Thursday, July 28, 2011

MIFF Blogathon: Day 7 (Winter's Ugly Furniture)

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 Ugly Duckling
Dir. Garri Bardin
Running Time: 75mins

This Russian adaptation of the famed "ugly duckling" tale is most certainly the only time in cinema history that we will ever be able to describe a movie as "Chicken Run meets Black Swan!" and have it be absolutely accurate. The Ugly Duckling [Gadkiy utyonok] is Garri Bardin's first feature after a career of short movies that spans 40 years. While at only 75 minutes and bare storytelling it's hard to really define it as a feature at all, but a feature we shall call it nevertheless. This adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's short story is lovingly crafted and features several charming songs, but it's hard to deny the slight nature of its being and that

As featured in the "Next Generation" section of the festival, The Ugly Duckling is most definitely a film that would appeal to a younger audience. While I got quite a bit out of it, especially marvelling at the wonderfully expressive and detailed character creations, the fact that its made for kids with little consideration of adults was somewhat off-putting. I can't imagine anybody other than children finding the shrill singing voice of the ugly cygnet hatchling to be hilarious - and in a frustrating turn, we don't even get to hear the redemptive beautiful singing voice of the swan once he has transformed. Seems like a missed opportunity, especially in such a short movie.

In fact, the film's golden egg to speak in terms of adults viewers has surely come about purely by accident. Bardin has used Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake music as the basis for the original songs and the score routinely swells into the decadence of the musical pieces that were recently made pop culturally significant again due to Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. The aesthetic is very 1980s TV Christmas movie - you know what I'm talking about if you grew up during the era - but that is another endearing quality that the film has in its plumage. The Ugly Ducking isn't particularly special, but curious parents could certainly do far worse (like, say, Cars 2!) B

Strangely, our print had both French and English subtitles on it. I've never seen this before! It was confusing at first.

Winter's Daughter
Dir. Johannes Schmid
Running Time: 92mins

It's about time I start using a thesaurus for words like "sweet" and "charming". The way I'm going, seemingly describing every second film as one or two of those adjectives, I will have well and truly burnt them out and they'll have as much meaning as "the Australian Liberal Party" or "Chris Brown: pop star". But, sometimes, they are the correct words to apply and in the case of Johannes Schmid's Winter's Daughter [Wintertochter], a wonderfully endearing tale of a two German women of different generations (who can tell where this one's going already, can't you?) driving through Poland to discover their lost and unknown families.

Nina Monka stars as 11-year-old Kattaka. She swims, is friends with the young boy next door and goes Christmas tree shopping with an elderly neighter, Ursula Werner's tough Lene. After being told by her mother (Katharina M Schubert) that the man she thought was her father (Maxim Mehmet) is not, but instead is a Russian trawler mechanic named Alexis, Kattaka and Lene travel to the Poland port town of Szczecin to meet him before segueing to the place Lene lived upon the breakout of WWII. It's hard to explain why Winter's Daughter was so good, but it really is just such a satisfying film that made me smile and feel a bit warm inside. The performances are uniformly excellent, especially Werner as well as Leon Seidel as a teenage boy who helps them on their way. The stark, wintery landscapes are wonderfully captured by Michael Bertl and the screenplay by Michaela Hinnenthal, Nora Lämmermann and Thomas Schmid is a restrained charmer. B+

True story: I actually wrote down "SEXY DAD!" in my notes. Add this Maxim Mehmet to the growing list of incredibly-sexy-i-hope-you-get-cast-in-staff-i-get-to-see-throughout-the-year MIFF actors.

Tiny Furniture
Dir. Lena Dunham
Running Time: 98mins

Could we have a new favourite of the 2011 film festival? Why yes, I think we do! Lena Dunham's extraordinary debut feature Tiny Furniture is a wonderful gem filled with hilarious insights into both twentysomething and adult life and a truly wicked outlook on all things "hipster". Many will take Tiny Furniture as being an actual hipster film - the "Mumblecore" movement of filmmaking does that to people - but I instead found Dunham's screenplay to be a vicious attack on the ideas of hipsters, as if pointing to the absurdity of it and cruelly jabbing it.

Following 23-year-old Aura (played by writer, director and - obviously - star Lena Dunahm) as a recently graduated, but emotionally and professionally questioning individual that I identified with greatly. As she moves back in with her mother and sister she finds it hard to identify what it is she wants and how to go about it. There are a lot of movies about this very topic, but it's the unique humour that Dunham brings to the material that stood out as well as the brittle deadpan delivery of she and her cast. My favourite bit was the line about watching reruns of Seinfeld. I watch reruns of Seinfeld! The way it came out of nowhere, much like most of the laugh out loud moments, elevated it beyond simple gag.

Curious to note that Tiny Furniture shares a cinematographer with my other best-of-the-fest title, Martha Marcy May Marlene since they look so different and do such different things with their surroundings (MMMM mostly exteriors, TF mostly interiors.) I adored the way Jody Lee Lipes framed Dunham's film. Major notice must go to art direction by Jade Healy and Chris Trujillo who were in charge of making this interior world amongst the New York suburbs of Tribecca and DUMBO look as refreshing and comical as it does. Dunham - also appearing in The Innkeepers this fest - is a wonderfully refreshing presence in front of the camera. Almost like a female Seth Rogen. Laurie Simmons, on the other hand, isn't so much refreshing as just deliciously lived in and natural as Aura's artist mother.

Whether Tiny Furniture classifies itself as Mumblecore is beyond my care, but what I really focus on is the precise and dedicated wit that Dunham brought to it. Tiny Furniture is a special, hilarious and deeply personal film that I will remember long after the festival. A

Beauty and the Beast
Dir. Jean Cocteau
Running Time: 96mins

Another retrospective title for MIFF and it's a wonderful one that I had never seen before. Jean Coteau's 1946 adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's 1756 tale is a sumptuously designed affair with elaborate, dreamlike sets that incorporate gothic design and inventive visual effects. Meanwhile, costumes by Antonio Castillo, Marcel Escoffier and an uncredited Christian Bérard are almost as equally divine.

As classic as the film is - and despite having never seen it before, I can easily say that it is indeed a classic - it's hard not to laugh at some of the overt theatricality of it all. And as much as I'd love to admit I didn't laugh when Jean Marais's bête appeared for the first (and second and third...) time dressed like a cross between David Bowie in Labyrinth and Bjorn from ABBA wearing Liza Minelli's favourite black sequin top, however that would be lie. A big fat lie! A-

This evening at the Kino Palace for Beauty and the Beast there was very almost an "incident". In fact, I thought for sure I was witnessing a man dying right there in the cinema. You could've fooled me because it sounded like actual like vanishing from a man. As this elderly gentleman wheezed, coughed and splattered upon himself towards the start of the movie it, at first, sounded quite humourous ("now that's a cough!") but quickly sounded as if it was becoming very serious. Those sitting around him leaned in and offer assistance, one woman went running out of the cinema for assistance, one man yelled that he "take it outside!" (!!!) And then when one woman who had moved across the isle to help him asked "Someone's gone for help, are you okay?" and just like that he stopped coughing, said "Yes" in an inquisitive 'why wouldn't I be okay?' tone and then resumed watching the film never to be heard of again. Curious.

Curiouser still because just moments early I had returned from my own cinema exit rush as I absolutely had to leave for a spectacular coughing fit. It sounded like someone had removed a vital internal organ it was that long and loud. Yikes.

I also attended a screening today - Winter's Daughter - that was attended by what I think was several school classes. It was so refreshing to go to a film with teenagers in attendance and not wanna smack them with their phones and because of their endless chatter. They even laughed and applauded the opening commercial with Geoffrey Rush and clapped at film's end, too. I hope that amongst that large group of MIFF attendees there is at least one person as batty as we cinemagoers seeing 60 films a festival.


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