Friday 19 August 2016

MIFF 2016 (2) - Serious Young Cinephile Shaun Heenan encounters Verhoeven, Ade, Puiu, and Tsangari among many...

Following a monthly record number of page views for his first post on MIFF 2016,  serious young cinephile  Shaun Heenan has sent in the second of a series of reports he will be posting about the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Day Three
Before the ad-reel began at every MIFF session, the screen was used to display a selection of tweets and Instagram posts made using the #MIFF2016 hashtag. It’s a smart way to bring the online discussion to the attention of moviegoers who don’t use these services, and a window into the general tone of audience reaction. Certain films appeared time and time again on this screen, perhaps none so frequently as Kedi.

Kedi (Ceyda Torun, USA/Turkey, 2016)
This is a documentary about the large population of stray cats which wander the streets of Istanbul, and the people who interact with them. It’s a surface-level only examination, failing to delve any deeper than the obvious idea that some people grow close to animals because of loneliness. It also avoids even mentioning the similarly-large stray dog population of the same city, mentioned elsewhere at MIFF in an unrelated film. Amongst the MIFF internet commenters, this film took on a life of its own as some sort of haven for cat lovers: essentially a feature-length ‘cute cat’ video. Anybody seeking it out for that reason would be better served by just typing ‘cats’ into Youtube and watching whatever came up for the next 90 minutes. Not recommended.

Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2016)
This 173-minute Palme d’Or nominee was the longest film I saw at MIFF, and thankfully one of the best. (I avoided both the 317-minute Happy Hour and the 485-minute A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery.) This film continues in the cynical vein of other recent high-profile Romanian films, taking the form of a non-stop argument amongst extended family, filmed in tight quarters designed to make the audience feel as uncomfortable as the participants. Making your film deliberately unpleasant and still enjoyable is a really tricky thing to nail, and Puiu’s film contains exactly the right amount of humour to make it work. There’s always someone standing to the side of the drama grinning about how silly it all is. Highly recommended.

A Monster with a Thousand Heads (Rodrigo Plá, Mexico, 2015)
Here’s a very pointed Mexican thriller which could* just as easily have taken place in the United States. A woman is told her husband will die without medical treatment he is entitled to receive through his insurance policy, but the higher-ups arbitrarily refuse treatment to keep the numbers in check. She decides she has no time to waste, takes a doctor hostage at gunpoint and begins making demands.
Jana Raluy’s lead performance conveys real desperation, and helps elevate a film which could seem simplistic in lesser hands. It’s short and focused, getting its message across in just 75 minutes and then closing before wearing out its welcome. Recommended.
*(and did: see Nick Cassavetes’ similarly-themed 2002 film John Q)

Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, Germany, 2016)
This was the film I heard the most love for from Cannes critics, and was one of the most exciting prospects playing at MIFF, following Maren Ade’s excellent first two films The Forest for the Trees (2003) and Everyone Else (2009). Taking a tough look at the life of businesswoman Ines (Sandra Hüller), belittled at every turn in a field dominated by entitled men, Ade has lost none of the bite shown in her earlier films, but there’s a newfound broad comedic tone which makes Toni Erdmann a crowdpleaser. Ines’ father, worried about his daughter, forcibly inserts himself into her life by barely disguising himself in false teeth and a bad wig, presenting himself as a ‘consultant’. The film requires every second of its 164-minute running time to give us incisive commentary, a touching family story and the best comedic character of the year all at once. Highly recommended.

Evolution (Lucile Hadžihalilović, France/Spain/Belgium, 2015)
One of the more difficult films in this year’s program, Evolution demands patience, telling a mysterious sci-fi story at a glacial pace in near-silence. The visuals are utterly alien and quite beautiful, and the film refuses to offer any kind of explanations. The film takes place on an island covered in black sand, populated solely by young boys and women who appear to be their mothers. I was too tired by this point to truly embrace the film, and surrounded by too many chatty audience members. I’ll revisit this one day and probably love it. I think I recommend this.

Day Four
Kaili Blues (Gan Bi, China, 2015)
Presented in something approaching the meditative storytelling style of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films without attaining the same level of visual poetry, this film both impressed and frustrated me. The story sees an ex-gang member searching for his nephew after hearing the boy may have been sold by his father. In practice, this appears as a collection of barely-connected scenes in no rush to go anywhere. The film’s main draw, and the thing that made me sit up and pay attention, is a 41-minute unbroken shot which travels through multiple villages, changing focus from character to character and employing several methods of transport. Unfortunately even here my interest was largely technical, since nothing is really accomplished during the shot. Not recommended.

11 Minutes (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland/Ireland, 2015)
This thriller seems to be proud of how pointless it is, spending 81 smug minutes leading up to the revelation that it has a stupid ending. We follow various storylines in the same city, as characters interweave on their way through their daily lives. We see a girl auditioning with a sleazy film producer, a hotdog seller, a group of paramedics and so on. There’s a repeated image of a low-flying plane over the city, implying the characters will eventually all meet some September 11-inspired fate. The actual ending is even dumber than this, though the movie loses more points for appropriating that imagery in the first place. Strongly not recommended.

My next screening took place in the Kino Cinema, a Palace-owned multiscreen cinema located in a small mall, halfway between the Forum and the Comedy. The seats are more comfortable than those in either of the other venues, since it’s a regular commercial cinema. I only ran into one problem here: the seats are positioned such that if the person sitting in front of you leans forward at all, their head is directly in front of the subtitles.

A Flickering Truth (Pietra Brettkelly, New Zealand, 2015)
A well-meaning documentary which seems to miss most of its own most important beats. The film follows the efforts to restore and preserve what remains of the Afghan Film archive following a destructive attack by the Taliban. Both historical footage and feature films are amongst the recovered works. We see a general overview of the efforts, but very little of the specifics. We see audiences watching restored films, but don’t hear what they think of them. There’s a good story implied here, but this film just barely avoids telling it. Not quite recommended.

Chevalier (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece, 2015)
Chevalier is a one-note film, but it’s a great note. The film takes place on a yacht where a collection of manly-man tough men decide to hold a contest. They want to know who among them is the ‘best at everything’, because life is a competition with a winner and a bunch of losers. The film mines deeply into the insecurities of such men, giving them the mockery they deserve. It’s funny watching each of them reach for their notepads to write a score down every time one of them does or says something potentially emasculating. The film is ultimately repetitive, but that’s also kind of the point. Recommended.

Elle (Paul Verhoeven, France/Germany, 2016)
The eclectic Paul Verhoeven returns after a ten-year break with an uncomfortably amusing film about the aftermath of sexual assault. The great Isabelle Huppert plays Michèle, an executive at a videogame company who refuses to play the victim after being attacked. Her mindset is fascinating as she attempts to discover the identity of her assailant, and to turn the tables on him. It’s an intriguing plot and a great performance, confounding audience expectations as it pretends to be a trashy thriller only to reveal it has more to say. It feels like this is funnier than it should be, considering the brutality of several scenes, but it’s undeniably enjoyable. Highly recommended.

More to come….

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