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Rey (MIFF)

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In 1860 a French lawyer named Orélie-Antoine de Tounens travelled to South America. Believing that the Araucanía region in southern Chile to be independent of that country’s authority, he attempted to establish a kingdom there with himself as head of state. He actually convinced several local indigenous tribes to join his kingdom, with each chieftain taking up a ministry within his new government. Ultimately de Tounen was betrayed by his own servant to the Chilean government, and they violently disabused him of his assumed status and had him exiled back to France. He lived the rest of his life as a self-proclaimed king-in-exile.

This curious footnote to South American history has been adapted by Chilean director Niles Atallah in Rey, a new and challenging arthouse drama. Viewers looking for a straight-forward narrative film will likely find the film a maddening experience. Those seeking a genuinely original style of feature film that demands the viewer work a little to receive their entertainment will be much more satisfied.

Atallah understands that history is, in part, a fictionalised narrative. There is no one alive who can speak to precisely what happened to de Tounens: what elements really happened, what part were exaggerated or fabricated, or just how fanciful his notions of an Araucanían kingdom were. In presenting the story of de Tounen’s struggle, Atallah actively forces the audience to confront the loose, half-forgotten and unreliable nature of the story. He does this with a few key techniques.

The first is in how the film is framed as a series of flashbacks, each brought on by debate during his trial for treason against Chile. De Tounen’s journey south, his conversations with tribal groups and the spiritual experience he has there are all related in very subjective ways. On top of that the trial itself is performed by actors in papier-mache masks, giving everything a deeply unsettling and artificial feel. The courtroom scenes are spectacularly performed, with the cast emphasising physical gestures and poses to compensate for their hidden faces.

The flashbacks to de Tounen in the wilds of southern Chile showcase regular sequences packed with magical realism and surreal imagery. These increase in ambition as the film goes on, suggesting a gradual loss of sanity on de Tounen’s part. Rodrigo Lisboa is excellent as de Tounen, His performance gives the character as messianic quality.

To emphasise the disjointed, half-forgotten nature of the story, Atallah shoots the picture in a variety of film formats. He blends his own work with scratchy archival footage, and then also took freshly shot film reels of his own and buried them in his own back yard for several years. The dug-up footage is scratched and degraded to the point of almost being unwatchable; Atallah nonetheless edits that footage in as well. It admittedly makes following the story an occasional struggle, but it is breathtaking in its technical ambition. It guarantees that Rey is unlike any other film you are likely to see this year.

Straightforward narrative drama is perfectly good, but it is sometimes worth stepping outside of one’s comfort zone and experiencing just how innovative and imaginative filmmaking can be. Rey is a difficult film in many respects, but for any moviegoer willing to go along with Atallah’s vision is in for a remarkable and utterly unforgettable experience.

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Glory (MIFF)

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When author and politician Clare Boothe Luce stated that ‘No good deed goes unpunished’, she could well have been talking about all that which befalls Tsanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov), the hapless linesman/pawn of Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s second feature. Stumbling across millions in cash whilst on duty, his honest act of alerting the authorities to the incident provides an opportunity for unscrupulous PR guru Julia (Margita Gosheva) to bury bad news on behalf of the Department of Transport.

The film’s naturalistic style adds to its increasingly bleak outlook. This is a world where everyone is out to help themselves; the truly good people are few and far between. On paper, this sounds like a morbidly serious kitchen sink drama, but Glory is much more than that. When Tsanko turns up for a press conference, Julia and her mob, feeling his crumpled suit is a little humble, strip him of his trousers and argue about who will be the one to lend him theirs. At times, Glory will slap you with gallows humour that will make you feel terrible for laughing.

Similar to Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop, albeit in a much darker hue, Glory revels in politics, uncomfortable laughs and unpleasant characters. Laughing at Tsanko’s debilitating stutter and losing a prized watch of his, it would be easy to paint Julia as a one note villain. However, outside of belittling others with one liners, Julia is softened with scenes of humanity as she and her husband undergo IVF. Tsanko, meanwhile, appears to be weighed down by his naivety and willingness to trust people. As Tsanko pursues his cast aside timepiece, you’ll be watching his quest through your fingers. In some ways, Glory seems to admonish his behaviour as much as it does Julia’s; the film’s co-directors pointing fingers at the abusers and those allowing themselves to be abused.

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I Am Not Your Negro (MIFF)

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The title of Raoul Peck’s fine documentary contains just the right note of provocation and of rebuttal to the patronising aspects of a racially-divided America. It centres upon the work of the novelist and writer James Baldwin who died in his sixties back in 1987. What is so shocking, and Peck knows this only too well, is that the film’s themes, and Baldwin’s stance, are still so relevant and contemporary. It reminds one a little of a recent much-discussed book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo Lodge. Peck uses Baldwin’s unmistakable clarity of thought to have one last tilt at the racial antagonism that is still the stain on the whole American project.

Baldwin, who grew up in a very large family in Harlem in the 1930s was both gay and black and he was so disgusted by some aspects of his home country that he went to live in Paris. He remained connected to the black struggles and was a friend of three important black intellectuals and leaders. These were; Medgar Evers (who headed up the moderate National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

The film, which is based on Baldwin’s partially unpublished recollections, deals with the ideas and lives of these three men. He does not simply idolise these men but he gives them and their ideas the critical seriousness they deserve.

As noted, Peck doesn’t find it hard to intersperse footage from more recent times that illustrate the continuing racial problems. The Rodney King beating for example, used with deadly economy here, is still unwatchably brutal. And, as we know, from such recent events as those in Ferguson Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to resonate and motivate.

If all this sounds merely grim, or like a history lesson lecture that people would shy away from, then that would be to do the film a profound miscarriage of justice. Baldwin (who appears in sparkling form in 1960s televised debates at the Cambridge Union) is always an engaging voice and presence. The narration of his prose by Samuel L Jackson is also beautifully done. It is tragic that there hasn’t been more progress but this film is more than just a howl in the wilderness it is a finely constructed piece of filmmaking and a riveting watch in its own right.

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Bad Boy Brigsby Bear

Dave McCary and Kyle Mooney grew up watching Saturday Night Live together. Now, they both work on the show and have made a movie.
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Tokyo Idols (MIFF)

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Japan often seems a strange country. It is similar enough to English-language cultures to feel familiar, yet different enough to seem a bewildering mess of contradictions and oddities. Take idol culture: teenage girls singing and dancing to cloyingly upbeat pop music, all the while developing frighteningly dedicated fan bases keen to pay regularly for photo opportunities and meet-and-greet sessions. They are the subject of Tokyo Idols, a fascinating but flawed new documentary by Kyoko Miyake.

The film primarily follows 20 year-old Rio Hiiragi, who is among more than 10,000 aspiring singers attempting to succeed as an idol. Rio sings and dances at small-scale concerts, holds Internet live chats with her fans, sells photographs of herself in various outfits, and regularly meets her most ardent fans at so-called ‘handshake’ sessions. Those fans are almost entirely middle-aged men. It is an immediately discomforting set-up that Miyake then explores over the course of her documentary.

It initially seems like some appalling sort of legalised paedophilia, with idols starting their careers as young as ten years old and with a seemingly endless array of nervously obsessive men following their every move and gesture. As the documentary unfolds, however, it begins to reveal a much more complex cultural phenomenon at work. Through a combination of fly-on-the-wall observations and interviews with idols, commentators and self-professed ‘otaku’ (the middle-aged obsessive fans), Miyake draws a picture of a generation of men failing to properly connect with the real world and electing to live a safe, non-confrontational fantasy instead. They find intimacy not in an adult relationship but in the momentary touch of a handshake and the security of worshipping attractive teenage girls who will never reject or argue with them.

It seems an odd combination of insecurity, sexual desire, romance and an almost paternal affection all at the same time. It would be easy to ridicule or even demonise these otaku, but Miyake carefully allows them to express and explain their lives in their own terms. For some it reveals quite disturbing pathological obsessions. For other it shows a surprising self-awareness; one man, who broke up with his girlfriend and started spending all of his money buying merchandise and access to Rio, openly admits he has effectively ruined his own life.

The film is an imperfect one: Miyake focuses her camera carefully on the otaku, and sidelines the broader audience that exists in Japan for the teen idols. You can see the women in most of the concert scenes, carefully framed so at to effectively render them invisible. As presented Tokyo Idols would suggest that middle-aged otaku comprise the entire audience for idols, yet while the otaku are clearly widely prevalent the documentary itself notes that idol culture is a billion dollar business. The most popular idol band, the pop culture juggernaut AKB48, regularly sells new songs and albums in the hundreds of thousands. By focusing so tightly on the most negative aspect of idol culture, Miyake creates an incomplete and slightly dishonest film. This is a shame, because the debate at the core of the film remains a fascinating and provocative one.

