MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2011

by GREG KING
Celebrating its 60th anniversary, the Melbourne International Film Festival runs from July 21 until August 7, and screens at Greater Union, Kino, ACMI and Forum cinemas. With 329 films screening (115 shorts and 214 features), a plethora of special events and a program dedicated to looking back over the 60 year history of the Melbourne International Film Festival, MIFF 2011 will be a fantastic celebration of film and film culture. The 2011 Festival Opening Night features the Australian Premiere of The Fairy.
Check The Age, the program guide and the MIFF website for screening details, locations and session times.
First published July 14, 2011

Updated August 7, 2011.
Check back daily for regular updates throughout the Festival.

THE WOMAN.

This is a tough, confronting yet engrossing horror film. The Woman is not your typical horror film, with serial killers, lots of blood and gore and screaming virgins running and dying. The film actually delves into darker territory and deals with themes of domestic violence, violence against women, and the nasty ways in which humans can treat others. The Woman is a sequel of sorts to Offspring, and Pollyanna McIntosh reprises her role, except this time the feral heroine becomes a victim rather than the villain. She is captured by Christopher Cleek (Sean Bridgers, from Deadwood, etc), a small town lawyer, who brings her back to his ranch, and chains her up in his cellar in the hopes of civilising her. The rest of the family reacts in different ways to her presence. McKee slowly strips away the surface veneer of this seemingly typical white bread family to expose deeper layers of corruption. The Woman has been written by cult horror director Lucky McKee (May, etc) and novelist Jack Ketchum, who Stephen King once described as “the scariest writer in America.” The film has polarised audiences, and received a particularly virulent response at its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The Woman is undeniably unflinching in its approach and doesn’t follow the usual formula of this genre, and it makes for tough viewing,

WASTED YOUTH.

Wasted Youth is inspired by a true incident that occurred in Athens when a 15-year old student was shot and killed by a policeman in the summer of 2008. Haris (Haris Markou) is a typical teenager, who likes wasting his time by hanging out with his friends rather than getting a summer job. The teenagers at the centre of the film spend a lot of their time skateboarding, hanging out, drinking, partying and disrespecting their parents. Meanwhile, Vasilis (Ieronimos Kaletsanos) is a cop who is angry at the world and resentful of having to do three straight night shifts. Haris and Vasilis are on a collision course that will have tragic consequences. One can see where Wasted Youth is headed, but the writing and directing team of Argyris Papadimitopoulos (Bang Bang) and cinematographer Jan Vogel mishandle the ending, which leaves audiences feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Although set in Greece, this slight film deals with some universal themes, and some familiar ideas. However the filmmakers get the vibe just about right. They also manage to work in some topical comments about the financial crisis that has left the country a virtual economic basket case and has added to the frustrations felt by the characters. The filmmakers have cast the film with largely non-professional actors who improvised their dialogue. This brings authenticity to the material. As the hedonistic slacker Haris, Markou has a natural and appealing presence and provides the film with a strong central focus. Also the superb cinematography from Vogel and Manu Tilinski brings the sweltering city of Athens alive.

TROLL HUNTER.

Everything you always wanted to know about trolls, but were afraid to ask. Here, the trolls are not quaint fairy tale figures, but rather fearsome creatures that live in the remote forest areas of Norway, and whose actions are monitored by a top secret government organisation known as TSS (Troll Security Service). Like the recent film Rare Exports, this film takes great liberties with the lore of trolls, which are a part of Scandinavian mythology. They can smell Christian blood, and when exposed to ultraviolet light they explode or turn to stone. Thomas (Glenn Erlan Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck), and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) are a trio of college students investigating a mysterious series of bear killings in the area when they stumble upon the sinister Hans (Otto Jespersen) and decide to follow him. Hans turns out to be an official troll hunter, and after much debate he reluctantly agrees to let them follow him and film him as he does battle with several trolls who have wandered off the reservation. Troll Hunter is a droll mix of horror, fantasy and off beat humour from Norwegian director Andre Ovredal (Future Murder, etc) and it confidently strides into that faux documentary/found footage genre established by The Blair Witch Project a decade ago. Unlike that dark and disturbing low budget film though, here the artifice occasionally becomes obvious. The excessive use of hand held cameras, especially while our heroes are running from danger, becomes a little unsettling and nauseating. There are some okay CGI special effects, especially in the creation of the trolls that are seamlessly incorporated into the action. Cinematographer Hallvard Braen makes great use of the beautiful natural landscapes, which provide the backdrop for the film. Ovredal infuses the material with plenty of hilarious, laugh out loud moments that makes for a diverting piece of entertainment. It seems like there is both a sequel and a Hollywood remake in the pipeline.

THE HOLLYWOOD COMPLEX.

Every year the television networks develop pilot episodes for new sitcoms and tv series. This is known in Hollywood as “pilot season.” And every year thousands of hopeful, star-struck kids migrate to Hollywood hoping for their chance to become a star. They meet with casting agents and take lessons in acting and developing their presence. Only a very few will actually make it! “It’s like slavery,” remarks a former child actor. This fascinating and very entertaining documentary from Dylan Nelson and Dan Sturman (Soundtrack For A Revolution, etc) follows several hopeful wannabe stars through the grinding and disappointing merry-go-round of auditions, interviews, photo shoots, casting calls. The film explores the ugly side of show business and the pervasive objectification of children. As one casting director candidly puts it, this is one of the “most perverse dog-eat-dog industries” in the world. Although the filmmakers adopt a rather playful tone, there is something a bit darker beneath the surface, as we come to learn that some of the parents are more determined, driven and obsessive than their progeny. They are willing to spend up to $5,000 a month renting an apartment in Hollywood on the off chance that their child will become rich and famous. The Hollywood Complex is an eye-opener for any star-struck parent trying to push their children into a career in show business.

X.

Jon Hewitt’s latest drama is a confronting, hard-hitting erotic thriller set in Sydney’s vice ridden King’s Cross red light district. Shay (newcomer Hanna Mangan Lawrence) is a naïve 17-year old who arrives in Sydney from a small country town and quickly tries to earn a living as a street prostitute. She is taken under the wing of Holly (Viva Bianca, from tv series Spartacus, etc), a veteran high-class escort who wants to leave this world behind and start afresh. But when the pair witness a drug deal gone wrong and a brutal murder they find themselves on the run from Bennett (Stephen Phillips), a corrupt cop. Their desperate flight takes them on a frantic journey through seedy strip clubs and dingy back alleys. X is an unashamed and cliched genre piece, and while not particularly original, it still delivers some strong action sequences. There is enough casual nudity and brutal violence here to satisfy jaded palates. Hewitt has actually filmed on location in King’s Cross itself during the night, and Mark Pugh’s cinematography lends a sleazy authenticity to the drama. Hewitt is a dab hand with exploitation movies and pulp dramas, and his direction is full on. Cindy Clarkson’s rapid-style editing brings a kinetic energy to the material. X is familiar territory for Hewitt, whose films like Red Ball have also delved into a murky and violent world of corruption and murder. Hewitt has created a pair of strong female roles, and both Bianca and Lawrence deliver brave, physical performances.

OUTSIDE SATAN.

This new film from veteran French director Bruno Dumont (Hadewijch, etc) is a soporific, bleak, downbeat, cryptic, and dull drama. Essentially a two-handed, the film explores the dysfunctional and dependent relationship that develops between two loners in a small rural village in the north of France. David Dewaele plays the enigmatic man, known only as “the guy”, who hangs around the fringes of a small farm and goes for long walks in the dunes. Is he a serial killer? Is he a supernatural healer and miracle worker able to bring the dead back to life? Or is he some sort of combination of both? There are no easy answers here. Alexandra Lematre is the pathetically shy and lonely Elle, who hangs around with him. Dumont has filmed in typically languid, slow fashion, using lots of long takes and static close-ups. The film is heavily laden with religious allegory and symbolism, but much of it will elude viewers. Even the wind-swept location is fairly bleak and miserable. Dumont’s direction is cold and detached, and he keeps the audience at a distance. But the lack of any real action and minimal dialogue works against the movie, and Outside Satan (aka Hors Satan) will prove a frustrating and disappointing experience.

