Wednesday 7 September 2016

MIFF 2016 - Shaun Heenan completes his mammoth six-part round-up of the MIFF offering

Day Eleven
The Family (Rosie Jones, Australia, 2016)
A documentary about a Melbourne-based cult I was completely unaware of prior to the screening. In short, Anne Hamilton Byrne’s charm let her take control of people’s lives. We hear tales of childhood abuse from survivors who were beaten and mistreated as children, and forced to take LSD. I wish the information here had been better organised, and presented with more insight, because I’d like to get behind this one, and I can’t quite. This material may be better served in the upcoming book on the subject, based on the same research.
From the Q+A and the tone in the room afterwards, I get the feeling this film really struck a chord with many audience members who, if they or people they know were not directly affected, at least heard the stories on the news at the time. A great round of applause was given to the police officer in charge of investigating the cult, who was present at the screening.

Boris Without Béatrice (Denis Côté, Canada, 2016)
James Hyndman convincingly plays arrogant rich dirtbag Boris Malinovsky, who knows the power his money gives him, and uses it to belittle others. Simone-Élise Girard barely speaks in her role as his wife Beatrice, once a powerful politician, now spending her days in bed in a catatonic state. The film enters strange territory with the appearance of a nameless mystery man played by Denis Lavant who knows more than he should and suggests Beatrice’s illness is a supernatural punishment for Boris’ affairs and general cruelty. This is where the film started to rub me the wrong way, and it never really recovered. The film turns a simple concept into an overblown metaphor while offering an incredibly heavy-handed moral message which feels better suited for children’s television. Who on Earth is this film trying to speak to? Not recommended.

I Am Nero (Rafi Pitts, Germany/France/Mexico, 2016)
A Mexico/US border crossing story which can’t quite sustain its momentum despite a rather good opening hour. An early scene which shows Americans and Mexicans playing volleyball across the fence while a security camera stares down at them is one of the most striking moments in any film I saw at MIFF. The title character plans to take advantage of US legislation which offers citizenship to those who serve in the US Army. While there’s plenty that could be said about this, the movie essentially skips it, becoming a clone of every Middle-East-set war film you’ve seen this decade. The film’s first half offers nothing but treasures, but the second half offers nothing at all. I recommend this, but only just.

Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2016)
Kelly Reichardt has finally succeeded in her career-long quest to prove there is such a thing as 'too subtle'. Her new film is a collection of three stories: two featuring Laura Dern and Michelle Williams as strong women who have their power undermined by men, and a really heartbreaking one featuring Kristen Stewart as a night-school teacher who befriends a student. The third is very good, but the first two stories both have exactly one point to make, and drag badly otherwise. Each can be summed up by a single line of dialogue: “If I was a man, he’d have accepted my advice six months ago,” and “Why do you always have to make me the villain?” I wish I liked more about this film. I’m sure that saying what I have about it from my male perspective is just me proving Reichardt’s point. For what it’s worth, the third story is good enough that I recommend the film anyway.

The Love Witch (Anna Biller, USA, 2016)
Shot on 35mm stock and made to emulate the visual style of 60s Technicolor films, this is an absolute visual treat. This is the deliberately-trashy story of a young and beautiful witch with spectacular eye makeup who uses magic in her quest to find a ‘real man’ and make him fall in love with her. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek, and the tone works more often than not. The audience had a great time with this one, laughing almost non-stop at the mix of horror and romance. At two hours, it feels a little too long, but I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Recommended.

Day Twelve
Our Huff and Puff Journey (Daigo Matsui, Japan, 2015)
Another early morning ACMI session filled with schoolkids. This is the irritating story of a group of hyperactive Japanese schoolgirls squealing non-stop as they make their way to Tokyo to see their favourite boyband. Of course things go wrong on the journey, and friendships are tested before being ultimately strengthened, but there’s not nearly enough going on here to make it worth subjecting yourself to 90 minutes with these idiots. If we absolutely must invite children into festival screenings, can we please at least show them good movies? Strongly not recommended.

