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Hello Goodbye (MIFF)

Festival, Review, This Week 1 Comment

Hazuki (Sayu Kubota) and Aoi (Minori Hagiwara) are Japanese high school students. Despite attending the same classes, they may as well live in different worlds. Hazuki is in the popular crowd of bitchy queen bees, although her position there is wavering after she has a pregnancy scare and her ex-boyfriend hooks up with one of her friends. Aoi is class president, but is widely ignored by everyone – including her parents, whose inattention has become so miserable that she has taken to shop-lifting in the hopes of getting caught.

They collide on the street with an elderly woman (Masako Motai), who appears to be suffering from dementia. After some work – and a meal together – they eventually track down her home and family. Aoi, however, is intrigued by the love letter the old woman was fiercely protecting, and convinces Hazuki that they should return and attempt to get the letter to its intended recipient.

Hello Goodbye is the second feature film from director Takeo Kikuchi. It is not a particularly innovative or arresting film drama. It has a modest storyline to match its brief running time, and is shot and paced in a very traditional and matter-of-fact fashion. Within those narrow confines, Kikuchi absolutely nails the film: the performances are engaging and lifelike, the emotions are warm but never cloying, and the story moves to predictable but surprisingly restrained places. In short: if you are the sort of viewer that enjoys Japanese teen dramas, then this is ‘one of the good ones’.

Minori Hagiwara and Sayu Kubota are both strong and easily identifiable leads. They both have emotional problems to face, but they are problems with which a lot of teenage viewers can likely identify. Even when plot developments appear to indulge in clichés – Hazuki announcing to her ex-boyfriend that she may be pregnant sets off some pretty loud alarm bells – those developments are resolved in very grounded ways.

Masako Motai is charming as Etsuko, the elderly neighbour who brings the two girls together. She delivers an often-times slightly painful performance as a woman whose memories – both long and short term – have scrambled in her head and mostly evaporated. It gives the film an underlying sense of tragedy and regret, particularly when Hazuki and Aoi sees old photographs of Etsuko and her friends as teenagers; notably not too different from the girls themselves. There is a gentle element of social commentary to the film, regarding Japan’s growing aged care crisis and the difficulty of families keeping frail and ailing relatives at home. Kikuchi does not press this element, which is a smart move. It gains much more power by simply being there.

There is a danger than Hello Goodbye will get overlooked in the wash of Japan’s seemingly endless train of superficially similar teen melodramas. That would be a deep shame, since it does such a quiet, elegant job. It feels genuinely insightful within a well-worn framework.

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Ancien and the Magic Tablet (MIFF)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Kokone (Mitsuki Takahata) is a teenager living two lives. When she is awake, she is a Japanese schoolgirl on the run after her father was arrested and a mysterious tablet computer was shoved into her hands. When she sleeps she is Ancien, a captive magician princess in a dystopian steampunk-themed kingdom. As her waking adventure unfolds, the events in her sleep begin to take on an unexpected significance.

Ancien and the Magic Tablet is an anime feature riding on an awful lot of expectations through sheer pedigree alone. The film marks the feature debut of noted anime director Kenji Kamiyama, whose television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Eden in the East have made him one of the most acclaimed and feted anime directors working today. To a large extent Ancien delivers exactly what his fans are likely expecting: a well-developed world (in this case two of them in parallel) loaded with social comment, and a strong protagonist whose mission weaves deftly through it.

Kamiyama appears to have his eye on automation and the dehumanising effect on technology. Ancien lives in a fantasy kingdom that manufactures 1950s-style automobiles on a 24-hour-a-day basis, leading to gridlocked streets, pollution and a sort of loose Orwell-esque oppressive government. In the waking world Kokone’s path draws her to a large car manufacturer and its plans to debut self-driving cars at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony. Through this car motif the two worlds get immediately tied together, although it is a little questionable over how effectively Kamiyama ties the knot.

Technically the film is gorgeous, combining CGI and hand-drawn elements very subtly to create some outstanding and immense vistas. The character and technology design is inventive and, in the case of the steampunk dream world, very charming. Kokone’s ‘real’ world is similarly well crafted and presented, although in this case Kamiyama and his crew develop a very evocative and authentic depiction of Okayama in Japan’s south. There seems to be a tendency in contemporary anime to showcase regional Japan in rather attractive ways. I suspect there may be an element of actual tourism funding involved; after all, every anime has to get its funding from somewhere.