THE GUARD.

This thoroughly enjoyable comic crime caper is the debut feature film of John Michael McDonagh, the brother of Martin McDonagh, who gave us the savage black comic thriller In Bruges. The Guard takes a different tone, and plays the cops and smugglers story for laughs. The always reliable Brendan Gleeson plays Boyle, an unorthodox, foul-mouthed and deliciously politically incorrect policeman who shoots from the lip. But there is more to him than first meets the eye, and his slovenly demeanour hides a sharp policeman’s brain. While investigating the murder of a John Doe in his small village near Galway, Boyle is invited to attend a briefing for a task force hoping to capture a gang of drug smugglers operating along the coastline. He butts heads with Everett (Don Cheadle), the straight-laced and humourless by-the-book FBI agent brought in to advise the task force. The film explores the prickly relationship that develops between the pair, and reworks many of the familiar tropes of the odd couple/buddy cop movie. The dynamics of their pairing reminds audiences of In The Heat Of The Night, and the Lethal Weapon series. Gleeson has a lot of fun with his role here, and his wonderful performance provides the film with its focus. In the climactic scene in which he strides along a pier, both guns blazing, he resembles an Irish John Wayne, dispensing his own brand of justice. Cheadle (who is also credited as one of the executive producers) brings his solid presence to his slightly underdeveloped role as the FBI agent “who probably hasn’t enjoyed himself this much since he was burning those kiddies at Waco.” Mark Strong brings an air of menace to his turn as one of the drug smugglers. McDonagh’s direction is slick and efficient, and the violence is toned down with touches of black humour. The sharply written dialogue fairly crackles at times.

OKI’S MOVIE.

I have to admit that this year I have found the Korean films screening at MIFF to be very disappointing and bland. The least impressive of the lot so far is Oki’s Movie, a slight and uninvolving film from director Hong Sang-soo (Night And Day, Hahaha, etc). The film features many of the director’s trademarks – films about filmmakers, fumbling relationships, eccentric characters, differing perspectives. Oki’s Movie basically details a love triangle featuring film student Oki (Jeong Yu-mi), but the film unfolds in four chapters. While preparing for the debut of her student film, Oki has a romantic fling with both her professor (Moon Sung-keun) and a former film student Jingu (Lee Sun-kyun). Using shifting time frames and perspectives, Sang-soo’s film has a challenging structure that will bemuse and confound many. There is a semi-autobiographical touch to the material, and one sense that the character of Jingu is a fictitious counterpart for the director himself. The use of the traditional Pomp And Circumstance during the linking titles is the only stirring moment of the whole film.

END OF ANIMAL.

This is an enigmatic, surreal, unpleasant, decidedly low budget and minimalist post-apocalyptic blend of religious allegory, supernatural thriller and sci-fi from first time Korean director Jo Sung-hee. Heavily pregnant student Soon-young (Lee Min-ji) is travelling home in a taxi, when they pick up a mysterious stranger who seems to have detailed knowledge about their lives and intimate secrets. Suddenly, an unexplained catastrophe has wiped out all electronics and the taxi mysteriously breaks down. Soon-young finds herself stranded in a remote wilderness. Although the driver tells her to wait while he goes for help, she sets off on her own. A series of encounters with other strangers who she cannot trust lead her to some dangerous situations. The film seems to be exploring the concept of pre-destination versus free will. Sung-hee plays around with the concept of a guardian angel watching over us and protecting us. But he cleverly subverts this idea, as his guardian angel here may not be a force of good. This lifeless and boring mess is reminiscent of David Koepp’s The Trigger Effect, which explored what happened in society following the mysterious loss of power. End Of Animal is characterised by the deliberately elusive narrative, cryptic dialogue, and low-key effects. This is a difficult film to appreciate, although there will undoubtedly be many who will find something here to admire. End Of Animal is by far the worst film I have seen at MIFF this year!

BOXING GYM.

As with his previous documentary La Danse, which was set inside a prestigious Parisian ballet school, octogenarian filmmaker Frederick Wiseman (best known for his Titicut Follies) takes us inside another institution that relies on sweat, discipline, routine, and lots of practice. This time around though the setting is a neighbourhood boxing gym, established in a refurbished garage in a suburb of Austin, Texas. The gym is run by Richard Lord, a former pro boxer, who welcomes anybody into the facility and seems to take a personal interest in his customers. There is a sense of community and of belonging to the place, which is something of a melting pot. Faded posters adorn the walls. Parents bring in their babies while they train. There are some insights into the lives of those who regularly inhabit this gym, and we learn a little about their motivations and hopes. We see many of the clientele in action, sparring, jumping rope, stretching, crunching, hitting the speed bags, and playing with medicine balls. Boxing Gym is typical Wiseman and unfolds in his unique languid, cinema verite observational style, aided by John Davey’s fluid camerawork. There is no voice over narration, no talking heads interviews, and he does not impose himself on the material. However, there is more of a sense of energy here than in many of his previous films. Boxing Gym is fairly slight stuff, and is of limited appeal.  And with a brisk running time of 90 minutes, it is also his shortest film for some time.

THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD.

In the sophomore film from Joshua Marston (Maria, Full Of Grace, etc) an Albanian family is trapped by a blood feud. Marston brings an outsider’s perspective to this drama and turns a critical eye on the whole archaic concept of the blood feud. He has co-written the script with Albanian–born filmmaker Andamion Muratoja, who helped with the translations and research into the customs and traditions of that country. When his father and uncle are involved in the death of a neighbouring farmer in a dispute over land, Nik’s family is forced to stay at home upon threat of death. The father (Refet Abazi) is forced into exile. Nik’s sister Rubina (Sindi Lacej) is forced to take over their father’s bread delivery route. But 17 year old Nik (newcomer Tristan Halilaj) becomes bored with the tedium of being stuck indoors and unable to go to school or hang out with his friends. He is prepared to take some risks to gain his freedom, even if it puts his family in jeopardy. The Forgiveness Of Blood explores themes of family, loyalty, and the clash of cultures and traditions. Marston also examines the gulf that exists between the old ways and the younger generation that has embraced the electronic age and technology. The performances of the largely unknown cast are uniformly solid, with Halilaj excellent as the hot headed Nik. Shot on location in Albania, the film is further enhanced by Rob Hardy’s rich cinematography.

ROUTE IRISH.

A couple of years ago, Ken Loach withdrew his film Looking For Eric from MIFF in protest at the Israeli funding of the Festival, but this year he seems quite content to leave his latest film alone. Route Irish is more of a political thriller about murder, conspiracy, cover-ups, and revenge, although it is still suffused with Loach’s usual angry worldview and social consciousness. Written by Loach’s regular collaborator Paul Laverty, Route Irish takes aim at the private security contractors who are profiting from the war in Iraq, the “cowboys” whose behaviour is not regulated by military discipline or codes of conduct. Loach doesn’t pull his punches in examining the role played by private mercenaries in the ongoing and unpopular war. Like Paul Haggis’ In The Valley Of Elah this is a topical film that is critical of the war in Iraq and the murky political agendas that drive it. The title refers to that stretch of road in Iraq that runs from Baghdad airport to the allied “green zone”, and which is regarded as the most dangerous road in the world. When former SAS soldier Fergus (Mark Womack, a veteran of British television) learns of the death of his best friend Frankie (stand-up comic John Bishop) caused by an IED along that road, he refuses to accept the official version. Refusing to believe that it was a simple case of “being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Fergus sets out to uncover the truth. He believes that his friend’s death was a deliberate attempt to cover up a massacre of civilians by contractors. Cinematographer Chris Menges has filmed in Liverpool and Jordan, doubling for Iraq, which lends an authenticity to the material. The film is full of Loach’s usual signature touches – hand held camera, naturalistic approach, seemingly adlibbed dialogue and a scathing howl of outrage against injustice. As the central character Womack delivers an intense and angry performance, and he spends a lot of time shouting his sometimes incomprehensible dialogue. Route Irish is his most topical film for some time, and has the same sense of urgency as his earlier political thriller Hidden Agenda. While it may not be amongst Loach’s best films, Route Irish is still powerful stuff!

BUCK.

An excellent, engrossing, unexpectedly moving and thoroughly enjoyable documentary about Buck Brannaman, the real life horse whisperer who inspired both the best selling novel and film. Brannaman spends 40 weeks of the year travelling across the States teaching farmers and cowhands how to break in horses. Robert Redford hired Brannaman as an adviser and double on The Horse Whisperer, and Redford tells a couple of fascinating anecdotes of his experiences of working with him on the movie. There is the painful revelation of his troubled childhood, which has affected the way he treats his horses. At a young age he performed rope tricks with his brother, but at the same time he was being beaten by his abusive and alcoholic father. His life was changed when he was placed in the care of a loving foster family. Brannaman is a survivor, who comes across as a compassionate, patient, quiet spoken man whose philosophy is simple: treat horses the same way as you would treat people – with respect. As he puts it, he is not so much helping people with horse problems, but helping horses with people problems. This is an impressive and assured debut from former fashion designer Cindy Meehl, who spent a year following Brannaman across the US. It helps when your subject is as fascinating and charismatic as Brannaman! We are also introduced to his daughter Reata, who seems determined to follow in his footsteps. There is plenty of rich and gorgeous cinematography from Luke Geissbuhler and Guy Mossman that captures some wonderful vistas that form a majestic backdrop to this very human story. Meehl has caught lightning in a bottle with one sequence involving an untrained and dangerous stud mare. Notably though Brannaman’s brother or his other daughter do not appear in the film.

BULLHEAD.

This intense thriller from Belgian director Michael R Roskam is both unpleasant and ugly, and leaves a nasty aftertaste. A very masculine and brutal film, Bullhead is not for the faint hearted. Some vicious gangsters become involved with local farmers, and are using illegal steroids and hormones to beef up the meat supplies (pardon the pun!) But the murder of an undercover policeman further complicates matters. The Vanmarsenille farm becomes involved in the illegal scheme after the police bust one of the major suppliers. At first it seems like a chance to make some easy money, but the troubled Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts) is slowly drawn into the darker side of this underworld and its air of corruption and treacherous alliances. In dealing with this gang, Jacky crosses paths with Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), a gay police informant, who has links to his past. Ever since a childhood incident involving a local bully left him permanently damaged, Jacky has had to take daily injections of testosterone. But these have left him not only bulky and strong, but with a terrible temper and given over to fits of rage. Schoenaerts has a strong and intimidating physical presence as the central protagonist, and he always seems on the verge of exploding into violence. Schoenaerts apparently gained 60 pounds to play the aggressive and inarticulate Jacky, and his brooding, menacing performance grounds the film. First time director Roskam develops an uneven tone throughout the film, as there is also some offbeat humour involving a couple of hapless Flemish garage mechanics charged with destroying a getaway car. But at 129 minutes, the film is a bit of a grind, and will test the patience of many!

PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES.

How can old-fashioned print media survive and be competitive in the revolution of new technology and media like Twitter, Internet bloggers and Wikileaks? It seems like everyday the obituary columns of newspapers are full of reports of the death of major American newspapers, and the ability of The New York Times to survive in these difficult economic times has been a source of much speculation over the years. Advertising revenue has collapsed, and major newspapers have gone bankrupt across the country. These are some of the issues explored in this fascinating and eye-opening documentary from Andrew Rossi (who co-produced Jehane Noujaim’s Al Jazeera doco Control Room). Granted unprecedented access, Rossi and his film crew spent a year embedded in the offices of the venerable New York Times, observing the day to day operations of the newsroom, the editorial meetings, the retrenchments, and following a few journalists. One of the most colourful characters we meet is David Carr, a former crack addict, who is now a respected and outspoken media columnist for the paper. Rossi compares the Wikileaks site and its exposure of secret files with the paper’s own achievements in publishing the infamous Pentagon papers three decades earlier. But he also questions the future of investigative journalism in this age of quick and immediate on-line blogging that mainly passes on snippets of gossip and rumour without the basic fact checking and verification of sources of newspapers. He draws a parallel with the Watergate affair and how intrepid reporters from the Washington Post brought down a President. The film charts the changing face of journalism, but argues that there is still a place for print media in this electronic age. Page One is a fairly balanced view, as Rossi also looks at some of the recent scandals that have tarnished the Times’ reputation and damaged its credibility.

HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN.

This is easily my favourite title in the Festival this year. The title basically says all you need to know about this extra-violent take on the vigilante genre. Rutger Hauer plays the titular hobo, who jumps off a train and ends up in the lawless Hope Town, which has been rechristened “F–k Town”. The town is ruled over by the sadistic Drake (Brian Downey) and his two psychopathic sons, who brutally kill anyone who stands up to them. After witnessing one act of depravity too many, the hobo decides to wreak vengeance and clean up the streets – one shotgun blast at a time. But his actions spark an escalation in the violence, and things rapidly spiral out of control. The violence and gore is over the top, and at times the camera lens becomes splattered with blood and eviscerated body parts. Like Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, Hobo With A Shotgun actually began life as one of the fake trailers in the Grindhouse experience. Director Jason Eisener gives the low budget film the distinctive look and feel of a pulp B-grade feature from the 70’s. With its retro vibe, washed out technicolour palette, ludicrous yet laughably tough dialogue, tasteless effects, and exuberant performances the film harks back to the exploitation cinema and drive-in features of the 70’s. Eisener has an understanding of the tropes, and he directs the material with a frenetic energy, and the pace rarely lets up from the outset. Hauer is a regular in gritty B-grade material, and he does his familiar surly and nasty tough guy shtick well here, delivering his cheesy one-liners with a snarl. A treat for fans of exploitation cinema, Hobo With A Shotgun delivers on its simple premise.

THE LIVERPOOL GOALIE.

This absolutely charming and thoroughly entertaining coming of age tale from Norway explores such universal themes as friendship, honesty, family, puberty, bullying, confronting your fears and, of course, football. Jo (Ask van der Hagen) is a bright boy, but since the death of his father in an unfortunate accident he is very fearful. He would love to be on the soccer team, but his overprotective mother worries about injuries. He also is fond of Mari, the bright new girl in school, but cannot work up the courage to approach her. And he is also being bullied at school by the nasty Tom Erik, who forces him to do his homework, and is afraid to stand up for himself.  As Jo is confronted by decisions, he works through the various consequences in some wonderfully amusing flights of fancy. All of the boys are into collecting football cards with an almost obsessive passion, and the Holy Grail is a rare card featuring the goal keeper of English A League club Liverpool. With an insightful script and sympathetic direction from Arild Andresen, making his feature film debut, The Liverpool Goalie is a real winner. The performances of the children are natural and affecting, with young van der Hagen excellent as the frightened, mousy Jo.

TOOMELAH.

