MIFF 2012: Reviews of Undefeated, Ruby Sparks and 100 Bloody Acres

Welcome to day sixteen 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 SevenDay Eight / Day Nine / Day TenDay Eleven / Day Twelve / Day Thirteen / Day Fourteen / Day Fifteen . Enjoy.

 

Undefeated

Undefeated

Undefeated is as rousing a story as you are likely to find in all of sports cinema. I don’t give a solitary fuck about football (I am a film critic, after all), especially the American code of gridiron. But Undefeated knocked me square on my arse. I was completely onboard with this film and by its end the cumulative impact of Undefeated was so undeniable that I even shed a tear! Over football!

Undefeated follows the 2009 season of the Manassas Tigers, a high school football team from the heart of Memphis, Tennessee. The Tigers have never made a playoff game in their 110 years history. The tigers are so bad in fact, that other high schools pay for them to travel interstate, not for competition though, but for an easy win. Things change for the Tigers when they start receiving coaching from local businessman Bill Courtney. Courtney might just be the world’s most passionate high school coach. Bit by bit, the Tigers start taking his advice onboard, and bit by bit, their losses get smaller, and by the season of 2009 they even start to win games. But the young men that make up the Manassas tigers don’t just have opposition on the field, often their greatest challenges lie at home or in the classroom.

I’m always astounded when a documentary crew is in just the right place at just the right time. The Manassas football team had been a laughing stock for 110 years. How the hell did directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin know that 2009 would be the year that Manassas would turn the tide? I guess we will never know, but I’m happy to be the cinematic beneficiary of this turn of events. The directors realise that they are capturing lightning in a bottle and they often push right in on their characters, capturing amazing moments on and off the field.

Lindsay and Martin’s primary subject is Bill Courtney. At first, Courtney’s passion is disquieting; how could any human being be this passionate about high school football? I thought he was going to be an arsehole,  but I was wrong; the only thing that matches Courtney’s football passion is his humanitarian streak. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool cynic, but Bill Courtney won me over. He is one of those rarest of things: a truly good man. All of these kids are richer for having him in their lives.

All of the kids in Undefeated are idiosyncratic and sympathetic. From the abrasive Chavis to the aspirational Montrail to the hulking O.C., each one of these kids has different circumstances and different approaches, but one thing is utterly identical: football is their life, and, often, their only future.

Even if sport tales repulse you I highly recommend giving this one a chance. Undefeated is far more interested in the resilience of the human spirit than one hundred yards of green turf. Don’t just listen to me, it also won this year’s Oscar for best documentary.

Five Stars

 

 ***

Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks did absolutely nothing for me at all. I found it to be as translucent and garish as cellophane. I had zero preconceptions heading into the cinema; if anything, I was looking forward to it. But instead of the smart romcom I was promised, I saw a film with very little laughs, a cloying performance by the film’s writer (read: vanity project) and I had to spend time with a leaden, downright unlikeable protagonist. Ruby Sparks isn’t a traditionally bad film, it just thinks that it is twice as good as it actually is.

Ruby is the story of Calvin (Paul Dano), a prodigious writer who is suffering from a crippling case of writer’s block. Calvin peaked early and now the pressure to redeliver is strangling him. The only respite from his depression comes in the form of Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), a pixyish girl who appears in Calvin’s dreams. Calvin starts to write Ruby’s story as a means of fleshing out her character, and soon Calvin finds himself so taken with his literary character that he is writing just to spend time with her. Things take a turn for the fantastical when Calvin awakes to find Ruby occupying his house. Calvin now has the literal girl of his dreams, but has he gone insane in the process?

First things first, this is a complete vanity project. Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan are a couple in real life and in a not-so-cutesy move, they have spent $8 million dollars making a film where Dano is a literary genius and Kazan is kaleidoscope of indie cool clichés. Kazan comes from Hollywood royalty (she’s the granddaughter of Elia Kazan) and now she has decided to join the family trade. I’d have no problem with any of the aforementioned facts if this film was any good, but it’s got a multitude of serious problems.

Every character in Ruby Sparks is a cinematic cliché that has been better realised in other films. We get such classics as: the wise shrink (Elliot Gould), the tragic genius writer (Dano), the sex obsessed older brother (Chris Messina), the cool quirky girl (Kazan), the wacky new age mother (Annette Bening) and the sleazy agent (Steve Coogan). I didn’t like a single one of them. The only character I did like was Antonio Banderas’ Mort, and even then he is meant to be some sort of antagonist. The character I disliked the most was Dano’s Calvin. He is a jealous, anti-social prick who we are meant to sympathise with because he lives alone in a huge, modern house in L.A.  and he can’t follow up his literary masterpiece. Gimme a fucking break.

Kazan’s character is just as problematic. What sounds cutesy in the synopsis is maddening in the actual film: why is Ruby in the real world? It is established early on that Ruby is indeed a real person and not some figment of Calvin’s imagination. I’m all for flights of fancy but this concept is in direct opposition to Ruby Sparks’ real world aesthetic. There is a startling lack of imagination used with this larger than life concept; Kazan uses honest-to-god magic and then pulls back from anything fantastical for the rest of the film. She just uses the device to tell a low-key romance.

This film is a sophomore slump for directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. I loved their first film, the charming Little Miss Sunshine, but here they don’t have as firm a grip on the material. This film never gels the way Sunshine frequently did, it is often clunky and it never hits the high points it strives for. Despite its clever central concept, this is a completely unmemorable romance.

Two Stars

 

***

100 Bloody Acres

100 Bloody Acres

The Australian film industry is often lambasted for its lack of genre filmmaking. We look to our financial missteps and blame it on the public’s aversion to staid dramas or ocker comedies. I’m not alone in thinking that an influx of clever genre films — sci-fi, horror, action — would give our local cinema industry the kick up the arse it sorely needs. Thank god then for 100 Bloody Acres. This film is a gross-out riot, flush with suspense, laughs and clever riffs on the backwoods killer cliché. Acres is a great night at the movies and it signals the arrival of a new Australian cinematic force: the Cairnes brothers.

Sophie (Anna McGahan), Wes (Jaime Kristian) and James (Olivier Ackland) are headed to a middle-of-nowhere music festival when their car breaks down. Relief presents itself when they hitch a ride with local businessman Reg Morgan (Damon Herriman). Unbeknownst to the festival-goers, Reg has an ulterior motive for offering his help. He runs a renowned fertilizer business with his burly brother Lindsay (Angus Sampson) and their latest batch needs a special ingredient. Unfortunately for the gang, that ingredient is human remains.

Not only have the Cairnes brothers thought up a grotesquely clever concept, but they have the cinematic chops to pull it off. This is a great looking film that is tightly constructed. It is often suspenseful in a silly, giddy way, that is highly reminiscent of the calling-card horror films of Sam Raimi (Evil Dead) and Peter Jackson (Braindead).  Though it contains plenty of gasp-worthy moments, the brothers rarely go for straight-out horror. Like their cinematic forebears, their primary objective is to make you squeal and squirm.

This film offers a trio of brilliant performances. Anna Mchahan is the perfect combination of sexy and likeable as the manipulative Sophie. Angus Sampson generates the majority of the film’s laughs as the no-nonsense Lindsay. With his chinstrap beard and rampant colloquialisms (‘come on, fuck-arse’) he is a great addition to horror villain canon. As good as the other two leads are, this film is completely owned by Damon Herriman. Reg is a hugely duplicitous character and Herriman imbues the performance with simple charm and nervous energy. Reg isn’t a bad guy; he simply wants to please everyone, often with disastrous consequences.

Acres’ secret weapon is its humour: this is an often hilarious film. The Cairnes brothers pull none of their punches and most of this film’s more grotesque moments are also its funniest. We shouldn’t be laughing at severed fingers and minced bodies, but we often do, and loudly. A ‘cameo’ by Rebecca Gibney brought the house down and is possibly the funniest, filthiest gag I’ve seen all year.

The Cairnes brothers were in attendance at my screening and they are an affable pair. They said that they originally intended to make a straight-up horror film, but after the success of Wolf Creek they recalibrated their film. I got to ask them what was next on their slate and they said that they were working on an action/crime comedy, which is good news: these guys are the real deal.

Four Stars

***

Tomorrow’s films: The intouchables and Wuthering Heights

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