Friday, December 17, 2010


I picked up Heaven largely because of its status as the final script from the two Krzysztofs. So it's somewhat surprising that I ultimately found the direction to be more rewarding (if one can really separate the two).

The script has a straightforward quality, very much reminiscent of White. Phillipa proves to be an unusually decisive protagonist, navigating the moral and practical quandaries she finds herself in with a high degree of confidence and surety. Furthermore Filippo proves to be so devoted that he does not question her decisions in any way. The result is that the moral issues surrounding them are, for the most part, kept simple. If the audience wishes to probe or complicate them they must do so on their own - and the film hardly encourages them to.

Tykwer's direction, on the other hand, reminded me why I love film as a medium. There are, of course, those two stunning, show-offy shots at the end which had me gasping in awe. But there are also many smaller touches throughout the film. My personal favourite being the scene in the church where the camera circles the protaganists - changing our perspective so that the distance between their faces is shortened and lengthened at just the right moments.

Arguably the cinematography and mise-en-scene are a little on the nose. The number of aerial and crane shots, the number of times characters stand in dark rooms with beams of light coming in from windows or in which a bright outside is shot from a dark inside, makes it difficult to forget that one is watching a film called Heaven. But for whatever reason I didn't feel that way about them - perhaps because the script is strong , even if it doesn't give me exactly what I wanted/was expecting.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Red Hill

Red Hill is, in many ways, a very assured piece of pulp filmmaking. Hughs is totally in control of his tone and the result is a strong realisation of a throwback, modern day comic book which understands its audience is hip to the conventions, and thus is happy to give a wink and a nod every now and then, but is also keen to deliver lurid thrills and spills. (Not too lurid though. It doesn't set out to shock: this is strictly entertainment and it has to be sold at the newsagent after all.)

Unfortunately it tries to marry this pulp sensibility to some very real issues and in doing so proves that you really can't have your cake and eat it too. The convention which requires Kwanten's character be a man alone in a small town with a dirty secret also turns its entire (and I do mean entire) onscreen male population into a bunch of racist thugs, leaving the city boy as the only decent man. Granted it's not quite as simple as that: the film does briefly raise the tension between rural development and respect for culture and the environment. However the characters don't feel this tension - they know what they want and they're going to get what they want in as lurid a manner as possible.

Similarly its sympathy for Indigenous Australia is built on broad cliches, including that of the noble savage. On one hand there are moments in the film which seem to poke fun at the stereotype, as when Lewis' character pauses to use the jukebox or when he stops by the tourist office and sees its appropriated display. But his near absolute silence is more than a little troubling and by the time he's raided the tourist display and is killing his foes with traditional weapons ( I know, I know it's so the killings are silent but seriously a spear and a boomerang?) it's clear that the filmmakers put little effort into making him something other than yet another stereotyped Aboriginal victim. The less said about the muddied symbolism of the panther the better (I initially thought it was a symbol of a cruel, foreign transplant but that last shot seems to indicate it's a manifestation of the noble, misunderstood savage.)

Unfortunately the serviceable dialogue suggests that, while Hughs is gifted with his images, this is likely to be as good as he'll get when working from his own scripts. Still,  it is possible that next time out he might jettison the ham-fisted social commentary and just go for pure, pulp pleasure.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Social Network

The most striking part of the film is undeniably the Facemash sequence. With Reznor and Rose's music gently goosing the moment well timed edits flash between Zuckerberg's drunken invention and the culture it interacts with (which handily, and more importantly, doubles as the reason he's doing it). It's a masterful piece of film making in every way and, aside from its technical virtuosity, the reason it is is because it's one of the few moments when the scripted dialogue isn't telling us exactly, with little subtlety, what to think about the characters.

