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
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
Anyone who has read this site for any length of time will know I am an absolute sucker for a good high concept horror flick. In fact I am willing to forgive a lot of a film’s flaws if the starting point is something truly creative and ambitious.
All that probably explains why the Mark Duplass starring, Patrick Brice directed Creep (2014) was the first film I chose to see at MIFF. The concept sees a cameraman answering an ad for a day’s work. A day’s filming for a thousand bucks. To give away any more than that would ruin things, but needless to say, shit goes pear shaped pretty quickly and at times pretty frighteningly. Also on occasions pretty hilariously too as the film traverses the three genres of thriller, horror and comedy in a fun pulp style. Although for much of the second half of the film that comedic tone is replaced by some really well crafted tension. In my packed screening the film got a great response as well with huge laughs and a fair few gasps at the right times too. The main reason to watch this film is that it features a totally, delightfully, unleashed Mark Duplass. In a creepy role, he is clearly happy to be going big, not having to worry about conveying any angst or particular depth of emotion. I was a fan of his before this film, but here his charisma just totally lifts the film up.
All this sounds great and all would be great if it were not for the film’s one major, overwhelming flaw. The handheld shooting style is nigh on unwatchable, especially in the first half of the film. I know that so called ‘shaky cam’ really bothers some people, but I am generally not one of them and like quite a lot of films that employ the approach. I would go as far as saying that this is comfortably the most infuriated I have ever been at the utilisation of handheld cameras. And it is actually the first time that I have felt nauseous because of the way the camera is used. In horror films too, I often find the device to be a cheap one. It is easy to artificially create tension and fear if you are just arbitrarily cutting off the side of the shot and not showing all of what would traditionally be shown in a scene. This film is definitely guilty of repeatedly using that approach. The shame of this failed approach is amplified by the pretty awesome ending in which a stationary wide shot is utilised really creatively to deliver a great high point to end on. The fact that the most shocking shot is the one where the camera is not being used to obscure parts of the frame, makes all those other instances where it is so much more frustrating. In the end though, this stylistic choice made for acceptable narrative reasons, overshadows all that is good and fun about the film.
If a high concept horror-comedy with a bit of a hipster vibe sounds like your kind of thing, then Creep is quite possibly the film for you. Be warned though, even as someone who is almost never bothered by the use of handheld cameras, the first half is almost nauseating. Which is a bummer because, especially in the second half, the film does a heap right.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
I am just about to head out of the office on this Friday arvo and catch a flight to the Melbourne International film Festival (MIFF). I am pretty sure it is Australia’s oldest and definitely one of the biggest two festivals on the calendar. I was hoping to spend more time at the festival, but having just been overseas, money and leave considerations mean it is a quick seven film dash. Keep an eye out for reviews of all the films I catch. I will be witting as I go, but you probably won’t see any reviews until I am home on Sunday night. But hopefully there will be lots of cool stuff to chat about.