Monday, February 28, 2011

LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD

 
The reputation of “Last Year In Marienbad” is that it is an incredibly dense piece of work that is almost impenetrable.  Because of this, it has always been a film that I was scared of.  Although I knew of its reputation, I realized that I had no idea what the film was actually about, however because it seemed to be mentioned regularly when I was reading about other films that I liked, I made the assumption that it may be something that I would enjoy, or at least get something out of.  It wasn’t until David Lynch’s name was mentioned in regards to the film, that sold me and I finally decided to watch it.  What was I getting myself into?

Made in 1961 by director Alain Resnais, as his follow-up to his highly acclaimed debut feature, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, “Last Year In Marienbad” is unlike any other film before or after it.  It is simply a sublime piece of art.  It is all the more special because the viewer plays a huge part in the film’s story.  Resnais has laid out all the clues for us to work out what exactly did happen at Marienbad a year earlier, and the viewer puts these clues together how he/she sees fit, making each interpretation of the story entirely subjective.  My realization of all this came about after my first viewing of the film.  Hearing for so long that it is near impossible to know what actually happened during the film, I was surprised that I had the story laid out in my mind so concretely.  I assumed that the complexity of the film was overrated.  It wasn’t until I was reading more about the film on the internet that I saw a huge number of different interpretations that could also reasonably fit with what I had just seen.  This was amazing to me and I suddenly understood that the viewers own perceptions play an important role in “Last Year In Marienbad”.

The film begins at a gorgeous old (and what appears vacant) hotel, which the camera slowly tracks through, while an unseen narrator keeps repeating the same verses (or variations of the same verses).  Since there is no context, these make little sense to the viewer.  The way the film opens with this strange dialogue coupled with these gorgeous camera moves through the hotel, it sets the mood for the entire film, which although quite strange, is very beautiful.  It almost feels as though you are watching a dream, and it sort of puts you into a trance.

Eventually we come across a play being performed which is where we find everyone and the “story” begins in earnest.  An unnamed man (played by Giorgio Albertazzi) meets up with an unnamed woman (played by the exquisite Delphine Seyrig) and attempts to convince her that they have in fact met before – a year ago, in Marienbad, where the two of them had a passionate affair.  The woman does not believe the man, as she has no memory of it, and insists that he has made a mistake.  He disagrees and continues to try and convince her.  That is the story in a nutshell and it is then up to you to work out what did actually happen at Marienbad, if anything at all.  Do these two really know each other or is it this man’s fantasy?  If they have in fact met before, why does the woman not remember?  As I have mentioned, strange clues are spread throughout the film.  For instance, we constantly hear certain lines repeated however often it is by a completely different person.  There is a shooting (or is there two), or does someone fall to their death instead?  A strange man is playing a card game which he never loses.  Who is this man and what does the game represent?  Why is the woman scared of the bedroom?  These are just a select few to give you an idea of what the film is like, but it is these things that make the film so fascinating – answering these sorts of questions and then coming up with a whole theory.  Below is my interpretation of what happened at Marienbad a year earlier, so if you want to make up your own mind as to what happened, stop reading now.

My theory is that the characters in the film are living in a kind of purgatory (they are lost souls), forced to re-live the moments that led them to be where they currently are.  The man and the woman met a year prior in Marienbad, while the woman was holidaying with her husband, and there was an instant attraction between the two.  After some persuasion by the man, she ends up having an affair with him.  The two continue to secretly meet, but soon the husband begins to suspect something.  With the holiday nearing its end, the couple make plans to rendezvous back in Marienbad in a year’s time, and if they both feel the same way as they do now, the woman will leave her husband for him.  However with one night still remaining, they decide to meet one final time after the husband goes downstairs to gamble.  The man goes to the woman’s room with the intention of sleeping with her.  Although she is entwined in an emotional affair, the woman is reluctant to turn the relationship into a sexual one.  Disappointed by this, the man then forces himself on the woman and ends up raping her.  It is at that moment that the husband walks in and sees the two of them, and confusing the rape with normal intercourse, proceeds to shot the man and the woman, killing them both.  It can then be assumed that the husband kills himself, because he too is in purgatory (he is the man who plays the card game – even in death you cannot beat him).

So that is my theory, but whether or not this is what Resnais had in mind while making it, I am not quite sure.  What I like about the film is when the man starts getting confused with his own story when, like the woman, he begins to forget things (or is trying to forget certain things), and it is like he is trying to change the story to the way he wants it to turn out, not what actually happened.

As exciting as the story is, so is the level of filmmaking associated with the film.  Probably the greatest thing about “Last Year In Marienbad” is Sacha Vierny’s gorgeous widescreen photography.  The film, shot in glorious black and white, is just stunning to look at and without a doubt it is the main contributor towards the eerie atmosphere that permeates it.  The performances in the film are all top notch but like the film itself, very strange.  You wouldn’t call these naturalistic performances, but rather surreal performances, which suit the story perfectly.  In fact I guess this describes everything about the film, it is bizarre, but so perfect (and beautiful to match).  The script is by Alain Robbe-Grillet, and although I have had no prior knowledge of his work before this, after doing some research I’ve found out that these kinds of stories are his specialties, and he has written a number of novels that are similar to “Last Year In Marienbad” (which was an original screenplay).  I seriously have no idea how you would begin to write something like this and keep it all together so it can make sense.  I suppose that job is easy compared to that of Alain Resnais, who must also keep it together, but find a way to translate the story into visuals that the viewer may find initially strange, but is able to make sense of after putting it together with other parts of information fed throughout the films duration, until the finale when the strange puzzle pieces can be put together and the story suddenly makes sense.  He does an immaculate job in this department, all the more so, by leaving the story open to multiple interpretations, which is the reason for this film’s lasting legacy.  Resnais is often cited as being part of the French New Wave, which is true, but “Last Year In Marienbad” was so far away (in style and content) from anything being made by the rest of those filmmakers during that time, that you would have had trouble picking it.  It is actually hard to believe that this was only Resnais’s second feature, because his direction is so assured and never falters, although ironically, when he talks about the film today, he refers to it as a “failed experiment”.  

