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More Melbourne International Film Festival

Here is a brief look at some of the other films that screened at MIFF during the first week of the Festival.

Life In A Day
 
Produced under the auspices of Ridley and Tony Scott, Life In A Day is a massive and ambitious undertaking that takes advantage of the growth of new technology and access to multi-media that makes everybody a budding Spielberg. In 2010, Oscar winning documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald (One Day In September, etc) asked people to film their lives during one 24-hour period and upload their footage onto YouTube. Then Macdonald and his co-editor Joe Walker faced the daunting task of editing some 4,500 hours of film from 192 countries down into this cohesive 90-minute glimpse into life from around the world. Life In A Day acts as a time capsule and a remarkable snapshot of what life was like on July 24, 2011.
 
The random footage is loosely linked by a series of questions that the various filmmakers had to respond to – “What do you fear? What do you love?” etc – which provides a thematic structure. The film gives us insights into cultures, traditions, love, sex, death, politics, religion, our hopes and fears, and the daily routine of a diverse range of people. Some of the footage is incredibly personal, while other snippets are humourous, quirky, and often visually spectacular. Given the origins of the footage, the images are surprisingly crisp and clear, and often quite beautiful. Harry Gregson- Williams’s string-heavy musical score provides an emotionally satisfying background to the superbly edited montage of images.
 
Intimate Grammar
 
Based on the book by David Grossman, Intimate Grammar is a poignant and downbeat coming of age tale from Israel, set in the years leading up to the Six-Day War. The film follows the painful experiences of young Aharon, a precociously intelligent and sensitive 10-year old who is smaller in size than other boys his age. His mother (Orly Silbersatz) is a bitter and domineering woman, and his sad sack father Moshe (Yehuda Almagor) feels emasculated. Aharon watches their crumbling marriage but feels helpless to do anything to salvage the situation. Meanwhile, Aharon feels the pangs of first love, and learns about betrayal and the limits of friendship when he competes with his best friend for the affection of a fellow student at school. The film is packed with incident, some amusing and some quite touching.
 
Writer/director Nir Bergman (who wrote for tv series In Treatment, etc) seems intent on cramming most of the book into the film, and some plot elements remain underdeveloped. However, he maintains a leisurely pace throughout that slowly draws the audience into Aharon’s sad and dysfunctional world. Newcomer Roee Elsberg gives a wonderful and charismatic performance as the young Aharon who grows increasingly anxious as he watches the world pass him by, and he provides a strong focal point. The film draws heavily upon Jewish customs and humour, and some of its more specific references may be lost on casual audiences.
 
Client 9 - The  Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
 
 A fascinating study of politics, power, sex, hubris, and conspiracy, this incisive and well-researched documentary offers a look at the rise and fall of New York Governor and potential future President Eliot Spitzer, who was brought down by a sex scandal. Spitzer, who featured prominently in Inside Job, the recent documentary about the global financial crisis, was a crusading District Attorney, known as "The Sheriff of Wall Street," who took on the fiscal mismanagement and corruption of New York’s power brokers and big business leaders. But in doing so he created a number of powerful enemies who were keen to bring him down. They got their chance when his name was linked to a prostitute working for the high-end Emperor’s Club escort service. But as this movie asks, was there more to the story? Veteran Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, etc) is unafraid to tackle controversial subject matter.
 
Here he captures some bald faced lies and prevarications here, as well as exposing a massive government-led investigation and raising some serious questions about the behind the scenes manipulation by powerful figures. Gibney captures a contrite Spitzer in an intimate, if hardly revealing, interview that probes the reasons behind his spectacular fall from grace. There are also fascinating interviews with some of Spitzer’s most bitter enemies, including ex-AIG CEO Hank Greenberg and Ken Langone, the former head of the New York Stock Exchange, who seem to revel in his downfall. Gibney also interviews many of those who worked for the escort agency in question, to uncover more inconsistencies. Spitzer comes across as a complex but flawed character, who refuses to spread the blame for his indiscretion, despite Gibney’s pointed questioning and convincing conspiracy theories.
 
Finisterrae
 
The debut film from Spanish artist Sergio Caballero, Finisterrae is a surreal, decidedly offbeat and virtually incomprehensible combination road movie and ghost story that will remind many of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s equally beguiling The Holy Mountain. Full of bizarre flights of fancy, imagination and enigmatic staging, this is a film that will confound many. Basically, the simple, almost non-existent plot concerns two Russian ghosts wandering through the forests outside Santiago hoping to be reborn. They are tired of living in limbo, and make a pilgrimage through northern Spain to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, finishing up overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Finisterre. Caballero draws upon his background as the co-organiser of Barcelona's experimental music festival Sonar in creating the overall distinctive look and feel for the film.
 
The film has been shot on high-definition digital video, allowing Caballero and his cinematographer Eduard Grau to create some strikingly beautiful visuals, and they also use the landscapes well. But the film features some of the cheapest and most unconvincing effects this side of an Ed Wood movie – for example, the ghosts are played by two actors in white sheets. The unnamed pair of ghosts are played by Pau Nubiola and Santí Serra; but are voiced by Russian actors Pavel Lukiyanov and Yuri Mykhaylychenko. Other effects include puffs of smoke and an artificial horse. The two ghosts spend a lot of time talking, but much of the dialogue is surreal and droll, and little of it means much. Even the end credits are narrated in a dry voiceover. This film will certainly polarise audiences, and it has had the most walkouts of any film I have seen at MIFF so far this year!
 
Polisse
 
This French drama is set inside the Child Protection Unit of the Paris police. This is the unit that deals with crimes involving children and crimes against children, and some of the material here is supposedly based on actual cases. Actress, co-writer and director Maitwenn Le Besco has obviously thoroughly researched the background of the Unit, and she brings a documentary-like realism to the material through the use of hand held cameras, rapid cutting between scenes, overlapping story lines, and natural performances from an ensemble cast. There are some strong and unsettling moments interspersed throughout the film. Some of the characters are more fully developed than others, and this creates an uneven balance. A photojournalist (played by the director herself) is assigned to record the activities of the unit, and she becomes embedded and gets swept up in some of their activities. The members of the specialist unit seek catharsis for their stress through drink, casual sex, and inappropriate black humour. It is often demanding and draining work, as they often witness some of the worst depravations in society, and the horrors that they deal with on a daily basis take their toll, both personally and professionally. With its mix of black humour, police procedural, tired melodrama and action, Polisse sometimes comes across like the pilot episode for a tv series about the CPU, sort of like a frenetic cross between The Wire and Law & order: SVU.
 
The Innkeepers
 
The Yankee Pedlar is a haunted hotel in Connecticut that is going out of business. During its last weekend of operations a young couple with an interest in psychic phenomena are doing desk duty while trying to find evidence of ghosts within the sprawling hotel. Claire (Sara Paxton, from The Last House On the Left, etc) is a drifter waiting to move on to the next town, while Luke (Pat Healy) is establishing a website that supposedly documents the hotel’s spooky history. The pair take shifts wandering the century-old hotel with old-fashioned equipment hoping to record EVP (Electronic Ghost Phenomenon). The handful of guests includes Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis, from Top Gun, etc), a faded tv star with an interest in psychic events, and an enigmatic old man (George Riddle). Writer/director Ti West (The House Of The Devil, The Roost, etc) is a young filmmaker who appreciates and understands the tropes of the horror genre, and he uses them effectively here. He understands the importance of character, setting and atmosphere – it’s not just psycho/stalker/serial killers, virgins and buckets of gore and blood.
 
This is a slow burning horror thriller with plenty of laughs, and West skilfully spends some time introducing us to the main characters before unleashing a barrage of spooky happenings in the final reel. There are also effective contributions from his regular collaborators - Graham Reznick, whose haunting sound design accentuates every creak and groan; Eliot Rockett's eerie cinematography, which uses shadow and light effectively; and Jeff Grace's atmospheric score. The Innkeepers has its moments, but there is a familiarity to much of the film. The performances are also solid, with Paxton and Healy creating a credible vibe and rapport. As far as haunted hotels go, The Innkeepers is, unfortunately, not in the same league as Kubrick’s classic The Shining!
 
13 Assassins
 
The Dirty Baker’s Dozen? Prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike (Audition, etc) leaves behind his preferred milieu of gangster thrillers and horror movies to venture confidently into Kurosawa territory with this sword and samurai action film, set in mid-19th century feudal Japan. 13 Assassins is a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 black and white samurai movie of the same name, but infused with Miike’s distinctive brand of graphic violence and carnage. A band of thirteen mercenary warriors and samurai set off on a suicide mission to kill the sadistic and bloodthirsty Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), whose actions threaten to undo the years of peace that Japan has enjoyed. Cue plenty of swordplay, bloody action, mayhem, decapitations, and a body count that would make the likes of Tarantino envious. The film is slow to start as it spends a bit of time delving into the political machinations of Japan under the rule of the shogun. But once the film gets down to action it is full on as Naritsugu’s army is lured into a booby-trapped village of Ochia.
 
The climactic battle sequence is epic in scale, and occupies much of the film’s generous running time. Miike directs these exhilarating scenes with gusto, and revels in the carnage. His action scenes make films like 300, with its CGI armies, pale by comparison. Like Peckinpah’s classic The Wild Bunch, which echoed the death of the old west, so too does 13 Assassins reflect the death of the samurai code and way of life in Japan. Characterisation is fairly slim, especially given so many characters, and Miike doesn’t give us enough detail about many of the characters to allow us the engage fully with them or empathise with their fate. Veteran Japanese actor Koji Yakusho (Babel, Memoirs Of A Geisha, etc), brings a sense of gravitas to his role as Shinzaemon, the veteran and principled samurai leading the gang of mercenaries. 13 Assassins is a formulaic film for sure, but it also succeeds as a wonderful homage to the samurai cinema of yesteryear and classic like The Seven Samurai.
 
Bobby Fischer Against The World
 
Was Bobby Fischer the greatest chess player who ever lived? Probably, but as this HBO-produced documentary reveals there was also a darker side to his genius. Drawing upon a wealth of fascinating archival footage, veteran documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus (Girlhood, The Execution Of Wanda Jean, etc) draws a complex portrait of the man, depicting him as stubborn, arrogant, obsessive and a temperamental but typically flawed genius who crumpled under enormous pressure. The portrait of Fischer is rounded out through a series of extensive and candid interviews with colleagues and those who knew him best. There is even an interview with a sad, pathetic and paranoid Fischer himself, filmed a couple of years before his death. Garbus traces his life from his first public appearances as a self-taught child prodigy, becoming US chess champion at the age of 15 and world champion in 1972, to his lonely death in Iceland in 2008 where the disgraced former champion was living in exile.
 
The film spends a lot of time examining his challenge against Russian world champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, arguably the most famous chess match in history, looking at the psychological ploys Fischer used to rattle his opponent. The film also looks at the impact his victory had for the profile of chess in general, but the far more fascinating context of the Cold War paranoia against which the match was played is skimmed over. Following his victory Fischer’s fragile mental state declined and he failed to deal with the public adulation that followed, and Garbus examines his tragic fall. The film unfolds in a somewhat conventional fashion, but it still makes for compelling viewing.
 
Post Mortem
 
Set in Chile in 1973, during the final days of Allende’s brutal dictatorship, Post Mortem is a rather bleak, downbeat and dreary drama. Chilean director Pablo Larrain (Tony Manero, etc) obviously is drawn towards sad, lonely obsessive protagonists with a psychotic streak. Victor (played by Marcelo Alonso, who also appeared in Tony Manero) is a civil servant who works in Santiago’s morgue, typing out details of autopsies. He becomes obsessed with Nancy (Antonia Zegers), a beautiful neighbour who also works as a dancer in a local burlesque hall. During the brutal chaos of the coup, Nancy disappears. In a series of extended flashbacks we learn of her fate. Alonso’s minimalist and coldly detached performance brings a suitably creepy edge to his impassive Victor. The film shares a similar visual style to Tony Manero, and those who appreciated that film may also enjoy this drama and its sharply political edge. The overt violence is kept to a minimum, but Larrain still manages to convey the horrors of Pinochet’s bloody coup. Larrain loves his long takes, especially effective during the climax, but some linger far too long. Larrain’s regular cinematographer Sergio Armstrong has shot the film in largely washed-out, brownish hues which adds to the oppressive atmosphere.
 
Knuckle
 
A real life Irish Fight Club? This brutally honest, raw and disturbing documentary uncovers a startling story of a family feud that follows a rather bizarre course. For several decades, the travelling Quinn McDonagh family has been fighting with their cousins the Joyces, in an ongoing feud that makes the Hatfield McCoy feud seem like a minor family spat. Although the origins seem hazy now, each generation seemingly is determined to keep the feud going. Every couple of years male members of these rival clans meet in some backroad or remote farm yard to try and resolve their differences through bouts of bare knuckle fights. Essentially it’s brothers fighting cousins, and some of these fights last for barely a few brutal minutes. Not only is family honour and masculine pride at stake, but there is also a substantial monetary prize for the winner.
 