Ivan Sen (Beneath Clouds and Yellow Fella, etc) is probably our most important indigenous filmmaker, and there is something personal about his new film, which is set in Toomelah, the mission where he was born. Toomelah tells a loosely fictional story of Daniel, a troubled young boy who is bored with school and is hanging out with the wrong crowd. With an absent father, the only real male role model he has is the local drug dealer Linden (Christopher Edwards). Daniel gets caught up in the struggle between Linden and the violent Bruce (Dean Daley Jones), who has just returned to the town after a stint in prison. Sen finds a community in crisis, and while he explores a number of important issues about aboriginal communities, he doesn’t present any easy or comfortable answers. The film follows territory explored in other indigenous-themed dramas, like Samson And Delilah, Yolngu Boy, the recent Mad Bastards, etc, which offer an indictment of the treatment of aboriginal people. Sen doesn’t pull his punches in exploring the depressing life on the mission, and its cycle of despair, dysfunctional families and crime. Shot on a very low budget Sen brings a verite, documentary-like realism to the material with hand held camera and largely unscripted dialogue. The cinematography is striking and captures the natural beauty of the location. The cast comprises of non-professionals, drawn from within the community itself, and their lack of experience sometimes shows in the hesitant performances from some of the performers. Many in the cast are also related to each other, which brings another dimension to the material. However, young Daniel Connors is a natural and gives an impressive and earnest performance as the angry young boy trying to find his place in this remote community.

THE KID WITH A BIKE.

There are a lot of films screening in MIFF this year that seem to deal with children on journeys of self-discovery and learning to make their way through the difficult emotional terrain of adolescence. This new film from Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child, etc) is a deceptively simple yet emotionally involving and very human coming of age story, and it delivers some strong moral messages and explores universal themes. Eleven-year old Cyril (played by Thomas Doret) has been sent by his father to live foster care. When dad leaves home without telling Cyril, he sets out to find him, which sets in place a moving journey of discovery. Cyril is taken in by local hairdresser Samantha (Cecile de France), but she struggles to cope with his angry nature. The film explores the volatile relationship that develops between the angry and troubled Cyril and Samantha, who becomes a surrogate mother. Young Doret is sensational in his role, and delivers a wonderfully mature performance as the damaged but persistent Cyril, who brings plenty of emotional baggage with him. He is looking for an adult he can trust, which leads to some misjudgments. As Cyril rides aimlessly around the estate on his bicycle he is befriended by Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a local thug, who drags the naïve boy into some criminal activity. The Dardenne brothers direct the material in non-judgemental and sympathetic fashion. They effectively use fluid long shots to follow Cyril’s journey, which draws the audience into this beautifully observed world. Interestingly, Jérémie Renier, who appeared in the Dardenne’s 2005 drama The Child, plays Cyril’s father here.

FIRE IN BABYLON.

In the late 60’s, the West Indies cricket team was regarded as something of a joke, and their pathetic on field performances were greeted with the derogatory term “Calypso Cricket.” They also had to deal with prejudice and racist taunts on the sporting field. The team reached a low point in the 1975 Test tour of Australia when they were comprehensively thrashed. Determined to turn their image around captain Clive Lloyd began to rebuild the team. By the end of the 70’s the West Indies had become virtually invincible, and for fifteen years they dominated the sport like no other team, remaining unbeaten in Test matches during that period. Fire In Babylon is a real story of the triumph of an underdog against the odds. It places the rise of the West Indies team against a broader social, cultural and political background – South Africa was in the grip of the brutal apartheid regime, England suffered race riots, and the Caribbean itself was scarred by civil unrest.  The documentary looks at the civil rights movement, the country’s drive to seek independence and shake of its colonial roots, the move towards freedom, unity, and pride, and how the achievements of the cricket team on the field reflected this turbulent period of social change. The film also looks at the development of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket and how it forever changed the face of cricket. Writer/director Stevan Riley (Blue Blood, etc) obviously has a passion for sports-based documentaries. Here he draws upon a wealth of deftly edited archival material; and there is plenty of cricket action, especially in the marvellous footage of their fast bowlers besieging the opposition batsmen. There are also interviews with a number of famous figures including Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd and fast bowler Michael Harding, who talk candidly about the resurgence of the West Indies team. And there is a reggae-flavoured soundtrack too! Even if you do not particularly like cricket, Fire In Babylon is a fascinating, revealing and accessible documentary.

TOMBOY.

Les garcons ne crient pas? This winning and humourous coming of age comedy is a Gallic variation on Boys Don’t Cry, but this is a far more playful, audience friendly and enjoyable film that looks at the innocence of childhood and sexual identity. The film doesn’t delve into the same dark and doom laden waters as Kimberley Pierce’s controversial Oscar winning drama. Ten year old Laure (a nice performance from Zoe Heran) prefers to dress like a boy and act like one. Her father is busy at work and her heavily pregnant mother is too distracted to notice. When her family moves to a new home in a housing estate, Laure ventures outside to play and meets Lisa (Jeanne Disson). She introduces herself as Mikael, and a friendship develops between the pair. As Mikael, Laure is soon welcomed into a local group of boys who play soccer and hang around the woods. But when the subterfuge is exposed, Laure learns some painful lessons in honesty, life and responsibility. Celine Sciamma directs the material with compassion and a sly sense of humour. With a relatively brief running time Tomboy never drags on or becomes bogged down with too many subplots and irrelevant distractions. Sciamma’s previous film Water Lilies also dealt with issues of childhood sexuality and acceptance. The performances of the youthful cast are natural and unaffected. In a challenging and difficult role, Heran delivers a superb performance that captures her emotional turmoil and confusion. She has a suitably androgynous appearance that is perfect for her role as a lonely and confused child trying to find her place. But Malonn Levana is a real cutie, and effortlessly steals scenes as Laure’s precocious younger sister Jeanne. The relationship and rapport between the pair adds an extra dimension to this marvellous film. Sophie Cattani is also strong as Laure’s mother. Tomboy is a modest film, but nonetheless an engrossing one.

MY WEDDING AND OTHER SECRETS.

A cross-cultural Romeo And Juliet, the charming, quirky and very enjoyable New Zealand romantic comedy My Wedding And Other Secrets is based on the filmmaker’s own story. While still a student at university, Roseanne Liang, a New Zealand girl of Chinese descent, married her Caucasian boyfriend. But she was forced to keep the marriage a secret from her strict parents because of their traditional beliefs and attitude towards interracial relationships. This subterfuge put additional pressure on both her and her partner. In 2005, Liang made Bananas In A Nutshell, a 50-minute documentary that explored this secret marriage and its ramifications. She has now turned that autobiographical film into a full-length feature film that dramatises her story and it is full of self-referential asides. The film deals with some universal themes like family, trust, love, relationships, the lot of immigrants adjusting to their new country, culture and tradition, and it has broad appeal. Liang’s fictional counterpart here is Emily Chu (played by Michelle Ang), a perky but neurotic over achiever who is the youngest of three sisters. Ang (from tv series Neighbours and Outrageous Fortune, etc) brings an endearingly awkward quality to her performance, but she also manages to suggest the guilt and complex emotional journey of her character. Matt Whelan (from the offbeat comedy Eagle Vs Shark, etc) is also solid as James her boyfriend/husband, who disagrees with her hypocrisy. And veteran Chinese actors Pei-pei Cheng and Kenneth Tsang bring gravitas to their roles as her parents, who prove to be far more understanding. The film’s first screening at MIFF was well received, and it’s to be hoped that a local distributor will pick up My Wedding And Other Secrets, as it deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

TERRI.

