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MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2007: VIDEO KILLED THE RADO STAR?

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posted by ROB JAN alias zero g on Sunday 5th of August 2007 05:57:42 AM

"VIDEO KILLED THE RADO STAR?" Well, just about, I'm a tad knackered at the moment! G’day, I’ve been a wee bit quiet for the past few weeks as I reviewed movies at this year’s 2007 Melbourne (Australia) International Film Festival. I broadcast the reviews over about two and a half hours all up on my show, Zero-G: Science Fiction, Fantasy & Historical Radio, on 3RRR FM. (rrr.org.au) The above picture is the sign on the Erwin Rado Theatre at 211 Johnson Street, Fitzroy, where the MIFF has its headquarters. The building's nothing much to look at from outside, really! But the sign...well, THAT has character! Below the MIFF offices, the theatre, named after the director of the Film Festival from 1957 - 1983, has a charming old 69 seat cinema that can screen 16mm and 35mm film as well as DVD, LaserDisc, VHS, Data and MiniDV. The MIFF’s access to the theatre expired at the end of 2007 and, ideally, it really should have its own dedicated screening facility, as other major city’s film festivals have. Still, the office itself has now moved to a more central location in Melbourne, which is handy! To find out more about the MIFF go here: www.melbournefilmfestival.com.au/ Anyway, I thought I’d post some of reviews here, inspired by films that I particularly enjoyed at this year’s event. The full transcripts can be found at: www.rrr.org.au/playlist/2778/ -AACHI & SSIPAK- SOUTH KOREA This continuously violent South Korean animated adult feature presents a future where human excrement is an energy source. Citizens have a monitoring chip attached to their arses and particularly productive individuals are rewarded with addictive drug laced munchies called Juicy Bars. I shit you not. The story begins with a roadwarrior highway battle as the swarming blue mutant Diaper Gang (!) attempts to truckjack a cargo of Juicy Bars, only to encounter a devastatingly lethal cyborg enforcer who makes Judge Dredd look like a human rights campaigner. Headshot bodies fall at a rate that would impress Aeon Flux and Samurai Jack combined as the repressive government, assorted roving bands of bandits and con men, including the title characters Aachi and Ssipak (pronounced ‘she-pock’) along with a feisty would-be actress, all compete for the Juicy Bars. Given the outrageous level of mayhem and the giggling concept that lies at the, er, bottom of the plot, it’s hardly worth noting that the animators cheerfully raid pop culture for many sequences, including the films Aliens and Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom. The latter is extensively overmined for one tunnel chase set up. The animation is quite stylistically vigorous while the off the wall social commentary reminds me a little of the kind of thing that animator Ralph Bakshi attempted in his Fritz The Cat days, well before the likes of South Park and its shock-anime kin. There’s also something to be said for the biting political satire that runs through the narrative, which results in the government and gang leader being merely two opposite sides of the same ruthless coin. People with kids could have pointless fun banning them from seeing this film, but apparently MTV’s thinking of doing a telly series based on it anyway, so, futile or what? Subtle it isn’t, but it is a species of wicked fun that will gather bums on seats! Director Joe Bum-jin 2006/90mins -A FEW DAYS IN SEPTEMBER- ITALY/FRANCE/PORTUGAL The first film directed by screenwriter Santiago Amigorena, A Few Days In September (Quelques Jours en Septembre), is a laid back but quite charming French spy thriller that makes espionage a family affair...and a realistically bickering family at that. Elliot, mostly alluded to or played as an off screen voiceover by Nick Nolte until near the film’s conclusion, is an ex-CIA agent with knowledge about the upcoming 911 attacks. He hopes to trade the information for a stake that will enable him to reunite and live with his biological daughter and step-son, legacies of two seperate cover identity marriages in France and the U.S. Much sought after by various factions, Elliot entrusts his grown up children, Orlando (Sara Forestier) and David (British actor Tom Riley) to the capable care of Irène, a cool, experienced French secret agent who used to be Elliot’s colleague. The potentially overwhelming meta-story takes a back seat to the character relationships, which makes a nice change to the usual breathless adventures that would normally puff up this kind of story into a by-the-numbers action thriller. Juliette Binoche brings marvelous, stylish depth to her role as world wise spy Irène, providing a wryly sophisticated setting for her charges’ inevitable romance. (What IS it with the French anyway? After Irène’s arm is injured she turns up wearing a chic scarf as a sling, but of course!) Always gorgeous, the actress pitches the character as being adept enough at her deadly trade so that she can afford to enjoy