Sam and I joined Cam for breakfast on Degraves St. Thinking back, there was only two days where I didn't eat there. It was the choice for breakfast/lunch. After being interrupted by some heavy rain which managed to infiltrate the fortress of umbrellas in the centre of the street we headed for Greater Union Cinemas on Russell Street. I had seen films here in the past, but had neglected to describe the unique experience that watching a film at GU is.
I was seeing First Position, the first of four films in the GU seats - the enormously uncomfortable cushions that suck out your soul - and this was a concern. Also scheduled for the day was Ruby Sparks (directly following First Position) and Berberian Sound Studio (directly following Ruby Sparks). First Position was the award-winning documentary which follows a number of young and talented ballet dancers from all over the world vying for recognition and elite scholarships at the Youth American Grand Prix. I missed it at Sydney Film Fest. (SFF) and heard great things. Sam and Cam were seeing Undefeated, a film I did see at SFF and absolutely adored.
First Position - This inspiring, crowd-pleasing and cleverly conceived documentary is a tribute to the devotion to realising dreams. First Position, directed by Bess Kargman, chronicles six youngsters of different ages as they strain their bodies to the limit in competition for a spot in the final of the Youth America Grand Prix. We are privileged to the dramatic back stories of several young ballet dancers - Aran, Michaela, Jules, Miko, Joan and Rebecca - and given insight into their upbringing and childhood, their rigorous training, their backstage preparations and their emotions immediately after performing.
We understand the sacrifices these talented young people have made, are moved by their courage to overcome self-doubt, disappointment and even serious injury and credit their hard work and determination. First Position is an engrossing, heartwarming documentary and like all great non-fiction films, transcends the subject matter. It culminates in a familiar final showdown - the Grand Prix - with all of the children arriving on the big stage. The stakes are high, and the panel of judges - representatives of major dance companies and academies - could offer them a career path. I was nearly brought to tears by these compelling stories, and it is a film that rewards emotional investment. ★★★★ (B+)
Straight out from First Position I met up with Cam and Sam again. We grabbed a coffee and jumped in the line for Ruby Sparks.
Ruby Sparks is an original, charming, funny and poignant tale of a 29-year-old writer, Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), coming to terms with himself and love through his craft. It is written by Zoe Kazan, who stars as Calvin's imagination-come-to-life girlfriend, Ruby, and directed by the team behind the critical hit Little Miss Sunshine, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Having been unable to find success since his first and only novel ten years earlier - and in the film's opening sequences Calvin attends a reception to note the tenth anniversary of the publication - he has since been living off his wealth and has now become moody, depressed, undesirable and isolated from the world. The reason: a sophomore slump and writer's block. He receives moral support from his brother, Harry (Chris Messina), but it isn't until he has a dream of meeting an attractive red haired girl (Kazan) in a park that he finds the inspiration he's so desperately seeking. He begins furiously writing about this character - Ruby Sparks - and begins to fall in love with his creation. He views her as the perfect girl. One morning Ruby appears in his apartment, amused by Calvin's bewildered reaction and claiming they have been together for some time. Calvin decides to introduce Ruby to his family and friends - after finding proof that she actually does exist outside of his head - and resist the urge to manipulate her further.The first half of Ruby Sparks is very funny, and I found myself relating to Calvin's writing routine, odd moments of inspiration, and frustration. Watching him come to terms with Ruby's presence in his life is hilarious; and things get even funnier when he calls in Harry to test whether Ruby exists and if she can be 'tweaked'. Paul Dano is back in top form - perfectly cast as the gangly, awkward, bespectacled and clearly talented writer stuck in a personal and professional rut. Though Calvin possesses some unlikeable characteristics, he is an endearing character we sympathise with and begin to grow concerned for when we realise he is blind to his faults and literally becomes over-controlling. It is a somewhat cautionary tale and instead of Calvin personally evolving, and letting his love for Ruby loose, he takes to altering Ruby and relying on his changes to strengthen the relationship. This does not work and we watch his male ego become fragile as he becomes increasingly desperate.
Up next was Berberian Sound Studio, one of my most anticipated prior to MIFF and without doubt the strangest film I watched while I was there. Peter Strickland's creepy mind-bender is an assured and confident conception and an eerie, unsettling and undeniably fascinating watch. I left the film processing a plethora of questions and interpretations and the immediate desire for another viewing.For the most part Ruby Sparks is pure enjoyment and the only real let down is the film's Hollywood ending, which I won't discuss, but it actually doesn't make a whole lot of sense, considering how Dano's character evolves and what ultimately happens to Ruby. The film's predominantly dramatic second half is less successful too and a visit to the home of Calvin's mother and partner (Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas) goes on for a tad too long. When Ruby begins to grow distant, watching him re-write her (something he initially vowed not to do) is uneasily amusing and sad. He makes three significant changes to Ruby, and this does result in the film becoming bleak. Still, I remained engrossed in Ruby Sparks, an intelligently conceived script from young writer Kazan, and a well-acted, slickly executed romantic comedy/drama. ★★★★ (B)
Set in the 1970's the audacious Berberian Sound Studio stars Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as Gilderoy, a quiet and reserved sound engineer summoned to Italy to work on the lurid new 'giallo' picture, The Equestrian Vortex, from director Gianfranco Santini (Antonio Mancino). Being thrust into one of Italy's sleaziest post-production studios to work on a sordid film is not what Gilderoy expected when he left his garden shed in Dorking, especially considering his prior work: nature documentaries. We never see a reel of the misogynistic mayhem of The Equestrian Vortex (well, with the exception of the opening credit sequence) but by the end of Berberian Sound Studio we feel like we have experienced it all the same. The narrative, manufactured by Gilderoy through his inventive methods of creating accompanying sound effects, begins to reflect Gilderoy's work in the studio and through a series of mishaps - exploited actresses, the production's failure to reimburse his flight to Italy and conflicts with the film's producer, Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) - Gilderoy's sanity begins to become victim to the repetitive horrors and he begins to lose his grip on his reality. As an audience, so do we.
