Melbourne International Film Festival 2011
Celebrating its 60th anniversary, the Melbourne International Film Festival runs from July 21 until August 7, and screens at Greater Union, Kino, ACMI and Forum cinemas. With 329 films screening (115 shorts and 214 features), a plethora of special events and a program dedicated to looking back over the 60 year history of the Melbourne International Film Festival, MIFF 2011 will be a fantastic celebration of film and film culture. The 2011 Festival Opening Night features the Australian Premiere of The Fairy.
This is a thoughtful and carefully constructed documentary about Ayrton Senna, the three time world champion Brazilian Formula 1 driver who died in a crash at Imola during the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. Making extensive use of archival footage director Asif Kapadia (Far North, The Return, etc) charts Senna’s spectacular career over the course of a decade. Kapadia’s extensive research into Senna’s life saw him sift through some fifteen thousand hours of archival footage, television coverage, interviews, and home videos. He eschews traditional narration, and lets the footage, and a few candid interviews, tell the story. Kapadia effectively captures the sights, sounds and smells of the motor racing circuit. There are even some amazing point of view shots that place in the driver’s seat as Senna’s car races around the track. Kapadia also manages to inject an element of tension into the material during the lead up to the fatal accident that changed Formula 1 racing forever.
This is not always a flattering portrait of Senna, who occasionally comes across as arrogant and driven to succeed. We see how he became disillusioned at the sport as it embraced technology ahead of the raw skill of the driver, and how he butted heads with the administration of the sport. The film also looks at his intense rivalry with McLaren teammate Alain Prost, who is painted as the villain of the piece, and the backroom politics and manoeuvring that denied him the World Championship in 1988. Senna is a fascinating documentary that will appeal to a broader audience than just the revheads.
This is the umpteenth version of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel of a plain, obscure and poor orphan girl who lands a job as a governess and eventually captures the heart of her mysterious employer. This 22nd version of the timeless Gothic romance is a visually sumptuous and handsomely mounted production, but it is also quite bland and dull. Having previously played Alice in Tim Burton’s visually bold version of Alice In Wonderland, Australian actress Mia Wasikowska seems to be the current go to girl for playing virginal heroines of English literature. And she delivers a nicely nuanced performance in a role that has previously been played by the likes of Joan Fontaine, Charlotte Gainsbourg and the late Susannah York. Michael Fassbender (from the recent X-Men First Class, etc) makes for a handsome Mr Rochester, but his performance is fairly perfunctory.
There is a lack of passion and fire between the two leads, which also holds the film back. Judi Dench brings her usual class to her performance as Mrs Fairfax, the kindly housekeeper. Moira Buffini’s screenplay is surprisingly atmospheric and literate, and has pared the novel back to the essentials. Technical contributions are also excellent, from Adriano Goldman’s gorgeous cinematography, to Will Hughes-Jones’ stunning production design and Michael O’Connor’s costumes. Director Cary Fukunaga (the excellent Mexican drama Sin Nombre, etc) brings a foreboding atmosphere to Rochester’s imposing, brooding home.
The romantic drama Medianeras (aka Sidewalls) is the debut feature from writer/director Gustavo Tarreto, who has made a lot of short films in his native Argentina. Medianeras is based on his own award winning 2005 short film, and tells the story of Martin and Mariana, two people living in separate apartments within the same block in Buenos Aires. They are unaware of each other’s presence, even though they occasionally cross paths during their busy days. But it takes a chance connection to bring them together. The film superbly captures that sense of isolation and loneliness of living in a thriving metropolis. It also explores those random connections that can change a person‘s life.
While it starts slowly with a dry lecture on architecture and the role it plays in shaping the rhythm and life of a city, Medianeras eventually develops a nice rhythm. The film has been evocatively shot by cinematographer Leandro Martinez, who superbly captures the cityscapes, and makes them a character in the film. The central cast, featuring Pilar Lopez de Ayala and Javier Drolas, is also attractive. However, this slow paced drama is a little frustrating at times, and lacks any sort of grand cinematic moments.
