Melbourne International Film Festival 2017: Week 2
In this 2nd report, Alex Lines reviews 12 of the films he saw at Melbourne International Film Festival; among them Lemon, Lucky and Insyriated.
Welcome to the second week of Melbourne International Film Festival reports! Week 2 has totally ramped up from last week, with an incredibly diverse of range of films from all over the globe. Diverting between four different cinema venues, interviewing directors (like Francis Lee and Luca Guadagnino) and finding my way around Melbourne’s public transport systems, it’s been an intense but rewarding week.
Here’s what I thought of Week 2’s offerings:
A Man of Integrity (Mohammad Rasoulof)
Winning the main prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes Film Festival this year, Mohammad Rasoulof’s angry damnation of political corruption is posed to be one of the juggernauts when it comes to foreign picture selections come awards time. Having dealt with an unjust judicial system himself, receiving a six year jail term for filming without a licence, Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity has a distinctive autobiographical feeling, with a concentrated rage pointed at the corrupt systems that unfortunately dominate most people. Whilst it is a definite slow-burner, it’s one that makes you feel the increasing hopelessness and anger that the protagonist, Reza (Reza Akhlaghirad), feels as he tries to serve justice to those who surely deserve it.
Set in Nothern Iran, Reza lives on his large fish harvesting farm with his teacher wife Hadis (Soudabeh Beizaee) and their young son. Their seemingly peaceful existence is shaken when “The Company” (a mysterious corporation that the film treats as intentionally ambiguous) tries to muscle Reza off his own land. These moves include an unjust jail sentence for Reza, the death of all of his fish and compounding his increasing financial troubles. Being a man who has his own strict moral code, Reza tries to solve these problems through legal avenues, but a series of corrupt and disinterested parties slowly force him to finally take other avenues if he wants to save himself and his family.
On a side-note, I will say that Reza Akhlaghirad has one of the greatest ‘pissed-off’ faces in cinema, a cold gaze that would intimidate any person, if only he had any form of authoritative power. Alongside him is an excellent performance by Soudabeh Beizaee as his wife Hadis. What could’ve been a throwaway role is actually surprisingly fleshed out, where Beizaee is given some real scenes to shine, to show that she is just as strong as her husband. Although the film takes a while to setup all its necessary plot elements and characters, the end result is quite satisfying, a sardonic punchline that is bound to (intentionally) frustrate and delight the audience.
Insyriated (Philippe Van Leeuw)
Throughout Insyriated (also known as In Syria), I carried the distinctive feeling that if this wasn’t already based off a play, it would work much better as one. Set within a single apartment in Syria during a 24-hour period, Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbas) and her extended family are the only occupants left in a deserted apartment building. They are trapped due to a bombardment of explosions, sniper fire and a series of aggressive male hunters who constantly stalk the family right outside their slowly decaying suite.
Yazan’s day starts off with the shocking news that Selim (Moustapha Al Kar), the boyfriend of Halima, Yazan’s neighbour and one of the occupants of her apartment, has left the building and might’ve been killed by an unknown sniper. Trying to keep a sense of familiarity and order within the claustrophobic apartment, the family’s day continues to get worse as outside forces to start to work their way into their space, as the bombing outside starts to intensify.
What starts off as a distressing examination into the depressingly real reality for the citizens of Syria and other war-torn countries, starts to have its true intentions shine halfway through. When the aggressive war criminals starts to enter Yazan’s apartment, the film presents its key moral dilemma: how far would you go to save your own family? Despite being asked in a brutal fashion, which involved being forced to witness one of the film’s key female characters completely degraded, it’s a situation that just feels manufactured and steers the film into melodramatic territory. We’ve been given the scenario already; a family, the last holdouts in a lone apartment building, try to stay alive, which is enough of a narrative foundation to build upon. The added subplot of Selim being killed is also an interestingly complex dilemma for the movie to chew upon as well.
