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Korkoro (2009)
Gatlif tackles the war
14 March 2010
I've seen half a dozen or so of Tony Gatlif's films and I've enjoyed them all - in fact his previous film, Transylvania, was my equal favourite cinema release of 2008. While Gatlif's work documents the way of the Roma (gypsies), the themes are universal: celebrations of music, culture, ethnicity and so on. It's the dramatic and visual way in which Gatlif portrays these elements that has much impact for me.

Korkoro certainly doesn't disappoint. The visuals are beautifully rendered, and the frame is used wonderfully - sometimes with extreme close-ups, sometimes panoramic. Like Robert Guédiguian's latest film, The Army of Crime, the film is set during World War II. According to the end credits, an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 of Europe's 2 million pre-war gypsies died at the hands of the Nazis. This story follows a wandering family of 15 of those.

The Germans in occupied France decreed a law forbidding the movement of itinerants and this family find themselves stranded in a town where they seasonally perform farm work, before they are imprisoned in a camp. The family has the sympathy of the town's mayor - who provides land for the family - and the local teacher, Mademoiselle Lundi (Marie-Josée Croze), who is based on the real-life resistance fighter Yvette Lundy.

I love this film. Not only does it have all the trademark Gatlif traits: wild depictions of gypsy life, wild music and spurts of insanity, but its presentation of the rarely depicted and tragic part that the Roma played in WWII combine to make this a lovely story.

Some of the visuals are amazing, like a sick horse and its gypsy treatment (it'll have you wondering how the hell they got animals to 'act'). The cinematography is superb. The acting is strong and Croze's role is especially beautifully understated. Well worth seeing.
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Emotionally devastating - must-see cinema
27 October 2008
I have only just learnt that Zvyagintev's The Return was his feature film debut. It really impressed me with it's sparse and elusive narrative, filled with mystery and ambiguity. It is visually spectacular, with a strong Eastern European aesthetic that one can't look away from. The Banishment is no less a film.

This is a much more ambitious effort than Zvyagintev's debut. Again he has crafted a story that is highly enigmatic. It stars Konstantin Lavronenko, who played the role of the absent father returned in The Return. Alex is a man with a shady past and his brother Mark (Aleksandr Baluyev) is of the same ilk. When Alex's wife, Vera (Maria Bonnevie), reveals she is pregnant and that he is not the father, a sequence of events unfolds that will have you on the edge of your seat. "If you want to kill, kill. If you want to forgive, forgive", says Mark.

The tension is palpable, magnified by the sparse dialogue. In one sense, words are not needed as the body language says it all. Yet in another, the inability of the protagonists to bring out into the open what needs to be said leads to unforeseen consequences. This is both thematically similar to Nuri Bilge Ceylan's similarly excellent Three Monkeys and stylistically they also share much in common. As in Ceylan's films, Zvyagintev shows great confidence in telling a story, taking his time to create a palpable ambiance. At 157 minutes, the film is quite long, but always engaging.

The cinematography is stunning throughout, with excellent use of the widescreen. There is one tracking shot in particular that left me breathless as the camera seemingly floated through space. I can recall only twice where the camera movement impressed me so: the caravan sequence in Noise and the various tracking shots in Soy Cuba. The use of darkness, light and shade are used to great effect. The music is haunting, reminding me of the Gothic sounds of the music of Enigma. It renders the film with a sense of tragedy of biblical proportions.

Zvyagintev is a magnificent talent that just can't be ignored. If you see only one Russian film this year, make it The Banishment.
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Son of a Lion (2007)
Beautiful story
1 September 2008
This film is an impressive accomplishment by Gilmour. Sure, it's a little rough around the edges, but that also has its appeal, especially given the extremely difficult circumstances under which the film was made. Gilmour travelled to the North West frontier of Pakistan, where foreigners are not allowed. At great personal risk (and with ongoing risk to the local villagers), Gilmour filmed in a clandestine manner using nonprofessionals.

It's a simple story, not unlike many Iranian films. An eleven-year old boy, Niaz, works for his father, Sher Alam, an old Mujhadeen who fought against the invading Russians during the long war against Afghanistan. Sher Alam makes guns but Niaz just wants to go to school. I love the way the film assumes the child's perspective. Niaz doesn't want much, but he wants it bad. There's a heart-breaking struggle to achieve his seemingly unattainable goal, and the cultural aspect woven into the film is beautiful.

My seven year old also enjoyed Son of a Lion. There is one brief scene where an animal is slaughtered and we covered his eyes (and ours) for it.

All kudos to Gilmour for making this film. This is an example of world cinema made with passion and commitment, with respect for both the subjects of the film and the audience. Gilmour has no background in film-making. He spent time with these people and decided he wanted to tell a fictionalised version of their story. I highly recommend it.
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Better than average Italian social drama
1 September 2008
"Straight from the Director's Fortnight of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival comes this biting & poignant drama from Francesco Munzi, who displays a level of deft sophistication and power only hinted at with his debut prize-winner Saimir." So read the promotional notes to this intriguing film that is clearly a cut above most Italian dramas.