This warm, quirky and yet oddly endearing drama is another low-budget independent American coming of age tale that details the hardships of life in a small town high school and the uncomfortable teenage wasteland of puberty. Terri (Jason Wysocki) is a morbidly obese, socially awkward and shy teenager who is a misfit at school. He lives with his uncle (The Office’s Creed Bratton) who is suffering from early onset of dementia. Terri is always late to school and often turns up in his pyjamas. But when the school principal Mr Fitzgerald (John C Reilly) takes an interest in him, Terri’s lonely and miserable life undergoes something of a change. When he reluctantly opens up he finds a couple of new friends in the beautiful but troubled Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) and the weird and troubled Chad (Bridger Zadina), who is another of Fitzgerald’s special “projects”. The film has a painful ring of truth to it, and director Azazel Jacobs (whose previous films have explored similar uncomfortable territory) maintains a low key and unsentimental approach to the material. Co-written by Jacobs and Patrick Dewitt Terri also has a semi-autobiographical feel to it, and should resonate strongly with a certain audience. The performances of the young, unknown cast are solid. In particular, newcomer Wysocki is outstanding, and brings an honesty, vulnerability and sensitivity to his performance. Reilly also brings some welcome touches of humour to his role as the clueless but well meaning principal who is trying to prevent certain kids from falling through the cracks in a system that can’t really cope with the disengaged and disconnected. The scenes that the always reliable Reilly and Wysocki share are amongst the best in the film.

INTO ETERNITY.

This rather dull, ponderous and pedestrian documentary from Danish conceptual artist Michael Madsen looks at Onkalo, a massive nuclear waste storage facility being built 500 metres underground in a remote area of Finland. It will comprise of over three miles of tunnels. As nuclear waste needs to be stored somewhere safe for the next 100,000 years, the facility needs to be secure and remain uncompromised by future generations. It is expected that it will be permanently sealed off sometime in the 22nd century. Neither sending it into space or burying it deep under the oceans practical solutions to the problem of nuclear waste. Storage facilities above ground are temporary at best, as the Earth is unstable. Wars, earthquakes, economic depressions, greenhouse effects will have an impact over the centuries. Despite the important subject matter, the ominous warnings sounded and the numerous questions raised, Madsen (who also made the short documentary To Damascus, etc) seems to lack the same sense of urgency as the recent nuclear doco Countdown To Zero. In fact, Masden seems to be addressing his film to future generations, and this gives the material a quasi-science-fiction feel. There are lots of talking head interviews with government officials, scientists, doctors, theologians and specialists in the field of nuclear waste management, but these are fairly dull. The film has been shot on high definition video, and the images are quite crisp and clear, especially when Masden takes his camera deep inside the cavernous site itself. It’s a pity that the film itself is rather prosaic, occasionally repetitive, visually unexciting and unimaginative in structure. Also there is a lack of technical information on the details of the construction of this massive project, which would have provided some additional context. Into Eternity would have been better served as a tightly constructed 50 minute documentary which would have been more effective.

MICHAEL.

From Austria comes this disturbing and disconcerting tale seemingly inspired by the story of Natascha Kampusch, the girl who escaped from the house where she was kept a prisoner. Michael (Michael Fuith) is a mild-mannered and unassuming insurance clerk. He follows a routine that seems quite normal and rather boring. But he is also a paedophile, and he has a ten-year-old boy (David Rauchberger) locked in a specially created soundproofed room constructed in the basement of his house. Michael’s molestation of the boy is implied, but is still quite powerful. Despite the challenging subject matter, Markus Schleinzer, a former casting director and collaborator of Michael Haneke, making his feature film debut here, handles the material with great restraint and lack of sensationalism. It would be interesting to see what his mentor Haneke would have done with similar material. The film unfolds in an episodic narrative that is reminiscent of Haneke’s style. Like Haneke, Schleinzer explores the banality of evil, and this makes for uncomfortable viewing at times. He also uses lots of static, long shots to heighten the tension. Michael is a well-constructed film, but it is not an easy one to sit through.

THE STOKER.

An intriguing but ultimately slight drama about murder and revenge from Russian director Aleksey Balabanov (Morphia, etc). Ivan Skriabin (Mikhail Skryabin) is a former soldier and decorated war hero, and veteran of the campaign in Afghanistan. After suffering concussion following a bomb blast, he now ekes out an existence by working as a stoker, keeping the massive furnaces burning in a sprawling industrial complex. He is also writing a novel on a battered old typewriter. But local gangsters, working for a man known as Sergeant, also occasionally use the furnaces to dispose of bodies. Skriabin is a passive witness to their activities, until his own daughter Sasha becomes a victim and he seeks revenge on her killers. Balabanov gives us a glimpse into a darker underbelly of a contemporary Moscow, a venal and corrupt city where wealthy gangsters now wield power and where old soldiers are yesterday’s heroes. The performances from the largely unknown cast are quite good, and theatre veteran Skryabin brings a touching and suitably haunted edge to his performance. Balabanov’s script is sparse and peppered with touches of wry humour, and his signature violence is again unexpected and shocking. Balabanov’s regular cinematographer Aleksandr Simonov captures some wonderful images of the snow covered city scape, while DiDiuLia’s jaunty music score offers a counterpoint to the violence that follows.

KNUCKLE.

A real life Irish Fight Club? This brutally honest, raw and disturbing documentary uncovers a startling story of a family feud that follows a rather bizarre course. For several decades, the travelling Quinn McDonagh family has been fighting with their cousins the Joyces, in an ongoing feud that makes the Hatfield McCoy feud seem like a minor family spat. Although the origins seem hazy now, each generation seemingly is determined to keep the feud going. Every couple of years male members of these rival clans meet in some backroad or remote farm yard to try and resolve their differences through bouts of bare knuckle fights. Essentially it’s brothers fighting cousins, and some of these fights last for barely a few brutal minutes. Not only is family honour and masculine pride at stake, but there is also a substantial monetary prize for the winner. There are also rules to be observed, which are enforced by a couple of neutral referees. Documentary filmmaker Ian Palmer stumbled upon this fascinating story when he was invited to film a wedding by James Quinn McDonagh, the formidable leader of his clan. Even though he is now past his prime, James has never lost a bout. Despite several attempts at retiring, he is lured back into the game by the taunts from rivals. Palmer spent 12 years following the Quinn McDonagh family and filming the various fights. But somewhere along the line, Palmer loses his objectivity as he becomes an integral part of the story and is openly welcomed into the family. Palmer has managed to gain the trust of both families, and this enables us to get contrasting viewpoints over the whole feud and the ongoing rivalry. In some ways Palmer himself is complicit in perpetuating these fights, which he reluctantly acknowledges. His confronting and raw footage of a series of bloody fights illustrates the insanity and futility of it all, but he seems unable to make sense of it or stop it. However, it is clear that if the women in the family have any say in the matter, they will try to prevent their children from following in the family tradition.

BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD.

Was Bobby Fischer the greatest chess player who ever lived? Probably, but as this HBO-produced documentary reveals there was also a darker side to his genius. Drawing upon a wealth of fascinating archival footage, veteran documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus (Girlhood, The Execution Of Wanda Jean, etc) draws a complex portrait of the man, depicting him as stubborn, arrogant, obsessive and a temperamental but typically flawed genius who crumpled under enormous pressure. The portrait of Fischer is rounded out through a series of extensive and candid interviews with colleagues and those who knew him best. There is even an interview with a sad, pathetic and paranoid Fischer himself, filmed a couple of years before his death. Garbus traces his life from his first public appearances as a self-taught child prodigy, becoming US chess champion at the age of 15 and world champion in 1972, to his lonely death in Iceland in 2008 where the disgraced former champion was living in exile. The film spends a lot of time examining his challenge against Russian world champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, arguably the most famous chess match in history, looking at the psychological ploys Fischer used to rattle his opponent. The film also looks at the impact his victory had for the profile of chess in general, but the far more fascinating context of the Cold War paranoia against which the match was played is skimmed over. Following his victory Fischer’s fragile mental state declined and he failed to deal with the public adulation that followed, and Garbus examines his tragic fall. The film unfolds in a somewhat conventional fashion, but it still makes for compelling viewing.

