Melbourne International Film Festival – Day Fourteen. By Simon Miraudo.
Something strange is happening here. Festival fatigue is slowly setting in; not just upon me and my fellow ‘60 Film in 17 Days’ Blog-A-Thoners, but apparently also the entire cinema-going population of Melbourne. A couple of days ago, Thomas Caldwell at Cinema Autopsy spotted the first signs that the crowds had started to turn on one another; people were no longer filled with the exuberant euphoria that comes at the beginning of the festival, and were instead being ultra-snarky and snapping at those sitting around them. On Day 14, things had only gotten worse, and attitudes have begun to resemble those witnessed in the early scenes of virus-outbreak movies. In my screening of Innocent Saturday, I saw a woman yell at the man beside her, “Calm down you psycho! Don’t touch me!” (I didn’t see what had incited this rage, but it mustn’t have been good). iPhones, with their annoying extreme back-lighting, are being pulled out by careless attendees with greater regularity. And, in the day’s most embarrassing display, producer of The Slap Tony Ayres – making a ‘thank you’ speech prior to the screening – was yelled at by one ticket-holder who just wanted the film to start. A number of rubes then applauded the vigilante screamer, forcing Ayres to run off the stage without properly finishing his speech. Sure, he was making a very long speech, but what are we? Animals? Please people – there are only a few days of MIFF left to go. Let’s not leave our humanity behind. I say this for totally selfish reasons. I’d prefer that Victoria not erupt into an every-man-for-themselves-kill-people-for-the-last-can-of-beans-at-the-supermarket state. Guys that look like me don’t fare well in movies where that kind of thing happens. Anyway, here are films 48-51 of my 60 film challenge.
48) Innocent Saturday
I had high hopes for Aleksandr Mindadze’s Innocent Saturday, and perhaps that was my first mistake. Set in the hours after the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986, we follow honourable communist Valery Kabysh (Anton Shagin, the Eastern-European Joseph Gordon-Levitt … seriously) as he tries to escape with his girlfriend (Svetlana Smirnova, who has a touch of the Greta Gerwigs about her) to a location that isn’t horrifically contaminated. But they don’t try very hard. After missing a train out of the city, she goes to buy some shoes, and then they eventually reconvene with their buddies to play some music and collect tips at a wedding. Here, the focus shifts from the impending, unseeable devastation of the reactor explosion, to Valery arguing with his former-bandmates about his communist alliances. Shot like a Paul Greengrass film (by Oleg Mutu, and to great effect), the film feels like Bloody Sunday meets The Wedding Singer. As good as those films are, this weird, mutated combination of the two does not equal a similarly excellent product. Innocent Saturday features some of the stupidest protagonists this side of How I Ended This Summer, and it’s impossible to feel anything but contempt for these characters as they make dumb decision after dumb decision. It could have been an interesting exercise in watching how people spend “their last day on Earth”, or even how they enter a state of denial in the face of death, but it merely ends up being an annoying picture in which everyone laughs maniacally for no reason at all. I can’t say with certainty how I’d react if put in a similar situation, but I likely wouldn’t be showing off my mad drumming skills at a wedding.
49) Black Venus
French director Abdellatif Kechiche follows up his acclaimed 2007 picture The Secret of the Grain with an ambitious, three-hour biopic on the life of the ‘Hottentot Venus’ Sarah Baartman in Black Venus. I say ‘ambitious’ not because the film is all that bold – it’s actually rather conventional in structure and execution, considering the bizarre life of its titular subject – but because Kechiche really had to hope viewers would flock to a film on the strength of his name alone, especially considering it’s 166 minutes long and about one of the most miserable existences in history. Baartman (portrayed excellently by Yahima Torres) was one of the most popular freak-show attractions of the 19th century, advertised as a savage captured and brought to the crowds of London and Paris in shackles. In actuality, she was a peaceful woman who (theoretically) split the earnings with her co-star and manager, South African “captor” Alexander Dunlop (Jonathan Pienaar). He tells her constantly that she’s a talented actress, and there is nothing more honourable than earning money and the eventual freedom to live any like she pleases. It’s a convincing argument, but as the freak shows become more aggressive and soul-crushing – and her biological parts, including her enlarged labia, examined more frequently for scientific purposes – Sarah finds that her freedom is merely an illusion, and she’s been a slave all along. Still, today, we argue the grey areas of exploitation (of minorities, of different cultures or religions, or even different sexes). Can someone who sells out their own people really claim to still be powerful? Are those robots in Transformers 2 really racist, or is the racism in the eye of the beholder? Kechiche has made this film now, because, sadly, the tale of Sarah Baartman and her struggle is still relevant. It may not cover any new ground (we’ve seen this all before in The Elephant Man and even King Kong, and the cough-in-the-first-act cliché is rather on the nose), but Black Venus certainly gives the audience more than enough time to ponder the larger questions it raises.
50) The Slap
I don’t care what you say; I’m counting this as one of my 60 films. MIFF hosted the first ever public screening of episodes one and two of the new eight-part Australian TV show The Slap, based on the book by Christos Tsiolkas. Reviewing a television show is different to reviewing a movie, in which you are given the full plot in two hours. Here, we’re only given the first quarter of the story – but I was impressed by how richly drawn the characters were from the get-go, and how satisfying the self-contained tales of each ep were, even in the context of the series’ larger narrative. Jonathan LaPaglia and Sophie Okonedo (doing a great Aussie accent) star as Hector and Aisha, who hold a barbeque at their home to celebrate Hector’s 40th birthday. Their family and friends arrive, including Hector’s cousin Harry (Alex Dimitriades), and Aisha’s friend Rosie (Melissa George), among many others. After an altercation involving a cricket bat, Harry strikes Rosie’s ill-behaved three-year-old Hugo, setting off a chain reaction of events that will drag all the party’s guests through the muck. The entire ensemble cast – which also features Essie Davis, Sophie Lowe, Anthony Hayes and Oliver Ackland – are each given a moment to shine in the first ep, and the sure hand of director Jessica Hobbs keeps all the individual story strains together. The sporadic narration was probably unnecessary, but hardly prevalent enough to be a real annoyance. I’m hesitant to assign a ‘theme’ to the show, considering I’ve only seen a quarter of it so far, but I found it interesting that the central cast of characters is so multicultural, yet the premise of the program seems to be that human beings are not naturally inclined to live with one another; as if peaceful co-existence is against our nature. If The Slap is going to examine such lofty, potentially national identity-defying questions, I am definitely intrigued. Before getting kicked off the stage, Tony Ayres said he and his team hoped to produce a TV show that was in the same league as international efforts as The Sopranos and Mad Men. I don’t quite know if the show is that good, but I’m keen to see where the tale goes when it airs late September.
Jon Hewitt’s thriller X was given a token cinematic release in the U.S. earlier in the year, but whilst introducing the picture, he called its debut Australian screening at MIFF the official “world premiere”. The film stars Viva Bianca as Holly, a high-end call girl who’s about to call it quits and head to Paris. On her last, fateful night of work, she recruits a 17-year-old streetwalker by the name of Shay (Hannah Mangan-Lawrence) to join her for a threesome with a client. It’s easy money and Shay could use it. But, when they accidentally witness their drug-dealing john getting shot in the head by a corrupt cop, they have no choice but to go on the run and head even deeper into the seedy Sydney sex trade. Let me say this first – I’ve probably seen as many films about the Sydney sex trade that I’ll ever need to. I get it; it’s not a nice industry to work in. With that out of the way, there are a lot of things to like about X. It never pities its two lead females; although they’re consistently hunted down by women-hating-men, there is nary a situation when they aren’t completely in control. Without ever succumbing to the depths of typical rape-revenge movies, X features a number of crowd-pleasing moments in which the film’s villains get their just desserts at the hands of Holly and Shay (who are both portrayed by Bianca and Mangan-Lawrence rather impressively). Hewitt’s direction is also slick and frenetic; maybe perhaps a little gimmicky, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an episode of Underbelly, which often look like Final Cut Pro vomited out its entire effects catalogue over every scene. There are a few clunky moments and some cheesy, chuckle-inducing pieces of dialogue, but X is a mostly-satisfying genre thriller.