Friday, July 31, 2009

Empty Nest: fatuous fantasies

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Fifty something men have various oral fantasies but lusting after your dentist is a novel way of exploring a mid-life crisis.

Empty Nest is a lightweight Argentine comedy about a writer trying to get over one of life’s humps. It is a Spanish language baby boomer’s movie.

When Leonardo (Oscar Martínez) and Martha’s (Cecilia Roth) three children fly the coop, each of reacts very differently to the new freedom. She picks up where she left off at University, PC (pre child). He responds to his jealousy that follows in typical fashion. He tells his new lover with characteristic insensitivity, “I’ve never cheated on my wife before”.

There is a catch. His mysterious neurologist friend (Arturo Goetz) contends that as part of aging we can believe that our recollected fantasies are real. In Leonardo’s case it is not really important as his are shallow, to say the least. His real fantasy is to be able to change small details of his past. Wouldn’t we all! As the official website says, “Leonardo prefiere la introversión”.

Martinez is best when silent, projecting Leonardo’s confused inner-life through his droll facial expressions. Roth plays Martha very effectively but her role is too limited.

The dilemma for director Daniel Burman is that it’s hard to sustain a cerebral comedy. He can’t blame the writer. The story slips more and more into absurdist techniques as he tries to build to some kind of climax. The final stages of the film are disappointing. we are left floating as Leonardo's fantasies cannot fill the vacuum.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Schoolgirl's Diary: Propaganda 101

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

MIFF's own description of The Schoolgirl's Diary (Han nyeohaksaengeui ilgi):
The first ever film from North Korea to be distributed internationally.
A gently sketched tale of a rebellious teenager, exasperated by her overworked parents and the boredom of life in the North Korean countryside, A Schoolgirl's Diary is significant in being the first time that life under Kim Jong-il's regime has been represented in commercial cinema.
Su-ryeon, fed up with the simple country life, longs for the cosmopolitan, apartment-living lifestyle of the city. Frustrated and dissatisfied, Su-ryeon lashes out at her parents and her older sister, but coming events will give her perspective on her situation.
Features the real-life North Korean soccer star Kim Jin-mi as Su-ryeon's tomboyish older sister.
There was some real emotion and humour but otherwise it was Propaganda 101. Reminiscent of documentaries from Mao's China circa 1968. The best moment came when teenagers replacing a house chimney thanked thermodynamics.

Essentially The Schoolgirl's Diary is a recruiting film for Science students.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Kill Daddy Goodnight: not just history

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Kill Daddy Goodnight (Das Vaterspiel), an Austrian feature, draws in the viewer gradually. Director/screenwriter Michael Glawogger has created a holocaust film with a difference. The Jewish victims are Lithuanian as is their exterminator. The horror is mostly “off-stage” without the detailed re-enactment customary in this genre.

The job of exploring the dark side is entrusted to a flawed character. The protagonist Rupert Ratz (Helmut Köpping) is an unlikely standard bearer for the truth. He loves his alcoholic mother, is in love with his volatile sister, and hates his politician father. A suitable case for Freud. The movie’s title refers to Ratz’s video game where you get to kill your father endlessly.

A call from of the strange and formidable Mimi (Sabine Timoteo) brings him to New York and to a dark, hidden history. Ratz's more "innocent" intent is to consummate his long held lust for her.

The film is punctuated by testimony from holocaust victim Jonas Shtrom (Ulrich Tukur) about his wartime experiences and his search for Lukas (Itzhak Finzi), one of the Lithuanian responsible for the death of his father.

Like The Reader it’s not quite a search for understanding. We find it nearly impossible to empathise with a mass murderer, contrite or otherwise. Similarly it is impossible to really share the horror of the survivors.

Not really About Elly

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

About Elly (Darbareye Elly) is a Iranian film about a group of youngish middle class couples from Tehran. They head off for a long weekend on the Caspian Sea in their cars that include a BMW and a Patrol 4WD. The sole single amongst them is a woman named Elly who is the kindergarten teacher one of the couple’s children.

When Elly disappears, presumed dead, anger takes over. The story is not really about Elly whom they and we barely get to know. Rather it explores their insecurities and fears, revealing conflict, frustration and mistrust between both couples and friends. An increasingly complex web of lies is the catalyst for the erupting arguments and personal attacks.