herself while she works. Forestier is all sharp edged, angry eyed angst as she works through father/daughter issues while Riley nervously cooks (his character worked in a restaurant) for the two formidable women who have abruptly complicated his life with their Amazonian expertise with firearms. I also very much enjoyed the arch Franco/American banter between Orlando and David. Seeking Elliot through the medium of his children is William Pound, a whacko ‘wet work’ assassin who has a penchant for poetry, drives a florist’s delivery van and has a mobile phone plagued by the world’s most annoying ringtone. Pound’s character is tightly wound by John Turturro, who played one of the convicts in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and also an equally obsessive relative of the title character in the television series Monk. A Few Days In September benefits from first rate cinematography, including some playful soft focus shots that whimsically render Venice and Paris, cheekily explained by Irène’s habit of removing her glasses to ‘see things differently’. There’s also a cracking good shot through the dark framed doorway of a Venetian Chapel which reminded me of a signature frame from a John Ford Western, only instead of Mesas and sagebrush we get the Venice Lagoon and a passing ocean liner. Although this film lingers perhaps a little too lovingly on the wrangling entanglements of its main characters I still found it pleasant and rewardable viewing. Amigorena certainly knows how to inject off-beat life into his characters. Director/Screenwriter Santiago Amigorena 2006/115 mins -BUG- USA When down on her luck small town waitress Agnes White (played by Ashley Judd) invites eccentric drifter Peter Evans into her seedy motel room she receives much more than she bug-aned for! Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, & The French Connection) gets almost unbearably psychological in this cross genre movie that wisely adds no excess fat to the one set, pressure cooker Tracy Lett’s play that it’s adapted from. As the two main characters’ relationship slowly emerges from a far too tightly spun chrysalis the film builds to one of the most intensely wound paranoic conclusions seen on screen. Michael Shannon is gauntly convincing as Evans, a role that he pioneered in the original stage play and intially at least, reminds me a little of a young Steve McQueen or perhaps, Joachim Phoenix. Harry Connick Junior has a supporting part in the film as Agne’s ex-convict, ex-husband. Bug’s maddeningly paced escalating tension is supported by an appropriately chittering score, composed by Brian Tyler, who also gave us soundtracks for the films Constantine, Bubba Ho-Tep, the Children of Dune miniseries, as well as episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise and the upcoming Aliens Versus Predator 2: Survival Of The Fittest. Speaking of Star Trek, Ashley Judd also played Ensign Robin Lefler in Star Trek: Next Generation. Bug is a film that creeps up on you and by its final scuttling rush will definitely get under your skin...one way or another. Director- William Friedkin Screenwriter-Tracy Letts 2006/101mins -EL TOPO- (MEXICO) El Topo (“The Mole”) was director Alejandro Jodorowsky's third film. The infamous Mexican allergorically surreal Eastern/Western is presented at the festival in a very fine new restoration (a bit of a shock for those used to seeing it in its customary raddled grindhouse/cult prints!) along with its natural companion piece, The Holy Mountain. This comprehensively startling but compelling film begins, not unlike the Lone Wolf And Cub Samurai series, with the black clad, flute playing gunslinger El Topo (played by the director himself) riding across the wastelands in company with a taciturn child companion. After a blood drenched encounter with drunkenly bestial bandits El Topo replaces the boy with a seductively manipulative woman who urges him to become the greatest shootist in the world by seeking out and defeating four master gunfighters. As with the wuxia martial arts films that this story frequently references the quest for the masters proves dangerous, difficult, baffling and wonderous. The gunslinger’s odyssey to achieve enlightment and mastery is populated with exotic encounters and inventive, symbolically charged imagery. Deflating balloons signal the start of duels, capering outlaws with shoe fetishes rape feminised sand paintings and carve bananas with sabres, civilised townsfolk prove more depraved and debauched than the wasteland bandits, herds of rabbits mysteriously die at El Topo’s feet, incestuously deformed trogalytes living in oil drums tunnel to escape their underground prison, and live bullets are caught and deflected by butterfly nets. This visual melange is supported by Jodorowskys and Nacho Méndezs evocative music which, by turns soothing or jarring, echoes across the many desert based sequences and permeates the locations, which frequently read more like artistic installations than sets grounded in any kind of mundane reality. In fact, there is a timeless anachronistic feel to the desert that makes you question whether this is nominally a period Western