Compounding this with the sexual assault and the moral question it carries just feels like adding another layer onto an already bleak framework, with it never actually feeling necessary to the plot at all – just to let you know that their situation really sucks. The thing is, any audience member, with any inkling on the situation in Syria, already knows this and the need to intensify it with a solid chunk of added sexual assault just feels distracting and redundant. It stops being about the family and the situation in Syria, and turns into a deeply depressing version of “What if?”. Great performances and solid cinematography help sell the draining realism, but the shift in narrative focus makes this one-location set drama actually feel too theatrical, a medium that would really allow the central moral dilemma have some room to breathe.
God’s Own Country (Francis Lee)
Released during the same year as Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Country is a film bound to be countlessly compared to Luca Guadagnino‘s sun-drenched romantic drama. It’s understandable, they’re both centered around a central queer romance between two men, done via the structure of the coming of age subgenre. They both portray queer relationships in a realistic, matter-of-fact fashion which presents them as an expression of understanding and love, rather than a tool of exploitation or treating homosexuality as a foreign concept to people. Where Francis Lee’s excellent directorial debut differentiates itself is in the story that he wants to tell, and how he uses the film’s unique location of Yorkshire to externalize the protagonist’s sense of alienation.
God’s Own Country is about Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor), a young sheep farmer who feels trapped working under his father’s thumb at their family farm. With his father crippled, Johnny’s physical and emotional commitments to making sure the farm stays afloat are compounded, a stress that Johnny expels through long nights of drinking and casual sex. When lamb season starts, his family hire Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu) a Romanian farmhand to help out. Whilst Johnny initially mistreats Gheorghe, they slowly develop a relationship that forces Johnny to confront his own thoughts on love, his life and what his future holds for him.
What makes Francis Lee’s film work is that you can tell Lee and the other production heads have put in a lot of genuine thought into the movie’s creation. Lee’s script feels authentic, avoiding the typical cliches of the romantic drama and trusting the audience to pick up the film’s carefully curated visual cues. The development between the central relationship feels organic and true to life, examining the mixture of anxiousness and happiness that are triggered when engaging in newly found love. The movie’s message is a universal one: Relationships are complicated, no matter who your partner is.
Alec Secareanu and Josh O’Connor really help sell the primary relationship, sharing genuine physical and emotional chemistry that really makes them an engaging couple to watch develop. The lack of traditional score (apart from the end, the only music used is diegetic) helps accentuate the naturalistic aesthetic, which is captured by a real intimate use of cinematography. Cinematographer Joshua James Richards keeps the camera close to his subjects, a move that gives a real tactile feeling to the farm’s grubby situation and the growing rapport between the two farmers.
Also pay attention to the film’s usage of lights, a considerate move that sees the visuals change as their relationship dynamic develops. An intelligent romantic drama that avoids all the cliches, God’s Own Country is definitely one of my favourites of the festival so far.
Thousand Cuts (Eric Valette)
After several days of watching a diverse range of slow-burning dramas, seeing Thousand Cuts (also named The Snake with a Thousand Cuts in some regions) was a refreshing change of pace. A French crime thriller from the director of the One Missed Call remake, Thousand Cuts differentiated itself immediately with just its opening line (a combination of extreme profanity that I cannot repeat here).
Le Motard (Tomer Sisley) is a man wanted by a lot of people. After escaping police custody, Motard intercepts a drug smuggling meeting held by a highly elusive South American cartel, killing all the members present. Due to being injured himself, Motard decides to hide in a nearby vineyard, which is owned by new owners Omar and Stephanie. Kidnapping Omar’s entire family, including their young daughter, Motard lays low, not realising his murder of the South American cartel members has set off a domino effect that sees multiple gangsters, policemen and racist neighbours descending upon the vineyard demanding justice.
Thousand Cuts is quite the ensemble piece, with every player involved – Omar’s family, the South American cartel, Motard, the racist neighbours and more, all receiving the same amount of attention. Whilst this avoids the common cliches of the hostage drama subgenre, it does feel quite overstuffed, especially when the central family and Motard disappear for large portions at a time. One hard thing about scriptwriting is the concept of spinning plates – after you’ve introduced all of the key elements of your film, as soon as they aren’t addressed or relevant to the central plot, they completely disappear, ceasing to exist in the film’s universe. Whilst all the elements converge in the end in a seemingly satisfying manner, the journey there sometimes felt eclectic and unbalanced.
