Sunday, 26 July 2009

MIFF : Thirst movie review

Last Christmas, Mrs Blog fell in love with Edward Cullen of Twilight and blogged about it on this site. The great appeal to that story was the unresolved yet undeniable passion Edward and Bella had for each other.
In Thirst, Park Chan-wook’s (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) own take on vampire mythology, we get a blood gurgling and kiss slurping romance between Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) and Tae-joo (Ok-bin Kim). Sang-hyeon, a celibate and faithful Catholic priest, volunteers to be a subject for medical research. He is infected with a bubonic-plague-like illness that kills off all the test cases except for him, who is given a blood transfusion which contains vampire blood. The vampire blood keeps the plague at bay but he now has an unexpected sensorial sensitivity and a taste for blood.
The story is faithful to most elements of vampire lore and plays faithfully as a vampire movie. Sang-hyeon is forced to reconsider his Catholic vows as he contemplates ways to quench his thirst for blood without actually killing anyone (similar to the moral conundrums of Edward in Twilight). He has a passionate romance with Tae-joo (most dis_similar to Twilight), the wife of a childhood friend who is trapped by both her gormless husband Kang-woo (played with hilarious effect by Ha-kyun Shin) and his overprotective mother Lady Ra (Hae-sook Kim).
Chan-wook uses his very black and bloody humour to take the consequences of vampires to their logical conclusion. What happens if you have super-human strength (and can’t die) but you fight another vampire who also has super-human strength ? How do you feed off a victim you’ve killed and their heart is no longer pumping blood around the body? Sang-hyeon leaps from a tall building with Tae-joo in his arms but realises that they might be a little too high to leap back on to – he carries her up the stairs instead.
I won’t tell you what the Tupperware containers are used for except to say that the manufacturers would (probably) be gratified.
The Catholic guilt however underpins Sang-hyeon’s conscience and he is forced to confront the untenable circumstance he finds himself in : he does not want to kill others for the blood that he needs. In what is a rather touching final scene, Sang-hyeon and Tae-joo ride off into the sunrise (but not before some equally comic byplay from Tae-joo). It is interesting to note that Lady Ra, in her catatonic state, plays the all seeing eye to the lovers every move. God and judgement it would seem is always watching.
Kang-ho Song, who plays Sang-hyeon, is a Park Chan-wook regular but might be most recognised for his performance in the 2006 cult hit, The Host. Even though he is a big man, his manner is gentle and his slightly bewildered expression quite appropriate for the role of Priest.
For Chan-wook, there is an awful lot to like for his fans and the packed MIFF cinema is testament to how many of us there are. For those who abhor the “drama” of Twilight, Thirst is for you.
“Vampires are cuter than I thought.” You won’t hear Bella saying that.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Frozen River movie review

Ray and her two sons, 15 year old TJ & little Ricky, have been abandoned by their gambling addicted husband/father a week before Christmas along with the final deposit on their new home, a double-sided trailer home. They live in a much smaller trailer with inadequate insulation, up on the Canadian border of New York State. Despite the hardness of their existence Ray does not give up. She continues to demand good standards from her sons and stretches the contents of her purse as far as it goes. A family cannot live on popcorn and Tang alone however.
A chance encounter with Lily, a native American, on the Mohawk reservation sees Ray driving her car across the frozen river of St Lawrence which divides New York from Quebec, Canada. Lily explains that Mohawk land spans either side of the river and that the local police have no jurisdiction on the reservation which polices itself. Once in Canada, Ray discovers that her pop-up boot can be used to ferry two illegal immigrants into the United States and receive $2,400 for her trouble.
Earning this kind of money in a short period of time is a little too tempting and Ray and Lily’s relationship goes from one of suspicion, to convenience and finally to respect and friendship. Ironically, as it is gambling that has Ray in this predicament, it is the gamble of just “one more run” that sets the story up for a tense finish with not quite the outcome you might expect from an American film.
The heart of the story though is played out in one vignette of a Pakistani immigrant couple who lose their baby on the river. A mother’s grief at the thought of losing a child and her strength to protect are strong emotional foundations for this film. Ray is prepared to do whatever it takes to raise her boys and provide for them while Lily has a grief all of her own concerning her one year old son.
Melissa Leo, who plays Ray, was nominated for Best Actress for this performance. She brings a fierce working class dignity to her role where who you are and what you do counts for so much more than status or possessions. You quietly begin to admire how she raises her kids and understand why she doesn’t pursue her husband who has headed south. Its not for no reason that micro-finance lending operations in the third world lend money to the wives and mothers for start up ventures.
Misty Upham (Lila) likewise brings a simple dignity to her role despite being on the receiving end of many of life’s hardships. Note how she snatches her opportunity in both hands at the end of the film.
This is writer/director Courtney Hunt’s first feature.
A 4 out of 5 film where we care about the characters and what becomes of them.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