The only two key drawbacks of the film are its length and its binary set-up. At almost two hours in length, Ancien does ultimately outstay its welcome a little. A bigger problem is the manner in which the two parallel narratives intersect. It is difficult to dwell on it too closely without beginning to reveal a few too many plot threads, but suffice to say the film ultimately felt a much messier and undisciplined affair than the opening set-up had suggested. Anime fans – particularly followers of Kamiyama – will be entertained, as well as any lovers of Japanese-style animation. This is not a film to break beyond that crowd, however; it is a solid mid-range animated feature, and should have no difficulty finding itself a comfortable niche in that regard.

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Sleeping Beauty (MIFF)

Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Egon (Niels Schneider) is crown prince of the modern-day European kingdom of Letonia. Instead of applying himself to courtly duties, Egon spends much of his time drinking, smoking and loudly playing the drums. When he learns of the fabled kingdom of Gentz, whose territory lies within Letonia’s borders, and whose people are frozen asleep until a prince goes and wakes their princess with a kiss, he becomes fixated on finding Gentz and performing the kiss himself.

Adapting so well-worn a story as a fairy tale is a task with enormous creative risks. There needs to be an interesting angle found for the material, or a particularly lavish and attention-grabbing aesthetic, or simply a careful attention to detail and a respectful attitude to the source. Sleeping Beauty, a new French adaptation by Spanish director Ado Arrietta achieves none of those things. It feels bored and perfunctory. It feels lazy. While there are occasional laughs that stem from a playful, self-aware take on the material, those laughs come much too sparsely to give the film any merit. It is a colossal misfire in almost every respect.

The actors seem genuinely disinterested in their performances. The screenplay feels as if Arrietta could barely bring himself the enthusiasm required to write it. It is remarkably short as well, barely scraping past 80 minutes including its opening and closing titles. The film introduces Egon, who is a remarkably irritating protagonist, before leaping into a flashback that essentially re-tells the fairy tale without much creativity or energy. To her credit, Tatiana Verstraeten is relatively heartfelt and engaging as the titular ‘sleeping beauty’. Everyone else looks as if they have one eye on their paycheque and another on a clock.

Stand back and squint and you can sort of see the film that Arrietta was attempting to make: a self-aware absurdist comedy, taking the traditional story and re-telling through a very cynical and deadpan lens. Whether due to poor direction, or simply a completely misguided strategy to achieve that goal, Arrietta never gets close. There is a glimmer of fun towards the film’s climax, as a curious Egon wanders through Gentz Castle, idly taking photographs of the various frozen courtiers with his iPhone. It does not last for long, and the film ends with its audience likely wondering when it was going to begin.

This is, when all is said and done, the worst kind of festival film: the kind that where those looking for an interesting and fresh take will come away disappointed and mildly resentful, and those less familiar with arthouse cinema will leave worrying that they were not sophisticated enough to get the point. Relax: it’s not you. Sleeping Beauty is a dreadful waste of time.

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Festival, Review, This Week 3 Comments

After years of terrifying international audiences via the Wolf Creek films and TV series (along with similarly horrific detours like Rogue, The Darkness, and The Belko Experiment), Australian director, Greg McLean, takes a hard-left out of genre filmmaking with Jungle, but crafts something just as unsettling as his previous cinematic bloodbaths. While there are no serial killers or supernatural entities, this internationally-flavoured local production boasts a truly dangerous “villain” in the form of the eponymous wilds of Bolivia, a place of unrivaled savagery that McLean can’t help but apply his horror filmmaker’s instincts to. The results are chilling, harrowing, and occasionally near puke-inducing.

Based on the true life book by Yossi Ghinsberg, this gut-churning tale of survival is worthy of placement next to the highly impressive likes of Into The Wild, Deliverance, Wild, 127 Hours, and Alive. In a richly physical and immensely sympathetic performance, Daniel Radcliffe (whose continuing quest for challenging roles doesn’t receive nearly as much praise as it should) is superb as Ghinsberg, a young man travelling the world in the early 1980s, against the better wishes of his strict parents.

