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49th Melbourne International Film Festival

See What's Out There

Twelve days into MIFF and twenty eight films later, they're starting to blur a little. I feel like I've seen more ordinary than spectacular, but there are some worth recommending. Here are my notes on events to date:

Dateline: 31st July, 2000

Ratcatcher Urban realism set in a Scottish housing estate in the 1970s. Twelve year old James witnesses a drowning in the canal which runs through the community and everything in his bleak life is coloured by the tragedy. Outside the rubbish piles up as the garbage collectors strike continues. Everything is dirty and diseased as his family and friends look for what simple pleasures that can be found. What happens is not always nice or pleasant but you feel for the harshness of their existence and their need to find a way through it all. Spoken in English, you'll be glad for the subtitles as the Glaswegian accents and slang are difficult to follow at times. Not always enjoyable but ultimately rewarding.

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Love Honour and Obey
Tao of Steve
I'll Take you There
Hotel Splendide
High Fidelity
Rick and Steve the Happiest Gay Couple in All the World
Red Lipstick
Saving Grace
Songs from the Second Floor

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Love Honour and Obey
In the tradition of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and a million East End gangster films comes Love, Honour and Obey.

Jude (Jude Law) and Jonny (Jonny Lee Miller) have been friends since kindergarten: such good friends that when Jonny wants to join Jude's family (gangster) business, Jude vouches for him. Big mistake.

It all starts out well enough, but it isn't long before Jonny's ambition and lack of judgement get him and the rest of the firm in trouble. You won't believe how incompetent this bunch of crooks can be, or how they could have survived this long. Even harder to believe is how far off the path the plot can get (how many impotence jokes do you know?). You just know it's all going to end in tears.

This could have been a good film. Or perhaps it could have been a better film as the performances and characterisations are strong. It could have used a firmer hand with the editing and a clearer idea of where the story was going. As it was, lots of people walked out.

The Tao of Steve
Dex is a big fat unshaven slob in a Hawaiian shirt: so how come he gets the chicks?

The Tao of Steve is why: a simple set of rules for seducing women. And awfully enough, they work every time. Every time that is, until Dex meets a woman who doesn't fall for him. Is immune to his charms….

This simple film set in Santa Fe (a location we don't see enough of) is fun and entertaining. Sure, it's not too hard to figure out what's going to happen, but it's a nice ride to go along on. And it's all based on a true story as well.

I'll Take You There
Adrienne Shelley, charming star of two of Hal Hartley's early films directs her first feature.

Bill's been a mess ever since his wife left him for his best friend. When the self help books don't help, his well-meaning sister sets him up with Bernice (Ally Sheedy in a dreadful wig - I hope).

In his self-absorbed depression, Bill throws some home truths at Bernice and her cheerful façade crumbles leaving a shattered and fragile woman. Holding him responsible, she kidnaps him ala Something Wild and takes him on a ride he won't forget, leading inevitably to….the romantic comedy we always knew this would turn into.

Whilst a perfectly nice film, it was déjà vu city for me: maybe I've just been spending too much time in front of the screen.

A quirky commercial offering, Trixie stars Emily Watson as a casino security guard who soon finds herself entangled in an increasingly dangerous murder mystery.

An all star cast in this one too: Nick Nolte, Dermot Mulroney, Leslie Ann Warren… the unusual aspect of this film comes from the way Trixie mixes her metaphors. Some of them are cute ("I'm not going to let you drink yourself to Bolivia") and some plain annoying. Overall it's just a bit of an oddity.

Nick Nolte's Senator spurts the most ludicrous lines, even more ridiculous when one learns that they are all supposedly actual lines quoted by real politicians.

The treatment of the mainly working class characters is quite patronising at times, with a general assumption that they are a bit thick. I found this unpleasant and unnecessary, as the only "smart" ones are the nasty rich ones. Actually the film has more than it's fair share of nasty characters, with even the nice ones turning out to be not so good underneath.

I really enjoyed this film: the characterisations are warm and generous and Andrew McCarthy surprises in a turn as Maths teacher/hero doing his best for the girl he loves. Both of the leads are great too: Liane Balaban is gorgeously gawky with her moody dark looks as Moonie and Tara Spencer-Nairn as Lou is the best friend every adolescent girl needs. The film is empowering and uplifting, definitely feel good but with depth and freshness to burn. Highly recommended.

Hotel Splendide
I must admit I saw this film mainly on the strength of the gorgeous photo on in the programme: Toni Collette facing a massive old hotel on an isolated island, off the coast of England.

Kath is a chef returning after five years when she receives an unsigned letter. No one seems pleased to see her though: least of all ex-boyfriend Ronald but it's a month until the next ferry to the mainland and so they all just have to make the best of it.P> Similar to Delicatessen in style and black humour, the film is peopled with oddball characters. The hotel itself is a part of all the goings on: a living, slimy being representing the matriarch who died a year previously. At times her presence is almost physical. Kath's arrival brings change for the staff and guests of the hotel, leading up to a climax with the arrival of the long awaited ferry.

I particularly enjoyed the lush, dank atmospheric interiors. The film was introduced by writer director Terry Gross, who was thrilled to be at the first screening of Hotel Splendide in the southern hemisphere. Afterwards he answered questions concerning the making of the film: a must if you ever get the opportunity.

High Fidelity
Boy was I looking forward to this one! A pet project of
John Cusack and a few of his friends, this film about thirty-something breaking up and soul searching includes seventy (count 'em) songs on the sound track. Set in a rare record shop, you know they aren't going to be run of the mill tracks either.

When Laura leaves Rob he can't understand what went wrong: so he takes reminiscing about past girlfriends one step further and tracks them down to ask the hard questions. In between he tries to woo Laura back and compiles top five lists with his wacky chums in the record store he owns.

The cast is star studded (Lisa Bonet, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tim Robbins) and mostly very capable, but it's the music that takes centre stage. I'm curious to see how this one does as a commerial release though as it will be a big hit with it's demographic (an awful lot of people I know) but as for audiences as a whole? We'll see…

Red Lipstick
Ah, there's always one isn't there? The film that really disappoints. Still, at least you can have fun telling everyone just how awful it was.

Hedda Lettuce and Miss Understood are two down on their luck drag queens slumming it in New York. A harebrained scheme to become bank robbers brings them fame and more gaudy frocks than they can possibly want, but all is not fun and glamour.

On their tail are some rather dumb cops and some really dodgy blokes (couldn't quite fathom why they are dodgy apart from the fact they have stolen a tank from Bosnia: like no one's noticed that one cruising the streets of Manhattan).

And then there is Brenda, a bitchy drag queen who wants to join the gang and her "companion" Violet who is either a goth or a dominatrix. Nice PVC outfit, Violet!

There's very little to like about this sorry story so I won't prolong the agony. Other films have done the trashy cult thing better and I recommend you find one of them.

Songs from the Second Floor
Probably the most interesting and thought provoking film I've seen so far.

Highly recommended: take a friend so that you can discuss the symbolism.

Short, silent film about a pleasant afternoon in South London. Everyone's out enjoying the weather: Alan's washing his car, two men discuss their latest "job" and Kelly grimaces as her mother cuts her hair. And then suddenly when no one is looking….

Set almost entirely in an old Chinese bath house, a son returns to visit his father who he mistakenly believes has died.

It's not long before he has joined the staff of his father's bath house - the male focal point for the community, where the men meet daily for tea, games and gossip.

One of the most popular films at this year's Sydney Film Festival, Shower lovingly depicts a dying tradition as it examines father-son relationships.

Eureka Another prize winner at Cannes, Eureka is a powerful Japanese film concerning the healing process following the hijacking of a bus. Only three people survive: the bus driver and a young brother and sister.

The bus driver flees. Upon returning two years later, he learns that the children have lost both their parents. He moves in with them and together they support each other, eventually embarking on another bus trip to complete the circle and heal their grief.

This film is long and slow. Many people left during the nearly four hours of duration, however it is worth it. Come prepared (eat first, bring coffee, expect a long film) and sit it out. The resolution is joyful and satisfying, the long process not unlike real grief and the interminable wait for things to progress.

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Dateline: Saturday 22nd July, 2000

Return to Me
Bob (David Duchovny) and Elizabeth (Joely Richardson) are happy childhood sweethearts, their love shattered by a fatal car accident.

Elizabeth's heart is donated to Grace (Minnie Driver), a young woman who has never known love until…..yes, you guessed it, it's Hollywood formula romance land. Tear jerking and all.

This is an unashamedly commercial production. You know what's going to happen but it still delivers the soppy romantic goods. Duchovny and Driver work well together but apart from the slickness of the production and the way the plot sticks so faithfully to the genre, it's nothing spectacular and not really festival fodder. Still, there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Did Tammy Faye know she was going to be sent up so mercilessly? Probably Ru Paul doing the voice-over gave her a hint, and those puppets introducing each segment did as well. Oh boy, oh boy. Do we laugh or cry?

I have a heap more respect for Tammy Faye Bakker Messner after spending a couple of hours watching the sad tale of her rise and fall. A survivor, she's been through quite a lot and it's made her stronger and dammit, she just keeps on singing as well. All forty albums worth (and not all of them Christian either).

As one of the interviewees put it "After the Apocalyse the only things left will be cockroaches, Cher and Tammy Faye".

What a woman.

Nobody Knows Anybody
They pulled out all the stops in this Spanish thriller set in Seville during the Holy Week festivities. Part travelogue, part action packed romance, you'll be swept away by it all.

Simon writes crosswords puzzles for the local paper and is intrigued when one day he receives a message to include the word "adversary" in the next puzzle. Soon, a chain of bizarre murders enmesh him and before he knows what's happening (what a surprise) he's the prime suspect. But the plot has a few interesting twists yet.

The visuals are gorgeous, not least of all the leading man and the ancient city of Seville. My favourite was the spectacular climax.

Is Man Good?
A small, perfectly formed piece of science fiction. Straight to the point, well executed and very effective.

"I'd like to see a feature as good as that" (Petri)

In 1910 Doctor Yukio appears to have it all: a respected war record, a successful surgery and a beautiful new wife Rin. But then strange things start to happen…both his parents die bizarrely and then someone throws Yukio down a well and tortures him by revealing the "truth" about Rin.

This film could have been about many things, and worked on many different levels. But it didn't. The only film I have seen so far where people left before the end and no one clapped.

Dateline: Sunday 23rd July, 2000

The Virgin Suicides
Based on the bestseller by Jeffrey Eugenides, this is a confident debut for first time director Sofia Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola's daughter).

The boys of suburban Michigan never did get over the Lisbon girls back in the mid seventies. Cecilia, thirteen years old was the first to go, slitting her wrists in the bathtub on her first attempt. It's not long before the whole town is fascinated and struggling to know why.

Cecilia, Lux, Bonnie, Mary and Therese are beautiful sisters, that's for sure. Their parents (James Woods and Kathleen Turner) are keen to protect their darlings with unintended but predictabe results. Tragedy awaits.

A sold out house last night, so if you want to see this one better book soon. Bound to get a commercial release though.

Rick and Steve the Happiest Gay Couple in All the World
A sweet lego land animation about Rick the Insatiable Bottom and Steve the Versatile Top in which they throw a dinner party for some friends. This is part one so we should expect more in the future, hopefully.

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