Taking its title from the Beatles song of the same name, Norwegian Wood is a visually beautiful tale of love, longing, loss of innocence, sexuality and madness from award winning French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung (Cyclo, The Scent Of The Green Papaya, etc). Based on the widely acclaimed best selling novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood is set in Japan in 1967, a turbulent time when student revolts were challenging the fabric of society. The rest of the world was undergoing change and the sexual revolution was in full swing. But Japan had a different moral code and attitude towards sex, which leads to tragedy here. Upon hearing the song Norwegian Wood, Toru (Kenichi Matsuyama) reflects back on his friendship with his best friend Kizuki (Kengo Kora) and Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi, from Babel, etc). But after Kizuki committed suicide over his failed relationship with Naoko, the nature of their friendship changed. This beautifully photographed but melancholy film traces the troubled relationship between Toru and the psychologically damaged Naoko who spends a lot of time in rehab.
It also follows Toru’s painful coming of age story and the love triangle that develops between himself, Naoko and the beautiful Midori (model Kiko Mizuhara, making her film debut). This is a superficial treatment of the source novel, which many have considered unfilmable. Mark Lee Bin Ping’s cinematography is exquisite and matches Hung’s sublime, poetic vision, and the film has a surface beauty that is hard to ignore. The film is erotic without being explicit, but it is also slow paced, down beat, introspective, and ultimately seems overlong. An understanding of Japanese culture and social mores is probably also useful in fully appreciating the film.
The Eye Of The Storm
This visually rich and literate adaptation of Patrick White’s novel marks Fred Schepisi’s first Australian film since Evil Angels, over 20 years ago. White’s novel was an exploration of class issues in Australian society in the early 70’s, but much of it still seems relevant today. This is the first film adaptation of one of White’s novels, and Judy Morris’s clever, wonderfully nuanced and literate script does his prose justice. Elizabeth Hunter (Charlotte Rampling, in fine form) is the imperious, demanding and ailing matriarch of a dysfunctional Sydney family. Her two children (Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis) fled as far away from home as soon as they were able, and have rarely bothered to come home. Basil (Rush) is the bombastic, narcissistic actor who has carved out a career for himself on the English stage, while Dorothy (Davis) has married into a wealthy European family.
When Elizabeth is dying her two children return home, not to cheer her up but rather to pick over their inheritance. The Eye Of The Storm is a delicious black comedy about complex family relationships and the fine line between love and hate. There is some great dialogue and biting social observations. Schepisi beautifully directs the material, and this is his best film for quite some time. There are solid performances from the great cast of Australian actors (including Colin Friels, Helen Morse and Robyn Nevin) who flesh out even the smaller roles. Technical contributions are also superb, especially Ian Baker’s gorgeous and rich cinematography and Melinda Doring’s production design.
Kriv Stenders’ new film is a charming, broadly appealing and incredibly moving family friendly film. Based on Louis de Bernieres’ book, Red Dog tells the story of a stray dog that brought together a disparate community in the remote mining region of Western Australia. The film is based on a true story, although one suspects that a few liberties have been taken for dramatic purposes. American import Josh Lucas plays John, a bus driver who befriends Red Dog, while Rachael Taylor is also quite good as Nancy, another resident who befriends the stray dog. Stenders has brought together a solid cast that includes the late Bill Hunter, Noah Taylor, Luke Ford and Keisha Castle-Hughes (from Whale Rider, etc) to play the various local inhabitants, who all have their stories to tell about the dog. But the real star is Koko the dog, who is a real scene-stealer and provides the heart and soul of the film.
The film was shot on locations in the Pilbara and Dampier regions of Western Australia, which adds authenticity to the material. The cinematography is excellent, and captures the harsh beauty of this remote landscape. And the action is accompanied by a superb soundtrack of classic Australian rock songs. Red Dog is a crowd pleasing local film that should enjoy healthy box office business when released commercially in August.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Rabble rousing documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden?, etc) turns his attention to the potent power and insidious influence of advertising in today’s world. In particular he looks at the practice of product placement in movies, and attempts to examine just how powerful the marketing industry has become within the film industry. Spurlock talks to high-powered advertising agents, lawyers, corporate types, and several film directors to get a diverse range of opinions on the subject. He even talks to consumer advocate Ralph Nader and author Noam Chomsky. Spurlock sets out to finance his documentary about product placement purely through sponsorship and product placement. He is even willing to offer a company above the title branding for the right amount.
