The 60th Melbourne International Film Festival kicks off this week in the great state of Victoria, and there are enough films to make your head spin. The Reel Bits will be in Melbourne over the next few weeks covering all the film that are yet to be released in Australia – or may never get a release at all. Having just come off a massive Sydney Film Festival, it occurred to us that we’ve already seen over 20 of the films on offer at MIFF, and we’d be terrible hosts if we didn’t share our thoughts on the ones we’ve seen so far.
There are a number of other films, including Sion Sono’s Cold Fish and Takashi Kitano’s Outrage, that we’ve managed to view through the wonders of import Blu-ray, but we’ll leave covering those to our daily diaries throughout the festival. We need something to entice you back, right?
Know for his violent excesses of Audition and Ichi the Killer, Miike Takashi has often been unfairly labelled the ‘Tarantino of the East’, a moniker that insults them both. When master samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho, The Summit: A Chronicle of Stones) is summoned to assassinate Lord Naritsugu, the sadistic brother of a Feudal Era shogun, he gathers together a group of elite samurai to undertake the task. Ostensibly a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film, with seemingly heavy influences from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Miike’s film begins with the epic grandeur of many other chanbara films, before he quite literally unleashed all hell in a trademark 45-minute battle sequences that may be the samurai fight to end them all. Filled with flaming cattle, exploding buildings and torrents of blood, it is also beautifully shot (by The Summit’s Kimura Daisuku), impeccably cast and filled with period detail. Just when you think Miike has cashed all of his cheques, another battalion will emerge to extend the bloody mayhem in spectacular, hyper-realistic style that only Miike could deliver.
Giorgos Lanthimos’ controversial Dogtooth heralded to the wider world the arrival of a new wave of Greek cinema when it won the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and its subsequent Oscar nomination cemented that reputation. So it is no surprise that the first film to screen in competition at this year’s Sydney Film festival is not only produced by him and his Athens-based company Boo Productions, but stars Lanthimos as well. Named for a deliberate misspelling of Sir David Attenborough, it follows the ‘coming of age’ of a 23-year-old Marina (Ariane Labed), who is totally encapsulated in her ailing architect father’s world, as decayed as the building around him. Thematically similar to Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, with the adult Marina largely ignorant of the outside world, director Athina Rachel Tsangari trades places with producer Lanthimos to deliver the same twisted sense of humour, positioned within a strictly framed but surreal look. Ariane Labed gives a terrific performance, as does Evangelia Randou as her promiscuous friend Bella.
Attenberg does not currently have an Australian release date.
The Festival has historically picked something a bit lighthearted and quirky for its closing night offering, and Thumbsucker helmer Mike Mills’ latest effort would appear to tick all the right boxes in this regard. The basic juxtaposed storylines of Oliver (McGregor) dealing with the death of his father Hal (Plummer), who decided to come out as gay at the age of 75 following his wife’s death, and Oliver’s relationship with Anna (Laurent) are enough to buoy this likable feature – but only just. However, Mills, like his wife Miranda July (whose The Future screened in competition at this year’s Sydney Film Festival) have a taste for the eccentric, and the subtitled talking dog lifts this up out of standard romance-drama territory. However, there is a certain level of emotional disengagement to the narrative that, while often true to the emotionally disconnected characters (especially that of Oliver), makes this a tough film to be fully embraced by a mainstream audience. Either way, it hits most of the right notes when it needs to, and no animals were harmed in the making of this picture.
The always interesting Werner Herzog turns back to the documentary form after fictional features Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call – New Orleans and the little-seen My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. In 1994, the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave was discovered in southern France, significant for having some of the earliest cave paintings in human history, and being in magnificently preserved. Herzog goes inside the caves, along with a small group of scientists and historians he interviews, to discover their meaning. Actually finding a decent use for the 3D format for the first time in – let’s be honest – the history of the technology, Herzog and his small crew make the most of their limited access to the cave system. Herzog’s soothing narration can occasionally grate, and in typical Herzog fashion searches for meaning where there may be none. In a possible callback to his Bad Lieutenant closing line (“Do fish have dreams?”), Herzog takes a massive aside during the postscript to examine some albino crocodiles that are the result of nearby nuclear power plants. He ponders what they would make of the cave painting, then goes one step further in asking “Are we the crocodiles staring back into an abyss of time?”. Maybe we are, Werner. Maybe we are.
Cave Of Forgotten Dreams opens in Australian cinemas in August, 2011.
