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
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
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