Saturday, July 31, 2010

MIFF 2010: I Love You Phillip Morris

The old saw that real life is stranger than fiction is confirmed with remarkable cinematic dexterity in this charming rom-com about conman and serial prison escapee Steven Russell, currently serving a 144 year prison sentence in a Texas penitentiary for charges including felony escape and embezzlement.

Written and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who also co-wrote the screenplay for the scabrous comedy Bad Santa), I Love You Phillip Morris is a frenetically paced, deviously plotted, blackly comic, and deeply romantic account of Russell’s love-fuelled life of crime. That its overt gay content has caused it to be shelved by its US distributors for months – a similar situation exists here in Australia, where it will probably go straight to DVD – is a crying shame, for I Love You Phillip Morris is truly one of the funniest comedies I have seen in years.

When we first meet Steven Russell (played with exuberant flair by Jim Carrey) he is lying in a hospital bed, apparently dying, and reflecting on the vagaries of his life. Thereafter, a series of flashbacks illustrate the many twists and turns of Steven’s story: his formerly straight-laced life as a father, policeman and churchgoing husband to the devout Debbie (Leslie Mann); the highly comic revelation that he is living a secret gay life; and the motor accident-induced epiphany that leads him to live life as an openly gay man.

But as Steven notes, “Being gay is really expensive”. Thus he turns to a life of crime to support his handsome Latino boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro) and their lifestyle of clothes, accessories, holidays and poolside cocktails. It’s not long before his many frauds and cons land him in jail, where Steven meets the love of his life: the shy, softly-spoken naïf, Phillip Morris (a truly charming performance from Ewan McGregor).

As befits a conman, Steven is an unreliable narrator, and the film’s many twists and turns – mirroring Steven’s increasingly elaborate cons and frauds – are truly startling. He escapes from prison numerous times; gains a job as Chief Financial Officer for a major corporation and siphons off tens of thousands of dollars to fuel an increasingly lavish lifestyle for himself and his beloved Phillip; in short Steven does everything in his power to provide his own off-kilter version of stability and security for himself and his boyfriend.

Gleefully and explicitly crude at times, I Love You Phillip Morris is also unabashedly romantic. There is a palpable chemistry between Carrey and McGregor, and a scene in which the two men slowly dance together in their prison cell as warders beat a prisoner in the neighbouring cell is both heartwarming and hilariously funny.

When the film takes an abrupt U-turn into tragedy late in the piece, it manages the shift in mood without ever being jarring. Dialogue is crisp and sparkling, and the sound design is used to excellent effect without ever being intrusive.

If the film has a fault it is that Carrey is occasionally more over-the-top than the role requires, but for the most part his performance shows remarkable restraint. He may lack the dramatic capabilities of McGregor, whose Phillip Morris is a truly marvellous creation, but Carrey is impressive throughout, by turns sympathetic, outrageous and charming.

In short, I loved I Love You Phillip Morris.

Rating: Four and a half stars

More MIFF 2010: From drag queens to Dante


The latest film from Portuguese director João Pedro Rodrigues is, like his first two features, O Fantasma (2000) and Odete, a queer-themed drama that borders on melodrama; but unlike his earlier films, To Die Like a Man is filmed in such a stylised and fragmented way as to drain almost all emotion from the story in progress.

It opens with a group of camouflage-clad soldiers on a night-time training exercise in a forest. Two of the men creep away from their comrades, and once alone, fall into a passionate embrace which leads quickly to sex, and then to violence.

Next we meet Tonia (Fernando Santos), an aging drag queen dealing simultaneously with two major dramas: his loss of status in the nightclub where he has worked for years, and a highly strung junkie boyfriend, Rosario (Alexander David), who is young enough to be his own son.

At Rosario’s insistence, Tonia is contemplating having a full sex change; a procedure which is explained to viewers in detail early in the film through the inventive use of origami, but we are given no indication that gender reassignment would bring any form of stability to the pair’s relationship, even once Rosario gives up using heroin. Instead we explore the petty details day-to-day of Tonia’s life: her falling out with an old friend, her fights with an up-and-coming young drag queen at work, and her infected, pus-leaking left nipple.

Just when it seems we are going to be witnessing a mundane domestic drama (well, as mundane as any drama can be whose main character is a highly strung drag queen), the film takes a twist by reintroducing the murderous young soldier we met in the first scene. He is, of course, Tonia’s son.

Before we have even had a chance to process this revelation, the film swiftly enters road trip territory – and very trippy territory it is, with Tonia and Rosario encountering a reclusive transsexual couple living in the forest who take them snipe hunting (despite the fact that snipe are apparently extinct). It’s at this point that things get seriously fragmentary, with a sepia-toned, magic-realist musical sequence by an Antony and the Johnsons sound-alike sweeping up the characters for several minutes, after which we’re back to the action, and indeed, back to melodrama.

Of all the films I have seen at MIFF to date, To Die Like a Man is the most baffling and frustrating. Like a deranged cross between Fassbinder and Almodovar, Rodrigues introduces plot elements only to discard them minutes later; embraces melodrama only to abandon it in favour of formal abstraction; and coaxes both magnificent and scenery-chewing performances from his cast.

There is a heartfelt and poignant drama buried somewhere in To Die Like a Man, but unfortunately it is lost – no doubt deliberately – amidst the fragmented, arch and dry film that Rodrigues has crafted.

Rating: Two and a half stars


A fascinating, beautiful and affecting film based on the memoirs of the filmmaker’s father, the New Zealand film Home By Christmas is a docu-drama utilising a judicious blend of archival footage and re-created scenes to explore one New Zealand family’s experiences of World War II.

In 1940, on his way home from rugby practise, 28 year old Ed Preston (Martin Henderson) and his teammates joined the army, with Ed telling his pregnant wife Tui (Chelsie Preston-Crayford, the filmmaker’s daughter) not to worry, he’d be home by Christmas. Instead, after only a month’s active service in North Africa, he was captured and made a prisoner of war, spending the next two years interned in Italy, and a further year following his escape in neutral Switzerland. Eventually Ed returned home to New Zealand’s South Island, but in his absence, Tui had fallen in love with another man...

Shortly before he died, an older and wiser Ed Preston told his story to his daughter, veteran filmmaker Gaylene Preston, who has now turned his reminiscences into this charming film, employing Australian actor Tony Barry to play her father and bring his words to life.

The artifice of this framing device – having an actor play the now deceased narrator of the story we’re watching unfold – is quickly forgotten thanks to excellent performances throughout and the pitch-perfect production design by John Harding and costumes by Lesley Burkes-Harding. Vintage steam trains and carefully dressed existing locations are employed to recreate the look and feel of wartime New Zealand, while Ed’s experiences overseas, and the parallel narrative of Tui’s anguish as she waits at home for news of her husband, are brought to life via a wide array of family photographs, and archival footage sourced from a range of institutions including the Istituto Luce Film Archive, Italy; the Australian War Memorial; and the National Army Museum, New Zealand.

Preston’s 1995 documentary War Stories (Our Mothers Never Told Us), in which the director’s mother provided her own account of her wartime experiences, informs this already remarkable story, which is all the more powerful for being subtly underplayed, focussed on small details rather than epic events.

Life on the home front in wartime is rarely explored on screen; and nor are we accustomed to such an honest look at the misery and banality of war as depicted in Home by Christmas. Subtle, gentle and powerful, this is a remarkable cinematic achievement.

Rating: Three and a half stars


Screening as part of Dante’s Inferno, the festival’s retrospective celebration of the work of US filmmaker Joe Dante, Homecoming was commissioned as part of the 2005 Showtime cable TV series Masters of Horror, which also featured works by such master genre filmmakers as George Romero (Night of the Living Dead), John Carpenter (The Thing), Stuart Gordon (Reanimator and Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

Despite being only an hour long, Homecoming was praised by the New Yorker as the ‘best political film of 2005’, and deservedly so. It’s a biting satire in which the presidency and policies of George W. Bush, and the self-serving attitudes of outspoken Republicans such as Anne Coulter and Karl Rove are mercilessly satirised, via a plot in which the bodies of soldiers killed in Iraq return to life as zombies in order to vote Bush out of office: their revenge for being sent to war based on a false premise.

Unlike traditional zombies, these reanimated soldiers are strangely peaceful, but that doesn’t stop the government – frightened that it might lose power at their decaying hands – rounding them up and interning them, in Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuits no less. “Why don’t we treat them like normal veterans,” one character protests: “Ignore them?”

The satire of Homecoming is admittedly heavy-handed, but for this left-leaning film reviewer, it’s an absolute delight. After all, who needs subtlety when you have zombies?

Screening on the same bill are two other Joe Dante shorts, the mediocre Lightning (1995), a cautionary tale of greed and gold-lust set in the USA’s Wild West; and the far more successful It’s a Good Life, Dante’s segment from the 1983 film anthology Twilight Zone: The Movie.

Based on a screenplay by Rod Serling (which was in turn based on an original short story by Jerome Bixby, voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1970 as one of the 20 finest science fiction stories ever written) this entertaining tale of a mutant child with mysterious powers who terrifies his family is most notable for its crazed chiaroscuro lighting and some delightful special effects.

Homecoming: Four stars

It's a Good Life: Three and a half stars

Lightning: Two and a half stars

Monday, July 26, 2010

MIFF 2010 Day 3: More reviews


In 1950s’s Hollywood, horror film maker William Castle fancied himself as a low-budget Hitchcock; a larger-than-life personality whose suspenseful movie titles – including The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts – were marketed with originality and flair.

Unfortunately for Castle, while his movies were hugely successful at the box office, the showman-like gimmicks he employed – buzzing seats, flying skeletons, life insurance policies to cover the possibility of his audience members dying of fright – totally overshadowed his directorial flair. The Hollywood establishment snubbed him, and history relegated him to the B-list – until now.