In the insular backpacking community of Bolivia, he meets two new friends in robust American, Kevin Gale (an excellent Alex Russell) and sensitive Swiss teacher, Marcus Stamm (a fine turn from rising Aussie star, Joel Jackson). Thirsty for adventure and new experiences, they take up the unlikely offer of enigmatic adventurer, Karl Ruprechter (played with an imaginative streak of the unpredictable by Thomas Kretschmann), to head into the jungle in search of a lost tribe of Indians, and perhaps a little gold along the way. But once in the wild, the three travelers soon start to question the credentials of their guide, and then realise how enormous and truly horrifying the jungle that surrounds them truly is.

Just as nervous urban-bound horror filmmakers have found treachery and evil in the backwater towns of America and the dark unknown of Europe (and, of course, the Australian outback), Greg McLean locates terror in the jungles of the Amazon. Yes, we’ve seen this winding, tangled river used as the backdrop for the gruesome likes of Cannibal Holocaust and The Green Inferno, but the nightmare of Jungle is much more real and far less sensationalist. Never have bug infestations, starvation, dehydration, pounding rain, wild river rapids, fire ants, and blistered feet registered with such force and fury – McLean grinds the gore here with admirable aplomb, giving Jungle the kind of kick that a non-genre filmmaker wouldn’t even have considered. But he’s in touch with his characters too, and as we endure the horrors of the jungle with them, the film soars in strange and unexpected ways. A survival film that marches to the delirious beat of its own hallucinogenic drum, Jungle bows inventively before the bad guy to end all bad guys: Mother Nature.

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Three Summers

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

In Ben Elton’s second film as director, the writer and comedian uses the microcosm of a WA folk festival to pick at the scabs of Australia’s political climate both past and present. Elton has always been known for his politics, so his desire to sink his teeth into something like this is not surprising. What is surprising is how he wraps up the political back and forth in the form of a romantic comedy which sees overly serious theremin player, Roland (Robert Sheehan) and down to earth fiddle player Keevey (Rebecca Breeds) pretend they don’t fancy each other over three years.

Without this ‘will they? won’t they?’ as the main thrust of the film, Three Summers could come across a little overwrought and perhaps even on-the-nose. That said, the film’s backdrop is a smart choice on Elton’s part; allowing characters of differing POVs to rub shoulders, without it feeling like they’ve been crowbarred into the scenario.

There’s Michael Caton as a disgruntled grandfather who grew up as a displaced child immigrant, whilst Carlton Pell plays an aboriginal elder, whose gentle joshing of his white audience hides painful truths. Elsewhere, Three Summers casts its light on immigration and asylum seekers. All of which – including our romantic leads – is brought together by the sublime Magda Szubanski as local radio DJ Queenie, who would rather everyone just saw eye to eye.

There have been other comedies that have tackled Australia’s attitude to race relations and Three Summers certainly isn’t as acerbic as Cronulla Riot based comedy, Down Under. However, whilst it doesn’t go for the jugular, it still makes its observations just as pointedly with its softly softly approach. And when all is said and done, it’s still an extremely enjoyable movie that holds some good old-fashioned belly laughs. It may not change the world overnight, but its determination to raise conversation is to be commended.

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Beauty and the Dogs (MIFF)

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Mariam (Mariam Al Farjani) is a 21 year-old university student living in Tunis. When we first see her, she is camped out in the bathroom of a nightclub. She has torn her dress, and waits for a friend to bring her a replacement. Once that crisis is averted, she joins a student party. She chats to friends. She dances a little. She meets an attractive young man, and they decide to leave the club for an evening walk. The second time we see Mariam she is running full pelt down a road. Her make-up is streaked. Her hair is in disarray. She has been sexually assaulted.

Beauty and the Dogs is not a film you are likely to want to see, but at the same time it is a movie that you absolutely should track down and watch. It is a beautifully crafted film drama with a stylish affectation. Its performances are excellent. Its screenplay is very well put together. It is also a film about a woman who has been raped, and about the immediate aftermath of her assault.

