MIFF 2012: Reviews of Into The Abyss, Monsieur Lazhar, The Sessions and VHS
Welcome to day two of my coverage of the Melbourne International Film Festival. You can read part one here.
Into the Abyss
Miff didn’t screen the advertised film Into the Abyss, instead they screened two episodes of Werner Herzog’s miniseries On Death Row cobbled together, which was, confusingly, expanded to feature length and also called Into the Abyss. This blunder is of little consequence, as what I saw was jaw droppingly fascinating. The two cases that are documented could not be further apart and work as wonderful piece of juxtaposition. The first episode follows Jack Barnes, an inmate facing lethal injection in the state of Florida. Director Werner Herzog injects himself directly into the documentary; normally this would raise my ire, as I believe it compromises a documentary’s objectiveness. But Herzog’s involvement is essential. He gently probes Barnes’s and the results are lucid and disquieting. Herzog is not as interested in the process of the death penalty (though he displays keen knowledge of the law) as he is in personal atonement. Barnes’s crimes are monstrous (sexual murder) but what we are presented with is not, Barnes is an intelligent man capable of remorse and reflection. Barnes is in the unenviable position of having nowhere to go but inwards and it morbidly fascinating seeing him deal with the weight of his crimes and fractured childhood.
Whereas Barnes takes responsibly for his crimes wholeheartedly, Herzog’s second subject couldn’t be more different. Texan, Linda Carty is facing death for the murder of her neighbour Joana Rodrigues. It would appear that Carty was infatuated with the idea of having a second child and decided that she would take Rodrigues’s child for her own. A half-baked plan went awry and Rodrigues lost her life. Despite the testimony of co-conspirators (which matches the damming evidence) and a solid conviction, Carty refuses to claim responsibility for her crimes. In fact, she claims to be part of some overreaching conspiracy. While it is easy to dismiss Carty as batshit crazy, she is so convinced of her story that I even began to question her guilt. This is humane, fascinating documentary filmmaking that is willing to confront insurmountable issues. And as is the case with most true crime material: truth is stranger than fiction.
This French-language Canadian film is filled with beautifully observed moments and has a devastating, quiet power that overwhelms you. Upon returning from the playground, a young boy finds his elementary teacher has taken her life. This act reverberates through the school and the children struggle to comprehend their first brush with death. Relief presents itself in the form of Bashir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant who takes the departed teachers post. Lazhar has a painful past of his own, and while he helps the children to heal, they also help him in return. While this sounds cornier than a redneck’s breakfast, there is not a false moment in Monsieur Lazhar. This is a film filled with hard-earned emotion and pathos. Mohamed Fellag (himself an Algerian immigrant) is spectacular as Lazhar. With his beaming grin and sad eyes, Fellag gives an award worthy performance. This film moves at deceptively languid pace, though it is never boring (often the contrary). By the time you realise how invested you are in this tale it is too late: Monsieur Lazhar has you. I consider myself a cinematic Chuck Norris, but this film had me blubbering like a baby. Lazhar is a profound, subtle film that gets my highest recommendation.
The Sessions is a magnificent film. This tale of a profoundly disabled man’s sexual awaking is not only a genuine crowd pleaser , but it also gives a cinematic voice to the marginalized. It would seem easy to cynically buck against a film of this nature, but The Sessions is so funny, well made and deeply moving that resistance is futile. The Sessions is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), a childhood polio victim who suffered paralysis from the neck down. Mark is a witty romantic who loves the ladies, but due to his condition, he struggles to have his affections reciprocated. After writing an article on ‘sex and the disabled’ Mark realises that he too is capable of physical intimacy and he hires a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt) to help guide him on his journey. The Sessions is a knockout across the board and I imagine that everyone involved in this will be polishing their Oscars come this time next year. Hawkes is magnetic as O’Brien, he manages to transcend the pity of disability early in the piece due to his cheeky charisma. Despite only being able to use his head, Hawkes holds our attention throughout. Helen Hunt does career-best work as the surrogate, Cheryl. It is a physically and emotionally bare performance that is truly disarming. Director Ben Lewin is a polio survivor himself and he brings a deft touch to this film. He controls the tone of this film masterfully, The Sessions moves from humour to sadness to romance effortlessly. I was lucky enough to have Lewin and his wife, producer Judi Levine in attendance at my screening and they told us some remarkable things about the film. Lewin stumbled upon O’Brien’s story while doing research for a disability sitcom, it had such a profound effect on him that he knew that he had to tell this story. Remarkably, the film was shot in less than a month and the actors did no rehearsals. I got to ask Lewin what he was going to say at the Oscars, while he (modestly) didn’t have an answer, he better start practicing: The Sessions is that good.
To use a weak analogy: anthology horror film V/H/S is a mixed bag. Comprised of five ‘found footage’ shorts, V/H/S uses a loose framework (a bunch of guys trawling through tapes in a creepy house) to combine the work of several emerging horror directors. V/H/S has been getting some serious buzz, but that comes as little surprise, as horror fans are one of cinemas most passionate subgroups. Unfortunately, V/H/S (when taken as a whole) doesn’t live up to the hype. Some sections of this film are flat-out terrifying, others are schlocky crap. The first ‘tape’ titled: ‘Amateur Night’ is far and away the best. This tale of frat boy seduction gone violently wrong is a real nerve-shredder and the line ‘I like you’ (in a creepy, girly voice) will undoubtedly become part of the film nerd lexicon. Director Ti West (House of the Devil) also does unnerving work with his segment ‘Second Honeymoon’, West takes his time building tension and doesn’t go for cheap thrills. In anthology filmmaking, you have to take the good with the bad, and unfortunately for V/H/S, not all of the directors share the same sensibilities. A few of the segments (one in particular) are gratuitously violent, seemingly, for the sake of it. I’m all for cinematic bloodletting, I just want to care about characters before they get gutted. If you’re a horror fan this is already on your radar, I’d just recalibrate your expectations before seeing it.
Tomorrow’s films: Side by Side, Your Sister’s Sister and On the Road.