CIFF 2014 Reviews – Round 1: In Order of Disappearance, Why Don’t You Play In Hell?, The Salvation and The Congress

Hey hey! The 2014 Canberra International Film Festival started last Thursday, and I’ve been spending most of my free time since then watching movies. I’ve seen seven of the twenty-two (potentially twenty-three) on my schedule so far, and honestly I’ve loved them all. Unlike last year’s aborted attempt, this year I’m determined to review all of them. In the interests of making that manageable, I’ve set a couple of guidelines for myself. I’ll be reviewing them in batches of four films, and limiting myself to five hundred words per film, give or take a hundred words each. I’ll try to avoid major spoilers, but as always with my reviews, there’s no guarantees, so consider this your fair warning. If you want to be really safe, just read the summary I put at the start of each section. I’ll even put the poster for the movie after each summary so you know where to stop reading, so you know, never say I don’t do anything for you.

Now as I always say, I’m no serious film critic. I tend to go pretty easy on films so long as I find something to enjoy in them, and I make no apologies for that. So far this year I haven’t rated any of the films lower than a 4, and I think last year I only rated one of them as a 1 or 2.

Now that the preamble is out-of-the-way, let’s get this show on the road. For Round 1, I’ll be talking about In Order of Disappearance, Why Don’t You Play In Hell, The Salvation and The Congress. Each title is linked to the page for the film on the CIFF website, if a trailer is available for it, you can find it there.

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In Order of Disappearance

Director: Hans Petter Moland
Country: Norway, Sweden, Denmark
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen
Summary: A darkly comedic revenge story. The humour plays beautifully against the violence as Nils (Stellan Skarsgård) works his way through the ranks of Greven’s (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen) gang as payback for their crimes. The snowbound scenery of the film is beautiful in an austere fashion. I wasn’t expecting the comedy aspect of it, and it took it from a 3, maybe 4 star film to 5 for me.
Score: 5 out of 5 Stars

In-Order-of-Disappearance-UK-POster

What to say about In Order of Disappearance… Well, let’s start with the basics. There are two reasons this made it onto my list. First, it was part of the Freaky Fridays events, and after how much I enjoyed last year’s ones I decided that all of those films would be on my schedule. Second, Stellan Skarsgård is in it (point me at a film with him or Mads Mikkelsen, I’ll probably watch it). I’d only skimmed the description in the program, so I was expecting a pretty straight forward revenge thriller… and at first that’s what I was getting.

The classic setup is there, Nils’ loses his son to criminals, discovers that it wasn’t an accident as he was informed, and goes on a rampage. Not a bad setup for a film by any means, though I have to admit I like it when the hero isn’t shown as an invincible badass, and things can spiral out of control (for a really good example of that, have a look at a film called Blue Ruin). Once it got past that setup though, and Nils comes face to face with the first member of the gang who killed his son… man, the laughs started there and rarely stopped. It’s almost as if no one’s expecting this relatively harmless looking old man to actually do anything, so he manages to just tear his way through the first few guys like they’re made of paper based entirely on the surprise factor. He’s clearly planned what he’s going to do very thoroughly, and it just all falls together for him. Things do get a little more complicated later on once a rival gang gets involved, but Nils seems to have someone watching over him from on high.

Stellan Skarsgård’s performance as Nils is a thing of beauty, portraying a man who’s decided he’s not going to stand for the injustice done to his family and will go to any lengths to exact retribution. His opposite number, Greven, played by Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen, is a slick and oddly charming drug dealer, who spends most of the film arguing with his ex-wife over their child, obsessing over organic food and drink, and jumping to all the wrong conclusions about who could be killing his men, leading to the situation spiraling out of his control. He’s a bastard, but generally an affable one, except when it comes to his ex-wife and threats to his business. His parting words in particular cracked me up. Throw in the simple and clean beauty of the snow filled scenery, and I fell in love with this film immediately. Honestly, I couldn’t think of a better start to the festival. The humour reminded me of Fargo, while the story put me in mind of Blue Ruin. It actually makes a really interesting counterpoint to Blue Ruin, because as I mentioned before, that film involves a somewhat similar story, but rather than having a protagonist who gets remarkably lucky in his endeavours, instead demonstrates the ways revenge can go horribly wrong and end in tragedy for all.

Would I recommend it? Most definitely. And if you’re anything like me, the last thirty seconds before the credits roll will have you completely losing your shit and laughing uncontrollably. I thought I was going to choke I was laughing so hard.

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Why Don’t You Play In Hell?