David Lynch’s name was the catalyst to me finally seeing this film, and although I have never heard him talk about it publicly, it would definitely appear as though Lynch has been heavily influenced by “Last Year In Marienbad”.  His films share the same sort of eerie atmosphere and feeling of dread, while at the same time being very beautiful and dream-like.  There is also a scene in “Last Year In Marienbad” where we see a shot of a bedroom in the daytime, which quickly morphs into a nightmare version of the same room in the night, which is quite scary, and very reminiscent of Lynch’s work, especially a very similar scene in “Rabbits”.

This was once a film I was terrified of, but after finally taking the plunge and seeing it, I can now see why it has the reputation it does, and it is a film that I will be re-visiting regularly in the future.  I know some people can have a hard time with films like this, and it is often asked if you can truly enjoy something that you do not fully understand.  The answer to this is a resounding “Yes!”, and “Last Year In Marienbad” is quite simply a masterpiece of film and I loved every second of it.

5 Stars.

Monday, February 14, 2011

HATCHET II



Back in 2006, director Adam Green released "Hatchet" his tribute to 1980’s slasher films. The modestly budgeted film was a return to the “good ol’ days” of horror, when the gore was done exclusively by bloody practical effects, and every second scene another girl was baring her breasts before she too was killed. The horror audience lapped it up, and villain Victor Crowley was soon mentioned in the same breath as Jason or Freddy. Not only that, but it appeared that horror had found another new hero in director Adam Green. Personally, while I found “Hatchet” to be enjoyable, I didn’t think it was the second coming like a lot of horror fans did. To me it was a competently made film, with good gore, but that was it (I gave the film three stars), however I thought that Adam Green had talent. Since then he has made a light thriller called “Spiral” which was effective if a little predictable, but he followed that with the amazing survival horror film “Frozen”. I was stunned at just how good this film was and at the levels of suspense achieved. “Frozen” is about three friends stuck on a chair-lift at a ski-resort which has closed down for the long weekend (the chair-lift attendant thought that he had accounted for everyone). They know that if they do nothing they will freeze to death, but they are far too high to jump. Like I said, this film is amazing and in parts, very “Hitchcockian” (which I do not say lightly). After “Frozen”, Adam Green thought it was time for Victor Crowley’s return and he decided to make “Hatchet II”. Witnessing how far he had come as a director since the original “Hatchet”, I was looking forward to seeing how he would tackle the sequel.


It is with great sadness that I have to report that “Hatchet II” is beyond terrible. It is woeful and a major step backwards in Adam Green’s career. I do not think this film works on any level at all. The worst aspect of the film is that it looks so rushed and so damned cheap. Unlike the first film which was shot on 35mm, “Hatchet II” was shot digitally. Apparently this is Green’s and his cinematographer, Will Barratt’s first time shooting digitally (on a feature) and it shows. It is clear that they have no idea how to use the format properly. Personally, I prefer films to be actually shot on film compared to video, but if you know how to use and light it properly, the digital format can be made to look like film (David Fincher is a master at this – see “Zodiac”). However, if you do not know how to use the medium, it always comes off looking cheap and amateurish. In fact if I didn’t know that Adam Green’s name was on this, I would swear that this film was made by a bunch of amateurs trying to do a “fan-made” sequel.


The action kicks off immediately from the end of “Hatchet” with Marybeth trying to escape from Victor Crowley. All is not the same though, as Marybeth is played by a completely different actress. Danielle Harris plays the role this time around, which would normally be a huge positive for me because I am a massive fan of hers, but I think in “Hatchet II” she gives her worst performance yet – she is terrible. Maybe because the role originated by someone else (I am not sure why original actress Tamara Feldman didn’t return to the role for the sequel) and that she felt trapped by that performance, I don’t know, but this is not the quality of work that I associate with Danielle. She is not alone though as the whole film is littered with bad performances. It is amazing to say that the best performance comes from horror-icon Kane Hodder, while playing Victor Crowley’s dad (he also plays Victor himself, when he has grown up and become the maniacal killer), who actually shows some genuine emotion.


“Who cares about the acting, this is a horror film!”, I hear you say, “Tell us about the gore”. I will admit that the majority of the gore gags are fun and very inventive, but the execution of the effects are so poorly done that, once again, makes it look cheap, amateurish and rushed, which obviously lessens the intended impact. Adam Green chose not to go with the original film’s make-up artist, John Carl Buechler (who cameos at the beginning of “Hatchet II”), in an attempt to give some new talent a chance. While I commend the gesture, it does not actually help the film. This may not be special FX artist, Robert Pendergraft’s fault, because as I am sure most would know, if you do not light or film (choose the right angle) the gore properly, it always comes across as fake, so I think that both Green and Barratt have to take some of the blame here too.


Speaking of Green, directorially his work here is very flat. The film is too reliant on close-ups, which is another sign of a rushed production. It almost feels that his heart just is not in it, and that he only made the film to satisfy the fans of the original. The difference between “Hatchet II” and “Frozen” (which he was so passionate about) is so obvious. “Frozen” looks like it was well planned out in advance before shooting began, with interesting camera angles and shots, where as “Hatchet II” has none of that at all.