Writer/director Asghar Farhadi has crafted a solid but fairly conventional piece. It is reminiscent of an Ian McEwan novel. Early fun of the weekend is only marred by Elly's concern that she get back home after only one night. Her sudden disappearance plunges them into increasing attempts to cover over what has occurred. Deception and lies make revealing the truth more poisonous and destructive.

The film’s two hours could have been trimmed to increase its impact. Its suspense is not heightened by often slow, laboured detail. Despite this it is worth a look. The cast give powerful and convincing performances.

About Elly is not just a different and highly relevant perspective on urban, middle class Iranians. It’s about the nature of truth and what it means for our closest relationships.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Home: living beside the fast lane

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

There's no place Home until one day the expressway that they’ve been living happily beside for ten years is finally opened. Separated from their access road and pounded by traffic noise, an outwardly well-adjusted family comes apart.

The mother Marthe (Isabelle Huppert) is tied to this home. It has helped her overcome her past depression. The elder indolent daughter Judith (Adélaïde Leroux) is also tied to home, spending her days sunbathing next to the highway. Younger daughter (Marion Madeleine Budd) is the ugly duckling, an unworldly nerd whose response is to collect scientific data and research possible car fume related diseases. The father Michel (Olivier Gourmet) and young son Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein) are the anchors to normality.

Despite their best attempts to cope with their impossible situation, eventually the wheels come off. All seems lost until they break down the walls that are strangling them, both literally and metaphorically.

Director Ursula Meier uses a fairly conventional narrative structure, as their home life becomes more and more bizarre until it reaches its surreal climax. Along the way there are lots of both tender and explosive family moments, especially the warmth between the parents and their son.

Sometimes the story travels too slowly. As an allegory for modern society, both at personal and technological levels, it requires a suspension of disbelief that is hard to sustain at times. Having a team of six credited writers for the film may help to explain this problem.

As French films go, Home is refreshing because it is atypical in many respects. Ultimately, in this touching and funny exploration of families and what holds them together, we are being asked to question what is normal.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Oh My God! Oh My God!

The short film at the Melbourne International Film Festival before North was a 9 minute gem.

The Norwegian Film Institute sums it up extremely well:
Oh My God! is a humorous observation of children´s interpretations and experiences of sexuality. The film also looks back through grown-up eyes at the reality of being part of the in-crowd” and the lengths to which one is prepared to go to become a respected member. But first and foremost Oh my God! is a film about the orgasm.
It's about three 11 year old girls exploring their sexuality, in particular their idea of orgasms.

It's been described as courageous, taboo-breaking and provocative. It was certainly funny!

North: Battling the Blues

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Nord (North) is a delightful road movie, though the travelling is by snowplough and skiis.

Norwegian director Rune Denstad Langlo and writer Erlend Loe have created an uplifting allegory about modern times. Langlo's first feature film is definitely whiteout for the blues. He calls it "an off-road movie" because of its isolation.

Jomar Henriksen (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) is a talented skier who has withdrawn from life. He spends his time as a ski-lift operator, sleeping and watching tunnel disaster documentaries on a National Geographic channel. He subdues his depression with a mixture of booze and pills. This nordic bear would dearly like to hibernate in the local psychiatric hospital.

His partner left him when Jomar refused to leave his bed. They have a son who is now four. Spurred on by fate, Jomar heads North in his snowplough to find them. He encounters a number of eccentric people along the way as he battles the snow and his own demons. Most of these adventures help him to rediscover his former self. In particular Marte Aunemo who plays Lotte, a young girl who befriends Jomar, gives a beguiling performance. With the exception of Christiansen, most of the actors are non-professionals.

A couple of these meetings seem to serve only as punctuation for his interminable travels across the artic terrain, without adding much to his or our understanding. Watching the magnificent snowscapes, it was hard not to share his snow blindness at times.

The final scenes as he approaches his destination are awesome. If only…

Milk Of Sorrows: walking close to the walls

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

La teta asustada (Milk Of Sorrows): walking close to the walls

We loved Milk Of Sorrows , Claudia Llosa’s touching film about a woman struggling to overcome her fears. Magaly Solier gives a mesmerising performance as Fausta, the Andean daughter who wants to take her mother’s body back to their village.

The appropriately named Perpetua has passed on a deep fear of the world “through her milk”. She was raped and brutalised by terrorists when pregnant with Fausta and her husband was murdered. The movie’s title translates literally as fear-filled breast and it’s referred to as the “tit illness” by one of the characters. (Despite it’s Spanish name, this film is predominantly in the local language, Quechua.)

