I have caught a couple of films in cinemas over the past week and on both occasions I have been subjected to horror that is the trailer for Dracula Untold (2014). Not horror as in an exceptionally crafted trailer for a film that looks terrifying. Rather a trailer that appears to be promoting the most utterly terrible film of the year. It looks like it could even be the worst Dracula film ever which is no mean feat. The concept is moderately interesting. Dracula actually seeks out his transformation into a vampire to help protect his family. But it looks to be rendered in the most bland and cliche and unimpressive manner imaginable. You can check out the horror for yourself below. Does anyone out there hold any hope for this?
The opening night film of the recent Melbourne International Film festival was the Spierig Brothers’ Predestination (2014). For such a massive festival, it is great to see a home grown genre flick getting the honour of being the first film up. Whilst it is not quite perfect, you can definitely see why the organisers thought that this film would be a great conversation starter to get things going.
Hybrid genre pictures are growing in popularity recently and the early stages of Predestination, combining sci-fi and crime elements, is a really good example of the form. There is an arch voiceover, time travel and a sense of classical crime fiction with the lone cop, gradually edging closer to the crime as he works the clues and chases down leads. It takes place (for the most part) in a 70s New York that feels more like the 50s with a hardboiled feel dripping from the dialogue. Then all of a sudden there is a shift in the film as the action slows and a bar conversation flashback takes up a really lengthy period of time. I would say a good half an hour which is a lot in a taut film like this one. Initially I was a little perturbed by this. I was enjoying the sci-fi crime jazz so much and I didn’t sign up for a drama, even though it is pretty compelling. But like many bold choices, I think it just takes a little bit of time to acclimatise to the unexpected shift. Indeed I think the decision makes the film a stronger one and if not that, it definitely makes it a more interesting and compelling one. Even so, whilst watching the film I was missing the time travel fantasticalness that I thought I was buying a ticket for. Don’t fret though because it comes thick and fast in the last section of the film. I am not going to pretend I entirely understood of the plot turns and ramifications. I think it would be really tough for anyone to pick them up first time through. But I actually don’t see it as a bad thing to be challenged in that way and I would happily watch the film again soon to try and pick up what I missed.
The big name on the cast list, returning for his second film with the brother directorial team after Daybreakers (2009) is Ethan Hawke. Over the past five years or so, Hawke has had a filmography probably as interesting as anyone’s and he does a great job here as the main temporal agent who carries a fair bit of the film. Hawke is great, but the real star is Australian actress Sarah Snook who carries probably an equal overall load but who definitely does more of the emotional lifting. I have seen Snook in a couple of things before, but she is totally transformative here. She shows exceptional range encompassing sassy all the way through to totally and utterly vulnerable. Part of that is due to the nature of the character that Snook plays which I can’t really go into without entering spoiler territory. But you would have to think that this performance will surely break Snook’s career into much bigger things. Well if there is any justice it will. Not only have the Spierig Brothers managed to draw quality performances out of their two leads, they have also delivered a film with very high production values. The film looks so slick and it is great to see an Australian film being set in New York that succeeds in making you feel like you are in that place.
Predestination has the kind of story that will have you thinking you know where it is taking you, before it flips on you. Without feeling cheap too which is nice. With two really wonderful central performances from Snook and Hawke, plenty for you to think about and the chance to see two young genre directors continue to hone their craft, this is one you should definitely support on the big screen if at all possible.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
Iconic for many reasons, Toy Story (1995) sticks in most people’s minds as the real birth of computer animation on the big screen. Not only that, it really kicked off a second golden era of American mainstream animation, with Pixar going on a decade or so stretch where they could do no wrong and matching any run of Disney’s in terms of sheer brilliance.
On paper, there is nothing to suggest that Toy Story had the potential to be a hit with such a broad audience. It is basically just an adventure tale involving two jealous toys, namely a cowboy and an astronaut. Maybe if it was done well the kids would dig it, but surely there is nothing there for adults. Even after re-watching the film recently, it is hard to logically tease out what makes it so appealing for an adult audience. The short answer is that it is just an exceptionally well written and made film. So are plenty of flicks that adults don’t want a bar of too. There is a certain nostalgia about the plot, everyone has dreamt about their toys coming alive when they are not around. It was a clever ploy by Pixar to combine such a classical plot with the groundbreaking new technology and it makes the film so much easier to jump right into.
