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Entries in MIFF (5)

Monday
Aug082016

THE ISLAND FUNERAL

Stars: Heen Sasithorn, Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk, Yossawat Sittiwong, Pattanapong Sriboonrueang, Kiatsuda Piromya, Anake Srimor and Wanlop Rungkamjad.
Writers: Pimpaka Towira and Kong Rithdee.
Director: Pimpaka Towira.

Reviewed at Melbourne International Film Festival; screened Sunday August 7 at Palace Kino Cinemas, Melbourne.

Rating: 4/5

A character-driven road movie slyly disguising a powerful allegory for Thailand’s shifting, violent socio-religious framework, The Island Funeral signifies a triumphant return to feature narratives for Pimpaka Towira. After more than a decade navigating strictly monitored censorship guidelines via short film and documentary works, the auteur has delivered arguably her best longform film, a thoughtful, challenging and evocative arthouse moodpiece.

The central protagonist of the script penned by Towira and esteemed Thai film critic Kong Rithdee is Laila, a modern, determined Thai woman of Muslim faith, despite no outward, day-to-day acknowledgement of her beliefs. Her soulful strength yet composed presence is captured beautifully in an award worthy performance by the compelling Heen Sasithorn, a future superstar of international cinema.

Laila is led astray by her travelling companions, mopey brother Zugood (Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk) and his college roommate, Toy (Yossawat Sittiwong), as they meander south through Pattani, a region of Islamic resistance. Their plan is to eventually reconnect with her Aunty Zainub. an almost-mythic family figure in the remote township of Al-kaf. Towira deftly conveys the risk connected with journeying through a country in conflict - radio broadcasts offer coverage of rebel bomb attacks; armed soldiers patrol (in menacing slow motion) jungles and abandoned buildings in seemingly random inserts; Toy grows fearful that his non-Muslim beliefs will ultimately prove fatal.

The spectre of the unknown and a general unease soon permeates the trip when Laila, driving late into a stormy night, swears she sees a chain-clad, naked woman run in front of the car. Increasingly disoriented and their modern devices useless (mobiles cease working; none of the group can read a map), they are forced to reconnect with humanity via a chance meeting with local motorcyclist Surin (a charismatic Pattanapong Sriboonrueang). His enigmatic demeanour aside, Surin proves invaluable, leading them to their increasingly mysterious destination, an island only accessible by a lone boatman (Kiatsuda Piromaya, his presence further enhancing the understated paranormal atmosphere).

A utopia of sorts described by the matriarch as being “neither a part of Thailand, nor beyond it”, Towira and her longterm DOP Phuttiphong Aroonpheng (shooting on 16mm) highlight the fractured reality of Al-kaf with stunning camerawork; long, languid, dialogue-free passages capture the trio’s journey along estuaries and through thick undergrowth until the village emerges from the darkness, lit by flickering torches and intermittent surges of generator power. Aunty Zainub (Kiatsuda Piromya) proves a soothsayer of profound wisdom, engaging with her niece on matters of personal freedom, nationalism and the idealistic hopes.

There is no convenient conclusion to The Island Funeral; the didactic narrative, which veers effortlessly into a dream-state, almost non-linear realm does not lend itself to a pat denouement. Instead, Towira offers a thoughtful lament; a muted, meditative plea for her nation to cling to an ancestral spirituality in spite of a future led by those that try to deny it. The Island Funeral is a film in which a woman strives to restore faith and bring understanding through respect for the past; in modern Thailand, that constitutes a subversively confronting notion.

Friday
Aug052016

KILLING GROUND

Stars: Aaron Pederson, Aaron Glenane, Harriet Dyer, Ian Meadows, Tiarnie Coupland, Maya Stange, Julian Garner, Liam Parkes, Riley Parkes and Stephen Hunter.
Writer/director: Damien Power.

Reviewed at the World Premiere screening, Thursday August 4, presented by the Melbourne International Film Festival at Hoyts Melbourne Central.

