Thursday, August 14, 2014

MIFF: MIFF makes a comeback

It's no secret I wasn't exactly thrilled with my first two movies at the Melbourne International Film Festival this year. I was marginally thrilled with White God, in parts, and with Black Coal, Thin Ice, in fewer parts. Leaving me marginally nonplussed overall.

But MIFF wasn't over for me yet -- not by a long shot.

This past Monday and Tuesday I took in two movies in less than 24 hours, and in the interest of time and other topical commitments on my blog, I'm going to combine them into one big MIFF comeback story.

Both screenings were also at the Capitol Theatre on Swanson street, one of those grand old movie palaces that has long since ceased functioning as it was originally designed, but still hosts movie screenings for the festival. Its walls and ceilings are composed of these jutting features that are somewhere between regal, art deco-inspired protrusions and concrete monstrosities. Overall it works.

Night Moves

Kelly Reichardt's fourth feature film was my first "cheat" of the festival. In this case, a "cheat" is defined as "a film I will easily be able to see just a few weeks from now, so I don't really need to attend a film festival to see it." In truth of fact, I ended up seeing it precisely a month before its Australian release date. Adding to the seeming absurdity of the viewing was that I was paying $19 for it on a Monday night, when Monday is the one night of the week I can pay $10 less than that at Cinema Nova and see the latest and greatest in independent cinema.

But I think it's fair to say I was good and ready for something I had actually been anticipating, after two straight stabs in the dark to start the festival -- two rolls of the dice that hadn't exactly won me the jackpot.

Fortunately, a cinematic jackpot was indeed waiting in Reichardt's film, a quiet and insidious little slow burn that doesn't necessarily go where you expect it to -- both in and of itself, and as a product of this particular filmmaker.

If you're not familiar with her work -- well, shame on you, but she directed Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff, which is her so-called "Oregon Trilogy." Of course now you can't call it that, as this movie also takes place in Oregon. The first two were purposefully small stories with two main characters each (even though one of those is a dog), but by Meek's she was starting to expand into a recognizable genre in the thrilling exploration of a band of settlers migrating across country under the questionable leadership of one man who supposedly knows the correct way to go. Night Moves is another move toward re-envisioning a genre, as it's a movie about a trio of environmental extremists planning to blow up a dam, which takes on some of tone and feel of one of Alan J. Pakula's paranoia films from the 1970s.

What really impressed me so much about Night Moves, beyond the performances of Jesse Eisenberg and Peter Sarsgaard (I'm distracted by the way Dakota Fanning seems like a child in a grown-up's body), is the formal maturity on display by Reichardt. Her shots here feel very tightly controlled and composed, with the express purpose of putting us in the shoes of the characters as their scheme escalates into something other than they intended. The film's growing sense of dread is ushered perfectly along by Jeff Grace's haunting and minimally used score, and Reichardt shows a mastery of close-ups and other stylistic choices that I haven't noticed in her work previously. Although this film certainly has the long takes of her other films, they are used  here in a more deliberate manner to accentuate her themes.

And a word or two about Eisenberg. He has excelled recently at playing callous pricks, perhaps ever since The Social Network, but what he's doing here seems fresh and different. He's not the sharp and spiteful wordsmith that Mark Zuckerberg was, but rather, something more internal, verging on sociopathic. If you didn't think you could be scared by Jesse Eisenberg, think again.

Why Don't You Play in Hell?

Tuesday night, at 6:30 this time rather than 9 p.m. (and thank you to my wife for letting me go straight from work and skip out on the kids' bedtime routine), I took in an unexpected viewing of Sion Sono's Why Don't You Play in Hell? Actually, my wife deserves more than a parenthetical thank you here, because it was her generosity of spirit that got me to the movie in the first place. Remember how I got into White God with a festival pass that was being used, but not effectively, by people at her work? She volunteered to try to get me a ticket to another movie using the same pass. I didn't ask for it or anything, she just volunteered.

I didn't know anything about this movie except that it had an unforgettable title, and that a friend of mine had heard something about it previously that made him super excited to see it. After watching it, I could see why.

Simply put, this movie is bananas. It's got the type of overstuffed plot that is almost too difficult to explain, but here's the basic upshot: The movie concerns a quartet of wannabe filmmakers who happen into an opportunity to film a real fight between two Yakuza gangs in order to make a movie out of it. Not only that, but they get the gangs to agree to allow them to set up the cameras and respond to the director's commands, even though the fight between these gangs will be "real." I put "real" in quotation marks because Why Don't You Play in Hell? exists in a universe side-stepped from our own. It's not blatantly ridiculous in the sense that pink elephants float through the sky or anything, but it's like a giddy and geeked-out version of our own reality, so silly that it feels weightless even during its scenes of (often quite ridiculous) violence.

Anyway, it has most in common with Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies, not only by involving an incredibly bloody sword battle (this one played for straight laughs), but as it also engages in Tarantino's repurposing of musical riffs from earlier decades and unlikely genres. I think there was even some of that Mexican dance music that Tarantino favors, in what almost spills over from the realm of homage into direct ripoff.

But how could anyone say anything so negative as that this movie rips off anything from any other movie? It's such an absurd delight with such an original spirit, filled with characters who make the audience laugh in equal measure to their delight. The movie is bursting with its own contagious love for cinema, and it is unafraid to show that love in every way imaginable. This is the type of movie that believes that going to the movies should first and foremost be raucous fun, and isn't afraid to compromise its own ambitions by turning the whole thing into a silly gas. (Rather than making the serious crime film most film lovers seem to want to make.) It's easily 20 minutes too long, but it's also so likeable that you can't fault it this either. Why Don't You Play in Hell? is enthusiasm incarnate.

Okay, this time I can be sure of it: just one film left on my 2014 MIFF schedule. I wrap things up this Saturday night with The Skeleton Twins, starring Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader.

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