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MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2000: PREVIEW

WHAT’S OUT THERE, WHAT ISN’T
Our man in Melbourne, JAKE WILSON, pores over the program for this year's Melbourne International Film Festival, picking his favourites and lamenting some omissions. And below, ANDREW L. URBAN has a further word about the Australian features and talks to festival director Sandra Sdraulig, who leaves the post after four years.

‘See what’s out there,’ runs the slogan for this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. Pessimist that I am, I’m more inclined to notice what isn’t out there – in particular, numerous internationally praised films that I was hoping to see. Where, for example, is Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Rosetta, the controversial winner of the Palme D’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival? Where is Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanite, the equally controversial runner-up? Where are the new or newish films by such noted directors as (for example) Manuel de Oliviera, Aki Kaurismaki, Olivier Assayas, and Harmony Korine?

Still, if you look closely at the program, there are enough movies here to suit most tastes, most of the time.

As usual, the centrepiece of the program is the International Panorama, which includes new films from all over the world - beginning with the opening night film, Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys (starring Michael Douglas, cast against type as a pot-smoking literature professor). This section includes most of the highest profile screenings: among those bound to attract large crowds are Mary Harron's serial killer satire American Psycho, Wim Wenders' The Million Dollar Hotel (with a script by Bono from U2), Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate (starring Johnny Depp), and Stephen Frears' High Fidelity. Another welcome inclusion is Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, an offbeat thriller he shot in between making Out Of Sight and Erin Brockovich, which somehow failed to get a cinema release here when it was first made.

Further off the beaten track, the Regional Focus program - which concentrates on work from the Asia Pacific region - has a commendably eclectic selection of films, ranging from horror (Nakata Hideo's Ring and Ring 2) to action (Lee Myung-See's hyperstylish Nowhere To Hide) to Shinji Aoyama's Eureka, a four-hour drama about the aftermath of a bus hijacking, which won the International Critics' Prize at Cannes this year, and which critics have compared to the work of John Ford.

There's also an unusually interesting-looking batch of Australian features. I'm especially keen to see the closing-night film, Mallboy, directed by Vince Giarrusso of the band the Underground Lovers. As the title suggests, it's about a kid who spends a lot of time in shopping malls, where he shoplifts, sells drugs to his friends, and generally hangs out. It's a very plausible premise, and in publicity shots the main character - Kane McNay from SeaChange, in black beanie and windcheater - looks exactly right; hopefully this will be the rare Australian film that achieves realism without getting preachy or melodramatic.

Also in the program are two new films, Innocence and Father Damien, by one of Australia's most enduring auteurs, the erratic but often interesting Paul Cox. And Mark Savage's Sensitive New Age Killer has got to be a novelty - it's not often anyone sets out to make a full-throttle, all-guns-blazing action movie set in Melbourne. (The last person to try it was Jackie Chan with A Nice Guy; Savage shot a documentary about the making of that film, so he's learnt from the best.)

Here’s my shortlist of screenings I’m determined not to miss.

Beau Travail.
The title translates as ‘good work’ –the latest by French director Claire Denis, subject of a deserved (and, for once, just about complete) MIFF retrospective. It’s a romantic mood piece set among soldiers in the Foreign Legion, loosely inspired by Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. Overseas critics have called this a masterpiece, but warned viewers not to expect much of a storyline. Those who know Denis’ work won’t need to be told.

Blackboards.
Samira Makhmalbaf’s first feature, The Apple – made when she was just 18 – was one of the very best films at last year’s MIFF, tackling a tricky subject (the real-life plight of two mistreated children) with uncanny fleetness and poise. This follow-up is about a group of teachers scouting for pupils on the Iranian-Kurdistan border; it’s billed as a suspense film of sorts.

Branded To Kill.
The flagship movie for the festival’s Seijun Suzuki spotlight (curated by Philip Brophy) this is described as a hitman thriller with avant-garde styling and kinky sexual twists. Suzuki, a director of violent 60s Japanese B-movies, has a sizeable cult reputation; my knowledge of his work is extremely limited, which is why we need festival programs like this one. Jim Jarmusch cited Suzuki as a key influence on his own hitman movie, Ghost Dog, and that’s enough of a recommendation for me.

The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoise.
To celebrate the hundred-year anniversary of the birth of legendary surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel, the MIFF is screening a few of his best films, including this 70s classic about a group of well-groomed French people looking for a place to have dinner. Because Bunuel isn’t an obviously spectacular director, you might suppose that it doesn’t matter whether or not you see his work in a cinema. In fact, in this case, the opposite is true: the big screen transforms the film, lending an ironic dignity and grandeur to the most seemingly silly, inconsequential characters and events. Let’s hope they get a decent print.

Peepshow: Titillation & The Moving Image.
A program of experimental film and video (curated by Clare Stewart) on themes relating to nudity, sex and voyeurism. If this is a marketing gimmick, it’s a venerable one: for almost the entire history of cinema, experimental films have lured audiences with the promise of explicit and transgressive sexual content. And why not? But expect some formal thrills as well as the other kind.

Spectres Of The Spectrum.
The last Craig Baldwin film I saw, Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America, was a weird, manically edited, and largely indecipherable 'found footage compilation' designed to prove that all 20th century history was controlled by alien reptiles (or something). Baldwin’s new film, set a few years into the future, appears to be designed along similar lines, with spaceships, time-travel, telepathy, and people named after cartoon characters. It will probably make no sense at all. Did I mention that Baldwin’s films are weird?