Not only is the plot very traditional but the film is structured like an old school comedy. There is an odd couple and the jokes come a whole lot faster than I recall. The joke rate is quite incredible actually. Plus the film was a real innovator in putting jokes in for adults, without kids feeling like they were missing out – “Hey look, I’m Picasso” etc. You could argue that Pixar have not made another film with characters as good as this one. Indeed there are three layers of great characters, the leads Buzz & Woody, the beloved supporting cast such as Slinky Dog & Rex, and finally the peripheral characters such as the toy soldiers and the etch a sketch which add so much colour. What I don’t think is arguable is that the menacing Sid is Pixar’s best villain. Wow he is still such a foreboding and flat-out evil presence even today. I would have thought the studio would have dialled that character back a bit, but the film is better for their decision not to do so.
Everything about Toy Story is borderline perfect. The dialogue (Buzz’s deluded early patter a particular highlight), the huge cast of characters and Randy Newman’s tunes that complement the action so well. There is something more though aside from the sheen. Some form of filmmaking magic that characterises all the greatest classics of cinema and which help to make this film one of the true classics of my generation.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
2014 Progress: 19/101
I finished off my first MIFF experience with the true crime documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (2014). If you can imagine a documentary version of a Dennis Lehane novel or Ben Affleck’s The Town (2010) you can pretty much imagine this film. It’s a gangster flick brought to life basically.
The film tells the story of the trial of James J. Bulger, a gangster near the top of the FBI’s most wanted list who had been on the lam for a pretty incredible 16 years. The film takes a look at the crimes(mainly murder) that he committed, the way these crimes impacted on the families of those involved and the rampant FBI corruption that allowed Whitey to rule with an iron fist over Boston and evade capture for so long. The film is insightful when looking both at the gangster and those supposedly enforcing the law. It gives a glimpse into the strange gangster’s psyche or code where it is totally fine, laudable even, to be a murderer. But to be an informant is an unforgivable sin. If anything though, the FBI come off looking even worse than the gangsters in this film. As an outward looking and publicity seeking organisation, they were so obsessed with taking down the Italian Mafia that they let the Irish such as Whitey Bulger do more or less as they pleased. Which is to say nothing of the rampant and overt corruption that amongst other things tipped Whitey off in regards to his impending arrest, allowing him to have an extra 16 years of freedom and which continues to ferment within the organisation even today. No wonder the FBI did not agree to be interviewed for the film.
If there is a major criticism to be levelled at the film, it is that it’s not a particularly cinematic as far as big screen docos go. Coming out of CNN films, which I did not even know existed, the film often feels more like a CNN news report and not a film experience to fork out your money to see in a cinema. The entire production feels very slick and polished, probably a little too much so. A gangster story should have a bit of roughness around the edges I feel and that may have given this film a little more soul. The film starts off focused quite heavily on those who were affected directly by Whitey Bulger – victims of standover tactics and relatives of murder victims. This is the part of the film with the most heart and whilst the examination of the role of FBI corruption becomes more interesting as the film goes on, I would have preferred a greater focus on these families.
Though it never elevates above being slick and pretty good at what it is aiming to do, Whitey is generally successful as an indictment on the FBI and also as the story of an individual gangster and the horrors he brought to bear on people. Also, if hearing plenty of that distinctive Boston twang is your thing though, this may well be your favourite film of all time.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
Rarely has a rock documentary looked like Come Worry with Us (2013), which provides a great insight into parenting psyche from a musician’s point of view. Jessica and Efrim are members of the band Silver Mt Zion who decide that when they have their first child they will take him on tour with them.
The band was founded along socialist and anarchist principles and as such have a very communal vibe. This is jeopardised in a way with the arrival of young Ezra when he is taken on tour. In particular, Ezra touring leads to Jessica being ostracised to a degree. This is not a conscious mean-spirited act of exclusion, but rather the practicalities of having a young child on tour make it inevitable. In other ways though there is much inclusion, as the members of the band have great interactions with Ezra and they even split the cost of a tour nanny and larger tour bus equally amongst all of them. Much of Come Worry with Us focuses on the attempts of the couple to re-adjust their lives when a new life is brought into it. As artistic people, the amount of time to create is heavily impacted by having a child and the two of them, especially Jessica, struggle to still find the time to have their creative outlets. That is the unfortunate side-affect of the time sacrifices that a mother, especially an artistic one, must struggle against.