Following Berberian Sound Studio I met up with Sam and we raced back to the hotel to get changed and have something to eat before the Closing Night film and after party. The film was P. J Hogan's Mental, reuniting him with Toni Collette after a lengthy stretch since Muriel's Wedding. We thought we were running late for the 7.30pm start so a cab back to the city got us there just prior. Turns out the speeches and announcements - including a few words from Hogan and one of the stars, Anthony LaPaglia - didn't start until almost 8. It was a pleasure to meet Alex Thomas (@AThomas20), a long-time Twitter pal in GU. He would be one of our drinking buddies later, too. The film, an incredibly overlong 111 minutes, didn't get us down to the Forum Lounge for drinks until about 10pm.The premise of the film is conveyed through the sequences of Gilderoy tweaking with the soundtrack and dubbing the sound effects the old-fashioned way - slashing watermelons to convey a limb being decapitated, ripping radishes to convey a neck being broken and pouring oil into a hot pan to substitute for a red hot poker being thrust...somewhere vile. Though the images, projected by a black-gloved hand (a nod to Argento), are being presented for Gilderoy and off-screen for us, we hear the sounds Gilderoy is constructing and they feel wincingly real.
Just like Gilderoy is an expert sound technician, so are the team behind Berberian. The sound design is an extraordinary achievement - and there are some excellent decisions made by Strickland to heighten the claustrophobic environment Gilderoy operates out of. Visually it is pretty surreal as well. The film gets so complex that the image begins to bubble on one occasion. Mulholland Drive was a film that came to mind a couple of times and the presence of a blinking red 'Silenzio' sign outside of the recording room is but one example. Toby Jones is perfectly cast, and delivers a terrific performance as the hapless fish-out-of-water.
There are a bunch of pieces to the puzzle - rotting vegetables, possibly discarded from use on the shoot, a spider which appears in several different locations (Gilderoy's private quarters and the studio) and several letters from Gilderoy's mother, which must be significant because the camera tracks down the page and ensures that we read every word. The contents of these letters make a strange appearance in another form. It is hard enough processing both Gilderoy's story and The Equestrian Vortex, but the film goes even further, turning itself inside out in the final act. Divulging what happens is a disservice, but I don’t have an explanation for what happens either. Strickland has constructed something excitingly original and fans of surrealist cinema - Lynch and Bergman - will find plenty to admire here. It is an eerie, fascinating and genuinely puzzling thriller. ★★★★ (B+)
Here are my thoughts on the awful Mental, a film claimed to have been made "about Australians for Australians". I have been trying to forget it.
Mental - When his wife, Shirley (Rebecca Gibney), gets thrown into a psychiatric ward, broken after years of being a dormat and having to handle her five wildchild daughters alone, Barry Moochmore (LaPaglia), rather than take responsibility for himself, enlists a random hitch-hiker, Shaz (Toni Collette), to be the live-in nanny and take care of the girls. Each of the girls believe they are suffering from some mental disorder and use that to try and explain their unpopularity and eccentricities. Shaz, trying to convince them that they have no such issues by showing up their neighbors and tormentors, takes them on a series of misadventures which has them crossing paths with Trevor Blundell (Liev Shreiber), local shark hunter and former lover of Shaz, and doing anything from smearing pie over the local cafe owners and defiling a set of white couches. A terrific example. Turns out Shaz has some secrets of her own and deeper and darker issues than her outgoing, charismatic exterior would suggest.The after-party was a lot of fun. We drank and danced, and tried to make conversation through the music (my voice was shot the next day). We met up with a lot of awesome people including: Alex Thomas, Katia Nizic (@andcutfilm), Greg Bennett (@soundslikecin), Richard Haridy, Glenn Dunks, Ben Buckingham (@dissolvedpet) and Jess Lomas (@JessLomas). Here are some photos:
Mental can be given some credit for a few strong performances - Toni Collette, Lily Sullivan and Liev Schreiber are all very good - and for 'going there'. There are no boundaries in this film at all. Unfortunately, this vile attempt at a comedy, which involves escalating cringe-worthy jokes about date rape, race, sexuality and mental illness, proved to be disgusting, obnoxious, irritating, offensive and just not funny. The balance in this department is woefully askew. I spent most of the overlong experience wincing and wanting it to end. It is the Return of the King of Australian comedies, offering up about three false endings and features frequent bursts into song, a growling LaPaglia (a despicable character and a dreadful performance), Shreiber rambling about sharks in a spot-on Australian accent (probably the only funny part), Kerry Fox scrubbing her driveway with a toothbrush and Collette farting into a lighter to ignite a set of dolls. Yes, it stinks. ★ (D+)
We called it a night at about 2.30am, grabbing a burger on the way back to the hotel. It was an exhausting day. I will leave the final two days of the trip to Melbourne - which included just the one film, The Hunt - for the next installment.