I was lucky enough to dash to the Melbourne International Film Festival for a weekend trip this year. I thought I’d write a couple of festival diaries, with paragraph long reviews of everything I saw. First up it’s the new films I saw, with the repertory films to follow within the next week.
A delayed train trip meant that I was not able to kick off my festival with Abbas Kiarostomi’s 24 Frames (2016) as originally planned. Some frantic changing of tickets and running from the train saw me taking in The Idea of a Lake (2016) instead. The film takes place in two time periods. The contemporary one focuses on a pregnant Ines, while flashbacks of her reminisces of childhood holidays by a lake make up the other half of the film. For the most part the contemporary aspects of the film work well. In particular the building of two key relationships of Ines’s – with her mother and brother. Whilst those relationships are deepened by the flashbacks, the relatively aimless wistfulness of the holiday sequences does not add a lot overall. From a storytelling perspective, the two parts don’t particularly inform one another, though they do on a thematic level. In addition, on two occasions as the film is settling into a rhythm, the director incorporates fantastical elements, which totally jars you out of the tone of the film. And they are not persisted with, making their presence strange anomalies. There is too much going on here. Which is a shame because the simpler contemporary familial aspects and the performances are really worthwhile. Stubby of Reschs
There is a fair bit of buzz around Loving Vincent (2017). Understandable too when you consider it is the first ever oil painted animation, consisting of around 70,000 individual paintings made in the style of Van Gogh. And the visual gimmick is truly stunning, not just the novelty of how it looks, but the way it moves feels totally new too. The score from Clint Mansell is also excellent, showing range for the composer who is probably one of the most in demand in the world. But for all the incredible visuals and music, the film is kind of ruined by the storytelling. What initially seems like an interesting choice to set it a year after Van Gogh’s death, quickly just descends into the same old biopic bullshit, just told through flashbacks. And the film is attempting some weird pulp detective true crime mash-up that is a truly strange narrative to anchor these technical feats too. It’s not just that the story feels like a strange fit, it’s also that it is a rote and inconsequential feeling investigation. Also just how closely it hews to crime fiction conventions – there are re-enactments, deep discussion of motive and running down of leads. It just does not work in the world of this film. You will want to see some of Loving Vincent for the remarkable visuals. Unfortunately due to the storytelling choices, you will have most likely had enough after 20 minutes or so. Schooner of Carlton Draught
Usually I focus my festival selections on films that I will otherwise struggle to see or that won’t open for a long time. So The Lost City of Z (2016) seems a strange choice given it opens in a couple of weeks. But it appears to be opening in a quite limited run, and at least when I booked my tickets, was not playing in Canberra. In any case, this was my only film in the beautiful Forum Theatre, so I was happy I caught it. The film looks beautiful too, no doubt helped by the festival’s projection expertise. It was shot on location and on film, both novelties these days. And this approach feeds into a classical, adventure style vibe. The film is evocative in the way it presents men leaving their families for years on end to fight wars and advance themselves, whilst also questioning whether that was necessarily fair to their families or even just the best thing in general. The obvious issue with this genre of filmmaking is that it reflects a colonialist, white saviour worldview. To its credit the film tackles this quite explicitly, acknowledging the fear amongst some Brits that what is found on these expeditions could upend their place in history and even the meaning of their god. Though the nobility of our hero and his crew, and their missions, is never questioned. As for our hero, Charlie Hunnam has a great presence in the lead while the supports, led by Sienna Miller and Robert Pattinson, are all excellent. Though the film has very traditional tendencies in genre and theme, it does not hew close to the expected story beats. Which results in a slower and more considered tale of obsession than I was expecting. Beautiful, well acted, and highly recommended. Pint of Kilkenny
A trip to MIFF this year wasn’t even on my radar until Terrence Malick’s A Voyage of Time (2016) was announced. With the scarcity of imax locations in Australia (Melbourne may actually be the only one), I realised that this may well be my only chance to see my favourite director’s passion project on an extremely big screen. There is something a little overwhelming about the film. Not surprising given it aims to encapsulate everything from the birth of the universe onwards in only 45 minutes. Malick does a good job of somewhat grounding the film. Firstly through the voiceover addressed to “my child”, then by quickly getting to a vision of earth that is familiar to us and referring to it as “our home”. The voiceover (delivered by Brad Pitt in this cut of the film) functions as a reasonable anchor for the imagery when it is kept relatively straightforward. It does delve, less successfully, into some Malickian philosophising, but that is actually relatively rare. The visual craftsmanship is stellar. There is the incredible creativity of the universe-creating forces that we first glimpsed in The Tree of Life (2011). But there is also a lot of incredible sharp natural photography. And it is all delivered on a screen that was almost overwhelmingly large in the best way. I mentioned that this is the shorter cut (a 90 minute one also exists) and I can’t decide what I thought of the length. It does feel like it skips huge chunks of time (even huger than the concept inherently requires), but as taken as I was with the film, I had probably had enough by the time the end credits rolled. In the end, I loved this film. The visuals are quite simply beyond incredible and if you can catch it on an imax screen, I think it is a pretty essential film/festival going experience. Pint of Kilkenny
Expectations for Todd Haynes’ new film Wonderstruck (2017) are sky high. It is hard to keep hype to a minimum when your last film was Carol (2015), one of the greatest love stories ever put on film. This film is a real struggle though, a ho-hum tale of childhood and familial mystery that neither intrigues nor entertains. The film unfolds over two timeframes (1920s and 1960s I think), with mirroring storylines of a deaf child searching for their family. And much of it unfolds as tritely as that sounds. There are small things to like in both narrative streams. There is some playful interaction with silent film culture in the earlier one and the young lead Millicent Simmonds in that section gives the film’s best performance. Whilst there is a budding friendship in the later part that provides brief glimpses of the childhood joy the film was sorely lacking. The combination of the two timeframes also lays layer upon layer of mystery on top of one another in a way that is vaguely satisfying. Interestingly the film is based on a book by the same novelist who provided the source material for Hugo (2011). Like that film, there has been mention that this is a film for kids. I can’t really imagine kids getting much out of this one though. It is dry, feels long and has precious little of the kinds of brightness and excitement that Scorsese’s film managed to do a roaring trade in. Whilst it is hard to tell, I get the impression that the film did not play particularly well with the packed festival audience either. It felt like a flat reaction to what I found to be a pretty glib and uninspired ode to childhood. Schooner of Carlton Draught
I finished off my festival with Eliza Hittman’s excellent second feature Beach Rats (2017). Hittman is able to convey a number of really specific facets of the life of the main character Frankie. He lives in a part of Brooklyn that feels a world away from the trendy depictions we are used to. He is a discovering his sexuality. Hooking up with older men online. Navigating a relatively aimless late teen/early 20s existence of drink and whatever mild drugs him and his mates can get a hold of. His crew of mates, presumably the beach rats of the title, hang out at the beach and play handball all day. Technically the film is really creative. It is really nicely shot giving a sense of life at a ground level. There is a grain at warmth to the shooting too, not sure if it was shot on film, but there are hints of that. A lot of the storytelling and internal life of Frankie comes from the editing too. Especially in the way his sex scenes with men and women are contrasted. The film is perhaps slightly overlong. But as a unique coming of age and an individual film about sexuality, this is well worth a look. Pint of Kilkenny