CIFF 2014 Reviews – Round 2: Appropriate Behavior, Afterlife, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her & Him, Starred Up

Alright, time for the second round of reviews for the 2014 Canberra International Film Festival. I know I said it’d be up on Wednesday, but I’m afraid I had a most insistent migraine that decided I didn’t really need to do anything but take a bunch of painkillers and go to bed that evening. Who am I to tell the migraine no? So painkillers and bed it was. Even better, I couldn’t open my right eye properly the following morning, went to the doctor and found out that I have an eye infection… in the middle of film festival season. Thankfully I got it checked out before it had time to take hold, and it’s not contagious or too serious, with no impairment to my vision, so I’m still able to ride, work and go see the films. So, soldiering on through it. Unfortunately I still had a lot on to work around the festival as well, so this got pushed back further than I’d have liked.

Before I get stuck in though, I wanted to talk about something real quick. I was thinking the other day about what it is I love about film festivals. Interestingly enough, the biggest thing for me isn’t the films (though obviously they’re a pretty damn important part of it), rather it’s the people I meet. End up sitting next to the right person, strike up a conversation, and you can find out some fascinating stuff. At last year’s Freaky Fridays I met a couple of guys that I’m now hanging out with from time to time, going to the movies with semi-regularly and even helped out with a Tropfest entry by playing a minor role (I got to be a messed up looking vampire, good times!). I met a woman who helped setup the festival years back, and still bump into her at the movies from time to time, leading to plenty of discussions about cinema and what we’ve been watching. Just the other night at the Afterlife screening, I met a guy who comes up from Melbourne for a few weeks every year for the film festival, and had a great chat with him about what we’d both seen so far, as well as talking about the film after it finished. Without something like the festival, odds are that I’d never encounter these people, and I feel like that’d be a real shame. I sometimes have trouble meeting new people, and to have something like this where it can be almost guaranteed that I’m going to share some interests with the people around me really helps boost my confidence to talk to those around me.

Anyway, let’s get started. I’ve got five films to review this time around, but two of them will be reviewed as one due to the way they’re meant to be watched… don’t give me that look, you’ll see what I mean when I get to them. Moving along…

As last time, there may be spoilers, I make no promises, you have been warned. If you want to avoid them entirely except for basic setup spoilers, read the summary of the review, which is shown above the poster for each film. Again, titles link to the CIFF page for each film, which will have a trailer if one is available.

Appropriate Behavior

Director: Desiree Akhavan
Country: USA
Starring: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer, Scott Adsit
Summary: Hilariously inappropriate and awkward film about Shirin, a young bisexual Persian-American woman struggling to come to terms with the fact that her latest relationship is over, while also trying to be the daughter her parents want her to be. Witty, sharp and full of moments where you’ll laugh at the audacity of what Shirin gets up to in her attempts to find her way and get her girlfriend back. While that on its own is enough for me to recommend it, there’s also some excellent messages in there about the need to be who you are without trying to become what someone else wants, and the fact that sometimes it’s better to just accept when something is gone and move on with your life.
Score: 5 out of 5 Stars

Couldn't find a proper poster for the film (admittedly I didn't look very hard, who gives a damn)

Couldn’t find a proper poster for the film (admittedly I didn’t look very hard, who gives a damn)

Easiest way to sum up Appropriate Behavior, two words. Awkward comedy. We’re not talking Napoleon Dynamite levels of awkwardness here, no complete social outcasts or bizarre small town culture here, but in its own way this film is built on a good solid foundation of awkward. Shirin (played by director Desiree Akhavan) is a bisexual Persian-American woman in her 20s who’s just broken up with her girlfriend Maxine. She hasn’t told her family that she’s bisexual yet, and can’t accept that things are over between her and Maxine, despite the fact that there were a number of warning signs leading up to the breakup.

It took me a little while to figure out exactly what was happening (probably not helped by the fact that the start of the film had some technical issues, as a few of my other films at the festival have this year), particularly with the use of flashbacks. At first it wasn’t really obvious when the film was jumping back to an earlier point in Shireen’s relationship with Maxine (I’m 99% sure that this is due to the fact that I didn’t have a goddamn clue what Maxine looked like due to the fact that the first 5 minutes or so of the film had the image vertically compressed and horizontally stretched as well as appearing to have been projected through a film of blood onto a static filled screen). Once I figured it out though, I really appreciated it as a way of telling the story without dumping a big pile of exposition on the audience. There was some really effective use of similar scenes to transition into the flashbacks as well. The one that springs to mind is when Shirin is in the middle of a sexual encounter with a guy from a dating site in an attempt to either get over her ex or make her jealous. The cut to the flashback takes place when the camera is tracking the date’s hands as they pin Shirin’s wrists, a split second later the hands pinning her are Maxine’s. The style of writing really appeals to me as well. Quick witted, sharp and at times quite scathing in how it deals with the themes it’s discussing. Shirin seems to, at times at least, realise that she’s a socially awkward person and recognise that she’s in over her head in certain situations, but she toughs it out for better or worse. While I was laughing at her antics, I also felt a lot of sympathy for her. I’ve been that socially awkward guy too many times to count, and watching her character development as she learns to deal with what life has thrown at her was a lot of fun as well as somewhat cathartic. One of my favourite scenes is actually used as the trailer for the film, when she’s looking for new lingerie and basically gets steamrolled by an assertive sales assistant into buying some stuff that doesn’t really work for her. The shift from knowing what she’s after to having her confidence pulled out from under her is incredibly funny to watch, but also made me think about how easily other people can alter our perceptions of ourselves.

I should probably wrap this up, getting a bit long-winded, but I haven’t really mentioned the most important themes yet. As I mentioned before, Shirin is a bisexual Persian-American. It’s a situation built for conflict, because as part of an Iranian family she doesn’t really feel that she can share that aspect of her life with her parents, while on the other side of the equation, her partner (prior to the breakup anyway) is pushing her to tell them. There also seemed to be a surprising (to me, as I have quite a few LGBT friends and family members and had never realised this could be an issue) amount of animosity, or at least disdain, from lesbians for bisexual people. At one stage Maxine actually does tell her to not bother telling her parents, as it’s probably just a phase she’s going through. I did a bit of searching about it later on after the movie, and sure enough it turns out that can actually be a problem for bisexual people. So, I learnt something that night, which is always a good thing, even if what I learnt isn’t exactly a pleasant thing. To cut a long story short, my point here is that Appropriate Behavior is a brilliant example of a film shining a light on important themes and issues by using the wonders of awkward comedy.

Would I recommend it? Definitely. I plan on getting a copy and watching it again as soon as I can. I also need to check out Desiree Akhavan’s webseries, The Slope.

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Afterlife

Director: Virâg Zomborâcz
Country: Hungary
Starring: Márton Kristóf, Eszter Csákányi, József Gyabronka
Summary: A well crafted and heartwarming comedy that goes to some surprisingly dark places, usually resulting me laughing even harder than I was the rest of the time. The story of a young man suffering from anxiety issues, haunted by the ghost of his recently deceased father, it was fascinating to watch both characters grow to understand their circumstances and come to terms with what they have to do. Highly recommended, particularly if you’re a fan of a mix of light-hearted comedy with dark deadpan humour.
Score: 5 out of 5 Stars

Couldn't find a poster for this one, so I just grabbed a screenshot from the film.

Again, couldn’t find a poster for this one, so I just grabbed a screenshot from the film.

So, shocking confession time… I love dark comedy. Can’t get enough of it. I mean I love silly stuff too, especially when it’s silly but still clever (for example, the 21 Jump Street film and it’s sequel, are two of the smartest dumb comedies I’ve ever seen), but my real love is comedy about awful and difficult situations, where things that really shouldn’t be funny are basically forced into being laughter worthy due to the sheer absurdity of the whole scenario. Afterlife is one of those films, while still managing to be a heartwarming and strangely uplifting story. If I had to pick something it reminded me of, I’d have to go with the Australian film He Died With A Felafel In His Hand and the Croatian film The Priest’s Children (one of my favourites from last year’s festival), but I couldn’t adequately explain why… they’re just what springs to mind when I try to think of movies that go to some dark places while still being, at the least, somewhat bittersweet.

The film is the story of Mózes, a young man suffering from anxiety issues and a generally neurotic personality. After being released from a psychiatric unit and returning to live with his father (the local pastor), his mother, adopted sister and overbearing aunt, he tries to settle back into life. Unfortunately no one seems to understand his needs, with the possible exception of his mother, who tends to get overruled by her husband and sister-in-law. When his father passes away from a sudden heart attack, Mózes at first feels a sense of relief, as he won’t be under as much pressure… right up until the point where he starts to see his father’s ghost wandering in a confused manner around the funeral. Soon he’s following Mózes everywhere. What follows is a hilarious journey as Mózes tries to find out what his father wants so that he can help him move on. Along the way he learns how to cope with his own issues, falls in love, suffers setbacks and heartbreak, and learns to do what he thinks is right despite what others say. As someone who used to spend a lot of time worrying about what others thought of me, it really kind of hit home for me. Actually I saw a surprising amount of myself in the character, which made some of it even funnier for me. His love interest for most of the film actually kind of reminds me of my ex… four years ago that might have been a problem, but now it just made me laugh even harder. Watching the ghost of his father as he starts to enjoy his time with his son is a beautiful thing as well.

There’s nothing visually spectacular about the film, but I consider that to be an asset. The bleak nature of Mózes village makes a perfect backdrop for the story. It’s all too easy to believe that this is a town where most people are only interested in gossip, and don’t really care about anything that doesn’t affect them directly. Casting was spot on, even for minor characters. I particularly loved Mózes and his father (who does an amazing job given that for a large part of the film, he’s simply a silent apparition), but the rest of his family and the townsfolk were also excellent. There’s one moment in particular at the end of the film with Mózes, his mother and sister that had me completely in stitches, despite the horrifying nature of it. The timing and tone of the lines in the scene was just perfect.

Would I recommend it? Without doubt. Seriously, if you enjoy comedy that’s thoughtful as well as funny, check this out.

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The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him

Director: Ned Benson
Country: USA
Starring: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain
Summary: I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about these films. The idea of watching the same story from two different sides was intriguing, but I thought the two films might be too similar to each other. Happily, I was wrong. In filming each side of the story, they were able to show different events (there’s actually a surprisingly small amount of time where the lead characters are on the screen at the same time as each other in either film) and, when the characters were together, to show differing perspectives on the situation, shown through having  slightly different dialogue in each film for the shared scenes and different emphasis and inflection for it. Highly enjoyable, personally I thought Him was a stronger film as a stand alone, Her was good but I didn’t find it quite as compelling. Would definitely recommend watching both, preferably one straight after the other. There is a cut that contains both sides of the story, Them, but I’m told it’s not as good as the two films.
Score for Him: 5 out of 5 Stars
Score for Her: 4 out of 5 Stars
Overall Score: 5 out of 5 Stars

o-ELEANOR-RIGBY-900

At last year’s festival, there was a series of three films based on differing perspectives of the same theme, though they didn’t share a story. I was curious about them, but didn’t really want to use up three of my tickets on them, since it was likely that if I didn’t like the first one, I wouldn’t like the others, and would feel like I’d wasted them. This time around I had some spare slots in my schedule, and being as I’m a massive James McAvoy fan, I wasn’t so hesitant to take a risk on something like The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. As you probably figured out from the summary above, this is actually two separate films, one from the perspective of Connor (James McAvoy) and the other from Eleanor’s (Jessica Chastain) perspective. While they can be watched on their own, and are enjoyable movies standing on their own, obviously they’re more satisfying as two halves of a whole.

