MIFF 22: Darcy’s Notebook

With another great year completed at Melbourne’s International Film Festival, our writers have come out the other end bleary-eyed and brimming with excitement. MIFF 20222 was an impressively consistent festival with new releases from a combination of old masters and emerging talents, both internationally and locally.

Here, our writer Darcy has dropped his notebook full of notes and thoughts on the many films he was able to catch at the festival, all of which should hopefully be brought to larger audiences throughout the rest of the year.

Aftersun (Charlotte Wells) 2022:

A gorgeous film about age, parenthood, and mental health that has such a warm and caring heart, it allows its heavy moments and ideas to linger with the audience.

Aftersun is a debut so assured, so confidently written and directed by Charlotte Wells you will be scrambling to discover her short film work. The film is an achingly intimate portrait of a young father on holiday with his 11-year-old daughter, played touchingly by Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio.

It will be hard to find a more affecting film this year, one so beautifully written you can’t help but see yourself in both characters. I both dread and can’t wait to return to the glow of Aftersun.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Broker (Hirokazu Koreeda) 2022:

In contention for best film of the festival, Broker is a deeply complicated but always empathetic drama from a true modern master. Hirokazu Koreeda’s films have a certain sticky quality, maturing in your mind long after the credits roll. His films will always affect you emotionally, but their true power is the depths he is able to mine from a collection of characters.

Broker, leaning into the more Korean style of cinema, is more forceful and plot-driven in its storytelling than Koreeda’s other films, but is more successful than his previous non-Japanese film, The Truth (2019).

The film is quite astonishing and deeply felt, with perhaps the only false note being its loud, heavy-handed moments. These moments are further leaned on by quite an obtrusive and manipulative score by Jung Jae-il, especially by Koreeda standards, who usually allows emotions to develop more naturally in his films.

Thank you for being born. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Decision to Leave (Park Chan-Wook) 2022:

A deeply sensual romance under the guise of a quirky police mystery. Park Chan-Wook has always had a keen understanding of his audiences, usually to an extreme effect like in Oldboy (2003) and The Handmaiden (2016). 

The film requires a rewatch as the pieces all work individually but I’m unsure as to their cohesion as the film rounds out into a melodrama. The two lead performances are complicated and layered with conflict, making the film engaging but hard to latch onto as a whole.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Dual (Riley Stearns) 2022:

Dual (2022) is a vacuum-sealed dry comedy that owes a lot to Yorgos Lanthimos. Riley Stearns’ idiosyncratic comedic style burst onto the scene with the deeply funny film The Art of Self-Defense (2019), thanks in large part to the terrific performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, and Alessandro Nivola. Like Lanthimos, it is clear actors get a certain excitement from working with his dialogue, but not all are suitable for it. It’s unclear if Dual’s lead Karen Gillan or its uber-dry dialogue lets down this film in contrast to his previous work, but it is certain to be missing a key element.

That being said, Dual is still deeply funny in places, in particular the doctor’s visits which feel the most inappropriately appropriate locale for Stearns’ dialogue. What is largely absent in the dialogue and writing as a whole, however, is any semblance of humanity and life. With this style of upfront, dry comedy writing, you lose the ability to play between the lines, as everything is pitched straight down the middle to the viewer.

Stearns has achieved success through his idiosyncratic writing style, a mountaintop many writers never reach. Now it’s time for him to seek to expand on it, engaging with his audiences more emotionally, something which would make for a pretty special film.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Emily the Criminal (John Patton Ford) 2022:

A solid crime drama with a pointed look at the economic lives of millennials, anchored by a truly great dramatic performance by Aubrey Plaza. Emily the Criminal (2022) works wonderfully as a cascading waterfall of small, utterly reasonable decisions until they come crashing down in its final act.

The film is a great debut by John Patton Ford that is certain to spark hopefully a long and interesting career. Ford’s script is the film’s highlight, especially in its ability to connect the criminal world of the film with the economic reality too many millennials find themselves trapped within.