In one sense, it is three stories in one. The first is the story of an affluent upper-middle class family. The second is a story of some down-and-out struggling Romanian migrants, one of whom is fired as the maid of the family when she is suspected of stealing. The third is the collision of these two worlds. Each part has a different aesthetic.

The Rest of the Night is an ambitious film and Munzi is attempting to weave a web that will attract a wide audience. The affluent story is pure contemporary Italian cinema (at least, what we see of it here). There's the selfish and demanding husband, there's the beautiful but fading wife and the cute and spoilt teenage daughter. Perhaps Munzi's intention is subversive, because this aspect of the film acts like a hook for a conventional audience.

I say "hook", because the migrant story is more in the realm of social realism á la 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Indeed, Laura Vasiliu (Marja, the maid) played the pregnant student seeking an abortion in that film. Dismissed at short notice, Marja in her desperation returns to the low-life. This part of the film is effective, though perhaps there is a lack of subtlety in differentiating the high- and low-lives. Nonetheless, the aesthetics of the bleakness is a welcome change to the bland and mostly middle-class stories that Italy exports.

These two worlds collide in the film's third act, and the film's tone changes to one of a crime drama. For my taste, I don't think Munzi has been wholly successful in weaving these three stories together. I'd have preferred that he stick to one aesthetic or another. But then, perhaps this is not intended for an art-house audience. I think it works best as a film for mainstream audiences who like quality drama, with a few surprises. As I often say, I prefer a film to take risks and not be completely successful, than one that aims low and succeeds. Munzi has taken risks and this film is worth a look.
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Transylvania (2006)
Celebration of life!
24 April 2008
As far as I am concerned, cinema exists primarily to watch films like Tony Gatlif's Transylvania. It is full of life, love and loss, pain and sorrow, music and dance, culture and superstition. No-one with a heart can help but be moved by this ode to life and the Romany way.

Gatlif has made a career of showcasing the Romany, the culture of the gypsies. Credited with writing, co-writing and arranging virtually all the music in Transylvania, he clearly has a love of music that is infused within his films. This latest effort depicts a woman (Asia Argento) who leaves France and travels to Romania in search of her boyfriend, a gypsy musician.

The infusion of music and dance into the story is pure cinema magic. The cinematography, use of light and use of imagery are all magnificent. The choice of actors, both professional and non-professional, is excellent. Their comings and goings within the film are unpredictable, adding to the believability of the story, as crazy as it gets at times.

Asia Argento really is the star of the film. Her passion, strength and intensity are at the core of the story. Her rendition of gypsy womanhood as Zingarina is for me a landmark performance.

Gatlif showcases the bleak yet beautiful countryside and rural decay of forgotten lands, depicting a way of life that is slowly dying. His love for this culture and respect for those who are part of it is evident, and his depictions of it are electric, exhilarating and moving. The film's ending is amazing.

For me, this is close to as good as a film gets and is my equal favourite for the year so far. There is so much to like about it and I can't use enough superlatives. This is must-see cinema.
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Paranoid Park (2007)
Van Sant's most moving film to date
27 March 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Any mention of a Gus Van Sant film is nearly always accompanied by comments of being about disaffected or alienated male youth. While this is invariably both true and unavoidable, such superficial descriptions don't really do Paranoid Park justice. Van Sant's latest film is a profoundly intimate, moving and insightful meditation on the inner world of a youth in crisis.

Alex is sixteen and, aside from navigating the usual hurdles of adolescence, school, girls and life in general, his parents have recently undergone a messy separation. His escape is to hang out with his buddy Jared, and together they discover Portland's tough Eastside Skate Park. Known to the locals as Paranoid Park, it was built by the skaters themselves, and is a magnet for all kinds of dropouts.

Alex is a fairly normal kid but everything changes one evening when he goes to Paranoid Park alone and is involved in the death of a security guard. He keeps this toxic secret to himself, but gradually reveals all in his diary.

Of Van Sant's films, Paranoid Park is aesthetically most similar to Elephant. It defies a linear narrative, circling around the central facts which reflect Alex's state of shock and inability to come to terms with what has happened.

Other stylistic devices convey Alex's fractured state of mind, such as the use of a varied range of eclectic music. Similarly effective is the use of slow motion, creating a dreamy ambiance that complements the music at times, or contrasts at others, the music.

The film opens to the sounds of an ambient French track that matches the imagery of skaters floating through space, defying gravity. In fact, Paranoid Park is a French production and while the story and participants are clearly American, the film really has qualities reminiscent of French cinema. Van Sant seems to be revered in France more so that in his own country. His work has stark similarities to my favourite type of French cinema.

The depiction of grownups from a teenage perspective is fascinating. When in frame, they either have their backs to us, or cinematographer Chris Doyle's use of long lenses to strictly control focus means we mostly see them as a blur. They are not absent, but don't figure prominently in Alex's world. This is also subtly accentuated in conversations. "It's not like she cares", moans Alex about his mother when questioned about his movements.