There are also rules to be observed, which are enforced by a couple of neutral referees. Documentary filmmaker Ian Palmer stumbled upon this fascinating story when he was invited to film a wedding by James Quinn McDonagh, the formidable leader of his clan. Even though he is now past his prime, James has never lost a bout. Despite several attempts at retiring, he is lured back into the game by the taunts from rivals. Palmer spent 12 years following the Quinn McDonagh family and filming the various fights. But somewhere along the line, Palmer loses his objectivity as he becomes an integral part of the story and is openly welcomed into the family. Palmer has managed to gain the trust of both families, and this enables us to get contrasting viewpoints over the whole feud and the ongoing rivalry. In some ways Palmer himself is complicit in perpetuating these fights, which he reluctantly acknowledges. His confronting and raw footage of a series of bloody fights illustrates the insanity and futility of it all, but he seems unable to make sense of it or stop it. However, it is clear that if the women in the family have any say in the matter, they will try to prevent their children from following in the family tradition.
 
Into Eternity
 
This rather dull, ponderous and pedestrian documentary from Danish conceptual artist Michael Madsen looks at Onkalo, a massive nuclear waste storage facility being built 500 metres underground in a remote area of Finland. It will comprise of over three miles of tunnels. As nuclear waste needs to be stored somewhere safe for the next 100,000 years, the facility needs to be secure and remain uncompromised by future generations. It is expected that it will be permanently sealed off sometime in the 22nd century. Neither sending it into space or burying it deep under the oceans practical solutions to the problem of nuclear waste. Storage facilities above ground are temporary at best, as the Earth is unstable. Wars, earthquakes, economic depressions, greenhouse effects will have an impact over the centuries. Despite the important subject matter, the ominous warnings sounded and the numerous questions raised, Madsen (who also made the short documentary To Damascus, etc) seems to lack the same sense of urgency as the recent nuclear doco Countdown To Zero. In fact, Masden seems to be addressing his film to future generations, and this gives the material a quasi-science-fiction feel.
 
There are lots of talking head interviews with government officials, scientists, doctors, theologians and specialists in the field of nuclear waste management, but these are fairly dull. The film has been shot on high definition video, and the images are quite crisp and clear, especially when Masden takes his camera deep inside the cavernous site itself. It’s a pity that the film itself is rather prosaic, occasionally repetitive, visually unexciting and unimaginative in structure. Also there is a lack of technical information on the details of the construction of this massive project, which would have provided some additional context. Into Eternity would have been better served as a tightly constructed 50 minute documentary which would have been more effective.
 
Michael
 
From Austria comes this disturbing and disconcerting tale seemingly inspired by the story of Natascha Kampusch, the girl who escaped from the house where she was kept a prisoner. Michael (Michael Fuith) is a mild-mannered and unassuming insurance clerk. He follows a routine that seems quite normal and rather boring. But he is also a paedophile, and he has a ten-year-old boy (David Rauchberger) locked in a specially created soundproofed room constructed in the basement of his house. Michael’s molestation of the boy is implied, but is still quite powerful. Despite the challenging subject matter, Markus Schleinzer, a former casting director and collaborator of Michael Haneke, making his feature film debut here, handles the material with great restraint and lack of sensationalism. It would be interesting to see what his mentor Haneke would have done with similar material. The film unfolds in an episodic narrative that is reminiscent of Haneke’s style. Like Haneke, Schleinzer explores the banality of evil, and this makes for uncomfortable viewing at times. He also uses lots of static, long shots to heighten the tension. Michael is a well-constructed film, but it is not an easy one to sit through.
 
The Stoker
 
An intriguing but ultimately slight drama about murder and revenge from Russian director Aleksey Balabanov (Morphia, etc). Ivan Skriabin (Mikhail Skryabin) is a former soldier and decorated war hero, and veteran of the campaign in Afghanistan. After suffering concussion following a bomb blast, he now ekes out an existence by working as a stoker, keeping the massive furnaces burning in a sprawling industrial complex. He is also writing a novel on a battered old typewriter. But local gangsters, working for a man known as Sergeant, also occasionally use the furnaces to dispose of bodies. Skriabin is a passive witness to their activities, until his own daughter Sasha becomes a victim and he seeks revenge on her killers. Balabanov gives us a glimpse into a darker underbelly of a contemporary Moscow, a venal and corrupt city where wealthy gangsters now wield power and where old soldiers are yesterday’s heroes.
 
The performances from the largely unknown cast are quite good, and theatre veteran Skryabin brings a touching and suitably haunted edge to his performance. Balabanov’s script is sparse and peppered with touches of wry humour, and his signature violence is again unexpected and shocking. Balabanov’s regular cinematographer Aleksandr Simonov captures some wonderful images of the snow covered city scape, while DiDiuLia’s jaunty music score offers a counterpoint to the violence that follows.
 