Even though some of the decisions made in its final act undercut a lot of the messaging and themes, it is still wildly entertaining and painfully relatable, making it a deeply worthwhile watch.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Fire of Love (Sara Dosa) 2022:

A charming, playful documentary about French volcanologist couple Katia and Maurice Krafft. Their work is highly specific but their passion is relatable and life-affirming. The film is a wonderful companion piece to the Jacques Cousteau documentary, Becoming Cousteau (2021), a clear inspiration to the Krafft’s, even down to the iconic red beanie.

The voiceover by filmmaker Miranda July is sweet and feels deeply entwined with the style of Sara Dosa’s documentary, allowing the film to work both emotionally and narratively.

A truly affecting moment was the shift from watching the couple evolve their focus from a totally self-absorbed drive for witnessing and studying volcanoes, to using their knowledge and relentless drive to protect the people living near dangerous volcanoes.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (Dean Fleischer-Camp) 2021:

A joyful, all-ages film that was a perfect note of contrast to the festival’s more dramatic highlights, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (2021) will win over even the more serious audiences. Based on a viral video series that is cleverly woven into the feature film’s narrative, Marcel follows an anthropomorphic shell named Marcel and an amateur documentarian (Fleischer-Camp), who has discovered the shell while staying at an Airbnb.

The film somehow never tips over into pure saccharin which is impressive given its story, which is a credit to the writing and the performances of Jenny Slate and Fleischer-Camp. It’s impossible to not get swept up in Marcel’s journey to find his family, but you may be surprised by how affected you will be by its simple story.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Meet Me in the Bathroom (Will Lovelace, Dylan Southern) 2022:

Based on Lizzie Goodman’s totemic book of the same name, Meet Me in the Bathroom tracks the rise of the 2000s New York rock movement after many years in the wilderness, told through the words and lives of The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, and many other important figures.

A deeply complicated time period to capture as a documentary, with the looming figure of 9/11 across so much of the music that came from the scene. It’s impossible for this sobering moment to not emanate outward into the rest of the film, even when we are witnessing rock stars being born.

It’s of course going to feel sparse in comparison to the 800-page oral history time that is Lizzie Goodman’s book, but it could’ve felt more focused. The approach is scattershot and without a propulsive narrative, something that is commonly absent in most documentaries but is what separates the true greats.

Lovelace and Southern’s great achievement is in the LCD Soundsystem’s Last Waltz-esque, one-last show documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012), a monument to the power of access in nonfiction filmmaking. The film also indulges in copious amounts of self-mythologising (something they allow James Murphy to do again here) but is vindicated at the conclusion of the film as we become a Murphy disciple inside a sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.
Moonage Daydream (Brett Morgen) 2022:

Filmmaker Brett Morgen, known for his wonderful 2015 documentary, Cobain: A Montage of Heck, declared this an experience about Bowie, not a biography of David Jones, and he truly delivered on this promise. Moonage Daydream (2022) is a deeply arresting piece of nonfiction cinema that operates as a mood piece that will be put up next to the very best in the genre.

The film weaponises its breathless propulsion in sly and interesting ways that will sneak up on you emotionally, much like Bowie’s very best work.

It takes time to show its form to you, but once it does its effect is moving and profound. Morgen found something deeply relatable in his pursuit of capturing the figure of Bowie on film, unveiling a beautiful portrait of isolation for an artist that created community, showing us an image of the chameleonic legend that you won’t soon forget.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Neptune Frost (Anisia Uzeyman & Saul Williams) 2021:

Recipient of the MIFF Bright Horizons award, Neptune Frost (2021) is a gorgeously experimental afro-futurist musical that is never short on ideas.

The heart of the story is of revolution, with a character going through their own personal revolution sparking a larger revolution in others through their connection to both land and technology. Too often technology-focused sci-fi is based on fear, not on what is possible through it. There is beauty in Uzeyman and William’s use of technology that makes the film instantly unique and fascinating. 

