LFF 2013 – Story of My Death/Pioneer

Two great seducers, Casanova and Dracula meet in Spanish director Albert Serra’s latest but this is no playful horror movie. In fact I’m not entirely sure what Story of My Death is meant to be. Serra apparently shot 400 hours of footage for the film which beggars belief because hardly anything happens during the film’s two and a half hour running time as it is. An aged, repellent, and decadent Casanova eats a lot, gives half-baked philosophical advice on the nature of women (“women are all the same”), sexually exploits maids in a manner that would get him lifted nowadays, and laughs a lot for no apparent reason. It’s entirely possible the other 397 and a half hours are more of the same.

Serra claimed not to be interested in the horror genre but he’s made an interesting counterpoint to Stoker’s novel with Dracula here as a liberator of poor servile women letting them turn against the patriarchy and become powerful instead of victims.  Endurance test The Story of My Death might be Serra is clearly a gifted filmmaker albeit one who likes to punish his audience. The director gave a charming introduction to the film in which he said it was okay if people walked out which may have been reverse psychology as almost everybody stayed to the end. I don’t ever want to see The Story of My Death  again save for a wordless sequence in which would be lovers flirt at the dinner table after a meal. Free of all the dreadful pretensions Casanova spouts about love and its meaning I’d rather have seen that movie instead. 

I couldn’t get a ticket for Gravity so Erik Skjoldbjærg’s conspiracy thriller Pioneer proved a decent alternative. Set during the North Sea oil boom of the 80’s as the Norwegians are forced through inexperience and lack of resources to collaborate with an American company on finding ways to extract the oil from the depths. The expeditions are highly dangerous and involve experimenting with hitherto unused techniques. When Petter (Hennie) passes out during a test dive causing the death of another diver he resolves to find out what went wrong putting himself and those close to him in danger. Skjoldbjærg crashed and burned in Hollywood with a dire adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s  Prozac Nation (2001) while Christopher Nolan’s remake of his 97′ debut movie Insomnia put the British director on the Hollywood A-list but did nothing much for him. It’s easy to read Pioneer as a reaction to this with the plucky Norwegian battling the forces of American cultural imperialism but Skjoldbjærg presents both countries as having their own agendas with so much at stake. Pioneer is a tense, claustrophobic affair with a compelling lead performance from Aksel Hennie and good support from Wes Bentley, Stephen Lang, and Jonathon LaPlagia. 

LFF 2013 – The Congress (Ari Folman)

Waltz with Bashir (2008) director Ari Folman melds together Stanislaw’s novel ‘The Futurological Congress’ and the career of actress Robin Wright for this odd but moving mixture of live action and animation. Wright plays a fictional variation of herself, a narrative device made popular after Being John Malkovich (1999, Spike Jonze) and one which allows filmmakers to play around with a star’s persona. In The Congress Wright becomes a washed-up Hollywood dropout living in an airport hangar with her two children Aaron (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) who is losing his hearing and idealistic teenager Sarah (Sami Gayle). Wright has spent the intervening years since her early success in The Princess Bride (1987, Rob Reiner) driving her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) nuts by making bad career choices.
A lucrative offer from ‘Miramount’ studio boss Jeff (Danny Huston) to submit to an experimental new technique designed to replace ageing actors with CGI avatars so they remain forever young forces Wright to make a final decision on her acting career. Fade way or remain onscreen as an A-list simulacrum. Huston’s casting may be a nod towards his role in Bernard Rose’s fuck you to Hollywood Ivans XTC (2000) which combined the tragic life of agent Jay Moloney with Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich.’ Here however the satire is laboured and feels inauthentic. Though he makes fair points about how the industry sidelines women over forty and audiences are complicit in their preference for younger stars Folman has never made a Hollywood movie and it shows. These kinds of attacks work better when those involved have done time there like Rose and have scores to settle.
Folman is on stronger ground adapting Lem’s story about a future where people imbibe chemicals allowing them to escape from reality into a fantasy world of their own construction. Both filmmaker and novelist share thematic interests. Waltz with Bashir is essentially a journey through Folman’s memories to uncover a moment lost to him. Likewise Lem’s work particularly in ‘Solaris’ deals with the hold the past can have over a person especially if loss is involved. Twenty years after signing away her career and letting her CGI replacement take over Wright is summoned to a meeting in an entirely animated world called Abrahama.
Though this place is supposed to represent a new medium replacing motion pictures Abrahama has the retro feel of a Twenties cocktail party and the look of the animation resembles the work of old cartoons. People take comfort in the past, turning themselves briefly into Hollywood idols, or in the case of a lovelorn computer programmer Dylan improving their own physicality by turning himself into a tall dark and handsome matinee idol lookalike. Dylan is affectingly voiced by Jon Hamm who possesses one of the loveliest and saddest voices around. As Wright searches for her missing children in this strange new world The Congress becomes another mesmerising waltz through a dreamscape, once again set to a haunting Max Richter score.
The Congress is bound to divide audiences and admittedly it can infuriate as well as mesmerise often in the same scene. Yet any film featuring Robin Wright singing Leonard Cohen tracks, impersonating Sterling Hayden, and confessing she may have married unsuitable men has my vote. The Congress also features a remarkable monologue delivered by Harvey Keitel which is at once a confession of betrayal and of love which is worth the price of a ticket alone. 
The Congress
Written by Ari Folman, 
based on ‘The Futurological Congress’ by Stanislaw Lem
Directed by Ari Folman
Running time 122 minutes

LFF 2013 – Mystery Road (Ivan Sen)

For years now Aboriginal actor Aaron Pedersen has been a charismatic presence on Australian TV shows like Water Rats, the recent Jack Irish adaptations, and a personal favourite of mine The Secret Life of Us. In Ivan Sen’s thriller Mystery Road.  Pedersen finally gets a leading role as a police detective returning home from the city to the dead-end outback town he left a decade earlier. Why Jay Snow (Pedersen) came back is anybody’s guess. Snow’s fellow officers patronise him and his own folk hate him for turning cop. There’s an ex-wife Mary (Tasma Walton) but she’s drinking her life away and angry at Snow for ignoring their daughter.
As with Jindabyne (2006, Ray Lawrence) the murder of a young Aboriginal woman causes conflict in a small town. While in Lawrence’s relocation of a Raymond Carver short story the killing causes much soul searching amongst the townsfolk here nobody seems to care. Found near the highway with her throat slashed the teenager was a drug addict who prostituted herself to passing truck drivers.
Snow is given no resources to investigate the murder even though there’s a long list of suspects including a kangaroo hunting sharpshooter (Ryan Kwanten), a drug pusher (Damian Walshe-Howling) preying on the Aboriginal community, and maybe even Snow’s enigmatic colleague Jonno (Hugo Weaving) who has a habit of turning up at inopportune moments. Weaving is exceptional as a man whose threatening nature is only slightly softened by his avuncular manner and whose wardrobe seems to consist entirely of faded denim sleeveless shirts.
Racial tensions simmering under the surface of everyday life and the marginalisation of indigenous Australians are placed within the framework of the Western genre. Like the US show Justified it is interested in how poverty in small deprived communities often forces people towards crime or finding an escape though drink and drugs. It’s no grim affair either with Sen’s screenplay providing a dry sense of humour and Pedersen’s understated performance holds the attention. When the inevitable showdown arrives it’s one of the finest shoot-outs in recent memory. An intense fifteen-minute exchange which is chaotic, messy, and unusually for an onscreen gun battle everybody involved seems to fear for their lives.
Sen’s slow burn approach burns a little too slowly and there is too much heavy handed symbolism on show. Occasionally the reliance on lengthy conversations with suspects makes the film feel a little too much like a television police procedural. Despite these minor flaws Mystery Road is engrossing and should provide both writer/director Sen and Aaron Pedersen with international breakthroughs. 
Mystery Road
Written and directed by Ivan Sen
112 minutes