Sunday, July 29, 2007

MIFF report 1

Alright, some reviews from the Melbourne International Film Festival.


The opening night film of the festival saw maverick documentary maker ™ Michael Moore taking a change of pace by directing a dramatic feature blending thriller, horror and laugh-out-loud comedy. What’s more, he plays the central role of Dr. Gary Hamboner, a seriously demented M.D. with a penchant for bloody revenge! The Doctor is most definitely in!

After Hamboner’s wife (touchingly played by Brit darling Emma Thompson) dies on his own operating table, he is informed by a mysterious phone call (from Morgan Freeman) that her health insurance policy contains some “irregularities” that he should look into. It doesn’t take long before he discovers systematic corruption that goes all the way to the top – the insurance companies of the US are all about making profits, not saving lives. With the assistance of a sexy auditor (Catherine Zeta Jones), a former insurance assessor haunted by his past (Donald Sutherland) and a bumbling intern (the late John Candy, recreated through CGI manipulation of outtakes from Moore’s first feature, the Candy vehicle Canadian Bacon), Hamboner takes a scalpel to the people destroying America from within. As his ironically delivered, Arnie-like catchphrase goes: “Health care? More like Health KILL!” Alright, that could have done with a bit of work.

It’s violent, messy fun, but Moore knows well enough to lighten things along the way with plenty of pratfalls, a firefight at a monster truck rally and a French interlude that really makes you want to visit Paris. His usual grandstanding pontifications are there, of course, but not in the way which makes you want to check your private health cover. Subtle nods to other films including the Bourne series, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films and the works of Jacques Tati will keep the cinephiles content, while the rip-roaring pace of events will ensure that cineplexes are filled for at least several weeks.

Then again, like the film itself, this review has been pretty riddled with lies, overstatement, dramatic license and truth-twisting. There’s enough truth to make it worthwhile, however, and very enjoyable in any case. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. I’d go see the film I’d just reviewed, even if it isn’t Sicko. And I’d recommend Sicko, even if it’s not the film I just reviewed.


We’re only a few days in, but I’m willing to go out on a limb here and declare The Mourning Forest THE feelgood hit of the festival! That’s if you feel good watching old dudes falling over, since that’s pretty much the bulk of the movie. You’ve got the old dude falling into a puddle. At one point he actually falls out of a tree. All of this is just to set up your expectations for the bit where he looks like he’s about to fall over a log and… I don’t want to give it away.

Despite the inherent comic value in this string of scenarios, Japanese director Naomi Kawase takes the unusual option of making the film a drama. I’d pretty much be happy with a light-hearted romp through the woods as a grieving widower takes tumble after hilarious tumble, but Kawase knows that watching a really, really old fogey slipping on muddy paths isn’t enough to score the grand prize at Cannes, so we get some serious stuff thrown into the mix and oddly enough, it works well enough that not a single person laughed during the Funniest Home Video moments. In fact, this reviewer at least was terribly moved by the whole affair.

Machiko is a young girl who takes up a job in an old folks home in a lushly forested, mountainous area near Kansai. Her job seems to basically consist of hanging out with them, which suits her just fine because she’s doing some serious grieving at the mo after her little boy was killed (crossing the road, I think, but there’s this whole “crossing” theme going on in the flick which might just be metaphorical). One of the people she looks after is Shigeki, the really, really old guy who keeps falling over. I’ll give it to him, though – every time he hits the dirt he gets back up quick smart. He’s sort of the energiser bunny of mourning. That’s right, he’s grieving too. His wife died 33 years ago and he’s STILL hung up on it. Machiko cleverly realises that she could learn a thing or two about hard-core, never-ending grief from this guy and that following him on an epic journey to his wife’s grave is just the way to do it. I don’t really know if she realises that but she should have since that’s what follows.

A brief drive in the countryside is interrupted when Machiko’s car ends up in a draft, and the cheeky old codger goes AWOL while she’s off looking for help. When she finally finds him, it’s off on a trek to the top of a nearby mountain and lots of deep soul-searching and silent reflection and falling over along the way. I’ll let you know now – it’s a really, incredibly long walk. You can’t help but feel the overwhelming grief that motivates these central characters, and you mostly feel that grief in your buttocks. But it’s worth the voyage, since Kawase’s terribly nuanced direction, the verdant scenery (I’d forgotten how country Japan is truly greener than anywhere else I’ve seen) and an unforgettable performance by the old dude (Machiko is great too, though) make this film one of those understated, slow-burning films that you always feel a bit worried going in to but are nevertheless unmistakeably changed by during the viewing.


Aki Kaurismaki’s latest is to films about losers what Jaws is to films about sharks, ie it has a really big one in it. Like Spielberg’s blockbuster, too, the loser/shark at the centre is beset by a small group of hardy characters intent on his utter destruction. Of course, they don’t finally accomplish their aim by having Roy Scheider blow up an oxygen canister in our protagonist’s toothy maw, but what this film lacks in high-explosive Jabberjaw detonations it more than makes up for in homely mobster’s girlfriend department.

Grody molls, you say? Why are we only hearing about this now? Well shoot, I can’t go giving that stuff away too early or you’ll get the wrong impression about this flick. And anyway, the moll in question is only there to help ratchet up our hero’s life of misery a couple of notches. His name is Koistinen, a security guard who is laughed at by strangers, snubbed by his co-workers and given pitiful looks by dogs. I know, I know, you’re thinking that this is one of those Harry Potter affairs that almost completely fantastic and only bears any relation to reality on some vaguely metaphorical level. That’s probably because, like me, you’ve always been on the side of the winners, the movers and shakers, asserting yourself by trampling all over losers like Koistinen and laughing at the results. But that’s what cinema is all about, isn’t it? Imagining how the lives of such non-people might really be? I mean, that’s what makes it fiction, right?!

In an odd move, Kaurismaki doesn’t give us an obvious loser. Koistinen is a pretty good looking guy who wins you over pretty early, and you can’t understand why everyone – literally, everyone – treats him like an utter chump from the get-go. He’s a bit poor on the conversational skills but you get the feeling he’s arrived in a Big Brother-like world called “Everyone You Ever Meet Is a Dickhead”.

It’s classic film noir stuff. Koistinen, the eternal underdog, finally meets someone willing to treat him with some dignity. That’d be the gangster’s girl. She befriends him over coffee with condiments, by which I mean she slips him a mickey, steals his security guard stuff and sets him up for a burglary. Her mobster friends aren’t happy to let things rest with some loot, though, and hound the guy till he’s living with the dogs.

The film is deeply philosophical, taking loserdom to existential levels. It’s almost as if Kaurismaki is offering his loser hero as having attained a desirable state of existence – no matter what is done to him, he refuses to respond (for the most part). He simply accepts his lot, which often isn’t pretty. He doesn’t expect anything more. But what complicates the film is the way he hopes for more. The tribulations that he faces are always met with the grudging sense that he’ll be ok in the end, however unrealistic that belief may be.

Then again, all of this guff is just fantasy, remember, and you and I don’t need to be concerned when we exit the cinema. But for some escapist fun, I’ll give this one lots of stars and thumbs in upward directions!

Note: this is the first film in my life that caused me to seek out retail therapy after viewing. In all honesty, I went shopping to reaffirm my sense of self-worth, and bought several items of clothing which I quite like. They were on sale. This is rather out of character, and I’m not sure how it affects my feelings towards this outstanding flick.

No comments: