Saturday, July 30, 2011

MIFF Blogathon: Day 9 (The Forgiveness of a Pool Party in Ruhr)

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.

Dir. James Benning
Running Time: 120mins

A thoroughly fascinating piece of experimental film work from an apparently master of the genre James Benning, Ruhr is a curiously fascinating work of halves. One half of the mammoth-feeling runtime of 120 minutes is devoted to 10-minute segments of various elements of the Ruhr district in Germany; an underground car tunnel, Dusseldorf Airport, a muslim prayer service, and so forth. The second half is one single uninterrupted take - yes, 60 full minutes, of a coke factory chimney. It's intermittently captivating and frustrating, but a rewarding experience for sure.

Having walked out of the experimental shorts yesterday afternoon - albeit, apparently not very good ones from people more into that sort of thing - I wasn't sure how I would go with Ruhr, but I found myself being pleasantly surprised (if also a little sleepy at moments). Perhaps it's because Ruhr is feature length and so feels less like an actual film with an actual destination rather than the art museum installations that the shorts gave the aura of. Sure, at times it feels like director Benning recently purchased his first digital camera (this is his first digital film) and wanted a tax deductible trip to Germany, but if the result is this stimulating then I guess I am all for it.

Could the second half have been shorter? Probably, but the imagery of a vent tower against a slowly darkening sunset is mesmerising. As smoke occasionally billows out from the top and oozes out of pockets along the side, it creates an eye-opening experience. It's like a modern take on, and a far shorter version of, Andy Warhol's Empire experimental work. As a matter of fact, the whole piece reminded me of the sort of exciting art that I saw in New York City and the way I felt inspired and arrested. Ruhr was sweet justification after yesterday's experience with the shorts and has only improved in my mind afterwards. A-

Pool Party
Dir. Beth Aala
Running Time: 75mins

A refreshingly fun documentary from debut feature director Beth Aala, Pool Party examines the McCarren Pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The size of four Olympic swimming pools put together and closed in 1984, this massive - and I mean massive - location has, in recent years, become a summer concert hot spot as a company called Jelly have put on free music concerts for the ever-so-hip residents of Brooklyn and beyond. Featuring artists that these very people have helped launch such as Matt & Kim, The Liars, The Black Lips, The Hold Steady, The Ting Tings, To Le Tango, Deerhunter, The Breeders and, in a major coup, Sonic Youth.

Moreso than a look at the pool itself, however, Aala's film looks at the way Brooklyn as a whole has risen from its dilapidated beginnings to its current status as a vibrant, hipster (almost yuppie) centre and the gentrification that comes with it. As they say, first come the artists and then come the million dollar condos. Pool Party doesn't do all that much that is particularly illuminating, but for a New York City tragic like myself it was utterly divine to see all this activity and vibrant life mixed between the token vintage footage and photographs as well as the lovingly sun-bleached shots of the beautiful city. And especially on the heels of Ruhr and after the disappointing lack of music found within last night's The Black Power Mixtape 1968-1975, the great musical performances and pulsating beat were a sound for sore ears. B+

Dir. Ivan Sen
Running Time: 101mins

The first thing that hit me with Ivan Sen's follow-up to last year's best MIFF title Dreamland was, much like that dialogue free experimental alien work, the sound design. Sen layers a ticking clock over a dog's bark and then adds the hum of a refrigerator and the ding of a young boy opening and closing a cooking pot. Unfortunately, Toomelah - a recent graduate of Cannes' Un Certain Regard - is far too familiar to succeed beyond the individual scenes of greatness that occasionally spring forth.

Acted by non-professionals (although Dean Daley-Jones of Mad Bastards does pop up as a local drug peddling thug) results in a mixed bag of good and bad performances that audiences should come to expect. This story of a dying Aboriginal mission as seen through the eyes of a small child (Daniel Connors) is told using subtitles due to the thick, lingo-laden dialogue and features some wonderful comedy moments (one character is named "Tupac" for instance) littered amongst the rather heady material. Dialogue is laced with profanity and those squeamish about "the c-word" would be best to avoid. A wonderful score made up on jangly guitar riffs and downtrodden strings adds a touch of class to the proceedings, but an overly excessive run time make Toomelah a tough ride to take. C+

The Forgiveness of Blood
Dir. Joshua Marston
Running Time: 109mins

Those familiar with Joshua Marston's sublime debut feature, Maria Full of Grace, will probably come out of The Forgiveness of Blood with, like me, pangs of disappointing. While the film is a stinging indictment of barbaric traditions in this rural Albanian village, Blood lacks an energy and a verve that was evident throughout Maria. Who can forget that pulse-pounding scene where Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) swallows the cocaine-filled capsules? Nothing like that in The Forgiveness of Blood, which chooses mundane village life over anything resembling tension.

It's a hard film to discuss since it is so reserved about so much, but I liked the performances and the specific art direction (loved that half-constructed second level on the family home). The performances of Tristand Halilaj - an Albania Andrew Garfield of sorts with his tall, lanky frame and goofball good looks - and Sindi Lacej as his sister are of particular note. The latter, in particular, gets a wonderful final shot amidst the movie's perplexing climax. B-

I got my cupcake! The most important review of all: It was delicious. Thank you to the wonderful Suze for that!

After Toomelah this afternoon there was a Q&A with the film's producer David Joysey. Funnily enough the first question put to him by the MIFF director was about Dreamland. As I originally mused last year, nobody has purchased it and the version of it that I saw will, presumably, never see the light of day. Such a cruel shame for such a brilliant film. I can only hope that whatever version they're cutting it into at the moment (Jowsey was, shall we say, less than forthcoming when I asked him personally in the ACMI lobby) isn't too drastic, but can allow Dreamland to be seen some sort of audience.

Other than that weren't too many MIFF anecdotes from today's screenings. I certainly could have done without the patron rustling a packet of chips deep into the final scene of Ruhr, likewise to the woman sitting near me at The Forgiveness of Blood who exaggerated every reaction to the point of comedy. I did walk into a wall today though. At Ruhr, I sorta just lost my bearings and stumbled against the wall of Greater Union's cinema 4. That's what seeing 60 films at a festival whilst battling the flu is all about, I suppose!

Lastly, before the festival began I wrote a top posters of the fest piece for Trespass Magazine and it's now up! See what I consider the best posters of films showing at this year's MIFF and let me know if there are any I didn't consider long enough?

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