When selecting the films to watch at a festival, I try and get a nice balance between researching my options in depth and leaving space for surprise. That balance was spot on with Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room (2015).
Having heard of Maddin but not seen any of his work, the promise of classic cinema homage was enough to get me through the door. What was not at all expected was that this would be one of the funniest films I had seen for a long time, the material delivered with a deliriously silly sense of humour. Right from the very old fashioned, flickering subtitles, The Forbidden Room screams its love and appreciation for both classic Hollywood and just classic storytelling more broadly. The constant riffs on, and invocation, of both B-movie genre cinema and silent film initially feel a little too much. But once you settle into it, stop trying to ascertain exactly what is going on and just embrace the ludicrousness of it all, you are in for a treat. The humour in the film comes out of the absurdity of these old fashioned forms of storytelling, the ridiculousness of genre convention and writing that results in the funniest intertitles you are ever likely to see.
Films that are as experimental as this in their construction and storytelling generally get tiresome, especially if they are over 90 minutes long. Despite the fact that it could have been a reasonable amount shorter, you never get restless throughout The Forbidden Room. The visuals are so bold, the homage so loving and the intertitles so hilarious that the viewer is constantly engaged. This is a totally different B-movie homage to any other. It examines these beloved old genres in detail. Toying with the exoticism of classic adventure tales and the schlocky imagery (exposed brains) of horror films, all whilst embracing and elevating the stylistic conceits of these genres. In addition to all that, there is a narrative to the film that it is possible to tease out, unlike much experimental cinema. It’s a silly one and a not very deep one, but it’s there nonetheless. And the freewheeling absurdity of the plot construction, a loving set of babushka dolls where silly little vignettes tumble out of each other, is one of the chief charms of the film.
Verdict: Plenty have found the experience of The Forbidden Room a taxing one. It wasn’t for me though, the film is far too silly, funny and wittily written for that. A hilarious cacophony of images. Pint of Kilkenny
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
It’s film fest time once again. The Sydney Film Festival is one of Australia’s biggest, and next weekend I’ll be attending for the first time since I lived there, a good eight years or so.
I have been lucky enough to be able to catch a couple of films in advance though, including The Bolivian Case (2015). This doco, focusing on a drug ring importing cocaine from Bolivia to Norway, comes out of the interesting production company United Notions. As well as a killer name, the company seems to have a unique perspective and goal in mind, based across Australia, Bolivia and the States and aiming to create challenging ideas driven cinema.
The Bolivian Case fits in nicely with this perspective, turning a story about three young Norwegian women into a discussion of justice, media morality and societal lust for tabloid trainwrecks. Even without all of that, the film would have been an interesting one – not one but two of the women escape whilst on bail, the dynamics of the ongoing case in Norway are delved into, the women fall in love and give birth in jail and there is the smarmiest, most punchable lawyer in the history of smarmy punchable lawyers. The behaviour of the Norwegian government is also examined. They seem content to leave one of the women to rot in Bolivia, whilst going out of their way to illegally assist the others escape. Occasionally, especially early on, it is a little difficult to follow who is who and keep up with the two strands of the story (one in Norway and one in Bolivia). And perhaps the two stories never quite come together entirely as it still almost feels like two films at the end. But once the characters back in Norway are built up in the same way that director Violeta Ayala does with those jailed in Bolivia, that strand of the film becomes more engaging. To the point where it possesses the film’s biggest emotional punches. The ‘action’ highlight of the film comes as one of the women, Stina, decides to flee whilst on bail, child in hand. Ayala finely crafts this period of the film, having it play like a bit of a heist or escape film.
Another film may have solely focused on this spectacular escape, aided by shady government dealings and the media ‘paying’ to create news. The Bolivian Case has broader points in mind though. Even the escape is examined more from the point of view of what it says that a media organisation would hire mercenaries to get her out. They are essentially creating news by assisting someone to flout the laws in another country. Surprisingly, this behaviour seems to be met more or less with cheerleading in Norway, with Stina’s return apparently a triumphant one. I can understand that aspect if she proclaimed her innocence. But the way I read it was that these women were pretty clearly guilty. The film also focuses on the sensationalism that the case is met with in Norway especially when the women fall pregnant in jail. Australia has seen similar tabloid obsession in recent years, in particular with the case of Schapelle Corby, jailed in Bali for drug offences. There is clearly something universal about the plight of people, particularly young females, jailed overseas that brings the tabloid masses running. In fact the media seems able to craft the narrative of the case in Norway. One of the women is portrayed as the quiet religious girl from a rural area. The one stuck back in Bolivia is painted as the untrustworthy ringleader. The media is able to craft the heroes and the villains of the story. Class, status and even physical appearance all influence the tale that they are spinning. Which is problematic in itself, but when these artificially created notions seep into the ‘justice’ meted out in the court system, it goes from problematic to offensive. Unfortunately this kind of pre-judgement is all too common, whether aided by the media or not, in many places not just Norway.
Verdict: The Bolivian Case is a slick and timely doco that examines the seemingly universal tabloid obsession with pretty young women locked up abroad. It goes further than that though, making pertinent points about the issues of media influencing justice and the way that class and first impressions influence the way that criminals are treated. Thankfully though the film never becomes dreary or a bore to watch whilst doing all of that. Pint of Kilkenny