After 17 days and 300 films, the Melbourne International Film Festival finished up on Sunday night, and Melbourne breathed a collective sigh because holy balls that is a lot of films and some of us have jobs to do.
In much the same manner as for the Sydney Film Festival in June, we planted five film geeks — Mel Campbell, Stephanie Van Schilt, Briohny Doyle, James Robert Douglas and Amelia Schmidt – in various cinemas, to cover some of the most talked about films. Here’s what they thought.
The Film That Will Make You Cry And Be Angry At Life, And Cry Some More
Fruitvale Station, reviewed by Stephanie Van Schilt
Directed by: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer
Given the timeliness — considering the recent Trayvon Martin case — and the fact that this film is based on a true story, Fruitvale Station really stings. And with Wallace from The Wire playing the main man, of course it’s only going to break your heart (Where’s Wallace?!).
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Fruitvale Station follows the final day in the life of Bay Area resident Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan). Oscar is down on his luck but has a heart of gold, and is determined to change his ways. We watch him enjoying the company of friends and family, meeting up with strangers and loved ones until he is tragically killed by a BART police officer. Octavia Spencer gives yet another powerhouse performance as Oscar’s mother, and there’s hardly a moment that won’t leave a lump in your throat. Bring your tissues.
For fans of: Outrage
The Film That Will Make You Ashamed You Weren’t More Informed
Blackfish, reviewed by Amelia Schmidt
Directed by: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Following the story of an Icelandic whale called Tilikum who was involved in the death of Dawn Brancheau, an accomplished and experienced senior trailer at SeaWorld, Blackfish explores the plight of killer whales in captivity in marine parks. Knowing this coming in, I somewhat expected a film that explored the ‘killer’ in killer whales, shattering Free Willy perceptions and depicting orcas as nasty big monochrome meanies. What the film actually does is paint an utterly heartbreaking portrait of these majestic and frighteningly intelligent creatures, that are forcibly removed from their intensely bonded family units to be put in tiny enclosures and trained as show animals for the pleasure of a crowd.
I definitely cried and had to debrief with a stranger. We almost hugged. This is such an important documentary and a disturbing reminder, a la Grizzly Man, that humans have only a limited power to tame the wild animal world — and should really, really stop trying to do that.
For fans of: Grizzly Man, The Cove, animals in general.
The Film That Will Make Bitchy Backstabbing Stylish Again
Passion, reviewed by Mel Campbell
Directed by: Brian De Palma (Scarface, The Untouchables, Dressed To Kill, Carrie)
Starring: Rachel McAdams, Noomi Rapace
I kicked off my film festival viewing with this overwrought film noir, and it was a lot of fun. Compared to today’s dour corporate malfeasance and juvenile notions of ‘sexiness’, this erotic thriller feels delightfully retro. Corn-fed McAdams is basically Regina George on steroids: a psychopathic, power-hungry boss who sets out to terrorise and humiliate her mousy protégée (an uncharacteristically meek Rapace) for eclipsing her at work and stealing her boyfriend (Paul Anderson).
The director’s fans won’t be disappointed: there’s shamelessly corny, impressionistic camerawork, moody modernist sets, and a melodramatic soundtrack by De Palma regular Pino Donaggio. And so many delirious, was-it-all-a-dream twists! I clapped with delight at the end!
For fans of: Brian De Palma, early-’90s erotic thrillers like Basic Instinct, Disclosure and Single White Female, Panasonic smartphones, skivvies tucked into high pants.
The Film That Will Make You Want To Eat Mushrooms In A Field
A Field in England, reviewed by James Douglas
Directed by: Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, Kill List)
Starring: Reese Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Julian Barratt
Three cowards fleeing an English Civil War battlefield in search of a pub (so relatable) are ensnared under the power of a sadistic Irish alchemist, who forces them to dig for buried treasure, and ensures their compliance through firearms, magical powers, and a steady diet of psilocybin mushrooms. Half its cast (a.k.a. three people) is made up of underrated British comedy players (blink and you’ll miss Howard Moon), but although it’s plenty funny, Field is more interested in a tripped-out tone of madness.
