Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012) is one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries of the last decade. It is certainly an experimental and quite dense experience. But, at least on first watch, there are some aspects certainly lacking.
Part of the issue with the film is that it is so small scale. What Polley is telling here is essentially a piece of family history. A moderately interesting one sure, but there are similar tales of family secrets in many many families I think. The emotional volume of the film never really reaches any great heights either. The director admits during the film that she started out making this piece just for herself. It shows too, with this feeling almost more like an academic self-reflection rather than a feature doco. This subject matter makes it difficult for the film to really differentiate itself and justify the investment. Much of what is going on is interesting. But it is far too slow in its delivery and too small scale. The film really struggles to exceed feeling like a pretty standard familial tale and I don’t think it ever achieves that. At least on a surface level, there is a big focus on memory, about the differing ways in which people recall the same bents. Similarly Polley reflects on the storytelling process occasionally, but this is not a focus throughout the entirety of the film.
It is easy to point out and discuss the fact that Stories We Tell is a film concerned with notions of storytelling and memory. But the thing is, I’m not so sure those things are really there. The ideas bookend the film, are more of a focus at either end. Through the middle though they seem to be less of a concern, with the film just focusing on a mildly interesting family story. One of the more interesting stylistic choices that Polley makes in the film is revealing the artifice of filmmaking. On occasion we see visible sound recording equipment or cameras, drawing attention to the fact that this is a story being crafted, not an immersive truth. Something borne out even further by a late ‘twist’ concerning some of the footage. The experimentation or toying with form is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film. It starts with the film’s opening stages, featuring talking heads with only first names provided, not context for who the person is or what perspective they are coming to their testimony from. Though whilst interesting, this affectation is unnecessarily oblique, making it too hard to discern the differing relationships.
Verdict: At some point in Stories We Tell, someone remarks that it’s “a great, great story”. Only I’m not so sure it actually is. It’s an ok film, with some interesting ideas around memory and storytelling philosophy that are not enough of a focus. Which serves to make this slow film even more frustrating. These issues are also only amplified by the fact that it is an exceptionally dense film to take in on first watch. Schooner of Carlton Draught
Perhaps none of the original suite of Universal Monster films has such an enduring reputation as James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935). It is frequently highlighted as the high point in this series of iconic films.
Narratively Bride of Frankenstein plays almost like an early example of fanfic. It is a story “suggested by” Mary Shelley’s novel, functioning as an extension of it. The film opens with Mary Shelly and Lord Byron inserted into the film. This leads into a pretty incredible early example of structurally recapping the first film, as Shelley goes over the events of Frankenstein (1931) with cut scenes from that film playing onscreen. Unfortunately though, after this quite inspired beginning, the narrative is pretty unsatisfying, mainly because of where attention is focused. Namely, the focus is more on the human characters and elements of the story rather than the monsters. Frankenstein’s monster is denied agency throughout, which is generally not how these characters are treated in the Universal canon. The very basis of the plot – a bride for the monster – does not come from the monster. Some scientists just decide to make one for him, denying the character the agency to determine their own path. The story being driven by the humans, makes the plot drag badly, rather than the more kinetic progression that would have made the film stronger. On a much more simplistic level, this film needs way more bride of Frankenstein. She shows up with maybe six minutes to go. We’re are talking Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) levels of not giving the people what they want. It’s a bummer too because she is such a great character, both in terms of appearance and what she brings to the story.
The film is at its best when being unique and quirky, rather than the more stock horror elements. There is a wildly fantastical touch when some miniature people show up. Similarly fantastical are the scenes of the monster walking through the woods as a mythic feeling soundtrack plays. It appears James Whale was experimenting with the content and form of these films, and his boldest expressions work the best. The main joy that I took from the film came from these little touches. Boris Karloff is now billed simply as ‘Karloff’ whilst the iconic ‘?’ credit now goes to the monster’s mate. Also, like all these Universal films, it looks great. Such a creativity to the set design and the film always feels so atmospheric even when the story fails to deliver.
Boris Karloff is such a cerebral actor and this may be one of his best performances, even though the film is weaker. He has such a physical presence. And it is not just that he looks hulking, but also in the way that he acts with his whole body. The performance is even more impressive given the character is much more ill-defined than in the first film. At times he is tender, at others viciously murderous, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why he acts a certain way at each point. Perhaps the major misstep is having the monster talk. It is totally unnecessary as the character was already iconic without that ability. This choice amplifies a broader clumsiness in the film, that is the characters speak the themes, rather than the story embodying them in any coherent manner. In addition to Karloff, the other standout performance comes from Colin Clive as Dr Frankenstein. He is able to convincingly convey the experience of a beaten, battered man going through torment. A man torn apart that provides a solid emotional core to the film.
Verdict: I had high hopes going in, but I have to say Bride of Frankenstein is unfortunately one of the lesser Universal Monster flicks. The choice to deny the original monster of any real agency, and the bride of any real screentime, means we are stuck with less interesting human characters to accompany through the story. Schooner of Carlton Draught
In the current online film commentary culture, there is no more prevailing influence on fandom than the Star Wars franchise. Even more particularly is the undying love and borderline obsession many writers have with Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Which is quite strange given the film is not very good and a totally pale imitation of Star Wars (1977).
One of the major issues with the film is on the story front. Whereas the first film was a reimagining of classic story structures infused with the occasional dash of originality, this film, especially early, is large part interminable love story. The soapie style dialogue and Leia/Han shenanigans clunk badly, mainly because they are drearily written with no spark whatsoever. Not to mention that this is all part of love-triangle predicated on a premise I’m not sure can ever hold up on re-watch once you are aware of all the revelations that the trilogy contains. It is made to feel even worse because it is contrasted with the friendship between Luke and Han that is fully established and expressed in a way by the two characters that actually feels genuine. So the human stuff is meh for the most part. The saving grace though is the development of Vader as the villain at the heart of these films. Here he continues to establish himself as a legitimately evil, throat constricting dude. Not to mention we get to glimpse him under the helmet for the first time which is totally badass. The story does pick up a little once the main parties split, with Luke pursuing training with Yoda whilst Han and Leia do their own thing. In part this is merely based on the fact that the love triangle elements are relegated so we do not have to endure the worst elements of the dialogue. It’s a shame that overall the story is not quite there, because there are some really interesting psychological aspects to what is going on, especially in Luke’s relationship with the dark side.
The film also makes plain some issues that were hinted at in the first film, perhaps due to the fact this one does not have the same simple, yet forceful narrative structure to get by on. There is no real depth to the world building which is glaring here. It’s simply just the odd cool creature or a different landscape. A procession of worlds with surface level quirks essentially, no mythos underlying that. The ship design holds up better, perhaps because we are really just after stuff that looks rad rather than anything deeper. The design relies on riffing on both classic sci-fi ideas and expanding on what we saw in the first film. That said, the combat does not have the same weight as that in the first film. It is especially hurt by an over-computerised sheen (though as with all things Star Wars, who knows if it looked that bad in the original release). Plus there is a severe lack of good set pieces in this movie, which overall lacks in the cool action stakes. The music is still totally brilliant though and it helps to make the best moments of the film pop. Think the tune that heralds Vader’s arrival every time, a conceit that could have gone totally wrong, but thankfully enhances that character’s presence greatly.
Verdict: The Empire Strikes Back is not all bad, but frankly a fair amount of it is. And given its current reputation it’s frankly hard not to consider this one of the most overrated films of all time. The film sorely misses the classicism and especially clarity of the first film’s storytelling. And it’s a bummer, because this film contains one of cinema’s all-time iconic moments. But unfortunately it just exists in a not very good flick. Schooner of Carlton Draught
These are the Rules (2014) is a film that was not on my radar heading into the Festival. It just so happened that I had an unexpected gap in my schedule and decided to add another film in… I probably should have just gone and had a couple of beers to be quite honest.
There is some initial promise as the film sets up its drab, washed out cityscape, all urban sprawl painted in greys. However after the film establishes this nice sense of place, it quickly gives way to a boring few rooms where the action takes place, discarding the cityscape. The film does succeed in painting that overt suburban aspect though. Familial dramas that escalate as the film progresses, at least somewhat. The script lumbers along though, not always feeling real to life, which you suspect is much of the point. Plot wise, the film focuses on a family, a teen returns home after a night out having been bashed. As his condition worsens, his parents attempt to ascertain exactly what happened to him, and to get some people to care about it. It is from this perspective that the film does make some interesting societal points. In particular Croatian bureaucratic institutions – ambulance, police and hospital – are derided in a somewhat effective way.