The story is, at its core, about the way that two people deal with a profound loss in their lives. Connor and Jessica’s two month old son passes away, and both of them react in very different ways, leading to them drifting apart over the course of six months, until Eleanor announces that she’s leaving. After seemingly dropping off the face of the earth (hence the title of the film), the films follow each of them as they try to move on. I think the reason I enjoyed Connor’s story more than Eleanor’s was partially due to the fact that I could relate to his coping method more. He tried to keep moving forward, working to keep his business afloat while trying to care for and, once she disappeared, find his wife. There was some unhealthy behaviour in there, such as his refusal to talk about the death of his son and his standoffish behaviour with his friends and employees among other things, but I could understand what he was doing. I felt it made for a more compelling story, because I felt like he was trying to do something. Eleanor’s story on the other hand involves a lot more looking back, shown by the fact that unlike Him, Her contains a number of flashbacks to when she was still with Connor, particularly noticeable in a scene in their apartment, where she continues to see memories, he merely kept packing up their possessions. Again, I can understand what she was doing, but it felt like most of the time she was stalling for time, trying to avoid coping with things. Just how I saw it personally. Additionally, Connor’s story had more humour to it than Jessica’s, though lecturer from her film is quite amusing I preferred the combination of Connor’s best friend/chef and his father.

Unfortunately due to scheduling conflicts I wasn’t able to see the two films on the day they were showing a double feature of it, I had to go to Him one night and Her the next. While I still got the benefit of seeing both sides of the story, and noticed some of the big changes in content, tone and emphasis in the dialogue between Connor and Jessica in both films, I’m sure there’s a lot of smaller changes that I missed. I’ll have to go back and watch it again some time to get the full experience I think, but it’ll be worth it. The films are pretty enough to look at, but being an urban based drama, nothing visually spectacular. There’s only so much you can do with a modern city landscape, but certainly the cinematography is technically brilliant. Everything’s clear, well-defined, no complaints there. Both Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy put in spectacular performances, and the supporting cast members are wonderful as well.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely. As I said, I think that Him is the stronger film of the two, but together, they work perfectly. I’m aware that there is a cut of both stories in one film, titled The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, but everything I’ve heard states that it’s better to watch the two films as they were intended to be seen.

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Starred Up

Director: David Mackenzie
Country: UK
Starring: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn,
Summary: Hard hitting, confronting, brutal. All good descriptors for Starred Up. However, it was also at times touching and bittersweet. The story of a young man sent to an adult prison a couple of years early, it follows his struggles to deal with his harsh new environment and the other inmates. Although it doesn’t shy away from the violence, it also doesn’t glorify it, and tries to show that there are ways to deal with the aggressive and violent culture common to the type of prison shown in the film. Definitely worth a watch.
Score: 5 out of 5 Stars

starred-up-movie-poster-jack

Full disclosure, I’m not a big fan of prison movies/television shows in general. I haven’t even seen Orange is the New Black yet, which I’m told is basically sacrilege on my part by friends who enjoy it. Never really got into Oz, again despite constant recommendations from friends. So why did I go see Starred Up? Well, when I was doing some research on the films I wanted to see, I decided to get out of my comfort zone a little bit for at least a couple of films, since doing that last year got me to go see what ended up being two of my favourite films, My Sweet Pepper Land (a Kurdish western) and The Priest’s Children (a Croatian Comedy about a priest sabotaging birth control… comedy’s not really unusual for me, but I wasn’t sure about a Croatian comedy, didn’t think it’d translate that well across the culture gap). So between that and an astonishingly high approval rating online, that’s how I ended up with Starred Up on my list. I’m glad to say that it was the right choice.