Finally, I had to laugh at the conclusion of the credits when it says “Hatchet Army – Here To Save Horror”. If this film is meant to be the saviour , then it is time to give up, “horror” must already be a dead genre. Unfortunately “Hatchet II” hasn’t the ability to save anything because it is such a poor film, which is a shame because I was so looking forward to it. Let’s hope (and I am sure he can) Adam Green can bounce back from it.


1 star.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

JOE DANTE RETROSPECTIVE



The films of Joe Dante were the major retrospective this year and originally when this was announced I thought that he was an odd choice.  While I was familiar and liked his horror films of the past, I just didn’t think his body of work was great enough to get a special retrospective at MIFF.  After viewing the majority of his films in a short period of time, I no longer believe this, in fact I now believe the opposite to be true (this I guess is the point of these retrospectives in the first place, to re-evaluate a person’s work who is under-valued). 
I was surprised at just how good a technical director he is.  Some of his work was just outstanding (“The Twilight Zone Movie” segment and “The ‘Burbs” [read my review here]).  Joe was also a guest at the festival and was the best we have had in recent memory.  He was just fantastic.  He introduced four of the screenings that I attended and with each he gave a brief outline of how the project came together, what he liked (or didn’t like) about it, things that happened while making it and just anything that popped into his head really.  He also turned out to be everything he projects himself to be which is that he is very friendly and gentlemanly and he looked genuinely happy being there talking to us.  Just hearing his voice was a big thrill as it is very distinctive.  Without doubt he knew how to introduce his films (something most directors struggle with), and for “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” he also hung around and did a Q&A afterwards. 
Joe Dante also gave me a big thrill by signing my blu-ray copy of “The Howling” which was NOT part of the retrospective which I thought was odd.  Overall, I was so impressed by Joe Dante, both the man and his work and next year’s main guest now has a lot to live up to.

5 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD [Review 1]

This was my final film at this year’s MIFF and it was a spectacular way to end.  “Scott Pilgrim” was one of the films I was most looking forward to at the festival, because I am a huge fan of director Edgar Wright’s work.  From TV show “Spaced” to his two British films “Shaun Of The Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”, and his brilliant fake-trailer for the made-up film “Don’t!” in “Grindhouse”, he is always very creative, but most of all he is cinema-literate.  He knows how to make a great film.  He also has a problem of sometimes trying to cramp too much in, which “Scott Pilgrim” is a victim of, but for the majority, it is a fun and amazing film to watch. 
The cinema was a sold-out session, which was perfect for a comedy this good.  The only problem was missing a couple of lines of dialogue due to all the belly laughs.  The story of “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” is that Scott is a slacker who falls in love with Ramona Flowers (a girl who changes her hair colour weekly), but to prove his love for her, he must defeat her seven evil-exes.  Not just battle, but defeat.  All this is done in a comic book/video-game/anime-inspired mayhem that needs to be seen to be believed, with things like sound effects being spelt on-screen and then shattered with the next punch (Edgar Wright really is at the top of his game here). 
What surprised me the most was just how good the fights are in this film.  Scott Pilgrim is played by Michael Cera, who is not really known as a martial artist, so I wasn’t expecting much.  The opposite is true because they are fantastic and very fast (especially the first one, which also hilariously gets interrupted by a Bollywood style dance number).  It is obvious that Edgar Wright is a fan of Hong Kong movies, because he has taken the time to shoot these great action scenes properly (apparently the first fight scene took two weeks to shoot which is very like Hong Kong).  He also hired Brad Allen as stunt co-ordinator on the film, who has worked in Hong Kong cinema in the past, including playing the main villain in Jackie Chan’s “Gorgeous”.  
The cast are all magnificent, from the aforementioned Cera, to the likes of Anna Kendrick, Jason Schwartzman, Brandon Routh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (as Ramona Flowers) and Chris Evans.  Everyone is suited perfectly to their roles with the exception of Kieran Culkin, who plays Scott’s gay roommate, which I never really believed.  As mentioned earlier, the film does have a few problems with the main one being Edgar Wright not knowing when to quit.  Because the film is a laugh-a-minute with heaps of sight gags, you need to be careful not to lose the audience by overloading their senses.  I felt he could have pulled back just a little which would have made the perfect film. 
The film is also a little long and a bit repetitive, and reducing the number of evil exes may have helped this (I know that there are seven in the comic book, but sometimes what works on paper, doesn’t work as well on film).  Overall, these are minor complaints, as this really could be the most fun you have in the cinema this year and it is safe to say that I lesbians this film.  Oh, and it has probably the funniest “Seinfeld” joke that I’ve ever seen and it just comes out of the blue.  Hilarious!

4 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival.

SEX&DRUGS&ROCK&ROLL

This film was advertised as a “surprise screening” in the MIFF guide, and since I was seeing the two films either side of it (in the same cinema), I decided to take a chance on it.  It turned out to be an encore screening of the closing night film, which was a bio-pic on Ian Durie (who I had no idea who that was).  For the majority of the first half, I hated this film.  I felt it was over-directed and edited and it was a major chore to sit through.  I do not really know if the film calmed down or I just got accustomed to its style, because by about the halfway point, I started to get into the film and by the end, I actually thought that it was pretty good. 
I think the turning point came for me when they were creating the song “Hit Me With Your Rythym Sticks” (actually I don’t even know if this is the correct title of the song or just the chorus), which I recognised and it suddenly hit me – “Oh! It’s a bio-pic!” (I’m slow, I know).  Until this moment, I just thought these were dreadful characters in a film I was not enjoying the slightest, but once I realised that it was based on reality, those problems I had with the characters seemed to disappear. 
I suppose the film has a bit in common with the recent film “The Runaways” [read my review here] as they both deal with the rise and fall of a rock band and examine what you lose in an attempt to achieve stardom.  Troubles with both drugs and alcohol while trying to juggle family issues are also major issues in both films. 
What holds this film together though is the fantastic performance from Andy Serkis as Ian Durie.  He is simply amazing, he just disappears into the role, and you don’t ever once think of his trademark role of Gollum.  The best thing about this film is that it is not sentimental, and it doesn’t strive to show Ian Durie in a more positive light than was true.  Durie was an immature man who did some terrible things, which this film doesn’t shy away from and try to sugarcoat.  Because of these negatives, his humanity actually shows through stronger, and we end up truly loving Durie for the man he was, who makes no excuses for himself, and this is a great asset to the film.  This task may have been  made easier by the fact that Durie is no longer with us, but that does not matter. 
Overall, while it was initially (very) hard to get into, and it does have its flaws, “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” ended up being a worthwhile experience.

3 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

CERTIFIED COPY



This is the brand new film from Abbas Kiarostami and is his first narrative piece in eight years.  Also a change from the norm, is that “Certified Copy” is not set in his native Iran, but in Italy with both French and English also being spoken.  This was a strange film, but as strange as it was, it was equally mesmerizing. 
The film is about an author, James,  who is in Italy promoting his new book called “Certified Copy” which attempts to explain why a copy of an original piece of art, is just as valid and important a piece of art to the viewer, than it would be if he or she was viewing the original piece.  For example, he states that a person can have the same reaction to a viewing of a copy of the “Mona Lisa”, without ever having seen the original.  After the presentation of his book, James then travels around Italy with an art curator (played by the stunning Juliette Binoche), where they have lengthy discussions about the merits of his book and its observations, not only in regards to art, but to life as well. 
This might sound like dry and heady stuff, but it is actually very entertaining, particularly due to the performances from all the actors, as well as the fact that it is beautifully shot with small town Italy looking gorgeous as always.  At about halfway through the film, while the two stop at a little café for some breakfast, they are incorrectly identified by the owner of the café as husband and wife.  From this point on, the film changes, as James now becomes her husband (or plays the part of her absent husband), and the two of them begin to deal with the problems situated in their marriage.  I guess the point of this is to prove that even though this isn’t really her husband (ie. It is a copy), it doesn’t make the emotions she feels any less real. 
Speaking of emotions, Juliette Binoche’s performance is just outstanding (easily the best I saw at this year’s festival), and she plays her role with so much emotion, it is overwhelming.  There are times that she looks like that she could have a breakdown at any moment, she is on the edge.  It is very powerful and is the heart of the film.  There is a moment in the café (before the change) when James explains why he wrote the book.  The story he tells is about a mother and son, and we soon realize that it was actually the curator and her son about five years prior (which James does not now).  However, while the story is being told, it is played in a single shot on Binoche’s face, and we see it change when she realizes that it is her story, until a single tear slides down her cheek.  It is masterful, subtle acting that just took my breath away.  As well as all this, her ability to handle the three languages as beautifully and as seamlessly as she does, is just outstanding. 
Overall, you owe it to yourself just to witness Juliette Binoche’s spellbinding performance, but your enjoyment of the film as a whole may come down to whether or not you go along with the change mid-way through.  Personally I embraced it and as such, enjoyed this film immensely.

4 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

THE HOUSEMAID (1960)



This is the original version of “The Housemaid” and watching it again, it made it obvious that this version is a far superior film than its recent remake [read my review here].  This film is much more of a dark thriller, and personally, I like the natural progression of the story in this version more.  That said, there is a section of the film near the end, where the husband sleeps with the housemaid (at the instruction of his wife, no less) just to save his reputation and job (by stopping the maid going to the police), that never works for me.  It is the only mis-step of this fine film. 
The black and white cinematography is gorgeous, with some impressive camerawork that is reminiscent of the master, Alfred Hitchcock.  As mentioned in my review of the remake, the two versions go on different paths after the abortion.  In this version, after the maid is forced to have an “abortion”, there is a huge moment where the maid kills the son in revenge.  If her child was forced to die and never be loved, than so must the boy who means everything to his father.  It is a brilliant scene and very disturbing as it illustrates just how far this poor woman has snapped since the death of her own unborn child.  From here, the film continues to head down this dark path, ending with most of the characters dead.  However, this is not the end of the film, the story, maybe, but not the film and what comes next is hilarious. 
After the story has run to its natural conclusion, we return to the living room of the family, everyone is alive and fine, and we realise that the preceding has been a cautionary tale told to us.  The funniest thing is that the husband says that it is like feeding fresh meat to a lion, in regards to hiring a young maid, and that all men would stray (thus making it acceptable).  He then breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at us, the audience, and says “yep, even you” pointing into the crowd while laughing.  He even goes so far as to throw a little wink our way.  It is so surreal, especially with what has come before, but it is also so funny.  Our audience was in fits of laughter!  Overall, this is a fantastic film, and much better than its remake, however they are both their own beasts, which start at the same point but ultimately, drift to different conclusions.