We do, however, clearly see Detective Richard Liu. His strong presence shakes Alex out of his dreamy inner world and gives us a more grounded reference point within the story. His quiet intensity as he faces off with Alex at a crucial moment is as emotionally powerful as anything I have ever experienced on screen. This is when the true impact of Alex's ordeal, as well as Van Sant's genuine empathy for his characters is fully revealed.

In Paranoid Park, youth are disconnected from adults, but also parents are unable to engage with their children. Alex is in his own world that seems impenetrable to his parents, and they seem to struggle with words he can relate to. When Alex's father talks about inevitable divorce, his words have little interest to Alex.

Cast with mostly non-professionals, much has been made of Van Sant's casting call via MySpace, though apparently none of the main actors were found in this way. Van Sant has used improvisation with the actors, resulting in dialogue full of authenticity, light-years from the slick depictions of youth in contemporary cinema. His characters, both adults and youths, sometimes struggle with their words. The performances were terrific.

In fact, I find it hard to fault the film in any way. The cinematography is stunningly natural, the music is entrancing and the story is compelling. Technically, the most impressive aspect is careful construction of the story through editing (by Van Sant himself).

Starting with Gerry, this film caps off four consecutive films Van Sant has made in a minimalist style he is making his own. All four of them are concerned with youth and death. Life, death and what occurs between, these are all compacted within the framework of a Van Sant film. The films are not about death, but death is an event that provokes other dramatic elements. For me, Paranoid Park is the most touching of all his films, at least as good as Elephant and as good as anything I've seen in the last year.
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Moving human drama with subtlety
9 March 2008
I have heard this film being compared to Eat Drink Man Woman, which is fair enough, if not slightly deceptive. Sure, there's a similar veneration for the art of cooking and how this draws and binds families. But the film casts a wider net than this may suggest. For me, it strongly resembles the humanistic and naturalistic stories of Robert Guédiguian, particularly La ville est tranquille (The Town is Quiet).

The actors are largely non-professionals. The use of long takes, including long stretches of dialogue, is very impressive and suggests that some of the script may be improvisational. I liked the chit-chat, the small details of daily life (like toilet-training a child), that films normally gloss over.

The film has a documentary look and feel and parts are like a fly-on-the-wall at a family gathering. For me, the importance of this is to convey how human this family is, with a rich and warm cultural heritage. In particular, it renders as impotent, irrational fears of Muslim culture.

The film works on multiple levels because it taps into the universal everyday concerns that potentially touch us all in one form or another: prejudice against immigrants, attitudes towards Islam post 9-11, globalisation, ageism in the workforce, the effects of poverty, family breakdown and more. Yet, importantly, the film is not preachy but merely presents life in a matter-of-fact way.

The female performances in the film are particularly affecting, especially the young Hafsia Herzi playing Rym, the daughter of Slimane's lover, and Leila D'Issernio who plays his Russian daughter-in-law.

At 148 minutes, the film is quite long, though this is not apparent until the final scene, which seems to be prolonged in real-time for a particular effect. On paper, the story looks like something we've seen before, but avoids all the clichés we might expect. I loved it.
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Dr. Plonk (2007)
Excellent transposition of silent era film into the present
21 August 2007
Rolf de Heer, in introducing Dr. Plonk, explained that there were at least three reasons he made this film:

* He found the stock in a fridge going to waste, and decided to use it. When I asked him about it later, he said it was about ten years past its expiry date. It was colour film that was converted to black and white in post-production.

* He wanted to make a film that was a tribute to the films he loved in his childhood, such as The Keystone Kops.

* After the difficulties of some of his earlier films, he wanted to make something that would be fun to make and fun for the actors to be involved in. As an aside, he mentioned that it was much more difficult than expected.

While I live in hope for Australian films, I can't say that I'm a big fan of much of our output. Rolf de Heer is an Australian director whose work does interests me. I've only seen three of them, but each was completely different:

* The Old Man Who Read Loves Stories (2001). I saw this in 2004 at the Nova cinema, with a Q&A session with the director. De Heer described some of the many problems he had making this film with an international cast in the jungles of French Guiana. Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Timothy Spall and Hugo Weaving, it was both an unusual and an interestingly different film.

* Ten Canoes (2006). This is a really unique Australian film that tells an indigenous story in a way that these people voiced so publicly. It won the Un certain regard (Special Jury prize) at Cannes 2006 as well as 6 AFI awards (for best film, director, screenplay, cinematography, editing and sound). It was also my no.3 favourite film for 2006 (after Em 4 Jay and The King).

* Dr. Plonk

I was pleasantly surprised by Dr. Plonk. At first glance, the images promoting the film looked somewhat cringe-worthy. I was also a little skeptical at the idea of reproducing the silent-era style in a contemporary film.