The film opens with nineteen year old Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) being transferred in to an adult prison two years early, a situation referred to as being starred up. It’s implied that it’s done in situations where the prisoner is too much for the juvenile facility to handle, due to extreme behavioural problems, violence, whatever else they have trouble with. It’s quickly shown that Eric is a serious problem case, given that within the first day or so of arrival he’s already made himself a shiv, knocked another inmate out cold and followed it up with a brawl with a group of guards (including a memorable moment where he bites on of them in a sensitive location), and been thrown into solitary confinement. To make matters worse, his father (Ben Mendelsohn) is in the facility as well, and neither of them seem entirely sure how to deal with each other. From there the film deals with the trials and setbacks as Eric joins a group therapy class run by Oliver, a volunteer social worker, and tries to get control of his life.

The film doesn’t shy away from showing the violence of the prison, but thankfully doesn’t glorify it. It’s fast, brutal, and nasty without being gory for the sake of it. The point of the film is to show that violence is a problem in these situations, not to romanticise it, and it succeeds admirably. Ben Mendelsohn’s performance as Neville Love is brilliant, lending sincerity to his role as a father who knows he’s made mistakes, and is trying to make up for it without really understanding how. Jack O’Connell puts in a stunning performance as well, taking Eric from being an unlikable bastard of a character to a sympathetic figure in a natural and believable progression throughout the film. Supporting roles are beautifully cast as well, the whole range of characters are well fleshed out and effective. Visually, the film is oppressive and claustrophobic, which seems fitting given the setting. Drab colours are the order of the day, bare concrete walls and floors, bars everywhere, basically an old school prison (and one that clearly was built long before the idea of rehabilitation of prisoners rather than straight punishment was the ideal). I found the overall story incredibly satisfying, if not completely happy… it’s bittersweet at best if I’m being honest, and only gets that far due to an extremely touching moment right at the end. One thing I did find interesting is that apparently David Asser, the writer, based the therapy in the film on the methods he used when working in prisons as a social worker. This was one of the CIFF Conversations films, so afterwards I hung around to listen to a discussion about prison culture and violence, and ways to try to rectify and reduce the issue in our society, with guest speakers from Menslink (a group that works to mentor young men in danger of running afoul of the law, and those who already have) and the local prison. Their comments regarding the methods used in the film were extremely positive, and mentioned that they had found that kind of technique to be very effective in their own work. They also discussed broader social change to help reduce rates of recidivism through government and community programs, which was all very fascinating. Since I’m really just reviewing the film though, I won’t go into that now.

So, would I recommend it. No questions asked. It’s a confronting look at what the culture of violence and aggression in prisons is like, and it’s something I think needs to be looked at by society at large. If this film can spark conversation about it, then so much the better.

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That’s it for this round of reviews. Next round will cover another four films. If I remember correctly, it should be A Girl Walks Home At Night Alone, Goal of the Dead, Maps to the Stars and Fantail. I’ll try to have it up in the next few days, but I’ve got a lot of stuff on with work at the moment including some after hours events, plus I still have more films to see, so it may take a little while.

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Written while listening to Bring Me The Horizon. Seriously can’t get enough of their last album, Sempiternal, particularly the songs And The Snakes Start to SingSleepwalking and The House of Wolves. I’m not a big fan of their earlier stuff, in general I’m not a huge Metalcore fan, but they seem to have really found their sound for this album, and the incorporation of some electronica and more melodic stuff has me hooked. The following lyrics from And The Snakes Start to Sing has been stuck in my head for weeks now: 

Worms come out of the woodwork,
Leeches crawl from out of the dirt.
Rats come out of the holes they call home,
I fall apart.
And the snakes start to sing.

If you can’t soar with the eagles, then don’t fly with the flock.
Are you still getting high?
Did you catch your own reflection in the knife my mother held?
Or the Hell in my father’s eyes?

If you can’t soar with the eagles, then don’t fly with the flock.
Are you still getting by?
Was I your knight in shining armor?
The apple of your eye?
Or just a step to climb?

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