Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Melbourne: Adventures in Film, Part 1

The idea of travelling to another city to spend most of your time watching movies might seem crazy and a waste of time to a lot of people; after all why not take in the rich, foreign surroundings of a different country instead of engaging in such a passive indoor activity as sitting in a darkened theatre, which kinda looks the same in every part of the world? The simple fact of the matter is, if you’re a rabid film buff, it’s a lot of fun. It's also a lot more physically challenging that you might think.

My August trip over to the Melbourne International Film Festival was less intense than the last two times I went over for there specifically for the fest (circa ‘07-’08 I think) - I was only there for its last few days. But it was the same sort of experience: duckin’ in and out of theatres, going for a snack in-between movies, shopping (mostly window), catching up with friends/family, and much walking and tramming. Every little thing adds to the overall experience, particularly the unfamiliarity and novelty of a different locale (although frequent visits here have made it less special...).

Before I get onto the films, here are a few things to note for those thinking about flying across the Tasman for the MIFF in the future:
  • Their programme is much larger, and goes for 17 days! I also tend to find their programming a tad more adventurous than NZ’s.
  • Movie tickets here are expensive: AU$15-18, so convert that and do the math... and weep.
  • Tickets are easily bookable over their site, with the handy option to print them from the comfort of your own home.
  • They have barcode scanners upon entry - no ripping of tickets - so it’s pretty flash. But I  sometimes wonder how fool proof it is. Ushers often ask if your ticket has been scanned, you could just say "yes" and waltz in with a fake ticket.
  • Seating is general admission. It's a good idea to arrive early because, there are queues, and the theatres aren’t massive like the Civic. Sessions sell out fast.
  • The theatres: Greater Union is kinda dingy, and needs a facelift, but has that stuck-in-time dampness that is not without charm; Forum is closest to the Civic in its oldey look and feel, but watch out for vertigo when you climb those very steep steps to get to your seat; ACMI looks the cleanest and newest and the seating is spacious (it's also worth looking around the building).
  • There are ads before the films (including MIFF’s own art-film spoofs), so it gets a bit annoying seeing the same ones if you’re seeing a lot of films.
  • Audiences here love to CLAP and WALK OUT.

Forum theatre, Flinders St.
Here’s what i caught (my picks reflect a conscious decision to avoid seeing films that were playing at NZFF, just so, y’know to make it all the more special):

DAY ONE (04.08.11)

Maybe it was post-journey exhaustion setting in or whatever but the first day didn’t get off to a shining start with a double feature of Stephane Lafleur’s Familiar Ground and Alexandr Mindadze’s Innocent Saturday, the latter being the film that I was most hyped about. I picked Familiar Ground (which translates to Familiar Grounds on-screen) on the basis of its time travel element, and Lafleur’s supposedly droll take on it, but it turns out that it plays such a small part that it almost barely warrants a mention. This is NOT a time travel or sci-fi film. It’s a fairly standard deadpan, deeply mundane family-dysfunction indie that’s nice to look at and occasionally dryly amusing, but overall kinda ho-hum.

Innocent Saturday jumped out at me for two reasons: (1) it’s shot by Oleg Mutu who shot the stunning 4 Months, 3 Months & 2 Days, and (2) its Chernobyl setting. In the film Chernobyl’s just happened, and we follow a Communist party member who’s learned of the explosion, but instead of quickly getting the hell out of town (he does try), he ends up getting drunk at a wedding party and playing drums for the wedding band while his girlfriend sings. This film had more walkouts than any other film I’ve seen this year, maybe ever. People were dropping like flies. It was almost exhilarating to experience. Blame it on Mutu’s non-stop vom-inducing hand-held cinematography, and the lack of anything that actually happened. It felt like the entire thing was one long, unforgettably boozy wedding night. Although undeniably electrifying in spots (the ominous opening, the centrepiece band performance), the film will definitely wear you down. I think I was expecting something more predictably apocalyptic, but I admire it for taking a less obvious approach.

DAY TWO (05.08.11)

Started the day early with The Ugly Duckling, a delightful, faithful Russian adaptation of Hans Christensen Andersen’s classic fairytale. 69-year-old stop-motion animator Garri Bardin spent six years making this - his feature debut - and it’s easy to tell from the wondrous results that it’s a project that’s been nurtured with a lot of heart and care. A beautifully executed, absolutely worthy version of an oft-told story. The theatre was half-filled with school kids, who were pretty well-behaved and seem to be engaged.

Second film was a late-nighter, an 11:30pm screening of Lucky McKee’s The Woman (played NZFF but I missed it). It’s a horror flick that’s caused quite a ruckus around festivals (see this now infamous youtube video of a visibly perturbed audience member), but for the jaded, it’s not as extreme as some of the buzz have suggested. There’s some warped stuff in the there, but McKee’s essentially going over-the-top in satirical fashion - it’s not something that gets under your skin and stays there for days. The tone is all over the place, but it’s never boring, and the cast give thoroughly committed performances. Still not as good as May though. McKee and Pollyana McIntosh (The Woman) were in attendance for a Q&A (questions were a mix of the usual ‘what was your inspiration’ cringe and filmmaker ass-kissing, including a guy who shamelessly hogged the mic for what seemed like forever).

DAY THREE (06.08.11)

Most satisfying, wildly different double feature of the MIFF so far. Essential Killing is a top-notch survival thriller from Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, whose 1970 coming-of-age flick Deep End is an all-time favourite of mine. In a wordless performance of pure, animal physicality, the substantially bearded Vincent Gallo very much looks the part of a Taliban fighter on the run from US soldiers. Starts off a bit bumpy - some of the peripheral characters feel a bit too broad - but when it settles down to Gallo solo, alone in the wild, on the move, eating bugs and hallucinating and stuff, it’s a strange, gritty little trip that doesn’t outstay its welcome.

The Hollywood Complex might be the most entertaining film I’ve seen all festival season long. Funny, heartbreaking, and more than a little disturbing, this doco looks at a group of child actors who make their way to Hollywood during “pilot season” in the hopes of becoming the next Miley or Dakoa Fanning. It’s both a cautionary tale about breaking your kids too early into the limelight and sacrificing their adolescence for career pursuits, and a testament to their radiant, uninhibited spirit.

DAY FOUR (07.08.11)

Festival time ended with a late morning “surprise screening” of Mike Cahill’s super-low-budget no-fi effort Another Earth, which I’m thankful for since it sold out earlier on and only played Wellington in NZ. It’s a familiar study of grief and redemption that’s freshened by its surreal central concept: the discovery of a twin Earth (doubling as a metaphor for second chances etc). Brit Marling gives a star-making performance as a cleaner beating herself up over killing two-thirds of a family in a car accident - and that’s creepy Ethan from LOST as the sole crash survivor whose life is in tatters. Not exactly polished work, but the film does offer a few striking images, and I dug its bluesy, sombre, ethereal feel. Cahill knows how to effectively make the most of his budgetary limitations. Would make a cool double feature with Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.

Next up... a trip to the Astor Theatre.

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