Monday, July 25, 2011

Film review: I AM ELEVEN (MIFF 2011)

Shortly after young Melburnian Genevieve Bailey’s father died, she embarked on her first trip overseas intent on doing something with her life.

Most people in her position would have thrown themselves into a series of hedonistic backpacking adventures, but not Bailey. Armed only with a digital video camera and unbridled optimism, the 20-something filmmaker set off to interview a wide range of children about their experiences of being 11 years old in a world that is changing as rapidly as they are themselves.

From Thailand and India to France and Japan, over the next four years more than a dozen 11 year olds – some affluent, some poor; no longer quite children, but not yet teenagers – spoke candidly and openly to Bailey about love, war, global warming, music, terrorism, culture, family, happiness, religion and the future.

Bailey's resulting documentary, a composite portrait of children around the world, is heartwarming, charming and life-affirming: a remarkable and engaging tapestry of young hopes, fears and dreams.

Melburnian Jamira talks about how proud she is of her Indigenous heritage and her father, who is raising her singlehandedly; young Frenchman Remi speaks passionately about his disdain for racism and his country’s failure to deal with inequality and poverty; and in Thailand, Jack and Goh share their experiences of working in an elephant sanctuary.

Bookended by Bailey’s deeply personal introduction to the documentary and a summing up of the experience of making it, the film includes sequences in which the young protagonists reveal startling insights into bullying and mental resilience, sweetly innocent attitudes towards romance and relationships, and remarkable self-awareness as they speak about not wanting to grow up too fast.

The patchwork assemblage of footage is linked together by the children’s commonalities and shared experiences, such as a series of discussions about bullying; a guided tour of their homes; a sequence of dance routines. Though one occasionally wishes for more extended interviews rather than constant snippets of discussion, the overall effect is both detailed and delightful.

At numerous times while watching the film I was choking back tears; at other moments I was laughing unrestrainedly. Insightful, compassionate and poignant, I Am Eleven is highly recommended.

I Am Eleven (Dir. Genevieve Bailey, Australia, 2011, 93 mins)

Rating: Four stars

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Film review: KNUCKLE (MIFF 2011)

Directed and photographed by Ian Palmer, this raw Irish documentary looks at bare-knuckle boxing matches between Irish traveller families the Quinn McDonaghs, the Joyces and others, and the long-running feud that the fights are supposed to resolve.

Palmer spent 12 years filming the families and the brutal fights staged between their representatives, with much of the story told through the eyes of James Quinn McDonagh, his family's best fighter and a man who vast sums of money - upwards of £19,000 - are wagered upon (though the question of whether the fights are now driven more by money than family honour is never clearly explored by Palmer; one of several faults in the film).

As well as filming the fights themselves (usually held on country back-roads to avoid police intervention), Palmer tries to come to grips with the tragedy that first sparked the feud: a pub brawl gone wrong that resulted in two deaths and a manslaughter charge. Few of his interviewees, including James' hotheaded younger brother Michael, and Big Joe Joyce, 'the King of the Travellers', are particularly forthcoming about the issue, and the murky question of guilt and blame, and the pointless cycle of violence and trash-talking retaliation that the families are caught up in, drives the film's occasionally muddy narrative.

At 93 minutes, Knuckle feels overlong; a tighter pace and shorter running time would have done its compelling subject more justice; and the handheld camerawork is sometimes irritatingly shaky. Nonetheless, its view of Traveller culture is unique, and Palmer's footage of the fights themselves has undeniable power. As a study of the pointlessness of violence, however, it's more than a touch repetitive.

KNUCKLE (dir. Ian Palmer, Ireland, 2011, 93 mins)
Rating: Two and a half stars

Film review: THE FAIRY (MIFF 2011)

My 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) has kicked off with a leisurely - and to my mind, sane - pace: two films in two days. I was asked if I'd participate in the MIFF Blog-A-Thon this year, but while flattered, I said no: given everything else on in Melbourne at the moment, including the Melbourne Cabaret Festival and State of Design, there's no way I'd have the time to see 60 films in 17 days (an average of 3.5 films a day, though six brave/insane souls have accepted the challenge, and bravo to them).

