by GREG KING
Last Updated August 13.
The Melbourne International Film Festival runs from August 2 until August 19, and will screen over 300 features, documentaries and short films. There are several new Australian films premiering during the Festival. The opening night film is The Sapphires, Wayne Blair’s film about a group of aboriginal singers who are shaped into a group, an Australian equivalent of the Supremes, and who perform for the troops in Vietnam. The closing night film is Mental, PJ Hogan’s new black comedy about a dysfunctional family, starring Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths and Anthony La Paglia. There will be a retrospective on New Hollywood Comedy from the 70s, screening a selection of films from some of the top directors of the era, including Woody Allen’s Take The Money And Run, Mike Nichols’ The Fortune, and Hal Ashby’s black comedy Harold And Maude. MIFF will also screen a number of award winning films fresh from the Cannes Film Festival, including Michael Haneke’s new drama Amour. There will be lots of special guests, Q&As and panel discussions throughout the festival.
Check this site regularly as it will be updated with the latest film reviews throughout the festival.
All reviews by GREG KING
Last updated August 13.
VHS. It must have sounded like a good idea at the time. Five of the top young horror directors pooled their resources to make an anthology slasher film, using the hand-held, pov found footage format made famous by The Blair Witch Project. Unfortunately, like many of these portmanteau films the overall result is uneven. The short horror films here run the gamut from supernatural to the slasher genre, but the relentless use of handheld cameras induces a queasy feeling, more so than any of the gory moments in the film. The stories are tied together by the Adam Wingard directed Tape 56, a plot device in which a group of petty crooks are hired to break into a house and retrieve a rare videotape. While sifting through a series of tapes to find the right one they observe some other graphic video nasties. But there is a similar structure to them all, as they all start with people talking about what they are planning to do before the camera captures the supernatural and graphic events. The clever and disturbing Adam Bruckner-directed Amateur Night kicks proceedings off in fine style. Ti West (The Innkeepers, etc) has directed The Second Honeymoon, in which a young couple set out to record their trip to Las Vegas but encounter a sinister end. Glenn McQuaid’s Tuesday The 13th is a typical slasher-in-the-woods scenario, and offers an obvious debt to The Blair Witch Project. Joe Swanberg’s The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Young is easily the weakest of the shorts on offer in this collection, and basically features a young couple talking via Skype before some spooky stuff happens. And the film concludes with 10/31/98, a variation on the haunted house genre from the indie horror film making collective known as Radio Silence, and it uses some great sound effects to augment the feeling of unease. A couple of the tales are quite nasty, but the relentless use of shaky hand held cameras often dilutes some of the horror. The film features a cast of largely unknown performers whose performances are natural and enthusiastic. But overall, V/H/S is something of a disappointment, especially given the wealth of talent behind the camera.
METHOD TO THE MADNESS OF JERRY LEWIS. Veteran comic Jerry Lewis may be 85, but at an age when most of us would he happy to put our feet up and take it easy, he is still working. He regularly tours his stand up comedy show, performing 150-minute shows, and even taking questions from the appreciative audience. This hugely entertaining and fascinating documentary offers a comprehensive look at his career, which has spanned seven decades, and looks at his enduring appeal. There are plenty of clips from his films, which will please his fans and film buffs. But director Gregg Barson (who also made the documentary about Phyllis Diller Goodnight, We Love You) has also included archival footage of his early appearances with his father, who was a big influence on him. We get the picture of Lewis as a perfectionist as he rehearses for his live appearances. There is also plenty of material showing him performing with his long time comedy partner Dean Martin, which gives a taste of their anarchic and largely improvised humour. Lewis and Martin were enormously popular in their day, before Lewis went solo and became an even bigger star. Barson has also included plenty of interviews with some of his contemporaries like Carol Burnett and Carl Reiner. He commands respect from modern comics like Eddie Murphy, Jerry Stiller and Billy Crystal, who talk about his influence and his comic legacy. Directors of the calibre of Steven Spielberg and John Landis sing his praises as an innovative filmmaker with an extraordinary level of control over his own work as writer, producer and director. And there is plenty from Lewis himself, as Barson seems to have been granted unlimited access to the star. However, as Lewis himself was the executive producer of the documentary don’t expect too many controversial or intensely personal revelations. It is all about his career and his comic genius on stage and screen, and borders on hagiography at times. Nonetheless, this is a must for fans. Method To The Madness Of Jerry Lewis has been another highlight of MIFF so far.