Traditional gender roles have definitely changed over time, though that is not to say traditionalism does not still thrive amongst some people. But there is a growing awareness that the roles traditionally thrust upon couples with a newborn child can be problematic. Jessica and Efrim from Silver Mt Zion, are highly aware of these issues through their general outlook on the world, highly influenced by socialism and anarchism. However practice is very different to theory and the couple find themselves struggling on tour as well as at home. Efrim is open about neglecting his parenting duties whilst on tour and Jessica is very aware of the fact she has slipped into a traditional matriarchal role. Given where they come from this is a real eye opener for the both of them. As someone who holds broadly similar views as the couple who is considering starting a family sometime soon, it was a definite eye opener for me too.
Come Worry with Us was definitely my favourite film of MIFF 2014. Part of that is probably because the film really spoke to where I am in life, as someone considering starting a family in the near future. It is also down to the fact that it is a really good concert tour film with an added level of interest by bringing a young kid guide along for the ride.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
Buzz has been building around Horns (2013) for a fair while now, and it only increased after this trailer dropped at last month’s Comic Con. I love the very real grounding that the trailer starts with. Young love, the pain of it taken away and the suspicion immediately falling on the victim’s partner. So far so crime fiction. But then it flips and all of a sudden Harry Potter has devil horns growing out of his head and is understandably wondering what in the hell is going on. The film leaves it relatively unclear where the film will go from there and I am cool with that. I will definitely be avoiding spoilers before seeing this one, which I am ultra keen to do.
What’s a good film festival without at least one obscure animation film? Especially as, unlike many of the other films that play at MIFF and similar festivals, non-mainstream animation rarely receives a cinematic release.
Bill Plympton’s Cheatin’ (2013) was my MIFF obscure animation of choice. The first half or so is a really simple love story but told in a complex, bordering on avant-garde way. This part of the film is really engaging and retains a sense of fun, which so many avant-garde filmmakers refuse to allow in their pursuit of artistic seriousness. But then the film just turns on a plot point that is overwhelmingly silly. A doctored photo, that would absolutely never look real at all, convinces the happily married new groom (if the main characters had names, I missed them) that his wife has been cheating on him. Instead of asking his beloved what the deal is, he just turns around and starts sleeping with the multitude of women who are constantly throwing themselves at him. Obviously this is not a film that is aiming for realism. These turns in plot however just don’t work within the rules and logical expectations that have already been established in the world of the film. Another issue with all of this is that the film is really unfocused as to exactly what it is trying to say about adultery. At some points it feels like it is suggesting that as the audience we should be empathising with the groom and cheering his shagfest. In the end though, it is just befuddling the way the twists and turns are set up because he never discusses the photo with her. Then it gets even stranger when his wife gets a machine that allows her to teleport into the motel room each time he cheats on her and replace his current partner of choice. Maybe it was just me, but I had no idea what the message was there.
One aspect of the film that I could definitely not fault is the visuals. Plympton’s very hand-drawn style is a world away from most feature animation with a definite artistic rough finish. The colouring is a little uneven with lines left in there and the effect is that even though the result is less realistic than other approaches, the imperfections in a way make it easier to relate to and feel deeply engrossed in the story. A long way from the uncanny valley basically. The exaggerated character design is another joy, with both male and female bodies, having delightfully absurdist bodies. The groom’s abs look as tiny as a toothpick, dominated by his hugely muscular upper body. Aside from the confusion, at least from my perspective, of what the film is trying to say about adultery another issue for me was that there were no interesting ideas presented by the film. Obviously not every animation, or any film for that matter, needs to tackle weighty subject matter. But on a couple of occasions Cheatin’ hints that it is going to do so, but then either stops rather abruptly or chooses to focus on superficial concerns. In fact the very opening of the film seems to suggest that an exploration of the male gaze is in the works, as the exaggerated body of the main female character leaves a barrage of men agog as she walks by. This continues for a short while and then is just abandoned. Later, she can’t help but dance and leap for joy at the site of clothes on sale whilst her poor husband is forced to wait around bored as she giggles giddily and tries on outfit after outfit. So much for any subversiveness or incisiveness basically.