Director and producer Jeffrey Schwarz’s loving tribute to William Castle features a wide range of interviews with Castle’s friends, family and fans – including the likes of directors John Waters and Joe Dante, whose love of Castle’s work influenced their own filmmaking careers later in life – as well as enough archival film clips to satisfy the most dedicated of fans. Everyone interviewed is full of praise for Castle as a showman, and as a human being, even while admitting that his films were not of the highest calibre; a fact that Castle himself recognised, and attempted unsuccessfully to remedy later in life, when he tried to bring Rosemary’s Baby to the screen before the studio gave it to Polanski to direct instead.

Spine Tingler! is a bright, cheerful and thoroughly accessible documentary, and while it may lack a little in critical analysis and contrary opinions – surely there must be someone out there who liked neither Castle or his work – for film fans generally, and especially for devotees of the horror genre, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Rating: Three stars


Sex tourism versus holiday romance: where does one draw the line, and are such financial transactions always exploitative? That’s one of several questions raised in Amit Virmani’s entertaining but not especially rigorous documentary about the ‘beach boys’ of Kuta, Cowboys in Paradise.

The permanently tanned and smiling gigolos of Bali’s Kuta Beach who appear in the film claim to make a living from temporary romances with women tourists from Australia, Japan, France and elsewhere. While the men never charge for sex, they are emphatic that the women they service provide financial support in the form of meals and gifts in return for flirtation, attention and sex.

Given that the daily salary of a Balinese farmer is approximately $1, and $3 for construction workers, it’s hardly surprising that a percentage of young Balinese men prefer the easy life of a ‘beach boy’, where they can make at least $5 a day according to one interviewee. Others speak of conducting on-going affairs with regular tourists each time the women return to Bali, claiming to have received enough money over the years to purchase motorbikes and even houses. According to one outspoken newspaper columnist who crops up regularly as a talking head throughout the film, such financial transactions are a key part of the Balinese economy.

A frank and often funny film, Cowboys in Paradise includes interviews with numerous locals, including current ‘beach boys’ Rudi (31), Roy and Wayan (both 25), as well as an older gigolo now aged in his 50s, and even a 14 year old who aspires to the lifestyle. The women, too, get their say, including several young tourists, and even the wife of a ‘beach boy’ who seems perfectly content with her husband’s professional affairs.

While the documentary touches briefly on the issue of sexual health, with one ‘beach boy’ confessing to not using condoms with regular partners and admitting that he has never been tested for HIV, the realities of life in Bali, where the HIV-related death rate per capita is 84 times higher than Australia’s, are quickly glossed over.

The film also fails to explore the issue of economic exploitation of the residents of a developing nation by affluent westerners from a critical perspective, with Virmani seemingly preferring to amuse his audience rather than analyse the issue in any great depth. Of more concern is the fact that the film’s release has caused considerable controversy in Indonesia, including a government crackdown on Bali’s ‘beach boys’ earlier this year.

Ultimately, Cowboys in Paradise is an entertaining film but lacks the intellectual rigour one expects from the best documentaries.

Rating: Two and a half stars


A uniquely personal exploration of the bloody violence that exploded in Iran following the hijacking of the country’s 2009 election by defeated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hana Makhmalbaf’s striking but frustrating documentary combines the personal, the political and the poetic to craft a harrowing but sometimes surprisingly insubstantial story about hope, change and despair.

Green Days was filmed in Tehran in the lead-up to Iran’s 2009 election, when the green-clad supporters of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi took to the streets in massive numbers to promote their candidate, as well as in the aftermath of the coup and the shocking violence which accompanied it.

Familiar footage of riot police beating and shooting unarmed civilians is interspersed with direct-to-camera monologues by an almost-hysterical theatre-maker, Ava, whose tearful interventions and symbolic theatrical interrogations of the documentary footage quickly grow repetitive.

Thankfully, in the second half of the film, Ava stops talking about herself and her cynical view of Iran’s internal politics, and begins to engage people on the streets in discussions about their hopes for the election, many of whom are considerably more articulate than Ava herself. The film is at is most effective in these scenes, especially when the filmmaker abruptly cuts away from shots of jubilant Mousavi supporters waving green scarves to familiar scenes, days later, of bloodied bodies being carried aloft by wailing crowds, and of masked militia members clubbing and shooting at unarmed protestors.

A large contingent of Iranian-Australians turned out for the film’s first Melbourne screening at ACMI; within five minutes of the film commencing, the young woman next to me was sobbing loudly, nor she was not alone. Clearly, despite its flaws, Green Days struck a deep chord among much of its audience.

Rating: Two and a half stars


My personal highlight of the festival to date, Debra Granik’s second feature film is a vivid exploration of the lives of the USA’s working class, and a chilling and compelling slice of rural noir set in the Ozark Mountains in southern Missouri.

When 17-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers her methamphetamine-cooking father Jessup has put up the family home and their 300 acres of land to make bail after his latest brush with the law, she has only a week to find him before the courts take possession and evict her and family: two dependent young siblings and her heavily-medicated, virtually catatonic mother.

Ree goes in search of her Pa amongst his criminal cohorts, where asking questions is, as one neighbour puts it, “a real good way to end up et by hogs”, but refuses to be put off her search by the many gaunt-faced thugs she encounters along the way, including her violent uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) – who memorably tells his wife in his first scene, “I already told you to shut up with my mouth”.

Every scene breathes authenticity on rank, whiskey-scented breath; this is a film where barely restrained violence and grinding poverty infect every frame, whose characters are forced to hunt and shoot squirrels for food, and where drug-dealing and violent retribution are an every day part of life.

Granik avoids exposition at every turn, preferring instead to tell her story through mood and landscape and powerful, subtle performances coaxed from her cast. As the resourceful, implacable heroine Ree, Jennifer Lawrence is a revelation, while Michael McDonough's cinematography is virtually another character in the film, so strong is its presence.

A grimly powerful Southern Gothic family crime drama, Winter’s Bone is compelling, confronting, and a more than worthy winner of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize for drama.

Rating: Four stars

Sunday, July 25, 2010



Screening as part of MIFF's animation program, this Japanese-Russian-Canadian co-production was an odd beast indeed: an occult retelling of the Nazi war machine’s 1942 invasion of Russia as seen through the eyes of a teenage psychic and her dead best friends.

Nadya is the sole survivor of First Squad, a group of psychic soldiers trained by Russia’s mysterious Division 6 (a military branch dedicated to winning the war by magical means). Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and amnesia in the wake of her friends’ deaths, Nadia is sent to Moscow by a mysterious, Obi-Wan-like monk, where she is re-recruited by Division 6’s leader, General Below, and charged with an important mission.

It seems that the Nazis too have a psychic division, the Ahnenerbe, whose dark sorcerers have summoned the spirit of an evil warlord from beyond the grave: Grandmaster Baron Von Wolff, the leader of a terrifying undead horde.

Despite being under constant attack from a pair of voluptuous Nazi assassins, Nadia must somehow enter the spirit world and convince the souls of her dead First Squad companions to help her defeat Baron Von Wolff. Unless he is stopped, Mother Russia is doomed.

This fascinating blend of war movie and ghost story is brought to life through a combination of live action and animation. A series of talking heads – purportedly Russian and German war veterans, as well as modern-day historians and psychologists – discuss the brutal conditions on the Eastern Front and the history of Division 6; their monologues intercut between the unfolding story of Nadya and Baron Von Wolff.

While the animation is vivid and memorable – a fascinating blend of Japanese-style anime techniques and almost photo-realist depictions of the destruction wrought by World War II – the live action moments unfortunately dilute the drama and tension of the story. Without them, the film would be far more effective, but it would also be much shorter: in total, the running time is only 70 minutes, making it feel more like the first episode of a TV series rather than a movie proper.

Nonetheless, as an original look at the Russian experience of WWII, and with its bold direction and striking supernatural imagery, First Squad: Moment of Truth is certainly worth a look for genre fans.

Rating: Two and a half stars


Director Lisa Cholodenko seems drawn to stories of family conflict. It’s a theme she previously explored in her second feature, Laurel Canyon (2002) as well as her Showtime-produced telemovie Cavedweller (2004). In her latest film, The Kids Are All Right, Cholodenko once again explores conflict and drama within the family unit, while also revisiting the lesbian themes of her debut feature, High Art (1998).

The result is a warm, witty and accomplished film about a lesbian couple – Annette Benning as the heavy drinking, control-freak doctor, Nic, and Julianne Moore as her considerably more chilled but less focussed partner, Jules – navigating the difficulties of a long-term relationship, with all the joys and stress that any such relationship entails.

The drama starts when Nic and Jules’ two teenaged children, Joni (young Australian actor Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson, Journey to the Centre of the Earth) decide they want to get in touch with their previously unknown biological father, sperm-donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo, playing a more together version of the disruptive man-child role that brought him acclaim in You Can Count On Me (2000)).

A free spirit, organic gardener and restaurateur, Paul is an exotic prospect when compared to the children’s decidedly down-to-earth ‘Momses’, and tensions arise when Nic takes an instant dislike to him. Additional complications ensue when Paul hires Jules, who is starting up a gardening business, to landscape his new home, and Nic grows jealous of their growing friendship.

A genuinely delightful domestic comedy, The Kids Are All Right finds a perfect balance between drama and humour, thanks in part to its richly drawn characters and a screenplay co-written by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg. It also manages to subtly argue that same-sex couples, due to their lack of societal recognition and official support, are perhaps more vulnerable to external disruption than most heterosexual marriages; but while its politics are always gently present on screen, this is not a didactic or a preaching movie. Instead, it is a richly told film that allows all of its characters to share the spotlight one by one (though I would have liked to see a little more of Laser’s story), and which is as touching and engaging as it is laugh-out-loud funny.

