works best when it's based on fundamental reality but this film seems to ignore human psychology with characters, reactions and scenarios not feeling quite real.

The film makes some social commentary in passing, like equating business with crime, but is never - to it's credit - didactic. I think to enjoy it, one has to really suspend disbelief to a degree that some might find difficult. It will probably appeal to the target audience of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Like that film, for me this feels better suited for television. It's OK for a debut feature, and it'll be interesting to see what
Erlenwein does next.

Whisky with Vodka
This is quite an endearing film about film-making that is like a cross between Catherine Breillat's Sex is Comedy and Mia Hansen-Løve's Father of My Children. Like Breillat's film, the film depicts the difficulty a director (and indeed, the whole film crew) experiences dealing with actors. And like Father of My Children, the film depicts the difficulties for the producer.

In Whisky with Vodka which, despite its description as a comedy is more drama with just a touch of wry comedy, a film's completion is threatened when it's aging and popular lead actor can't control his fondness for alcohol. The producers insist on two shoots, one with the original actor, Otto Kullberg (Henry Hübchen), and one with the possible replacement, a younger Arno Runge (Markus Hering).

The director Martin Telleck (Sylvester Groth) objects to this scenario, insisting he's "not a bucket for everyone to shit in". The film manages to both entertain without falling into parody (which it easily could have done) and remain thought-provoking. There are a number of good lines in which characters describe their craft. The film also gives a glimpse at how one person's ego can cause grief to dozens of others, and how dysfunctional an environment a film set can be. The characterisations and scenarios are very good. I found the film quietly satisfying.

The Wolves of Berlin: Part One - Nothing Can Part Us
The Wolves of Berlin is a three-part made-for-TV miniseries that centres on life in Berlin at three important points in time: 1948, 1961 and 1989. I've only seen the first episode, but I can say that it's well put together and looks good on the big screen. I hope to see the remaining episodes during the festival.

The story follows a group of teenagers in post-war Berlin, struggling for survival and who make a pact to stick together. The film focuses on the personal impact of the changes that were taking place at the time, as Berlin was divided into four sectors and blockaded.

The film has a clever visual style - sometimes black and white, sometimes slightly tinted and other times muted colour. Inserted from time to time is historical footage, also of varying qualities, which appears organic to the rest of the film. It lends an authentic and pleasing feel to the film. Because the film opens in the present, in a tense situation, we know there's bad blood, some of which will be divulged in later episodes. Recommended viewing.


Storm

This political thriller by German director, Hans-Christian Schmid, illustrates some of the difficulties in bringing war criminals to justice. Here, a former Serbian officer is accused of atrocities against Bosnian civilians. With an international cast, the predominant language is English and centres on a Hague prosecutor Hannah Maynard (Kerry Fox) in her oft-thwarted attempts to collect evidence. It also features Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) in a convincing role as a surviving witness.

Storm has a social-realist feel to it, underscored by lots of hand-held camera (slightly more shaky than required, but not fatally so) and has a feel to it more akin to films of this genre from Latin America than Europe. The film's arc is quite relevant, especially given recent attempts to bring an alleged war criminal to trial from Australia. One problem the film points out is that such people are often considered war heroes in their native lands. This is a solid film without being showy.

Vision
Margarethe von Trotta has had some hits (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1975) and misses (I Am the Other Woman, 2006). This latest film, an historical biopic, falls more into the camp of the former. It's beautifully photographed, depicting the life of a twelfth century Christian mystic and prominent author, Hildegarde of Bingem. Tithed to a monastery at the age of eight, she eventually became the leader of her nun community and went on to found two other monasteries.

Vision underscores for me how much suffering the Christian church (and religion in general) has forced upon humanity. It's not really religion to blame per se, but human nature, which uses religion as an excuse for inexcusable behaviour - and not much has changed over the millennia.

Different schools of Christianity developed over time that speculated or concocted their own brands of the central teachings. Some (as depicted in this film) felt it a virtue to punish themselves by flagellation, "to suffer as Christ did". Others focused on theological or intellectual studies while others became involved in dastardly Inquisitorial 'activities'.

Hildegarde was very fortunate to escape the latter, after her revelation of mystic visions. Many thousands of others perished throughout the Middle Ages (from around Hildegarde's time, and especially during the reign of Pope Gregory IX, 1227-1241). Perhaps what saved her was her noble background and the support she had from prominent members of the Church.

Von Trotta does a good job of telling the story, though a bit of restraint in pointing out the obvious would have been welcome. Other than The White Ribbon, this has the best visuals of any film that I've previewed from the festival.

The White Ribbon

This Haneke film was my favourite at MIFF last year and also made it into my list of top films of the year. It's simply stunning and demonstrates a master film-maker at the peak of his game. I love how Haneke creates a riveting human story which is about what it appears to be about, and yet there is so much important sub-text which doesn't consume or overwhelm the primary story. It may well be that Haneke's underlying themes are more important to him than the apparent story, but it's never didactic. This is in direct contrast with Lioret's recent Welcome. Here are my original comments about the film, posted during MIFF last year:
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.
The Festival of German Films screens in Melbourne at the Kino and Como cinemas from 22 April to 2 May.

Cross-posted on Club Troppo

Monday, April 12, 2010

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, Australia, 2010)
This debut feature by David Michôd, which won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is simply exhilarating. I'll go so far as to say that I think it's easily one of the top ten Australian films of the last two decades. To put that into perspective, the only films I’d place on that pedestal are: Everynight... Everynight, The Boys, Em 4 Jay and Samson and Delilah. If pushed, I could also include Ten Canoes, Shine and Three Blind Mice. And now Animal Kingdom.

Animal Kingdom is a mixture of genres – at heart an ensemble family drama, but also a crime thriller. The poster art perfectly captures the mood – much like a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy. Clearly inspired by the events surrounding the Walsh Street police shootings of 1988, it details a family’s implosion as crime and police corruption collide. Josh or J (James Frecheville) is embraced by that part of the family that his mother hid from him until she unexpectedly dies. He has no-one else to turn to. Like Malik, the young petty crim in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, he becomes our unwitting tour guide to the dark side as we follow a relative innocent’s induction into a world of crime.

Animal Kingdom is no less suspenseful than Audiard’s film and just as powerful. In fact, it's like a cross between A Prophet and The Boys. There is some violence, but it’s mostly off-screen. The film creates a nail-biting atmosphere by feeding the audience information that characters are denied. One of my favourite scenes involves a suburban dad (Clayton Jacobson from Kenny) simply backing his car out of his drive-way. We know the urgency of the situation, but he’s oblivious to the danger. There are various twists, which are wholly ‘organic’ and believable, as opposed to being tricksy Hollywood-style.

Some actors have never put in better performances. Michôd has brilliantly tapped a hitherto unseen talent in Ben Mendelsohn, without a trace of his usual larrikinisms. His inhabiting the role of a criminal psychopath is just as terrifying as David Wenham’s Brett Sprague in The Boys. Jackie Weaver's performance as the matriarch is also stunning. It demonstrates a skillful balance of excess and restraint, with an unsettling effect created by the contradictions of her homeliness, emotional neediness, mental stability and cunning ruthlessness. She has some great lines and is one of the backbones of the story. Guy Pearce is another and his performance as the seasoned detective is perfectly understated. Frecheville and Mendelsohn are the other pillars.

The whole ensemble cast performs well, with strong support from Joel Edgerton, Sullivan Stapleton, Dan White, Laura Wheelwright and others. Character development is just wonderful across the board. The story works so well because Michôd mostly underplays it, trimming the film of any fat. J is quietly introverted, so we don’t know what to expect. Ambiguity in characters causes doubt about who can be trusted. Sometimes, when action takes place, it seemingly comes out of nowhere. Court scenes are all but removed, focusing on the human and suspense elements.

Adam Arkapaw's magnificent camera work recalls László Baranyai's work in Noise (2007), easily the best aspect of that film. The music and sound design are terrific – pretty much on a par with the excellent achievements of Samson and Delilah. Each of the parts of Animal Kingdom is well-realised; the sum of the parts is sublime. This is a finely constructed story, one of the best films of the year and I can’t wait to see it again. Given that Sony Picture Classics snapped it up straight after the Sundance gong, hopefully it will do well in the US. I have no doubt it will receive a strong reception here.

Animal Kingdom is being released in Australian cinemas on 3 June.

Links: Official website

Here's the trailer:
. video.