13 ASSASSINS.

The Dirty Baker’s Dozen? Prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike (Audition, etc) leaves behind his preferred milieu of gangster thrillers and horror movies to venture confidently into Kurosawa territory with this sword and samurai action film, set in mid-19th century feudal Japan. 13 Assassins is a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 black and white samurai movie of the same name, but infused with Miike’s distinctive brand of graphic violence and carnage. A band of thirteen mercenary warriors and samurai set off on a suicide mission to kill the sadistic and bloodthirsty Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), whose actions threaten to undo the years of peace that Japan has enjoyed. Cue plenty of swordplay, bloody action, mayhem, decapitations, and a body count that would make the likes of Tarantino envious. The film is slow to start as it spends a bit of time delving into the political machinations of Japan under the rule of the shogun. But once the film gets down to action it is full on as Naritsugu’s army is lured into a booby-trapped village of Ochia. The climactic battle sequence is epic in scale, and occupies much of the film’s generous running time. Miike directs these exhilarating scenes with gusto, and revels in the carnage. His action scenes make films like 300, with its CGI armies, pale by comparison. Like Peckinpah’s classic The Wild Bunch, which echoed the death of the old west, so too does 13 Assassins reflect the death of the samurai code and way of life in Japan. Characterisation is fairly slim, especially given so many characters, and Miike doesn’t give us enough detail about many of the characters to allow us the engage fully with them or empathise with their fate. Veteran Japanese actor Koji Yakusho (Babel, Memoirs Of A Geisha, etc), brings a sense of gravitas to his role as Shinzaemon, the veteran and principled samurai leading the gang of mercenaries. 13 Assassins is a formulaic film for sure, but it also succeeds as a wonderful homage to the samurai cinema of yesteryear and classics like The Seven Samurai.

POST MORTEM.

Set in Chile in 1973, during the final days of Allende’s brutal dictatorship, Post Mortem is a rather bleak, downbeat and dreary drama. Chilean director Pablo Larrain (Tony Manero, etc) obviously is drawn towards sad, lonely obsessive protagonists with a psychotic streak. Victor (played by Marcelo Alonso, who also appeared in Tony Manero) is a civil servant who works in Santiago’s morgue, typing out details of autopsies. He becomes obsessed with Nancy (Antonia Zegers), a beautiful neighbour who also works as a dancer in a local burlesque hall. During the brutal chaos of the coup, Nancy disappears. In a series of extended flashbacks we learn of her fate. Alonso’s minimalist and coldly detached performance brings a suitably creepy edge to his impassive Victor. The film shares a similar visual style to Tony Manero, and those who appreciated that film may also enjoy this drama and its sharply political edge. The overt violence is kept to a minimum, but Larrain still manages to convey the horrors of Pinochet’s bloody coup. Larrain loves his long takes, especially effective during the climax, but some linger far too long. Larrain’s regular cinematographer Sergio Armstrong has shot the film in largely washed-out, brownish hues which adds to the oppressive atmosphere.

POLISSE.

This French drama is set inside the Child Protection Unit of the Paris police. This is the unit that deals with crimes involving children and crimes against children, and some of the material here is supposedly based on actual cases. Actress, co-writer and director Maitwenn Le Besco has obviously thoroughly researched the background of the Unit, and she brings a documentary-like realism to the material through the use of hand held cameras, rapid cutting between scenes, overlapping story lines, and natural performances from an ensemble cast. There are some strong and unsettling moments interspersed throughout the film. Some of the characters are more fully developed than others, and this creates an uneven balance. A photojournalist (played by the director herself) is assigned to record the activities of the unit, and she becomes embedded and gets swept up in some of their activities. The members of the specialist unit seek catharsis for their stress through drink, casual sex, and inappropriate black humour. It is often demanding and draining work, as they often witness some of the worst depravations in society, and the horrors that they deal with on a daily basis take their toll, both personally and professionally. With its mix of black humour, police procedural, tired melodrama and action, Polisse sometimes comes across like the pilot episode for a tv series about the CPU, sort of like a frenetic cross between The Wire and Law & Order: SVU.

THE INNKEEPERS.

The Yankee Pedlar is a haunted hotel in Connecticut that is going out of business. During its last weekend of operations a young couple with an interest in psychic phenomena are doing desk duty while trying to find evidence of ghosts within the sprawling hotel. Claire (Sara Paxton, from The Last House On the Left, etc) is a drifter waiting to move on to the next town, while Luke (Pat Healy) is establishing a website that supposedly documents the hotel’s spooky history. The pair take shifts wandering the century-old hotel with old-fashioned equipment hoping to record EVP (Electronic Ghost Phenomenon). The handful of guests includes Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis, from Top Gun, etc), a faded tv star with an interest in psychic events, and an enigmatic old man (George Riddle). Writer/director Ti West (The House Of The Devil, The Roost, etc) is a young filmmaker who appreciates and understands the tropes of the horror genre, and he uses them effectively here. He understands the importance of character, setting and atmosphere – it’s not just psycho/stalker/serial killers, virgins and buckets of gore and blood. This is a slow burning horror thriller with plenty of laughs, and West skilfully spends some time introducing us to the main characters before unleashing a barrage of spooky happenings in the final reel. There are also effective contributions from his regular collaborators – Graham Reznick, whose haunting sound design accentuates every creak and groan; Eliot Rockett’s eerie cinematography, which uses shadow and light effectively; and Jeff Grace’s atmospheric score. The Innkeepers has its moments, but there is a familiarity to much of the film. The performances are also solid, with Paxton and Healy creating a credible vibe and rapport. As far as haunted hotels go, The Innkeepers is, unfortunately, not in the same league as Kubrick’s classic The Shining!

FINISTERRAE.

The debut film from Spanish artist Sergio Caballero, Finisterrae is a surreal, decidedly offbeat and virtually incomprehensible combination road movie and ghost story that will remind many of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s equally beguiling The Holy Mountain. Full of bizarre flights of fancy, imagination and enigmatic staging, this is a film that will confound many. Basically, the simple, almost non-existent plot concerns two Russian ghosts wandering through the forests outside Santiago hoping to be reborn. They are tired of living in limbo, and make a pilgrimage through northern Spain to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, hoping to have their wishes granted. One wants to be reborn as a reindeer! They finish their journey overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Finisterre.  Caballero draws upon his background as the co-organiser of Barcelona’s experimental music festival Sonar in creating the overall distinctive look and feel for the film. The film has been shot on high-definition digital video, allowing Caballero and his cinematographer Eduard Grau to create some strikingly beautiful visuals, and they also use the landscapes well. But the film features some of the cheapest and most unconvincing effects this side of an Ed Wood movie – for example, the ghosts are played by two actors in white sheets. The unnamed pair of ghosts are played by Pau Nubiola and Santí Serra; but are voiced by Russian actors Pavel Lukiyanov and Yuri Mykhaylychenko. Other effects include puffs of smoke and an artificial horse. The two ghosts spend a lot of time talking, but much of the dialogue is surreal and droll, and little of it means much. Even the end credits are narrated in a dry voiceover. This film will certainly polarise audiences, and it has had the most walkouts of any film I have seen at MIFF so far this year!

LIFE IN A DAY.

Produced under the auspices of Ridley and Tony Scott, Life In A Day is a massive and ambitious undertaking that takes advantage of the growth of new technology and access to multi-media that makes everybody a budding Spielberg. In 2010, Oscar winning documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (One Day In September, etc) asked people to film their lives during one 24-hour period and upload their footage onto YouTube. Then Macdonald and his co-editor Joe Walker faced the daunting task of editing some 4,500 hours of film from 192 countries down into this cohesive 90-minute glimpse into life from around the world. Life In A Day acts as a time capsule and a remarkable snapshot of what life was like on July 24, 2010. The random footage is loosely linked by a series of questions that the various filmmakers had to respond to – “What do you fear? What do you love?” etc – which provides a thematic structure. The film gives us insights into cultures, traditions, love, sex, death, politics, religion, our hopes and fears, and the daily routine of a diverse range of people. Some of the footage is incredibly personal, while other snippets are humourous, quirky, and often visually spectacular. Given the origins of the footage, the images are surprisingly crisp and clear, and often quite beautiful. Harry Gregson- Williams’s string-heavy musical score provides an emotionally satisfying background to the superbly edited montage of images.