De Heer told me that when he presented the film to a group of school children in Adelaide, the general consensus was positive, even though most of them didn't understand the concept of silent film. One student asked why no-one was talking. I think this is excellent family entertainment. Often the word 'family' is used in conjunction with children's films, but I mean it in the context of 'all-ages'. Baby-boomers and older will relate to the obvious homage to The Keystone Kops (which I also enjoyed as a child) and the early films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

De Heer has done a remarkable job of producing a contemporary film that is not only a faithful reproduction of the style and mood of these historic films (including classic slapstick, stunts and acrobatics), but also manages to fuse contemporary issues. Set in 1907, Dr. Plonk creates a time machine that travels 100 years into the future in order to gather proof that the world will indeed end in 2008. De Heer displays excellent judgement in subtly presenting political points in a way that doesn't detract from the mood of the film or offend people's sensibilities.

The casting was spot on. The three main characters were Dr. Plonk (Nigel Lunghi), his lowly assistant Paulus (played as comic relief by Paul Blackwell) and Mrs. Plonk (the always funny Magda Szubanski). South Australian premier Mike Rann appears in a cameo role as the present day Prime Minister Short, and Wayne Anthoney plays Prime Minister Stalk in 1907. The film also takes a humorous look at who our next prime minister will be.

Some of the classic devices of silent films used by de Heer include: humiliation of a superior towards his subordinate, lots of bum-kicking, a performing animal, altered film speed, a slight flickering look to the film as the light intensity varies (emulating the imperfections of the technique of the day) and absurdly simple devices (like a wooden box with a lever as the time machine).

There's a point around half way into the film where if gets a little flat, and I suspect some contemporary audiences - particularly those with little experience of silent film - may get a little bored. Having recently seen some Keaton shorts at Melbourne Cinémathèque, as well as Keaton's The General at the Astor a year or so ago, I thought this was still consistent with the films of that era. The music was enjoyable and appropriate, yet a little whacky - it was performed by the Stiletto Sisters.

All in all, I found the film a real treat, well conceived and executed. I intend taking my six year old son to see it and I'm sure he'll be laughing his head off at the good old-fashioned gags that leave most modern comedies for dead. This film is 83 minutes of refreshingly good old-fashioned entertainment.
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Stylish, visually compelling cinema - an ode to noir
13 August 2007
I saw this at a sold-out screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival and was surprised at how good it was, considering I'd heard some negative or indifferent murmurs about it. It goes to show that you never can judge a film until you've seen it yourself. This is my first Béla Tarr film.

The Man From London is clearly a highly stylised homage to film noir of the 1940s. The lush black and white photography, using classic noir shadows and imagery is a feast for the eyes. The camera work is slow, fluid and dynamic, with very long takes in which little seems to happen. Combined with a mesmerising score slightly reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti's sounds on Twin Peaks, a mood of ever-growing suspense and menace is created that powerfully engages from start to finish.

The basic premise of the film is that Maloin, a night harbour worker (played by Miroslav Krobot) witnesses some treachery between a disembarking passenger of a ship (the man in the title) and another man on-shore. A death may have occurred and when Maloin investigates, he becomes involved in an intrigue from which he cannot extricate himself.

Tilda Swinton plays Maloin's wife, though her voice is dubbed over in Hungarian. The film was part-English produced, so maybe a name known to English-speaking audiences was required to market the film. The role was small, and I always find Swinton an interesting actor, so it was a curiosity to see her in this role. In general the tired and worn-out characters looked terrific on film, with a timeless quality that matched the aesthetics of the decaying town.

This is not a film for everyone, as it requires some patience and appreciation for aesthetics over action, and there is not a whole lot of the latter. While the film's major strength is its visuals, they serve to subtly drive the slow-burn suspense. I was surprised when people started walking out of the film, first one by one, then after an hour about twenty or so walked out in unison. I estimate 60 people left, around 10% of the audience. I was equally surprised that so few walked out of Inland Empire (I counted only four, about 1% of the also sold-out screening a few nights earlier).

Still, what's a good film or a good film festival without walk-outs? Many of my favourite films have had them. I have read that this is not one of Tarr's best films. Well, I loved it and must seek out his others.
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Mister Lonely (2007)
Something very different from Korine - must-see cinema!
12 August 2007
In spite of mixed early reviews of Mister Lonely, the latest film by wunderkind Harmony Korine was not only one of the stand-out films for me at the Melbourne International Film Festival, but one of my favourites of 2007. My experience of his work to date is limited to the writing of Larry Clark's Kids and his directorial debut Gummo. The former I saw relatively recently and impressed me with its gritty realism, while the latter surprised me on its theatrical release with its bleakness.

Mister Lonely is a much more colourful film than anything associated with Korine. Its visuals (such as set design, camera angles and cinematography) are very pleasing, accentuated by its seemingly unrelated parallel narratives and absurdist premise. A Michael Jackson impersonator in France meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, who introduces him to a Scottish commune full of various impersonators. While superficially the film appears to be frivolous, clearly it has deeper social comments to make about identity, loneliness and alienation, issues the director has been reportedly grappling with personally.