or indeed set in some kind of post-apocalyptic Stephen King future. El Topo is rendered even stranger by its renowned mid-film gear change, one of several enigmatic transformations that can be interpreted as Buddhist inspired reincarnations of the title character. Just imagine what might have been if Jodorowsky had pulled off his mid-70s adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune, with its intended cast of Salvidor Dali as the Emperor, Mick Jagger playing Feyd Rautha and Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen? As it is the Acid Western tradition at least got another outing in Jim Jarmusch's more recent film, Dead Man, which, for all its many remarkable charms, by comparison to El Topo is cast into monochrome shade. A bizarre chimera even by Zero-G's notoriously unhinged standards El Topo is a cult classic given gloriously grotesque new life by its own recent transfiguring restoration. Director/Screenwriter Alejandro Jodorowsky 1971/125mins -FIDO- Canada/USA Fido fiendishly expands upon the gag featured in Shaun of the Dead (amongst other films) that zombies could be domesticated to perform simple tasks. Zombies helping in the kitchen? Uh-oh, better make sure they keep those rotting fingers are kept hygenically away from food preparation surfaces with a pair of crisp, clean white cotton gloves.... In an alternate 1950s the all encompassing ZomCom, which apparently helped win the Zombie War, protects and serves the walled small towns of America. Now, we all know that the only reason to provide zombies with clever electronic control collars is so that the gadgets can malfunction; cue zombie outbreak! It’s the slyly subversive juxtaposition of wholesome mom and apple-pie Leave It To Beaver sitcom with Zombie killing procedural that lends this consistently bemusing film a wicked Addams Family style where Pop naturally reads Death Magazine and scenes shot in cars are filmed using good old fashioned rear screen projection. Not that we’re talking Black and White telly, nosirree Bob! Fido is filmed in full, glorious technicolour, complete with ginormous finned automobiles, two toned shoes and compliant Stepford housewives who wait at the front door for their patriarchal hubbies to take the martini from their submissive, manicured hands. Happily, Carrie Anne-Moss in one of the main roles, as Helen Robinson, is more of a buddingly feisty Desperate Housewife after the armed and dangerous example of Bree Hodge. (From The Matrix to a zombie packed Pleasantville is indeed an ironic career path!) It’s not long before Helen kicks over the domestic traces following the example of her young son, Timmy (knowingly played by the intriguingly named K’Sun Ray) and his new pet zombie, the Fido of the title, embodied by Billy Connolly. Connolly plays the long suffering Fido with toothy glee, moaning and groaning and lurching in the throes of what could easily double as a hangover of fatally heroic proportions. Keep an eye out (easy to do in a zombie film) for Dylan Baker, as the nervously cheerful Bill Robinson. Baker has had the sleeper part of Doctor Curt Connors in the Spider-Man films and, as comic book fans anticipate, should eventually get to mutate into the super-villain, The Lizard. Fido is my genre pic of the Festival, in the tradition of another year’s shambling B-schlock spoof, The Lost Skeleton Of Cadavra. I ask you, how can I not enjoy sinking my teeth into a film where a pet zombie is addressed with a line like: “What’s that Fido? Timmy’s in trouble?” It’s enough to make Lassie dig her way out of her grave! Director- Andrew Currie Screenwriters- Robert Chomiak, Andrew Currie, Dennis Heaton 2006/91mins -HANSEL & GRETEL- GERMANY If you go down to the woods today.....you’d better take your copy of the Brothers Grimm Cookbook For Baking Independent Elderly Female Cannibal Sorceresses. German director Anne Wild and screenwriter Peter Schwindt settle for a straightforward retelling of the classic rural ‘stranger danger’ story wherein the devious Gretel proves the most resourceful of two deliberately lost children who end up on the menu of the obligatory member of the local Guild of Almagamated Wicked Witches & Confectioners. Deliberately lost? How do you think the kids got to be wandering around in Blair Witchburg in the first place? Sometimes tactfully omitted from modern retellings of this familiar story is the neglected element of child abandonment, a practice forced upon starving families in situations of plague, famine, wars and other social upheavals. In this case, it’s the pragmatic step-mother who pushes her more sentimental but nontheless compliant woodcutter husband into cutting loose the kids. In early versions of the story it’s usually just the natural mother who suggests jettisoning the offspring...a much more useful cautionary tale for parents to use as and Awful Threat when disciplining naughty anklebiters. Leaving aside observations about how Hansel and Gretel underlines the historical distrust of skilled single women of independent means this is actually a moderately creepily staged film. The woods are suitably threatening, and the witch herself, though certainly not up to Buffy The Vampire Slayer standards is a reasonably nasty albeit dimwitted piece of work... I never can figure out quite why witchy poo needed to go Hannibal Lector on kiddies when she was capable of whipping up enough food to fatten a small army, not to mention all that square footage of gingerbread real estate. Let’s just assume it’s an alternative lifestyle choice, along the lines of supergenius Wile. E. Coyote yearning after Roadrunner drumsticks in spite of the fact that he had enough credit to order truckloads of expensive gadgets from the ACME Corporation. (On the subject of ghoulish folks developing a fondness for ‘long pig’ just what DID those darling children do with the oven fired witch after they fried her arse?) We all know how this ends, after making off with the witch’s portable property the kids, in a remarkable act of forgiveness, share their taxfree windfall with their deadbeat dad...though their step mother has obligingly dropped dead in the meanwhile. Hmm, did anyone actually see step-mama and Ms Witch in the same room at the same time? Don’t expect a Post-Modern fractured fairytale from Hansel and Gretel and you won’t be led astray by what’s essentially a traditionally told, moderately unsettling film. Director- Anne Wild Screenwriter- Peter Schwindt 2006/76mins -THE HOLY MOUNTAIN- MEXICO If you thought Alejandro Jodorowsky’s third film, El Topo, was weird...well, no caca Sherlock! Wait until you get a load of this.... His next surreally allegorical outing, 1973’s The Holy Mountain, scales even more whackily experimental heights. Like El Topo, The Holy Mountain has also been recently, lovingly restored, all the better to trip out on the eye bulging psychedelic imagery! Again, as with El Topo, the nominal protagonist is on a messianic quest to achieve enlightment. Even more ironically symbolic in this case since the central thief character bears a strong and exploitable resemblance to the traditional representation of Jesus Christ. Horácio Salinas plays the hapless thief, leaving Jodorowsky himself the catalytic role of a tower dwelling alchemist who charges him to accompany seven influential but materialistic powerbrokers to Lotus Island where they will achieve eternal life once they have climbed the eponymous Holy Mountain. Initially the dialogue is thin on the ground but soon ramps up to cheerfully inexplicable levels where a line like “hypersexed brown native vampires” can pass without comment or indeed comprehension. Politics, art, sexuality, and filmmaking, amongst many other subjects, all cop a satirical hiding in this extraordinary film which relies heavily upon fantasy imagery drawn from tarot cards, astrology and religion. Just listing a few of the oddball ideas gives you an idea of the unique scope of Jorodowsky’s fevered imagination. Two women are ‘cleansed’ of clothing, make-up, jewellery, false nails, and hair by a black robed priest who himself has ebony varnished fingernails. A screaming man lies covered in tarantulas...no big acting stretch there! The Invasion of Mexico is renacted by lizards dressed in Mezoamerican costumes battling frogs wearing Conquistador armour and missionary robes. (I have my doubts about this sequence, it sure looks like the poor frogs are really being blown up by explosives?) A mulitple amputee writes cryptic messages in the dirt with a severed animal leg. Parading prostitutes turn out to be just as holy as priests. Roman soldiers cast the thief in plaster and create a line of life-sized crucifiction merchandise. Art factory paint coated nude backsides stamp out images on a production line while live body painted nudes are built into installations so they can be fondled by gallery patrons. Gas masked soldiers attend dances and machine guns and hand grenades are painted in rainbow colours. Spartan like warriors pursue a cunning plan to emasculate 1000 heroes to create a shrine of 1000 testicles....and nevermind what they did with the other 1000! Eviscerated victims spill chicken guts....and I mean they literally pull chickens from their wounds’ while Liederhosen wearing Teutonics trip on drugs and strongmen are able to turn intangible and teleport through entire mountains. Distantly reminiscent of Fellini’s Satyricon, and to some extent Roma, The Holy Mountain also boasts the most startling Orgasmatron machine since the erotic cult film Barbarella, in the form of a Giant mechanical vagina that’s manipulated like a theramin.... well, if a theramin was played by a giant dildo! Is it any surprise, really, in the wake of the cult success of El Topo, that The Holy Mountain’s producer Allen Klein also managed The Beatles and that those fans of all things psychedelic, John Lennon and Yoko Ono helped fund the movie? Landmark or landfill experimental film? The Holy Mountain remains an obvious precursor to movies like Eraserhead, The Cremaster Cycle, and The Qatsi Trilogy. Climb it at your own peril. (You know you want to!) Director/Screenwriter Alejandro Jodorowsky 1973/114mins -lLS- France Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michael Cohen) live happily in pastoral rural isolation in a rundown chalet in the Romanian woods, until one night they are attacked by....THEM! No, not by lurching giant ants from a 1950s horror film but by...well, that would be telling. Some horror films take their time building suspense but Moreau and Palud’s shiversome first feature nails you straight to the wall and keeps you hanging there for the economical just-over-an-hour’s running time. And I do mean ‘running’. The adept direction and unrelating pace set within the atmospheric confines of the old chalet (a dream of a location to create nightmares in) is ramped up by genuinely unnerving sound effects design, an evocatively tense soundtrack, solid if necessarilly Spartan performances by the two leads, and the teasing revelation of the nature of the besiegers. There’s nothing particularly new about the ingredients stirred into this terrifying mix. In fact, you could, after the credits have rolled and the lights come up again, sit back and tick off the horror cliches one by one, starting with the usually tiresome pronouncement, “Based On A True Story”. Commentators seem uncertain about the veracity of that, but in this case it adds to the overall feel of unease that permeates the ending of this film. I found myself thinking, “Y’know, I can see how that could actually happen....brrrr!” Ils...it took me a while to realise that the title is merely the French word for “Them”... is one of the most disturbing horror films I’ve seen in some time, and all without buckets of blood or lashings of sickly inventive torture porn. With its efficient minimalist approach it’s very close in tone to the best of the New Wave of Japanese horror that burst upon the West several years ago now. Directors/ Screenwriters- David Moreau and Xavier Palud 2006/70 mins -ISLAND OF LOST SOULS- DENMARK A big budget supernatural fantasy for young adults that's part Spielberg, part Lucas, with an added dash of Harry Potter, but which ultimately wears its ample CGI well to create an enjoyable and in a few places reasonably scary film. When two children move to a quiet country town the last thing they expect to find is a haunted island plagued by a supernatural confluence of kidnapped souls. When a young girl taps into the mystic mayhem it results in her brother being possessed by the spirit of a centuries dead member of an ancient order of sorcerous crimefighters. The film's young actors are capable and ‘self possessed’ in the face of some quite formidable magical opposition, including a new and nasty take on that familiar player from Central Horror Casting, the living Scarecrow, along with a necromancer who could be brother to both Nosferatu and the Star Wars Emperor, right down to the cadaverous features and handy ability to cast Sith lightning from his fingies! I especialy liked the offbeat character of the trainspotting psychic investigator who inevitably comes to the kid’s aid in their hour of dire peril. A fun little romp that’s no longer than it should be at an economical 100 minutes. Director- Nikolaj Arcel Screenwriter- Ramsus Heisterberg 2007/100mins Sessions Sun, 12th of August, 1:00 PM ACMI -KHADAK- Belgium/Germany/The Netherlands Bagi, played by Batzul Khayankhyarvaa, is a young nomad, who, along with his family are wrenched from their nomadic existence by the Mongolian government who want to consolidate people in towns, villages and cities as the fledgling democracy gears up to enter the 21st century’s global economy. After rescuing Zolzaya (Tsetsegee Byamba), a beautiful female coal thief, Bagi boldly goes where nomad has gone before on a shamanistic quest that culminates in fantastical revelations about Mongolia’s future relation with the environment. Khadak is underpinned by a hypnotically compelling narrative fascination with magic realism that often contrasts the shabby reality of the concrete high rises with the colourfully organic traditional nomadic traditional yurt dwellings. The film overflows with powerful imagery, including a simple but effective camera roll that causes an iconistic prayer-scarf draped tree to turn upside down as the land itself is inverted by mineral exploitation and pollution. A deserted town, in reality an abandoned former Soviet barracks, stands in for one potential future. Tractors, used to haul the disassembled yurts, are started and allowed to run aimlessly free across the steppes as the government agents burn the nomads’ links to their former lifestyle behind them. Khadak doesn’t always offer too nostalgic a view of the nomadic struggle; many of the former rural folk cheerfully adapt to their new circumstances and some seem to pragmatically thrive, especially Bagi’s mother, who ends up running heavy machinery at the coal mine where immense draglines swing with saurian grace across the screen. The film’s reverberating score resonates across the wind blown, echoing steppes, giving way to some moments of pure musical bliss, especially when some of the newly urbanised young people get together for astonishing ‘jam’ sessions. Both lyrical and hard edged Khadak is a film, like Martin Scorsese’s Kundan, whose exotic sights and sounds will be welcome guests in my yurt for as long as they choose to stay. Directors/Screenwriters- Peter