This story is strongly rooted in Peruvian superstitions and traditions. The people of Fausta’s village “walk close to the walls” to protect themselves from the “lost souls”. Fausta protects herself from rape by a bizarre implant. Her cousin Máxima peels an orange to test her suitability for marriage.

Fausta’s relatives in Lima run a wedding business that could only exist in Latin America. It would make a great reality TV program: Matrimonial Idol - couple of the month. Their ceremonies are decidedly post-kitsch and add a needed light touch.

Fausta and her mother sang to each other as a way of communicating their inner feelings. This haunting habit of improvised songs is exploited by her moody employer, a concert pianist whose career is in decline. Our glimpse of her protected bourgeois Lima life is a very unflattering one. Ironically the tilt door of her fortress home opens briefly onto a vibrant street scene.

This film owes as much to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying as it does to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Like all good quests, La teta asustada’s journey is more spiritual than real. It is well worth taking this journey with Fausta.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Last Ride: breaking the cycle

Last Ride is another quality Australian film from Madman.

This road movie moves inexorably to its dramatic, sad but inevitable ending.

Chook (Tom Russell) is a ten year old whose father Kev (Hugo Weaving) is teaching him about outback survival while on the run. Chook doesn’t quite get it. The kid doesn’t even know who Butch and Sundance were.

Kev tries hard to be the caring father but his history is against him. The cycle of physical and psychological abuse handed on from his own father is hard to break.

Kev reckons that he and Tom are mongrels. He fits both meanings of the word. His frustrations with the world and his son are habitually spoken through his fists. His attempts to do “his job” of looking after the kid always seem to backfire.

Much of the plot is either predictable or telegraphed (with the resolution neatly achieved with the help of its modern technological descendant). There are sub-themes that are not fully developed but very topical. Kev claims that his great grandfather was an Afghan camel driver and his great grandmother was a full-blood aborigine. This prepares us for important modern Muslim and indigenous encounters during their travels.

Hugo Weaving is his usual effective self. Unfortunately he does not quite capture the character. His accent and attractive personal manner don’t fit the part of violent misfit living outside the law. True to recent performances by child actors, Tom Russell steals the film with an impressive follow-up to his role in Daniel. The rest of the cast are hard to fault.

Director Glendyn Ivin has presented a tight piece. The Flinders Ranges setting, which is beautifully photographed, is worth the price of the ticket. It’s one of Australia’s special places. The scenes driving across a salt lake covered with water are magic.

Graffiti at the start of the film tells us that “when Kooris rule… always bet on the black”. However, Kev’s gamble is bound to fail. In 21st Australia there is no place to hide in the outback. National Parks and caravan parks have replaced most of the remote camping spots. Kev's macho, Wild West view of life just doesn't work anymore.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sauce for the goose: film festival politics

So what's sauce for the goose...

You're a filmmaker who objects to a particular government's actions. Then boycott film festivals with whom they are connected.

You're a country that objects to a film festival that has entries critical of your government. Boycott it.

The Goose:
British director Ken Loach has withdrawn his film Looking for Eric from the Melbourne International Film Festival in protest of Israeli government funding.
UK director pulls out of Melbourne film fest over Israel funding
The Gander:
THE Melbourne International Film Festival is reeling after the withdrawal of three Chinese films in what appears to be retaliation for the festival's backing of a documentary about exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer.
China pulls films out of festival
Once upon a time the debate was about sporting boycotts such as the 1971 Springbok rugby tour. Mixing politics and sport. The Moscow and Los Angeles Olympic Games were the main casualties.

The dilemma: To protest against Israel you forgo the Uighur documentary. Rather than bin your membership of the Melbourne International Film Festival, the only alternative seems to be to lobby the Festival to end sponsorship by foreign governments or political organisations.

That's the course I'll be taking. Any thoughts?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Shooting Billy The Kid

The Bayside Film Festival concluded tonight with Jennifer Venditti's documentary Billy the Kid. A suitable lead up to the Melbourne Film Festival in a week's time. Billy was shown at last year's festival. The film warmed up an otherwise blustery Melbourne night.

