Somehow rousing myself out of bed and stumbling down to the Paramount for my first ushering shift, I started my second day of Festival.
And what a lovely surprise to find, upon arriving at the theatre, they had misplaced an entire row of seats. Ahhh, so goes Festival.
Animation for Kids
I was feeling a genuine sense of trepidation having this as my first shift: a theatre-full of kids hyped up on Sugar-Os, running rampant around the theatre and likely damaging themselves? Not the way I want to start my day. Thankfully, the wee buggers behaved themselves and it was also a surprisingly clean theatre afterwards. It's the small mercies.
As for the programme itself, there was the usual sprinkling of Eastern European films, with their own sort of roughly drawn charm.
The standouts, however, were Ormie and The Lost Thing. Ormie was simply about a pig trying to reach a jar of delicious cookies atop a refrigerator. The slapstick shenanigans were an example of pure well timed visual comedy, as poor Ormie utilised everything from plungers to skydiving to try and reach those yummy cookies. The Lost Thing was a story with a fantastically realised world. Based on the children's book, this Aussie animation about a young man's discovery of a lost "thing" (a superbly designed cross of a large, cute steampunk Cthulu) in an otherwise, perfectly ordered world and his attempt to find a new, well suited home for it.
Homegrown: Works on Film
The first full showing of the Homegrown selection I've seen in awhile (part of the reason I'm ushering at the Festival this year instead off my usual Box Office duties, is I just missed too many films selling tickets. Not this year though!). Surprisingly for a short film selection, there were absolutely no duds. Usually there are one or twon films that just seem to drag on, or just don't click, personally. Not this year I'm happy to say.
All of the films had a strak of darkness through them, adding to that famous New Zealand "Cinema of Unease" (except, possibly Jason Stutter's Careful With That Crossbow which is played for slapstick laughs).
The standouts from this selection of six for me were Manurewa, a self-finaced tale based on the true-story of a Sikh liquor shop store owner killed in a robbery, and Choice Night following a teenage boy and the choices he makes one night.
Manurewa, in 19 minutes manages to tie in the liquor store owner, his funeral, the young men who robbed and killed him and the emergency services response. It doesn't offer up a lot of answers, but it does put up a few questions - especially around the emergency services procedures as the police and ambulance crew are hamstrung by off-the-line orders.
Choice Night keenly realised the awkward and angsty teenage years and the peer pressure that comes with puberty. The work of the two leads was superb, and it was refreshing to see the main character make the wrong choice, in the end.
I absolutely fell in love with The Triplets of Belleville when it played the Festival a few years ago, so I was really looking forward to the director's new one. Throw in that it's based on an unshot script by Jacques Tati, features a music-hall magician and Scotland and I'm sold.
As with Belleville, there is little to no dialogue for the running time of the film, and what there is is usually muttered in French or thick Scots with no subtitles. It seems like an affectation to begin with, but you become so swept up in the tale and the beautiful vistas it quickly become the norm.
Following the aforementioned magician from 1959 Paris, as he is kicked from his regular slot, travelling to London to book work, as he knows no other career and thence to a small Scottish village on a small Scottish isle. There he has the most appreciative audience he's likely had in years. He particularly impresses a young girl who follows him to Edinburgh, and where he acts as a sort of father figure working harder and harder to buy her whatever she wants. You may query and debate those gender politics, but the young girl is not meek and servile.
Edinburgh here, looks absolutely stunning. Quite possibly the best it's ever looked on film. The gothic architecture, cobble-stone streets and surrounding countryside are like a watercolour brought to wonderul life.
Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress
Thankfully, the missing row of chairs was hurriedly replaced (after being dropped onto another usher’s knee) in between sessions before Joan Rivers – it was a busy session, and trying to find replacement seats for 14 people would’ve been an unneeded complication.
The opening Extreme Close Ups on Joan Rivers’ – the 75 year old comedienne, and advocate of plastic surgery – face as make-up is applied sets the tone for the film (or, at the very least, what Joan Rivers and the filmmakers want the tone to be) – open and unvarnished.
I’ve never seen Rivers’ stand-up before, and have only peripherally been aware of her as the rasping, red carpet interviewer at awards ceremonies. Her comedy is filthy, shocking and often hilarious in the brief snippets we see. And even outside of the clubs and gigs, she possesses a sharp wit and a wry, self-deprecating humour. No subject seems to be taboo for Rivers – even at 75. Indeed, she was one of the first women/comedians/anyone to talk about abortion on prime-time TV.
And, as Rivers will seemingly make a joke out of almost anything, so will she do almost anything for a pay cheque. Beginning the film with a blank booking diary, she works tirelessly to fill it with various engagements and appearances. She’s a workaholic and won’t turn down a paying gig. In this way, she’s similar to just about every other working comic. But unlike most comics, she has slightly higher bills to pay. As one person mentions in the film, “no-one lives like Joan. Except maybe the Queen of England.”
As much an examination of her life to date (from her first appearance with Johnny Carson, his later blacklisting of her, her husband’s suicide) as a year in the life of, it offers a fascinating insight into an icon of American comedy. Behind that plastic façade that is her heavily worked on face, Rivers betrays a sentimental, vulnerable side – she seems legitimately upset about letting her long-time manager Billy go, as he is as she says “one of the last links”, one of the last people connecting her to her past. Having said that, the documentary cannot help but be sympathetic towards her but approaching it as a portrait, however biased, and a window into an otherwise unknowable world makes for a fun, intriguing watch.
Because four films in a day simply weren’t enough, I topped off my first full day of Festival madness with the hugely impressive debut feature film from David Michod, Animal Kingdom. The director was in attendance and kindly answered various audience questions for a good half hour, until past midnight.
Make no mistake; this is a sprawling, epic and impeccable debut. A crime film on a grand, yet intimate scale, it follows a Melbourne family of criminals in the last “glorious” days of armed robbery. Although deftly allowing the focus on different characters throughout, the protagonist, as the director said, sneaks up on you. J comes into the family after his mother overdoses and is swiftly pulled into an ever imploding cycle of crime and violence.
At the centre of all this is Uncle Pope – Ben Mendhelson as a grade-A, psychotic, seedy, paranoiac nut-job. He’s fascinating to watch as he pulls the family further and further into his fucked up head. And watching over everyone is the matriarch of the family, Smurf. She's mother and grandmother to these crims and just wants to be around her boys. She's a midget Machiavelli and is brought to wonderfully vile life.
Although the tone may shift from scene to scene (and handled with a sure touch), you are consistently tense from the growing sense of menace. It is omnipresent throughout and you barely recognise it consciously; it’s not until we reach the climax you suddenly feel yourself relax from a tension you didn’t even know was there.
As a final note, this film should’ve been a sell-out. It was one of the Special Presentations and the director was there for a Q & A afterwards; not even mentioning the fact it was an excellent film. Was it perhaps because it was on a Saturday night and there was rugby on? For a Film Festival crowd… somehow I don’t think the rugby really matters that much. So, what was it? How can something like this not be jam packed, while Babies, a documentary about friggin’ babies, sells out three shows?!