Feels close to the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, focusing on a spiritual journey over a traditional narrative. This style is in stark contrast to the musical moments of the film, which play out as wondrous set pieces that create contemplative valleys afterwards. This wildly inventive approach to the film works more often than it doesn’t, toeing a nearly impossible line with confidence and style. 

You will not find another film like Neptune Frost, with the thematic density of the best science fiction stories, surrounded by wildly inventive musical set pieces that will be burned into your mind.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Ostlund) 2022:

Triangle of Sadness (2022) is so arch you fear it will snap in half. Outrageous and offbeat with some truly theatre-rupturing moments, with the climactic dinner scene feeling closer to a disaster movie than the dinner sequence in The Square (2017). Unfortunately, the film is terribly bloated. This wouldn’t be as big an issue if Ostlund had put any humanity into his film. This cheapens any impact of the outrageous moments, as well as the satirical ones. 

The middle chapter is the highlight of the film, which will answer the question, “What if a Jackass skit was shot well enough to win a Palme d’Or?” 

What usually holds Ostlund’s wild scripts together is the tremendous performances of its main cast (Claes Bang in The Square, Lisa Loven Kongsli and Johannes Kuhnke in Force Majeure), which feels absent in Triangle of Sadness. His scripts are difficult to instil emotion and humanity into, but Bang, Kongsli and Kuhnke have in the past been able to achieve it, leading to those films’ great success.

Ostlund was definitely striving for a social satire in the vein of the legendary Luis Buñuel (1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) but instead felt closer to Adam McKay. The ideas of this satire are quite murky and messy, but rarely in an endearing or interesting way. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Saloum (Jean Luc Herbulot) 2021:

The surprise hit of the festival so far, Saloum (2021) is a film destined for cult status. A kinetic western-horror genre mashup that leaves you wanting so much more, something I pray Shudder also realises.

The story follows three mercenaries, transporting a Mexican cartel member across Africa whose plane runs out of gas over Senegal and must stay at a local village. The film is full of unique characters and is told with such style and a deft hand you won’t even notice the more fantastical moments until Herbulot wants you to focus on them.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Return to Seoul (Davy Chou) 2022:

A unique mix of Korean and French cinema styles allow Return to Seoul (2022) to always feel fresh and new.

The story focuses on French-Korean 20-something Freddie (Park Ji-Min), a complicated and compelling character that elicits empathy and frustration in equal measure. She has returned to Seoul to find her birth parents, having been adopted by a french couple as a baby. Freddie has seemingly taken this trip on a whim, and as the film continues her self-destructive tendencies that seem at first like a quirk in her character, quickly form a heartbreakingly predictable pattern.

The film loses its momentum and the audience as it transitions into short, time-jumping vignettes in its final third. Not that each individual scene isn’t compelling and breathes new life into Freddie’s story, but the decision comes so late in the film’s runtime that it catches the viewer off guard, and not for greater results. The important connective tissue in this final act is unfortunately thin and leaves you mixed on a film that was rather special up until this point.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Three Thousand Years of Longing (George Miller) 2022:

A real ‘one for me’ film for George Miller, Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022) is sure to divide audiences in ways only he can. Sandwiched between working on large-budget Mad Max franchise films, the famed Australian director has crafted a visually stunning, narratively dawdling feature that will charm and beguile audiences.

Adapted from A.S. Byatt’s collection of short stories, an important context to give the film as Miller and co-writer Augusta Gore have decided to give the film a similar structure. Leaping between casual conversations shared by narratologist Alithea (the ever off-kilter but charming Tilda Swinton) and Idris Elba’s djinn, shared in an Istanbul hotel room, and the djinn’s story of how he came to be beholden to her.