The theme of Bayside's festival was young and emerging filmmakers. A wide range of short films by local secondary school students was also on show. In one of the workshops young actor and singer Lisa Maza shared her experiences as a first time documentary maker as co-director of Living in Two Worlds. The need for multi-skilling to survive in multi-media ran through her presentation.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Noodle: a bit hard to swallow

It has taken two years for Noodle to reach Melbourne. It’s a lightweight but enjoyable Israeli comedy/drama. Like classic Shakespearean comedy the relationships are confused, with multiple misunderstandings.

Two sisters share a unit in Tel Aviv. Miri (Mili Avital) is an El Al flight attendant who has lost two husbands in the ongoing military conflicts. The other sister Gila (Anat Waxman) has her estranged husband Izzy (Alon Abutbul) living next door. He's an unlikely leading man.

The central plot could only happen in Israel where the use of illegal immigration as a theme must have more than a touch of irony. It has a fluffy, happy ending that is uplifting if corny and predictable.

Noodle is a Chinese boy. The attempts to reunite him with his mother are the catalyst for the romantic elements in the film.

It's a well chosen, competent cast. Director and co-writer Ayelet Menahemi has created a tight, fast flowing story. This is another multiple language film. Hebrew is the main one, plus English and Chinese.

Noodle has the feel of a telemovie, which might explain its limited cinema release. The plot is a bit hard to swallow but it’s worth a look if you need cheering up.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Disgrace: bleak morality tale

Both J.M. Coetzee’s novel and its film adaptation leave their audience wanting more answers. Disgrace is a confronting and brutal tale of life in modern South Africa. The message is clear. There are no simple solutions.

Literary academic David Lurie’s admiration of Byron seems to have formed his personal morality and his professional ethics.

His amorality leads to a doomed relationship that precipitates both work and identity crises. His alienation from university colleagues and students results in a refusal to defend his reputation or his professorial position.

He is not the victim of an old fool’s infatuation but the arrogance of a serial Casanova. He quotes William Blake as his sole defence, "Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires." His retreat to his daughter’s remote farm entangles their individual problems in the realities of life in the post apartheid era.

Director Steve Jacobs and screenwriter Anna Maria Monticelli continue their professional and personal partnership as co-producers. Their earlier collaboration on La spagnola in 2001 was another Australian production that is a minor gem.

John Malkovich’s ability to convey complete self absorption and intense self doubt without dialogue make him an excellent choice for David. Relative newcomer Jessica Haines plays his daughter Lucy. Hers is a competent and moving performance. Eriq Ebouaney strikes the right tone in a difficult role as Petrus, the black farmer and her co-landholder.

Disgrace is an adaptation that more than does justice to the novel. Like the book, it does not sensationalise or over-dramatise this extremely difficult story. I had misgivings before the screening because the novel seemed so bleak. Lucy’s compromise and David’s acceptance of her decision offer such slim hope.

We are left with little doubt that this is an allegory for the issues facing modern multi-racial South Africa. Yet it is at the personal level that the film is most powerful.

(It is disappointing that the official website is not yet online and that the IMDb has little detail. A synopsis and trailer are available through Icon Movies or click on the image above.)

Classic Cinema Collections

We've been travelling for two months in Spain and France where we visited two museums that are musts for cinephiles.

The first is the Museu del Cinema in Girona, Spain. It more than lives up to its claim:
It is one of the few museums where you can journey through the 500 years of the history of images, seeing what were the predecessors and the origins of the cinema.
The museum's focus is on the evolution of technology. It has an extraordinary collection covering Chinese shadow theatre, camera obscura, lantern apparatus, optical boxes, early photography and chemical development techniques, still and film cameras and projectors, the first television and lots more.

The emphasis is on the story of the captured image, the development of the media, rather than on the content of films themselves.

Le Musée de la Cinémathèque française in Paris has a similar but smaller collection of apparatus on display. The early film memorabilia with related movie clips take the history of cinema a further step. It is not confined to French films as the name suggests but includes items from a range of countries. The focus is on the evolution of cinema in the first half of the 20th Century.
The skull from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, some of the gears from Chaplin’s Modern Times, the robot from Lang’s Metropolis, and Martine Caro’s dress from Lola Montès are just some of the rare pieces one can see in the permanent exhibition Passion Cinéma. The exhibition tells the story of the collection and preservation of what makes up France’s vast cinematographic heritage: films, props, optical devices, costumes, and archives.
If you get a chance don't miss either museum.