KILLER JOE. One of the highlights of MIFF so far has been this new thriller from Oscar winning director William Friedkin (The French Connection, etc). This is Friedkin’s first film in six years, and it is also the best thing he has done for two decades. The taut screenplay comes from playwright Tracy Letts, and is based on his own stage play. Letts has managed to successfully open it up from its theatrical origins. This is a dark, disturbing tale of dysfunctional families, greed, murder and loyalty, but its nasty and brutal violence and amoral edges are tempered with touches of black humour. Matthew McConaughey delivers one of his best performances as the eponymous hitman, a ruthlessly efficient killer who is hired by the desperate drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) to kill his mother. Chris needs the $50,000 life insurance money to bail himself out of trouble. His father (Thomas Haden Church) reluctantly agrees to go along with the plan because he too needs some extra cash, and he hates his ex-wife with a passion. But as is the case with these noir films, nothing goes quite according to plan, and there are a few twists before the final confrontation. Killer Joe is claustrophobic and intense stuff, but its amoral nature may not appeal to everyone. A couple of chilling scenes involving McConaughey’s character fairly crackle with menace and tension. Friedkin gets great performances from a superb cast that also includes a bold and seductive Gina Gershon, and Juno Temple as Dottie, Chris’s naïve and sweetly innocent sister, a character straight out of a Tennessee Williams play.
THE HOUSE I LIVE IN is a startling and eye-opening documentary about the war on drugs in the US, which was initiated by President Nixon. Documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (Freakonomics, etc) explores how trillions of dollars have been spent on fighting this war over four decades, to little effect. In that time, over 45 million people have been arrested and jailed, a disproportionate number of them African-Americans. America has the largest prison population in the world, but this seems to be no deterrent. Subsequent governments, and a raft of social, legal and financial policies, have also failed to successfully deal with the problem. Jarecki charts the growth of the drug trade from its beginnings as part of the 60s counter culture movement through to the harder cocaine trade of the 80s. The information he presents is shocking and disturbing. Jarecki has also incorporated lots of archival footage, newsreel footage, and lots of talking head interviews to probe the politics behind the war on drugs. Jarecki interviews a number of law enforcement personnel, officials, academics, families whose lives have been destroyed by drugs, and even some prisoners to gain insight into the problem. The film fails to find an adequate solution to the problem, but the questions it raises are provocative enough to leave audiences thinking and discussing the issues involved. As he explains at the outset, Jarecki was drawn into the film through his connection with close family friend Nannie Jeter, whose son died from a drug overdose, which gives the film a personal perspective as well. Jarecki’s film won the Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.
THE LEGEND OF KASPAR HAUSER. Italian writer/director Davide Manuli takes the bare bones of the story of Kaspar Hauser, the teenaged boy found wandering the streets of Nuremberg and slowly introduced into society, and transforms it into something else altogether. Manuli eschews the normal conventions of narrative filmmaking here for a more allusive and allegorical telling of the story that was beautifully told by Werner Herzog in his 1975 film The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser. This surreal and pretentious art house film has a cast of only five (with a wonderfully unhinged Vincent Gallo playing a dual role), motorcycles and UFOs. It has been shot in luminous black and white by cinematographer Tarek Ben Abdallah, and its soundtrack is liberally shaped by the repetitive pulsating disco music from Vitalic. And much of the dialogue sounds improvised. The eponymous Kaspar is an androgynous, blonde youth (played by newcomer Sylvia Calderoni) who is washed ashore on a mysterious island in the middle of the Mediterranean. He is taken in by the local sheriff (Gallo) and slowly inducted into society. Kaspar moves to the beat of the music in his own head, and is trained to be a DJ. But the all-powerful Duchess, who rules this fanciful kingdom, grows suspicious of this newcomer and his popularity, and plans to get rid of him. The setting for the story is equally stark and sparse and suitably apocalyptic, and this is minimalist filmmaking. It also has a number of wtf? moments, including a final shot that will have many wondering what is going on. Manuli seems to have been inspired by Jodorowsky’s offbeat western El Topo, and this bizarre and defiantly offbeat and quirky film may appeal to audiences who like that oblique style of filmmaking. For the casual viewer though The Legend Of Kaspar Hauser will prove fairly dense and impenetrable.