Unfortunately this is exactly what the rest of the film is doing. The opening scene at the bar doesn't lay out the film's thesis in microcosm: it lays out the film's thesis in its entirety. Zuckerberg is presented as a man driven by exactly two concerns: (1) The desire to be loved by Erica Albrecht and (2) the desire to compensate for his insecurity by standing out from the rest. That's it. As far as scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin is concerned these two desires are the sum total of Zuckerberg's character and his chutzpah in summing up a human being with these two elements and then judging him on that basis (and this is a very judgmental film) is the element the makes The Social Network every bit as arrogant a film as it thinks the Winkelwii are people.

However this reductionist approach to characterization (which no one in the film can escape) is not the only reason why The Social Network is such a deeply flawed work. As alluded to above Sorkin can't keep his judgements to himself. Characters get little moments when they are able to make pronouncements about what drives other characters and, in the context of the film, they're always exactly right. Sorkin isn't content to let us make up our own minds about the people he's presenting - thus Zuckerberg gets to proclaim of the Winkelwii (I do love this pluralisation) that the reason they're suing him is that "for the first time in their lives things didn't turn out as planned", Saverin is able to explain to us exactly who Sean Parker is and why Zuckerberg falls for him and the helpful legal officer at the end sums up Zuckerberg by telling him he isn't an asshole - he's just trying to be one (the need to stand out to cover up his insecurity).

In making such pronouncements and aligning them so carefully with the character's behavior in the film Sorkin marginalises his audience. They do not get to interpret his work, rather they are reduced to admirers of his careful architecture. We can observe how clever his repetition of the "You'd do that for me?" line is, how marvelous its function, but we don't get to wonder at what it means. It's all there on the surface.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

SBS Capsules: Paju

South Korean melodrama Paju gets off to a rather rough start. It begins with a short prologue set in its seven years later segment before flashing back to its beginning without any hints for the viewer to follow. The odd sense of dislocation engendered persists while Park Chan-ok sets up her scenario - it's a bit of a struggle to infer character relations and scenes don't connect smoothly. I think this rather choppy opening is the result of Park Chan-ok wanting to dispense with the back story as soon as possible and get the meaty stuff. While it's a laudable strategy she probably needs to work on her shorthand.

Having said that once things do settle down and a pattern emerges of a spiral of mistakes and well-meaning but ultimately catastrophic attempts to smooth them over Paju proves to be quite a moving film and even a haunting one.  Albeit one that is somewhat hampered by a context of a struggle against developers. Too often this feels like a misjudged attempt to insert social relevance - the dispute is there but the film really doesn't have a lot to say about it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

My BIFF Favourites

In no real order they are:

1. Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives
2. Leap Year
3. Marwencol
4. I Killed My Mother: Much rawer and more deeply felt than Heartbeats this portrait of a difficult home relationship enjoys the benefits of autobiography while avoiding some of the obvious pitfalls. The closeness of the material to Dolan's own lived experience means that Hubert is not the perpetually whiny and angry teenager found in films like The Human Resources Manager and Dolan's preparedness to critique his younger self means that the narcissism of teenagers is not neglected. The nature of the disputes also rings true: The way petty things annoy us when we're already annoyed with a person, the way we pick a particular fight as a way of expressing anger about a totally different issue.

But veracity was something that Heartbeats had too. If I Killed My Mother is the stronger film, as I think it is, than it's also because its relationship has more depth than the (deliberately) shallow ones at the heart of Heartbeats. In Heartbeats the communication is amongst characters who are holding back - fearful of revealing their full intentions, of leaving themselves vulnerable to the heartbreak they ultimately experience. This hesitancy often means that the film is unable to delve beyond the characters' protective boundaries. The relationships plumbed are also new ones (the friendship between the central characters is generally taken for granted) without any history.

In comparison the characters in I Killed My Mother are not afraid of what their conversations might reveal - their relationships are negotiated in the open with all their dreams and aspirations on full display. Furthermore this negotiation occurs in the context of how their relationship used to be. The difference between the past and the future is tackled by the characters and the fact that they are bewildered by how one turned into other makes it no less interesting.

Another feature of the central relationships in Heartbeats is that they are hermetic. We are never given any clue as to how the other people in the character's lives view their quixotic pursuit of the young Adonis and the faux interview segments in between offer only oblique commentary. In I Killed My Mother both the portrayal of another mother-son relationship, as well as others' commentary on the central relationship, makes for welcome contrast and exploration.

