I woke up on this Thursday morning barely wanting to drag myself out of bed, but one of the things I love most about attending MIFF is the sheer variety in films that you can see. My plan for Thursday included a Russian drama, two political documentaries (one local, one foreign) and a crime thriller from the Congo, so I willed myself out of bed hoping to see the best of what world cinema has to offer.
As it would turn out, I wasn’t quite that lucky, but that’s the nature of a film festival.
Innocent Saturday (V Subbotu, Alexander Mindadze, Germany/Russia/Ukraine)
Innocent Saturday is a shit movie.
So shit that 15 minutes into it I got my first inkling to break a personal rule and walk out. I’ve never in my life walked out of a cinema half-way through a film (and only once have I ever stopped watching a DVD half-way through), but I tell you, I came as close as I’ve ever been.
Philosophically I’m against walking out of films because you never know that you hate a movie until you’ve seen it all. How can I judge the entirety of a film if I’m not willing to actually sit there and see it in its entirety?
The first time I saw Requiem for a Dream I was considering switching it off half-way through because, though I loved the cinematography, it wasn’t really going anywhere. But if I had turned it off, I never would have known that the ending is one of the most devastatingly soul-crushing endings in all of cinema, and the relatively dull first half aids in achieving that effect.
Similarly, I know of people who refused to watch all of The Deer Hunter, one of the greatest films of all time, because it has “40 fucking minutes of wedding” at the start. I feel terribly bad for those people, and it’s the fear that I might miss a Requiem for a Dream or Deer Hunter that stops me from ever pulling the plug on a film screening no matter how bad it is.
But sometimes, I should go with my instincts.
Innocent Sunday is ostensibly about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, but it’s not really about Chernobyl in any way. It’s set in Prypiat, the city which houses people who work at the power plant, and occurs in the days after the reactor explosion; but it’s principally an art film, not a drama film, so none of the characters – not even those who know what’s going on – seem to acknowledge the impending disaster as real people would. Or, they alternate between acknowledgement and ignorance for seemingly no reason and with no motivation.
Valery (Anton Shagin) is a low-level engineer working at the Chernobyl plant who happens to hear from a cadre of higher-ups that its reactor has exploded. He collects his girlfriend, Vera (Svetlana Smirnova) and they make a mad dash for a departing train but due to a broken heel on Vera’s pathetically poorly chosen footware, they miss it. What follows is one of the most frustrating, baffling and rage-inducing scenes I have ever witnessed in any film: Valery and Vera go shoe shopping. While the reactor is exploding, as they are both aware, they spend what seems like 25 minutes trying on dozens of pairs of shoes, and we’re forced to sit through every second of it. And what’s worse, she ends up buying more high heels, minutes after she sealed their certain deaths by wearing heels. Maddening.
But torturous though it is, the shoe shopping scene is not the worst in the film. After their shopping adventure they find their way to some kind of wedding orgy where three couples are tying the knot, and for reasons I don’t even want to think about lest it enrage me further, the next 45 minutes of the film show Valery and Vera engaging in useless discussions with the groom and joining the wedding band for a few numbers. The discussions go nowhere and serve no purpose because there is no over-arching narrative to the film, so we’re essentially forced to listen to boring people talk about nothing for minutes at a time. And when they join the wedding band we sit through entire Russian pop-rock songs, generally with the camera locked off in one position, and there is no escape.
It’s hard to describe just how hard it is to sit through Innocent Saturday. The entire thing is filmed in nausea-inducing “shaky-cam”, and even simple shots of two people talking finds the camera shaking enough that it would suggest the operator was directed to physically move the camera around while holding it. There’s also no music in the entire thing (besides the diegetic music in the wedding band scene), and there is more than one occasion where we see nothing but Valery and the groom laughing for minutes at a time. Literally minutes.
Shagin must have been cast as Valery after the director said “Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s not available? Then get me his Russian, non-union equivalent!” à la Señor Spielbergo, because the resemblance is quite uncanny. Uncanny enough to be distracting for the first five minutes, but unfortunately not distracting enough to take attention away from how painfully awful this movie is.
I can only assume the film is going for a kind of “dancing on a volcano” portrayal of the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, when people in Prypiat really didn’t know what was happening and continued living their lives. I hope that’s what it was going for, because it’s the only way it could possibly make any sense at all.
But either way, it’s the worst movie of MIFF 2011 and one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.
Rating: I award it no stars, and may God have mercy on its soul.
The Triangle Wars (Rosie Jones, Australia)
I will declare my interest in this film right up front: I protested the St Kilda triangle redevelopment, attended a rally against the developments in St Kilda and was a supporter of the unChain St Kilda organisation in its early days.
The St Kilda triangle is a wedge of land on the St Kilda foreshore next to the heritage-listed Palais Theatre, and the Port Phillip council approved a proposal for a property developer to refurbish the ailing Palais and, as a way to return their investment, turn the vacant St Kilda triangle into a massive commercial precinct with nightclubs, supermarkets and other money-making operations. unChain St Kilda was an organisation which represented a group of St Kilda residents who opposed the plan, and engaged in a bitter war with the property developer and the Port Phillip council over two years.
Rosie Jones’ documentary is so biased and one-sided that even I, someone sympathetic to their cause, felt the film left a bad taste in my mouth. Every documentary takes a position on its subject, but rarely is it this partial. The only other film I can compare it to is Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the terribly cheap and despicable “documentary” by Ben Stein about the creationism/evolution debate. Stein’s documentary resorted to dirty tricks like only showing footage of Richard Dawkins if it was from an unflattering angle, or cutting interviewees’ words out of context to make them sound evil, and The Triangle Wars uses similar tricks on a smaller scale to turn a nuanced and contentious issue into a simple good-vs-evil story.
But audiences are intelligent, and trying to shove such blatantly biased garbage in their mouths will not get a good response, even if peoples natural inclination is to agree with the film’s position. It got a sympathetic reception at its MIFF screening as it was attended by many of those with personal interest in the story (including Serge Thomann, the main focus of the film), but I do not think it will do quite so well at regular public screenings. Avoid it unless you have a personal interest in this particular land issue.
Rating: 1 star
Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (Alex Gibney, United States)
In contrast to the unprofessional and biased Triangle Wars, it was a breath of fresh air to see a film by an even-handed documentarian like Alex Gibney, whose Magic Trip I reviewed earlier in the festival.
Client 9 is a no-nonsense biographical documentary focusing on Eliot Spitzer, a New York state Attorney-General and later Governor who suffered a downfall of epic proportions after being entangled in a controversy surrounding his association with a high-class prostitute. The film charts Spitzer’s rise as a forceful political personality whose career was founded on rock-solid ethics and a willingness to fight for the people against the corruption of Wall St., and the various enemies he amassed as a result of that war.
Gibney elicits surprisingly candid responses from all of his subjects but Spitzer himself, and the ups, downs, ins and outs of political life in the state of New York are laid bare in all its ugly forms. Unfortunately, possibly due to the recency of the events portrayed in the film, Spitzer as an interview subject is still very guarded and does not allow his true thoughts, feelings and motivations – which would have been the most interesting part of the story had he revealed them – to come to the surface. (A politician adept at not answering questions, who’d have thought?)
But if you’re not completely cognisant of the Spitzer story, Client 9 will definitely surprise you by bringing a new dimension to what the media reported as a decidedly single-dimensional story.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Viva Riva! (Djo Munga, Democratic Republic of the Congo/France/Belgium)
A self-assured crime thriller with swagger, Viva Riva! is the debut narrative feature by Congolese director Djo Munga. It would be unfair to grade it on a curve based on the fact that it is the first film to come out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in twenty years, but thankfully there is no need: it’s a genuinely good film regardless of where it came from.
In the middle of a Congolese fuel crisis, Riva (Patsha Bay) thieves a truck full of petrol from his Angolan fuel-runner bosses and brings it to the Congo with the intention to sell it for his own profit. The Angolans discover their loss and brutalise their way to the Congo’s capital city Kinshasa, tracking Riva with the help of a coerced local military commander.
But as if drawing the ire of Angolan gangsters wasn’t enough, when in Kinshasa Riva sets his eye on the girlfriend of a local heavy, the lusciously beautiful but dangerously self-destructive Nora (Manie Malone), and decides to pursue her against all logical advice. Riva is unable to suppress his natural desperation to rise above his situation, not unlike Tony Montana in Scarface, and does so even as it puts him in ever more danger.
The African locations, from flyblown shanty towns to the mansion of Kinshasa, give the film a gorgeously warm but uncomfortably sweaty and constrictive colour palette to work with. Malone’s performance as the troubled Nora is nuanced and truly engaging, a veneer of confidence belying deep insecurity as she finds herself in more than one abusive relationship unable to fight her way out. The brutal Angolan gangster Cesar (Hoji Fortuna) is equally noteworthy, a cool and immovable exterior occasionally exploding with violent rage.
Congolese or not, Viva Riva! is a very competent crime thriller.
Rating: 3.5 stars