With 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, artist Miranda July skilfully treaded that very careful line of “hilarious performance-art film” and “hipster whimsy”. Compared largely to Todd Solondz’s Happiness in its frank depictions of adults, children and sexuality, July’s follow-up delves into the existential and metaphysical. As narrated by the cat Paw Paw (voiced by July), The Future tells the story of Sophie (July) and boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater, TV’s The New Adventures of Old Christine) who come to the conclusion that their lives are almost up when they decide to adopt Paw Paw, and take a month off from their routine to reassess their lives. As one would expect from July, perhaps the 21st century equivalent of Woody Allen, this is disarmingly funny, although the quirky exchanges and less-than-subtle jibes at YouTube culture will send those with a Fear of Hipsters (FoH) scurrying from the hills. Yet This does, after all, have a break-up sequence done via a dance in a full-body yellow latex suit. Yet for those of us of a certain age (the dreaded 30s), this speaks directly to the paralysing fear that causes one character to literally stop time. A life-affirming wake-up call that reminds us that getting older is not the end, it’s just “the middle of the beginning”.
The Future does not currently have an Australian release date.
“You can’t solve all the world’s problems with a shotgun,” a recently saved prostitute informs Rutger Hauer’s titular Hobo with the titular shotgun. “It’s all I know,” comes his taciturn reply. Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun is, along with Grindhouse and Machete, part of a recent wave of films that simultaneously parody and pay tribute to the exploitation films of a bygone era. Yet while Machete had fun in its pitch-perfect recreation of the ‘tits and guns’ nonsense of the 1970s, Hobo draws its inspiration from the far darker video nasties of the 1980s from splatter houses like Troma. Fresh off the rails, the Hobo is beaten and mocked in a city filled with urban chaos, ruled by mobster Drake (Brian Downey), until he can’t take it anymore and decides to clean up the town in the only way he knows how. Unlike Rodriguez’s Machete, Hobo is often mean-spirited and gruesomely bloody, and perhaps too self-conscious about its schlock origins. However, the pure joy that it takes in this sadism will win over many fans, and after all: who can pass up a film with such a great title?
Hobo with a Shotgun does not currently have a release date in Australia.
With at least a score of film adaptations already gracing the silver screen, and half as many again produced for television, it was doubtful from the beginning as to whether Fukunaga could bring anything original to the tale. Stripping much of the gothic horror from the novel, including most of the wonderful Red Room sequence or any vision of her dead uncle, this abbreviated version of the Brontë saga relies heavily on the casting of the two leads. Wasikowska has grown quite adept at looking pale and outraged at societal norms, a virtual transplant of her Alice in Wonderland role and Michael Fassbender is quickly being groomed as the new Colin Firth (with this being his Mr. Darcy role). His capable performance as Rochester may make a certain demographic within the audience collectively heave their bosoms and swoon with delight, and the resulting light-headedness that results from being Fassbendered may cause one to overlook the otherwise flat and lifeless interpretation of a classic novel. Co-produced by BBC Films, Jane Eyre does little to distinguish itself from previous televised efforts, and Adriano Goldman’s (Conviction) unspectacular photography betrays his TV origins with a look that does not demand the large format screen. Even the presence of Judi Dench serves to remind us of how good costume drama can be when it hits closer to the mark than this sub-par effort.
Fans of The Beatles and any of the subsequent solo projects have never been wanting for footage of the fab four, with literally thousands of hours of their lives committed to camera. While John Lennon’s life has been the subject of a number of excellent documentaries already, including the posthumous tribute Imagine: John Lennon, LENNONYC attempts to take a holistic approach to Lennon’s life and connections to New York city, where he spent the last decade of this life and was ultimately shot and killed in front of the Dakota Building near Central Park. While this documentary covers much of the same ground as the recent The US vs. John Lennon, at least in tracing his struggles with immigration to remain in the United States, writer/producer/director Michael Epstein tries to balance that with the influence on his music and personal life. Despite glossing over things like John’s affair with May Pang, perhaps due to the extensive involvement of Yoko Ono, Epstein assembles a great collection of interviews, never-before heard studio recordings from the Double Fantasy sessions and never-before-seen outtakes from Lennon in concert and home movies that have only recently been transferred to video.
LENNONYC does not currently have an Australian release date.