Stylistically the film is naturalistic on a number of levels. It is shot simply and competently, though it never makes you feel like you are watching something any more cinematic than a run of the mill TV drama. The acting is similarly understated but at least on this front that assists the film meet its goals. In particular the Peter Lorre lookalike Emir Hadzihafizbegovic as a concerned father is very good, managing to convey the emotional torment he is suffering through relatively well. There is a weight hanging over the film, the whole thing has a sad atmosphere to it. Which is in and of itself not a criticism but it never feels meaningful under that weight, not helped by the fact the film is totally humourless. Overall any impact the film manages to have simply comes from that inherent in the situation being depicted. Not the skill of the filmmaking or storytelling.
Verdict: Ultimately, These are the Rules is nothing more than a slow domestic drama, heavy on the domestic and low on the drama. Feels like a million other films you’ve seen before at a film festival and I was simply not at all fussed by the whole thing. Bland. Schooner of Carlton Draught
All the hallmarks are there for Goodnight Mommy to deliver as a classically infused horror film. A mother returns home with a nightmarishly bandaged face, leaving her two children to question if this woman is really who she says.
Goodnight Mommy is very much a film of two halves. It opens rather moody and slow, remaining that way for a good portion of its running time. The focus here is on the mother’s erratic behaviour and the suspicion of her children, though for the most part in a low key manner. As the tension eventually mounts, the film shifts into an at times hard to watch, torture porn influenced last act. Especially in the first half, the film relies heavily on creating an ominous atmosphere. Unfortunately though the writing and narrative, aside from the wonderfully universal premise, are unable to build the atmosphere required to really chill. It’s unfortunate too, because when the film focuses more on visceral imagery, it creates some confronting stuff. There are a couple of sequences involving cockroaches that had the crowd squirming as well as an extended, brutal confrontation that it is perhaps difficult to see coming. These sequences got a great reaction, from a pretty big crowd with a few walkouts and a lot of people avoiding eye contact with the screen.
The film looks lush and expansive, helped along by the fact it was shot in 35mm (a fact raptourously cheered in the credits). There is a classical style to the visual approach, and even the very modern house where much of the action takes place in is shot in a way that makes it feel like a gothic haunted mansion. The sound design similarly takes what feels like a classic Hollywood approach, amplifying everyday sounds and tones so that they take on new, ominous meanings. Thematically the film touches on notions of motherhood and identity. Though not as much as you may expect and these are forsaken later in the film by a twist that feels rather familiar and which undercuts much of the interest. It is one of those twists that forces you to reevaluate everything that had come before it, which is not an entirely positive exercise and makes this a less interesting film.
Verdict: Goodnight Mommy looks incredible with classical stylings abounding. At times these stylings transfer over into the storytelling, but too often the requisite creepy atmosphere is not well drawn enough, resulting in a relatively limp experience. Schooner of Carlton Draught
Directed by the awesomely named John Maclean, Slow West (2015) is a rare festival Western. Somewhat surprisingly the film attempts to mix in a heavy dose of laughs along with the standard elements of the genre that we all know and love.
Slow West focuses on Jay played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, a young Scotsman travelling to the ol’ West to reconnect with his girlfriend who was forced to flee her homeland. The main body of the story focuses on Jay’s journey westwards across America under the ‘protection’ of Michael Fassbender’s Silas. The creation of this relationship is pretty clunky. The obvious switch from an almost silent, adversarial Silas, to a chummy father figure is not at all earned. You know it’s coming and sure enough it is simply plonked there to tick off a plot beat, rather than establishing it through storytelling. There is one interesting plot twist that comes really early on. But that is the highlight of the storytelling and does not particularly elevate the rest of the film along with it. Tonally, the film is hard to embrace as well, laden with a lot more humour than anticipated. Initially the humour felt like it was going to work. It was wry and reflected on the harshness of the environs. But it continues to get more and more shrill, culminating in a sight gag that would not have felt out of place in A Million Days to Die in the West (2014). That one was actually kind of funny, but the experience of being bombarded with more and more silliness whilst trying to care about the stakes of the plot did not work for me, and results in a film that feels far too light.
