BIFF Wrap: Week One

My ridiculous work ethic is collaborating with my poor caffeine consumption patterns, and as a result I thought I’d happily write about some of the film viewing I’ve been doing during this year’s Brisbane International Film Festival.

During the university semester I usually only manage to catch two or three new release films a week, which is to not only say that most of the viewing I do is (sadly) reasonably facile (albeit littered with gems), but that the onslaught of weird, wonderful, dry, and/or null films I’ve been watching during the festival has been nothing short of an endurance test.

Which leads me to the awkward admission that I’ve never been to a film festival per se.  The travelling iteration of Sydney’s Film Festival that visited my hometown each year only screened a small spate of films over two or three days, and I can recall reasonably accessible titles like Sylvian Chomet’s charming The Illusionist and the not-so-charming Beautiful Lies being among the rarest imports upon my last visit.  Just look at how deflated this year’s line-up looks to anyone living in the same city as a Palace Cinema.

At any rate, here are some brief thoughts on what I was able to catch throughout the first week of BIFF.

The Past

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It’s been more than 18 months since I first watched Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, and I still find myself thinking about its brilliance on at least a fortnightly basis.  Although I try to approach each film objectively, then, I don’t think I ever quite managed to negate superlative expectations towards his follow-up.

Given the genre’s reputation as a total emotion-wringer, I’d be hesitant to authoritatively label the carefully nuanced A Separation an all-out melodrama, rather than a movie with some strong melodramatic overtones.  I can’t quite say the same for The Past, which shares the other film’s concern with disruptive permutations of history and heritage within a tense domicile.  In its first act at least, and thanks partly to their being little action outside the home, the characters’ actions have a high school play overemphasis and mopey causality about them, and if the melodrama cedes to some powerful soliloquy and rumination in the welcomely more individual-centric second act, then its crowd-pleasing finale not only, I think, unnecessarily decentralises the locus of a great deal of the drama for the sake of ambiguity, but lacks Farhadi’s faith in the audience by reverting to the schmaltzy.

At the risk of echoing any film critic who misguidedly and unrepentantly ties negative connotations to the word melodrama, there are several other trite moments that demerit Farhadi’s latest work.  When the typically gruff Ahmed (Ali Mosaffa) travels to Paris to finalise a divorce with Marie (Berenice Bejo, proving she her worth as a Cannes prize recipient), he’s wary of Marie’s would-be fiancé, an outwardly immature and comparatively metrosexual dry cleaner named Samir (Tahar Rahim).  The next morning, before the two have met, Ahmed is fixing the clogged kitchen sink while Samir watches on in silence, and it comes across as ham-fisted characterisation.  Also, unlike Samir and Marie, Ahmed isn’t a parent nor has any too-strong emotional or historical ties with Marie’s children, and this almost chalks up to a heroic Iranian prototype that swoops in and, while instigating many conflicts, often mediates them.

That said, The Past is still worthwhile viewing, and Farhadi’s technical astuteness as a director is upheld, even if his signature dexterity isn’t.

The Missing Picture 

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In the haunting memoir The Missing Picture, myriad reels of dilapidating, archival film omit footage of dissidents’ executions under Khmer Rouge Cambodia.  Apart from excerpts where the available footage mostly shows slaves walking and harvesting in syncopation, The Missing Picture is told almost exclusively with imperfect clay dolls (whom we also have the pleasure of seeing crafted).  Although Rithy Panh’s figures never move, his camera is so damn deft at making use of angles, insidious movement and manipulative focus so that his scenes never drawl despite their stillness, and it’s to Panh’s merit that he can re-imagine the very shocking scenes – slaves drinking from muddy water, a mother ratted out by her child and later executed for picking three mangoes – that Pol Pot’s propaganda sought to mask.

Panh is also deeply in love with cinema, and he shows both its power and escapism here through scenes where one of Pot’s filmmakers is executed for averting attention towards torturous living conditions, and Panh’s film viewing as a young child respectively (the latter makes for some wonderful reverie-like superimposition, as do the images of executed clay figures soaring through clouds).  His language is deeply personal, but it’s also deeply poetic, and this becomes taxing over the film’s extensive run time.  Although a beautiful film, The Missing Picture glides past four or five opportunities to end as it delves deeper into its own trauma, and the disorienting nature of the director’s poetic idiosyncrasies, like the omission of a significant time frame of events, adds to this sense of repetition.