Operating on the same level of narrowing chaos seen in Guy Ritchie’s early gangster films, Thousand Cuts ain’t a revolutionary film by any means, but does deliver some memorable sequences. Terence Yin as Tod, the South American cartel’s go-to clean-up man, single-handedly steals the film, a really terrific antagonist that is equally creepy and methodical in his murderous acts. His character is so interesting that he actually ends up overshadowing the rest of the cast, despite them all delivering solid performances. The action scenes are shot nice and cleanly (no shaky-cam here folks) and the movie doesn’t go for the typical climax which was a nice surprise. A thumbs up from me!
School Life (Neasa Ní Chianáin)
Much like its central married couple, Neasa Ní Chianáin’s School Life is a charming and heartwarming documentary. On a technical level, this movie is nothing revolutionary and some might find its casual nature frustrating, but Chianáin has enough faith in her material (which would’ve been 1000’s of hours worth) to speak for itself. In a very traditional fashion that suits the film’s aesthetics and subjects, School Life employs a cinéma vérité approach to her examination on the year in the life of Headfort, the only boarding school in Ireland.
Our protagonists are John and Amanda Leyden, a devoted couple whose lives revolve around the school and their teaching careers. With this being John’s 45th year in teaching, he’s a man who has seen it all, and it clearly shows. His incredibly thick sarcastic surface hides a genuinely caring and thoughtful gentleman, who, in some of the film’s more emotional moments, still displays his enthusiasm for teaching children.
His wife Amanda, the more outwardly positive of the two, believes in a more engaging and affirmative form of teaching her students, a method which seems to work in having the students actually learning something. Throughout their year of teaching, we see the natural day-to-day life that the teachers face, the trials and tribulations of the rowdy students, John’s efforts to reform the school’s garage rock band and the Leyden’s quiet realisation that in their advanced age, they can’t be doing this forever.
Due to the ridiculous amount of footage that Chianáin must’ve captured, the film does try to cram a lot of vague storylines and character moments in. The lack of a traditional documentary structure might lose interest with mainstream audiences, especially when Chianáin turns her attention to shifting social behaviours of some of the students. There’s enough hilarious quips and exclamations from the always sardonic John that keeps the film’s enchanting tone consistent, with Chianáin never trying to force an emotion from any scene. There’s no extended monologues, blaring music to force a tear or a laugh, which contributes to its charmingly authentic tone.
A celebration of the importance of teachers and putting faith into the next generation of kids, School Life is quite the pleasing little documentary.
Western (Valeska Grisebach)
Watching Western is like watching a child building a half-assed sand castle. You watch as they form the foundations, and instead of trying to build an architecturally sturdy castle, they just slop more sand on-top till they get bored and walk away. Western is the definitive slow-burn drama, one which sets up an interesting premise, characters and locations, but then keeps adding new plot elements until at some point the film stops and the credits begin. With zero sense of escalation or drive to a conclusive climax, Western feels meandering and stilted, a genuinely monotonous experience as not much happens over the course of two hours.
Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is the newest member of a group of German construction members who are working in a Bulgarian job site. The construction people’s cocky attitude and mistreatment of the Bulgarian’s villages females immediately cause tension between the two cultures, but Meinhard disregards this and makes himself friendly with the villages eclectic members. After finding one of his horses, Meinhard becomes good friends with Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), a friendship that causes some mistrust with his fellow construction associates.
Get prepared for a whole bunch of scenes of Meinhard standing alone smoking, or having polite conversations with other villagers. To say the film is slow is an understatement and thanks to the lack of narrative focus or real traditional storytelling, this is one strictly for arthouse audiences. The film’s major underlying theme of finding bonds and friendships with people despite language barriers, is perfectly fine (and quite poignant), but Western seems much more interested in playing around with the tropes of its titular genre – the American Western.
Imagery such as the unknown stranger (Meinhard) riding into town on a horse is meant to act as a modern reinterpretation of the stereotypical Western trope, whilst accentuating the movie’s deconstruction of the dangers of masculinity, but it never feels fully integrated into the film’s overall construction. This subversion of American Western resources is also meant to contribute towards the feeling that the culture clash between the two main feuding parties is going to climax in some form of showdown, but the film forgoes any form of third act. Some might see this ending as a disruption of those established elements, but it doesn’t prevent a feeling of extreme dissatisfaction, especially after such a timid two-hour build-up.
