Melbourne International Film Festival – Day Fifteen. By Simon Miraudo.
Sorry! No time to chit-chat. On Day Fifteen of the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival I caught five films – three of which are contenders for ‘best of the fest’. I’d love to regale you with anecdotes about angry cinemagoers, crazed cab-drivers, the pain-killers I’m taking to deal with my arthritic knees, which have been worn down by the seats at the Greater Union, or my inability to get used to Victorian roads (Trams? Hook turns?!) but there is just too much filmic goodness to dive into. Without much further ado, here are films 52-56 of my 60 Films in 17 Days challenge.
52) Bi, Don’t Be Afraid
I’m certainly not proud of the fact that I nodded off on three separate occasions during first-time writer/director Dang Di Phan’s Bi, Don’t Be Afraid. It couldn’t have been for more than a moment each time – micro-naps really are unsatisfying – and on all three occasions I was awoken by a sex scene, as if my subconscious knew exactly when to snap me back to reality. Anyway, cut me some slack. This was film #52, and I had only gotten to bed at 4:30am the night/morning before. I think three-five minutes of sleep during one film is acceptable. Nonetheless, I’d feel bad giving a definitive critique of a picture where I had potentially missed important moments, so please take all of my analysis with a pinch of salt, and look to Glenn Dunks’ glowing review instead. If you’re really interested, you can read my two cents worth in the following few sentences (seriously right after this bracket and full stop). Bi, Don’t Be Afraid concerns a Vietnamese family who welcome home their bed-ridden and terminally ill father during a scorching, sticky summer. The heat-induced lethargy sees each of the adults in something of a sexual stupor, while six-year-old Bi (Thanh Minh Phan) is the only one who takes the time to reconnect with the newly arrived old man, and discovers some of the natural wonders hidden under the adults’ self-involved noses. The characters’ motivations are perhaps a touch too vague to engage the viewer (as evidenced by my expulsion of zs); perhaps the entire film was a touch too detached. I’ve seen plenty of pictures during MIFF while in a sleepy state, but I’ve found the good ones have shaken me out of my heavy-eye-lidded trance. Bi, Don’t Be Afraid failed to do so. However, until I can seek out the DVD and watch it again, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
53) Bobby Fischer Against The World
No, this isn’t an Asylum-style rip-off of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (even though I would love to see that); it’s Liz Garbus’ documentary on the life of controversial world champion of chess and eventual enemy of the state Bobby Fischer. With Bobby Fischer Against The World, MIFF has delivered yet another totally captivating and cinematic sports doco (although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Senna, which will go down as one of the all time greats). From his early beginnings as a child prodigy, to his legendary bout with Russian world champ Boris Spassky, and finally his descent into paranoid, America-hating, anti-Semitic madness, Garbus paints Fischer as a fascinating, engaging, unsympathetic anti-hero, and one of the most complex protagonists I’ve seen during the festival. There’s only limited footage available of his epic battle against Spassky (how much footage can you possibly need of men sitting at a table playing chess anyway?), but it acts as a satisfying centerpiece to the film, which cannot rely on either a happy beginning or ending. The talking heads lionize Fischer as a sportsman and seem to abhor him as a human being. Garbus tells his story with aplomb, placing it in the greater context of the Cold War, and also examining the human toll and anguish Fischer brought upon himself – the struggle of a genius for whom psychotic obsession was not only unavoidable, but the next logical move.
Oh why, why, why did I have to see Lars von Trier’s new film Melancholia sandwiched in between a bunch of other films? It is a film that completes an evening of movie-watching, and should only be followed by hours of conversation in which undigested thoughts are articulated, until they are ready to be written down in a thoughtful, erudite manner. Instead, I saw two more movies, and now here I am, at 2:40am in the morning, thinking of how to precisely word how much I loved it. Let me just say I really loved it, and let me write a proper, long-form review of it tomorrow.
55) Kill List
Ben Wheatley’s Kill List similarly should only be seen at the end of the night, but the terrifying final act would likely keep you awake anyway. Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley star as Jay and Gal, former British soldiers having a hard time adjusting to regular suburban life. Jay’s wife (MyAnna Buring) wants him to get back to work, and Gal has a lucrative offer: join him as a hit-man and help him finish off a newly-acquired kill list. There are only three targets, and the pay is good; the only catch (it seems) is they have to make the deal with a creepy dude who will only sign the contract in blood. Fair enough; you meet these kinds of people in this kind of business, they rationalise. The audience follows the hilarious, bickering couple on their quest, and we’re fooled into thinking that we’re witnessing a new darkly comic British crime classic from ‘the next Guy Ritchie’. But when the boys meet target number two, who inexplicably keeps thanking Jay for coming to murder him, things start to get weird. They diverge from the list, make some bizarre discoveries relating to their targets, and then find themselves caught in … I’m sorry, I wish I could go on, but that would really ruin the surprise. I can’t even tell you which British horror classics (one from the 70s, and one from the 00s) that the truly chilling final act evokes, as even whispering their name would count as a spoiler. Wheatley deserves commendation for delivering a film that surprises at every turn. Although it’s rather hilarious at times, there is a foreboding sense of dread from the very first frame. He knows how to work an audience. The cast, who apparently improvised some of the dialogue (the script is attributed to Wheatley and Amy Jump), are also excellent, finding the precise balance of humour in each of their increasingly horrific situations. I wonder if the picture’s final scene – which features a nerve-shattering twist and leaves numerous questions in the air – works for the film, or against it? Are we given enough information to solve the mystery at the picture’s core, or, as fellow MIFF Blog-A-Thoner Luke Buckmaster claimed after the screening, is a mystery at its best if it remains that way? I’ve been told by those who’ve seen the film a couple of times that there is enough information spilled in the opening act (which involves the dinner party from hell) to explain what exactly happens in the finale. I can’t wait to watch Kill List a second time. Even if the second viewing doesn’t explain a thing, I just want to experience the ordeal again.
56) The Woman
In David Mamet’s Spartan, Kristen Bell – starring as the jaded, kidnapped daughter of the president – tells her saviour – played by Val Kilmer – that she was “raised by wolves”. Of course, that’s just a classic bit of Mametian dialogue, and not exactly the truth for Bell’s character. If the eponymous woman of Lucky McKee’s new film could speak English, however, she could deliver this line with honesty. As we see in the opening credits, as a baby she was cared for by animals, and taught to survive as a savage in the wilderness. Now fully grown (and played by the fearless Pollyanna McIntosh), she catches the eye of family man and keen hunter Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers), who decides to capture her, chain her up in his storm shelter and teach her to be a civilised young lady. He calmly, but forcefully, instructs his wife Belle (Angela Bettis), daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) and son Brian (Zach Rand) to wash her, feed her and clean up her “mess” – they best not get too close to her though, lest she bite off their fingers, like she did to Chris. As you have likely already assumed about a horror movie in which a woman becomes enslaved by a seemingly-cheerful-but-actually-horribly-cruel man, things get a little rapey, and eventually, the whole thing explodes into an orgy of violence. At the film’s now-notorious Sundance screening, a cinemagoer screamed at McKee and demanded the print be banned, burned and other such extreme things. And to this I have to say, “Really?” As horrific as the description above may sound, the film is not that horrendously, gut-churningly violent, and the sexual attacks take place mostly off screen. Not only is it not that controversial, The Woman is also too thoughtful to deserve such a reactionary response. Compare it to the similar Dead Girl, in which two boys discover a young lady who can’t be killed, keep her imprisoned and then do terrible things to her. Dead Girl attempts to titillate the audience with scenes of rape, violence and necrophilia; it seems to get off on its own smug sense of extreme-ness. As a result, it’ a vapid and rather lame attempt to be subversive.
The Woman, on the other hand, isn’t concerned with such things. It cares about its characters. In fact, The Woman isn’t just about the woman; rather, it’s about Belle, Peggy, Peggy’s concerned teacher Ms Raton, Chris’s secretary, an old woman who is losing her house, and a couple of other ladies whose identities I won’t spoil for the sake of the final act’s big reveal. The Woman is about the different types of cruelty Chris and Brian inflict on these women. It’s not about why they’re cruel, but rather, to what degree these men can be cruel. And even thinking about the extent of their truly evil, misogynistic nature is the sickening part. Don’t mistake the film itself for being misogynistic. The female characters here are the only truly human ones, including our titular savage. I suspect McKee would have called the film The Women, if another, equally horrifying film hadn’t already snapped up that title.