Melbourne International Film Festival: progress report

A couple of weeks ago I posted on the crime movies I was going to catch at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Nearly half way through, here’s my progress report.

First, the bad news. Killer Joe, which I checked out last night. I’m very partial to cinematic tales of money, lust and murder set in the underbelly of rural small town life. Throw in a corrupt lawman who moonlights as a pimp/pusher/contract killer, whatever, and as far as I’m concerned you’re on a winning formula. No matter how many turkeys he’s made, I’ve also got a major reserve of goodwill towards the director, William Friedkin for To Live and Die in LA (1985) and The French Connection (1971).

Killer Joes has all the signposts associated with this sort of movie, down at heel locations, sleazy sex and a criminal plot that quickly spirals out of control. But none of this makes up for the poor performances and a scarcely believable story line.

A small town cop cum contract killer (Matthew McConaughey) is hired by a white trash Texan family to murder their mother for the insurance money. The key conspirator, Chis (Emile Hirsch), scarcely has the brains to tie his own shoelaces let alone instigate a murder plot. When he can’t pay his would be assassin up front as expected, Joe takes Chris’s sister, Dottie (Juno Temple) as collateral and seduces her.

Thomas Haden Church and Gina Gershon play the Chris and Dottie’s parents. Church’s character is even dumber than his son, while Gershon plays a second rate femme fatale. Meanwhile, Joe gradually lets his involvement clouds his judgment, something any serious corrupt small town lawman would never do.

Killer Joe aspires to a Jim Thompson vibe but it’s just a piece of poorly plotted under class porn with virtually no redeeming features. I hear it’s going to be released in local art house cinemas later this year. If so, my advice is avoid it at all costs.

I had high hopes Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Thai/French co-production, Headshot, would break the drought in decent crime cinema coming from Thailand. The story is set in present day Thailand and features an honest cop, Tul (played by relative newcomer Nopachai Chaiyanam, an electrifying presence), who is framed for murder and imprisoned when he arrests the relative of a prominent politician.

While in prison he is contacted by the leader of a secretive group of vigilantes that dispatches criminals seen as above the law. He joins them upon his release and is wounded during a hit. He wakes up many months later to discover that he now, literally, sees the world upside down. Having lost faith in his mission as an assassin he escapes, only to be pursued by his former colleagues and criminals associated with his past activities.

Headshot is not a great film but it is an interesting one. It has a complex backwards and forwards narrative that can be seen, depending on your mood, as confusing and annoying or as mirroring the disorientation in Tu’s life. There are some pretty major plot flaws and a lot of the additional characters, including his love interest, are pretty one-dimensional. That said, it’s beautifully shot and has moments of real edge of your seat tension. Most interestingly, it’s a very Thai film, rather than another attempt at aping Western action movies. For this reason alone, it’s worth checking out. There’s still a chance to see it at MIFF on Sunday August 12.

The 2011 Mexican film Miss Bala was a fantastic bit piece of film making. Easily one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year.

Laura, a 23-year old Tijuana woman (Stephanie Sigman), decides to enter a beauty contest in the hope of winning much needed money. After qualifying to enter, Laura and a friend decide to celebrate at a local nightclub. It’s the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s a cartel hit while Laura’s in the toilet. Her friend and most of the patrons (off duty cops) are killed and Laura ends up in the hands of the particularly brutal cartel boss, Lino.

Lino and his men take over her family’s house and force Laura to help them. This includes assisting them to dump the body of a murdered DEA agent outside the US consulate and smuggling money over the border to America. In return for fixing the beauty contest so she wins, Lino expects Laura to help him set up the assassination of a prominent army general who is leading the fight against the drug traffickers.

Miss Bala is Mexico’s drug war through the eyes of a young, poor woman. The casual impunity with which the cartel operates, whether it’s engaging in open gun battles with law enforcement or the manipulation of Laura, is shocking. Even more horrifying is the ripple effect of their actions. They corrupt everyone they touch, brutalize social relations, turn Mexican society into a giant grey zone in which everyone is forced to become collaborators, to a greater or lesser degree, to survive.

Sigman is brilliant as Laura. She stumbles through the film, shell shocked and traumatized, doing whatever she can to survive, a piece of flesh, an instrument to be discarded when her use has come to an end. It’s a nightmare world where no one can be trusted and the line between the criminals and state authority is almost non-existent.

Miss Bala is a great crime film. It’s also a harrowing piece of cinema about the impact of civil conflict. It’s set in Mexico but could just as easily be Iraq, Syria, Sri Lanka, etc. There’s one more session at MIFF on August 12. Word is it will also get wider release in the near future. If so, it’s a must see piece of cinema.

On Sunday I’m strapped in for the full five plus hours of Gangs of Wasseypur, an Indian film about a multi-generation war between rival factions of the coal mining mafia in Bihar, one of the country’s poorest regions.

Next week I’m looking forward to seeing the LA cop neo noir Rampart (directed by Oren Moverman who also did The Messenger in 2009).

On a non-crime note, I’ll also be checking out the French/Cambodian documentary, Golden Slumbers, about the Cambodia’s 1975 film industry and its destruction by the Khmer Rouge.

I’ll be reviewing all these films on this blog later next week.

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