4 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

DREAM HOME




This was the second film that director Pang Ho-Cheung had at MIFF this year, and was the one that originally I was more interested in, because it dealt in the horror genre.  In truth, it is more of a horror-drama, because the majority of the film is about a woman who is saving money to buy her dream home.  She doesn’t go out with her friends, or buy herself anything, in fact it appears that she leads a rather dull life, just in the effort to be able to afford the deposit for a place that had sentimental value for both her and her dad, when she was a child. 
Like “Love In A Puff” [see my review here],   Pang Ho-Cheung adds another layer of reality to “Dream Home” as he is basing the film on the current (well, the film is set in 2007) home market in Hong Kong.  We are given a title card at the beginning of the film stating that since the handover in 1997, the average Hong Kong person’s wage has only increased by 1%, while the price of a small, modest unit has increased dramatically more than that.  Obviously because of this, owning your own home is very expensive and too hard for most people to do.  This is the drama of the film, but throughout it, we are witness to a number of brutal (and quite graphic) murders committed by a woman.  Having the horror scenes edited throughout the story without context is a little jarring but you start to get used to it. 
Ultimately we find out that the killer is the girl saving for her dream home.  She has been pushed to the limit, as once she finally has enough for the deposit, the sellers change their mind and ask for more money.  The motive for these mass murders of innocents is in fact to lower the value of the apartments in that building, which it does and the girl gets her house at a reduced price. 
However the film ends with another kick in the guts for the girl (and one, this time, she has no power over), as the purchase of her house coincides with the beginning of the global economic crisis, meaning her mortgage is going to go through the roof.  It is a great ending. 
A quick note about the kills in “Dream Home”, they were all very imaginative and extremely gory, which I was not expecting.  In fact, this film has some of the best kills I have seen in a horror film for quite some time and the effects guys should be proud of the work they have done.  Overall, while there is a lot to like in “Dream Home”, the mix of horror and drama is a little jarring which does not benefit the film, but it is still a worthwhile watch, but out of the two Pang Ho-Cheung films at MIFF this year, surprisingly I ended up preferring his romantic comedy, “Love In A Puff”.

3 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

LEAP YEAR


This was another film by a first time director, Michael Rowe, a Melbourne-born man, but this is not an Australian film, rather a Mexican film.  In the film we follow Laura, who is a freelance journalist, and at the beginning of the film we see her mark the date of February 29th in red on her calendar.  The date is significant as it is the day that her father died, four years ago, but does it have a different significance for Laura this year?  It is fairly obvious that Laura plans to end her life on this date, because as we get to know her, we find out that she is very lonely (she lives alone), participates in a number of meaningless one-night stands, while watching her neighbours from her apartment window, imagining them as friends of hers.  Also, while it isn’t explicitly explained, it is hinted at that Laura was also abused by her father. 
In regards to the film, it is well made, but it goes into quite disturbing areas as Laura ends up having a relationship with one of these men who is heavily into S&M sex.  The violence and degradation that is put upon Laura (which she is a willing participant in, just in an attempt to make a human connection with someone else) is often very disturbing and by the end, too hard to watch.  Even though the film is well made, its subject matter turned me off, to the point that I was unable to get any enjoyment out of it. 
A side note, the director introduced the film and was terrible, he just had no personality at all, which meant that I was not staying around to hear his Q&A after the screening.  One final note, the performance of Monica del Carmen as Laura was very brave and quite amazing and the saving grace of this unlikable film.

2.5 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

LEBANON [Review 1]


Now this was more like it.  This is what I had been waiting all festival for, a film that actually blew me away (and it was perfect to wash away the after-taste of “Enter The Void”). 
“Lebanon” is a claustrophobic story of four young soldiers, who are inside a tank, thrust into the Lebanon war on its first day.  This is director Samuel Maoz’s first film, and is based on his own experiences of that 1982 war.  It amazingly captures the intensity and absurdity of war in the 24 hours that it is set.  Confusion and fear play important roles for the soldiers who find out first hand just how hard it is to pull the trigger at a real person compared to that of a training drill.  Right from the get-go, the guy on the gun makes two terrible mistakes because of the speed everything happens and the confusion as to who is enemy or civilian.  The first, not pulling the trigger on a terrorist causing a fellow soldier to be killed, and then immediately following, panicking because of the first mistake and killing an un-armed civilian. 
From here until the end of the film, we the audience, are in a state of suspense as we, like the soldiers, have no idea when or where the next attack is coming from.  We also get to feel the emotions and the psychological consequences of these poor soldiers in relation to the actions that they take. 
Overall, this is superior filmmaking; it is wonderfully shot and acted making “Lebanon” a fantastic film.  It is riveting from start to finish and is reminiscent of the great German film “Das Boot” (high praise, indeed).  Check it out if you ever get the chance.