Saturday’s screening at the Forum had some framing problems, but they were not enough to distract from this sympathetic, sincere and heart-warming film about love, family, trust and betrayal.

Rating: Four stars

More on MIFF from other local sources (updated)

If you've come here looking for my thoughts and impressions of some of the films screening at MIFF this year, as will probably be the case for new visitors who have come here via Google searches (and welcome! Feel free to comment, provide me with links to your own blogs, etc), I thought I'd take this opportunity to point you in the direction of a few other folk who are blogging the festival also.

My very dear friend Cerise Howard (who joins me on 3RRR every second Thursday to discuss screen culture events in our 'Fistful of Celluloid' segment) has just recently joined the blogosphere. Very recently indeed, in fact. You can catch her MIFF impressions - as well as a very handy list of films that are getting a general release, whether at the cinema or on DVD - at her new blog, A Little Lie Down.

Critic and raconteur Thomas Caldwell is detailing his MIFF adventures over at Cinema Autopsy - expect informed decisions and insightful analysis from him.

Over at Screen Machine you'll get some feisty opinions and discussion from a range of critics and reviewers; while Glenn Dunks is detailing his festival adventures - and his cinema passions and obsessions generally - over at Stale Popcorn.

Two new links for y'all to peruse: the charming Ms Emma Westwood is writing about MIFF (and other cinematic subjects) over at movie (a)musings; and Tara Judah expounds on her festival experience at Liminal Vision. Enjoy!

I'll add more links as I find 'em, so feel free to leave suggestions and links in the comments below!

Saturday, July 24, 2010


A gentle start to the first real day of MIFF due to my hungover state on Friday - I really shouldn't have had that glass of absinthe at the after-after-party, damn it.

I watched two films on Friday night, the first a restrained Polish/German co-production about teenage prostitutes, the second an unrestrained western set in small Australian town.


Set in the early 1990s on the border between Poland and Germany, this surprisingly subtle but sometimes clichéd film from director Robert Glinski tells the story of Tomek (Filip Garbacz), a skinny 14-year old with an interest in astronomy who falls into a seedy world of teenage rentboys when he tries to earn money with which to impress his gold-digging club kid girlfriend, Marta (Anna Kulej).

The film is grittily realistic thanks to the screenplay by Joanna Didik, who lived for 20 years in the same town in which Piggies is set. Glinski has wisely chosen to underplay this potentially overblown material, crafting a film that is cool and reserved instead of an overblown melodrama.

Focussing predominantly in an adolescent millieu, the adult characters in the film are either ineffectual or brutal, save for Tomek's caring but helpless German teacher; while the story arc reminds us of what cruel beasts teenagers can sometimes be. It also points out how easily the oppressed can become an oppressor.

The majority of characters - such as Tomek's soccer-obsessed father (Bogdan Koca), his preening, shallow sister (Katarzyna Pysznska), the leering pimp Borys (Tomasz Tyndyk), and Tomek's handsome but unhappy best friend Ciemny (Daniel Furmaniak) - are, alas, sadly one dimensional, but as the complex Tomek, Garbacz is tremendous: a deserving winner of the Best Debut Actor award at the Polish Film Festival.

Piggies (dir. Robert Glinski, Producers Witold Iwaszkiewicz & Eike Goreczka, Germany/Poland, 2009)

Rating: Three stars


The debut feature from Australian director Patrick Hughes is a robust contemporary Western, set in a dying small town in Victoria's high country and starring Ryan Kwanten (True Blood) as the appropriately-named Shane Cooper, a young cop whose first day at a new posting is violently derailed when an escaped murderer (Jimmy Conway, played with excellent menace by Tommy Lewis) rides into town.

An enthusiastic crowd - the first sold-out session at MIFF this year - gathered for the film's Melbourne premiere, following excellent word of mouth from previous screenings in Berlin and Sydney, and judging from the responses of those around me, it seems most enjoyed Red Hill immensely.

I liked it a lot, but despite its kinetic direction, strong performances and beautiful cinematography, I wasn't entirely blown away. Like all good genre films, part of the fun comes from seeing how familiar tropes are handled, and on this account Hughes does well - traditional elements of the Western film are very inventively presented in the startling terrain around Omeo in East Gippsland - but other elements of the story, such as a nod to the traditional legend of the Gippsland panther, are distinctly jarring, and as a metaphor for the damaging effect of colonialism in Australia, heavy-handed in the extreme.

That said, as a story about vengeance and redemption that gives the nod to such diverse cinematic classics as Shane (1953) and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), and as a calling card for Hughes' obvious grasp of dramatic tension, screen violence, atmosphere and mood, Red Hill is great fun indeed.

Red Hill (written, directed and editor by Patrick Hughes, produced by Al Clark, Australia, 2010)

Rating: Three and a half stars

MIFF 2010: Opening Night

Pre-screening drinks with two lovely girlfriends in the city, a stroll to the opulent Regent Theatre in the light, misting rain, walking the red carpet completely and appropriately ignored by the media throng, and settling into my seat to await a new Australian film: my 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival experience has begun.

This year I've gone slightly crazy and booked 54 sessions on my media pass - I may not get to them all but I'll have damned fun trying. Well, fun until exhaustion and/or hysteria set in. In which case you'll find me hiding behind a couch, shivering in abject terror at the very mention of the words 'choctop' and 'popcorn'. But until such time, let the MIFF madness begin!

The festival kicked off on Thursday night with the world premiere of a bland new Australian film by debut director Amanda Jane, The Wedding Party, a Melbourne-based romantic comedy about family, love and the choices we make in life. The movie focuses on the gormless Steve Thompson (Josh Lawson) and his dysfunctional suburban family, including his kinky brother Colin (Geoff Paine), sister Lisa (Nadine Garner) and her husband Tommy (Adam Zwar), and their separated parents, Roger (Steve Bisley) and Rose (Heather Mitchell).

On the verge of financial ruin, Steve agrees to marry a residency-seeking Russian waitress, Anna Petrov (Isabel Lucas) in return for a hefty sum of cash. The only problem is, Steve is still in love with his girlfriend, Jacqui (Kestie Morassi) who he has separated from until he can sort his finances out; and Anna is in love with Vlad (Nikolai Nikolaeff).

Further complications ensue when the Thompson family discover Steve's impending nuptials. His plans for a quiet registry wedding are scotched as his family take on organising an extravagant church ceremony, setting the stage for what should be a delightful rom-com romp.

What a pity then that the end result is instead a laboured movie populated by two-dimensional characters whom it's difficult to care about; a romantic comedy that is neither touching nor witty save for the (very) occasional funny line.

Despite a talented cast who do their best with the material to hand, The Wedding Party is never more than sporadically entertaining. Characters lack depth and detail - for example, it's never clearly established what Steve's business is, nor why he is bordering on financial ruin - and we care so little about them despite the hoops the plot makes them jump through, so that by the time the climax arrives there is no sense of dramatic tension to engage the audience in the proceedings.

The screenplay by writer Christine Bartlett is thinly constructed and cliché-ridden, and a monologue by teenager Eve (Nikita Rover-Pritchard) which bookends the film is gratingly unnecessary. Indeed, her whole character - and her fledgling relationship with a teenaged boy - feels superfluous; were it cut from the film, it would definitely assist the story's pacing.

The plethora of subplots seems strangely underdeveloped (though points must go to Adam Zwar and Nadine Garner for at least investing their protagonists' subplot with some real chemistry) and at 115 minutes, due to uninspired direction from its first-time director, the film definitely feels too long, rendering what should have been a sharply observed rom-com flabby and weak.

I can see why MIFF chose to open the festival with The Wedding Party – it’s a very Melbourne film, replete with familiar images of suburban life, and it was in part financed by the MIFF Premiere Fund – but I can’t see it enjoying much in the way of box office success once it finds an Australian distributor.

'Deeply underwhelming' was the average reaction from friends and colleagues after the film; a very poor start to what promises to otherwise be an excellent festival. That said, the after-party the followed (and the after-after party!) was great fun; so much fun that I didn't crawl out of bed until midday on Friday, and didn't feel human again to much later in the afternoon!

The Wedding Party (Dir. Amanda Jane, produced by Nicole Minchin, Australia, 2010)


Tuesday, July 20, 2010


There are almost enough queer-themed films in this year’s MIFF program to make up an entire spotlight program, but perhaps the most unique is Brotherhood, an edgy drama about two Danish neo-Nazis whose uneasy camaraderie gradually develops into a passionate but forbidden love.

Winner of the Best Film Award at the 2009 Rome Film Festival, Nicolo Donato’s debut feature aims to be a gritty and confronting story about racism, gang violence and illicit romance in an unwelcoming environment. Sadly, due in no small part to the poorly developed screenplay co-written by Donato and Rasmus Birch, it falls well short of the mark.

In the opening scene of Brotherhood, neo-Nazi skinhead Jimmy (David Dencik) is seen luring a young gay man into an all-too-brief liaison in a darkened park. “You’re beautiful,” he tells the youth, in the brief moment before his fellow skinheads attack the young man and beat him senseless.

Next we meet Lars (Thure Lindhardt), a handsome, 20-something soldier who has just left the army under a cloud after he (allegedly) drunkenly propositioned several of his subordinates. Angry and aimless without the army’s structured lifestyle, Lars finds himself accidentally attending the local neo-Nazi cell’s recruitment meeting, but he has no time for the far-right movement. “I’m not some psycho or a loser who beats up people,” he sneers.

But soon, despite having only the thinnest of motivations for doing so, in a move that smacks of plot-driven expediency, Lars attends a beach party thrown by the Nazi group. Here we are introduced – in a particularly unsubtle way – to Jimmy’s hotheaded younger brother Patrick (Morten Holst), who will come to play a key role later in the film.