Nonetheless, I do intend to try and review most of what I see at the festival this year, though I'm well aware that time constraints and other issues will cause my blog entries to become increasingly sporadic and minimal as the festival unfolds. Nonetheless, hopefully I get to write about most of the 40-odd films I plan to see. Let's give it a shot, shall we?

THE FAIRY (dir. Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon & Bruno Romy, France/Belgium, 2011, 93 mins)

My first film at the 60th MIFF was the opening night feature; a wry, absurd and charming comedy set in the grimy port city Le Havre. After the disappointment of last year's opening night film, the muddled Australian rom-com The Wedding Party (which has yet to gain release either at the cinema or on DVD) I approached The Fairy with some trepidation. I need not have been so suspicious. It was delightful; a perfect film to kick off a night of celebrations at Melbourne Town Hall.

Dom (Abel) is a gangly, awkward clerk in a rundown hotel whose life is transformed when he meets the barefoot Fiona (Gordon). Claiming to be a fairy, she grants him three wishes, the first of which immediately come true.But is she really a fairy, or an escapee from the local mental hospital?

The question quickly becomes irrelevant thanks to the film's deft combination of slapstick, farce, magic realism, graceful dance sequences (one underwater, the other on a rooftop) and a charming array of characters, none of which are traditionally attractive - a refreshing change from the romantic leads in more mainstream fare.

Setting its tone almost immediately with a droll routine in which the increasingly frustrated Dom attempts to settle down with a video and and a late-night sandwich, only to be interrupted by a string of customers, The Fairy is a skillfully made comedy that gently reminds us of the plight of refugees in modern Europe, and of the power of love, without resorting to heavy-handed tactics or twee clich├ęs.

Framed and shot in such a way that constantly reminds us we are watching a story - a deliberate reference to Abel & Gordon's earlier careers as theatre makers, perhaps - and featuring a hilarious car and scooter chase up a mountain acknowledging an earlier cinematic tradition, this whimsical film will certainly not be to everyone's tastes. Memorable, distinctive and gently madcap, it was a delightful way to get the 60th MIFF underway.

Rating: Three and a half stars

Wednesday, July 06, 2011


So, over at Arts Hub I've written up a review of Torchwood: Miracle Day. As is my habit, I'll post an except here, but if you would like to read the whole thing, get thee to Arts Hub!

Newcomers to Torchwood need not fear they’ll be lost in the usual convoluted back stories and continuity references of a successful TV series, for Miracle Day is at pains to introduce viewers to its world and its characters through the eyes of Matheson and his CIA assistant, Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) – indeed, for long term fans, the drip-fed details may be occasionally irksome. That said, the pace of the first episode (written by Davies, the showrunner, and the only episode that has been provided for review) is generally excellent: it’s a fast and thrilling ride featuring a large cast of well-detailed characters, and with scenes rapidly cutting between numerous locations on both sides of the Atlantic.

Davies has a deft ear for dialogue, and the script for this first episode sparkles, featuring both one liners, and in-jokes for long-term fans of the show. It also establishes a number of plot threads to be explored in the remaining nine episodes of the season, and in the tradition of speculative fiction, raises a number of philosophical questions around the central theme of life, death and immortality that will no doubt be explored over the coming weeks.

The budget for Torchwood: Miracle Day is clearly larger than most BBC productions, given the influx of US funds from Starz, and it shows: this is a good-looking piece of television, full of swooping helicopter shots and luscious cinematography that makes the most of the show’s various locales.

The most obvious US influence is apparent in the episode’s action sequences: there are more guns, and bigger explosions, than Torchwood has ever seen before. At its heart, however, it still feels like Torchwood, albeit on a larger, more expansive scale.

Rating: Four stars

Torchwood: Miracle Day
Saturdays at 8.30pm from July 9 on UKTV