MIFF 2012: Reviews of Crazy Horse, Moonrise Kingdom and The House I Live In

Welcome to day five of my coverage of the Melbourne International Film Festival. You can read previous entries here: Day One / Day Two / Day Three/ Day Four. Enjoy.

 

Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse

Legendary documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s (Titicut Follies) latest observational piece concerns Paris’s Crazy Horse Cabaret. The (naked!) cabaret has become a Parisian institution and is considered to be one of the world’s premiere erotic attractions.

In typical Wiseman style (no voiceover, no editing trickery and no interviews) viewers have to fend for themselves. Luckily, Wiseman has paired himself with a visually arresting subject. The Crazy Horse is a monument to the female form and this documentary features more flesh than a year’s worth of HBO. The effect is decidedly unerotic, though, as Wiseman is more interested in the processes that make up the show than any form of titillation.

While Wiseman eschews any kind of traditional narrative, personalities emerge out of his footage. The schedule of the club is gruelling — 15 shows a week — and the organisers struggle to reinvent the show while maintaining their trademark quality. Many of the people involved behind the scenes of the Crazy Horse believe that they are creating art and are in no way involved in exploitation; they are unashamedly passionate about their work, often to humorous effect . Many elements of this film are banal (performers applying makeup, tables being set), but when combined the effect is quite striking – we know about every element of this institution.

When Wiseman captures a live performance it is hypnotic. These performances are expertly choreographed and the girls have amazing physiques. In an interesting segment, Wiseman documents the audition process. It is here where the lines are blurred between art and exploitation. The judges talk openly about the girls’ imperfections and it shows a bemusing level of desensitisation. Ultimately, this is interesting filmmaking, but Wiseman’s ultra-orthodox methods may put off viewers who are used to more interactive documentaries.

Four Stars

(Warning NSFW: this trailer contains boobs)

***

Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom

Director Wes Anderson is the king of quirk. His films are instantly recognisable for their stellar Hollywood casts and their unique, off-kilter universes. It would appear that Anderson makes films solely for himself, without compromise. That being said, he is critically acclaimed and has a huge following who love his work (Moonrise Kingdom was one of the first films to sell out at MIFF). I’m lukewarm on Anderson; I think that his films are undeniably pretentious and self conscious yet expertly made and often truly whimsical. Your enjoyment of Moonrise Kingdom will depend on your standing on his work, as this is his most Anderson-like film yet.

Moonrise is the tale of Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), a precocious 12 year-old boy scout. Sam is in love with his pen-pal Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and through a series of letters they hatch a plan to run away together. While he is on a scout camp, Sam sets his plan in motion. His disappearance sparks a panic amongst the adults and soon everyone is searching for the young lovers.

Like all of Anderson’s films, Moonrise has a phenomenal cast. Anderson’s characters are usually a collection of strange, idiosyncratic behaviours and droll non-sequiturs, and Moonrise is no exception. Bruce Willis and Edward Norton are new to Anderson’s unique way of storytelling and both embrace playing against type. Unfortunately the rest of the adult cast are given little to do and their parts feel more like gimmicky cameos than essential plot parts. Moonrise belongs to the child actors, Gilman and Hayward have a cute chemistry and the film is at its strongest when they are left to their own devices.  

Technically, Moonrise is impeccable. This is a gorgeous-looking film that is frequently inventive. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman makes this film look unique from the outset – the opening sequence makes the Bishop’s family home look like a giant doll house. He also uses some impressive tracking shots during the film, including a great one that shows the regimented nature of the scouts.

Moonrise is primarily a tale of first love, albeit a strange one. The plot of this film takes some seriously wild detours and it is almost impossible to get your footing as audience members, as only Anderson (and co-writer Roman Coppola) know where this tale is headed. Personally, I found Moonrise to be a mixture of the profound and the pretentious. For every well-observed moment there is a nonsensical one just around the corner. If you can fully get on Anderson’s wavelength (I envy you) you may find this film transportive. I, however, thought it was far too quaint.

Three Stars

 ***

The House I Live In

The House I Live In

This documentary on ‘the war on drugs’ has been receiving strong critical praise and has been compared to HBO’s The Wire (otherwise known as: The greatest television show ever™) .  While The House I Live In admirably tackles a sensitive issue and has many strong points, I felt slightly disappointed by the end product.  This is a heavy-handed documentary that lacks narrative focus.

House is directed by Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) and it follows the filmmaker as he tries to understand the escalating fallout of America’s war on drugs. Coined by Richard Nixon, the expression ‘war on drugs’ has become the all-encompassing term for America’s national policy on drugs. This ‘war’ has cost America $1 trillion dollars and has led the country to have the world’s highest incarcerated population (over 2 million). Jarecki talks to specialists on both side of the fence to try to understand the allure of drug culture and also the justification of America’s stringent laws.

The issues tackled in this documentary are undeniably fascinating and tragic. Stories of despair and hopelessness permeate this film. Under archaic drug laws, many are receiving life sentences for non-violent crimes. Even the lawmakers themselves actively dispute the validity of the draconian ‘three strike’ system and other bullshit laws (crack cocaine carries 100x the penalty of regular cocaine). Jarecki does an exemplary job of explaining the legal system and its failures.

What irks me about this documentary is the way Jarecki frequently injects himself into proceedings. He is never confident enough to let his subjects tell the story; he constantly reiterates the points of his interviewees. We frequently hear statements like ‘I was starting to think…’ and ‘Why are these things happening…’ and it robs this film of any subtlety, holding the audience’s hand. Speaking of unsubtle, Jarecki even zooms up on a few crying subjects – a tasteless, tabloid move. Jarecki tries to relate the war to his own family by including the story of his family’s ‘helper’, Nannie Jeter. Jeter has lost multiple family members to prison and overdose, but her inclusion is self-indulgent – she has no light to shed. One minute we have a vast, overreaching film, the next we are in a quaint lounge hearing tales of Jarecki’s childhood.  He also establishes certain subjects and then never concludes their stories – a lot of this film feels like it is chasing its own tale.

Far and away the best element of this film is the inclusion of writer David Simon. Simon is one of our generation’s greatest minds and seeing him offer insightful, intelligent observations on the subject is electrifying. No one knows this stuff better than Simon, but his presence is a double-edged sword: every time he is not on screen you miss him. You also can’t help but think: he handled this material indefinitely better on his show The Wire.

House is a good film, but for anyone that is a fan of true crime material (especially Simon’s) this will feel somewhat rudimentary.

Three stars

Tomorrow’s films: Robot and Frank, Easy Money and Killer Joe.

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