INTIMATE GRAMMAR.

Based on the book by David Grossman, Intimate Grammar is a poignant and downbeat coming of age tale from Israel, set in the years leading up to the Six-Day War. The film follows the painful experiences of young Aharon, a precociously intelligent and sensitive 10-year old who is smaller in size than other boys his age. His mother (Orly Silbersatz) is a bitter and domineering woman, and his sad sack father Moshe (Yehuda Almagor) feels emasculated. Aharon watches their crumbling marriage but feels helpless to do anything to salvage the situation. Meanwhile, Aharon feels the pangs of first love, and learns about betrayal and the limits of friendship when he competes with his best friend for the affection of a fellow student at school. The film is packed with incident, some amusing and some quite touching. Writer/director Nir Bergman (who wrote for tv series In Treatment, etc) seems intent on cramming most of the book into the film, and some plot elements remain underdeveloped. However, he maintains a leisurely pace throughout that slowly draws the audience into Aharon’s sad and dysfunctional world. Newcomer Roee Elsberg gives a wonderful and charismatic performance as the young Aharon who grows increasingly anxious as he watches the world pass him by, and he provides a strong focal point. The film draws heavily upon Jewish customs and humour, and some of its more specific references may be lost on casual audiences.

CLIENT 9 – THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER.

A fascinating study of politics, power, sex, hubris, and conspiracy, this incisive and well-researched documentary offers a look at the rise and fall of New York Governor and potential future President Eliot Spitzer, who was brought down by a sex scandal. Spitzer, who featured prominently in Inside Job, the recent documentary about the global financial crisis, was a crusading District Attorney, known as “The Sheriff of Wall Street,” who took on the fiscal mismanagement and corruption of New York’s power brokers and big business leaders. But in doing so he created a number of powerful enemies who were keen to bring him down. They got their chance when his name was linked to a prostitute working for the high-end Emperor’s Club escort service. But as this movie asks, was there more to the story? Veteran Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, etc) is unafraid to tackle controversial subject matter. Here he captures some bald faced lies and prevarications here, as well as exposing a massive government-led investigation and raising some serious questions about the behind the scenes manipulation by powerful figures. Gibney captures a contrite Spitzer in an intimate, if hardly revealing, interview that probes the reasons behind his spectacular fall from grace. There are also fascinating interviews with some of Spitzer’s most bitter enemies, including ex-AIG CEO Hank Greenberg and Ken Langone, the former head of the New York Stock Exchange, who seem to revel in his downfall. Gibney also interviews many of those who worked for the escort agency in question, to uncover more inconsistencies. Spitzer comes across as a complex but flawed character, who refuses to spread the blame for his indiscretion, despite Gibney’s pointed questioning and convincing conspiracy theories.

THREE.

Tom Tykwer’s new film is a contemporary adult drama about the unconventional and complicated relationship that develops between three fortysomething professionals in Berlin – think John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, and you’ll get the drift. Tykwer is best known for the exciting, kinetically paced, and visually stimulating Run Lola Run, and again he uses visual tricks to propel the story. He uses split screen effects to introduce us to the central characters and their busy lives, and then again later to suggest the passage of time. This rather uninteresting and bland domestic drama deals with themes of love, lust, deception and betrayal. It unfolds in a surprisingly conventional fashion, and Tykwer’s direction is deliberately paced. It’s a pity that the screening was beset with some technical issues. The film print hadn’t arrived and MIFF screened a digital DVD screener, which was emblazoned with the film company logo and every fifteen minutes or so the words “Promotional Material Only” flashed boldly across the screen. But worse, the digital print broke down and replayed different scenes on four occasions. By the end I had lost patience, lost interest, and had lost the plot. Others voted with their feet!

TEARS OF GAZA.

Tears Of Gaza is a powerful and moving documentary with a potent antiwar message as it focuses on the 22 days of Israeli bomb attacks on the Gaza Strip in 2008/2009. Emotionally the film goes straight for the jugular with lots of close up shots of broken, bleeding and dead children and lots of grieving, wailing and anguished parents. Norwegian actress turned film director Vibeke Lokkeberg tells the story from the perspective of three young children whose families perished in the attacks. There is lots of raw footage and hand held camera work here as audiences are taken into the heart of the damaged buildings and streetscapes. This is histrionic stuff and a decidedly one-sided look at the ongoing conflict in the area, and the producers obviously have their own agenda to push. Nonetheless it is still quite moving. Lisa Gerrard’s haunting score also adds to the film’s impact.

LE HAVRE.

The new film from idiosyncratic Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki has been a highlight of the Festival so far. This is Kaurismaki’s second French language film. Set in the port town of Le Havre, the story centres around Marcel (Andre Wilms), a shoe-shine man whose life is transformed when he helps a young African boy, an illegal immigrant who is on the run from the authorities. The boy just wants to get to England and see his mother. In broad terms, the plot shares a surface similarity with the wonderful French drama Welcome as it also tackles the French policy on illegal immigrants and refugees. Here Kaurismaki plays the material more for laughs, with the drama tempered by some wonderful touches of humour. His trademark dead pan style and dry delivery works well and accentuates the absurd humour. Jean-Pierre Darroussin is also marvellous as Monet, the officious policeman who is doggedly pursuing the runaway.  Beautifully shot and acted by a pitch perfect cast, Le Havre is a delight.

MELANCHOLIA.

Melancholia is the latest film from eccentric Danish director Lars Von Trier, but thankfully it is nowhere near as nasty, confrontational and misanthropic as his previous film Antichrist, which screened at MIFF last year. This is something of a hybrid film as it comes in two parts that have distinctly different moods even though they have the same characters. The film charts the troubled relationship between two sisters. Part one details the dysfunctional wedding party for Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her husband, which is beleaguered by her depression and mood swings. This is typical von Trier, shot with hand held cameras that can be nausea inducing, and shot in natural light that gives the bleak material a warm glow. It also has a great cast that includes Charlotte Gainsbourg, as her sister Claire, John Hurt, Keifer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, and von Trier regulars Stellan Skarsgaard and Udo Kier. The second part is von Trier’s vision of the end of the world, as a huge planet known as Melancholia is on an orbit towards the Earth. Scientists have predicted that it may even collide with our planet, spelling destruction for mankind. This segment has been filmed with a suitably cold bluish tinge. The name of the planet ironically hints at the melancholy state and depression that grips Justine. Although Dunst won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance here, it is Gainsbourg who gets the more emotionally complex and demanding role. Von Trier obviously loves to put his female characters through an emotional wringer, and Melancholia is full of disturbing psychological insights into the central characters. With its marriage of music and striking images, Melancholia is a haunting piece of cinema, and probably von Trier’s most personal film to date. But the film may prove divisive, with fans of von Trier relishing this dark vision of a world of emptiness.

SENNA.

This is a thoughtful and carefully constructed documentary about Ayrton Senna, the three time world champion Brazilian Formula 1 driver who died in a crash at Imola during the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. Making extensive use of archival footage director Asif Kapadia (Far North, The Return, etc) charts Senna’s spectacular career over the course of a decade. Kapadia’s extensive research into Senna’s life saw him sift through some fifteen thousand hours of archival footage, television coverage, interviews, and home videos. He eschews traditional narration, and lets the footage, and a few candid interviews, tell the story. As a teenager, Senna raced go-karts, which he described as a pure form of racing – “there wasn’t any politics, no money involved either, so it was real racing.” Kapadia effectively captures the sights, sounds and smells of the motor racing circuit. There are even some amazing point of view shots that place in the driver’s seat as Senna’s car races around the track. Kapadia also manages to inject an element of tension into the material during the lead up to the fatal accident that changed Formula 1 racing forever. This is not always a flattering portrait of Senna, who occasionally comes across as arrogant and driven to succeed. We see how he became disillusioned at the sport as it embraced technology ahead of the raw skill of the driver, and how he butted heads with the administration of the sport. The film also looks at his intense rivalry with McLaren teammate Alain Prost, who is painted as the villain of the piece, and the backroom politics and manoeuvring that denied him the World Championship in 1988. Senna is a fascinating documentary that will appeal to a broader audience than just the revheads.