Family Film (Olmo Omerzu, Czech Republic/Germany/Slovenia/France/Slovakia, 2015)
A darkly comic story about the rifts which appear between family members in the aftermath of a disastrous vacation. The parents go island hopping with the family dog, leaving their two teenage children at home to cause trouble. The most interesting thing in this film happens towards the end, so skip to the next paragraph if you’d rather not read about it. Family Film continues the MIFF trend of animal MVPs (see: Paterson, Kedi, Elle, Things to Come etc.), offering the most interesting such segment at the festival as the film shifts perspective, becoming a survival tale of a dog trapped on an island. Maybe I’m just easily fooled, but in my eyes this section turned the film into something quite special. Recommended.

Mercenary (Sacha Wolff, France, 2016)
Straight from screening at the Directors’ Fortnight section of Cannes, Mercenary is a bluntly-titled film about a big and strong young Polynesian man who flies to France after being scouted by a pro Rugby Union team, only to find himself dumped at the airport, broke. While he does begin playing for a lower grade team, this does very well to avoid becoming a sports movie. There is no big game to win, and we hardly ever see him play. I wish we could also have avoided ‘gangster film’ while we were dodging genres, since the film takes a more familiar turn once people start shaking each other down. Until then, however, this is a good character study of a tough man damaged by his tougher father, and by the ugly colonial mindsets which left him abandoned. Mildly recommended.

I had originally planned to close out the festival with Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper (2016), which was playing in this slot at the Comedy Theatre. Mid-festival, a new session of this film was added at the far more comfortable Forum Theatre during a slot I had nothing exciting planned for, so I swapped a ticket to see the film earlier and in a better cinema. After browsing scheduling options I opted to keep my ticket for the Comedy Theatre session as well, but I couldn’t very well use a rewatch as a closing night film, so I decided to ride this thing right into the ground and booked two more sessions on the final evening.

Christine (Antonio Campos, USA, 2016)
I had intended to skip both Christine Chubbuck films until I could see them together (both this film and Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine premiered at Sundance this year before playing at MIFF), but with an empty session and strong word of mouth, I decided I’d rather not wait.
Christine Chubbuck was a journalist who shot herself in the head live on air during a news broadcast in 1974. In Campos’ film Rebecca Hall plays Christine in the weeks leading up to this event, and the film tries to offer some insight into some of the things which may have led her to her decision. Hall is good in a role which could easily have tipped into caricature, her desperation visible behind every line of dialogue. Recommended.

The Devil’s Candy (Sean Byrne, USA, 2015)
I closed out my trip to Melbourne with a midnight session that ended just two hours before I needed to head to the airport. I never saw Sean Byrne’s previous horror film The Loved Ones (2009), but I’m interested in checking it out after having a good time with this new one. A young family moves into a house with an evil history, because that’s how these things always start. Before long the father finds himself falling into trances, hearing strange voices and painting large demonic murals without realizing he’s doing so. Before long one of the house’s original residents comes back to visit, and starts attacking children. The film is creepy and violent, but it’s mostly interested in being fun to watch. Byrne has a real love for heavy metal, and his film is full of incredibly loud music. The better of the two midnight horror films I saw at MIFF. Recommended.

At this point I’m not sure whether I’ll be returning to Melbourne for next year’s festival, or coming down a little bit earlier to hit Sydney. Melbourne’s position in the year makes it the best place to catch films from the Cannes competition, and for me that’s a big draw. Sydney’s main cinemas are more comfortable, which is a big bonus, since I felt seriously uncomfortable during a number of films at MIFF. Last year’s SFF brought me fairly close to quitting cinemas altogether, as the crowds consistently chattered away during each and every film. Melbourne’s audiences get a B+ on that front, showing a great deal more respect for the medium, but being let down by the baffling patron who let their phone go off three times in As I Open My Eyes. Sydney’s scheduling is better, since Melbourne’s organisers refuse to play the big name films at any time before 6pm, which seriously limited my ability to see the films I was hoping to.

The Handmaiden (Park Chan-wook, S. Korea, 2016)
The best ten films I saw at MIFF: (Starting with the best)
1. The Handmaiden
2. Paterson
3. Personal Shopper
4. Toni Erdmann
5. The Salesman
6. Mimosas
7. Things to Come
8. Sieranevada
9. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki
10. As I Open My Eyes

With a special mention of Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader (2015), which would have been #10 if I hadn’t rented it online a week before the festival.

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