One of the conscious choices I made at MIFF this year was not to discount repertory screenings. In the past I’ve been obsessed with only seeing new films. But I want to focus more on film fest ‘experiences’ and not just see films simply because they are new. Especially given how strong some of the repertory options at MIFF this year were. My older films fitted into two distinct streams. Firstly I’ll cover the two films I caught from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ Pioneering Women programming stream. Then the three I managed at the Astor’s all night ci-fi marathon.
Undoubtedly my best experience of the festival was the screening of The Big Steal (1990) on 35mm. Director Nadia Tass was in attendance, as were cast members Claudia Karvan and Damon Herriman. Ben Mendelsohn also sent a quite hilarious introduction tape for the screening. Which was the perfect way to kick off a screening of what is one of the very best Australian comedies ever made. It’s a sweet high school love story with crime and heist elements. It’s also very reflective of Australian society, in particular class differences and the migrant experience. An exceedingly young Mendo is one lead, the head of a charming crew of teenage boys, also including Herriman and the utterly hilarious Angelo D’Angelo. Karvan is the female lead and even at this early age she brought a real complexity and presence to her character. Steve Bisley is perfectly cast as the hilariously sleazy second hand car salesman you will heartily root against. It was so great to see this with a huge crowd who constantly erupted with laughter and were totally invested in the film. Particularly what must be cinema’s only Volvo vs Holden Monaro chase sequence. A classic Aussie comedy and a teen film to rival basically any others. This is a little tough to track down, but I know it’s streaming on Ozflix and perhaps a couple of other places too. See it. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
The other film I caught as part of the Pioneering Women programming stream was Broken Highway (1993), a tough look at toxic Australian masculinity directed by Laurie McInnes. The plot involves a package, a dead mate and a trip to rural Australia. This was a dense watch, perhaps not well suited to the festival grind. There is a flatness to the action that feeds into the bleak vibe and an aimlessness to the plot that almost hints at a noir vibe. Though I do feel that the lack of attention on the storytelling front in the end plays against the film, obscuring the thematic goals a little. Focuses on this contest of masculinity. Men hurling accusations that the other is scared, as if to be scared is the worst thing possible. The film is shot in beautiful black and white widescreen while the dialogue is really well written, meaningful with a snap to it. There are some great performances. Claudia Karvan as a blunt and quick witted young women. Her range as a young actress was made readily apparent by the two films I saw her in at the fest. David Field is great as the villain of the piece, all lean physicality with his menacing, snarling performance. A film I appreciated, but was not totally enamoured with. Would certainly like to see it again. Schooner of Reschs
The first film I caught when arriving at the Astor for the all night sci-fi marathon was the mythical Nothing Lasts Forever (1984). This film features SNL alumni including Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd as well as Zach Galligan, most famous for appearing in the Gremlins films. The sci-fi weirdness contained in the film was so far from what the studio thought they were getting for their money, it has barely been seen in the 30 odd years since it was made. The film takes place in a draconian future where entry into, and everyday life in, Manhattan is controlled by the Port Authority. The result is something totally unique, that whilst is far from a masterpiece, is the kind of film you can’t help but watch with a big smile on your face. It’s unsurprisingly funny in an elevated and absurdist way. There’s some funny, adorably shonky, futuristic imagery, such as NY skylines with a single animated dome. That example sort of encapsulates the charm on display here. Even when it descends into awkwardness or amateurishness (or both at the same time), you will always be having a good enough time to persist with it. Pint of Kilkenny
It’s pretty much a given that watching a film with a big, enthusiastic festival crowd will improve the experience. But it is quite possible that The Visitor (1979) was an exception to the rule. The film played far too comically. And certainly some of that is down to filmmaking craft and performances. Not all of it though, and it is hard not to get caught up in a rambunctious crowd erupting in laughter at what is unfolding on the screen. The film is wild in every facet. Visually it opens with dust clouds and hooded figures, the plot involves an evil kid and shitloads of bird attacks, whilst the cast includes the likes of John Huston, Lance Hendrickson, Glenn Ford and Sam Peckinpah(!). Especially early on the sci-fi weirdness really shines through, helped along by some creepy flourishes on the soundtrack. It’s a mix of tonally worthwhile and unintentionally hilarious, though as the film progresses the balance shifts more to the latter. The evil kid performance is deliciously hammy and John Huston battles very hard. In terms of genre it’s a definitely a very horror imbued sci-fi if that’s your thing. There are certainly parts of this to like. But it does get a little too unintentionally funny and there are just so so many bird attacks. I have no idea what was up with them. Oh and the last half hour is basically unwatchable. Schooner of Carlton Draught
Tetsuo the Iron Man (1989) is an infamous film that I had heard whispered about on podcasts and in general conversation. So after the above film I took a nap to steel myself for what was to come. I tweeted afterwards that 5:30am is as good a time as any to watch the film, but that I never needed to see it again. I’m not sure I agree with the second part now, a month or so removed from the experience. The film plays like a gruesome cyberpunk Frankenstein filtered through punk rock. Aesthetically there is a lot going on. The achievement on a small budget, editing and practical effects as Tetsuo gets less and less human and more and more machine is just incredible. It is incredibly gross, at least for the first half. After that he becomes so much of a machine that it is no longer as visceral or cringy body horror as the early parts. And there is a rape/murder scene in the middle that is difficult to describe and truly horrific to watch. But there is just something about the vibe of the film and the craft that went into it that makes this really worth a watch. The narrative is barely worth mentioning, totally avant-garde. Though even at 70 minutes, this feels a little overlong. Stubby of Reschs
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
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
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.