Brosens, Jessica Hope Woodworth 2006/105mins -LAST WINTER, THE- USA/Iceland It’s damn cold in Northern Alaska but not cold enough, as tough but soft centered Ron Perlman’s advance oil drilling preparation crew discover when they set out to re-open an isolated test drilling site that may be viable in the face of looming energy shortages. The arctic circle tundra is thawing rapidly, unleashing the kind of environmental horror movie that used to be in vogue back in the 1970s and which is all too timely now as global warming makes its presence felt in the real world. Perlman, as usual, is excellent, giving the kind of inflected performance that graced Hellboy, Cronos, City Of Lost Children and his impressive work in the television fantasy series Beauty & The Beast. The ensemble players are also deftly sketched in, often in a low key fashion that adds realism. Director Larry Fessenden successfully follows up and even references in one brief bit of dialogue, Wendigo, one of his earlier, not entirely disimilar horror outings. As with some other genre films in this year’s festival the horror elements are timeless; from the simmering sexual and tensions and hostility between the boffins and the bluecollars to the classic scenario of the besieged ice station. The latter is a character in itself, in the ‘Thingy’ tradition of both Howard Hawks and John Carpenter’s seperate adaptations of John W. Campbell’s seminal very Cold War science fiction novella, Who Goes There? Best possible use is made of this stunning location, as the screen often becomes an overwhelmingly vast white or dark canvas to trap and diminish the hapless blue collar workers. Crystal clear sound design helps ‘sell’ the visuals and the impressive CGI special effects are first rate, without ever detracting from the practical drama of the sheer dangers of living and working in such an extreme environment. The Last Winter is a cunningly ambiguous chiller that cleverly maintains a plausible alternative explanation for the film’s lethal events up to and possibly including the final admirably restrained frame which begs teasingly to be opened out into a wider shot but leaves the audience wanting more, leaving room for a possible but unecessary sequel. Oil be back! Director- Larry Fessenden Screenwriters- Larry Fessenden, Robert Leaver 2006/107mins -MEN AT WORK- IRAN A carload of Iranian buddies on their way down the mountains from a skiing holiday stop for a toilet break at a precipitous roadside layover and discover a monolithic rock that just HAS to be tumbled down the slopes. If you’re a bloke, you automatically know how it is. If you’re a woman, equally, you KNOW how we are! An amusing exploration of male bonding and stubborness this happily crazy film is guaranteed to contain no sociopolitical allegory whatsoever (really!) and the Iranian writer/director has asked that the U.S please refrain from invading his leg of the Axis of Evil until he has finished his next project. Director/Screenwriter- Mani Haghighi 2006/75mins -SEVERANCE- UK When completely politically incorrect arms merchant Palisade Defence rewards its crack Euro Sales division with a team-building weeked in the woods of Eastern Europe the mismatched but archtypal bickering office workers soon find that they’re not quite the ‘gun’ group that they thought they were. Yes, the comparison of choice is The Office meets Deliverance and that’s fair enough because what makes this movie so gormlessly funny is the inept Brits Abroad schtick combined with an equally knowing, wickedly timed take on the horror slasher genre that puts most inept Hollywood fun with fear spoofs to more shame than ever. The only time this film ever really fumbles is when it takes the horror too seriously, which is not all that frequently, though more noticably and perhaps inevitably, in the apocalyptic last reel. Oddly, Severence’s particularly grungy baddies who get to fold, spindle and mutilate our heroic twonks remind me very much of the “Stalkers” from the recent popular video game, which itself references the Tarkovsky film and the less well known science fiction novel that classic is itself based on, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. The heavyweight British ensemble cast is a real corker here, and one of the most enjoyable in the festival films I’ve seen this year, including at least one former Bond villain (Toby Stephens who was Gustav Graves in Die Another Day) and the always wetly amusing Tim McInnerny who plays to his well known Blackadder type (He was both Lord Percy and Captain Darling) as the incompetent boss of the Palisade’s party. I won’t be the last reviewer to note that Eastern Europe has become destination of choice for horror filmmakers of late. Attracted by threatening woodlands, abandoned buildings and low cost production facilities the exotic locales also perhaps wallow in a degree of smug and possibly premature Western superiority in the wake of the economic collapse of former Eastern Bloc foes. For the moment, these once hard to access countries are providing filmmakers with a place to set their stories ‘beyond the glow of the streetlights’. Again, as with other festival genre films, Severence does benefit from a marvelously decrepit Old Dark house of a location. Severence is laced with joyfully understated sight gags, dialogue to listen for, and a good deal of well meaning irony regarding corporate responsibility. The icing on the cake is a musical score that fiddles with both ominous gypsy curses, pop tunes and even riffs off We’ll Meet Again as featured in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, to which black comedy there’s more than one reference. Severance gives awful new meaning to the term, “You’e fired!” Director- Christopher Smith Screenwriters- James Moran, Christopher Smith 2006/90mins -STILL LIFE- HONG KONG/CHINA An intimate but involving look at the disapora of displaced persons produced by China's Three Gorges Dam mega-engineering project as seen through the eyes of two people. In the first part of the film coal miner Han Sanming (played by Sanming Han) returns after 16 years absence to his former home town of Fengjie, only to find its 2000 years of history submerged beneath the waters of the dam. Taking a temporary job in demolition, he searches for news of his ex wife, whom he hasn’t seen for 16 years. Still Life never wanders far from the dominating horizontal visuals of the mighty Yangtze River and the monolithic concrete and steel dam. The apocalyptic rubble of the yet-to-be flooded part of the town forms another powerful metaphor, a full stop to the flow of linear time represented by the River, which itself has been given pause by the immense project. It’s a hard life for Han, though undoubtedly far less dangerous than the notoriously hazardous Chinese coal mining industry, and it provides some extraordinary imagery. Men in supposedly protective suits with sanitising back pack sprayers wander through gutted homes. Friends are made amongst workmates to the jaunty ringtones of their mobile phones as they exchange numbers...a socialising ritual that later prompts one of the film’s most poignant moments when a mobile ‘s unanswered ringing signals a tragic accident. Condemned buildings collapse with tired grace in the distant background as they receive explosive coup de grâces. The second half of the film segues into another quest for closure, as Nurse Shen Hong (Tao Zhao) journeys to the town looking for her own estranged husband. Again, the dam is another defining presence in the story, providing a backdrop for the final resolution of Shen Hong’s search. One baffling scene (and I’d welcome any light that anyone can shed on this!) sees Shen staring at a large monument in the distance. It appears to be a Chinese alphabetical character, rendered in concrete. As she turns away, rocket motors ignite at its base and the whole giant structure lifts off into the skies. I assume this is some kind of reference to the recent successes of the Chinese manned space programme but am not sure as to why it’s relevant to the story? Unless it’s just a bit of triumphalism? Or indeed, because Shen does ignore the startling sight, perhaps it’s meant to be ironic? Enquiring minds need to know! Actually, the overall philosophical conclusion drawn at the end of Still Life does read a little bit like some kind of inspirational tract to me....but that may just reflect my own bias, or again it could be ironic, and I won’t spoil the ending by going further into detail. (Well, cross cultural puzzles have always attracted me to World Cinema!) Still Life is a beautifully visualised, thoughtful film with a measured pace that aptly reflects the larger elements that form the canvas that its smaller, but no less important, human dramas are played out against. Director/Screenwriter- Jia Zhang-ke 2006/108mins -THE WAR TAPES- USA Rather than be 'embedded' in a U.S military unit in Iraq filmmaker Deborah Scranton chose to give cameras to three National Guardsmen to record their own experiences deployed with Charlie Company, 3rd of the 172nd New Hampshire Mountain Infantry. Scranton provided additional remote directorial aid via text messaging and email to the three soldiers, Sgts. Stephen Pink and Zack Bazzi, and Specialist Michael Moriarty, whose stories were chosen from an overall pool of 1000 hours of footage. The soldiers’ personal and professional accounts are sobering and revelatory and never less than enlightening. Though it does this remarkably cohesive documentary something of a disservice to cherry pick material out of its sturdily engineered overall context it’s necessary to give some idea of the range of material included in the film. We see several ambush eye views of the destructive force of roadside Improvised Explosive Devices which, though initiated and responded to with varying degrees of control by both combatant forces, usually result in chaos and confusion, death and destruction, for bystanders. One soldier matter-of-factly tours a vast graveyard of combat lossed vehicles, shattered and gutted by I.E.Ds, casting in an increasingly ironic light President Bush’s triumphantly naive 2003 announcement that “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended...” The complexity of night operations are mirrored in the silvered eyed stare of soldiers seen through the eerie but tactically invaluable lenses of night vision equipment , rendering one formation of troops strikingly like a formation of stolid Terracotta Warriors. The detached professionalism of the soldiers understandably falters when a night time convoy kills a woman who was then struck repeatedly by each truck in turn. The irony of soldiers and hired civilians (drivers and security guards) risking and losing their lives to protect re-supply cargos of, for example, cheese for hamburgers, is not lost on the troopers who wonder loudly if the complex and highly profitable logistical tail is wagging the policy dog? In fact, they’re refreshingly unguarded in their speculations about what they see, from their perspective as boots on the ground, as the reasons behind the ongoing war. Their observations are pithy, and to the point...or, rather, multiple points, as the individual opinions cover the entire spectrum of current controversy, from oil driven conspiracy to patriotic war on terror. Soldiers will always enthusiastically relish the opportunity to grouse about their lot, reserving special venom for the shortcomings of their equipment, training, rations and orders. One complaint amongst many was that these soldiers received little or no cultural instruction to help prepare them for operating in the Iraq theatre, which ommission makes it hard to both know the enemy or understand your friends. Even a simple misunderstanding over a commonly used hand gesture for ‘Stop’ can, in the local environment, be fatally mistaken for ‘Hello!” The fact that the Iraq conflict is, in reality, fought amongst peoples homes rather than some spiffily titled combat theatre, warzone or neutrally termed area of operations is thoughtfully underlined by frequent segues to the soldiers’ American homes, either when the troops have returned or during their absence. Surface impressions notwithstanding there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of difference between U.S and Iraqi civilians; folks, it seems, are alike all over. Stateside sequences touch upon the complicated effects that the deployment had on civilian family members, the problems of post traumatic stress disorder suffered by the veterans, and the more obvious physical injuries. For example, one of the soldiers has carpal tunnel syndrome in his hands, the result of vibration transmitted through the grips of his vehicle mounted machine gun on patrol. He also has to cope with back pain from wearing body armour in a confined space. Crammed with ‘real time’ feedback from ongoing conflict The War Tapes makes a provocative companion piece with the 2005 documentary Gunner Palace. For balance I would also add to the recommended viewing list: Control Room (2004), Baghdad ER (2006), and My Country, My Country (2006) Director- Deborah Scranton 2006/97mins -WELCOME TO NOLLYWOOD- USA/NIGERIA Never heard of the Nigerian film industry? This inspiringly cheeky doco will rectify that and should be seen by all budding filmmakers seeking new ways to practice their art. Something like 2400 movies per year are produced in Nigeria, making it the third most prolific film industry in the world. Film? Well, that’s a nostalgically generic term to describe the Nigerians’ enthusiastic bypassing of conventional film stock and its complex and expensive infrastructure in favour of digital video distributed directly and cheaply at local marketplaces on DVD or VCD. The 300 or so Nigerian directors have an already rich tradition of oral storytelling to draw upon, and have embraced multiple genres usually lensing them through an action adventure filter, which has fostered a support industry of movie fight Action Camps where actors can learn the stunt fight business. Although one director claims “We don’t do science fiction” Nollywood nevertheless loves fantasy, especially religious based melodramas with plenty of demons and angels, sorcererors and witches. Period films set in Nigeria often have a luridly portrayed but understandably anti-slavery element, which alongside with the witchcraft angle concerns some commentators who argue that focusing on these aspects promotes stereotypes. A visit to the set of a film grounded in the recent Liberian war shows the Nigerian director, who at least partly funded the movie himself, putting his actors through boot camps to learn how to fill out their soldierly roles, including veteran advisors from both sides of the original conflict. The actors go through production hell but ironically are brought low by a botched contract with the caterers... Nollywood; not entirely different from Hollywood! Director- Jamie Meltzer 2007/58mins -U- FRANCE A lyrical French animated feature with fluidly drawn artwork and an equally languid, but elegant plot as a Princess Mona is faced with choosing between new love and a beloved friend, who happens to be a unicorn. The charming, anthropomorphic animal cast could have been drawn by Dr Seuss, and the story is a souffle of flirtatious love with a playful musical topping. Directors- Grégoire Solotareff, Serge Elissalde Screenwriter- Grégoire Solotareff 2006/71mins



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