Rating: 4/5

Damien Power’s brutal bushland nerve-shredder Killing Ground can rightfully sit alongside such dark kindred spirits as Wolf Creek and The Long Weekend in the annals of Aussie genre infamy. Bolstered by revelatory star turns from Aaron Pedersen and Aaron Glenane as the latest ute-drivin’, pig-shootin’ incarnations of the Australian male’s primal, predatory id, Power’s skilfully crafted feature debut demands global exposure beyond genre fests and midnight showings.

The young director both embraces and deconstructs a myriad of familiar ‘bad ol’ boys’ tropes, the likes of which rankle detractors who argue that such stereotypical characters demean the country folk portrayed in ‘hillbilly horror’ works likes Deliverance, Straw Dogs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or, as recently as 2015, Sam Curtain’s similarly-plotted Aussie shocker, Blood Hunt. Regardless of such intellectualising (which is not without merit), there is no denying that this vivid, slow-burn reworking of a well-worn conceit is engrossing and, in at least one extended sequence certain to be examined frame-by-frame by censorship authorities, not for the weak of constitution.

Most thrillingly, Power and his virtuoso editor Katie Flaxman apply a complex narrative device that allows for interweaving storylines to span two distinct chronologies only hours apart. The foreboding sense of inevitable horror that permeates the first two acts of the auteur’s self-penned script works at such a pulsating pitch, it can’t possibly be sustained through to the more conventional but no less riveting denouement; for the faint of heart, that may not be such a bad thing.

The set-up is Horror 101; a young couple - Sam (Harriet Dyer), a doe-eyed twenty-something smitten with her upwardly mobile doctor bf, Ian (Ian Meadows) - indulge in a romantic getaway off a tourist trail in the Australian bush. Staking their claim on a riverbank clearing, they are resigned to sharing the spot with a big orange tent but, as their first night becomes a new day and there are no signs of their fellow adventurers, concern mounts.

Power begins his crosscutting of timeframes nonchalantly, introducing the missing family unit of troubled teen Em (a terrific Tiarnie Coupland), mum Margaret (Maya Stange), cool dad Rob (Julian Garner) and toddler Ollie (Liam and Riley Parkes, sharing the call-sheet). As Sam and Ian become entwined in the mystery of the empty tent, the fate of the young family unfolds at the hands of charming sociopath German (Pederson, giving his all in a thrilling, against-type performance) and Chook (Glennane, arcing his ‘simple man’ archetype from dimwitted follower to coldblooded killer with an agonising intensity). The actors are superb in roles that recall David Argue's and Chris Haywood's moronic, murderous mates in Russell Mulcahy's Razorback, minus the tension-relieving buffonery. When the timelines converge, the narrative is powered by a relentless momentum that essentially doubles-down on the 'final girl' plight synonymous with the genre. 

Displaying a entirely appropriate confidence in his material, Power takes time building character detail and a convincing sense of time and place, which may frustrate gorehounds who like their bloodletting upfront. But the patience the director displays adheres to the traditions of the best of B-cinema (especially the slasher pic heyday of the early '80s) and ensures audience empathy is peaking just as the nasty business kicks in. The cinematic heritage of great grindhouse works is also embraced by ace cinematographer Simon Chapman (Cut Snake, 2014; The Loved Ones, 2009), who captures the wilderness with stark, superb widescreen lensing before getting down and dirty, both figuratively and literally, in the third reel darkness. 

Monday
Aug012016

MONSIEUR MAYONNAISE

Featuring: Philippe Mora, Mirka Mora.
Director: Trevor Graham.

Rating: 4/5

The connectivity of memory, legacy and family is defined with a playful yet profound dexterity in Trevor Graham’s soulful, inspiring documentary, Monsieur Mayonnaise. A portrait of the immigrant experience that is both uniquely personal yet deeply honourable to a generation of ‘new Australians’, Graham’s account of filmmaker Philippe Mora’s search for insight into his parent’s journey from Nazi-occupied Europe to the suburbs of Melbourne deftly encompasses such diverse human experience as the creation of art, the horrors of genocide and the delights of condiment preparation.