Director: Sion Sono
Country: Japan
Starring: Jun Kunimura, Fumi Nikaidô, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi
Summary: A bizarre mix of comedy and over the top blood soaked action. Even for what I normally expect from Japanese action films, this was insane. The story involves rival yakuza, a wannabe actress who seems to have a number of obsessive fans from when she was child actress for a toothpaste advert), and an amateur film troupe called the Fuck Bombers who are determined to make the greatest film ever. Throw in liberal amounts of blood, slapstick, violence and what is possibly the most horrifying kiss I’ve ever witnessed, shake well, and enjoy the insanity.
Score: 4 out of 5 Stars

why-dont-you-play-in-hell

So I was sitting with a friend for this one. The cinema didn’t have that many people in it, so assigned seating wasn’t a big deal. By the end of the movie, I’d lost count of the number of times we both burst out laughing with quiet exclamations of “What the fuck is going on”. I suspect that he may have enjoyed it a bit more than I did, simply because he’s heavily involved in making short films, so that particular aspect of the story probably held more appeal for him than it did for me. But goddamn it was a fun ride either way. Sure the blood looked fake, and some of the effects were a bit dodgy, but it was just non-stop insane fun from start to blood soaked finish. I’m afraid that I can’t remember names of characters, but the basic story is this:

The Fuck Bombers, a group of amateur film makers, have met another young man they are convinced will become Japan’s equivalent to Bruce Lee, and convince him to join their crew. Meanwhile, the wife of a powerful yakuza boss has brutally “defended” herself against a hit squad sent to kill her husband. So brutally that she goes to jail for ten years. Ten years later, the Fuck Bombers are still trying to make a movie, but not getting anywhere to the dismay of their “Bruce Lee”, and the yakuza boss’ daughter is being pressured into making a film by her father, so that her mother can see it when she gets out of jail shortly. At this point the story just spirals into numerous fights between the two yakuza clans, with ever-increasing gore and insanity on the rise. Probably one of the strangest moments is when the boyfriend of the boss’ daughter accidently gets a face full of cocaine. With a scream of “I’M HIGH ON COCAINE!”, the footage shifts to an animated backdrop as all of the men getting slaughtered in front of him start to bleed rainbows. Meanwhile there’s a bunch of film makers capturing the whole war on film (with the agreement of the participants), and a number of showdowns between various characters in the midst of the chaos. Special mention has to be made of a scene that made me cringe while also being unable to look away, where the daughter deals with an ex-boyfriend who betrayed her by filling his mouth with broken glass, then giving him a “goodbye kiss.” The passion she shows at that point is horrifying when you see the aftermath, with broken glass sticking straight through the poor guy’s cheek.

Would I recommend it? Yes, but only if you like nonsensical movies with insanity to spare, and can handle a bit of an unhappy ending. Because let me be very clear… No one gets out of this one and lives happily ever after. Well. Maybe one of them does, but my money is on him coming to a sticky end shortly after the credits rolled.

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The Salvation

Director: Kristian Levring
Country: Denmark
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Summary: A Danish western set in 1870’s America. Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) and his brother have been building a new life for themselves for seven years, and Jon’s family have finally come to join them. After an encounter with a couple of outlaws, things go horribly wrong, and Jon sets out to put things right. A violent film without being unnecessarily gory, with fantastic performances from Mads Mikkelsen, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Eva Green. I’m not exactly the biggest fan of westerns, and really only took a chance on this one because of Mads, but damn if I’m not glad I did. The harsh landscape is beautiful in its own way as well.
Score: 5 out of 5 Stars

Salvatation Poster 2

Westerns. I never really enjoyed them until a few years ago, and even now I wouldn’t say they’re my favourite genre. Sure, I like some of the classics, like the Dollars Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars; For A Few Dollars More; and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly), but I just don’t watch that many of them. After I decided to see the Kurdish western My Sweet Pepperland at the last-minute at last year’s festival and loved it though, I decided that I’d maybe try a few more of them. Despite that, I initially overlooked The Salvation when I first started planning my list for this year, and only added it when I realised that Mads Mikkelsen was in it. Well, let’s just say that I’m relieved I did that.

The story isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it’s well crafted and beautifully told. Jon and his brother Peter moved to the USA after retiring as soldiers. Seven years later, Jon’s wife Marie and son Kresten come to join them. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes on the way home, leading to Marie and Kresten being murdered by outlaws. Jon deals out justice to those responsible, but incurs the wrath of Colonel Delarue, the gang leader. With the local town turned against him, his family dead and Delarue looking for revenge, Jon wages war on the gang to save himself and revenge his loved ones. Let’s be honest, that’s not exactly a unique story for a western, it’s a framework that many a classic movie has been built on. But goddamn if I wasn’t sucked into it anyway.

The harsh nature of both the setting and the conditions that the characters live with every day makes for compelling watching. In particular, Jeffery Dean Morgan as Delarue is a brilliant depiction of brutality incarnate. His cold demand that the townsfolk find him the man who killed his men within two hours, or choose two of their own to be killed in his place is enough to cement his bastard status, but it’s the way he couches it in references to the bible that really sells it (specifically he mentions the “eye for an eye” form of justice)… and when he feels the people he’s offered as a sacrifice aren’t suitable… well, he’s not shy about making his feelings known. Eva Green, while having no lines due to her character having had to tongue removed, manages to convey a hell of a lot of emotion throughout the story, and is a character that I found myself growing sympathetic for after an initial dislike. And of course, who could forget Mads as Jon, the hero of the story. A seemingly gentle man, a loving father and husband who has his family stolen from him the first day he’s seen them in seven years, he’s the perfect example of why you should never underestimate an opponent, particularly when you’ve given them reason to hate you, and you know they’re a veteran soldier. To sum up his performance in a word… Spectacular.

Would I recommend it? Damn straight. Western fan or no, I encourage everyone to watch The Salvation. One thing I really liked was that, despite the fast and brutal nature of the violence in it, there wasn’t any gore for the sake of gore. Not that I have a problem with gore, but this film didn’t need it, and I feel like adding it would have cheapened it some how.

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The Congress

Director: Ari Folman
Country: Israel, Germany, Belgium
Starring: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Paul Giamatti
Summary: Uh… Words fail me for this one. Seriously. I don’t know how the hell to describe it. Surreal. Beautiful. Confusing. Worth a watch, if just to revel in the insanity. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got. It’s something truly unique. Based on the themes and concept of The Futurist’s Congress by Stanislaw Lem, though it changes the setup and setting quite significantly.
Score: 4 out of 5 Stars (would have been 3, but I gave it the extra one for sheer originality)

THE-CONGRESS-Poster

I was sitting with the same guy I watched Why Don’t You Play In Hell with for this one. Both of us seemed a bit at a loss at the end of it, not entirely sure what to think. I mean I’m pretty sure we both enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t say either of us truly understood it. We came to the conclusion that this is probably the point though, because it shows us a vision of a future so different from anything that fits inside our present day frame of reference that there’s no way we can really comprehend what the world of the film would be like to live in.

Oh. I’ve figured out how to describe what it was like. Have you ever taken acid? No? Well, either have I… but I’m pretty sure I’ve got a fairly good idea of what it’s like after watching The Congress.

I didn’t watch the trailer for this one, or look into it very closely before I saw it. I just saw it was a sci-fi film, and fitted into an empty spot in my schedule. I had a spare ticket, so why not. So when I went in, I was expecting a live action near future sci-fi about a world where actors are scanned into a database and movies are made exclusively with digital reconstructions of the actors. And for the first… I dunno, half hour? That’s what I got. The setup is that Robin Wright (playing herself) is a washed up star who jerked the studios around just a little too much, became too much of a financial liability. They offer her a final contract, to be scanned into their database. They’ll pay her a small fortune on the condition that she agree to let them make pretty much anything they want with her (excluding porn and holocaust films), and that she never act again. She accepts, because she needs the money to help look after her son, who has a degenerative medical condition that’s sending him blind and deaf. I thought the story would deal with the aftermath of this situation, looking at what it’s like when actors can’t act anymore.

Then came the jump twenty years into the future, and my assumptions were taken out back and given the Old Yeller treatment… Robin’s contract was only set for twenty years, unlike many of the lifetime contracts of the other actors, and in order to renegotiate it she travels to the Futurist’s Congress in Abrahoma, a new state, run entirely by Miramount studios, who own her digital image. Abrahoma is a “Mandatory Animated Zone”, where everyone takes a drug that causes them to view the world in an animated form drawn from within their own mind. Cue a psychedelic wonderland of Looney Tunes and other animation styles, with rainbow roads, dancing sea creatures, happy smiling boats, and a crowd of characters who closely resemble many childhood favourites. From here the story just gets weirder and weirder, and I’m not even going to try to explain it. All I’ll say is that there’s yet another time skip, and this one leads to even more insane animation, which at times made me think of Dali and other surrealist artists.

I found a few things particularly interesting about this film. The repetition of certain conversations between Robin and her contact with Miramount was an interesting illustration of the fact that it doesn’t matter how much things change, something new will always come along. The concept of using chemicals to delude the entire human race into creating their own reality was a fascinating idea too. What I found really interesting though was just how awkward certain parts of the early live action segment were. There’s one scene when Robin is about to be scanned, and the technician says that he’s lucky because he gets to ask her to take off her dress. It  just felt really awkward. Maybe it sounded better on paper, maybe it was a stylistic choice, I don’t know. The reason I mention it though is that the following scene, where they’re scanning Robin, is an amazingly well-crafted scene between Harvey Keitel (playing Robin’s agent) and Robin, as he manipulates her into going from laughing and genuinely happy to breaking down into tears by explaining how he’s used her fear and insecurity over the years for his own advantage, just so they can get a full range of emotions for the scan. After that, the preceding scene really felt out-of-place.

Would I recommend it? Eh… maybe. This one’s kind of tricky, as demonstrated by the fact that I’ve already exceeded my word limit, even accounting for my allowance of an extra hundred words if I really needed it. I suppose if you like surrealist animation (and yes, the animation is absolutely beautiful) or like insane speculative sci-fi, then by all means I recommend it.

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Okay, that’s Round 1 of my reviews done. Round 2 will be posted Wednesday, and will include reviews for Appropriate Behaviour, After Life, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her

Written while listening to whatever the hell Spotify decided to recommend for me. I’m enjoying the service, but goddamn it needs some better classifications for metal. There’s too many sub genres to just divide it into Death Metal and Metal. 

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