The other narrative relates to a group of missionaries in Panama, with Werner Herzog portraying a priest, Father Umbrillo, delivering food aid by plane, assisted by various nuns. While the connection between the dual narratives is unclear, this story is strangely surreal, visually alluring and entertaining.

There is a small flat spot towards the end of the film, but for most of the film's 112 minutes, I had a big smile that was hard to wipe off my face. Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Temple, James Dean, Little Red Riding Hood, Queen Elizabeth, the Pope, The Three Stooges, Abraham Lincoln, Madonna and Buckwheat are all there.

The humour and irony are used with a clever and skillful blend of under- and over-statement. There is an underlying subtle sadness to some of the characters who, in spite of their eccentric alter egos, remain ordinary people that an audience can relate to. The film is intelligent and emotionally honest. One part is particularly close to the bone for me and brought tears to my eyes. This is Korine's most accessible and enjoyable film. It is full of originality and I highly recommend it.
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Maborosi (1995)
Quiet, observational, poetic and moving
5 August 2007
Not having seen a Kore-eda film before, the style of this film took a while to get a handle on. It is a film about grieving, about loss. A young woman with a newly born child loses her husband, who has apparently committed suicide. There is little dialogue and little development of relationship dynamics with much of the gaps to be filled in by the imagination of the audience. The film had the style of a 1970's art film; there was a sense of timelessness about it.

Kore-eda has an aesthetic that won't appeal to the casual film-goer. It is very slow-moving, and some of the indoor shots are quite dark. After a while, I got the sense that the viewer's attention is not meant to take in the whole screen, but rather parts of the screen such as the illuminated side of a woman's face in a dark room or the shapes of people reflected in water. Kore-eda seems fascinated with light and exploration of its use. Frames of illuminated subjects are contained within the larger screen frame. Light reflects of different surfaces, and at different times of the day. This is a film where you really need to 'get in the zone'.

I liked the film. It rewards the patient viewer and the ending was very moving. A repeat viewing will enhance my appreciation and I look forward to seeing more of Kore-eda's films as part of a retrospectve at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
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Sicko (2007)
Entertaining and thought-provoking exposé
5 August 2007
This was a great choice of opening night film at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Controversial, entertaining, socially and politically relevant, it had people in their seats in animated conversation after the film ended, continuing to the after-party. What more could you want?

Michael Moore is always good value - when he's good he's good, and when he's bad, he's better. A buzz preceded the film and for good reason. No doubt the buzz will grow locally.

Ever since his 1989 debut with Roger and Me, continuing with his TV series The Awful Truth (which screened here some years ago on SBS) and his more recent Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911, Moore has shown he has a knack for making serious social and political issues accessible and digestible for cinema audiences. Using irony, sarcasm, humour and entertaining visuals along with serious explorations of the truth, he has been credited with a major revival in documentary. So much attention does he command that now a documentary has been made about him: Manufacturing Dissent: Michael Moore and the Media, also screening at MIFF, challenges the methods used by Moore.

The failings of the US health system are reasonably well known – the wealthiest country in the world does not provide adequate care for the health of its citizens to the extent that life expectancy is relatively low (just above Cuba). Some may question how relevant a film about the US health system is to us as Australians? Well, quite a lot, actually. More on this soon.

The film starts off with a few case studies of individuals who have been denied cover by their health insurance companies. Moore's methodology is similar to that employed in Bowling For Columbine. All his films could be called 'agenda films', but like Columbine, there was a lot of investigative work in order to uncover various rorts, bad practices and political conniving.

Hilary Clinton put much effort into promoting a national health scheme in the early days of her husband's presidency and was subjected to a massive demonisation program by the conservatives that basically killed the idea. "Terrible waiting lists", "poor standards of health", "lack of choice of doctor" were various doom and gloom predictions by the Republicans.

Much of the film is spent demonstrating how false this propaganda was. Moore travels to various countries interviewing families, patients and medical staff to get their perspectives on the local health systems. This is where the relevance to Australia comes in. The systems in Canada, England, France and even Cuba are all better than ours – but are strangely similar to what we once had. Under the current government (though certainly not started by it), we are clearly moving in the direction of the US model (and not just in industrial relations). We have much to fear.

There were many profound moments in the film:

* A young French man who had lived all his adult life in the US but found he had to move back to France when he was injured, in order to get medical treatment.

* A community of Americans living in France who couldn't believe how good the health and social welfare system was compared to home (Moore suggests this may be why the US is quick to alienate or denigrate France). One woman was brought to tears when she described the guilt she feels for accepting the benefits that France provides. As someone with a strong attraction to France, this gave me even more reason to want to go there.

* One of the most profound moments was when a group of 911 volunteer rescue workers travels with Moore to Cuba, and the reception they received from this so-called evil nation. It brought this writer to tears.

There are many criticisms of Moore's style, and no doubt many of them are valid, if not over-stated. We are subjected to daily lies in our media that don't get the same scrutiny that Moore does. Why? He is a thorn in the administration's side.
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Middle-of-the-road enjoyable, yet subtly insightful
5 August 2007
I've liked Hawke as an actor but didn't go into this film with high expectations. I was surprised at how competently this was made. While it covers fairly safe territory - a romantic drama - it does it with nice visuals and some originality. The protagonist William (Mark Webber) is a bit of a slacker, yet he was introspective enough to try to resolve some of his own issues when his lover Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno) splits and leaves him broken-hearted. The fact that this was tackled from the male perspective, and grappled with some psychological insight gave the film some gravitas. Mind you, how deeply a twenty-one year old can delve into his psyche is another thing.

I found the film quite enjoyable, more than superficial, but still largely in the "middle-of-the-road" category - not that that's a bad thing. The cinematography was great, and there were nice camera angles. The music was nice but sometimes a little intrusive. While it's the type of film that's likely to do well at Sundance (maybe it has, I don't know), it's a lot better than the quirky comedies like Little Miss Sunshine et al. This film could do well on general release and was an OK film to add some variation to my MIFF viewings, but nothing to rave about. A good effort by Hawke (who is also a guest speaker at the festival).
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Dry Season (2006)
Compelling tale of revenge
5 August 2007
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's story is remarkable in it's starkness of setting - the desert of Chad - and in the manner in which it unfolds. This is a two-hander in which there is very little dialogue - one can't talk and the other won't. This creates an almost surreal element to the film, where hatred seethes through silent glares.

When the Chad Commission for Truth and Justice grants amnesty to some 200 war criminals, the elderly Gumar Abatcha gives his dead son's pistol to his orphaned grandson Atim and dispatches him to kill the murderer of Atim's father. Living far away, Nassara is a dangerous man who now ekes out a living as a baker, trying to forget his past. When Atim finds him, he insinuates himself into Nassara's life with the intent of exacting revenge. Dry Season would make an excellent companion film to Death and the Maiden (1994), Roman Polanski's thrilling film version of a play about political repression and revenge in Central America.

I find it unfortunate that we have to wait for festivals to see films like this (I saw it at the Melbourne International Film Festival). It depicts a culture we know virtually nothing about, is visually stunning and was thoroughly engaging. An excellent film.
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Both derivative and inventive
5 August 2007
With the exception of a few brief seemingly random shots, Brand Upon the Brain! is shot (or made to appear in post-production to be shot) in grainy black and white. The look is reminiscent of David Lynch's Eraserhead, a classic that may have been an influence, though the style is quite different. Maddin's film uses much more frenetic editing techniques, particularly frequent cutting to create an abrasive subliminal effect from which the title appears to be derived.

I use the term 'abrasive' and for some people that might be a negative, but I found it effective. The film uses captions and along with a neo-silent-era visual design, it has the effect of a coherent experimental film with a bizarre horror narrative. A man, Guy, returns to the island orphanage of his parents after a thirty year absence, on the request of his dying mother. It turns out the parents were subjecting the orphans to some peculiar activities from which Guy escaped.

I found the design, high-contrast lighting and editing techniques effective in conveying a bizarre nightmare-type of story, a horror film that is not entirely original in narrative nor design, yet original in its presentation. I liked the voice-over narration by Isabelle Rosellini.

There are some very attractive characterisations and depictions of inoffensive perversity. Definitely worth a look.
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Looks nice, but predictable and unrealistic
5 August 2007
Ah, it had to happen soon or later - my first dud at Melbourne International Film Festival. I could have walked out of this film at any time after five minutes or so, but with nice visuals it was tolerable. A man is engaged to marry but falls for another woman, who has a personality disorder. It starts off with all the psychology of a Hitchcock thriller but ends up being way too contrived. I was able to anticipate all the surprises.

While the film's visuals were excellent and had a reasonable cast, there were serious problems:

* none of the characters had any chemistry and it was impossible to suspend disbelief

* characters were caricatured

* the screenplay was very weak, like a run-of-the-mill Hollywood movie

* all the 'surprises' were predictable well in advance due to obvious setups

* an ending that was truly bad, bad, bad (and also predictable)

There were lots of smaller complaints, like gratuitous sex that did nothing to drive the narrative, or the film's length overstaying it's welcome (it had the "but wait, there's more" syndrome), and probably others that I've forgotten already. My opinion on this one was pretty much agreed upon by the others I sat with, all serious film-goers.
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Nobody Knows (2004)
Understated yet gripping drama
5 August 2007
Nobody Knows opens to the statement that while based on real events, the characters in the film are all fictitious. The film is a totally unsentimental portrayal of a mother's abandoning her children in an apartment to fend for themselves while she moves elsewhere with her lover. The film's narrative is grim, yet in reality it was much worse.