Antarctica: a Year on the Ice

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Year on the Ice wins ticket sales by virtue of its title, and wins its audience in the opening minutes as we watch a New Zealand photo-documentarian show both his self-made, moving camera dollies and the awe-inspiring time lapse photography they’re used to collect.  You can tell that Antarctica: a Year on the Ice, for all its musings on human nature and the environment, is both about and the product of a man and his art by the Antarctica cabin-mates he interviews, few of whom make for good talent int he typical industry sense.

In its first half at least, which charts the long and idyllic Antarctica summer, I bucked against just about every post-production creative decision, among which are the irritating Nat Geo fonts and 90s Disney fervour soundtrack.  In winter, though, the six month interim of the cargo plane’s return not only reduces the continent from its upwards of 10,000 head population to below 700, but endures four months of consecutive darkness.  Accordingly, Antarctica: a Year on the Ice diverges into an earnest study of human nature.  Between this, showcasing the indelible solitude and perfect silence of Earth’s most Martian terrains, and capturing the continent with a Ron Fricke eye for natural beauty, Year on the Ice is nothing short of sublime.

The Congress

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The Congress suffers The Past‘s curse – I far too readily draped my high expectations over Ari Folman’s follow-up to the unforgettable Waltz With Bashir.  Not long into The Congress, though, you realise Folman’s skills really are in the pictorial rather than in storytelling.  A live-action (yet tangy and artificial) first half that too readily spoon-feeds its audience awkwardly meshes with a cartoon second half where psychedelic, Cool World visuals abound but cohesion most certainly doesn’t.  The Congress tries to be too many things, but is too scared to abandon its original Hollywood polemic and delve into its batshit crazy cartoon premise.  Full review forthcoming.

Child’s Pose

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I think a film will always have a hard time finding a solid audience when all of its characters are so hard to like.  But Child’s Pose is an intelligent, candid, upstanding gem, and the believability of its flawed characters are a great part of the reason for it.  The perpetually fur-coated Luminita (a terrific Cornelia Keneres) bends law and morality to fend for her son when reckless driving lands him a manslaughter charge.  Their relationship is love-hate, though the car accident, which saw the death of a proletarian adolescent and violent response from his provincial Romanian family, allows Luminita to pry open a window to her son’s affections, even if he repentantly forces it closed.

Her son is an introverted man-child who avoids skin-on-skin contact at all costs and is desperate to cut ties with Luminita once her manipulation is made clear.  Those same qualities, though, effectively stall any momentum – moral, legal or otherwise – in the pending court case.  We’ve only briefly seen the victim’s family, but Child’s Pose saves its best until last.  It takes a tremendously talented and unflinching director to use those visiting scenes to further its home truths renegade rather than watermark their problems against the grieving, comparatively destitute Romanian family.

Venus in Fur

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In Roman Polanski’s defence, Child’s Pose was a taxing film, and I was fairly exhausted by this point.  Against him, though, Venus in Fur never felt like it wanted to be anything more than an exercise in minimalist storytelling.  I can’t comment on its fidelity to the source text, but it felt more like a play about a play about a play than a film, although, to its merit, I never got particularly lost amidst its layers of metatextually.  Like the play, the film has only two actors – Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Almirac – both of whom are outstanding here.  Seigner’s breadth of adaptability as she transitions from a pneumatic, higher-pitch-at-the-end-of-each-sentence type to a conniving, literary femme fatale, is particularly excellent.  That said, I often couldn’t be bothered playing along with the self-congratulatory smugness of its witticisms, much less Thomas (Almirac) never deigning to question why the erstwhile leather-clad Valda can suddenly recite Venus in Fur word for word.

The Act of Killing

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I was so dizzied and sickened after The Act of Killing that I couldn’t decide if it was a one star film or a five star one.  Now my stomach’s settled, I’m convinced it’s neither, though it does, surely, gain points for the gravity and vitality of its premise.  Joshua Oppenheimer tasked former leaders of a Sumatran communist-erradicating death squad to recreate their experiences using whatever genre they felt necessary.  Accordingly, some of the sequences are campishly gaudy, others blithely pigheaded, and all, I think, sickening.  Oppenheimer flails a little structurally when superfluous personality-building sequences give the film its grueling run time; sequences like the one where one of the erstwhile killers launches a twisted campaign for parliament reiterates rather than complement’s the documentary’s take-home message about the existence of evil.  There are also a trove of ethical issues in actively tasking the killers to produce this film, which I have no particular desire to ponder.  I chuckled at the killers’ blatant hypocrisy at the outset, then quickly moved to shock at their actions.  Act of Killing has all the candour of a documentary produced by heavyweights Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, but I can’t ever watch it again.

The Dance of Reality

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In that respect, at least, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dance of Reality is a terrificly enjoyable antidote.  I’d been told of the zany, surrealist style of Jodorowsky’s previous films El Topo and Holy Mountain before, and his colour palettes and props here – a motley crew of disfigured landmine victims, a cavalcade of seagulls descending on the good tidings of dead fish washed ashore, characters painting themselves black to dissolve into night, etc. – all wonderfully align to what I’d been led to expect.

Jodorowsky’s latest is a childhood memoir as an outsider Jew fused with a playful rumination of his father’s tyranny in the turbulent Chile of the 19th century’s earlier half.  Historically, I really can’t be more specific than that.  My knowledge of Chilean history and Stalinism/Leninism curtails at No and Animal Farm respectively.  Happily, that didn’t stop me from enjoying the hilarious, if slightly overlong, Dance of Reality, which careens ambitiously from the scatological (there’s an exuberant scene where the young Jodorowsky’s mother urinates on her father to cure his plague), the blasphemous, and the melodramatic.  Jodorowsky has a wry sort of cynicism towards most of his subjects (in terms of Christianity, for instance, it translates to the extendable handle attached to the church donations hat), and if his overlord father’s turn to the marginalised for comfort in a time of their prosecution is anything to go by, it also thrives with dramatic irony.

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No Country Syndrome: Why The Counselor’s Detractors Are Saying More About Themselves Than The Counselor

Still from The Counsellor, the new film from director Ridley Scott

From the bloated and steroid-pumping (Pain and Gain) to the impotently philosophising (Only God Forgives) and the torturously long infomercials about, like, just five ordinary boys from Worcestershire just makin music and doin wot they love, like, (One Direction: We Are Code), 2013 has disgorged all shades of bad cinema. With these rates, you don’t have to burrow as far back as Pledge This in the 100-odd year history of cinema to learn that for every Holy Motors, there’s a Plan 9-level abomination so bent on pain infliction and how-did-this-get-made confusion that nobody is secretly enjoying it. In short, when you’re stepping up to the soapbox to denounce The Counselor as the worst film ever made, you would want to have a steadfast, objectively sound reason to back your claim.

Salon’s head critic, Andrew O’Hehir, is among detractors inadvertently complimenting all the Plan 9s From Outer Space with that very precarious branding.  Although his attack is more caustic than most, skeletally, it’s more or less parallel to the mainstay of hatred The Counselor has accrued.  The argument runs something like: the collaboration between Ridley Scott, Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy and five actors so distinguished they’re recognisable on a last name basis (emphasis added but I’m still a few hundred adjectives short of the hallmark hysteria) should, by the power vested in filmography, Pitt and Pulitzer, necessarily churn out some No Country-calibre masterpiece.

Well The Counselor is no No Country, but the resounding criticism is a textbook case of disappointed cinemagoers seeing what they want to see: a directionless, abhorrent mess in lieu of a Coen-esque would-be Oscar nominee.  O’Hehir analogises the whole film to a McBurger served by two Michelin-hatted chefs, but in doing so he opens the gateway to a perfectly obvious rebuttal: an ingredients list doesn’t dictate the recipe.  In The Counselor’s case, it’s overwhelmingly the critics, not the movie itself, who assume the film wants to be a polished Oscar frontrunner of a masterpiece.  And when those critics aren’t getting the film they promised themselves, they seem so bent on criticising The Counselor’s every abstraction from their own barometer of expectations that they forget to see it for the dark and subversive and at-times funny piece of work it truly is.

Well call to question McCarthy’s prestige all you want, or accuse the actors of pompous gaucherie as they wander through his screenplay, but at least be aware that The Counselor isn’t trying to be anything other than a movie with metaphors so trite that is basically opens as the lavish and icy Malkina (Diaz), with a leopard print tattoo covering back and shoulder, sips a cocktail while watching a house cheetah chase down a hare in the Ciudad Juarez prairie. There’s an excess of self-righteous philosophising ejaculant, sure (and we’ll get to that). But there’s also a scene where a mother sits bolt upright in her prison cell bed just after her son is killed. In fewer words: don’t take this too seriously, and don’t go labelling it a tacky and deflated iteration of Body Heat when it so obviously wants to defy that expectation.  Or, as Pitt’s shady cowboy middleman, Westwray, advises Fassbender’s Counselor: “Maybe I should tell you what Mickey Rourke told what’s-his-face.”

Another hallmark symptom of No Country syndrome sees critics running to the hills with denouncements of the The Counselor as illogical, intangible and untraceable. Again, this argument shows a stubbornness to give The Counselor a pass on the same kind of abstraction-rife storytelling techniques you might find in wayfaring world cinema.  (Although, apparently those arthouse afficionados won’t extend their flexibility to Hollywood’s studio output, no matter how subtly intelligent and un-Hollywoodish it is).  The Counselor is less bent on a single, palpable plot than illustrating a cruel, incensive and noirish world where, if a character mentions a death trap that’s essentially a tightening, razor wire noose, you can bet it will turn up later. When a $20 million drug deal with the Cartel goes wrong, there’s no point in fearing death: it’s a given.  It’s who you take with you that matters now, as several characters reiterate in scenes that have collected labels like preachy and philosophising.  While these complaints run rampant, finer details, like a body being welcomed to America in a sewage tank where it will inevitably be relayed around the waste depot circuit for an indeterminate time, or a drug mule calling a family Mexican border-runners ‘illegals’, fly overhead, unnoticed.

But even if there is a septic truckload of pontificating, the film still represents a shift for Ridley Scott from Prometheus and Black Hawk Down to what is arguably a more sophisticated filmmaking style – one where every behind-your-back plot point isn’t served on a silver platter of explicitness. It’s intelligent and it demands intelligence, and, hey, here’s a scary thought: maybe The Counselor belongs on the screens of Palace and Dendy because of it.  At any rate, Scott, ever the master of setting, injects The Counselor with campy moments, less straight-facedness and vivid palettes previously unseen throughout his filmography, and so surely its flamboyancy is something to be celebrated.

To illustrate this point, let me quote Tom Waits at a watershed moment in his career, where he swapped the sombre bluesiness of Blue Valentine and Heartattack and Vine for the sincere and quirky rhythmic ardour of Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. “Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they’ve been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don’t explore; you only play what is confident and pleasing. I’m learning to break those habits by playing instruments I know absolutely nothing about, like a bassoon or a waterphone.”  The doggish stagnation that’s preventing critical circles from appreciating the newfound envelope-pushing of one of what is surely one of Hollywood’s most diverse and trustworthy working directors is, therefore, counter-productive to say the least.  For if trumpeted artists never ditched their known trades and pioneered into the very kind of stylish atmospheres and storytelling techniques that The Counselor forecasts, they would never have moved beyond Dubliners and onto Ulysses, or beyond The Shining and onto Eyes Wide Shut.

Finally, there’s a widespread wont to label The Counselor reprehensibly sexist because, obviously, the misogyny of a director’s male characters are precisely at one with the director’s worldview, right? And that’s why films like Kill Bill are abhorrent. That’s it, right? Well, via Malkina, who’s probably instigating Reiner and company’s backstabbing as he and the Counselor chat about how much women need fixing, feminine empowerment is as engineered into the film as Alien or Thelma and Louise.  Between taunting priests for fun, Malkina demonstrates that Reiner, Westwray, et al can pontificate vice and virtue, fate and the gynaecological all they want, but it all falls flaccid when they’re so unsuspecting of the very person backstabbing them.  In that same prairie-side opening scene she gives Reiner the golden shred of pomposity: “I don’t miss things.  To miss it is to hope it’s coming back.”  In the very last scene, she talks to another male counterpart about how much she misses her wayward pet cheetah.  So either she’s had a slapdash about face, or she was spoon-feeding Reiner every last minutiae of the illusory, needs-fixing accessory he wanted her to be.

What is surely, then, the most pointed reminder of Malkina’s sabre-toothed ferocity is inevitably The Counselor‘s most gawked at and misunderstood sequence.  The Counselor plays by the rule that the key to Reiner’s heart are expensive loafers, kimonos and his gaudy, phallocentric automobile.  Instead the most explicit expropriation of the crown of Reiner’s machismo, all audiences see is Malkina having sex with the windshield of his Ferrari California.

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