My second day at the Melbourne International Film Festival saw me ramp up my daily film quota from two to four, and it would have been five if I had woken up early enough to catch Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast. As it happens I’m glad I slept in because by the end of the night my bottom was severely in need of a break.
Today I tackled a documentary from an Oscar-winner, a debut film from a director with a better-known brother, a debut film from a director better known as a comic actor, and a follow-up from an exciting new South Korean genre filmmaker.
Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place (Alex Gibney, United States)
The hippie movement has a special place in the psyche of an entire American generation, and one of the bellwether events of that movement was Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ acid-fueled trip across the nation in 1964.
Kesey, an LSD early adopter and author of the award-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, brought together a group of what would come to be known as hippies for a journey from California to the World’s Fair in New York. They took 8mm cameras and sound recording equipment with them on their colourfully repurposed school bus, and shot hours of footage of their drug-inspired escapades with the intention to turn the raw footage into a film, but the 40 hours of film sat neglected in Kesey’s barn for decades.
Enter Alex Gibney, the prolific documentarian most well-known for directing the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, who has sculpted the footage into a chronological account of the acid trip using audio interviews conducted by Stanley Tucci.
An audience’s enjoyment of a film such as Magic Trip depends entirely on their interest in the subject matter, because it is a documentary which serves its subject well without truly transcending it, and its appeal isn’t as universal as some of Gibney’s other films. Early baby boomers will enjoy the trip down hazy-memory lane, gaining a look at the infamous trip from the inside, but if you have no idea who Neal Cassady is you may find yourself wondering if the film is anything but nostalgia porn.
It does, however, have an exceptional visual animation sequence accompanying an audio tape of one of Kesey’s early hallucinatory experiences, which felt almost like a drug trip itself.
Rating: 2.5 stars
The Guard (John Michael McDonagh, Ireland)
John Michael McDonagh’s debut directorial effort will unavoidably be compared to the 2008 film In Bruges. The two films share a star (the magnificently playful Brendan Gleeson) and a kind of fiercely parochial Irish humour. And, of course, The Guard’s writer/director is the brother of In Bruges’ writer/director Martin McDonagh. But the new kid on the block need not worry, for The Guard is better than its predecessor in every conceivable way.
I thought In Bruges was overrated (it currently sits far too comfortably in the IMDb Top 250) but not bad, concentrating a little too much on the serious action/thriller side of the story and not enough on the comedy. But The Guard gets the balance completely right, and is wickedly funny from the very first scene. Brendan Gleeson relishes playing the slightly racist, extremely profane local Irish policeman Gerry Boyle as he is teamed up with a straight-laced American FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to investigate an escalating series of drug crimes and murders.
The film’s focus is defiantly narrow, confining the action to a single Irish district and avoiding the cliche of international intrigue, and while murders do occur, it feels like they are merely excuses to get Cheadle and Gleeson together. The Guard knows that it’s a piece of pure Saturday night entertainment, and a welcome break from the alienation and melancholia which normally fills film festival line-ups.
You know a film is good when half the dialogue is missed due to waves of laughter from the audience, and The Guard is the best buddy cop movie I’ve seen since Hot Fuzz.
Rating: 4 stars
Submarine (Richard Ayoade, United Kingdom)
In recent years there’s been a glut of quirky, slightly downbeat but ultimately optimistic indie films which tell the story of a social outsider attempting to find love or happiness despite their unceasing awkwardness. Often these outsiders are unnaturally intelligent, sensitive, and make allusions to philosophers and artists in everyday conversation. Sometimes, they’re teenagers. Mostly, their love interest is an equally isolated, extremely unresponsive target. Usually, these films have things like hand-drawn titles, long takes of characters staring out of windows in self-reflection, or figures silhouetted against beaches at sunset.
This is the box in which Submarine fits, and though it somewhat subverts the “hipster film” clichés by making fun of them, the clichés are nevertheless still present. Fuck, some of it was even filmed on grainy 8mm film stock, or at least manipulated to look as though it had. And there was a Polaroid camera.
But Richard Ayoade’s direction is commendable for a first-timer, and he manages to make some tricky stylistic devices such as narration and intertitles work well to build the film’s character. Other devices tread dangerously into wearing-your-influences-on-your-sleeve territory, but Ayoade should be proud of his transition from comic actor to film director. It is, after all, beautifully sweet, and the two young stars (Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige) ensure the film is not completely mired in twee-ness with their mature performances.
Watch out for Paddy Considine, too, who puts in a delightfully restrained performance as a creepy psychic and faith healer with some odd reactions to receiving fellatio.
Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach may have some competition.
Rating: 3 stars
The Yellow Sea (Hwanghae, Na Hong-jin, South Korea)
Na Hong-jin’s debut film, 2008’s The Chaser, completely blew me away. A non-stop, gripping action thriller with a devastating conclusion, it signaled Na as a bright new star the South Korean film landscape, which on current output would have to be one of the healthiest in world cinema.
Its follow-up, The Yellow Sea, isn’t a wall-to-wall thrillfest like its older sibling, and in fact starts out at an almost deliberate pace. We follow Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) as he works as a taxi driver in a Chinese-North Korean bordertown to pay off a debt he incurred by sending his wife to South Korea to find a better life. He hasn’t heard from her since, and is tortured by imagined affairs and the fading possibility of getting to South Korea himself. He loses his job, and when he reacts violently to losing the last of his money in mahjong he is made an offer by crime boss Myun-ga (Kim Yun-seok): go to South Korea and kill someone, and your debts will be paid and you can find out what happened to your wife while you’re there.
There is only one scene in the film which is not told from Gu-nam’s point of view, so the story reveals itself as Gu-nam himself discovers new information, which gives the film a real driving suspense as we learn that the contract kill turns out to be far more complicated than first thought, and the possibility arises that his wife may also be dead. Gu-nam becomes a target of rival hitmen, the police and even Myun-ga, an impossibly resilient street fighter for whom knifes and tomahawks are no match. There are some brilliant chase sequences, both on foot and by car, which are far more intense than anything in The Chaser, and the fight scenes are very much reminiscent of the masterful Oldboy, the crown jewel in South Korea’s cinematic output.
The Yellow Sea is an epic war of attrition between two characters who can endure far more than any real human being could ever hope to endure, and cements Na’s position as a major force in South Korean genre filmmaking.
Rating: 4 stars