MIFF 2012: Reviews of Involuntary, Dark Horse and Beasts Of The Southern Wild

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

 

Involuntary

Involuntary

 

Ever heard the term ‘watching paint dry’? Well, new Swedish film Involuntary could be described as ‘Watching paint dry…with subtitles!’ This film is the definition of boring, ‘art’ cinema. I could describe the plot, yet this would be grasping at straws as I didn’t see any story beats take place. But I’ll try: a series of unconnected scenes — young girls getting drunk, people travelling on a bus, a group of men on a homoerotic weekend away —  are all concerned with the notion of ‘group dynamics’ and are shot in long, single shot takes. That’s it.

This film is described as a ‘tragic comedy’, but the only thing tragic about this film is the pacing. The camera does not move once during this film; every scene is one long, uninteresting shot of banal human behaviour, punctuated by a long, black silence as a buffer. Director/writer Ruben Östlund could be commenting on the state of affairs in modern Sweden, but I fear I’m giving him too much credit. Only one of these segments is remotely interesting: a teacher is ostracised for taking objection at a peer’s heavy-handedness with a child. The only reason this segment has any entertainment value is because you want to punch the pious protagonist square in the face. I could put my critic hat on and state: ‘The rigid mise en scène is indicative of the controlling nature of social groups’ but that would be a wank. The definitive moment of this film was when I decided what I was going to order at Starbucks after the credits rolled.

One Star

 ***

Dark Horse 

Dark Horse

 

Writer/director Todd Solondz (Happiness, Storytelling) is one of the most idiosyncratic and humorously misanthropic filmmakers in the world –or at least he used to be. The light-weight, fractured Dark Horse is another disappointment from a once great filmmaker. Dark Horse follows Abe (Jordan Gelber), a morbidly obese, balding 35-year old man who collects action figures and still lives with his parents (so far, so Solondz). Abe tries to romance a clinically depressed woman (Selma Blair) who is catatonic after moving back in with her parents. But can Abe overcome his insecurities?  Here is the kicker: Solondz actually cares for these characters.

In his previous films Solondz would have made the petulant, diet-coke-sipping Abe the punch line of all his jokes, and I would have been cacking myself throughout. But no, we are meant to identify with Abe; he is just a victim of circumstance. Solondz used to have his own unique brand of mean: he had identified the world as a cruel place — full of sexual and emotional abuse — and his films were fittingly (and hilariously) bleak. Dark Horse has only flickers of what made him great. Solondz’s writing style used to be instantly recognisable, primarily for his bleak, emotionally frank conversations. Christopher Walken and Selma Blair both capture his previous, depressed cadence, but the rest of the cast are in a much more chirpy film. Gelber gives a good performance as the blowhard Abe, but his presence is indicative of Solondz’s cinematic problems. Gelber is a wildly unattractive leading man, yet Solondz doesn’t want to poke fun at him. It is like watching a reformed bully earnestly cuddle a disabled kid – it might be progressive but it’s disquieting. It’s not only the tonal shifts that annoy me: this film has a nasty digital sheen that cheapens the production and Solondz thinks it is perfectly fine to frequently dive into unannounced, disorientating dream sequences. Age seems to have softened Todd Solondz and it is a real shame, as we have tonnes of optimistic filmmakers but only one of him. Come back, Todd.

Two Stars

 ***

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

 

Love it or hate it, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a truly unique film. It has been (flatteringly) compared to the films of Terrance Malick (The Tree of Life), and it contains the same sprawling, impressionistic style of Malick’s. But unlike Malick’s works, Beasts is set in a world bordering on the fantastical: this is a film of unbridled imagination. Set in the near/alternative future, Beasts follows Wink (Dwight Henry) and Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a father/daughter team that live in ‘The Bathtub’. ‘The Bathtub’ is a dystopian bayou created by the rising waters of New Orleans. Wink and Hushpuppy live a happy life as foragers of this uncivilised world, but their unencumbered life is interrupted when Wink falls ill and the waters begin to rise. This film is a creative marvel; in a homogenised film landscape, Beasts sticks out like dog’s balls.

Director Benh Zeitlin has created a complete universe with this film. From the makeshift boats to the crab-claw feasts, every element of this film feels lived in. Beasts features the best soundtrack in recent memory and the cinematography is often breathtaking (though it does have that shaky, capture-everything aesthetic that some hate). While the universe he has created is spectacular, Zeitlin’s script (co-written by Lucy Alibar) is not as solid. Primarily told in voiceover by the young Wallis, the story of Beasts is quite opaque. This is a world that runs on its own rules, and some may be confused by its more bizarre elements. It was this aversion to clear storytelling that kept me from flat-out loving Beasts.

Wallis is a revelation as Hushpuppy. Whether she has true talent or the performance was wrangled out of her (she was five years-old) is yet to be seen, but Wallis is firmly on my radar after this film. Her often profound non sequiturs (‘I’m a little beast in a big, big universe’) gives this film its dreamlike quality. Beasts is a unique and beautiful film that deserves to be celebrated.

Four Stars

 ***

Tomorrow’s films: Crazy Horse, Moonrise Kingdom and The House I Live In.

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