5. Reign of Assassins
6. Kaboom
7. Lourdes: The thematic content will probably not be new to anyone whose spent as much of their lives growing up in a church as I have. Questions regarding the difficulty of believing in a good, all powerful, interventionist God in such a clearly imperfect world are not new and neither are the answers and debates within the film.

Yet despite this Lourdes succeeded for me. It represents the points of views of both the sceptics and believers accurately and doesn't demean either, even as it gently questions the latter. It also narrows the big questions down by placing them specifically within the context of Lourdes. The dynamics of a group who are actively courting miracles; whether through bloody-minded persistence, a search for formulae, or an attempt to cultivate a humble spirituality, means that the questions seem more urgent and personal. It's because of this that the characters never feel like mere mouthpieces for the writer. Indeed Hausner gets a lot of mileage out her actors by allowing them to build their characters through body language and facial expression rather than relying on her dialogue to do the heavy lifting.

On the Uselessness of National Stereotypes

"So very French."
- Overheard at the end of writer-director Abbas Kiarostami's (Iran) largely English language philosophical romance Certified Copy starring William Shimmell (UK) and Juliette Binoche (France) shot on location in Tuscany (Italy) and produced by m2k Productions (France), BiBi Film (Italy), Abbas Kiarostami Productions (Iran?) and others.

Friday, November 12, 2010

BIFF Capsules: Any Films I Choose

Medal of Hono(u)r: One of the reasons I go to the movies is for that big moment of emotional catharsis that happens right before the end. The scenario is common: our protagonist has a secret; or has been pummelled emotionally; or can't tell him that she loves him, and than finally she bursts. For better or for worse she lets it all out and is either healed or broken, accepted or rejected. It's a seductive moment, all the more so for me because I'm an emotionally private person who could never dream of bearing the kinds of raw emotions that these people put on display.

Medal of Hono(u)r is a film that never provides that moment - its protagonist is someone less like the ultimately heroic figures at the center of so many films and someone more like me. Someone who can't bear to give up the small boosts -  in self esteem, in respect - that the lie gives him. And neither does this lie become inflated to the point where it must explode. It just sits inside our protagonist and gnaws away at him. And the permanently delayed gratification is both suspenseful and ultimately heartbreaking.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

BIFF Capsules: Choice Cuts from Days 2 and 3

Carlos: Ostensibly about the notorious Carlos the Jackal Assayas' latest film is more interested in the rise and fall of Cold War terrorism than its most famous poster child. This wasn't immediately clear to me, so I exited the first part feeling a little let down having expected a probing character study and instead having seen what seemed like a stripped-down personal history. However it's clear, particularly as the film moves into its second third, that Clarlos was chosen as a subject because of his connections to a large number of different organizations and countries and because he was active for close to two decades. This allows the film makers to show us how these groups went about their business, how their targets responded and how that changed over time.

The film turns up some rather startling and intriguing details for viewers (like myself) who are not well versed in this particular part of Cold War history. There's the struggle of German anti-Zionists to distinguish, both in action and deed, the difference between what they do and the unforgivable crimes of their country's recent past, there's  the steadily decreasing willingness of governments to strike deals with hostage takers and most strikingly for me, there's the desire for governments to use these small groups in much the same way as earlier nations might have used privateers. In hindsight I suppose this latter action is something that still goes on today but words to the effect of "East German Terrorist Liaison Office" were nonetheless surprising.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Alterna-BIFF Opening FIlm

$60 is a bit much for cane toads when a bloke doesn't much care for parties so I headed out to Sunnybank to catch the Hong Kong wuxia/mystery film Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame. It was, as promised, a very  classy blockbuster and oodles of fun were had by all ("all" being me and the family sitting behind me). So I'm going to offer up some thoughts using the recent Star Trek as a comparison point - not, I should stress, with the intention of making the tired, untrue "Hollywood's lost it" point but simply because it's the last decent "pure entertainment" I saw.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Cinesparks Capsules

Cinesparks is usually the BIFF's program for under 18s however this year saw it split off into its own separate festival. I helped out, and in the process, saw some films. Or maybe I saw some films, and in the process, helped out...

25 Films, 10 Days and 1 Boy

1. Carlosdir: Olivier Assayas
2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, dir: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
3. The Human Resources Manager, dir: Eran Riklis
4. Kosmos, dir: Reha Erdem
5. Leap Year, dir: Michael Rowe
6. Heartbeats, dir: Xavier Dolan
7. The Illusionist, dir: Sylvain Chomet
8. The White Meadows, dir: Mohammad Rasoulof
9. Lebanon, dir: Samuel Maoz
10. Strange Birds in Paradise: A West Papuan Story, dir: Charlie Hill-Smith
11. Marwencol, dir: Jeff Malmberg
12. We Are What We Are, dir: Jorge Michel Grau
13. Medal of Honor, dir: Calin Peter Netzer
14. Monsters, dir: Gareth Edwards
15. Caterpillar, dir: Koji Wakamatsu
16. Blue Valentine, dir: Derek Cianfrance
17. International Shorts
18. Kaboom, dir: Gregg Araki
19. A Town Called Panic, dir: Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar
20. Lourdes, dir: Jessica Hausner
21. Restrepo, dir: Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington
22. I Killed My Mother, dir: Xavier Dolan
23. Certified Copy, dir: Abbas Kiarostami
24. To Be Decided
25. Reign of Assassins, dir: Chao-Bin Su

Notes: The first question on my mind is, "Will Carlos have an interval?" If not I think I might need a wheelchair to get to the next screening. That said, if the direction is as a smooth and assured as it was in Clean I'll probably have little trouble sitting through it. 

I was originally going to see The Red Shoes but due to a schedule schnafu on my part that isn't going to happen. However said schnafu did force me to delve into titles that I didn't immediately recognise and The White Meadows in particular looks right up my alley (fantastical plot, sly political undertones and a gorgeous location - see also; Kosmos, and from last year; The Milk of Sorrow).

My anticipation for Certified Copy and Boonmee was at fever pitch about four months ago and is at ridiculous levels now. Here's to hoping that they can match their rapturous receptions. Lourdes is in my list because there really aren't enough subtle, considered films about religion, probably owing to the fact that fervent proselytizers and angry atheists tend to dominate the discourse. Monsters and We Are What We Are are there because I have a hankering for non-traditional genre stories (hence my 2000 or so words for Code 46). Caterpillar, on the other hand, is probably the only film on the list which is triggering trepidation instead of anticipation. It's there because of an intriguing handful of positive reviews and because film festivals are the places to try different things.

I have an Achilles' heel of trying to pick awards and being absolutely hopeless at doing so. So I'm going to pick The Illusionist as being the recipient of the audience choice award. Other films with outside chances are Jucy and Copacabana. Both enjoy gala screenings and plots involving friends and family coming to warm understandings (the former has sold out and is locally produced). 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pre-Festival Scribbling: Code 46 - 3/3

While the main thematic issues of Code 46 are hardly new or surprising, (although the relatively evenhanded way in which it tackles them is novel), the way it portrays its state and its control is unusually nuanced. Unlike many other tales of dystopian governments the state is abstracted from human beings. Similarly the way it maintains control over its populace is subtle and calls to mind the theory of governmentally. Finally its sexism, while not commented on directly in the film, is insidious.

The state in Code 46 is not associated with one human being. There is no dictator, no Emperor Palpatine on whom we can pin the malevolence of the government. Indeed there isn't even a government suggested or shown to absorb our outrage. Oppression is not the work of one man in Code 46, rather it is the result of the employees of the state who have internalised the discourses on which its control rests.