IN THE COMPANY OF ERIC ROHMER. This documentary is a very personal love letter to veteran French director Eric Rohmer, a humanist filmmaker renowned for the naturalness and intelligence of his films (Chloe In The Afternoon, The Aviator’s Wife, etc). Actress Marie Riviere, who appeared in a number of Rohmer’s films, decided to make this slight portrait of the man, and it finds the octogenarian filmmaker at his most playful, reciting poetry and discussing some of their films. There’s no denying her affection for the veteran filmmaker though and this comes across. Riviere also talks to some other actors who regularly worked with Rohmer, including Fabrice Luchini, who tells a few amusing anecdotes. And Riviere also visits a number of Parisian locations that Rohmer used in his films. Riviere has shot the film herself using high definition video equipment, but this resembles little more than a home movie at times. There are moments of pure self-indulgence on Riviere’s part. There is also a poignant note as Rohmer passed away before Riviere completed work on her film. There are a few clips from some of the films, although fans of the revered director looking for something more substantial and insightful will be disappointed.
THE SESSIONS. My Left Foot meets The Forty Year Old Virgin? Like the French drama The Intouchables (see MIFF review below), The Sessions is a wonderful, crowd pleasing and life affirming story of an unlikely relationship between a paralysed man and a care-giver. In this case though the caregiver is a sexual surrogate. Berkeley-based poet and writer Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) was struck down with polio at the age of seven and has spent the rest of his life in an iron lung. But he still had his wit and intelligence, and had lived past the usual life expectancy for such patients. When he decides that he wants to lose his virginity before he dies, sex therapist Cheryl (Helen Hunt) enters the picture. Obviously O’Brien’s story, as told in his article On Seeing A Sex Surrogate, resonated strongly with Australian director Ben Lewin (The Dunera Boys, etc), who himself is partially disabled, and he directs with a real sense of compassion, humanity and empathy. And he also suffuses the film with generous touches of real wit and humour. Hawkes is often cast as the villain (Winter’s Bone, Martha Macy May Marlene, etc), but here he plays a sympathetic character. His performance is largely internal as O’Brien is unable to move his arms and legs, and Hawkes has to convey a range of emotions and thoughts purely through his facial expressions. Hunt delivers a bold performance as the therapist who shares intimate moments with O’Brien, while at home there is a growing coldness and distance between her and her husband (Adam Arkin). Both performers bring a vulnerability to their roles. The sex scenes between the pair are uncomfortable, but honest. And William H Macy brings authority and touches of humour to his role as Father Brendan, a Catholic priest who is at first shocked to hear O’Brien’s confessions about his need to experience desires of the flesh, but eventually comes to be a firm friend and confidante. O’Brien was previously the subject of the 1997 Oscar winning documentary short Breathing Lessons. The Sessions is a quirky film, but it is also an unexpectedly moving, wonderfully upbeat crowd pleaser.
BEING VENICE. The debut feature film from New Zealand born poet, art critic and former film journalist Miro Bilbrough, Being Venice is a major disappointment. Venice Ford (Alice McConnell) is a poet and aspiring writer who lives in a poky flat above a hotel on the outskirts of Sydney. Her love life is a little erratic. Then her estranged father Arthur (Garry McDonald) arrives for a stay while he teaches a writing course at a nearby school. Soon unspoken resentments from the past come to the surface. But audiences expecting some powerful or revealing emotional catharsis will find that little actually happens in this drama about a troubled young woman’s life and her choices. It is difficult to see audiences warming to this bland and unappealing drama which barely deserves an art house release. It will also be hard for them to connect or even identify with the sketchily drawn and under developed characters. The script is also under developed, and the less than compelling narrative lacks any real driving force. Bilbrough, who has made a couple of well received short films, needed a more objective script editor to help shape the story and make it stronger. The performances are also troubling. McConnell is one-dimensional and never really gets under the skin of her character, while McDonald struggles to bring much depth to his character. However, the film has been nicely shot on location around Sydney by cinematographer Bonnie Elliott (My Tehran For Sale, etc). It’s not much fun being Venice, nor is this dour, bleak drama much fun for audiences.
SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN. In the early 70s aspiring Detroit folk singer Sixto Rodriguez recorded a couple of albums, but they basically failed to sell and he quit the business. Rumours abounded that he had spectacularly committed suicide on stage. But a bootleg copy of his debut album found its way to South Africa, where his songs became associated with the anti-apartheid movement and the push for freedom. His record was banned by the repressive South African regime. But Rodriguez became more popular in South Africa than either The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Record shop proprietor Stephen Segerman was eager to learn more about the background of this singer, and using the clues offered by his lyrics managed to track down his hometown. And to his surprise, he discovered that Rodriguez was very much alive, working in construction. He was persuaded to tour South Africa, where he was greeted with adulation and audiences who knew the words of his songs. The film has been directed by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, who hails from a background in music videos, and who has worked with the likes of Bjork and Elton John. This documentary marks his feature debut, and it is obvious that Bendjelloul is passionate about the fascinating story it tells. Bendjelloul spent some four years of his own time and money on compiling the film. He has also included fascinating interviews with many of the people who had worked with Rodriguez in the early years to provide a fascinating insight into the humble and unassuming man who became a reluctant rock hero. He has incorporated plenty of grainy concert footage with some archival footage of those turbulent times in South Africa’s history. Bendjelloul also samples several of Rodriguez’s songs to give us the flavour of his music. Searching For Sugarman is a wonderfully inspiring film that is sure to be a winner when released commercially later in the year.
MOONRISE KINGDOM is the latest comedy from idiosyncratic director Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited, etc), and will certainly appeal to those who have admired his previous cinematic creations. It is full of his usual signature touches, the droll and deadpan delivery, the whimsical yet literate screenplay full of big ideas and themes, the eccentric gallery of characters, and his hyper realistic visual style. And as with Rushmore and The Royal Tannenbaums there are a couple of fiercely intelligent, wilful and precocious teens at the centre of the film. Sam Shakusky (played by newcomer Jared Gillman) is an orphan who decides he no longer wants to be a scout and absconds from a wilderness camp. Despite belonging to a large family, Suzy Bishop (newcomer Kara Hayward) feels lonely. When the two run away together it throws their small New England town into chaos. The local police chief (Bruce Willis) heads the search operation, while an overly officious but inept scout leader (Edward Norton) rallies his troops for a search party. And there is, ironically, a literal storm is headed towards town, according to the narrator (Bob Balaban). Rounding out the solid cast are Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, and Anderson regulars Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray, who brings his wonderfully droll comic timing to his role as Suzy’s preoccupied father. Moonrise Kingdom is a tale of young love and giddy adventure set in 1965. As usual, Anderson is consumed by the visual style of his films, and here again gives this world a dreamlike structure. It has been superbly filmed by his regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman, while Alexandre Desplat’s musical score contributes to the melancholic mood of the piece.
THE INTOUCHABLES. This charming and very enjoyable feelgood French comedy/drama centres around the unlikely friendship that develops between a quadriplegic and his carer. The film is based on a true story, and deals with themes of friendship, family, race, and the social divide in contemporary France. Phillipe (played by Francois Cluzet, from the thriller Tell No One, etc) is a rich widower who is left permanently paralysed from the neck down after a paragliding accident. He needs constant care and attention, but a succession of carers has found coping with him and his needs too difficult. Driss (Omar Sy), a streetwise felon and recently released petty thief who lives in the tenements, answers his latest advertisement only because he needs to keep his social security benefits. Something in Driss’s irreverent attitude strikes a chord with Phillipe, who doesn’t want to be pitied or coddled, and he hires him. The two men become friends, and they help transform each other’s lives. The Intouchables is undeniably sentimental and occasionally manipulative, with a few subplots that seem unnecessary. But it has been directed with a great sense of compassion, humanity and warmth by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano (Those Happy Days, etc), who also inject generous touches of humour. Cluzet is very good in a role that only allows him to use his facial expressions to convey a range of emotions and thoughts, and many of his mannerisms make him appear a kind of Gallic Dustin Hoffman lookalike. Comedian and television performer Sy is also very good in the performance that saw him take out the Best Actor award in the Cesars, beating out the favourite Jean Dujardin. The Intouchables has been superbly shot by cinematographer Mathieu Vadepied, who uses the widescreen process to good effect. The Intouchables has been a big hit at the French box office, and an English language remake is already in the works.