Revisiting the same ties that bind the nourishing goodness of food with mankind’s appetite for self-destruction that he examined in his offbeat 2012 crowdpleaser, Make Hummus Not War, Graham has found a willing and compelling cinematic soulmate in Mora. The LA-based expat has embraced a new creative outlet as a graphic novel artist and painter, his broad brush strokes and bold colours recalling the aesthetic that he applied to much of his film oeuvre, several of which are legitimate and beloved cult items (Mad Dog Morgan, 1976; The Return of Captain Invincible, 1983; The Howling II, 1985; Howling 3: The Marsupials, 1987; Communion, 1989).

Graham’s camera travels with Mora to the Melbourne home of his vibrant octogenarian mum, Mirka, a prominent figure for over half a century in the southern capital’s artistic community. Central to their reconnecting is the legacy left by Mora’s late father George, which begins as a warmhearted and mouthwatering recounting of his skill in the kitchen (hinting at but not fully divulging the meaning of the title) before revealing a vast backstory set against the Nazi occupation of Paris and the role George played as the extermination of his people took place around him.

Employing a structure not dissimilar to that which has well served the heritage-themed TV concept ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, Mora’s journey of discovery proves a revelatory experience for both the subject and the audience alike. Having jetted into Paris, Mora travels deep into the countryside of Europe to visit people and places that forged his father’s destiny and the continent’s dark past. The horrors that befell the Jewish people during Hitler’s reign are afforded yet another chilling perspective when Mora finds a museum that honours the hundreds of children lost during the Holocaust, an unforgettable moment that becomes central to a moving final-reel reveal.

As he peels away the layers of family history, Mora also documents his experience on canvas, allowing the film to capture how the events that impact the artist impact his art. It is a meta-rich device that mirrors the experience of the documentarian, forming a triumvirate between the subject, the filmmaker and the audience that transcends the inherent objectivity of the documentary format. Most potently, it imbues the project with a personality and pulse every bit as vibrant and engaging as both Philippe Mora himself and the heritage he yearns to uncover.

Monday
Aug102015

7 CHINESE BROTHERS

Stars: Jason Schwartzman, Tunde Adebimpe, Eleanore Pienta, Olympia Dukakis, Jimmy Gonzales, Stephen Root, Alex Karpovsky, Jonathan Togo and Alex Ross Perry.
Writer/Director: Bob Byington

Watch the trailer here.

Rating: 4/5

Exactly the kind of outsider odyssey that Jason Schwartzman seemed destined to headline, Bob Byington’s ambiguously titled 7 Chinese Brothers is a sweet, slyly incisive tale of an unambitious man-child facing up to reality on his own terms. As Larry, the Austin, Texas outsider whose foppish hair, uneven stubble and left-field charm underpin his social-outcast status, Schwartzman once again proves an immensely likable screen presence.

Only revealing the truth of his lonely existence when laying on his old couch with his beloved dog, Arrow (the actor’s real-life pet and scene-stealing co-lead), Larry protects himself from the responsibilities of the world by keeping humanity, in all its forms, at arm’s length. Whether coping with the resentment of being sacked for stealing booze, sensing romantic longing for his new boss, Lupe (Eleanore Pienta) or facing the mortality of his only living relative, his grandma (Olympia Dukakis), Larry’s brazen goofishness and quick wit helps him through most of what life has to offer.

As the cards dealt by destiny force Larry to reassess his outlook, Byington’s screenplay forgoes the potential for life-lesson mawkishness and instead allows Schwartzman to minutely adjust Larry’s behaviour. The result is a film that honours the integrity of its lead character and the skill of its lead actor; the narrative, which stays just the right side of quirky, keeps sentimentality in check and provides a denouement that honours the legacy of the 90’s era slacker genre, from which it draws much of its personality.

In almost every scene, Schwartzman can bring the droll and the acerbic like few actors working today. Larry is clearly a deeply intelligent construct, riffing on small-scale philosophical dilemmas and human interaction when it strikes him. Yet his absurd indulgences, a boisterous mechanism by which he diffuses adult situations, are frequently hilarious; his ‘fat kid getting out of a pool’ bit is comedy gold.

It is interesting to ponder the notion that Larry is, in fact, the adult version of Max Fischer, Schwartzman’s iconic character from Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Had society never fully accepted Max’s vision and drive, Larry may be all that is left; self-assured but socially awkward, he is a man at a crossroad, one which leads to a life as either an interesting if misanthropic shut-in or fully-engaged, healthily cynical man determining his own unique path.

Saturday
Aug022014

ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS

Featuring: Michael Dudikoff, Lucinda Dickey, Richard Chamberlain, Catherine Mary Stewart, Cassandra Petersen, Robert Forster, Bo Derek, Alex Winter, Sybil Danning, Tobe Hooper, Adolfo Quinones (aka, Shabba-Doo), Sam Firstenberg and Gary Goddard.
Writer/director: Mark Hartley.

Screening at Melbourne International Film Festival on Saturday August 2 and Tuesday August 12. 

Rating: 4/5

Having chronicled Australia’s unhinged exploitation era in 2008’s Not Quite Hollywood and exposed the madness that was The Philippines film sector with 2010’s Machete Maidens Unleashed!, documentarian Mark Hartley now casts his highly-informed fanboy eye over Israeli-born cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus and their renegade 80s operation, Cannon Films, for his latest, long-in-gestation work, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films.

Hartley’s films play like wildly enthusiastic thesis submissions from the ultimate student of exploitation cinema. Suitably, the Australian director’s latest reveals a rich vein of excess and chutzpah that paints a picture of old-school operators steeped in shameless B-movie showmanship. More importantly, he also captures two individuals whose love for the cinema of old Hollywood fuelled their ruthless business acumen and boisterous egotism (perhaps explaining the presence of alpha-male moneymen James Packer and Brett Ratner, both on board as producers).

Golan and Globus emerged from an Israeli production community with a great deal of commercial credibility; their 1978 lowbrow teen romp, Lemon Popsicle, had become a domestic blockbuster and the pair became flush with cash. The more senior Golan had stars in his eyes and set about acquiring floundering outfit The Cannon Group, with an eye towards conquering the US marketplace and taking the world by storm.

Hartley’s parade of willing actors, executives and colleagues represents a major coup for the production (the likely contributing factor for the very long period between its inception and MIFF 2014 premiere). Each recall the heady days of Cannon Films ascendency, reminiscing with a mix of face-palming disbelief and warm-hearted sentiment, accompanied by a myriad of clips. Generation X-ers who spent weekends paying overpriced rental rates to watch Cannon ‘stars’ such as Lucinda Dickey, Michael Dudikoff and Catherine Mary Stewart will inevitably feel the glow of sentimental warmth upon seeing their aging heroes; serious film buffs will warm more to the likes of Franco Zeffirelli and Barbet Schroeder, who contributed some of Cannon’s more credentialed works (1986’s Otello and 1987’s Barfly, respectively).

Befitting a glimpse inside the ruthless world of B-movie maneuverings, there is some snark dished out to celebs who refused to be involved (in particular, a brash, young starlet named Sharon Stone) and on those who good-naturedly appeared on camera (Death Wish series director, the late Michael Winner, who acknowledges his occasionally prickly take on creative control). Largely anti-hagiographic, Hartley also rakes his subjects over the coals; in one hilarious montage, they are labelled all manner of insulting terms (both Golan and Globus refused to appear in the film, instead authorising their own bio doco, The Go-Go Boys).   

The film often focuses on Menahem Golan’s superb up-selling of dubious elements (the sad rehashing of Charles Bronson’s Death Wish franchise; the infamous Superman IV debacle; the pointless insertion of T&A) and the subsequent box-office fortunes. This approach largely sidelines the role that the VHS boom played in the company’s bottom line. Presumably, the global impact of the home video craze is a subject best saved for its own doco, but Hartley’s decision to focus on anecdotal making-of memories and “What was I thinking?” mock-remorse robs his film of some important contextual information.

Nevertheless, Electric Boogaloo (after Cannon’s famously misguided 1984 break-dancing sequel, although for no discernible reason) is an undeniably fun, insider look at the business of show. Mark Hartley’s factual films are a passionate collector’s take on the obsessive drive to be creative; whether it be low-budget Oz-ploitation practitioners, the insane fearlessness of Pinoy production methods or the battering-ram ambition of two Israeli showmen, the Australian director understands their motivation and affords them the respect and affection they deserve…and then some.  

(Note: The version reviewed was awaiting some final post-production elements. Due consideration has been given to its incomplete status).