JANE EYRE.

This is the umpteenth version of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel of a plain, obscure and poor orphan girl who lands a job as a governess and eventually captures the heart of her mysterious employer. This 22nd version of the timeless Gothic romance is a visually sumptuous and handsomely mounted production, but it is also quite bland and dull. Having previously played Alice in Tim Burton’s visually bold version of Alice In Wonderland, Australian actress Mia Wasikowska seems to be the current go to girl for playing virginal heroines of English literature. And she delivers a nicely nuanced performance in a role that has previously been played by the likes of Joan Fontaine, Charlotte Gainsbourg and the late Susannah York. Michael Fassbender (from the recent X-Men First Class, etc) makes for a handsome Mr Rochester, but his performance is fairly perfunctory. There is a lack of passion and fire between the two leads, which also holds the film back. Judi Dench brings her usual class to her performance as Mrs Fairfax, the kindly housekeeper. Moira Buffini’s screenplay is surprisingly atmospheric and literate, and has pared the novel back to the essentials. Technical contributions are also excellent, from Adriano Goldman’s gorgeous cinematography, to Will Hughes-Jones’ stunning production design and Michael O’Connor’s costumes. Director Cary Fukunaga (the excellent Mexican drama Sin Nombre, etc) brings a foreboding atmosphere to Rochester’s imposing, brooding home.

MEDIANERAS.

The romantic drama Medianeras (aka Sidewalls) is the debut feature from writer/director Gustavo Tarreto, who has made a lot of short films in his native Argentina. Medianeras is based on his own award winning 2005 short film, and tells the story of Martin and Mariana, two people living in separate apartments within the same block in Buenos Aires. They are unaware of each other’s presence, even though they occasionally cross paths during their busy days. But it takes a chance connection to bring them together. The film superbly captures that sense of isolation and loneliness of living in a thriving metropolis. It also explores those random connections that can change a person‘s life. While it starts slowly with a dry lecture on architecture and the role it plays in shaping the rhythm and life of a city, Medianeras eventually develops a nice rhythm. The film has been evocatively shot by cinematographer Leandro Martinez, who superbly captures the cityscapes, and makes them a character in the film. The central cast, featuring Pilar Lopez de Ayala and Javier Drolas, is also attractive. However, this slow paced drama is a little frustrating at times, and lacks any sort of grand cinematic moments.

NORWEGIAN WOOD.

Taking its title from the Beatles song of the same name, Norwegian Wood is a visually beautiful tale of love, longing, loss of innocence, sexuality and madness from award winning French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung (Cyclo, Scent Of The Green Papaya, etc). Based on the widely acclaimed best selling novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood is set in Japan in 1967, a turbulent time when student revolts were challenging the fabric of society. The rest of the world was undergoing change and the sexual revolution was in full swing. But Japan had a different moral code and attitude towards sex, which leads to tragedy here.  Upon hearing the song Norwegian Wood, Toru (Kenichi Matsuyama) reflects back on his friendship with his best friend Kizuki (Kengo Kora) and Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi, from Babel, etc). But after Kizuki committed suicide over his failed relationship with Naoko, the nature of their friendship changed. This beautifully photographed but melancholy film traces the troubled relationship between Toru and the psychologically damaged Naoko who spends a lot of time in rehab. It also follows Toru’s painful coming of age story and the love triangle that develops between himself, Naoko and the beautiful Midori (model Kiko Mizuhara, making her film debut). This is a superficial treatment of the source novel, which many have considered unfilmable. Mark Lee Bin Ping’s cinematography is exquisite and matches Hung’s sublime, poetic vision, and the film has a surface beauty that is hard to ignore. The film is erotic without being explicit, but it is also slow paced, down beat, introspective, and ultimately seems overlong. An understanding of Japanese culture and social mores is probably also useful in fully appreciating the film.

THE EYE OF THE STORM.


This visually rich and literate adaptation of Patrick White’s novel marks Fred Schepisi’s first Australian film since Evil Angels, over 20 years ago. White’s novel was an exploration of class issues in Australian society in the early 70’s, but much of it still seems relevant today. This is the first film adaptation of one of White’s novels, and Judy Morris’s clever, wonderfully nuanced and literate script does his prose justice. Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling, in fine form) is the imperious, demanding and ailing matriarch of a dysfunctional Sydney family. Her two children (Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis) fled as far away from home as soon as they were able, and have rarely bothered to come home. Basil (Rush) is the bombastic, narcissistic actor who has carved out a career for himself on the English stage, while Dorothy (Davis) has married into a wealthy European family. When Elizabeth is dying her two children return home, not to cheer her up but rather to pick over their inheritance. The Eye Of The Storm is a delicious black comedy about complex family relationships and the fine line between love and hate. There is some great dialogue and biting social observations. Schepisi beautifully directs the material, and this is his best film for quite some time. There are solid performances from the great cast of Australian actors (including Colin Friels, Helen Morse and Robyn Nevin) who flesh out even the smaller roles. Technical contributions are also superb, especially Ian Baker’s gorgeous and rich cinematography and Melinda Doring’s production design.

RED DOG.

Kriv Stenders’ new film is a charming, broadly appealing and incredibly moving family friendly film. Based on Louis de Bernieres’ book, Red Dog tells the story of a stray dog that brought together a disparate community in the remote mining region of Western Australia. The film is based on a true story, although one suspects that a few liberties have been taken for dramatic purposes. American import Josh Lucas plays John, a bus driver who befriends Red Dog, while Rachael Taylor is also quite good as Nancy, another resident who befriends the stray dog. Stenders has brought together a solid cast that includes the late Bill Hunter, Noah Taylor, Luke Ford and Keisha Castle-Hughes (from Whale Rider, etc) to play the various local inhabitants, who all have their stories to tell about the dog. But the real star is Koko the dog, who is a real scene-stealer and provides the heart and soul of the film. The film was shot on locations in the Pilbara and Dampier regions of Western Australia, which adds authenticity to the material. The cinematography is excellent, and captures the harsh beauty of this remote landscape. And the action is accompanied by a superb soundtrack of classic Australian rock songs. Red Dog is a crowd pleasing local film that should enjoy healthy box office business when released commercially in August.

THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD.

Rabble rousing documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?, etc) turns his attention to the potent power and insidious influence of advertising in today’s world. In particular he looks at the practice of product placement in movies, and attempts to examine just how powerful the marketing industry has become within the film industry. Spurlock talks to high-powered advertising agents, lawyers, corporate types, and several film directors to get a diverse range of opinions on the subject. He even talks to consumer advocate Ralph Nader and author Noam Chomsky. Borrowing from Hollywood blockbusters like Iron Man, Spurlock sets out to finance his documentary about product placement purely through sponsorship and product placement. He is even willing to offer a company above the title branding for the right amount. Is this a legitimate undertaking, or is he compromising his artistic integrity? As he becomes buried by a raft of contractual obligations, Spurlock’s quest raises some interesting questions about creative freedom and artistic control. But, like Michael Moore, Spurlock is a shameless showman who loves attention-getting stunts to illustrate his viewpoint, even if his subject matter is more lightweight and seemingly trivial by comparison. Spurlock is a provocateur, but he is also an engaging, informative, subversive and entertaining filmmaker, and this is one of the funniest documentaries you will see.

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