MIFF Meet the Programmers

Meet the Programmers – a MIFF Members chance to meet MIFF Executive Director, Richard Moore and Senior Programmer, Michelle Carey, face to face, ask questions and hear their experiences in procuring, programming and funding films for the Festival. My thanks to Paul Martin of the Melbourne Film Blog to attend this event as his guest.
If you have perused the film festival guide which was released in last Friday’s Age, you will have flicked through many, many pages listing the nearly 300 films screening at this year’s festival. Given the breadth of what’s on offer at MIFF, Moore and Carey advertise the opportunity for film fans to create their own mini-MIFF that exactly suits their interests and time.
A question was asked how the schedule was drawn up to attract the ‘core’ fan, that of the MIFF Member, versus the younger film goer. Maintaining a balance of appeal was of key importance said Moore. We can witness the many viewing sections of MIFF : in addition to the Australian films and international Panorama, there is the Backbeat (docos on music) and Next Gen (teenage targeted films) sections that invite a wider viewing public. These, says Moore, will hopefully build a loyal following amongst younger folk who will keep coming back to MIFF as they grow.
Building a viable program and maximising the box office, without losing the core viewing strength of the festival, is an economic necessity. Only 5% of the Festival budget is supplied by the government. The rest is from sponsorship and ticket sales.
To that end, the Festival comes hot on the marketing heels of Cannes which occurs in March. Many Cannes films find their way to Australia because MIFF provides one of many convenient stepping stones for releasing films by sales agents, around the world. Cannes in many ways sets the agenda as to what will be discussed in cinematic circles around the globe and having a large contingent of Cannes films in the MIFF program gives the festival added profile and prestige.
Moore and Carey’s “boundless passion and enthusiasm for film” comes through. So to everyone else, program your choices, grab a buddy and get along to this wonderful Melbourne event.

Monday, 13 July 2009

MIFF viewing schedule

I have locked in my viewing schedule for MIFF and as always you are all more than welcome to join me. Tickets may be booked via their website. If you are thinking of coming then get in fast : the 7pm timeslot is always popular as are the Australian films. Email me for specific dates & times. Precis’ of the films are taken from the MIFF website.

Homegrown Australian films (6)
Blessed Ana Kokkinos – “A haunting and evocative tale about mothers and children, about being lost and finding your way home.”

Van Diemens Land - Jonathan Auf Der Heide – “In 1822, eight convicts escape the brutal penal settlement of Macquarie Harbour, only to find the wilds of Tasmania a much crueller reality. As the provisions run out and the men fight to stay alive, only one option remains. Delving into Australia's dark heritage, Van Diemen's Land is a retelling of the unsettling tale of our most notorious convict, Alexander Pearce”

$9.99 - Tatia Rosenthal – “This is a striking and entertaining stop-motion animation with elegantly depicted moments of magic realism, artfully interwoven stories and poetically minimalist music.”

The Loved Ones Sean Byrne – “Set to a scorching soundtrack, The Loved Ones is a vivid, sexy, fun, relentlessly attacking rollercoaster that takes the conventions of the genre and then runs them off the rails.”

The Matilda Candidate Curtis Levy – “One candidate in the last Australian Federal election who may well have escaped your attention – as he did everyone else’s – was a man on a mission to change the national anthem to Waltzing Matilda when Australia becomes a republic.”

Bran Nue Dae - Rachel Perkins - Filmed in the desert-scapes of Western Australia’s Broome, this exuberant musical road movie is a unique mix of comedy, dance, music and joy”

Neighbourhood watch - Asian films (5)
Park Chan-wook (Korea) – “Dubbed a ‘scandalous vampire melodrama' by Park himself, Thirst sees a priest granted immortality when, through a cruel twist of fate, he becomes a creature of the night.”

Action Boys - Jeong Byeong-gil (Korea) – “An endearing, tongue-in-cheek look at the action behind the action in this documenatary about the unheralded heroes/lunatics of Korean cinema who – at the risk of broken bones, broken egos and even death – make the superstars look oh-so-good."

My Magic Eric Khoo (Singapore) – “Battling alcoholism, portly magician Francis (played by real-life magician Francis Bosco) works at a bar while relying on his young son Rajr to clean up after him, following his regular drunken escapades. As Rajr struggles to better himself Francis decides he has to try and earn more money to support his son.”

Breathless - Yang Ik-june (Korea) – “Dark, brutal and prone to uncontrollable rages, Song-hoon is someone you don't want to run into on the street. His life takes a turn when he meets tough-talking schoolgirl Yeon-hee, with the two forming an unlikely bond that offers the thug a glimpse of redemption.”

Mother Bong joon-ho (Korea) – “Korean film-and-TV icon Kim Hye-ja turns in the performance of her career as a mother on a mission to clear her mentally challenged son of murder; as the investigation deepens, she finds her own past returning to haunt her.”

New Balkan cinema (2)
Silent Wedding - Horatiu Malaele (Romania) - In 1953, a Romanian village has gathered for a wedding; the happy couple, the guests and the banquet are all ready… Just at that moment, the Russian Army arrives. Stalin is dead and the nation must mourn. Under threat of death, the oversexed couple, their vexatious fathers, the entire town and a muted gypsy band continue the celebration in silence.

Zift - Javor Gardev (Bulgaria) - In the opening moments, Moth is hurtled from a soviet jail into a stylised 60s Sofia underworld. He must steer at breakneck pace through the Kafkaesque communism, the severe architecture and the menagerie of bottom feeders. Zift has the wit and style of the best noir with grim Balkan brawn.”

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Reader movie review

The Reader is director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliot) and screenwriter David Hare’s (The Hours) adaption of the German novel "Der Vorleser" by Bernhard Schlink. They capture the very German-ness of the story by filming in Berlin and the German countryside and casting all German actors except for leads Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes (with the film spoken in English). The story is both about the realisation of 50 year old Michael Berg (Fiennes) that he is emotionally reserved and unable or unwilling to share personal experiences, and the collective German guilt surrounding their actions during World War 2.
This guilt is demonstrated in the 1966 trial of former SS, female prison guards who, during the war, rather than let their Jewish prisoners escape, allowed them to burn to death in a country house. The guards are all found guilty with alleged leader Hanna Schmitz (Winslet) to serve the longest prison term. The crowd and judge are perhaps all too willing to focus their ire on these former guards as the ones to blame for the whole tragedy of that war. As one character observes however there were considerably more officers and guards in action during the war with very few arrests and convictions to show for it.
Watching the trial are law students including Berg as a young man (David Kross) and their lecturer (the always excellent veteran Bruno Ganz). “How we feel doesn’t matter,” says the lecturer. “Its what we do” he says.
Starting in 1958, the 15 year old Berg meets by chance the much older and lonely Schmitz. It becomes clear what Berg is to gain from their series of intimate encounters stretched over one summer. The studious young Berg begins to share his high school literature with Schmitz by reading to her. She prefers to be read to, she says. When Schmitz leaves suddenly it is supposed that Berg suffers an emotional withdrawal that is never dealt with until much, much later.
I did enjoy the scene after Berg’s first taste of love with Hanna. Suddenly the world was more vibrant, each sense more acute and Michael barely able to suppress a smile at the family dinner table.
Many years later Michael demonstrates, it seemed to me, a great act of love by sending tape recordings of him reading to the imprisoned Hanna. It seems an unusual thing to describe but in the context of how the story unfolds it is significant. I am sure his guilt toward her plays a part in his actions too but I will leave that for you to ponder.
Winslet won her Best Actress Oscar for this role and while I find it hard to believe it is her best role the Oscar of course rewarded her consistent performance over many roles. Not that Winslet does much wrong. She is contained in her performance and entirely convincing with the character not allowing her to express a great emotional range. Fiennes perhaps is more accustomed to emotional brevity as all his characters exhibit a similar reserve. The young Michael, Kross, is wide eyed and does not look out of place next to Winslet. It is a struggle to see the same man play both 15 year old and 23 year old but it was the least of my complaints. Overall I enjoyed the second half of the film more as the story and characters progressed through the ages. 3 out of 5.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Auskick at Docklands

Am I not the proudest dad on the planet? Both my boys, Curly and Spikes, were invited to play an Auskick game during half time of last night's Collingwood Magpies / Western Bulldogs AFL match. I won't deny that this was my childhood fantasy they were playing out however both of them had an absolute ball playing in front of 52,000 people. Good on you lads!

MIFF 09 Festival Guide

The Melbourne International Film Festival guide was released yesterday and I have had a chance to study it and begin the logistical challenge of working out which films to see and at what time.
At first glance, there are more Australian dramas this year compared to last (a good thing) however they all have only one screening time as opposed to the usual two. This makes being able to see them all somewhat more of a challenge. Perhaps one can console oneself with the likelihood that most will receive a commercial cinematic run later in the year. Certainly some of the directors names will be known to the public : Curtis Levy (previously President versus David Hicks), Alkinos Tsilimidos (Em4Jay), David Caesar (Dirty Deeds), Robert Connolly (The Bank), Ana Kokkinos (Book of Revelation) and "youngest ever sailor solo around the world" Jessie Martin, which will aid their release.
The international drama section is as impressive as it ever was and just as impossible to select a sensible watching program because of its breadth. The Steven Soderbergh / Benicio Del Toro double feature, 260 minute bio-pic on Che Guevara has had good reviews overseas however I can't help but think that DVD release is a preferred way to view. A number of films that screened at Cannes (but none of the winners so far as I can see) and a $50 special event to be in the same 1000 seat stadium with Quentin Tarantino as he waves at the crowd for the Australian premiere of Inglourious Basterds. This film I definitely want to see but as its cinematic release is straight after the festival, I won't "waste" a MIFF selection on it.
A section on the quietly emerging Balkan Cinema looks an intriguing mix of black comedy and irony of life under communism from countries such as Romania, Bosnia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Serbia.
The Asian film section presents an enticing range with a first from North Korea and one-third from powerhouse South Korea, including personal fave Park Chan-wook (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance).
There are many, many other fine films on at the Festival and as always, too many to see and not enough time to see them all. My Festival pass entitles me to 13 screenings only so I will make my selections carefully and post them next week.