CARRE BLANC is the unsettling debut feature from director Jean-Baptiste Leonetti. The film is set in the brave new world of a not too distant dystopian society, a controlled and clinical environment where conformity is encouraged, and a cruel corporate culture where violence and intimidation is used to weed out the weak, as in nature itself. Bodies are loaded into body bags and are tossed into a meat grinding company, where they become a vital food source. Muzak is played to lull the populace, and births are announced via a PA system. This is a harsh world where only the strong can survive and prosper. Phillipe (played by Sam Bouajila) is one such person. He was raised in a state-controlled orphanage, and is now a powerful interrogator with a sinister company. His wife Maries (Julie Gayet) is also a product of the same orphanage, but she has grown apart from her husband. Leonetti creates a sinister society here, and his low budget film gives nods to some classic sci-films of yesteryear, notably 1984, ZPG, Soylent Green, etc. Carre Blanc is set in suitably bleak and stark settings. It has been shot in steely fashion by cinematographer David Nissen, who worked on Leonetti’s short film Le Pays Des Ours. The primarily grey, bleak palette adds to the chilling nature and the foreboding atmosphere that permeates the material. But the film is also tempered with touches of very black humour. Carre Blanc will certainly not be to everyone’s taste.
AVALON. Jannes (Johannes Brost) is a sixtysomething former party organiser and ex-felon who still seems to be stuck in the glory days of the 80s. He plans to open a new disco called Avalon at Bastad, a quiet holiday resort, during its tennis tournament, and is gaining financial backers from some of the town’s wealthy businessmen. But when he accidentally kills an illegal immigrant things change. Instead of reporting the accident, Jannes enlists the help of his business partner Klas (Peter Carlberg) to help dispose of the body. Brost delivers a largely internal performance as the debauched Jannes, a complex character who struggles with his guilt. Avalon is the debut feature for Axel Petersen, who comes from a background in fine arts and video installations, and it shows in his impressive visual style and approach. Avalon is an exploration of corruption and moral bankruptcy in contemporary Sweden. The characters are morally ambivalent, obsessed with material things and driven by greed. The film has been shot in the style of the Dogma films, with hand held cameras, natural lighting, and a natural, unforced style. Mans Mansson’s visuals are elegant. The film is visually impressive, even if the film’s skewed morality doesn’t always resonate with the audience.
THE SAPPHIRES is easily the best film chosen to open the Melbourne International Film Festival since Balibo a couple of years ago. This drama about a quartet of aboriginal singers from a rural mission community who toured Vietnam in 1968 to entertain the troops is based on a true story. The film has been written by Tony Briggs, the son of one of the original singers, and is based on his own stage play. Actor turned director Wayne Blair uses his budget to great effect, shooting key scenes in Ho Chi Minh City itself. This is a crowd-pleasing film, sort of like Dreamgirls meets Good Morning Vietnam, but Blair manages to work in some big themes, like the civil rights movement, racism, aboriginal rights and the stolen generation, which gives the material a sense of gravitas. And there are also tensions amongst the four girls as they cope with their rising fame as well as prevailing racist attitudes and past differences. Blair, who has worked on tv series like Lockie Leonard, etc, draws great performances from his cast. Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, etc) brings plenty of charm to his performance as Dave, who manages the girls and shapes them into a musical group. Deborah Mailman is great as the fiery Gail, who has the biggest character arc, while Jessica Mauboy is also strong as her more talented younger sister Julie. Newcomers Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens and round out the quartet as youngest sibling Cynthia and their estranged cousin Kay respectively. Cinematographer Warwick Thornton suffuses the film with warm and bright lighting which adds to the generally upbeat mood. The recreation of period detail lends authenticity to the film. The musical numbers are great, and there is a wonderful soundtrack of soul hits.
BULLY. This fascinating new film from documentary filmmaker Lee Hirsch (Amandla! A Revolution In Four Part Harmony, etc) explores bullying in American high schools and its effects on teenagers only scratches the surface of this complex and emotionally raw subject. Over 13 million kids will be bullied throughout the school year, and some 16,000 students will be absent from school because of bullies. It’s a problem that is largely being swept under the rug as the authorities, the schools themselves, and the community at large seem powerless to stop bullying. This is evidenced when Hirsch talks to one assistant principal, who seems to be in denial. Hirsch follows the grieving parents of one 17-year old who committed suicide following repeated bullying, and their efforts to start a ground swell of concerned citizens trying to stamp out this insidious practice. Hirsch introduces us to many victims of bullying throughout the documentary and their stories are agonising and disturbing. Alex is tormented on the school bus, but the school principal denies that there is a problem. “I’ve been on that bus and they are as good as gold,” she says. Ja’Maya is imprisoned after taking a gun on the bus to scare her tormentors, and it sometimes seems as though the victims are treated even more harshly than the bullies. And Kelby talks about her experiences of being an openly gay teen in rural America. Most of Hirsch’s film seems to concentrate on smaller communities in America’s midwest and Bible belt to the exclusion of larger cities where the problem is probably even more endemic.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is the debut feature for writer/director Behn Zeitlin. Based on the play Juicy And Delicious written by Lucy Aliba, the film is set in the bayous of Louisiana, an area known to the locals as “the bathtub” because it is prone to flooding. The local inhabitants are descendants of Cajun or Indian fishermen and have their own cultural concerns. Beasts Of The Southern Wild is basically a story about a father and his daughter struggling to survive in an often inhospitable environment. The central character is a six-year old girl known as Hushpuppy (played by Quevenzhane Wallis), who lives in a decrepit trailer. Her father (Dwight Henry) is a schizophrenic fisherman. Hushpuppy experiences some apocalyptic fantasises about a forthcoming storm, the melting ice caps, flooding, and prehistoric beasts known as aurochs. Beasts Of The Southern Wild mixes dark fairytale-like surrealism with hard-hitting realism in a beguiling and at times frustrating film that will leave many scratching their heads. Zeitlin has used non-professionals in the leading roles, a bold move that ultimately pays off as they bring a naturalism to the material. Although shot on a low budget, the film is visually impressive, with glorious cinematography from Ben Richardson. The music score from Dan Romer is also superb and atmospheric.
FLICKER. Screening as part of Facing North, a sidebar focus on Swedish cinema, Flicker is a surreal and decidedly off beat black comedy. The action is set against the background of Unicom, a struggling telecommunications company as it tries to reposition itself with a new advertising slogan and coverage. An accidental blackout sets off a chain of chaotic events in the small city of Backberga. An electrical shock leaves technician Roland (Jimmy Lindstrom) sterile, but he finds himself unable to tell his patient wife the news. The lonely and down trodden Kenneth (Jacob Nordenson) has trouble with his computer and is unable to produce a vital financial report for the board. Birgitta (Anki Larsson) the cleaning lady has a phobia about spiders and insects. The highly-strung managing director Tord (Kjell Bergqvist) is struggling to keep the family company viable. And lurking in the background is a group of self-styled activists protesting against electromagnetic radiation, who plan to sabotage Unicom’s new telecommunications tower. Flicker works as a Swedish variation of The Office, and it offers up a wonderful satire of the corporate environment and our reliance on technology. This is the first feature film for Oscar-nominated writer/director Patrik Elkund (Instead Of Abracadabra, etc), whose short films have ensured a cult following for his absurdist style. Like much of his short film work, Flicker is populated with endearing characters and contains solid emotional heft. Much of the humour is delivered in deadpan style by the ensemble cast, but there are also some wonderful laugh-out loud moments sprinkled throughout the film. Top contributions from cinematographer David Grehn and production designer Anna Paulson enhance the look and feel of the film.