Code 46 gives us some remarkable sketches of government bureaucrats. Despite limited screen time each one is given as distinct a personality as possible. There's the warm, slightly shy woman at the company who is determined to be as polite as possible, the man with learning difficulties and the bored woman pissed off at her work. Yet despite their individuality they, and their less remarkable compatriot at the gene center, are determined to keep to their script and follow their processes - no matter how much sympathy they may have for Robbin's character. They have a job to do and they will do it to the letter, even small and ultimately harmless disturbances such as Robbin dodging the normal entry procedures for the Papel company are unwelcome deviations that put their jobs, and their ordered lives, in danger.

The occasional, undramatic, shifts to the POV of a security camera remind us that these characters are being watched. And they know it. Should some slip-up occur there is always the possibility that someone could go back through that footage and find them wanting. However this is more a subtle, cheap threat then the clear and present danger it turns out to be in many other films. There are no scenes of government agents watching the footage - no one needs to waste the money employing such persons when the threat is enough.

A similarly subtle threat is the presence of those on the outside. For a society so concerned with the welfare of its citizens it might seem odd that the government chooses to let these people languish outside the metropolises with only their ability to make do and sell trinkets to those on the inside. These people serve as a warning for those under the protection of the state - if you don't live by our laws you won't receive our benefits and this is what happens to those not under our protection.

And those most likely to be punished for their transgressions would appear to be women and lower class workers. It takes two people to create a fetus and yet it is Morton's character who bears the brunt of both punishments - she has the memory of the affair wiped from her mind and her fetus aborted. He, on the other hand, is not even given an explicit warning. Similarly he, the initiator of their second round of civil disobedience, whose breaking of laws was caught on camera, is judged simply to have misplaced his judgement, while she is exiled. The film never lays out explicitly whether the difference in their treatment is the result of her class or sex and its difficult to untangle the two: certainly the degree of control exercised over Morton's body would suggest the latter, but in Robbin's treatment there are intimations of the former - one suspects both played a role.

The laws of Code 46's society are not enforced by expensive, inefficient tools such as thugs in uniform, indeed the movie goes out of its way to remove any traces of the government agents who presumably investigated the case, arrested Morton and retrieved the lovers from the car crash. Instead control is maintained in a more Orwellian way: by ideas of how society is to be run and how citizens are to behave that are deeply ingrained.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pre-Festival Scribbling: Code 46 - 2/3

The state of Code 46 is, to a large extent, a totalitarian one. It maintains strict control over both the travel and reproduction of its citizens. It is not however, the wholly nefarious entity so typical of science fiction dystopias. It is not controlling its citizen's lives in order to fulfill its own selfish desires for capital or power. Neither is it unsympathetic towards its citizens: while it may act contrary to their desires it does so in order to protect what it considers to be their best interests - travel restrictions for example serve the function of protecting public health. For Robbin's character it fulfills the functions traditionally given to the wife in infidelity dramas. It is the loving, nurturing, familiar embrace of a life partner: an embrace that can also begin to feel stifling.

However it's not simply designed to serve a dramatic function: it's also intended as a comment on the nature of state power and that long-running debate as to just how large government should be and how much control it should have over our lives. In Code 46 the conflict between the state and the individual is expressed in individuals who desire something dangerous or forbidden, who know and acknowledge the potential consequences and yet are determined to fulfill their desire anyway - having reasoned that the benefits outweigh the potential consequences. In doing so they are set against a state which believes the risks to the individual, and potentially the broader society, are too great to risk.

Unusually for a western dystopia the film does not come down firmly on the liberal side of the argument. On the one hand Damian's caving expedition does offer him a sense of joy and fulfillment that his ordinary life does not. However in a stark warning to our newly corrupt protagonist his medical condition does rear its head in a brutal fashion and he dies in agony on a hotel room floor: his bats unseen, his desire unfulfilled. It's difficult to argue that the state's judgement was wrong - although whether keeping such a tight leash on the population as a whole is worth avoiding occasional accidental deaths is something that liberal viewers could be expected to question.

And it's something that the second rebellion does question more starkly. Despite the fact that their incestuous love is breaking every taboo in the book one can't help but wonder just how convincing the argument against it is in this future society. The presence of large numbers of clones suggests that reproduction is no longer solely and perhaps is rarely the result of intercourse, contraception is highly effective and there's no suggestion that abortions have any sort of stigma attached to them. Furthermore the unsettling emotional territory of the boundaries of family relationships being crossed is nearly entirely removed. Does the state forbid such contact to maintain social cohesion?

In any case the film makers do attempt to make the viewers sympathize with the lover's plight - something of a Herculean task given that, in opposition to standard dystopian tropes, their relationship (adulterous, incestuous) is something that even a modern viewer in a liberal nation would struggle to cope with and which is outlawed in most (all?) nations in which they live. The question it raises is that, even if the government is right, does it have the right to extend its control into such personal areas in such an all encompassing and unsettling manner?

(The way the state is portrayed as diffuse and yet is humanised and the way its control manifests itself are subjects for part 3)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The BIFF so far...

Main Slate (Fiction)
Main Slate (Documentaries)
Notes: As promised the early focus looks to be on films with some youth appeal (Kaboom and Heartbeats both feature youths negotiating relationship shenanigans and We Are What We Are is a classy horror pic) and documentaries (I can't use the word non-fiction in relation to film docs anymore). It's hard to complain about the narrow focus given that the films have attracted positive and intriguing notices and that this is only the small fraction of the overall line-up. But maybe I'm just responding that way because I'm in the target audience.

For film neophytes like myself it's not immediately obvious that The Red Shoes is there as a tie-in for the Jack Cardiff doc but he is, of course, best known for his work on that film. Whatever the case I haven't seen enough classics (or indeed enough films!) and I'm looking forward to seeing Cardiff's reportedly sublime colours on a big screen.

Pre-Festival Scribbling: Code 46 - 1/3

Code 46 is unusual in that it refuses to utilise the expected source of conflict in narratives about infidelity. Traditionally a story of adultery revolves around a character's choice to either continue their long established, comfortable yet possibly stifling relationship with a loving wife (and often family) or to indulge in a more passionate romance with an exciting outsider. However this particular conflict is never pushed to the forefront in Code 46.

While Robbin's character insists that he loves his child and tells his wife he loves her, the evidence for their hold on his psyche is very thin on the ground. His home life is shown, when it is shown at all, to be pleasant enough but if it is pleasant then it is also nondescript. Interactions with his family are limited to functional language, "When will you be home?" or lightly cliched expressions of an emotional bond that is never convincingly expressed. Neither his wife nor his son emerge as anything more than archetypes: they represent, rather than embody, their roles.

When contrasted against his interactions with Morton's character the shallow attraction of his home life can only feel thinner. Their conversation revolves around more idiosyncratic matters; her recurring dreams, his childhood toys. Through such interactions they emerge as distinct people. Morton's character is not "the lover". Instead she evidences a unique inner life as someone who vicariously lives out a sense of adventure, who is disappointed in the banality of most of her surrounds and who is deeply afraid of empty spaces.

The camera and set design also work to accentuate their attraction while playing down Robbin's theoretical domestic bliss. The clean, modernist surfaces in Robbin's apartment are shot with a relatively static camera. In contrast the alternating homely and gritty environments of the apartments, streets, cafes and clubs in which Robbins' and Morton's characters fall in love are on occasion shot more adventurously - the obvious example being the slow-motion POV shot of Morton's angelic, alien face under disco lights. Robbins' wife's conventional haircut, clothing and surrounds cannot, and were never meant to, compete.

It's made conspicuously clear that there is no inner torment in this affair - or rather that the torment doesn't stem from the traditional dichotomy of a stable, loving family facing off against an exciting new interloper. This is despite the case that, confusingly enough, such a dichotomy does exist in the narrative even though it's not mined for its dramatic potential. The wronged woman is a player in the story but she barely exists as even a sketch of a woman. Instead it's the more nebulous wronged state that functions in place of the wronged woman. An eminently suitable (this is, after all, a dystopian science fiction romance) but easily misunderstood substitution. (tbc in 2/3).