Idols – both male and female – already have a growing fandom in the English-speaking world. Those fans may be attracted to Tokyo Idols by its subject matter, but may come away feeling a little confronted by some of the truths behind the phenomenon. For anyone new to idols it does provide a strong and engaging insight; it is simply a shame that it displays an incomplete picture.

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The Void (Melbourne International Film Festival)

Festival, Review, This Week 1 Comment

Canadian film production crew Astron-6 have paid goofy homage to ‘80s b-grade films with Father’s Day, Manborg, and The Editor. Members of the group, Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie, have now decided to drop the goof, making a sincere attempt at these cult classics with The Void.

After an explosively violent opening scene, deputy Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) stumbles upon James (Evan Stern), a survivor from the carnage. Daniel races James to the small town’s nearest hospital. A small group of staff are busy packing to move out of the fire damaged hospital, including Daniel’s estranged wife Alison (Kathleen Munroe). When more violence occurs, Daniel tries to make contact with the police station, only to find all communication is down, and a group of hooded figures surrounding the building, trapping everyone inside. Daniel and the other occupants must now figure out what’s happening, and survive the other horrors lurking inside the building.

An obvious influence on The Void is John Carpenter’s The Thing. Both feature trapped people, traitors lurking amongst them, a mesmerising electronic score, and some incredible body horror. The Void goes even further, adding a cult and something mystical. The look of the cult members is simple, with them all wearing white hoods with a giant black triangle over their faces. It’s a simple design, but is effective in its eeriness. The monsters are more elaborately designed, with shocking scenes involving tentacles wiggling in and out of faces, and grotesque creatures on the prowl. The amount of work put into the look of the film is incredible, but it’s a shame not much was put in elsewhere.

The plot is barely existent. While a great choice to make the cult as mysterious to the audience as they are to the protagonists, it is hard to grasp what exactly is going on. At times it almost feels like the filmmakers aren’t sure what’s going on (or at least their ideas about the mystical are far too difficult to explain). Just as bare are the characters, with nothing to make anyone care about them. However, there are times when The Void gets things right.

The film keeps viewers guessing as true loyalties are revealed. As soon as you have one character figured out, they completely change into something else. One sequence which deserves praise is the intercutting of one group fighting a cellar of mutants while a pregnant woman goes into labour. These two sequences could’ve been thrilling on their own, but intercutting them creates a tense few minutes that really brings the film alive.

The Void has lofty ambitions, but doesn’t quite reach them. But when it does work, it really comes alive. A flawed but imaginative piece of work, much like the cult films that influenced it.

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Final Portrait

Festival, Review, This Week 1 Comment

Sitting through films about the artistic process can feel like, well, watching the paint dry. Final Portrait isn’t boring, but nor is it ever riveting – though to be fair it’s a subtle and low-key affair in which excitement was presumably not the idea. The setting is Paris in 1964, and American writer and aesthete James Lord (Armie Hammer) is sitting for a portrait by the great Swiss-Italian artist Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush).

Giacometti is initially gruff and laconic, though he becomes steadily more expansive as time goes on. He seems to exist in a state of permanent dissatisfaction and frustration, at least where his art is concerned, and tinkers with, demolishes and re-starts the painting so often that the patient Mr. Lord has to keep delaying his flight back to New York. You start to wonder how such a perfectionist ever managed to complete anything, and indeed from Giacometti’s own point of view he didn’t: all his work was “unfinished”. The term ‘temperamental artist’ scarcely begins to encompass his difficult and selfish personality as depicted here, though he’s also shown being agreeably warm and vivacious.

The acting in Final Portrait is fine, and particularly so on the part of Geoffrey Rush – always a given – and of Tony Shalhoub as Alberto’s quietly empathetic brother Diego. And there’s the occasional memorable aphorism (“What better breeding ground for doubt than success?”), plus some tantalisingly brief references to Giacometti’s relationships with other creative giants.  But overall this is a moderately substantial movie, and rather anti-climactic.