John’s MIFF blog: There’s No Place Like Home

And so another year’s Melbourne International Film Festival draws to a close. The rubbish is strewn across the turf, the drunken young women have collapsed on the trams, and the vomit is being hosed down from the VIP tent – no, wait. That’s the Melbourne Cup. Let’s start again.

Ah, MIFF. You come, toy with our affections, then leave in the night. Yet every year we come back. You mock us, yet we want you so. You temptress. You seductress. Both dominatrix and mother to us all.

Like all art, film is subjective. Our response to film is not only based our our preferences and tastes but can be altered by our surroundings – would I have enjoyed Let The Right One In more if the gentleman next to me hadn’t spent the whole film munching through a box of popcorn larger than his head? Probably. Would I have enjoyed My Winnipeg less if I hadn’t been so exhausted from chasing horses all day that I was more than willing to fall under it’s hypnotic spell, like the sleep-walking residents Guy Madden describes? Maybe. Am I now aware that even the most deserved criticism of the festival is likely to bring on the fury of The League Of Festival Directors, like a Marketing Team descending in the night? Oh yeah.

So here is my completely subjective take on the 2008 Melbourne International Film Festival (after all, if you didn’t want my opinion you wouldn’t be here, would you?)

This years program was the most polarising I can remember. Some long term MIFF attendees said they found little of interest when going through the guide, while others (including myself) were quite excited by what was to come. It seemed this year you either wanted to see everything in an entire strand – the George A Romero, perhaps, or the Ozploitation focus – or none of it. The program was very heavy on the horror and the grim, so if that wasn’t your bag you weren’t in luck. (It also wasn’t a year for fans of Korean cinema – why is nobody holding a dedicated Korean film festival in Melbourne?).

The word “bleak” often turned up. A long-term cinephile I know even decided to skip the festival and hold a non-MIFF festival in her lounge room. I’d like to quote from the email she sent her friends as it’s a good summary of what I was hearing from many:

“Have you looked in your Melbourne International Film Festival program and found it full of misery, dreariness, self-abuse, drug-abuse, child-abuse, immigrant-abuse and new Romanian cinema? I certainly have, and found it far too grim for my tastes. I’ve come to the conclusion that what I really need this winter is a bit more cheer and fun, and if you’re going anywhere near MIFF, you probably do too. Hence, I’m pleased to announce the first, and very possibly the last, anti-MIFF film festival. There won’t be queues of shivering patrons in hand-knitted beanies. There won’t be large Simon Callow look-alikes holding forth loudly on the rebirth of Hungarian melodrama. There won’t be the lingering musky smell of the Forum filled with Gold Pass holders who haven’t been near a bath in two weeks. However, there will be films that way too much fun to be allowed near the program of this year’s MIFF.”

She wasn’t alone in her assessment, although most didn’t feel the need to set up their own parallel screenings. Perhaps the prevalent themes of current film-making are so strong that a certain sameness permeated the program blurbs, making it hard for individual films to stand out? Perhaps we’re living in a depressed age and cinema is reflecting that? Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne shared many films, so it’s hardly a Melbourne-centric problem. Time and again I found myself reminded of this Pet Shop Boys lyric from “Miserabilism” – “make sure you’re always frowning, it shows the world that you’ve got substance and depth”.

On the whole I found many of the films to be solid, but not exciting. I didn’t see any absolute stinkers, but there were few that amazed, either. It would seem that 2008 isn’t a champagne year for cinema – more a cheap table wine.

Speaking of table wine, is there anyone left who doesn’t want to punch that guy from the Yalumba ad? Audiences were brought together by their hatred of the ads, with maximum scorn for the try-hard Yalumba (which revealed more to mock with every viewing) and the Channel 10 drama which inspired a sing-along chorus at one screening (in zombie tones the audience cried out in unison “I like faaaaaast caaaaaars….”).

There were successes – as mentioned, the Romero strand was fantastic, with George A Romero a perfect festival guest – read more about his live appearance here. The Ozploitation strand was also a triumph, delivering my absolute favourite movie of the festival, Dead End Drive-In, a film so prescient it appeared to be a satire on the John Howard years.

The new MIFF Premiere Film Fund was a great success, and hats off to everyone involved in its creation. Bastardy, Not Quite Hollywood and Rock N Roll Nerd were among the festival’s best.

On the downside, you may well have assumed this year’s festival was built on an ancient Indian burial ground considering the astonishing number of technical problems – delays, cancelled films, a seized projector, prints delivered in the wrong ratio or format, a film played in the wrong order, digital drop-outs, colour bars appearing over the top of screen during the film, seemingly endless change-overs from film to digital in shorts programs, a print without subtitles, dodgy sound equipment – if you listen carefully you can still hear a projectionist weeping. You expect some of these events at a festival, but the sheer number this year felt like a message from God. (And I’m not going to mention the front-of-house mistiming at the end of Katyn that was both grossly insensitive and also quite funny).

Highlights: I Think We’re Alone Now, Waltz WIth Bashir, Young@Heart, Ozploitation (especially Not Quite Hollywood and Dead End Drive-In), Derek, My Winnipeg, George A Romero live!

Lowlights: With Gilbert & George, The Crazies, those damned ads

So MIFF 2008 – I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. Just think, you could’ve skipped straight to this line and saved reading a thousand words.

I asked some of the Outland Institute’s regular “comments” correspondents for their thoughts, and here’s what they said…

Anne-Marie:

Things I’ve learnt from MIFF 08: Cats make good vampire detectors; there may be gay penguins; and never express an admiration for 80s pop stars, in case someone makes a film about you. (And the next time I’m in telepathic communication with Tiffany, I’m going to warn her about the freaks out there.)

26 films later, I don’t seem to remember any of them. Nothing was really bad – except the atrocious Kate Bush doco and the Herzog that was promoted as sci fi yet lacked any element of science fiction – but nothing sent me to Amazon to buy a copy to watch again and again and again. I will remember Inside for taking me somewhere bloodier than I have previously been, and for allowing me to whimper “no, no, no” at the screen; Dead End Drive-In for reminding me how big hair really can be; Man on Wire for uncovering my latent vertigo; and Men’s Group for being an Australian drama with a great Act 3.

Chris:

This year is my year of feeling elitist. No longer do I have to queue all the way to the street in the cold rain. O, my MIFF membership, how I love you! However it has also been the year where I haven’t been totally blown away by anything, although maybe I am just being too harsh -there have been some exceptional features such as In Search of a Midnight Kiss, I Just Didn’t Do It and a hoorah for the saucy old folk getting their gear off in Cloud 9. Strong docos with Trumbo, amazing animation experiences with Sita Sings the Blues and Persepolis, a special mention to the unrelenting violence of The Horseman and lastly thank you Richard for finishing it all off with the bloodsplattering wild ride of REC.

Hearing George A Romero articulate his experiences and knowledge has been a highlight. On the other side the Rush ad gave me the f***ing s***s (I once thought its loud start was going to give a group of oldies a mass heart attack). The lighting at the end and beginning of movies was shocking – if I’m waiting 30 minutes between sessions give me some damned light so I can read! If I’m leaving a session give me a little so I can actually find my way out. Also where were the bloody ushers during the first few minutes of Three Monkeys when I couldn’t see a damned thing?

To end, many thanks to Richard Moore for a well thought-out and engaging program and bring on next year.

Sam:

Having missed last year’s festival, I was keen to see as much as time permitted with this one. Some choices were obvious, and none of them disappointed. Let the Right One In, the Swedish film based on John Lindqvist’s novel was an atypical vampire film, more about the relationships amongst the characters in a housing commission than the horror elements (which actually seemed a bit clumsy in the film, less so in the novel); Otto (or Up With Dead People) which was a lot funnier than I thought it would be, with a film-within-a-film premise of a bunch of ‘auteurs’ documenting the affects of the recent gay zombie plague. A highlight was the zombie doco director’s girlfriend, who was filmed the whole time as though in a b&w silent movie – even though the rest of the film was in colour (being Bruce LaBruce, the zombie lads were a lot sexier than your average undead); and finally, Derek – the documentary about Derek Jarman. I really liked the personal tone of this – where much of the biographical information came from clips of Jarman himself, the commentary from Tilda Swinton was in the form of a personal letter and was more elliptical – and very funny.

The others were that sort of guess-work that comes with perusing the festival guide, with the great, unexpected treat being Everything is Fine. This French-Canadian film was about a high-school kid who discovers four of his friends were in a successful suicide pact, and he has to come to terms with why he’s still alive. There is a very poignant part toward the end where his girlfriend asks if he has deleted them from his phone – and he hasn’t, and can’t. Demonstrating, he dials one of the numbers just to hear the voice-message. It made me wonder about the many traces we leave behind us these days – messages, face-books, youtube, on-line identities that somehow have a life of their own – all these virtual connections.

The MIFF program did seem to balance nicely the idea of retrospectives and new features (if possible in a downloadable age). And I enjoyed the venues with the exception of Greater Union, which I don’t think has been upgraded since the 80s… can’t MIFF avoid it or perhaps give them money to upgrade it… perhaps some donation boxes at the door?

Janet:

Highlights: There are very few film directors capable of making a four hour film that doesn’t have you writhing in your seat after two hours, but the late Edward Yang was one of them. A Brighter Summer’s Day was so absorbing that I barely noticed the time go by. The others that probably won’t leave my head for some time are The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Hunger, Bastardy, Derek and Of Time and City.

Lowlights: Not that many. Queue jumpers. Standing in a queue outside the Greater Union waiting for Mr Spurlock’s Q&A to finish so that I could see Bastardy. Almost fell asleep during the William Burroughs doco (considering he was a cantankerous old prick the tone was far too reverential).

Summation: I have to say that the films I’ve seen this year have been excellent (maybe I was just lucky with my choices, who knows?) and the inconveniences few and far between. A few thanks are in order, however. Firstly, to the gentleman who went up and down the queue for A Brighter Summer’s Day at the Forum to let everyone know it was four hours long without an interval, you saved many an innocent bladder. For showing films at the Greater Union so that I could visit my favourite Asian DVD shop, Rong Bao Tang, around the corner in Bourke Street. To Fred Schepisi and Geoffrey Rush for the Q&A session after Jimmie Blacksmith. To Eric Bana for his amusing (and enlightening) answers to the questionable questions at his Q&A after Mad Max 2. To Not Quite Hollywood for reminding me of all those films I used to love, and of a Melbourne where cinema could be grown up and silly at the same time. So congratulations!

Thanks to all those who contributed to our MIFF coverage. The erudite Syms Covington will also be adding his thoughts later, and you can see what Paul Martin thought at his site, as well as reading an excellent list of the MIFF films which have release dates.

As the festival itself said, everyone’s a critic – so what did you think?

MIFF zombie images by Jim Lee, taken from the official festival website – http://www.melbournefilmfestival.com.au
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19 Responses to John’s MIFF blog: There’s No Place Like Home

  1. Tim says:

    I only saw three movies, but seemed unwittingly to have created a “Gloomy Northern European” film selection for myself.

    Katyn, the story of a Soviet massacre of Polish officers in WWII, was utterly brilliant; director Andrzej Wajda’s approach of following the stories of family members affected over the years by the massacre, was an inspired and affecting way of involving us in an event which was so horrific as to be alienating.

    Jar City was an intriguing Icelandic crime thriller. The landscape was utterly bleak, mirroring the characters and their situations, and the plot neatly transformed from prosaic murder mystery to enthralling psychological thriller as the film progressed.

    I wasn’t that keen on Let the Right One In, the Swedish vampire flick. It seemed to be unsure of whether it wanted to be a serious drama or a schlocky horror film, as the effects weren’t up to the former (audience members laughed at them, which broke the mood). I am told, however, that the book is better.

    Good mini-mini-MIFF experience, overall. I actually thought Greater Union was fine, if unatmospheric; it was handy to be able to leave via the front exits onto the street, rather than having to squeeze back down the internal stairs past waiting crowds.

    Unfortunately, the nice-looking little wine bar at the top of the stairs was utterly shielded from view by the waiting queues, so a lot of people had no idea it was there until too late.

    Staff were pretty friendly and once they started pre-scanning tickets in the waiting queues, it sped things up. Even though I only saw a few films, it reminded me how much fun it can be waiting in a queue of film fans and striking up conversations about what else was good…

  2. Anne-Marie says:

    Now its all over – do we have to start watching the Olympics in order to obsess about something for a fortnight? Or just hold out for the Fringe…

    The thought of the “400 individual medley final of the dead” does have a certain appeal.

  3. Edward says:

    i bought a mini-pass, which is always a risk – more than 2 bad ones in the 10 and you feel like the whole thing was a disaster. Luckily this year I only suffered one awful film – The Crazies,. The rest ranged from interesting/enjoyable to great. In Conversation with George A Romero was fascinating, but my highlights were Boy A and Waltz with Bashir.

    Surely film festval programs always look miserable? You can always pick a good selection of fun. While my favourites were certainly grim (with moments of humor) I still laughe a lot and felt uplifted by Somers’ Town, Razorback and Son of Rambow.

    You mention the awful trailer for the Channel 10 series Rush. As I left the Razorback screening at 11.30 a poor MIFF volunteer was being berated at the end of her day for the festival’s poor choice of sponsor/trailer, and he demanded to know if she could see how a commercial channel was such a poor fit for a festival audience.

    Oh, and nice blog. So much better than the MIFF one.

  4. Paul Martin says:

    I can understand why some think the festival was a bit ‘meh’. Last year I sat through 40 films and this year 42 (+ 4 walkouts). If I’m going to do a full festival again, I feel I’ve got to get the quantity down and the quality up. Too many mediocre films tend to spoil the experience of the good ones.

    I saw 5 ‘must-see’ films and 3 very good ones. I’d have been happy as Larry if I’d just seen those 8 and nothing else. But that’s never going to happen, and you rush from one session to another hoping you’ll find that elusive little gem. I don’t know how I can improve the quality (and reduce the quantity) but I’m pondering it. Thanks for the link, John.

    As for the Olympics, Anne-Marie, I just want to get some sleep.

    Oh, and that annoying Rush ad, the bit that shitted me the most was the raising the pitch of “pissed off with his WIFE”. Geez I really pissed my missus off each time that came on and I mimicked it. The MIFF ad was a shocker too. It’d been on TV many times before the festival so I was well and truly over it by day 1.

  5. Paul Martin says:

    You can find my lists on my blog, but FWIW, my must sees were:
    Lorna’s Silence
    Three Monkeys
    Silent Light
    Secret Sunshine
    The Death of Mister Lazarescu

    The above are mostly social realist and may bore some, but for me they were great.

    I also found these very good:
    Katyn
    O’ Horten
    The Paper Will Be Blue

    I thought the Romanian Wave stream was very good, the Ozploitation was a lot of fun and broke up the monotony of some of the films. International Panorama was what I saw most of, and that’s where most of my favourite films were.

    I think MIFF should revise the number of films they screen. It’s not just about getting the biggest number of films. They should cull many of the mediocre films. Many just aren’t worth a festival screening. And the good ones should get more screenings. More of the in-demand films should screen during the day for those (like me) who took two weeks off work.

    Finally (for now), it never fails to surprise me how many people turn up for obscure films but don’t support local arthouse cinema during the year. If more people supported the good independent/arthouse films when they got a release, the distributors would pick up more good films so we don’t have to wait another year for the next festival to see good world cinema. I think I could count on one hand the number of good arthouse films that have had a release so far this year. Yet there’s people who go to MIFF, watch 80 or more films, and never step into a cinema until the next MIFF. Strange.

  6. Chris says:

    I’ll be heading into my vid store on tight arse tuesday and getting what I can of the retrospective movies that I missed out on during the fest. Also I’ll be trying to catch the new Batman movie, hopefully on Imax.

    I forgot to mention in my synopsis the one movie I really really didn’t like which was ‘The Guitar’, horrible horrible film. I’m glad i’d forgotten it till I passed over a scathing review of it in another blog.

    I really didn’t mind the ads except for the Rush one. What I did object to was having to see them 50 odd times.

    Sita Sings the Blues was so funny and it is a shame Nina Paley hasn’t found a distributor yet. If your a cat person its worth finding her site and looking for her fluff cartoon strips.

  7. outlandinstitute says:

    Hey everyone, thanks for dropping by:

    Edward: Yes, film festivals do tend toward the misery, but I think in some years it seems more to the fore than others. Perhaps when there’s Korean monster movies and Russian special effects spectaculars around it seems less overt? I don’t know. It also seems the verbose US indies have been on the decline for a while now, so there’s less of them as well. The Crazies was surprisingly bad, wasn’t it? I love the Romero, and even when his films are flawed there’s usually some great ideas bubbling through – but the Crazies came across as someone making a bad copy of a Romero movie, with nothing to recommend it (also a truly terrible print!). Although the song by Carole Bayer Sager and Melissa Manchester was a bit of a surprise.

    Paul: Sleep is big on my agenda too. I actually liked the MIFF ad, but I had assumed it would be part of a series showing different people being critics, so I was surprised there was only the one. But Channel 10 really hasn’t helped themselves with that ad, have they? (“Rush! It looks like every other Aussie cop show ever made! Only this one’s got a computer in it!”).

    Chris: I really wanted to see Sita Sings The Blues – is it that vividly coloured throughout?

  8. Anne-Marie says:

    At this point I need to share that the bloke in the MIFF ad is one of my yoga teachers. I found it disconcerting seeing him so big.

  9. Anne-Marie says:

    ….and the Yalumba wine tasted even worse than that ad. (Gee, spot the person from Adelaide, whose only criticism of the festival was that the wine was shite.)

  10. Debbie says:

    I though this years fesitval was the worst in years. Whilst i only saw 8 films this year, compared with 45 last year, 69 the year before…(you get the picture)…I suffered 2 walk outs in 8 and couldn’t score anything over a 3*. The highlight of the festival for me was definitely George Ramero, I loved Land of the Dead (despite it being OTT and big budget). Next year if I even bother going to MIFF it will only be for zombies and/or horror. But the way I’m feeling now, I’m loathe to wast my time (or my money).

    Of course it could have been poor film choice on my part, but where was the Korean film (or any even slightly enticing Asian film)? where was the chop chop, the kung foo films? the only thing that even resembled a marshall arts was the dreadful, atrocious Ashes of Time Redux (and yes that was one of my walk outs).

    I thought last year that MIFF lacked the polish & variety of previous years and this year it ws even more evident. I am just not a fan of Richard Moore, bring back James Hewitson i say.

  11. Chris says:

    John: The opening sequence was very vidid vibrant and loud, it was awesome! then it immediately cut to a very rough but cute animation style and I though “oh no, I’ve been sucked in”. However the movie blends several types of animation flawlesly. Theres about 4 different streams going on in the movie and each has its own stlye of animation, Shadow puppets for the conversations about the Ramayana (very very funny), the rough style for the modern sequences, another for the Annette Hanshaw/song sequences (the most vibrant) and yet another for the rest of the Ramayana story. Everything blends very well and as a whole works well. Its even better and funnier if you have even a passing familiarity with the indian gods and culture.

  12. Chris says:

    and thanks for fixing up my grammar for my synopsis, maybe I should get you to do my comments too :P

  13. Chris says:

    Debbie: I think I preferred last years program abit better and I think that was because there was abit more asian film .

    Also, I miss the asian gangster movies :( West 32nd street just didn’t do it for me although it did remind me of what I was missing.

  14. Sam says:

    Chris: I have to echo your comments: thanks John for editing – and also I’d like to go and see Batman, which just didn’t seem the right thing to do while the festival was on! And as for Yalumba… no one ate anything… lots of empty plates, or perhaps they licked them clean?

  15. via collins says:

    Debbie,

    I’ll back you up on the wine issue. Considering how many times I was forced to see that inane advertisement, I would have expected fairer serves of wine for $7.50 a pop. I thought the riesling was okay, eveything else sucked. But the serves were mingy. Two for one Coopers deals were sensational, and a large reason the club was so populated – so good on you MIFF, and Coopers for seeing the potential, and nailing it. Yalumba, have a marketing meeting and improve for next year.

    Food at festival club was lamentable – it gets worse each year, but so it goes with contracted services.

    Greater Union v Regent – Obviously the Regent was a temporary joy, but the GU was so badly run this year, it defied logic. If there are three sessions sold out, or nearly sold out, is it rocket science to have extra volunteers sent down to keep lines in order, and just inform people what’s going on? The Forum, ahh, The Forum – I’d go there to watch paint dry – and watching Three Monkeys was nearly that – only kidding Three Monkeys fans. I love that cinema so much, thanks MIFF for having it at all, and running it pretty well. Excepting the first 15 minutes of Three Monkeys on Sunday 10th which was like being at kindergarten.

    Asian cinema – it’s been a quiet year for chop socky to be fair to MIFF. Though films like The Chaser from Korea, and Sparrow from HK have turned up in festivals of late, There was a solid gold Korean entry in Secret Sunshine that while not full of action, did ratchet up the tension and fear in wonderful ways – my fave film of MIFF actually.

    Volume – agree totally with Paul above – less films please, more repeats of the good ones, and simply no screenings for the duds.

    Alleyways – yes, Melbs is famous for them – but no-one wants to be dumped out into them film after film. It totally breaks the notion of a festival I reckon. If patrons have to be shoved out in them, have signage that leads people somewhere so the festival experience continues. Get circular, get rhythm.

    You’re kidding? – an obscure Bresson film sold out totally at The Forum on a Friday afternoon? I love my town, and I love my MIFF. What a crazy world.

  16. Janet says:

    My Dad and I went to see ‘Forbidden Kingdom’ at Hoyts today and sure enough there was the ‘Rush’ ad. When I yelled ‘I like fast cars!’ Dad didn’t understand and you just can’t explain these things, can you? I think I’m just missing the festival already.

    With regards to the lack of Triad Recruitment Films – didn’t anyone see ‘Triangle’? Was it only me? Cinema seemed to be full at the time. If you missed it, visit Rong Bao Tang at 185 Bourke St (around the corner from the GU). I think it cost me fifteen dollars. They’ve got a sale on at present. I know it wasn’t ‘Young and Dangerous’ but I’ll watch anything with Yam Tat-Wah and Louis Koo. Now if only they’d done the Yalumba ad . . .

    Sticking with the Asian theme. I don’t know what Wong Kar-Wai and Mr Doyle thought they were doing with ‘Ashes of Time Redux’. I loved the original film but I got the impression they had just attacked it with crayons. I think Chris Doyle got carried away after doing ‘Hero’. I haven’t had a chance to go back to my copy of the original yet, but I remember it being more like calligraphy. But sad to say even those bright primary colours didn’t stop me from dozing. It reminded me of how ‘they’ recoloured the old Vegemite ad. Sacrilege!

    Ah, well. Back to my weekly cinema trips with Dad. It’s just not the same.

  17. outlandinstitute says:

    Debbie: There seems to be a lot of opinion that 2006 was a particularly good year, I certainly saw more that year than any other – but is that luck as much as anything else? Any festival is limited to what’s on offer, and maybe some years the pickings are slimmer than others…

    Chris: Def wish I’d seen Sita Sings The Blues now.

    Via Collins: My biggest problem with the Festival club was the speed… so slooooooow to get your order (it’s a cup of tea! it’s a TEABAG in some HOT WATER! how long can it take???)

    Janet: Are you on commission now with Rong Bao Tang? You’re gonna marry that store. You’re gonna marry it and have little store babies…

  18. I only ended up seeing about 8 films this year. The less said about the Kate Bush “doco” the better. I hope somebody who has a passion for Kate will one day make a film that does justice to her (thats all Im saying!)

    Highlights for me were the Derek Jarman doco ‘Derek’ for its insight and portrayal of a inspirational and genuine person and significant talent. Also Michael Haneke’s ‘Funny Games’ for appealing to my insatiable appetite for sadism and not giving me the ending I thought I should have demanded. Also loved the opening & closing sequences with Naked City’s ‘Bonehead’ & the red credits. Beware of evil looking Aryan guys wearing white gloves asking for eggs!

  19. outlandinstitute says:

    “Beware of evil looking Aryan guys wearing white gloves asking for eggs!”

    My mother told me that, but did I listen?

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