Because of his bravery and intelligence, Lars is soon fast-tracked for full membership of the Nazi group, ahead of Patrick, who is naturally angered at being overlooked for the honour. Jimmy too is angered by the favoured treatment Lars has received, and in an effort to reconcile the two, the group’s ersatz leader Michael Tykke aka Fatty (Nicolas Bro) orders Lars and Jimmy to work together: Lars is to help Jimmy renovate a beach house owned by the party, and Jimmy is to help coach Lars in Nazi ideology.

Soon the simmering tension between the pair explodes – not in violence, but in a deep and all-consuming passion. But unknown to them both, Patrick suspects their secret.

While the film wins points for not seeking to explain away its characters’ racist ideologies through simplistic psychology, it also fails to develop the relationship between Jimmy and Lars in a believable way. The men display surprisingly little caution or tact despite the unwelcoming milieu in which their relationship plays out, and for two allegedly closeted, presumably self-hating gay or bisexual men, they fall far too quickly into a traditional romantic entanglement.

The under-developed screenplay aside, Brotherhood is an effective although unimaginative three-act drama. The leads give solid performances, especially David Dencik as the conflicted skinhead Jimmy, and Donato – best known in his native Denmark as a director of music videos and commercials – has a strong grasp of dramatic contrast. In one key scene at a skinhead concert where the sexual tension between Lars and Jimmy is building to dangerous levels, a gentle acoustic guitar track plays on the soundtrack, starkly but tenderly contrasting with the homosocial violence of the mosh pit played out the screen. As a visual representation of the contrasting drives of love and hate, loyalty and loathing, sex and violence, it is breathtakingly effective.

Unfortunately some of the other creative decisions Donato has made are less impressive. A largely hand-held camera sacrifices imaginative shots for intimate close-ups, to poor effect; and the subdued palette of the film is all too obvious a representation of the character’s empty lives.

Dramatically, Brotherhood is far from perfect, but as an original addition to the genre of forbidden romances, and as a cultural curiosity – it’s already been dubbed ‘Brokeback Nazi’ – it will definitely be of interest to discerning MIFF-goers.

Brotherhood (dir. Nicolo Donato, Denmark, 2009)

Stars: David Dencik, Thure Lindhardt, Morten Holst, Nicolas Bro & Signe Egholm Olsen

Producer: Per Holst

Original Music: Simon Brenting & Jesper Mechlenburg

Cinematography: Laust Trier-Mørch

Film Editing: Bodil Kjærhauge

Melbourne International Film Festival, July 22 – August 8

This review first appeared on Arts Hub on Tues July 6th 2010.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Time for Moore's last MIFF

With its parade of gay neo-Nazis, flawed geniuses, hormonal German teenagers, bloodthirsty creatures, political thrillers, foreign-language dramas, and new features from directors such as Jacques Rivette, Harmony Korine, Todd Solondz and Samantha Morton, this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) features films for every taste, tickets to suit every budget, and caters to casual viewers and hardened cinéphiles alike.

For Executive Director Richard Moore, the launch of the 2010 festival program before a packed crowd of MIFF members, stakeholders and media representatives on Tuesday July 6 was a time both for celebration and sadness, marking as it did the beginning of the end of his four years at the festival.

While Moore said he would prefer to leave questions about his legacy to others in years to come, when pressed to name his proudest achievements during his time at MIFF one of the first things he mentioned was his decision, early in his tenure, to introduce screening times to the festival guide.

“From an audience perspective, you know, that would probably be one of the main [legacies],” Moore laughed, “so you could actually see what times screenings were on, published in the program guide; you didn’t have to do seven or eight page interchanges. I thought it was radical.

“But jesting aside, while I do think program times in the guide are important, there are a few things. I’m pretty proud of building up when I came in, such as the much-neglected membership of the festival. There were only about 240 – 250 members, who were all pretty active in their cinéphilliac activities, and very keen and very supportive of the festival, but one of my main aims was to try and build that membership, because I see members as an important asset, and not only financially.”

Today MIFF memberships have increased to around 1700 – 1800, growth of some 400%, a statistic Moore is justifiably proud of.

“[Membership] has grown and grown and grown, and I think has been important for building a sense of community around the festival, building a sort of festival family,” he told Arts Hub.

Other achievements Moore mentions include establishing the MIFF Premiere Fund (the development of which he inherited upon joining the festival) and the festival’s industry program, 37° South.

“At the end, when you look behind the rhetoric of supporting Victorian films and Victorian documentaries and all of that palaver, really what the festival is on about in having that fund is about securing titles for the festival. And that has been important. To be able to open last year with Balibo and to close with Bran Nue Day – whatever one thinks about the respective qualities of those films – I think was a real statement of power and intent from Melbourne International Film Festival, and it was intended to be so.”

But while Moore has played a strong role behind the scenes, he has also played a prominent and successful role in the public eye during his time at the festival, championing genre films, especially horror movies, and supporting the provocative ‘States of Dissent’ program: a collection of highly politicized documentaries examining a range of issues from points of view very different to prevailing orthodoxies.

Last year, the inclusion of Jeff Daniel’s 10 Conditions of Love, a documentary about China’s exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, caused Chinese filmmakers to withdraw their films from the festival program in protest. The MIFF website was attacked by angry Chinese hackers, and the festival office was flooded by abusive and aggressive emails and faxes protesting the film’s screening.

“One of the highlights for me, I think, was standing on last year’s stage at the Melbourne Town Hall with Rebiya Kadeer and looking out across the Town Hall filled with 1800 people and finally saying ‘let’s press play’ on this little Australian documentary that caused such a fuss,” Moore reflected.

Despite causing significant stress for all at MIFF, Moore believes that not giving in to the Chinese government’s demands to pull 10 Conditions of Love has significantly contributed to the festival’s international standing.

“MIFF was already a well known, well respected festival, but I think I’m happy to leave it knowing the reputation of the festival as an independent one, and as being a brave one and a courageous festival, and interested in politics and discussion and debate and argument and conversation; if I left knowing that had been part of my legacy, I would be very, very happy, and I intend to continue that in northern climes.”

In January, Moore advised the MIFF Board of his intentions to step down as Festival Director after this year’s festival. The following month it was announced that he would take on a new position as Head of Screen Culture for Screen Queensland, a new role responsible for overseeing the company’s screen culture program.

But before he goes, Moore has one last Melbourne International Film Festival to oversee.

As well as the return of ‘States of Dissent’, the music program ‘Backbeat’ and the ‘International Panorama’ program streams, the 59th MIFF sees the addition of several new program categories, including ‘Flawed Geniuses’, ‘Wild Things’, and ‘Our Space’.

“‘Flawed Geniuses’ is a study of eccentricity; a look at eccentricity as it applies to the human personality,” Moore explained. “We were looking at all these films – and they’re primarily documentaries – and we were thinking, ‘How do we put these together?’ I remember the first conversation I had about it with Michelle [Carey, the festival’s Head of Programming] and going ‘Why don’t we call this section ‘Extremely Nutty People Who Are Passionate About What They Do?’’

“That didn’t quite work,” he laughed, “but it was sort of a strand where we could see these brilliant creative people who are obviously deeply troubled and deeply flawed, as we all are, but they’ve somehow achieved greatness in whatever area they’ve set their minds to.”

Typical of the ‘Flawed Geniuses’ program is The Genius and the Boys, a film by Bosse Lindquist which Moore describes as “about a scientist who’s still alive, who was up in Papua New Guinea. and it turned out that he’d been playing around with the little boys much later on in his life, and it absolutely ruined his reputation. I think with these films, and the ‘Flawed Genius’ thing, you think back to classical Greek tragedy and the idea that everyone’s got that fatal flaw inside their character; and it’s fascinating for all of us to see and hear and read about people’s lives. It’s really a study of human frailty.”

This year’s program also includes a special package of films celebrating American filmmaker Joe Dante, the director of such movies as the tongue-in-cheek Piranha (1978) and the 80’s classic Gremlins. It’s the latest in a series of spotlights Moore has programmed in recent years which celebrate the spectacle and dynamism of genre cinema.

“Genre films are one of my passions. I don’t count myself as an expert in that area at all, but Joe’s films are, as you know, deeply political and reasonably subversive, critical of the military and critical of the corporate approach to life, which is one of my pet hates – I can’t stand the corporate lifestyle,” Moore said.

“I’ve been wanting to do Joe’s films ever since I saw the success of Romero here [American filmmaker George Romero, best known for the subversive politics of his ‘Dead’ series movies, including 1968’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, was the focus of a MIFF spotlight in 2008]. And the reason I went for Romero was because I felt you had to break down the perception of MIFF seeing itself as some temple of high art, and temple of high art film. That can become a little bit self-important, and I think it needed to be broken down. And from an audience perspective, in terms of building an audience for MIFF, you have to appeal to a much wider and a much broader audience, without diluting your ‘film as high art temple’ business.

“And also I think both Romero and Joe Dante have a lot of fun with their filmmaking. They have a sense of humour, and they genuinely love movies. And going around the world and sitting in all these cinemas, whether it’s in Gothenburg or Rotterdam or wherever, sometimes you begin to wonder – particularly with the new move towards slow, contemplative cinema, of which I’m not a great fan – have you forgotten the audience? I think Dante, and Romero as well, both have that passion for an audience,” he continued.

“So in a roundabout way, that’s part of the reasoning [for programming the Joe Dante spotlight]. And I think that Gremlins, and Gremlins 2 in particular, is one of my favourite movies. I’ve been revisiting them lately, I’ve watched about six in the past couple of weeks, and Gremlins 2 is really fresh in my mind. And when the gremlins break into ‘New York, New York’ at the end of Gremlins 2,” Moore laughed, “who can fail to be moved by that?”

Melbourne International Film Festival, July 22 – August 8

This feature originally appeared on Arts Hub on Wednesday July 7, 2010.