The Teacher (Jan Hrebejk)
Much like A Man of Integrity, Jan Hrebejk’s The Teacher is an irritated strike against political corruption and the various influences and decisions that let these broken systems continue functioning. What A Man of Integrity had in moral ambiguity and a subtle build in tension, The Teacher plays its message pretty clearly, in a way that makes its thematic and narrative content very predictable and painfully obvious. Despite a great main performance by Zuzana Mauréry, The Teacher pounds you over the head with its messages until you want to scream at the cinema screen: “Yeah, I get it already!”
Within a Slovakian primary school in 1983, new teacher Mária Drazdechová (Zuzana Mauréry) immediately makes her intentions known – in order to get good grades in her class, her parents and students will have to perform various favours for her. Whilst never quite saying it, those who oppose to her blackmailing are subjected to poor grades and mistreatment in the classroom. When an aspiring gymnast student attempts suicide due to her parents not complying, an emergency meeting with all the student’s parents is held.
The decision is up to them – do they stand up to this teacher and possibly ruin their children’s education or do they let things be, keeping the corrupt status quo? Despite setting itself up as a 12 Angry Men-type of claustrophobic conversation between opposing viewpoints, the film instead switches between two different timelines. The first is the emergency meeting with the parents, and the other one is expanding on some of the experiences the adults have had with Drazdechová, all the events that lead to the attempted suicide.
Even though the premise presents this moral quandary, it never actually lets the characters on-screen have a discussion about it. As they’re seated within a classroom, the imagery suggests the adults will diminish to a youth-like sensibility in their new setting, but this is only explored through a single moment late in the film. Instead, much of the running time is dedicated to highlighting the deceitful and hateful nature of the titular teacher, as she slowly forces the different parents to do her bidding.
Despite all these scenes, she isn’t given much depth or real development, and it’s painfully obvious that she is just a representation for the film’s political themes, rather than a fully-fleshed out character. A predictably eye-rolling ending doesn’t give much relief to this frustrating drama, one that simply says: “we should do something about corrupt systems I guess”.
Lucky (John Carroll Lynch)
Lucky reaffirms one thing – Harry Dean Stanton is just one of America’s best character actors. One of the men who defines the term ‘character actor’, Stanton has always given interesting performances in all different types of cinema, whether it be Brett in the original Alien, Bud in Repo Man, the protagonist Travis in Paris, Texas, to even recently in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks revival. If I were to recommend an underrated Stanton performance, I’d say check out his select scenes in John Frankenheimer’s The Fourth War, where he delivers a single monologue that makes the whole film worth watching. Despite touching on the existential themes of growing older, death and legacies, Lucky actually feels more like a celebration of the idea of the ‘character actor’, especially when it’s directed by another one – John Carroll Lynch.
A sardonic look at morality and confronting the unavoidable fate of death, Lucky follows Harry Dean Stanton as the titular character, a man who operates a diet of several cigarette cartons and a daily dose of walking that would put any modern man to shame. His very structural life, built on a dangerous recipe that has seemingly kept him alive much longer than his contemporaries, is disrupted when Howard (David Lynch, who is always a joy to watch in front of the camera), Lucky’s old friend and drinking buddy, enlists his help to find his missing pet turtle.
This is not a film for everyone, as the basic narrative threads drag on pretty slowly and the wacky aesthetics, part of the idiosyncratic world that Carroll Lynch introduces to us, might be too quirky for some. Much like the sadly generic The Hero earlier this year, a Western-themed movie which was a tribute to a beloved character actor (Sam Elliot in that case), Lucky is a genuinely endearing reflection of a type of man and actor, that is slowly fading from this world.
The Last Family (Jan P. Matuszynski)
Last year, I wrote an article debating the role truth plays in cinematic biopics. All film is inherently fiction, but it’s choosing where to draw the line on how much of the film draws from real events and what else is inserted for narrative purposes, that can really affect how the final project turns out. The Last Family, Jan P. Matuszynski’s dramatic biopic on the life of renowned Polish painter Zdzislaw Beksinski, is a movie that only functions because it is based on true events. As a film separated from fact, it’s a pretty plodding and disconnected series of events, a depressing disintegration of the family unit with the solemn Zdzislaw stuck in the middle.
Instead of focusing on Zdzislaw’s surrealistic painting career, Matuszynski has instead turned his attention to his dysfunctional family unit, capturing their decaying dynamics from 1977-2005. Set primarily within Zdzislaw and his son’s dual apartment complexes, two opposingly dull structures that merely exist together, much like the father and son who occupy them. During these 28 years, we witness Zdzislaw’s obsession with capturing memories via technology, the constant suffering of Zdzislaw’s poor wife Zofia (Aleksandra Konieczna) and Tomasz’ (Dawid Ogrodnik) frequent emotional problems, which includes his many suicide attempts and violent outbursts at his parents.
The absolute worst biopics are the ones that are just visual translations of the chosen topics’ Wikipedia page. A step-by-step walkthrough of the person’s life is always unsatisfying, with those filmmakers not realising that the best biopics extrapolate on events that are undocumented, experiment with these established characters in unseen environments or feature new or interesting visual translations of the key biographical stories. The Last Family unfortunately tries to do both, ignoring the gradual evolution of Zdzislaw’s art career, but instead replacing this with showing us random events from his family’s life.
Kacper Fertacz’s cinematography is frequently cold but striking and despite its claustrophobic settings, Fertacz manages to pull off some really desolate imagery that’s surprisingly quite stunning. Most of the acting, especially from Andrzej Seweryn as the ageing matriarch, is quite solid, with my only note of issue being Dawid Ogrodnik as Zdzislaw’s disturbed son Tomasz. Without knowing anything about the actual man he’s playing (he might’ve been like this in reality), Dawid Ogrodnik is played in such an exaggerated fashion that he becomes irritatingly distracting. Frequently gyrating and playing the role like he’s in a comedy, Ogrodnik takes a potentially nuanced character and makes him an annoying caricature, despite his visual similarities to the actual Tomasz. To put it finally: Ogrodnik acts the same way Peter Garrett dances.
For those who don’t know the full story behind the fates of the Beksinski family members, I’d advise to avoid any knowledge before entering this film. Some of the movie’s most remarkable moments are taken straight from real life, especially the outrageous (but unfortunately real) ending. Despite its accuracy, these moments never really come together though, coming across like a recap of a great six season TV series. Funnily enough, this really does feel like a two hour Polish version of the Six Feet Under series finale, however appealing that sounds to you.
The Nile Hilton Incident (Tarik Saleh)
Remember Chinatown? Like always, whenever a seminal film emerges within a genre, you will always find hundreds of imitators, some which take visual and narrative cues from the original ground-breaking success. Roman Polanski’s hugely influential noir tale came out in 1974, and people are still stealing from it, evident in Tarik Saleh’s solid but sadly generic cop tale The Nile Hilton Incident. Just stating the initial premise should immediately make you think about a range of other similar-sounding titles and unfortunately, this Egyptian-set Swedish thriller does absolutely nothing to set itself apart from the movies that it quite liberally borrows from.
Set days before the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, Noredin Mostafa (Fares Fares) is a brash corrupt cop working the streets of Egypt, taking protection bribes from any shopkeeper unfortunate enough to cross his path. Mostafa is not on his own though, with his entire police force being driven by corruption and greed, fueled by a system of bribery and kissing the right asses. When a part-time singer winds up dead within the titular Nile Hilton hotel, the cops and other mysterious figures are pretty quick to dismiss it as a suicide – despite her slit throat saying something different. Not wanting to let justice go undone, Mostafa decides to single-handedly solve the case himself, which sees him confronting the same deceptions and misconduct that he’s operated his whole career on.
Just detailing the film’s plot showcases one of its major problems – Mostafa is such a bland, shallow character that we don’t really care, or understand, why he chooses to undertake this particular case. Nothing about the victim, (other than she was attractive), seems to warrant Mostafa risking his own job and livelihood to exact justice for her murder. He’s not given enough of a distinctive personality or fleshed out motivations to give him any form of definably personality, making him feel more like a stand-in for the film’s thematic elements, a prop to identify the scripts’s true political themes.
Unfortunately, the characterisation of Mostafa is a primary representation for the rest of the film’s fundamental technical flaws. The narrative is annoyingly predictable, playing its hand way too early and ending on a note that anybody that has seen Chinatown before can see coming a mile away. It shares the same aesthetics of a daytime television drama, thanks to its flat lighting and handheld photography that attempts to add a level of perceived intensity and realism to the unfolding drama. The Nile Hilton Incident is definitely watchable, but it’s so mechanically generic that it simply exists as a trivial piece of disposable cinema.
Lemon (Janicza Bravo)
Let’s get this out of the way – I hated Lemon so much. Sometimes when you watch a movie, you can just sense the mechanics of the film’s inception and production right away. Watching Cars 3, you can just see how each scene functions to add a new type of merchandise. Lighting McQueen covered in dirt? Well now we can make that into a new individual toy to sell!
I can just envision the creation of Lemon right now – a self-indulgent celebration of every trope associated with the newly dawn era of hipster cinema. Elements of hipster cinema include nostalgic aesthetics that are disconnected from thematic purposes, self-aware story-telling, stoic protagonists, a stronger focus on exploring visuals rather than structural narratives and comedies without jokes. Despite being labelled as a dramatic comedy, there’s never really a moment that warrants a laugh, only the occasional smirk or breath of air through the nose.
Detailing the plot to Lemon is useless. The script by director Janicza Bravo and her spouse Brett Gelman, who plays the lead role of Isaac, don’t care about implementing a standard plot. Under the guise of being a character study of a man who is slowly self-destructing due to being left by his blind girlfriend, Lemon is basically a series of episodic vignettes where Isaac enters a scenario, says a bunch of unrelated dialogue and other talented actors do something wacky. At some point after 78 minutes, the film ends and absolutely nothing is gained. This is obviously a passion project by Gelman and Bravo, a series of ideas they had written over time but no idea on how to actually connect them all.
This film operates on such a self-absorbed level of disconnect, that it feels like a parody of hipsters and the perceived notion of independent arthouse cinema. If it is, then well done. But without any form of winking or subversion of structure, it just screams “this is so cool”. Every frame, every irrelevant line of conversation, just has the infuriating quality of forced enthusiasm to create the perception of coolness. Instead it comes off as artificial, a counterfeit version of every stereotypical visual trope associated with the ‘hipster’ subgenre. I’d say Lemon is a real lemon, but I’m guessing that title was picked purely for its low-hanging fruit quality (mind the pun), it’d line up with the rest of the film’s self-aware intentions.
Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick)
For those who have become increasingly tired of Terrence Malick’s newly favoured cinematic style should steer clear of Voyage of Time. Screened in its truncated 45 minute version on the world’s largest Imax screen, Voyage of Time benefits from its lack of attachment to a traditional narrative. Even though Malick’s films have always featured a fascination with nature and man’s role within it, his post-2000 films have doubled-down on these themes, usually foregoing plots and characters in favour for stunning photography blended within experimental structures.
Song to Song and Knight of Cups have infuriated most critics, as Malick attempts to blend transcendent themes of spirituality, evolution of man, class privileges and the existential wrestle between mankind and the environment. With Voyage of Time, Malick is free to fully display these messages in an amazing array of space, animal and city landscape shots, a visual evolution that details how Earth became the planet it is today, and what it will become in the future.
Tethered together with a pacified narration by Brad Pitt, who interjects his voice in the images periodically, with statements like “Child, do you ever wonder how you got here?”. His intermediate voiceover isn’t bad, but also doesn’t feel necessary either, with the powerful images providing enough context to guide the film along. At 45 minutes, it genuinely feels compact and too short, but at the same time, I feel that a 90 minute version would’ve definitely outstayed its welcome and hurt its impact. Some of the nature sequences, including an awe-inspiring scenes of a pair of whales, look amazing, especially on Imax’s ridiculously huge canvas. Like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, this is one film that just won’t have the same impact being presented on an Ipad screen.
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