4.5 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

ENTER THE VOID



I was really hoping that this would have been my favourite film of MIFF this year, but also knew that it could turn out the opposite.  The director, Gaspar Noe, has a habit of creating films that split the audiences down the middle – you either love it or hate it.  Noe’s previous film, “Irreversible”, I thought was brilliant, so I was definitely looking forward to “Enter The Void”.  Unfortunately, it is utter rubbish, and worse it is self-indulgent. 
The film is about a junkie, Max, who gets fatally shot by police during a drug deal.  Immediately after his death, his spirit leaves his body and continues to float through Tokyo witnessing how his friends and family are coping after his death.  After this, his life flashes before his eyes, then we get more floating around Tokyo, until he is finally reborn. 
The film is shot entirely from Max’s point-of-view and since he is dead, looking down on his loved ones, that means that the majority of the film is shot from that one angle.  The running time is an excruitiating two and a quarter hours and it just never seems to end (if it was an hour shorter, it may have been a better experience……maybe), and the scenes during the end at the “love hotel” were pathetic and obviously just there to shock. 
Another thing that I hated was the recurring image of the car crash that killed Max’s parents, because it was used over and over, just in an attempt to shock or startle the audience, so much so that it becomes exploitative.  The other thing that pissed me off no end was that near the beginning of the film, Max is given a book entitled “The Book Of The Dead” and it explains the levels a spirit goes through when you die.  It was done with no subtlety at all, and if it doesn’t scream “plot device”, I do not know what does.  It just wasn’t organic to the story at all and was just used to explain the next two hours. 
Overall, I hated this film, it was over-long, self-indulgent and had some truly woeful scenes in it that were beyond embarrassing (do not get me started about the scene when his soul enters his friends body, while he is having intercourse with Max’s sister! What?!?!).  It is also ugly to look at (which was a surprise because I usually like cinematographer Benoit Debie work – his recent work on “The Runaways” [read my review here] was spectacular).  Avoid (although there are people who think this film is genius.  I told you, love it or hate it).

1 Star - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

CHLOE



This is a film that I had already seen and only chose to see again to fill in the time between seeing “The ‘Burbs” and my next film.  While I enjoyed the film slightly more this time around, I still feel that overall, the film does not work. 
“Chloe” is a remake of the French film “Nathalie” and is directed by Canadian film-maker Atom Egoyan.  The plot revolves around Julianne Moore’s character who is suspicious that her husband (played by Liam Nesson) is having an affair, and decides to hire a prostitute (Amanda Seyfried) to try and tempt her husband and catch him out.  Each time Chloe sees the husband, she reports back to the wife describing in detail exactly what went on between the two of them.  Things escalate too far causing the husband and wife to finally confront each other with the truth. 
The problem with the film is that the whole “twist” doesn’t work, as I never believed any of the stories the prostitute told (to be fair, although I remember very little of it, I have seen the original film, so the twist may have subconsciously stayed with me).  She even lets the viewer know this in the opening scene when she says that “She is good with words”.  Overall, the film did its job in wasting some time in between screenings, but that is about it, I’m afraid.

2.5 Stars - Viewed at the Melbourne International Film Festival

THE ‘BURBS



This was my final Joe Dante film of the festival and it was also the best.  I almost didn’t see this film, because I always assumed that “The ‘Burbs” was a silly family comedy, and because of this I wasn’t really interested in it.  However the MIFF guide made mention of the themes of “Rear Window” and this caught my eye and definitely piqued my interest (plus I wanted to catch as many of the Joe Dante screenings as possible).  Once again I’m glad I made the effort to see this film because I loved it! 
The film is a take on America’s xenophobia and is about a normal man (and two of his neighbours) who lives in suburbia, that is convinced that his new next-door neighbours are murderers (and is sure that they have killed a recently absent neighbour).  His suspicions continue to grow, as does the seriousness of his voyeurism, which began as mere suspicion that turned to spying and ultimately ends in a break and enter.  The finale is great (if a little obvious) and ends in the neighbour’s house being totally destroyed, just as the missing neighbour returns from a unplanned trip to hospital.  
I was amazed at how dark this film got (considering what I was expecting) and this made it an amazing experience.  Joe Dante’s direction was, once again, superb.  When I got home and asked my wife whether or not she had seen “The ‘Burbs”, she gave me this little gem:  “Is that the one with the guy in it who looks like a young Tom Hanks?”   Um, yeah, that was a young Tom Hanks.

4 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED


This was a sort-of sequel to the great Ozploitation documentary “Not Quite Hollywood”, but instead of focusing on the genre films of Australia, “Machete Maidens Unleashed” focuses on the American productions that were filmed on the cheap in the Philippines during the 70’s. 
The interesting thing is that this was a time during great oppression of the Filipino people when they were ruled by a dictatorship, yet by participating in these films, they found huge freedom.  Some of the interviewees are fantastic like Joe Dante (again), Sid Haig, Roger Corman, Jack Hill and the always entertaining John Landis.  As entertaining as the film is, it just doesn’t grab you (well at least me) the way “Not Quite Hollywood” did.  After seeing that film, I was inspired to try and track down all of those films talked about, but with “Machete Maidens Unleashed” this just isn’t the case.  I assume this has to do with the quality of the films talked about, as well as the fact that this film has a narrower focus than its predecessor, dealing only with the films made by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, up until the mention of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” at the end.  Overall though, I would still recommend viewing this film at least once.

3 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

PIRANHA

This is Joe Dante’s “acknowledged” rip-off of Spielberg’s “Jaws”, with the shark, obviously, being substituted by the vicious piranha.  I had seen this before and was looking forward to seeing this for the first time on the big screen, however the print of “Piranha” that the festival had received was badly damaged and faded, and it was decided to screen a dvd of the film instead.  Oh well, it is not ideal, but at least they were upfront about it (it helped too, that Joe Dante himself delivered the news to us). 
The plot is about genetically enhanced piranha’s that escape into a river system and end up attacking a newly opened swim park.  As much fun as the film is, the biggest reason to go see “Piranha” was Joe Dante himself.  This was the final film that Joe was introducing (that I was seeing) and as such I was determined to get him to sign my blu-ray copy of “The Howling” (which was strangely absent from the Dante retrospective).  I can report that this story has a happy ending, as he signed it before the film started.  Not only that, I also got to meet Jamie Blanks, the director of the American slasher films “Urban Legend” and “Valentine”, as well as the messed up Aussie film “Storm Warning”. 
In regards to the film, there is not much I can add really, it is what it is, which is a lot of bloody fun.  If you are into horror, check it out (also watch its recent 3D remake [read my review here], which was also a great time at the movies).

3 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

LOVE IN A PUFF


The only reason I saw this film was because director, Pang Ho-Cheung, had another film screening at the festival this year (the horror film, “Dream Home”) and I just thought that it would be interesting to see how he handed the two different genres.  Well, I’m certainly glad that I did because Pang Ho-Cheung has created quite a little gem here.  On the surface this looks just like your typical silly Hong Kong romantic comedy, but this isn’t the case as it deals with current issues affecting the citizens of Hong Kong today.  As opposed to most other Hong Kong comedies, this is grounded in reality (its biggest strength) and the conversations that characters have with one another are so believable. 
The backdrop to the story regards the recent change in Hong Kong law that (similar to Australia) prevents citizens from smoking indoors, as well as certain areas outdoors.  Because of this, smokers tend to smoke in alleys and end up interacting with people that they normally wouldn’t come in contact with.  In a strange way, these smoking laws are bringing people together.  In the film, predictably, two of these people end up starting a relationship (played by Shawn Yue and Miriam Yeung) and we follow them for the first week together. 
This is such a charming and easy-to-watch film, which also had something to say.  I must make mention of a brilliant scene that plays over the end credits which is hilarious, but also changes a perceived moment from an earlier scene that is just magnificent.  Speaking of the end, the climax of the film also happens during the time when the Hong Kong government upped the taxes significantly on cigarettes in an effort to stop people from buying them.  As such, we see characters going from store to store trying to buy as much of their preferred brand before the price hike.  As I’ve mentioned already, this film was a nice surprise and I recommend it whole heartedly.  It was also great to see Miriam Yeung again (loved the purple hair!).

3.5 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

Monday, February 7, 2011

SPLICE

It seems like I have been hearing about this movie for years now and finally I have the chance to see it, so did it live up to my expectations (or its reputation)?  Sadly, not really.  The story is a riff on the classic “Frankenstein” tale, where a couple of scientists create a new species by splicing together DNA of other animals and combining it with human DNA.  The result is quite amazing.  It is a very human-looking and hairless specimen that appears to have a line down its face, as well as a tail that hides a very dangerous spike.  The scientists (played by Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody) name the specimen “Dren” (it is a female specimen) and basically look after it as if it were their own child.  

That is what “Splice” really is, it is an allegory to parenthood told in the guise of a horror movie.  Dren ages very quickly and within a week she looks like an adult, and as such, she begins to awaken sexually which leads to a very uncomfortable scene where Dren has sex with Adrien Brody.  The film kicks into high horror gear for the finale, when Dren begins to change once more, but I will not reveal the details of this twist.  While it is definitely not a bad film, “Splice” wasn’t a great film.  I felt that it actually looked like a low budget film; however, the creature effects were well handled.  Finally, it was great to see Sarah Polley on the big screen again – it has been too long.


3 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival
 

LIKE A DREAM

 
I had to laugh at this film and the timing of when I saw it.  Straight before this film I had gone to see “Inception” and then I came out to see this and realised that it was another film about dreams and I thought “Oh no! How is it going to compare against “Inception””.   

At the start of the film, when the majority of the dreams occur, it didn’t compete well at all and I thought I was in for a long ride.  I’m happy to say that the film picked up after the poor opening.  The story is about a guy who has a recurring dream about a girl, who he ends up falling in love with.  Convinced that she is real, he heads to Shanghai to find her.  While in Shanghai, he meets another girl who is the spitting image of the girl in his dreams, however she isn’t as sophisticated as that girl.  The girl decides to help the guy find his “dream girl”, all the while though, they continue to get closer.  By the end of the film, the guy must choose either to be with the girl that is real and right in front of him, or to continue chasing for the girl of his dreams.   

The film is ultimately frustrating because some parts (especially the drama sections) are so well done, while other parts just fall flat (like the “comedy” of the girl pretending to be the dream girl – embarrassing).  Overall, I do not think that I would re-visit the film in the future, but when the film starts to go a little deeper (and slightly darker, with allusions to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”), it is definitely worth a watch.


2.5 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

THE SILENT HOUSE

This is a gimmick film, with the gimmick here being that the film is one long, uninterrupted take (a claim I consider dubious – I’m sure that I saw a number of cuts).  I must admit that I do not really get the point of a single take film.  I’ll agree that it is technically an amazing achievement but how does it help the film, narratively speaking?   

The main problem with this film is that for the majority of its running time, nothing happens.  It is just a girl walking around a dark house with a lamp, with neither tension or fear ever being heightened.  The basic story is a girl and her father come to a house to clean it before it is sold, however during the night they hear strange noises and the terror begins.  YAWN!  It was so boring, with only one good scene, and it had the most ridiculous twist ending (think “High Tension” bad).  Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy this film at all.  Oh, apparently it is based on a true story.  Give me a break.


2 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH

Six years after the original “Gremlins”, Joe Dante came back to give us this insane sequel.  Truly, this film is INSANE.  It is almost just 100 minutes of gremlins gags, but it is so much fun.  I’m not sure that the returning actors would have enjoyed this film as much as the first experience, because they seem to fade in and out of the film, with the gremlins themselves, the stars this time around.   

The sequel sees everyone holed up in a self-sufficient (and malfunctioning) high rise building in Manhattan, which is over-run by gremlins who just want to escape out of the building into New York, once the sun has gone down (remember bright light kills them).   

