Friday, July 22, 2011

MIFF Blogathon: Day 1 (Kings of Comedy, Depressed Planets and 1950s Melbourne)

This blogathon is an initiative of MIFF for their 60th anniversary year. I am one of six bloggers given the mission of seeing 60 films in 17 days and writing, reporting, reviewing and wrangling my way through the tiredness and hunger to bring the festival experience to your computer.

The King of Comedy
Dir. Martin Scorsese
Running Time: 109mins

Amidst the 250+ feature films at MIFF is a series of retrospective titles from throughout the 60 year history of the festival. It was, perhaps, fitting to start my festival with one I had already seen and loved since it's always great to get a festival off to a good start. Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy may seem like a curious title to screen, but watching it again and it makes perfect sense. This brutal satire on celebrity is as pertinent today as it surely was in 1983 when originally released and remains one of Scorsese's finest works. In fact, I rank it just below Taxi Driver as his best film, so you know I liked it a lot!

That screenplay by Paul Zimmerman - a BAFTA winner for Best Original Screenplay, one of only a few award season wins, further cementing its reputation as a under-cherished gem - is truly a thing of beauty, filled with so many barbs, awkwardness and genius exchanges. It's shocking to realise that Zimmerman would only go on to write one other screenplay (the 1988 Giles Foster comedy Consuming Passions).

Of course, a large part of this film's success rests with the cast. While Jerry Lewis and Diahnne Abbott are wonderful, for me it's all about Robert DeNiro and Sandra Bernhard. DeNiro's Rupert Pupkin is such an uncomfortably character to be around, and yet his goofy innocence remains charming. Even once he's well and truly fallen off the deep end I can't help but still be entertained by him. It's this tricky skill that makes this one of DeNiro's very best performances. Who can't laugh at the whingeing exchanges between Pupkin and his off screen mother? And Sandra Bernhard... Sandra Bernhard! Her borderline insane performance as stalker Masha is one of my all time favourite performances. It's my understanding that a lot of her part was improvised, with her brand of comedy did not endearing Bernhard to co-star Jerry Lewis, but it's exactly this tension that makes those final scenes as well as they do. Such a rich and rewarding film. Isn't it about time this film was finally raised to classic status like Taxi Driver or Raging Bull? A

Melbourne Shorts (Program 1)
Dir. Various
Running Time: 69mins

This collection of six short films were introduced to the sold out crowd as being a way of exploring Melbourne's past on this 60th anniversary of the festival. What we got was a bit of a mixed bag. Beginning with Darrel Wardle's's weird is-it-a-pisstake-or-not The American (10mins) from 1959, which proposed to look at the ways America's superior manufacturing and invention has changed other cities across the world. It was followed by Douglas White's 1966 dialogue free Life in Australia: Melbourne (19mins), which followed the casual comings and goings of Melburnians as they do everything from go to work, purchase TV Week and go see William Castle's The Busy Body.

By far the corniest of the lot was Melbourne Wedding Belle (10mins), a curiously wannabe technicolour short about various members of a bridal party making there way to the wedding. Colin Dean's short had most of the dialogue narrated and written in a rhyming fashion as if they're lyrics. It was good for a few laughs at how completely silly the whole thing was, especially the strand about the old lady who just needed a new pillbox hat. The final short was David Greig's Sunday in Melbourne (19mins), an incredibly tedious exploration of - you guessed it - Sunday in Melbourne. It's by far too long and generally quite pointless, using the advantages of a short film structure to no effective use whatsoever. Although it does work as a compare and contrast piece if you look at the differences between a Sunday in Melbourne in 1958 and 2011. Perhaps knowing its shortcomings full well, the pompous narrator tells the audience at film's end that most people find Sunday remarkably boring.

The two best shorts, however, were Malcolm Wallhead's The Cleaners (16mins) from 1969 and The Melbourne Concert Hall (19mins) from 1982. The former was a rather gorgeously photographed look at one of the dirtiest of professions. The latter - the most recent of the shorts in both programs - was a rather simple documentary short on the building of The Melbourne Concert Hall in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Much of the information given by the talking heads was rather fascinating and anybody with a love of architecture should try and seek this short film out. I liked the factoid about the building being designed to last for 150 years! Pertinent now since they're remodelling it right now for a 2012 unveiling. My favourite part, however, was the way they mixed construction footage with musical pieces, to provide a rather lovely contrast. Reminded of Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi, actually.

Hopefully program 2 towards the end of the festival yields better rewards.

Dir. Lars von Trier
Running Time: 130mins

Lars von Trier announced that there would be "no more happy endings" and, when you think about it, there was really nowhere else for the notorious Danish troublemaker to go than Melancholia. It's a film that takes the debilitating cruelty of depression to it's next logical step. There's little doubt that von Trier's metaphors here are obvious, but it's what he does with them that allows him to remain one of the most fascinating, important and down right excellent filmmakers in the business. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Lars von Trier is the greatest working director in the world right now. Just my own subjective opinion, but if I can't share wildly expressive opinions on my own blog then I might as well just give up.

Opening with a 10 minute prologue that begins with a close-up of Kirsten Dunst's pillowed face that then proceeds into a spectacular visual effects reel that I'm sure Terrence Malick would appreciate, Melancholia then splits into to halves: Justine (Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine suffers from depression, this is plainly obvious once she wipes away the cute smile that audiences will recognise from Bring It On. Claire suffers from caring too much and her anxiety towards Justine, the rapidly spiralling wedding she helped organise (with a deliciously ridiculous Udo Kier!) and the lingering mysterious presence in the sky above.

The performances are universally excellent, with Dunst especially proving that von Trier's faith in her was well deserved (something that her lingering fans like myself knew was never a worry). Gainsbourg, the first of von Trier's leading women to return to the Dane's backlot of fun, is also wonderful as this nervous, tightly-wound woman. Manuel Alberto Claro's beautiful cinematography does wonders with shadow and light, using the idea of this foreign light-emanating source to create painterly pictures. The sound work and visual effects are also worth praising to the heavens.

No matter how much I was liking Melancholia, however, no matter how much it had impressed me, nothing prepared me for the gut punch that is the final scene. As von Trier's vision of a truly apocalyptic portrayal of the burden of depression comes to its natural, yet poetic, conclusion, there was something so deeply effecting that I found myself unable to breath. The final shot is certainly one for the all time lists in its brave, devastating imagery. Much like the rest of the film it will be something that lingers with me for quite some time and that is why I cherish Lars von Trier so much. A-


Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Hi Glen, I didn't get to say it was nice to meet you yesterday. I had pretty much the same reaction to Melancholia / Dunst / Gainsbourg. And if we have to name a greatest working director whose name isn't Almodovar or Malick, then by all means, lets go with von Trier ;-)

Anyhow good luck with the next 57. I'm sure I'll see you around.

Janice said...

Glenn, your review just shot Melancholia higher up on my "must see" list (will it come to Connecticut? I'm between NYC and Boston but it feels like the boonies in terms of the movies we get.) I didn't know it was about depression, and dealing with that myself right now, I need to see this. (And Dogville is somewhere in my top 100 if not top 25 anyway.)

I just watched Mean Streets finally (I had a hard time getting through it - it felt like it dragged on forever. But that's just me.) I've not seen Kings of Comedy, but I will definitely add that to my queue, especially after reading your review of Bernhard's perf.