While Kore-eda's Maborosi is a gentle meditative film with many sweeping shots of natural beauty, Nobody Knows is largely confined to the claustrophobic confines of a small Tokyo apartment that the children have been instructed by the mother to keep to. As usual, Kore-eda lets the visuals do the talking. His style is very observational, the camera capturing many seemingly mundane details, perhaps reflecting his start in film with documentaries.

Kore-eda doesn't artificially build up the drama by, for example, the use of manipulative devices like music to portray the increasingly dire situation of the children. He trusts the audience to take note of the film's narrative, and to understand themselves that these children are in desperate need of help. The escalating measures taken by the children, and the increasing squalor said it all. The naturalistic performances by the children in the film were excellent and Yagira Yuya, then 14, won best actor award at Cannes 2004. As I wrote about Maborosi, this film rewards the patient viewer but could well be boring for the casual movie-goer.
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A quiet one for the serious cinephile
5 August 2007
This is a strange film, very strange, and not the type of film to get a release outside of a festival. There was virtually no dialogue for two hours - mostly visuals with background noises and music (played in the scene, not dubbed over). We see various strugglers in the streets and buildings of Malaysia and get a strong sense of alienation.

The film is almost a photo essay, constructed largely of beautifully composed shots of urban decay. There's the flooded building site, modest abodes, a huge butterfly and the surreal-looking streets choked in smoke from Indonesian bushfires. The film challenges an audience's patience and I was surprised there were only a few walkouts at the Melbourne International Film Festival I attended. My partner left after 90 minutes, and shortly after a little more action started to appear.

A sex scene interrupted by the smoke was amusing. The final take is particularly poignant and poetic. The film is not something I would generally recommend to mainstream audiences, but if you like something unusual during a festival, it might be worth a look in. Just be prepared to be patient.
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After Life (1998)
Frivolous, yet profound
5 August 2007
I saw After as part of the Hirokazu Kore-eda retrospective at the Melbourne International Film Festival. This film should be compulsory viewing for film students. It proves that a good story put together inventively is all it takes to produce a compelling film. With scarce resources and mostly non-professional actors, Kore-eda has ingeniously contrived an alternate reality, where people go at the time of death. No pearly gates, no angels, no hell-fire - just bureaucrats in government buildings (or so they seemed to this writer), processing the dead, and extracting from them their lives' fondest memories to be made into videos.

This idea is almost comical, yet it works beautifully. Clearly there's a humorous element, but Kore-eda plays it matter-of-fact serious, almost like a documentary. For me it strongly recalls some of the early fiction films of Kieslowski (like Camera Buff) which evolved out of the documentary format. The film shares the beautifully raw aesthetics of Camera Buff and Blind Chance and with the latter's metaphysical exploration. Having seen at MIFF all but one of Kore-eda's films (Distance, which I plan to see on Tuesday), this is my favourite so far. But each of the films I have seen thus far are very different in content and style to each other. This film is both enjoyable and moving.
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Hana (2006)
Light and enjoyable
5 August 2007
This film was produced by Shochiku, a studio that I'm told is renowned for it's middle-of-the-road part-comedy/part-pathos films. Hana fits squarely in that territory and is Kore-eda's most commercial film to date.

Set in the slums of 1702 Edo (now Tokyo), the cinematography and attention to period detail were excellent. The story itself is fairly lame. A young samurai, incompetent with a sword seeks revenge for his father's death, but finds himself unable to carry out the act.

There's no doubting the competence of the director and the film's visuals are a joy to behold. It's not something that particularly engages me, but is the sort of film I would love to take my six year old son to. The blend of humour and almost slapstick action would certainly be enjoyed by him. Mind you, this is not really a children's film, even though it has the appeal of a Japanese version of a Disney film. Many adults would enjoy it, but it's not my thing.
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Impressive and relevant
5 August 2007
The Night of Truth refers to a peace accord between government and rebel troops who are joining at the camp of the rebels to celebrate peace at the end of a civil war. But terrible atrocities have been committed by both sides, and animosity threatens the peace. Taking place in one day, this little gem really engages right from the start and is a terrific tribute to peace and forgiveness, a common theme with Dry Season, also set in Africa.

The film quickly builds tension with a believable sense of mutual mistrust between the parties. The leaders of each side are committed to the peace process and each faces obstacles within their respective ranks who do not share that faith. Some have agendas of their own that threaten to derail the process. This is an impressive debut by Fanta Régina Nacro. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the end was disappointing, but it wasn't quite able to maintain the same level of believability as the first two acts. An excellent story with universal and current themes, good performances and good visuals make this well-worth seeing.

I saw this film at a Melbourne International Film Festival screening.
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Half Moon (2006)
Beautiful film
5 August 2007
Half Moon is a road movie with a difference. An elderly man Moma (portrayed with great range and nuance by Ismail Ghaffari), a celebrity singer in his native Iraqi Kurdistan, sets out by bus from Iran with an entourage of his musician sons to his homeland to perform in a large public concert. With seven months of rehearsals, official permits and visas carefully arranged, nothing could go wrong, right? Well, this is border country between bitter enemies Iran, Iraq and the highly marginalised Kurds who are basically a dispossessed people without a country and held in contempt by both countries as well as Turkey. This film illustrates what can go wrong.

