The two and a half weeks of the Melbourne International Film Festival are pretty much my favourite time of the year. In case it wasn't obvious already, I love going to the movies, and MIFF gives you the chance to catch a whole bunch of stuff that you'd never get to see otherwise. There are strange, surreal Japanese films (lots of these) and moody, elegaic pieces from Eastern Europe, and lush Chinese movies, and visceral Mexican movies, and movies, and movies, and movies. Seriously, it's awesome.
Unfortunately, because I took time off work to shoot Apartmentality in June, I wasn't able to also take time off work in August to wallow in MIFF in quite the way I'd like to. Still, despite working full time, I'm booked in to see 28 films over the course of 17 days. And right now, as I type, I'm seven films down and MIFF '12 is shaping up to be a barn-burner. It's always kinda pot-luck whether the films you see at a festival are any good or not, because you're choosing them based on nothing more than a tiny picture and three or four sentences in the festival guide. But this year, for the most part, I'm guessing really well.
I also try as much as possible to steer away from movies that I know are going to get a release soon enough anyway (Sorry, Wes Anderson, I love you to bits but I can wait three more weeks to see Moonrise Kingdom). It's not always easy to predict what will and won't turn up in cinemas (though you can usually assume that U.S. movies will), and in the past I've got it disastrously wrong and missed films that looked fascinating. I think I'm getting better at picking it though.
So, to business: I started the fest on Friday night with Ace Attorney, a brilliant and hilarious Japanese legal thriller by director Takashi Miike. Based on a videogame, it's set in a weird alternate universe where trial lawyers are a mixture of sportsmen and warriors, and their debates are like battles (they also have outrageous fashion sense). It's lots of fun. I don't know if the twists and turns of the legal mysteries at the heart of the film would stand up to a second viewing (Japanese movie logic works in bizarre ways...), but the tone of the film was perfect: a deft and funny mixture of absurdism and high melodrama. I had a blast. (It's also probably the first ever good movie based on a videogame.)
Things slowed down for my second film, Carre Blanc, a dystopian French flick set in a blank, cheerless city. The movie presents a Kafka-esque nightmare of bureacracy, humiliation, sudden bursts of violence, and croquet(!), a dog-eat-dog world in which anybody can do what they want, if they have the strength to get away with it. The seemingly heartless main character has risen far, but at the expense of his humanity, and his wife makes it her mission to reawaken his soul. Slow, dreamlike, and wilfully obtuse, Carre Blanc had a hypnotic quality that is hard to describe. It was beautifully shot, and made incredible use of some startlingly brutal architecture, and seemed to delight in only explaining the absolute bare minimum about its world. I'd highly recommend it, but only for people who are okay with having to fill in a lot of blanks for themselves.
Flicker, a Swedish comedy, was another great little movie. It's a sprawling ensemble piece, all about the last week in the life of an ineptly run telecommunications company. Everybody involved, from the CEO down to the cleaners, has a story, and the real joy of the film was in the way those stories collided and combined, bouncing off each other and shooting off in bizarre directions. Flicker manages a really difficult trick: all the characters seem realistic, and have recognisably human motivations, yet the events portrayed are completely batshit crazy. Making all the characters so believable really sells the drama as the plot gets more and more absurd. Really worth catching if you get a chance.
Monsieur Lazhar was also really good (did I have a good run to start MIFF with, or what?). An Algerian immigrant in Canada takes over a primary school class after their teacher kills herself, and from that beginning it's exactly the film you might expect: the kids learn lessons, the teacher confronts his tragic past, the school as a whole manages to move on. So far, so schmaltzy, except it's so well-made that the fact that it's predictable doesn't really matter. The performances are top-notch all round, and given how many child roles there are, getting that many great performances out of ten year olds is pretty miraculous. It's a small tale, and an unsurprising one, but it's told with real skill and penetrating insight. (On a side note, I was really annoyed when, having just booked all my MIFF tickets, I went to see a movie and saw the Monsieur Lazhar trailer, meaning it's coming out soon. Can't win 'em all, I guess ...)
And that was the end of my magical every-movie-kicks-arse run: the next two films I saw were disappointments. Modest Reception, an Iranian movie about a couple who drive around rural Iran handing out bags of cash to strangers, started out as a pitch-black comedy, and was very weird and very funny. Unfortunately, as the characters' bizarre quest takes a toll on them, they start acting completely illogically and the film loses steam. The deeper and darker it tries to get, the less interesting it becomes. And the explanation for their behaviour, when it comes, is so half-arsed, so tossed-off, that it would have been a much better film without it.
Le Grand Soir, a French black comedy about a middle-aged punk teaching his straight-laced, just-been-fired brother to stick it to the man, was too aimless and unfocused. Occasional scenes were thrilling (usually when the film was being its most satirical), but too much of its running time was spent on things that seemed inessential to the plot. I got some laughs out of it, but they were pretty far and few between, and in between times I was just bored.
I got back on track, though, with War Witch, a stunning film about an African girl stolen from her family and forced into being a child soldier. Beautifully written, acted (by non-professionals), and shot, and filled with incredible, transfixing scenes, this is a film I'll be thinking about for a long time to come. The plot seems kind of aimless for a big chunk of its running time but when, with twenty minutes to go, the arc of the film becomes clear, it suddenly makes perfect sense: we only understand where the film's been heading all along when the main character, Komona, finally understands what she needs to do. It's a great example of a film's structure serving the story it wants to tell. War Witch is also fascinating for the way it blends its visceral horrors with an ever-present spirituality. Magic, ghosts and witches are as everyday occurences for these characters as executions and rape. That combination makes War Witch an incredibly unsettling experience, but it was pretty friggin' amazing. See it if you can. (Also, the proper copy of the film didn't arrive in Melbourne in time for my screening, so we watched a version with a time code superimposed at the top of the screen. It's a mark of the film's brilliance that after the first minute or so, I hardly noticed it was there.)
Seven films down ... twenty-one to go. I'll be back with more mini-reviews in a couple of days.