Aside from it being a festival Western, the main attraction for Slow West is the cast – Smit-McPhee, Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn leading the way. Whilst no one is terrible, you could hardly say anyone is particularly excellent. Fassbender feels like he is just getting by being Michael Fassbendery and Schmidt-McPhee doesn’t feel like he has the gravitas to sell you on the cross-continental quest he is undertaking. Perhaps this is the script’s fault though, as the emotional setup of the film is very strange. Of the three, Mendelsohn is the best, typically looking like he is having an absolute ball as a mugging bad guy. Actually the only aspect of the film that particularly stood out to me was the score. It assists the journeying elements of the film and did a better job of conveying the adventurous westward march the men were on than the script did.
Verdict: Even a cast as good as this cannot overcome the film’s uneven tone. It simply cannot decide if it wants to be a silly Western comedy or a thriller with some real weight and emotion. Some people in my screening seemed to get a kick out of the humour onscreen, but I struggle to recommend this one at all. Schooner of Carlton Draught
Low budget Aussie horror-comedy Wyrmwood (2014) was one of my top 10 anticipated films of the year. Looking to circumvent recent disastrous box-office efforts by Australian films, those behind this flick decided to try something a little different. A one night only (conveniently Friday the 13th) big screen release, to be followed by a presumably a big home formats push.
Unfortunately I forgot to take a notepad to the screening tonight, so this will not be one of my usual rambling epics. But I did want to share some thoughts on the film. Firstly, I do love the fact that they tried something a little different in terms of release. It appears to have worked as well. This was a very busy Friday night in Canberra – it was the Brumbies first game of the season and the booze and food laden Multicultural Fest is a massive deal. However, the screening I attended was totally sold out, indicating there is a strong buzz around the film.
The crowd that was there were totally involved in the film as well. They were really ready to laugh and the film got a great reception. Dare I say, most people liked it a little more than I did. As with essentially all low-budget horror films, the script does have its issues. There are occasional moments where it goes interesting places and builds up some mythology – the biblical explanation for the name is one that particularly sticks in my mind. But there is also plenty of poor dialogue that fails to drive the story as it should. I think that films such as this can get by with an average script, if they have a strong story. But unfortunately, the arc of this film is pretty weak. It’s a pretty stock standard horror-comedy narrative, which gets bogged down by a subplot that leaves one of the most promising characters sidelined for a lot of the film. If only there was more of the mythology that is occasionally hinted at, because it could have really set the film apart from the norm.
All of the performers in the film are clearly having a good time here and it is hard not to go along with their boisterous turns. In fact, strangely for a film at this budget level, I don’t think I could really fault any of the performances. Keith Agius, Bianca Bradey and Leon Burchill in particular excel. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the film is the production values. There is a great amount of craftsmanship on display. You never really notice the budget at all and the filmmakers obviously targeted where they wanted to use their funds well. The brilliant looking exploding heads and zombie make-up help to immerse you in the film in a way that the story unfortunately doesn’t.
Verdict: In the end, Wyrmwood is a film to be admired rather than outright loved (well for me at least). The filmmakers have done an incredible job to produce this and get it to such a wide audience with the budget they had available to them. Unfortunately the weak story prevents the film from reaching the cult classic heights I had so hoped for. Schooner of Carlton Draught
Dracula Untold (2014) had one of the worst trailers in recent memory, so I was not exactly clamouring to see it. After hearing some positive murmurings and that the film would function as the kick-off to a Marvel style shared Universal Monsters universe, I thought I might as well give it a go.
Even the biggest horror fan is probably a little jaded by Dracula films. It is refreshing then that Dracula Untold is not meant to be an adaptation of Stoker’s classic in any way. Rather it is an origin story, based exceedingly loosely on the real life Vlad the Impaler, who also inspired Stoker to some degree. So at least we are not getting the exact same story beats that we always do. The first two thirds of the film definitely supported my initial fears though. It’s all not very good, by the numbers character building with an unengaging and totally lightweight narrative. Garbage dialogue delivered in a strange mish-mash of accents adds to the unprofessional and unenjoyable feel of it all.
The one element of the first part of the film that is at all effective is the character of Master Vampire played with glee by Charles Dance. With the practical make-up a nice change to the CGI flowing everywhere else, there is a real monstrous look to him. The bargain made between the Master Vampire and Dracula satisfyingly sets up the reasons for Dracula choosing to be a vampire. Whilst this scene at the time does not carry the dramatic heft it really should, this choice does resonate reasonably well throughout the film. The Master Vampire’s menace and construction provide the film with some instant mythology, which it is otherwise sorely lacking. Then out of nowhere, the final third of the film becomes a crackling origin story. A lot of this is achieved by a big payoff moment, where Dracula discovers he is not as all-powerful as perhaps he thought, which sets him on the path shown in various other interpretations of the novel.
This is a distinctly ugly, and at times cheap looking, film. The CGI is woeful and will remind you of just how bad CGI looked back in the late 90s. There is an over-reliance on it during action sequences as well. Which is frustrating because the best feeling sequences are the more grounded sword-fighting battles. Though having said all that, there is one rather cool moment toward the end of the film where Drac summons and controls a huge pack of CGI bats and sends them toward his enemy’s army. That brings us to one of the other great weaknesses of the film – the villain. Given Dracula is the hero (of sorts), the film needed to create a new villain. In Mehmed played by Dominic Cooper, the film fails spectacularly. He is such a nothing character, bringing no threat whatsoever, no level of physicality and no real story as to why he is so hell-bent on taking on Dracula. The character is a miss, not helped by the strange, pretty poor, performance from Cooper. Supposedly a king, he is one with zero charisma and gravitas, as seen in his ‘rousing’ speeches toward his troops. So flatly are they delivered, that the extras on the film seem to forget they are meant to be reacting with a level of fervour.
Verdict: The majority of this film is simply so terrible, that it is difficult to recommend it. But if you have any interest in classic horror characters, then the final section is so good and creative it might actually be worthwhile for you. Schooner of Carlton Draught
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
I had revised levels of hope heading into Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) given the two films that preceded it were some of the strongest in the series. Not only that, but Jason Voorhees rampaging through Manhattan sounds like an exceptional way to once again reinvigorate the slasher conventions that are so tired in many of this series’ films.
Unfortunately though, whilst not a total waste of time, this film is nowhere near as fun as the premise and title suggest it should be. Mainly because the action does not hit the big city until right near the end, and our hockey masked bad dude picking high school kids off on a boat does not feel as fresh as it should. Clearly ‘Jason on a Boat’ was not catchy enough a title so they have to trick us into thinking it mainly takes place in New York City. The first couple of shots are promising, situating the action very much in a big city and featuring a montage of rats, junkies and muggings. A real urban jungle that should be a really novel place for a film in this genre. It still would be, because from there the film spends a good hour in far less interesting locations. The film has some of that massive 80s-ness going on though. In this one it is quite endearing rather than just embarrassing. A girl with a killer guitar and a final showdown in a sewer, complete with toxic waste, scream 80s to me, rightly or wrongly.
One thing that Jason Takes Manhattan does better than a majority of the other films in the series is deliver highly original kills (although they are too far apart). A guitar to the skull, a sauna rock to the guts and a good ol’ fashioned ripping off of the head are three of the delightful ways that teens meet their end in this one. The film though continues what I feel is a certain mean-spiritedness that reoccurs throughout the whole franchise. Victims are constantly set up as admirable, wise or on the verge of genuine happiness before being killed. Conversely the film makes some (genuinely tame and misguided) attempts to humanise Jason Voorhees. It is strongly intimated that he lets a potential victim go, after a very realist drugging and rape scene, which is probably the most intense thing in the franchise to date. Later, the utterly woeful practical effects and strange elephant noises that Jason makes during the film’s conclusion are meant to endear the character at least somewhat in the minds of the audience. Slasher films often do this with varying levels of success. I don’t know of one that has done it particularly successfully though, because no matter how the killers have been victimised, in the end they are out and about killing teenagers who have most of their lives ahead of them.
Far from being offensively terrible, Jason Takes Manhattan is above all just terribly formulaic when the dual settings of a boat and NYC should allow it to rise above the norm. But in this film the cool settings do not result in very much narrative flair which is a shame because the series did seem to be on the way up. In short, this is the best of the bad films in this really patchy quality-wise franchise.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
Series ranking thus far:
- Friday the 13th Part VII
- Friday the 13th Part 2
- Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI
- Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter
- Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan
- Friday the 13th
- Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning
- Friday the 13th Part III