The biggest flaw to the film is the under-use of the always cute, Gizmo – he just isn’t in the film enough.  The biggest highlight, though, is that of the “Brain Gremlin”.  This is a gremlin who has swallowed a “brain” serum causing him to become super intelligent and gives him the ability to speak (who is voiced by Tony Randall and is hilarious), not to mention he starts wearing glasses.  Overall, this is such an un-even mess of a film (the pacing is all over the place), that is however, amazingly entertaining.


3 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

IT’S A GOOD LIFE / LIGHTNING / HOMECOMING

This was one-of-a-kind programming genius, as this contained two of Joe Dante’s television works (“Lightning” and “Homecoming”) along with his segment from the “Twilight Zone Movie”.  It all started with “It’s A Good Life”, which I had never seen before, and let me say, it blew me away.  Less the story (it is hokey in that great Twilight Zone tradition), but by the level of filmmaking displayed here by Dante.  The craftsmanship is fantastic on such a grand scale with amazing sets, brilliant cinematography (the colours made it look like a Mario Bava film) and some crazy and imaginative special effects. Dante explained that he was left to his own devices and this is clearly evident, as it is full of his signature cartoon humour.  

Next up was Dante’s episode of “Picture Windows” which was a series where directors had to find a painting and then create a back-story for it.  Joe Dante did the opposite, finding a story that he wanted to do (it is his only Western) and then finding an etching that fit his story which he duplicates as the opening shot.  While its television origins are obvious, this was still an entertaining piece of work, but nothing outstanding.   

Finally came “Homecoming” which is his season one episode of “Masters Of Horror”, and is a not-too-subtle attack on the Bush administration and the Iraq war in general, in the guise of a zombie film.  However instead of rising from the grave to kill, these zombies just want their voices heard about a war they don’t believe was worth dying for.  I had previously watched this a number of times already and I’m happy to report that it still packs a punch.  

Overall, this was a great session of short films (that I originally thought may have been dull), with the standout being the “Twilight Zone Movie” segment, which I thought was just outstanding.


3.5 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

THE HOLE

 

Welcome to Joe Dante Day.  This is director Joe Dante’s latest film (his first in seven years) and it is also in 3D (real 3D, not post-processed!).  This is a throwback to the 80’s “family horror films” (like “Poltergeist”), which is a more of a PG-style horror film – something that will scare the kids and give them a good time, but not enough that they wont sleep for a week.  The film is about a mother and her two children who move from the city to a quiet country town.  In the basement of their house, the two boys find and open a door that is heavily bolted closed on the floor.  When they look inside, they discover that there is a hole under the door, or a bottomless pit if you will.  It turns out though, that if you look inside the hole, your greatest fears come to life and attempt to take your life.  The only way to destroy the menace is to confront your fears.   

The movie consists of the fears of the two boys, as well as that of the teenage girl who lives next door to them.  The fears come in the guise of old friend who committed suicide when she was a kid, an abusive father and the horror film staple, the always creepy clowns.  It is all done very well, with the 3D more of a modest achievement rather than anything spectacular, but personally I prefer my horror with a darker edge, but for what it is, “The Hole” is a great example of a horror film from a by-gone era.


3 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival

 

THE KILLER INSIDE ME

This was such a strange film.  It is directed by Michael Winterbottom, a director that rarely repeats himself and often goes from genre to genre without missing a beat.  He could never be typecast in the types of films that he makes, however whenever he explores a subject matter, he always tackles it head-on and takes it to the extreme.  For example, his movie “9 Songs” which is an exploration on just how much sex means in a relationship, he got his actors to perform non-simulated sex acts.   

For “The Killer Inside Me”, he is exploring violence as well as the reasons behind why men commit such violent acts (especially towards women).  This film already has a reputation for a scene where an unsuspecting Jessica Alba gets brutally beaten to the point where her face is severely swollen and her jaw bone exposed.  Regarding this scene, as brutal as it is, I think editing plays a big part of the impact and I do not think it is anywhere near as violent (that may be the wrong word, maybe graphic is better) as the “fire-hydrant scene” in “Irreversible” which it often gets compared to.  

The film is about Lou Ford, played by Casey Affleck (who, as good as he is in the role, unfortunately mumbles a lot of his lines), who goes out to a ranch to inform the prostitute (Alba) living there that she has three days to get out of town, but instead ends up falling in love with her.  The two of them come up with a plan to blackmail one of her client’s father, who happens to be a very rich and influential man in Central City (if the fact got out that his son had been with this sort of woman, it would be a blight on his reputation).  When it comes time for the plan to be put into action, it is amazing because everybody thinks that something else is happening to what really is, with only Lou knowing the true extent of his plan, which turns out to be motivated by revenge (as well as his bloodlust for violence) and not blackmail.   

By the end of this scene, two people end up dead by Lou’s hands and the rest of the movie has him dealing with the repercussions. As the bodies continue to pile up, the noose gets tighter, as the town begins to see Lou for what he really is and not the clean-cut nice-guy Sheriff he presents himself as.  As mentioned above, there are two brutally violent scenes directed towards women in this film, which happen due to the strange way Lou’s brain seems to work.  He always ends up involving the women in his life in his plans to take advantage of others (but in violent ways.  For example, he bashes the hell out of his girlfriend just so he can frame a person on his trail as a rapist).  

Whether or not the film’s exploration into why he performs these violent acts is valid or not is up to the individual viewer, but it seems to be suggesting that it is linked to and fueled by his love of S&M sex (dominance of women) which began, disturbingly, at a young age with his mother.  Overall, it is an interesting film that is worth checking out (but be warned about the graphic violence), but by the end of it, it does get a little silly and less believable. 


3.5 Stars - Viewed at the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival