MIFF 2012: Reviews of ParaNorman, Make Hummus Not War and Maniac

Welcome to day nine of my coverage of the Melbourne International Film Festival. You can read previous entries here: Day One / Day Two / Day ThreeDay Four / Day Five / Day Six / Day Seven/ Day Eight. Enjoy.

ParaNorman

ParaNorman Poster

This charming, stop-motion animation film is funny, clever and technically superlative. In an age of computer animation, ParaNorman stands out like its protagonist: it bucks against convention.

ParaNorman is the tale of Norman Babcock, a young boy with a peculiar problem: he sees the dead. Norman’s interaction with apparitions leads him to be resented by his family and tormented at his school. But when a witch’s curse threatens to engulf his town, Norman may be the only person who can stop it.

Like all animated features, ParaNorman is a thinly-veiled morality tale, primarily, a call to value individuality. Where ParaNorman differs is in its tone: this is truly edgy for children’s fare. For the first half, this is a very funny film that is borderline envelope-pushing. For example, at the start of the film, Perry (Norman’s father) asks Norman what he is watching on television. ‘Sex and violence’ Norman nonchalantly responds. This film even sneaks in a paedophile joke. Norman: ‘Mr Prendergast appeared to me in the toilets.’ His friend: ‘Ewww’. See, edgy.

The script does shift gears around the midway point and by the end it approaches something close to true horror. I imagine that children of sensitive dispositions will have complete bug outs while watching this film. I have to say, I enjoyed the inventive first half far more that the chaotic last act.

The stop-motion animation in this film is mindboggling. We currently have an embarrassment of (animated) riches thanks to the likes of Pixar, but the fact that this is genuinely handcrafted makes it truly special. Honestly, check out the official site here to see the painstaking detail that went into this film.

The voice acting in this film is fantastic. Kodi Smit-McPhee is hugely endearing as Norman. His exchanges with the tubby Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) generate most of the film’s laughs. He is offered great support by the likes of Casey Affleck, Leslie Mann and John Goodman.

If you have even a slight predisposition towards animated films, I highly recommend checking out ParaNorman when it opens. It is truly unlike anything in recent memory.

Four Stars

***

Make Hummus Not War

Make Hummus Not War

This amazing documentary takes a seemingly harmless query — who invented hummus? — and turns it into a fascinating meditation on the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict. Through a broad selection of interviewees, director Trevor Graham tracks the genesis and evolution of this Middle Eastern dish and asks: can a mutual love of food bring us together?

Graham is a self-confessed ‘hummus tragic’. When he hears of a burgeoning publicity war over the origins (and ownership) of hummus he heads to the Middle East to investigate. While investigating the ‘hummus war’, Graham also shares his personal history with the dish, which is often intertwined with his love life.

This is a hugely entertaining documentary. Through candid interviews, personal memorabilia and Monty Python-esque animations Graham weaves a fascinating tapestry. Almost all of his subjects have conflicting politics, but they are all united in their love for hummus. Rarely has a documentary featured such passionate opinions: hummus is not a dish in these regions, it is a way of life. It is fascinating (and laugh out loud funny) how both sides are willing to grasp at any shred of proof to its ownership; from intellectuals to street vendors, professional chefs to politicians – all claim to ‘own’ hummus. From the information presented in Hummus it would appear that this is definitively an Arab dish, but just like the land that makes up Israel, the Jews believe they have found biblical scriptures that support their claims.

While the politics are undeniably fascinating, Hummus is equally a monument to food. In Graham’s search for the best hummus, we are treated to a cavalcade of mouth watering dishes and there is real suspense in seeing Graham taste them (and his subsequent reactions).

My screening was the world premiere for Hummus and I was fortunate enough to talk to director Trevor Graham afterwards. He said that this film was a labour of love, and, for the record, the best hummus he has ever tasted came from Lebanon.

Four Stars

***

Maniac

Maniac

Holy shit. This film is wild. One of the purest genre films of the decade, Maniac is vile, sadistic and hugely effective. Shot almost completely from the point of view of a serial killer (think: a feature length version of The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up music video…with knives), this is a film that is its genre distilled: Maniac is horror.

Maniac puts us in the shoes (literally) of Frank (Elijah Wood), a vintage mannequin restorer who has some serious mummy issues. Frank spends his days working with his silent subjects, but at night his bloodlust boils over and he stalks the streets of Los Angeles looking for his next victim. Frank’s morbidly regimented life is disturbed when he meets Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a local photographer who is interested in his mannequins. Anna’s company seems to soothe Frank’s psychotic side, but how long can Frank fight his murderous tendencies?

Maniac is a staggering piece of film. Director Franck Khalfoun has zero interest in playing nice. From the outset, he disturbs us with his leering, voyeuristic camera work. Khalfoun wastes no time getting to Maniac’s business, which is, essentially, the violent dispatching of women.  A pre-credits murder is brilliantly staged and viciously violent. It works as a cinematic disclaimer: if you can’t handle this, get out now.

I honestly can’t think of another recent film like Maniac. Borat is the closest thing that comes to mind (no, not in content, stupid). It is comparable in that it took a well-worn genre and shook it so hard that it nearly exploded. Borat was comedy distilled; so single-minded in its search for laughs that it seemed revolutionary. Maniac has that same striving nature… except it is about the scalping of women.

I vehemently argue against the notion that films cause violent behaviour. I think it is a knee-jerk, weak argument that demonizes innocent artists. That said, Maniac is a dangerous film. This film plays like a serial killing how-to-guide. If you know someone that watches this film regularly (if it makes it past the censors), run. Don’t walk, run.

Elijah Wood is eerily effective as Frank. He seems hell-bent on shaking his ‘Frodo’ tag, and this role makes his turn in Sin City look like a Sesame Street character. A few of his lines to himself are a little off e.g. ‘Why didn’t you love me?!’ But this film’s car-crash-intensity overrides any criticisms.

Honestly, be wary of Maniac. This film will do for walking home alone what Jaws did for the beach. This is a truly repugnant piece of film, but it is also staggeringly original (yeah, I know it’s a remake) – suspenseful, berserk and intense. Purely judged as a piece of genre work, Maniac is a near-masterpiece and one of the most effective horror films of the decade. Is is also the worst date movie of all time.

Five Stars

Warning: This trailer features nasty things!

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Tomorrow’s films: Girl Model, Call Me Kuchu and The Angel’s Share 

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