Wednesday, July 27, 2011

MIFF Blogathon: Day 5 (Pianos and Chess in Littlerock)

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 Piano in a Factory
Dir. Zhang Meng
Running Time: 105mins

China's answer to the American indie quirk genre, Zhang Meng's The Piano in a Factory [Gang de qin] is a surprisingly charming and goofy examination of a band of performers living amidst a dying industrial town as they go about building a piano for their leader's daughter. After divorce has left this troubadour, Wang Quin-yuan's Chen, with no money, the only way to buy the affections of his daughter over those of her materialistic mother, is to build a piano alongside his band mates in a disused factory. Wonderfully lensed by Shu Chou in a series of steely greys, the wintery landscapes of snow and mud are fabulously intertwined with the factories, pipes, tunnels, pillars and traffic sounds of this industrial wasteland.

We routinely hear of China being in an economic resources boom, so it's interesting to see this film's portrayal as less than so, with dank and decaying fashion. The director has thankfully used a light touch with the material and does a lot that stops it from descending into maudlin, depression territory, while skirting the twee, cloying tone that could come from using the Super Mario Bros theme music. The Piano in a Factory proves to be far less obvious and manufactured here than it would be in an American film of the same variety. Combined with utterly bizarre musical sequences, a fantastic lead performance by Qin Hai-lu make this film, despite being too long for sure, an endearing surprise. B+

Dir. Mike Ott
Running Time: 83mins

America through the eyes of two Asian tourists, Littlerock features an evocative sense of place mere minutes into its short running time, but a pair of strange lead performances dulls the experience. Atsuko Okatsuka stars as Atsuko, a young girl travelling through America with her brother. Stuck in Littlerock, California (not to be confused with the actual city of Little Rock, Arkansas), Atsuko finds herself enamoured with the small town Americana vibe (or perhaps just enamoured with anything that isn't a staunch Japanese upbringing) and chooses to stay on as her brother heads to San Fransisco. She makes friends with a curiously fey - yet staunchly heterosexual - drug pusher and wannabe model (Cory Zacharia as Cory), as well as Jordan (Brett L Tinnes), a cute boy who proves hipsters can be found anymore!

The camera of cinematographer Carl McLaughlin (also a co-writer) is the real star of Littlerock, as it latches on to the sights of America that so endear it to many travellers. Okatsuka's performance as Atsumo, unfortunately blank and empty as a tourist with no knowledge of the local language, is not one of the things that the camera appears in awe of. Occasionally piping up with flat narration in the form of letters written home to her father, Okatskuka never seizes upon any emotional reading of her face when given a close-up. She just sits there and she makes for a difficult entry into the story. The character of Cory is the opposite, as there is so much of him given to us that I actually wished they put him away. Why he was written as an obvious homosexual who's willing to pull Zoolander model faces and perform his runway walk at the drop of a hat is beyond me. Was Ott trying to say something about homosexuality in a small town? If he was, I think I missed it. C+

Bobby Fischer Against the World
Dir. Liz Garbus
Running Time: 90mins

Chess: It's not the most exciting sport, is it? Especially when your prime subject has a rule in his big matches that there be no filming allowed. So, what we have here with Liz Garbus' documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World is a movie about chess' greatest player and yet we never actually get to see the man play. Must be a joke, yeah? Unfortunately, no.

Bobby Fischer Against the World is what I called a "wikipedia film". It even goes so far as to divide its (thankfully brief) run time into separately themed chapters of easily digestible themes. Garbus' subject is an interesting one, that's for sure, but where is the punch, where is the excitement? Something to have enlivened this documentary would have been greatly appreciated. As it is it's a standard history lesson that doesn't dig all that deep. C

Dir. Markus Schleinzer
Running Time: 96mins

It's curious. The banality that I found numbing and dull in Michael is the exact virtue that many others (including fellow blogathon buddy Thomas Caldwell) found in the piece. Was debut director Markus Schleinzer's plan to show that not only are paedophiles evil, but they're also incredibly boring? Sadly, I suspect this was in fact the case, but Schleinzer has gone about the material with the vagueness of blanched brussel sprouts.

The daunting prospect of watching a film about a paedophile who keeps a child locked in the basement is blunted by Schleinzer's desire to do absolutely nothing with it. There isn't anything particularly shocking or daring going on here; we've heard far worse coming out of the mouths of actual dungeon abuse victims. All Michael has is a static camera that thinks its being observational about the world, but instead - from my perspective - came off as scared and uninterested.

To call the lead character of Michael, played by Buster Bluth lookalike Michael Fuith, detached would be an understatement for the festival. As he keeps young Wolfgang locked in his basement, Schleinzer follows his mundane life as he goes to work, goes skiing, tries to have sex with a woman and fails, goes to hospital due to a car accident... and it all plays out in bland, Haneke-lite long shots with ambiguous beginning and end times. There is some interesting work done to imply that this boy has been there for quite some time and that Michael has helf other boys before, but it really does come off as a case of the director letting the subject matter do the heavy lifting and expecting some sort of meaning to bounce out because of it. Michael is arthouse filmmaking at its most maddening. Except, I guess, there's nothing particularly "maddening" about Michael. It just exists. Like brussel sprouts. D

I expected walkouts at Michael due to the nature of the plot, but the film's wishy-washy presentation - almost afraid to do or say anything about paedophiles or their victims - gave the large Tuesday night crowd nothing to get particularly huffy about, although I heard bad projection issues meant an earlier screening of Uzo and Scorsese's The King of Comedy meant viewers were left wanting.

Today at Bobby Fischer I had the pleasure of finally meeting Rhett Bartlett of Dial M for Movies. As we sat waiting for the movie to begin a lady began speaking to us. She had recognised me as one of the bloggers and began to explain how she thought it was a conspiracy as to who was chosen to take part. Apparently we'd all been published already (there's a difference between being published and making money, but I couldn't be bothered going into the depressing details right then and there) and how she wanted to be a blogger. Humourously, upon noticing me pull out a notepad and pen she all but screamed "I don't want to be blogger anymore! I don't want to be blogger anymore!"

Apparently all this "writing" stuff was a bit much for her. When I asked if she had been reading or following us on Twitter she said had not and then went about giving herself, Rhett and I popcorn related nicknames. The people you meet... :/


Julian said...

I actually really enjoyed LiTTLEROCK but I won't go into details here.

The reason why I am commenting is because Littlerock, California is an actual town near Palmdale. Some travellers go through it on their way to Vegas but it is a very rural and isolated area where a lot of the people know each other.

Janine said...

So much movie going stamina! You are rocking the film festival!

You're making me want to see every single film!

Dame James said...

So this lady wanted to be chosen as a writer for this blogathon, yet she didn't even have a blog nor did she even want to so much as lift a pen to write something? God, what a horrible woman. I thought America was the only place filled with delusional people like that.