Is this a legitimate undertaking, or is he compromising his artistic integrity? As he becomes buried by a raft of contractual obligations, Spurlock’s quest raises some interesting questions about creative freedom and artistic control. But, like Michael Moore, Spurlock is a shameless showman who loves attention-getting stunts to illustrate his viewpoint, even if his subject matter is more lightweight and seemingly trivial by comparison. Spurlock is a provocateur, but he is also an engaging, informative, subversive and entertaining filmmaker, and this is one of the funniest documentaries you will see.
Tom Tykwer’s new film is a contemporary adult drama about the unconventional and complicated relationship that develops between three fortysomething professionals in Berlin – think John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, and you’ll get the drift. Tykwer is best known for the exciting, kinetic, and visually stimulating Run Lola Run, and again he uses visual tricks to propel the story. He uses split screen effects to introduce us to the central characters and their busy lives, and then again later to suggest the passage of time. This rather uninteresting and bland domestic drama deals with themes of love, lust, deception and betrayal. It unfolds in a surprisingly conventional fashion, and Tykwer’s direction is deliberately paced. It’s a pity that the screening was beset with some technical issues. The film print hadn’t arrived and MIFF screened a digital DVD screener, which was emblazoned with the film company logo and every fifteen minutes or so the words “Promotional Material Only” flashed boldly across the screen. But worse, the digital print broke down and replayed different scenes on four occasions. By the end I had lost patience, lost interest, and had lost the plot. Others voted with their feet!
Tears Of Gaza
Tears Of Gaza is a powerful and moving documentary with a potent antiwar message as if focuses on the 22 days of Israeli bomb attacks on the Gaza Strip in 2008/2009. Emotionally the film goes straight for the jugular with lots of close up shots of broken, bleeding and dead children and lots of grieving, wailing and anguished parents. Norwegian actress turned film director Vibeke Lokkeberg tells the story from the perspective of three young children whose families perished in the attacks. There is lots of raw footage and hand held camera work here as audiences are taken into the heart of the damaged buildings and streetscapes. This is histrionic stuff and a decidedly one-sided look at the ongoing conflict in the area, and the producers obviously have their own agenda to push. Nonetheless it is still quite moving. Lisa Gerrard’s haunting score also adds to the film’s impact.
The new film from idiosyncratic Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki has been a highlight of the Festival so far. This is Kaurismaki’s second French language film. Set in the port town of Le Havre, the story centres around Marcel (Andre Wilms), a shoe-shine man whose life is transformed when he helps a young African boy, an illegal immigrant who is on the run from the authorities. The boy just wants to get to England and see his mother. In broad terms, the plot shares a surface similarity with the wonderful French drama Welcome as it also tackles the French policy on illegal immigrants and refugees. Here Kaurismaki plays the material more for laughs, with the drama tempered by some wonderful touches of humour. His trademark dead pan style and dry delivery works well and accentuates the absurd humour. Jean-Pierre Darroussin is also marvellous as Monet, the officious policeman who is doggedly pursuing the runaway. Beautifully shot and acted by a pitch perfect cast, Le Havre is a delight.
Melancholia is the latest film from eccentric Danish director Lars Von Trier, but thankfully it is nowhere near as nasty, confrontational and misanthropic as his previous film Antichrist, which screened at MIFF last year. This is something of a hybrid film as it comes in two parts that have distinctly different moods even though they have the same characters. The film charts the troubled relationship between two sisters. Part one details the dysfunctional wedding party for Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and her husband, which is beleaguered by her depression and mood swings. This is typical von Trier, shot with hand held cameras that can be nausea inducing, and shot in natural light that gives the bleak material a warm glow. It also has a great cast that includes Charlotte Gainsbourg, as her sister Claire, John Hurt, Keifer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, and von Trier regulars Stellan Skarsgaard and Udo Kier.
The second part is von Trier’s vision of the end of the world, as a huge planet known as Melancholia is on an orbit towards the Earth. Scientists have predicted that it may even collide with our planet, spelling destruction for mankind. This segment has been filmed with a suitably cold bluish tinge. The name of the planet ironically hints at the melancholy state and depression that grips Justine. Although Dunst won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance here, it is Gainsbourg who gets the more emotionally complex and demanding role. Von Trier obviously loves to put his female characters through an emotional wringer, and Melancholia is full of disturbing psychological insights into the central characters. With its marriage of music and striking images, Melancholia is a haunting piece of cinema, and probably von Trier’s most personal film to date. But the film may prove divisive, with fans of von Trier relishing this dark vision of a world of emptiness.