Thursday, July 31, 2008

Melbourne International Film Festival Roundup 1

I'm sick with a bad cold so no preliminaries. Let us begin.


Before this film kicked off the guy behind me asked his companion what it was about. “It’s about a man who’s a teacher, and he doesn’t want to be a teacher any more, and then he gets a job in a supermarket.”

That concise synopsis actually makes the film sound more interesting than it is. It’s designed to appeal to that all-important niche market of “middle-class older people who decide that their lives hold no more promise for excitement, passion or surprise and don’t want to watch films that remind them that this is a stupid position to be in.” I’m sure Blockbuster has given it its own section by now.

Josef is a Prague teacher who is pretty sick of the lip he gets from his dumb teenage students. It all comes to a climax when he loses it and squeezes a dirty wet sponge over one loudmouth’s head. I actually gave the guy some props for that move since I’ll be adding it to my repertoire now, but once he packs in the teaching gig things lose any shred of interest or drama. Josef gets a job at the supermarket in a little booth people use to drop off their empty bottles. There he meets a small range of dull characters. When he’s not talking about boring things with them he’s standing around being unemotive with his wife at home.

I think it was when Josef and his wife were fixing the living room door that I began to question my decision to buy a ticket to this film. Whole minutes of screen-time were devoted to how they were going to get this thing back on its hinges, and while that might raise the pulse of any die-hard DIY nuts in the audience, I know I was wondering if this was some cruel joke being played on us. It pretty much summed up the film for me – flaccid sequences of everyday activity given the rhythm of bittersweet realist comedy (Josef looks a bit nonplussed by the world sometimes) that don’t add up to much of anything.

I was also really put off when Josef’s wife was going through the TV guide circling things she wanted to watch (again, riveting stuff) and she stopped to draw a big line around the Czech film Kolja. Guess what? Kolja was made by the same director as this yawn-fest! When you use your film to blatantly advertise other films you’ve made, you’re just abusing our relationship.

But the audience lapped it up, shrieking with laughter every time old Josef stubbed his toe or whatever. I guess if you’re one of those people who likes films that are completely lacking in any ideas, are artlessly shot and don’t possess any real emotion or challenge, you might dig this. To me, it seemed a deeply conservative number that aimed only to reaffirm our beliefs that nobody else’s life is more interesting than our own sad existence, and that we can be safe in our decision not to try to do anything more with ourselves. Oh and it’s Czech, so I suppose we can imagine that we’re being more cultural and open-minded along the way, too.


Not as boring, but a lot more irritating. This mockumentary follows a young black New Yorker big in the rock club scene who slowly begins to realise that there’s an entrenched culture of racism surrounding him. It’s a good premise, and the film’s best points make it subtly clear how young AJ’s race is used by others to define him while his ability to claim a racial voice is denied. When he asks why he can’t employ black women as dancers in the club, for instance, he’s told not to make it into a race thing.

The problem is that the mockumentary aspect of the film becomes more of an annoyance than anything else. The doco style it fakes isn’t even a good one – it’s a cheesy MTV-type style that might have been ironic if it was pulled off well but it feels like a uni project attempting to replicate something slicker. The characters are also deeply annoying, too. I suppose it’s hard to watch any pack of coolsie kids posing and preening for 90 minutes, but the film itself seems desperate to prove their (and its) hipness. Namedropping NY bands of the moment and having bands like Moldy Peaches drop by just seems lame.

And AJ’s transformation – reading a book by Malcolm X and going to a black club that suddenly (and literally) embraces him – isn’t really a journey. Still, this isn’t a bad film; its heart is in the right place even if its head lags behind a fair way.


I love Klaus Kinski and after seeing a snippet from this film in the outrageously good documentary My Best Fiend (about Kinski’s ‘troubled’ relationship with director Werner Herzog) I was overly excited to catch the full length version. It’s the recording of a solo theatre show the great, mad actor did in 1971 in which he interpreted Jesus Christ as a hippie revolutionary worker outcast bum for an audience similarly constituted. Unfortunately his violent megalomania and over-identification with the role – basically he saw himself as Jesus – turned a lot of the crowd against him, and their attempts to provoke him saw him flying into very entertaining rages.

The best parts are in My Best Fiend – I didn’t realise that apart from some juicy exchanges he actually got through most of the monologue over the course of the night. So here we have not so much a compelling film about an actor breaking apart as a long film about Jesus in a patchwork stripy shirt and corduroy slacks. It’s way more impassioned than your usual church service but it’s otherwise not that different. Apart from the awesome 70s outfits and occasional screaming tantrum. It’s worth it if you’re already a fan of the guy and want to complete your collection but otherwise grab Aguirre, Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo.

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