The film works in its visually dense production design which is Miller’s cinematic superpower, but never really excels in its more meandering storytelling approach. It does, however, feel like exactly the sort of film that will excel several years down the road as we live longer in these stories, constantly revisiting the couple in Istanbul for just one more story.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Sweet As (Jub Clerc) 2022:

A charming, coming-of-age teen drama that feels beautifully lived in and tinged with autobiographical detail. Sweet As (2022) feels both deeply Australian but also universal, something that could allow it to really break through overseas which is incredibly exciting.

The film is gorgeously shot by the terrific Australian cinematographer Katie Milwright, allowing the natural contrast between the mining town to billow out through the Kimberley region that could easily moonlight as a travel ad for the Northern Territory.

There are rough edges around Sweet As, as most debuts do, but the emotional maturity of Clerc is what shines through in every scene. She has a keen sense and care for her characters that make it impossible not to fall in love with them.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Something in the Dirt (Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson) 2022:

There’s nothing like a low-budget, high-concept sci-fi on a late night at a film festival, especially by a couple of cult film legends in Moorhead & Benson. 

Something in the Dirt (2022) operates as a mock documentary, something that may feel like a tired narrative framing for a low-budget indie, but the directing pair makes the film seem boundless.

There is a certain awe that comes when a film feels like it could’ve come straight out of film school, but with all of the confidence of a veteran.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

MIFF 22: Citizen Ashe Has Smarts, Lacks Power

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Historically, tennis has been a gentleman’s game, and there’s arguably no player who better personifies this philosophy than Arthur Ashe. Embodying this same spirit is a feature-length documentary about the late athlete and activist which, while fascinating and well-told, doesn’t quite do its subject justice.

Born in the former capital of the Confederacy and raised in the shadow of segregation, Ashe overcame socio-economic disadvantage to achieve a bold ambition he set himself in his youth: doing for tennis what Jackie Robinson did for baseball. On the court, he devoured opponents with an icy elegance and disarming modesty; off it, he was a polite yet passionate advocate for civil rights the world over. His relentlessness continued well into retirement, using his name and voice in the fight against HIV/AIDS – a disease which he himself contracted, with fatal consequences.

It’s quite fitting that Citizen Ashe (2021) should be screening as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. Our city is, of course, home to the Australian Open, the Asia-Pacific’s premier tennis tournament; but it’s also the place where Ashe obtained his last ever Grand Slam title, winning the Men’s Doubles competition with Aussie player Tony Roche in January 1977. Additionally, its showing continues the Festival’s affinity with politically-minded sports documentaries, with previous examples including The Witches of the Orient (2021) and The Australian Dream (2019). That’s right – this is no mere tennis story.

Ashe’s sporting achievements have since been overshadowed by the likes of the Williams sisters and Roger Federer, so it’s not surprising that directors Rex Miller and Sam Pollard have opted for a greater focus on the politics and social issues that shaped the athlete’s mindset. Insights are provided by the likes of Johnnie Ashe, who discusses his older brother’s upbringing in Montgomery, Alabama and his military service; and Harry Edwards, a former Black Panther who reflects on the tennis star’s passive approach to racism.

What’s most intriguing, and impressive, about Citizen Ashe is how Miller and Pollard tell their story. Fresh interviews with Edwards, Johnnie Ashe and others are woven together with archival video, and audio, of its subject appearing on current affairs programs and chat shows, all of which is expertly edited – to the point where the film negates the need for a dedicated narrator. At times, it’s almost as though Arthur Ashe is speaking directly to the viewer, his soundbites seemingly uttered with this very documentary in mind. And the ingenuity of the screenplay doesn’t end there.

Arthur Ashe’s younger brother, Johnnie is one of the talking heads in Citizen Ashe

Every good tale needs an adversary, and Ashe has one in Jimmy Connors. Having emerged on the tennis scene just as Ashe was reaching his peak, Connors appears to be everything that his counterpart isn’t, a man who’s strong, brash and loud – he’s widely recognised as one of the first “grunters” in the sport. Connors’ game-changing techniques contrast with the more traditional, tactical approach of his rival, making him the Connors is the James Hunt to Ashe’s Niki Lauda, or the John McEnroe to the other’s Bjorn Borg. So intriguing is this rivalry that it could be a fascinating movie or mini-series on its own.

The same could be said for the rest of the documentary, for that matter. Every aspect of Ashe’s extraordinary life – whether it be his childhood, his studies in California, his military service, his visit to Apartheid-era South Africa, his coaching of the American Davis Cup team, his relationship with John McEnroe, his marriage to Jeanne Moutoussamy, or his AIDS diagnosis – is worthy of the feature-length treatment. But instead, Citizen Ashe condenses it all into a 95-minute runtime. While this is a commendable feat, the film needs at least another half-hour to thoroughly study its namesake, and reflect upon his legacy.

As a result of its abbreviated duration, the tone of Citizen Ashe is somewhat remote. His many achievements and milestones are made to feel more like footnotes, never reaching the cathartic highs of other documentaries about the African-American experience, such as Summer of Soul (2021). And in being so emotionally distant, the picture never becomes the profound, moving tale that it ought to be, nor does the viewer feel compelled to emulate its central figure and become a better person – as was the case in The Australian Dream.

Much like the man himself, Citizen Ashe refrains from melodrama, telling its narrative with poise and intelligence. The documentary falters as a tribute to the professional athlete, for it is overly clinical in its delivery, though it does serve some purpose as a neat introduction to those who are unfamiliar with all that Arthur Ashe accomplished in his remarkable, all-too-short life.

Citizen Ashe is streaming on MIFF Play until Sunday, August 28.

MIFF 22: Lingui, the Sacred Bonds is a Beautiful Portrait of Resilience

Rating: 4 out of 5.

After making a festival run in 2021, including being selected as the Chadian entry for last year’s Academy Awards, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s engrossing and often stunning family drama Lingui, the Sacred Bonds (2021) arrives at MIFF with acclaim. The film is slight, coming in at just 87 minutes, but is always deeply engaging.

We begin with a dedicated Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), a single mother crafting intricate stoves out of the wiring in car tyres to support herself and her 15-year-old daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) in the Chadian city of N’Djamena. The sequence is shot beautifully, as most scenes are by cinematographer Mathieu Giombini, focusing on Amina’s breathing and her drive to support her family. 

What Amina does not yet know is she will have to do much more to support Maria, who she is soon to learn is pregnant, and wants an abortion. We learn of this with Amina through a meeting with Maria’s school principal, who informs her she has been expelled because of her pregnancy, stating that it’s “bad for our image.” This explanation is heartbreaking to hear, especially from a woman similar in age to Amina.

What follows is a gripping confrontation between mother and daughter in one of the most extraordinary framed and blocked sequences of the film that is truly stunning. There is a certain grace Haroun is deliberately pairing with the harshness of this confrontation and circumstance that is where the film truly clicks into place and becomes quite special.

Achouackh Abakar Souleymane in Lingui, the Sacred Bonds. Screening provided by Rialto Distribution.

I hesitate to call this an abortion drama, as the film is much more focused on the mother-daughter and the bonds they hold as the navigate their city, religion, and their perception. While similar subject matter has been shown with a clinical harshness to harness the stark reality in films like Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always (2020) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), Haroun instead centres this story on the community of women that have to support one another in this city. 

The beauty in the film comes from seeing these two women grow in front of our eyes, a remarkable achievement in character work in such a slender film. The pair of performances from Souleymane and Alio are quite special. They are able to embody the quiet, seething rage necessary, as well as the desperation the story requires. Many of these stories can be guilty of wallowing in despair and misery of the characters’ situation, something Haroun is able to navigate around remarkably. Lingui is always focused on its namesake, the bonds between the women of the film, rather than the situation they are in.

There is a remarkable level of restraint that only heightens the dramatic tension scene to scene. Haroun avoids any clean outs in the story, so even with its slender frame, Lingui never feels predictable or dishonest. It is slow to unfold, but once it does you will be struck by its elegance and beauty. The performances and frame widen and lighten that makes the restrained opening worthwhile. If the beginning of the film is a tight series of hyperventilating inhales, the final act feels more like a relieving exhale.

There is a maternal warmth that emanates throughout the film’s female characters, illuminating the necessary bonds these women have with each other in the city that is truly powerful. Depictions of this are so fleeting in film, especially by a male filmmaker, that makes the film so captivating and fresh. Lingui, the Sacred Bonds move slowly on its course, but once the end of the tunnel is in sight, you will be astounded by how much it affects you.

Lingui, the Sacred Bonds will be in select theatres till August 21st and on MIFF Play from August 12th to 28th.

MIFF 22: Rewind & Play is a Must-See for Jazz Fans

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Taking place at the conclusion of Jazz titan Thelonious Monk’s European tour in 1969 on the French TV show Jazz Portrait, Rewind and Play (2022) gives us a window into how he was treated by even those that believed they were celebrating his genius. French-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis uncovered this footage while working on a fictional, mosaic film based on the legendary musician. This is the filmmaker’s first documentary feature and is a remarkably selfless act to show this footage of unflinching honesty to a broader audience. 

Similar in style to Peter Jackson’s miracle of a Beatles documentary Get Back (2021), Rewind and Play gives us a window into one of Jazz’s biggest figures playing his instrument to what is ostensibly no audience. That alone is worth the price of admission. 

Right at the beginning of the film, you are struck by Monk, hunched and dripping with sweat. His exhausted breathing slowly overwhelms the rest of the audio, drowning out the host. In a film with a strong restraint in editorialisation of footage, Gomis from the first minute of screen time shows that he wants us to feel the harsh lights and environment the legendary pianist finds himself in. Gomis, throughout the documentary, uses Monk’s words and, more importantly, his piano, to drown out the words of those around him.

As soon as the host Henri Renaud begins to interview Monk, the callous and horrible treatment we are soon to endure rears its ugly head. When asked about his first time in France, Monk immediately mentions how he was ossified, something the host doesn’t want to be included in the show, as “it’s not nice”. The statement is also used by Gomis in the film’s opening credits.

Thelonious Monk in Rewind & Play. Screening provided by Andolfi Productions

Monk, like many musicians, communicates through his instrument. The language barrier is larger than the English and French divide here. He is clearly uncomfortable discussing his life, especially in front of a piano that he would rather be playing. Renaud is constantly interjecting his own experiences with Monk throughout the show, while also lazily translating what the pianist is saying back into French, usually in service of himself. The lack of respect and even acknowledgement of Monk’s playing is beyond frustrating, something we see draped across his face constantly.

The sadness from the documentary comes from Monk’s constant civility, coupled with an inability, or lack of desire, to combat with the host and crew on this french late night show. This is not James Baldwin on the couch of a French talk show trading barbs, Monk can only talk his frustrations out on the Steinway in front of him.

The repetition and rigidness of the talk show format is such an antithesis to the early jazz style, which centred on free-flowing, emotive pieces that had no desire to be replicated. The power of the Blue Note jazz movement came from the spontaneous outbursts in creative musicality that can be shared with an audience.

To have one of Jazz’s preeminent figures reduced to essentially a hotel lobby pianist is truly heartbreaking. And it’s not like these tv producers have an issue with the musician. They clearly adore Monk’s music and place in modern Jazz, but they cannot help themselves with their stereotypical ideas about him.

Gomis ironically closes the film with a cross-cutting sequence of Monk playing as the host describes a story of seeing the musician in a Harlem club, playing during a knife fight. The host asked Monk after the club shut down “Thelonious, how come you had the nerve to go on playing?” To which Monk replied, “it was no big deal, there was no need to stop”. This quote perfectly encapsulates the legendary musician’s relationship with music and the chaos of the world around him, highlighting the host’s lack of understanding about the man he was dealing with, then and now.

Rewind & Play will be in select theatres from August 17th to 21st and on MIFF Play from August 12th.