Melbourne International Film Festival – Day Twelve. By Simon Miraudo.
Blimey, if we aren’t speedily approaching the end of the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival! It’s been a hell of a fest, and despite my occasional complaints of hitting the wall and enduring conversations with a variety of rather racist cab drivers, I’ve truly loved the experience of seeing and writing about all these great (and occasionally not-so-great) features. Before we get into my exploits on Day Twelve, it’s worth taking a look at what my fellow 60 Films in 17 Days Blog-A-Thoners have been writing about. Over at Cinetology, Luke Buckmaster goes long on the sensory experience of cinema and the way in which one of the screenings led him to reflect on some potent memories (the piece, I must admit, drew a tear from me); Stale Popcorn’s Glenn Dunks praises what he believes to be the finest performance of the fest in Neds; Jess Lomas, writing for Watch Out For, escapes a renegade elevator and showers praise on A Separation; Thomas Caldwell at Cinema Autopsy discusses the notorious screening of The Turin Horse; and Brad Nguyen of Screen Machine puts in his two cents on the old fiction vs. documentary debate (the winner: you, the reader!).
But enough about them. Here are my reviews of Tuesday, After Christmas, Natural Selection, The Swell Season and Our Idiot Brother; films 40-43 of the MIFF 60 Films in 17 Days Blog-a-Thon challenge.
40) Tuesday, After Christmas
It seems somewhat paradoxical to say that the austere new wave of Romanian cinema is perhaps one of the most exciting film movements in the world right now, but it is. The door was kicked open by Cristian Mungiu’s brilliant Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; now, we have two Romanian flicks playing at this year’s MIFF. Although I didn’t catch Principles of Life, I did indeed see Radu Mantean’s Tuesday, After Christmas, which embraces the aesthetic coldness of its nation’s other films, but doesn’t quite follow through in the emotional stakes. Mimi Brănescu stars as Paul, a married man carrying on a semi-serious relationship with a mistress (Maria Popistaşu), who, awkwardly, also happens to be his child’s dentist. The guilt of the affair eventually gets to Paul, and he is compelled to tell his wife Adriana (Mirela Oprişo) the truth of his infidelity. There’s not much else to it; not that there needs to be. The film hinges on the sequence in which Paul spills the truth to Adriana, which we witness in one expertly-performed, understated single take. But as good as that scene is, it’s really all the movie has, and it just isn’t enough. The sequence doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths to really make us feel its significance; fellow MIFF feature A Separation told of a much more amicable break-up, yet that one resonated far deeper. But, not every picture from a burgeoning film scene needs to be a classic, and this formerly-Communist country is proving to be fertile ground for quality cinema. Tuesday, After Christmas is a minor selection from a major movement.
41) Natural Selection
The festival’s not over yet, but I feel compelled to hand over my totally-prestigious-and-not-at-all-worthless Best Actress prize to Natural Selection star Rachael Harris, who offers up a warm, affectionate and very funny portrait of a religious woman undergoing a crisis of faith. She stars as Linda White, a devout Christian from Texas who is, to be frank, kind of horny, but whose husband (John Diehl) insists that they abstain from sex (Linda’s barren, so there’s no good reason for them to do it … apparently). When hubby suffers a debilitating stroke – while making a totally selfless donation at the sperm bank, no less – Linda is insistent on finding out if any of his seeds have been planted and sprung forth a child. After some snooping, she discovers there’s a 23-year-old in Florida named Raymond (Matt O’Leary) who might just be her indirect step-son. Even after meeting him, and discovering that he’s a beat-up, foul-mouthed junkie on the run from the law, she still insists on bringing him home with her. I’d say it’s just her maternal instincts kicking in, but that would cast a weird shadow over the final act, in which writer/director Robbie Pickering’s Oedipal undertones emerge as overtones. Natural Selection is all about the conflict between our animalistic human urges and our devotion to religious beliefs, and Pickering succeeds in telling a truly odd tale with pitch-perfect tonal precision. Linda’s struggle (and failure) to find a balance between these poles is great fun to watch, with a touching payoff too. The seeds of her darker side are hinted at early in the flick, when she shares with Raymond her desire to one day visit California – which, I imagine her even-more pious friends and family would consider a modern-day Sodom.
42) The Swell Season
The Swell Season follows Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová – the talented musicians who starred in the indie hit Once, began dating on the film’s press circuit, and then won an Oscar for Best Original Song – as they tour the world under the moniker of, you guessed it, The Swell Season. Whereas Once ended with our two star-crossed lovers parting ways despite truly being in love with one another, this new documentary plays much like an extended alternate ending – although if you’re hoping this is the ending where Hansard and Irglová end up together for good, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed once more. The 41-year-old Guy and the 23-year-old Girl (to compare them again to their ‘unnamed’ characters from Once) called it quits after enduring the strain of their endless concerts and sudden stardom. That directors Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins and Carlo Mirabella-Davis were on hand to capture their dissolution was both lucky, and, in a more human sense, rather unfortunate (especially for those of us who care so deeply for this relationship as it was depicted in the previous semi-autobiographical film). Ultimately, The Swell Season plays like an even-more-earnest sequel to Once – complete with plenty of new concert footage - which will surely be music to the ears of diehard fans. To everyone else, not so much.
43) Our Idiot Brother
The MIFF audience was treated to a world-exclusive cut of Jesse Peretz’s new comedy Our Idiot Brother –as explained by Peretz himself during a Q&A after the screening – which has been shorn by approximately five minutes since screening at Sundance earlier in the year. The film stars Paul Rudd as Ned, a wide-eyed, farm-living, family-loving, totally-peaceful stoner who – rather stupidly, even he’ll admit – sells some pot to a uniformed police officer. After an eight-month stint in prison, he looks to his trio of sisters (Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks, Emily Mortimer) to see if they’ll take him in, at least until he can get back on his feet. All three are reluctant, dealing as they are with their individual issues, but one by one they offer him a bed, booting him out whenever he accidentally – yet inevitably – sends their life into disarray. The endlessly likable Rudd is in top form here, treating Ned not like a tired cliché of a hippie, but rather as an honest guy with a big heart , who only clashes with the rest of the world because everyone else is so uptight by comparison. He’s joined by a wonderful supporting cast, which also includes Rashida Jones, Steve Coogan, Adam Scott, T.J. Miller, Hugh Dancy and Kathryn Hahn. Peretz claims Hannah and Her Sisters is an inspiration, but I’d say a more fitting comparison is Ron Howard’s Parenthood (a similarly likable, if inessential, Woody Allen tribute). A rather conventional comedy, Our Idiot Brother may not exactly mesh with the other MIFF selections (and would perhaps be best suited as an ongoing TV series) but it’s totally pleasant, warm, and occasionally very funny. Sometimes that’s the kind of film we really need.