Monday, August 4, 2014

MIFF: Hungry for Hungary

Those of you familiar with the acronym TIFF will note its structural similarity to the acronym MIFF. And if you know what city I live in, you probably recognize that the Melbourne International Film Festival must now be underway.

And it is. It started this past Thursday (with the opening night movie Predestination, directed by the Spierig brothers and starring Ethan Hawke, who previously collaborated on Daybreakers) and runs through August 17th (with a closing night screening of Felony, starring Joel Edgerton and Tom Wilkinson, and directed by my friend Matthew Saville). In between, a program of more than 100 films -- at least four of which I will see.

Pretty exciting. I've lived in cities where there were lively festivals (Los Angeles -- went to two films in 2006) and visited cities where there were iconic festivals (two nights at Sundance in 2007, where I also saw two films). But never have I participated as fully in a film festival as I'll participate in MIFF over the next fortnight (there's that word again).

And I probably wouldn't have considered it were it not for my wife. She used to work the festival when she was a twentysomething back in the 1990s, so it holds a lot of sentimental value for her. Combine that with the fact that is also a major event for her current job, and she's totally festival-centric right now. I wouldn't have pushed the issue on my own, because we have two young children and the time we spend caring for them (and more to the point, leaving the other person to care for them) is sacred. But when she volunteered that we should each try to see at least a couple films -- and admitted that she would like to see "five to ten" but knew that would not be possible -- my eyes lit up.

But how to choose what to see? The initial shock of the number of films being offered was almost overwhelming. My mind naturally drifted toward known commodities that are not out here yet, some of which are already out in the U.S. and some of which are not. That was in part to make things easier on myself, since I wouldn't have to research them in order to identify them as options. And I did indeed target, and eventually buy tickets for, some that fit that description.

But is it really the true film festival experience if you only get a short head start on films that will be in the theater three weeks later? It doesn't seem like it, no.

So I took a total roll of the dice on one film that I'd never heard of, whose description sounded interesting, and then stumbled my way into a second such film, which I saw on Saturday night to pop my MIFF cherry for 2014.

You see, last Thursday, a couple weeks after I'd already secured my three tickets (one of which was attained via a free pass), my wife came to me and said that the pass she was sharing with two of her co-workers was likely not to be fully utilized. As it happens, all three of those sharing it are mothers, meaning their free time to gallivant around film festivals is limited. So she asked me if I wanted to try to go see something either Friday or Saturday night, which seemed like a nice way to get things started, rather than having to wait until the festival was eight days old to catch my first movie next Friday night.

Many of the sessions for Saturday had already sold out, but that was not the case for a Hungarian movie called White God, playing Saturday at 9:15 at the Forum Theatre. The title drew me in, but reading up more on it caused me to discover there were other draws, draws that would logically have already led to this movie selling out. The first was that it was surprisingly high concept for the festival circuit, which frequently prides itself on low stakes human drama and the like. You see, the movie is about a canine uprising, described as The Birds for dogs. Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly for a festival crowd, was the fact that it won the Un Certain Regard prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. That's a pretty big prize to still not have a full audience the day before the screening.

But what may have been most intriguing about this film is that it made me realize I'm not sure I have ever seen a film made in Hungary. That seems hard to believe, but nothing was coming to mind off the top of my head. I looked up the cinema of Hungary on Wikipedia, and though I have seen Hollywood films made by certain Hungarian directors (Lajos Koltai, Istvan Szabo) and missed some rather prominent Hollywood films made by others (Nimrod Antal), I have yet to see anything directed by them when they were still in their home country. I have been trying to carve out the time to watch Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse -- or any Tarr film, actually -- but have just never had the six hours to do it. (I'm factoring inevitable breaks and naps into my running time, which I understand is necessary with a Tarr movie.)

What more prototypical film festival experience than to see your first film made in a particular foreign country?

So White God it was, and I reported to the Forum after a quick drink at a nearby bar on the Yarra River. I would later regret that drink, but we'll get to that in a minute.