The script (courtesy of Wheatley’s collaborator and partner Amy Jump) veers from salty lowbrow banter to scholastic speechifying, with a bit of occult horror and torture in between. Wheatley’s style is a nimble mish-mash: gorgeous, wide-screen black and white photography; elegantly choreographed long takes; musical interludes; even tableaux vivants, culminating in a hallucinatory climax of stroboscoped, kaleidoscopic collage. Epileptics beware.
For fans of: The Wicker Man (non-Cage version). The Seventh Seal. Enter the Void. Shakespeare, maybe.
The Film That Will Make You Want To (Re)Start A Riot
The Punk Singer, reviewed by Briohny Doyle
Directed by: Sini Anderson
The Punk Singer traces the career of Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, from art school, through the Bikini Kill years, and into the electro renaissance and the birth of feminist pop sensation Le Tigre. Composed mainly of excellent archival footage and to-camera interviews with rock royalty like Joan Jett and Kim Gordon, perhaps the most exciting part is Hanna’s own cogent analysis of her artistic trajectory. While her goals of promoting female empowerment and celebrating women drive her artistic momentum, she notes a change in register from Bikini Kill — where she was directing her voice to an oppressive male figure and inviting women to watch — to Le Tigre, formed when she decided to speak directly to women and uphold a positive message.
Through the film, we get a picture of Hanna’s life as one of unrelenting struggle: feminist struggle, artistic struggle, the struggle to continue amidst bad press and even death threats and then, eventually, the tragic irony of her struggle with late stage Lyme disease, which led to a hiatus from her performing career and an extended ordeal in seeking a diagnosis.
There’s something about Kathleen Hanna’s presence, even just on screen, that makes so many things seem possible again. A mainly female audience walked out of the cinema and back into the cold Melbourne night with faces lit by some tentative hope; the possibility that we may all, at any moment, have the capacity to change each other’s lives.
For fans of: Kathleen Hanna, basically.
The Film That Will Make You Want To Dance The Biglemoi And Then Cry
Mood Indigo/L’ecume Des Jours, reviewed by Amelia Schmidt
Directed by: Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind)
Starring: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Gad Elmaleh, Omar Sy
Unlike The Science of Sleep, where the dream world gradually seeps into the fabric of reality, Gondry’s surrealism is taken to sublime new heights in his latest film, where the dream is reality from the very beginning. Mood Indigo is set in a world where a tiny man in a mouse costume interacts with sunbeams as if they were ropes, while the lawyer who is a chef cooks dinner with the direct help of a TV chef who, at times, lives in the fridge. It’s a world where a pianocktail makes drinks mixed by melodies, and the biglemoi is a dance you do where your legs elongate like Dali giraffes.
It’s all fun and games until the tragedy unfolds: the storyline removes the colour from the screen and literally crushes the protagonists in a shrinking and disintegrating dream, which careens madly towards its inevitably doomed conclusion. You’ll hear the audience giggling and then slowly falling silent. Maybe not a first date film, but really beautiful nonetheless.
For fans of: The Science of Sleep, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Salvador Dali, dreaming, whimsicality.
The Film That Will Make You Think Twice About Your Pop-Culture Consumption
John Dies At The End, reviewed by Mel Campbell
Directed by: Don Coscarelli (Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep)
Starring: Chase Williamson, Rob Mayes, Paul Giamatti
The title isn’t a spoiler… well, not really. Based on the popular novel by David Wong (aka Cracked.com editor Jason Pargin) and packed full of pop-culture tidbits, this slacker horror-comedy is sort of like Bill And Ted meets Interview With The Vampire. Chase Williamson displays many delightful expressions of dismay as befuddled hero Dave, who relates his wacky adventures with his cocky — and possibly dead — buddy John (Rob Mayes) to journalist Paul Giamatti in a Chinese restaurant. They involve interdimensional travel, alien body-possession, an unusually talented dog, a girl with one hand (Fabianne Therese), a paranormal showman named Dr Albert Marconi (Clancy Brown), and a mysterious street drug known as ‘soy sauce’.