When it was telling a simple love story in a really out there way, I was totally invested in Cheatin’. The shift into a bizarre, unfocused look at adultery though was unwelcome and unsatisfying, which is a bummer because the film is so original to look at and sit down to watch.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
Human Capital (2013), an adaptation of a novel by Stephen Amidon, was probably the most hyped film that I saw at this year’s MIFF. There definitely seemed to be a lot of people talking about the film leading up to it and an extra session was added such was the demand.
The film incorporates an episodic structure, with all except the last being told from the point of view of a single character. This structure tells one story, however the perspective means that each episode gives more attention to different aspects. One focuses on the high finance dealings of a couple of players, one on an affair that now that I think about it has very little to do with the overall narrative and one on what is the main aspect of the story – a car accident and its impacts on the various characters. The final chapter of the film unfortunately falls apart quite badly in my mind. Narratively I think it takes some really unbelievable and clunky turns. There is an email conveniently found that I think is far too obvious in terms of storytelling. Following that there is an extortion scene that tonally just does not sit with most of what has come before. I am usually not a huge fan of POV/chapter type structures in this film, but I think it is probably the highlight of Human Capital. It allows intrigue to be created during one chapter and then answered during the next, and refreshes the film at regular intervals. One issue that it does bring about though is that the story feels a little slight, as it is a relatively short one being told multiple times. But it has great benefits to the film as well, especially when focusing on more interesting characters. The structure really situates you firmly in the world of the film, finding out information along with the characters and being shocked by various revelations just as they are.
I would hesitate to promote Human Capital as a noir film, that most fluid of genres. It is more of invocation of noir tropes and iconography rather than a noir film in a plot sense. For me the lack of a femme fatale and the lack of a willing crime are two boxes the film does not tick. But much of what it tries to do comes from invoking and reinterpreting traditional noir tropes as well as keeping some of the generic iconography feeling like it came straight from the 40s. One of the main characters is an utter schmuck who gets himself into money trouble. There are affairs, forbidden loves, car crashes and gangsters of some form or another. Another way that the film attempts to update the traditional noir film is by including a high finance sub-plot, but I think this is less successful than the structure. There are laboured scenes of fatcats lounging about and high stakes meetings about finances. I also feel that the film invests quite a lot of time in this aspect of the film for only one very small outcome that could have been done a little more succinctly. The benefit of this is that it would have allowed more time to be spent on more interesting characters with more interesting dramas. It would have been a tauter experience if more time was spent on the central crime and the ramifications that it had on all the characters in the film. All that said though, the incorporation of this sub-plot does help to make the point toward the end of the film that in the end, the rich always sail through pretty comfortably.
As a neo-crime noir hybrid Human Capital does many things in a really interesting way from the structure of the film to the nature of the crime at the centre of it. I do sort of feel that this review has come off more negative that I would have liked. I do have issues with the film but it is also relatively rare to see classical style cinema and storytelling updated in this way.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
Jimmy’s Hall (2014) is Ken Loach’s 50th odd and apparently last feature film. Which sucks because the man still definitely has a lot to say and can say it better than basically anyone else.