Terri
 
This warm, quirky and yet oddly endearing drama is another low-budget independent American coming of age tale that details the hardships of life in a small town high school. Terri (Jason Wysocki) is a morbidly obese, socially awkward and shy teenager who is a misfit at school. He lives with his uncle (The Office’s Creed Bratton) who is suffering from early onset of dementia. Terri is always late to school and often turns up in his pyjamas. But when the school principal Mr Fitzgerald (John C Reilly) takes an interest in him, Terri’s lonely and miserable life undergoes something of a change. When he reluctantly opens up he finds a couple of new friends in the beautiful but troubled Heather (Olivia Crocicchia) and the weird and troubled Chad (Bridger Zadina), who is another of Fitzgerald’s special “projects”. The film has a painful ring of truth to it, and director Azazel Jacobs (whose previous film Mamma’s Man explored similar uncomfortable territory) maintains a low key and unsentimental approach to the material.
 
Co-written by Jacobs and Patrick Dewitt Terri also has a semi-autobiographical feel to it, and should resonate strongly with a certain audience. The performances of the young, unknown cast are solid. In Particular, newcomer Wysocki is outstanding, and brings an honesty, vulnerability and sensitivity to his performance. Reilly also brings some welcome touches of humour to his role as the clueless but well meaning principal who is trying to prevent certain kids from falling through the cracks in a system that can’t really cope with the disengaged and disconnected. The scenes that the always reliable Reilly and Wysocki share are amongst the best in the film.
 
Tomboy
 
Les garcons ne crient pas? This winning and humourous coming of age comedy is a Gallic variation on Boys Don’t Cry, but this is a far more playful, audience friendly and enjoyable film that looks at the innocence of childhood and sexual identity. The film doesn’t delve into the same dark and doom laden waters as Kimberley Pierce’s controversial Oscar winning drama. Ten year old Laure (a nice performance from Zoe Heran) prefers to dress like a boy and act like one. Her father is busy at work and her heavily pregnant mother is too distracted to notice. When her family moves to a new home in a housing estate, Laure ventures outside to play and meets Lisa (Jeanne Disson). She introduces herself as Mikael, and a friendship develops between the pair. As Mikael, Laure is soon welcomed into a local group of boys who play soccer and hang around the woods. But when the subterfuge is exposed, Laure learns some painful lessons in honesty, life and responsibility. Celine Sciamma directs the material with compassion and a sly sense of humour. With a relatively brief running time Tomboy never drags on or becomes bogged down with too many subplots and irrelevant distractions.
 
Sciamma’s previous film Water Lilies also dealt with issues of childhood sexuality and acceptance. The performances of the youthful cast are natural and unaffected. In a challenging and difficult role, Heran delivers a superb performance that captures her emotional turmoil and confusion. She has a suitably androgynous appearance that is perfect for her role as a lonely and confused child trying to find her place. But Malonn Levana is a real cutie, and effortlessly steals scenes as Laure’s precocious younger sister Jeanne. The relationship and rapport between the pair adds an extra dimension to this marvellous film. Sophie Cattani is also strong as Laure’s mother. Tomboy is a modest film, but nonetheless an engrossing one.
 
My Wedding And Other Secrets
 
A cross-cultural Romeo And Juliet, the charming, quirky and very enjoyable New Zealand romantic comedy My Wedding And Other Secrets is based on the filmmaker’s own story. While still a student at university, Roseanne Liang, a New Zealand girl of Chinese descent, married her Caucasian boyfriend. But she was forced to keep the marriage a secret from her strict parents because of their traditional beliefs and attitude towards interracial relationships. This subterfuge put additional pressure on both her and her partner. In 2005, Liang made Bananas In A Nutshell, a 50-minute documentary that explored this secret marriage and its ramifications. She has now turned that autobiographical film into a full-length feature film that dramatises her story and it is full of self-referential asides. The film deals with some universal themes like family, trust, love, relationships, the lot of immigrants adjusting to their new country, culture and tradition, and it has broad appeal.
 
Liang’s fictional counterpart here is Emily Chu (played by Michelle Ang), a perky but neurotic over achiever who is the youngest of three sisters. Ang (from tv series Neighbours and Outrageous Fortune, etc) brings an endearingly awkward quality to her performance, but she also manages to suggest the guilt and complex emotional journey of her character. Matt Whelan (from the offbeat comedy Eagle Vs Shark, etc) is also solid as James her boyfriend/husband, who disagrees with her hypocrisy. And veteran Chinese actors Pei-pei Cheng and Kenneth Tsang bring gravitas to their roles as her parents, who prove to be far more understanding. The film’s first screening at MIFF was well received, and it’s to be hoped that a local distributor will pick up My Wedding And Other Secrets, as it deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

The Melbourne International Film Festival continues until August 7. Check newspapers and the MIFF website for screening details and further information.