It is a tough subject for any feature film to focus upon, and scene by scene it presents a harrowing experience. It is important for filmmakers to present stories like Mariam’s. It is important for us to watch them. Sexual assault is real and highly prevalent. Beauty and the Dogs loosely adapts a real-life assault that took place in Tunisia. While some of us may watch the film and partly dismiss Mariam’s experience as one of another culture and country, the truth is that a lot of the overwhelming challenges she faces – the disgrace, the scepticism, the slut-shaming – applies just as effectively to the USA, or the United Kingdom, or Australia.

Beauty and the Dogs never shows us Mariam’s assault. The film is boldly structured into nine lengthy scenes, each numbered on-screen and each presented in a single uninterrupted take. By the second scene she has already been raped by two police officers, and the remaining seven scenes take us through her seemingly Sisyphean effort to have the two officers charged and arrested. The fact is the audience does not need to see Mariam be assaulted, and by excising such a scene director Kaouther Ben Hania relies upon Mariam Al Farjani’s exceptionally powerful performance to sell the trauma. She does so with tremendous sensitivity and passion; it is one of the finest screen performances of the year thus far. Ghanem Zrelli is also very effective as Youssef, the attractive man who took a walk with her in the first place and now admirably goes to extreme lengths to help and support her.

Mariam’s journey is practically Kafka-esque. She lost her purse and ID card during the assault, so a local clinic refuses to examine her without identification. She tries at a public hospital, but they cannot proceed without the proper paperwork from the local police station – the same station whose officers just assaulted her. On it goes, bringing in not only a nightmarish bureaucracy that treats victims as if they are the guilty party but also a particularly fragile society still reeling from a nation-wide popular revolution. While the parallels are drawn between the assault of a woman by the police and the assault on an entire nation by its government, Ben Hania is wise to keep the focus permanently and sympathetically on Miriam.

This is a hard, dark journey, but it is also a very important film. It tells a story that needs to be told. It opens wounds so that we can interrogate them and acknowledge their existence. Technically and artistically it is tremendous. Its central performance is superb. Sometimes it is important to watch difficult films. Beauty and the Dogs makes that task an awful lot easier on the viewer, by virtue of being hands down one of the finest film dramas of the year.

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Boy on the Bridge

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This Cypriot film exposes dark themes that are not evident at first, as our attention is diverted to the mischievous 12-year-old boy, Socrates. The coming-of-age drama is set in the 1980s in a small mountain village. Though appearing to be rather innocent at first, the tight-knit village conceals dark secrets hidden below the surface.

Boy on the Bridge follows Socrates, whose summer of tormenting the locals is disrupted forever when he finds himself involved in a murder. Much like Stand by Me, as the story progresses, the plot thickens, exposing much darker family secrets. Growing up in the small village seemed frustrating at first, but Socrates’ life is about to change forever.

The foundation of Petros Charalambrous’ first feature film is drawn from Eve Makis’ 2008 book The Land of the Golden Apple, “Life had lost sweetness. Socrates felt as if he had eaten the accursed apple and was like Adam, suddenly prone to emotions he has never before experienced – fear, loneliness and shame”.

The period setting and detail provides a crucial sense of place. Recreating the atmosphere of the 1980s is aided by the village the film was shot in, which has maintained its integrity, almost as if it hasn’t aged in more than 30 years. Charalambrous captures the time period, not only through set design, but also dialogue (the use of subtitles) and location design. An integral element is the bridge, one of the primary locations of the film; as a coming of age film, the bridge represents the transition from boyhood to manhood.

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The Butterfly Tree (MIFF)

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Following the death of his mother, 13 year-old Fin (Ed Oxenbould) has retreated into a fantasy world of butterflies and other insects. Meanwhile his father Al (Ewen Leslie) drowns his sorrows in a sea of one-night stands and ill-advised short-term relationships. When Evelyn (Melissa George) moves into the neighbourhood to set up a new florist, she becomes the object of affection for both Fin and Al – and ultimately brings their own bitter conflict to the surface.

The Butterfly Tree is a new Australian drama, marking the feature debut of director Priscilla Cameron. It is a bold and promising work, rich in imagery and led by uniformly strong performances. The visuals are the most arresting aspect of the film, grabbing the eye with a bold use of colour and occasional sequences of magical realism. Fin’s dream world is rendered very effectively with a combination of live-action and animation. Many directors seem afraid of using colour. Cameron is absolutely not one of them, and despite its limited budget this is one of the most eye-catching and beautiful Australian films in in some time.