The first thing I noted was the grandeur of this old theater, which no longer regularly shows films but has been restored to a version of its former glory for the festival. It has the staircases on each side to the balcony and everything. Or so I thought -- the balcony no longer exists as such, and is actually now a separate screening place, though this space seemed pretty old in its own right, meaning the conversion likely happened years ago. Oddly, what would seem to have been the ideal screening space, the downstairs main theater, was being used instead for a festival wine bar and gathering spot. That might have been a better place to take  my drink, come to think of it, so I could have hobnobbed with ... well, with nobody, who was I kidding? I wasn't going to strike up any conversations. But just breathing in more of the festival atmosphere might have been enriching. I heard a couple people next to me in line buzzing about having seen the new Dardenne brothers movie, and that ended up feeling atmospheric enough for me.

I was expected to have a tense moment when I tried to get in, as the ticket I was using was supposed to be used by my wife or some other employee of Film Victoria. But I quickly realized that the long queue to seat us meant that they couldn't afford to spend any more time with each entrant than that necessary to scan the bar code on their ticket. So indeed, I entered with no problem.

The problem I did have, however, had its onset pretty soon after the movie started. I try never to have a drink before going to the movies, especially a late movie, because I know the alcohol will work overtime on my perennial parental exhaustion. In fact, the only reason I even partook was because my wife suggested it as a nice opportunity to celebrate being out. My chronic exhaustion needs no excuse to tip over into full-on sleep, and in a sometimes slowly paced movie that has subtitles, it requires even less of one. As this ticket was free, I had actually planned to buy some kind of concession to assist with keeping me awake, but film festivals aren't known for being popcorn and soda affairs. True enough, there was no concession stand visible, so I had to rely on almost my whole box of peppermint Tic Tacs to try to stay awake. I had hoped their minty freshness would provide a regular blast of invigoration, but really, it was only being physically involved in the act of eating them that was keeping me awake. Which is how I ended up eating probably 30 of them.

It would be hard to say whether I would have enjoyed White God more outside of this overpowering sleep impulse -- I'm almost sure I would have. But that's another prototypical aspect of seeing films at a festival: You can't be at your freshest for every film. In fact, if others were dozing along with me during White God, it may have been because it was their fourth film of the day -- an especially likely outcome on a weekend day.

There's actually a lot to recommend about this film, not the least of which is its astonishing dog training. I'm not sure if I have seen dog training quite this accomplished in a movie before. But the movie takes longer than it should to deliver on the promise of the opening scene, which you see in the image above, when the main human character (a revelatory young actress named Zsofia Psotta) is being chased on her bike by maybe a hundred dogs. The film then flashes back to give us the lead-up to this event, but that lead-up plays out over maybe an hour and fifteen minutes of deliberate story building. It's all executed with an enviable technical proficiency and strong performances, but my sleepy brain was demanding some dog mayhem a lot earlier than I got it.

Then there was the slight problem of the tone. This film's tongue is in its cheek, I think, but for much of the film it plays the material completely straight. The film actually has this strange kind of Homeward Bound quality that seems at odds -- and not always effectively at odds -- with its status as a sort-of horror movie. No, the dogs never speak to each other, but there are minutes on end of footage of them non-verbally communicating and being the only "actors" on screen. I think the titters that rippled through the audience during these scenes were intentional, but it's hard to say for sure -- and even if they were intentional, that still doesn't mean that it always worked.

I guess ultimately, animals getting revenge on humans who treat them poorly (the main dog gets sold into a dog-fighting circuit) does not seem as interesting or original a project as the film's conceit promises. I don't know what I was expecting to happen, but I guess I imagined that the praise lavished on this movie at Cannes meant that something unconventional would transpire in the film's third act. Rather, I felt like things went pretty much along lines I could have guessed.

A scene entirely unrelated to dogs may have been the one I found most interesting, as the lead human character is trying to navigate the social landscape of early teendom and ends up at this rave party, trying to befriend a cool classmate. The music pulses and pounds, and the scene takes on this dreamy, entrancing quality. However, this scene is at odds with much of the rest of the film and just highlights the film's tonal inconsistencies.

The film does have a great final shot, which I won't spoil for anyone planning to seek this one out when it opens in the U.S., probably sometime in 2015.

However it was intended, White God works better as satire/social commentary than as horror. If I want to be scared to death about the power of a psychologically unstable animal, I'll watch something like Cujo instead -- or, for that matter, The Birds.

My next MIFF screening will be Friday, when I take in the Chinese thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice. I'll write about it sometime next weekend.

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