The humour is often sophomoric, but this is an energetic, stylish genre mash-up, from the director of Bubba Ho-Tep.
For fans of: David Cronenberg, Futurama, cute slacker wastrels, throwaway pop-culture references.
The Film That Will Make You Want To Get Drunk (And Befriend Olivia Wilde)
Drinking Buddies, reviewed by Stephanie Van Schilt
Directed by: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston
Ever since she stomped into my life as faux-rebel Alex in The O.C., I’ve never been partial to Olivia Wilde. After Drinking Buddies, I want to be her best friend. Wilde plays Kate who works at a Chicago Brewery with Luke (Jake Johnson, aka Nick from New Girl). Kate and Luke hang out together all the time: they drink (lots), flirt (heaps) and have some serious chemistry (undeniable). The only problem: they have partners.
Drinking Buddies is a light-hearted indie drama-comedy about friends, booze and sexual tension (and you know we’ve all been there). Props to the cast including Anna Kendrick (‘cos she’s always awesome) and Burger from Sex And The City (Ron Livingston), but mostly to Wilde who’s stunning as the puffy, bleary and practically makeup-less girl slamming down a cold one for breakfast. Good luck sitting through Drinking Buddies without wanting to get on it.
For fans of: Booze, sexual tension, Olivia Wilde
The Film That Will Paralyse You In Anticipation Of All Your Future Mistakes
The Past, reviewed by James Douglas
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi (About Elly, A Separation)
Starring: Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa
An Iranian man returns to Paris to finalise his divorce with his French wife, who ropes him into the uneasy role of mediator between herself, her rebellious daughter from a previous marriage, and her surly new partner, who is himself struggling under the weight of a marital crisis.
Farhadi’s family drama is articulated as a minefield of emotional betrayals. Things said and unsaid (or heard and unheard) hang around in the air, waiting to detonate relationships. In its second half, the film becomes something of a detective story. Someone has done great harm to themselves, but who said what — and where, and when — to that person to inspire such mental distress?
This is a calculated, writerly work, and it aims the audience straight at emotional anguish. But Farhadi has impeccable modulation. Even when the drama turns melodramatic, The Past still leaves a bruise.
For fans of: A Prophet. Cache. Chekhov, I guess.
The Movie That Will Stick With You, Even Though It’s A Film Festival And You Just Saw A Dozen Films In A Week
Stranger By The Lake, reviewed by Briohny Doyle
Directed by: Alain Guiraudie
Starring: Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d’Assumçao
A picturesque, French lakeside beat is the sole setting for Alain Guiraudie’s restrained thriller. Franck, a romantic and a sensualist, is looking for love as well as gratification when Michel, a tall and handsome moustachioed man catches his eye. Amidst the heady delights of commitment-free hook-ups in the forest, a warm and weighty love develops between the two, despite (or perhaps partly because of) Franck’s accidental witness of Michel’s capacity for cold-blooded violence.
Exquisitely crafted, the film makes use of its single location and repeated shots of the lake, the forest and the car park to build tension and construct a kind of liminal setting, working towards a murderous conclusion by way of an examination of romance, violence and notions of community. In a director’s Q&A after the screening, Guiraudie insisted that his film is not intended to be a critique of beat culture, but rather the notion of community in general; he highlights the importance of linking high-romantic sentiment with sexual activity in a culture dominated by pornography that cleaves the two.
For fans of: Haneke, or sex on screen
The Film That Will Make You Want To Watch Lots Of Other Films
The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology, reviewed by Amelia Schmidt
Directed by: Sophie Fiennes; presented by Slavoj Žižek
Žižek is a mad genius of the best kind, and possesses a pretty great sense of humour; The Pervert’s Guide sees him inserting himself into some of the most famous scenes of iconic films, as a means of analysis. Hang out with Žižek in the Korova milkbar, lying on Travis Bickle’s bed, sitting in the nun’s office from The Sound Of Music, or casually standing in the fishing boat from Jaws — and then be inspired to go and watch those films all over again.
Bringing cultural theory, political analysis, philosophy and funny together in one incredible crazy dream of amazingness which explores the meaning of ideology, The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology will blow your mind and leave you laughing. My favourite scene is his strange and also lovely cultural analysis of Kinder Surprise as a Lacanian l’objet petit a, a supplement to the emptiness of capitalist propaganda and a somehow perfect representation of the misleading power of ideology.
Let’s just hang out on the remains of the Titanic forever, Žižek — just you and me.
For fans of: The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Zizek!, film theory, Lacan, reading into things way too much.
The Film That Will Make You Listen Harder In Future
20 Feet From Stardom, reviewed by Mel Campbell
Directed by: Morgan Neville
Starring: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer
Much more than just celebrating under-sung heroes, this joyful, deftly assembled musical documentary is sensitive to the psychological and industrial reasons why some singers don’t break out as solo stars. It’s delightful to match faces and names to voices: Darlene Love was under Phil Spector’s thumb when she recorded ‘He’s A Rebel’; the Waters siblings have worked for Michael Jackson, and on film and TV themes; Merry Clayton (whom I knew for ‘Yes’, from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack) sang the fierce “it’s just a shot away” hook on the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’.
As well as being interviewed, the performers are filmed in full vocal flight. Lisa Fischer’s voice is especially gorgeous and supple; it seems a shame to bury her in the mix but, as she explains, there’s a satisfaction to be had in immersing oneself in a group to create something larger.
For fans of: soul, R&B, underdog stories, amazing weaves.
The Film That Will Drop Your Jaw
The Act Of Killing, reviewed by James Douglas
Directed by: Joshua Oppenheimer (These Places We’ve Learned to Call Home)
Starring: Real, actual mass murderers
Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer seeks out some of the death squad leaders behind the 1965-66 anti-Communist purge in Indonesia. He lets them film their own accounts of the mass killings in a variety of styles — war film, gangster noir, musical — and in the process hands them enough rope to damn themselves eternally.
Oppenheimer’s chief subjects — the grandfatherly Anwar Congo and his coarse sidekick Herman — are causa sui characters equal to any in the realm of fiction. Watch as Congo dances playfully on the site where he committed countless murders, or demonstrates his refined strangling technique, or acts in a musical number wherein his departed victims award him a medal for sending them to heaven.
But Oppenheimer’s film is not only a meditation on the nature of evil. As the bizarre logic of the situation unfolds — as we watch Congo watching himself reenacting his crimes onscreen — The Act of Killing becomes an investigation into the power of cinema itself.
For fans of: The Thin Blue Line. Grizzly Man. The Year of Living Dangerously. Possibly Euripides, even.
James Robert Douglas is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne. His work has been found in The Big Issue, Meanland, Screen Machine, and the Meanjin blog. He tweets from @anthroJRD
Amelia Schmidt is a writer, copywriter, web developer and web designer living in Melbourne. She’s interested in food, technology, sustainability, ethics, literature and film, among far too many other things. You can read her food blog here.
Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She is the founding editor of online pop-culture magazine The Enthusiast and the national film editor of the Thousands network of city guides. Her debut book, Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit, is out now.
Briohny Doyle writes about the apocalypse, and other stuff, in places like Going Down Swinging, Ampersand Magazine, The Lifted Brow and her blog Passion Pop Pistol. She is currently completing a PhD on the post-apocalyptic imagination. Her first novel, The Island Will Sink, is due out later this year through Hunter Publishers.