The film’s narrative has a pleasing intimacy to it, effectively working as a four-hander. As Fin, Ed Oxenbould delivers a very strong performance. He expresses the most awkward sort of teenage sexuality and frustration, as well as a badly buried grief and rage over his mother’s death. Fin undeniably makes very poor choices over the course of the film, but it is Oxenbould’s acting that ensures he remains sympathetic and ultimately very easy to identify with.

Melissa George gives her career-best as Evelyn, who seems almost an unrealistic romantic fantasy at first before the film digs a little deeper and reveals the real person underneath the surface. She is a particularly well-crafted character, and George is equally strong in both the romantic and the more grounded scenes. Her character grows in importance as the film develops, which is a very good thing. She may start as the pointy-end of an odd love triangle, but by the film’s conclusion she absolutely has her own central role.

The cast is rounded out by Ewen Leslie, one of Australia’s most reliable and watchable actors, and Sophie Lowe, who plays Shelley: Al’s latest and most inappropriate girlfriend so far. In many respects Lowe is burdened with a stereotypical character – the evil ex-girlfriend – but thankfully Cameron does provide her with a few key moments in which a more rounded and believable character emerges. For his own part Leslie is excellent, and like Oxenbould develops an identifiable and sympathetic character despite his own poor choices and behaviour.

If there is a key drawback to the film it is that the screenplay relies a little too heavily on well-worn territory, with plot elements that have been run over and over again in countless previous dramas. The treatment of those elements is rarely short of excellent, however they do create a slightly unwelcome familiarity as the film goes on. In the end it is not the story that viewers are likely to remember: instead it will be the strong performances, and particularly the engaging and memorable visual images. This film may be narratively unadventurous, but it is aesthetically wonderful.

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Ghost in the Mountains (MIFF)

Festival, Review, This Week 1 Comment

Lao Liu returns to his home in Yunan province for the first time in many years. The town is all but abandoned now: of his friends only A Jie still lives there. An ex-girlfriend is by chance passing through on her way back to Shenzen to get married. With no children left to teach, Lao’s old school teacher has moved up to the mountains to become a monk.

Ghost in the Mountains, from Chinese director Yang Heng, is an enormously frustrating film through which to sit. It is intelligently plotted, and deals with a very powerful theme in contemporary China – the rural-to-urban migration, and what it does to the small communities that get almost entirely vacated by residents seeking a better life. It also makes tremendous use of its vividly green, misty landscape. It is also structurally quite inventive, telling its story through a series of incredibly long, slow takes. It is filled with prolonged moments of silence that stretch out to a meditative degree.

While there is certainly plenty to admire, actually sitting through the film from beginning to end proves a challenge. It is slow: really slow, of such an interminable length and pace that it simply stretches patience beyond breaking point. It is also incredibly repetitive. Scenes open in silence, eventually revealing two characters sitting or standing together. Inevitably they will light cigarettes and begin smoking. At some point, halfway through a long and sparse conversation, somebody’s mobile phone will ring and they’ll excuse themselves to take the call. So despite it being fair to describe Ghost in the Mountains as a clever and thoughtfully composed arthouse drama, it is also just as fair to describe it as two hours and fifteen minutes of bored Chinese people lighting cigarettes.

It is nominally a crime film, although it takes a ridiculously long time to build up to the central crime. At some point in the middle of the film it becomes clear that the first lengthy scene takes place after the bulk of the story, and that the viewer has been watching a flashback. Once the story actually catches up to and then moves beyond that critical scene, the film actually picks up to some extent with a small amount of drama and a fitful line in absurd comedy. It does not last. The film ends on a fairly dull, unsatisfactory note.

It is difficult to judge the cast’s performances because they have so little to do. Like most independent Chinese dramas it does away with a musical score entirely. The photography is inarguably beautiful, and given the lack of action in most scenes it is often easiest to simply turn off and soak in the slightly unsettling atmosphere. There is a growing fan base for ‘slow cinema’ that may find an enormous amount of worth in Ghost in the Mountains. It is definitely a film crafted by talented people. It is also such a chore. It makes you work very, very hard for what is ultimately a rather small amount of entertainment.