While beautifully filmed in some beautifully stark landscapes, the real richness of Half Moon - like most Iranian films screened here - is in the simplicity of the story and the attention to detail to the struggles of seemingly mundane activities. The cultural aspects are especially fascinating. The authority of Moma as the family patriarch is evident; his middle aged sons all hold him in high esteem and cower before him. Not unexpectedly,as Iran does not allow women to sing in public, there are specific issues with involving a woman in such a cultural endeavour.

The family and social dynamics depicted breathe life into this little gem of a film. Music is a universal language that binds people, so when contempt is shown by the Iranian border guards, it has a powerful effect on the audience. My in-laws are similarly musicians of a dispossessed people (Pontians, Greek orthodox who once lived in Turkey), so I could relate well to the scenario in the film.

It was interesting to see the advancement of technologies such as cell phones and wireless internet laptops creeping into these otherwise isolated communities. The film is full of beautifully understated performances and naturalistic humour and drama. I highly recommend it, and like most Iranian films I have seen, is something I would take my six year old son to see (were it to get a theatrical release).
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Fay Grim (2006)
Very enjoyable
5 August 2007
Fay Grim is the continuation of a story begun ten years earlier with Hartley's Henry Fool. I haven't seen the earlier film, and I don't know if that's a good thing or not. I can only regard the current film on its own merits.

For most people, Hal Hartley's style of film-making is something that you either like or you don't. His combination of action, drama, absurdity and dry, ironic humour really resonates with me, and Fay Grim is no exception. It has an air of sharply-written intelligent parody that had myself and many in the Melbourne International Film Festival audience laughing out loud. For the first half of the film it was relentless and delivered with deadpan straightness. It's a style of humour sadly lacking in cinemas and a welcome relief to the mindless teen comedies that Hollywood pumps out like pancakes.

During the second half of the film, the humour starts to thin as the film morphs into an international espionage/conspiracy thriller. Whether this was Hartley's intention or whether he ran out of ideas is not clear, but I think a bit of editing or re-writing to cut fifteen minutes off the film would have maintained the film's original momentum.

The performances were generally good, particularly Parker Posey and Jeff Goldblum, who had the most screen time. Saffron Burrows, James Urbaniak, Carl Montgomery and Elina Löwensohn all played good support roles. The film's visuals were nice (set in New York, Paris, Berlin and Istanbul) and the music (also by Hartley) was good without being intrusive. The film is well-written and I enjoyed this it immensely. If you like Hartley's earlier work, you'll probably like this.
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Black Rain (1989)
4 August 2007
It was evident until the final credits that this film was made in 1989, as all the elements of its production were made to look 1960's - the acting, the characterisations, the sets and the props all had an aesthetic from an earlier time.

The film opens to the moments prior to the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and how this tragic incident affects one family: a young woman, Yasuko, who lives with her aunt and uncle. Even in black and white, and using special effects that are quite primitive by modern standards but emotive and effective nonetheless, the depictions of the immediate aftermath of the bomb are quite horrific. Family members become unrecognisable to each other, others resemble zombies as they wander the streets bedraggled and in shock.

The title refers to rainfall that fell soon after the bomb, which was mixed with radioactive ash, and in which Yasuko is caught. Rumors of Yasuko's being in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing affect her marriage prospects and it is later learnt that the black rain is indeed causing sicknesses. The film is concerned not just with the physical effects of the bomb on the Japanese, but on the social and psychological damage that was wrought.

I found the film compassionate and a fascinating journey into a unique culture. While the film is primarily concerned with the pain felt by one family, the film's gentle political message is relevant today and probably for all time - wars have horrific consequences, and should not be entered into unless absolutely necessary. It is said that history repeats itself, and the current leaders of the 'Coalition of the Willing' have learned nothing. While atomic warfare has not resurfaced since 1945, other deadly after-effects have. This film is compelling viewing.
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Not bad for children
29 July 2007
Kidz in da Hood screened as part of MIFF's New Gen strand for children. MIFF notes recommended it for audiences aged 12+, though in the absence of much children's cinema, and with my 6 year old having had much access to adult world cinema, I had no hesitation in taking him. While the film has "mild sexual references and mild coarse language", it really shouldn't be an issue for anyone but the prudish.

The film depicts an orphaned nine year old refugee facing deportation from Sweden and how she finds shelter in a run-down public housing block, staying with a punk rocker. For me, a good children's film should cater for all ages, including adults, which means not underestimating the intelligence of children. Kidz in da Hood doesn't quite meet this criteria, yet my son enjoyed it immensely, as did the group of several children in front of us aged 8 - 12.

It tackles issues of ethnicity, acceptance, crime and humanitarianism in a manner that is digestible for children, so is worth seeing for that alone. My son gave it 3.5 out of 5 stars.
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