Time Regained.
Raul Ruiz, another filmmaker who’s not afraid to plunge into incoherence, presents a long-cherished project – his version of the final volume of Proust’s A recheché de temps perdu. Ruiz’s wayward approach to narrative – his films are filled with mysterious legends and anecdotes that collapse into each other like episodes in dreams – guarantees that this will be anything but a straightforward, literal adaptation. The amazing cast includes Catherine Deneuve and none other than John Malkovich as the most famous homosexual in literature, the Baron de Charlus.

The Wind Will Carry Us.
Though none of his films have ever received a commercial release in Australia, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami currently must be one of the most highly praised filmmakers in the world. Nothing could be less dependent on hype, however, than his films themselves, which remain stubbornly focused on ordinary people with practical problems, and which serenely ignore (above all, in their utterly distinctive sense of time) most conventional wisdom about how to tell a story. This latest film revolves around four strangers who come from the city to a remote Iranian village; advance word suggests it shouldn’t be missed.

What else? Well, there’re several other experimental film compilations; a collection of BBC biopics of composers by Ken Russell; a short film competition; a cluster of music films; an extensive program of film-related speeches and panels; an animation sidebar, including a homage to pioneer silhouette animator Lotte Reiniger; a handful of mainstream Hollywood films that are bound to get a commercial release later on; an unusually promising selection of Australian features; and many, many other movies which may or may not deserve your attention.

And if none of the above grabs you, there’s also the Melbourne Underground Film Festival, running July 20-26 alongside the official program. This is an event set up by filmmaker and sometime nightclub-owner Richard Wolstencroft, who was pissed off that the MIFF rejected his latest opus, the helpfully titled Pearls Before Swine. Program details to hand are sketchy, but the focus will be on exploitation-style movies – erotica, horror, sci-fi – with a retrospective of ‘Australian cult cinema’ going back to the ‘70s. Could be cool, could be slightly dodgy, most probably a bit of both. But the more alternatives distributors and exhibitors offer us, the more chance we have to truly ‘see what’s out there’ – and that has to be a good thing.

AUSTRALIAN FEATURES & OPENING NIGHT AT MIFF
By Andrew L. Urban

With two new Paul Cox films in the one festival (Innocence and Father Damien), Melbourne pays homage to the man it drove away. Cox is making films in Adelaide, in Sydney, in Europe and in Hawaii - anywhere but Melbourne, where he feels he is not appreciated. That can only be partly true, as this programming demonstrates.

Innocence is a film that shows Paul Cox at his most romantic, in the truest sense of the word, telling a story about a love that never dies. The lovers are elderly, and they have spent their lives apart. They meet one spring and are forced apart, but meet up again in the autumn of their lives. Charles Tingwell and Julia Blake are superb. As for the story of Father Damien, I haven't seen it, but this, too, is a romantic story - although of a different kind. Here, it's human nature at its noblest. And boasts interesting casting: David Wenham, Sam Neill, Derek Jacobi, Peter O'Toole, Kris Kristofferson . . .and Kate Ceberano as a Hawaiian Princess.

Better Than Sex and My Mother Frank opened and closed this year's Sydney Film Festival respectively, and both deserve a festival showcase prior to their commercial release. Of course, the old argument about festival screenings mopping up potential box office dollars is unresolved….

Mallboy is the closing night film, a memorable debut by Vincent Giarrusso, shot in Melbourne with a terrific young cast and an unpredictable edge, covering three days crucial in the life of 15 year Shaun, marvellously portrayed by Kane McNay.

"Australian Showcase"

The Australian Showcase also includes Daniel Nettheim's youth comedy Angst and several documentaries, including Tosca, a splendid, funy and insightful fly-on-the-backstage-wall look at the Australian Opera.

With the choice of Wonder Boys as Opening Night film and its director Curtis Hanson a festival guest, Sandra Sdraulig signals her respect for screen writing as well as directing. To some people, a commercial film (opens here on August 3 - as the festival draws to a close) such as this has no place in a festival but others welcome the chance to see it in this context. Certainly, the film and the talent involved justify a spotlight. It could be argued that its presence in the festival alerts the greater public to the film's credentials - and that having Michael Douglas as its star should not lead us to premature assumptions about the film.

But Sandra Sdraulig's response is different: she says she doesn't find it "a persuasive argument" that commercially releasing films should be kept out of festivals. "You're celebrating filmmaking over the past 12 months so it's important to juxtapose those films that will get a release with those that won't." She says it would be absurd to leave out of the program a film that's so "sharply scripted and wonderfully observed as Wonder Boys," for instance.

"astronomical choice"

Sdraulig says the festival, with 350 films from nearly 40 countries, offers "astronomical choice. At any given time you could have four options to choose from, and I think it's important to offer audiences a mix of safe and adventurous choices."

She leaves the festival at the end of this year's event having lifted box office 87% during her term, with admissions up from 55,000 to over 100,000. "It's good to leave it in a healthy state and I think in a creative situation like this, where you are making decisions about what people see, it's good to have new blood."

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49th Melbourne International Film Festival
July 19 - Aug 6, 2000

Trivia:
For the past two years, the directors of all three major Australian city film festivals - Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane - have been women. Last year was Gayle Lake's first in Sydney and this year it's Sandra Sdraulig's last in Melbourne.


Opening night film:
Wonder Boys


Closing Night Film:
Mall Boy

International Panorama


The Limey, starring Terrence Stamp


Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins

Australian Showcase

Angst


My Mother Frank


Regional Feature
Audition







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