Advanced buzz is often a killer of ‘little films that could’, and the 2011 Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals certainly generated enough of it for Sean Durkin’s difficult-to-say Martha Marcy May Marlene. The dual narrative concerns Martha (relative newcomer Elizabeth Olsen), recent escapee from an alternative-living cult run by the manipulative Patrick (John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone) and her tentative steps back into ‘reality’ with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and obnoxious spouse Ted (Hugh Dancy). The parallel story-lines result in a fractured world for Martha, known in her other life as Marcy May and Marlene. Durkin’s slow-moving script aims for contemplative, punctuated by moments of horror in which her past life penetrates her current, and Martha’s unravelling and inability to cope with life outside the cult compound demonstrate some undoubtedly decent acting chops on Olsen. Yet Martha Marcy May Marlene is also a cold film, keeping the audience at arm’s length with a pair of irredeemably unlikeable characters in Lucy and Ted, and a script that refuses to commit to anything all the way up to its ambiguous ending. Durkin has a half-decent film on his hands here, and it will be even better if he ever sees fit to finish it.
Based on the 1987 novel of the same name by beloved Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, in turn named for a song off The Beatles’ 1965 LP Rubber Soul, the nostalgic tale is of Toru Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama, Kamui) who recalls the troubled years he spent with the disturbed Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi, The Brothers Bloom), united by the common loss of Kizuki (Kengo Kora, Box! and the similarly themed Solanin), and torn between his love for her and the willing Midori (Kiko Mizuhara). An often flat retelling of the tragic love story is lost in translation in its trip from page to screen. Where Murakami’s novel was tied to the cathartic process of writing and its connections with memory, Tran Anh Hung (Scent of Green Papaya) opts for a straighter version of events. Devoid of Watanabe’s strong narrative voice, some questionable decisions are made by characters, and some of the supporting players – in particular the potentially hilarious Storm Trooper (Tokio Emoto, Outrage) – are sidelined. Yet it is a beautiful piece to look at, with Ping Bin Lee’s (New York, I Love You; In the Mood for Love) stunning cinematography shining in the distinctive Japanese seasons, and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood) providing the score.
From 1973, a young chimpanzee named Nim was taken from his own mother and given to a human family to be raised as one of us. The aim of the experiment was to determine if a chimpanzee could be taught a form of communicable language, primarily a sign-language based one. The documentary, from Man on Wire director James Marsh, reveals not only the remarkable methods and progress on this project, but of the human frailties that tore it apart and diminished the quality of life of these animals. Through amazingly frank interviews, along with archival footage and photos, we follow a story that sees human ignorance and ego pass Nim from one unfortunate situation to the next. Project Nim simultaneously shows the animal kingdom’s capacity for higher learning, and the human tendency to squander that same intellect. A timely forerunner to Rise of of the Planet of the Apes.
From the opening scenes of Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, in which a faceless bureaucrat categorically tells troubled couple Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi) why they will not be granted a divorce, it is clear that the filmmaker has a thing or two to say about the Iranian justice system. When the pair separate, because Nader is unwilling to follow his wife out of Iran due to his Alzheimer’s stricken father, a carer is brought in for the old man while the family is at work. Hiring the devout Razieh (Sareh Bayat) proves disastrous, when Nader returns home to find his father tied to a bed near death and the resulting scuffle results in a murder charge for Nader when the pregnant Razieh and her hot-tempered husband claim he caused Razieh’s miscarriage. An often frustratingly circular plot only serves to highlight the frustratingly baffling legal “system” in Iran, very much indebted to the Koran. While it sometimes feels like a legal procedural (we doubt Law & Order: Iranian Investigations Unit is on its way), and is a little on the lengthy side, this is another indictment of a “justice system” that barely lives up to either of those words.
A Separation does not currently have a release date in Australia.
From The Thin Blue Line through to The Fog of War, documentarian Errol Morris has consistently proven that truth is a fluid thing. In Tabloid, a flexible view of reality is tantamount to going with this bizarre fact-based tale. Based on the then-famous “Mormon sex in chains” case on the late 1970s, it follows the somewhat ‘so crazy it must be true’ story of Joyce McKinney, former Miss Wyoming, who became obsessed with the Mormon Kirk Anderson. When he left for London to continue his missionary work, McKinney follows him, allegedly kidnaps him and restrains him to a bed to have sex with him. Through interviews, archival footage and expert testimony, at least two distinct versions of the story are painted. McKinney is the ultimate unreliable witness, clearly living in her own version of reality, and it is possible that she could casually explain away murder. As strange as it sounds, this is all just the beginning of the story, and the years that follow take McKinney’s saga in bizarre directions, from bondage dens to cloning.
Tabloid does not currently have a release date in Australia.
From Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly through to Black Swan, cinema has used a variety of ways of visually expressing the state of the schizophrenic mind. Although Take Shelter begins with the kind of prophetic warnings seen in big-budget disaster films such as The Happening or Hereafter, what follows is just as much a mystery as it is a document of an unravelling mind. The confounding behaviour that Curtis exhibits, in an amazing performance by Michael Shannon, is all the more powerful because it seems real. Yet the power of the film is that his sleeping and waking dreams are also presented in a way that seems entirely plausible, causing the audience to equally doubt the legitimacy of what they are seeing. With the feel of a Todd Haynes film such as Safe, and Nicholas skillfully navigates the loud and quiet moments, giving some genuinely touching intimate confessions between Shannon and rising star Chastain (The Tree of Life). Nichols provides no easy answers for the audience, even in its ambiguous conclusion, and perhaps he is simply saying that this is modern life.
Take Shelter does not currently have an Australian release date.
Over complete darkness, we are told the tale of the horse that Nietzsche whipped before falling down and letting the empty void of silence take him. What follows is the story of a broken old man and his daughter, caring for a horse in a wasteland whipped by wind and dirt. The bleak nihilism is brought to unforgiving life in Béla Tarr’s self-proclaimed final film, with crisp black and white photography by Fred Keleman. Minimalist light and shadow, along with a hypnotic soundtrack, are used to fully envelop the characters, who often disappear into the scenery during a series of repetitive long takes to emphasise the monotony of their daily existence of dressing, eating a potato, getting water from the well and staring out the window, occasionally punctuated by a visit from a neighbour or a band of gypsies. Is this the end of the world? As the wind erodes everything, we are presented with a life eroding vision that is reminiscent of both Ingmar Bergman and Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes in its tactile interaction with the audience, and a hopelessness to which even the horse succumbs. In the end, the film rings home with Biblical impact: the world was was created in 7 days, and in the beginning was light. As the life slowly seeps out of the world, so too does the light until we are only left in complete darkness.
The Turin Horse does not currently have a release date in Australia.
Actor Paddy Considine makes his feature directorial debut with the mindblowingly hard-hitting Tyrannosaur, making full use of his regular collaborators and acting troupe. Essentially a two-hander between hard-bastard Joseph (Peter Mullan, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows) and abused Christian op-shop owner Hannah (Olivia Coleman, Hot Fuzz), who meet when a distraught Joseph takes refuge in her shop. As their lives become inextricably bound together, their respective self-destructive cycles reveal aspects of themselves, of their dark pasts and what they are both capable of. The performances at the heart of the film are phenomenal, with Mullan pouring every line and wrinkle of experience on his face into Joseph, who is both a tragic figure and an “right cunt”, as he is fond of self-proclaiming. Audiences may be familiar with Coleman through her TV appearances in sketch-comedy shows That Mitchell and Webb Look and Peep Show, but her fine dramatic turn of a character smiling on the outside but almost completely destroyed in every other aspect is Award-worthy. Violent and sometimes difficult to watch, Tyrannosaur is wholly captivating.
Tyrannosaur does not currently have an Australian release date.
Much of the work of Paul Giamatti has been spent in gaining empathy from an audience with an increasingly unlikable series of characters. Yet there is something about Giamatti’s permanent hangdog expression that encourages pathos in equal doses as the discomfort his rage-prone characters (Sideways, Barney’s Version) elicit. So it is refreshing to see the character-actor turned consummate downtrodden leading man give us a softer side with a character who, despite trying to perpetrate fraud on a senile old man and his family, is a genuinely nice person. Given director Tom McCarthy’s work immediately preceding this, it is difficult to reconcile this “nice” direction with the people involved in making it, but the fit proves to be a surprisingly comfortable one. There are no narrative surprises in this otherwise steadily-plotted comedy, but an excellent cast lifts this out of the ordinary. Substituting wrestling for the typical basketball/baseball/football motif that would typically steer the troubled teenager on course, McCarthy’s familiarity with the subject gives a feeling of authenticity coupled with genuine emotional rigour. As Giamatti’s schemes begin to unravel, the inevitable denouement rears its tame head, and McCarthy doesn’t always steer clear of the emotional minefield and dramatically tidy conclusions that rite-of-passage films tend to leave us with. Yet McCarthy maintains a consistent lightness to the film that will ultimately please audiences while maintaining the integrity and truth to his characters that he is known for. That’s a real ‘win-win’ situation.
The Melbourne International Film Festival runs from 21 July to 7 August 2011 across Melbourne. The full program is available from the MIFF website.