Belated BIFF: The Hunt; Heaven’s Gate; Django; Sons Of Norway; Maniac; The Queen Of Versaille
Posted on Monday December 3, 2012, 10:34 by Sam Toy in Under The Radar
The 21st Brisbane International Film Festival is all done for another year, closing with Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (not released in Australia until February). For me though, the clear highlight of the 2012 program was Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt. It’s an amazing piece of work about the fear and perception of evil, with a series of terrific turns led by Mads Mikkelsen, and including a child performance for the ages from little Annika Wedderkopp. Don’t sit around reading about it, just see it, and decide whether its on your top ten for the year – for me it most certainly is.
One treat on this year’s BIFF program was the new, restored print of the legendary/notorious Heaven’s Gate. At the screening’s introduction, it was explained that there have only been a few minor changes made to the first director’s cut of the film - a few minor edits here and there, perhaps the biggest being the elimination of the intermission from its already three-and-a-half-hour-plus running time (thanks, Michael!). The big changes have mostly been to colour correction and sound clean-up.
I’d been waiting for this restoration, and as such have always avoided seeing any previous versions of the film. Aware of both of its reputations – studio-sinking ‘worst movie ever’, and neglected, ahead of its time masterpiece - I went in with tempered expectations, and found it to be neither.
It’s based on the true story of the Jackson County War: in the 1890s, a bunch of super-rich east coast landowners wanted a group of (mostly) Scandinavian immigrants off of their Wyoming land, as the landowners wanted that land solely for their cattle to graze on. The landowners (led by an all-but moustache twirling Sam Waterston) resorted to legislated genocide, and the only one of the well-to-do to stand with the immigrants was James Averill (Kris Kristofferson).
Foremost I was surprised though at how well Heaven’s Gate aligns with the problems of American politics today: in the time since the merciless greed tactics of the Koch brothers and the inhumane attitudes of the Tea Party, Cimino’s piece has more startlingly relevant than ever.
Coincidences aside though, the film is very good – breathtaking in places, and that whole ‘studio-sinker’ thing is at least evident up on screen, with the sort of lavish backdrops populated by hundreds of real extras that, as a direct result of this film, you simply won’t see any more. But it is those things to a fault, beyond simply the budget. At its worst, Heavens Gate awfully bloated, and weighed down by its self-indulgence. While the running time probably didn’t deserve the gutting it initially got, some kind of happy medium would make Cimino’s epic the best it can be. As it stands, the film’s many great moments don’t quite add up to a great film.
Much more enjoyable (and concise) was Sergio Corbucci’s Django, one of only two films in the festival’s special spaghetti western programme that I was able to catch. On Damo’s word I also saw Death Rides A Horse, but didn’t enjoy that nearly as much, mainly due to star John Phillip Law’s limp performance (a bad John Wayne impression). Corbucci’s seminal work though, was everything I hoped it would be – perhaps best of all, it brings new levels of nihilism to the genre. Everything is covered in mud and filth, everybody’s miserable, including the manky hookers; this is an Old West nobody would want to be in. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damned great, and only has me even more revved up for Tarantino’s installment to the franchise in a few weeks time.
Another highlight was Sons Of Norway, an utterly charming dramedy from sophomore feature director Jens Lien. Set in 1979, it follows just-pubescent Nikolaj (Asmund Hoeg) and his uber-bohemian father (Sven Nordin). When the boy’s mother dies, his natural reaction is to rebel against society by losing himself in punk, but that’s not easy to do when Dad either encourages these anti-establishment tendencies, or worse, wants to join in. A simple premise to be sure, and with some great laughs (at times, however unintentionally, it almost feels like a twist on Viz’s ‘Modern Parents’ comic), but Lien also successfully draws real pathos from his characters, especially when it becomes clear that Dad is also failing to cope with the loss of his wife.
I was curious about the Elijah Wood-starring remake of Maniac, even though William Lustig’s original is probably one of the few big 80s video nasties that I’ve still not seen. Turns out that’s not really important, as Franck Khalfoun’s upgrade is sufficiently stylistically different - beyond its core plot – to avoid comparison. Wood plays Frank, the troubled loner of the title who works by day restoring mannequins - if by ‘restore,’ you mean ‘pasting on the scalps of women he’s recently murdered in an effort to recreate his dead, abusive mum’. At least until he meets photographer/artist Anna . Could she be the one to stop him killing again? Well Khalfoun and co-writer/producer Alexandre Aja (he of Switchblade Romance and The Hills Have Eyes remakes) aren’t really that interested in telling us - much more so in presenting a novel new slant on the slasher movie; almost every frame is told from Frank’s POV. The opening set piece is a belter, but more surprising is how long they can keep the approach interesting – in fact, it’s a moment of genuine disappointment when Khalfoun finally breaks his rule. The array of trick shots are mostly very well done, and the editing is generally superb - it’s just a pity that the script couldn’t deliver a little more context and clarity to Frank and his killing spree.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of BIFF 2012 for me was Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen Of Versailles. When Greenfield began in 2008, time-share tycoon David Seigel and his wife Jackie were on top of the world, and work on their dream house had just begun - all 90,000 square feet of it (making it the biggest private residence in the US). Then, the global financial crisis struck, and Greenfield was of course there to capture every minute of the cocky Seigels being forced to downsize. While reality-estranged former beauty queen Jackie tries to cling to the lifestyle to which she has now become accustomed, David struggles to keep his business billions in tact and as many of his employees in work as he can.
I didn’t think I would have any sympathy for these one percenters, but over the course of 100 highly efficient minutes, Greenfield pulls off something quite remarkable. As the couple’s pride takes hit after hit, The Queen Of Versailles does a wonderful job of presenting their strengths as well as their weaknesses; a kind fair and balanced reporting that would give NewsCorp nightmares. Don’t expect trashy reality TV (although there are a few surreal moments of that, through no fault of anyone but Jackie) – this documentary is, strangely enough, brimming with dignity.