This is a film that made by so many other people would just be tired, period film blandness. But one of Loach’s great gifts as an artist (in my admittedly limited experience) is his ability to inject a lot of life into his stories. There were times watching this when I felt like applauding at the end of a scene because it was so rousing. The film is based on the true story of Jimmy Gralton an Irish communist in the 1930’s. Returning from time exiled abroad he once again starts up the titular hall, inspired by the effect that being away from a place can have on a person. Fashioned on socialist principles, the hall aims to provide education and amusement for all who wish to come. Importantly and provocatively, especially in relation to education, far from the reach and influence of the all powerful church. The film tells the uplifting story of what happened inside the walls and the rather more sober reaction that it receives from the more conservative nearby neighbours, who come in both fascist and Christian guises.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly why Loach can make this material work where others would fail. Which is not to say that what he is working with his bad. The slice of history, probably unknown to many outside of Ireland, is fascinating and the script by Paul Laverty is pretty insightful. Actually the script is a very smart piece of work as it connects day to day goings on in the film, a potential affair for example, with the societal structures that bring them about and influence how they play out. But there are many similar films about similar historical events and it is rare that they are this good or this engaging. Loach is also not really that much of a stylist. Jimmy’s Hall, like all of Loach’s work I have seen, looks good but nothing more noteworthy than that. It could be that Loach is unabashed to be political. He’s famously left wing, once withdrawing a film from MIFF because the festival was sponsored by the Israeli embassy and were refusing to cancel the sponsorship. So here he shows that the commies are the good guys, at least in this environment, and it is hard not to get swept up in cheering for them. This is especially true when they go against idiotic fascists and power hungry members of the clergy. On this front, and others, it would appear that Loach has the power to choose only those projects that he is going to be distinctly passionate about and Irish revolutionaries are right up the veteran director’s alley. Barry Ward’s turn as Jimmy does not hurt either, as he convinces you that he’s a dude that you would follow and buy into his personal ideology.
It is shocking that a film about Ireland in the 1930’s was made to feel relevant to 2014 Australia, but that is just one of Loach’s achievements with Jimmy’s Hall. Even if like me you have no idea who Jimmy Gralton was, you will still want to see this film and be inspired by the example that he set.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
Festival programming is a major undertaking. As someone who has programmed a six feature festival program, I can attest that even something that small has exceptional inherent complexity in what to show and when. I can only imagine what it is like marshaling some coherence into three weeks and over a hundred films like at MIFF. All that said, I would be interested to know the rationale for programming When Animals Dream (2014) as an 11:30pm screening. I really like this film, but it is sloooooow. That late, a little pep is always appreciated.
Set on a small port town on the Danish coast, the film focuses on Marie who tends to her ailing mother, hand feeding her and taking her out for walks. Whilst this is a film concerned with the supernatural, these early sequences are particularly grounded in reality. The scenes of tending to a loved one, a shell of their old self, encapsulates fully the experience that I have witnessed people in my family go through. When Marie gets a job at the local fish processing factory she is immediately subjected to misogynist abuse and harassment. When Animals Dream is a film that is clearly looking at sexism and feminism, both in overt narrative points like that one and much more subtle ways too. In terms of pure cinematic enjoyment, this is a film that occasionally is guilty of being too slow and ponderous. But there are some great moments too and the practical effects are so fine and impressive in their rendering of a werewolf, that there is joy to be found in the appreciation of those. These storytelling and presentation aspects of the film create an enjoyable enough platform for the film to successfully dig a little deeper and say a little something more about present day society.
The film is soaked in mythology which is something that is not seen enough from contemporary horror. Much of it comes from the salt crusted Danish coastal setting, shot in lowish light with the colour seemingly washed away by the sea. That imbues so much of the action with a haunting quality that for me simultaneously invoked Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) and Stoker’s “Dracula”. The genetic lycanthropy of the film is similarly myth-like. Passed through the generations, to successive women who are then feared and ostracised by the community, it is grounded in real life tales of women having been accused of witchcraft and traditionally treated in similar ways. The film is overtly, delightfully feminist with readings that look back and those that are contemporary. This is how women are treated when they become too powerful, whether in the workplace or in this case, when they turn unto an utterly badass werewolf. They are feared by the men who surround them and they feel their dominant position has to be asserted. The narrative also is about empowerment and tellingly about who should have control over a woman’s body. A scene where there is a forcible attempt to medicate Marie sums up a perspective on a woman’s body and who should be making the choices about it. Even though I had issues with some of the film on a sheer enjoyment level, so many of the complex ideas in the film are really intelligently communicated, that I would really like to revisit the film soon.
In terms of narrative punch and enjoyment, When Animals Dream is a little up and down. It is a little slow and in terms of horror thrills it comes in at the lower end of the scale. But in terms of examining really interesting ideas through the prism of a traditional style werewolf narrative, the film definitely has a lot to say and it says it through a great central character.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs