Having now watched and reviewed 40 films in 10 days, I am now deep within the belly of the MIFF beast, and evidence that this extreme exercise in movie-watching may be having physical and psychological effects is mounting.

Fellow MIFF blog-a-thoner Thomas Caldwell has confirmed a rumour bandied about town that, attacked by reality at a particularly vulnerable time (i.e. in between film screenings) he had a bitter altercation last week with a seagull. On the weekend, Caldwell also revealed on this blog that his wife caught him sitting alone in front of his keyboard, purring like a pussycat.

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Whether there is a tangible correlation between excessive film watching/reviewing and incidents with the animal kingdom is unclear, but again the evidence is mounting. On Friday night at 2AM writer and radio personality Cerise Howard watched on as I chased a fox through the Melbourne Museum gardens.

But the effects of the MIFF blog-a-thon are not restricted to interaction with animals. On Saturday afternoon, sitting alone post-screening in a cinema, I experienced a very odd flicker of vision, a little like a dirty patch on a VHS cassette burnt into my retinas. I hope this was some odd combination of my iPhone screen and the cinema screen reflecting light and not an eery sign of things to come. The body is complaining, too: yesterday during the first screening of the day a bad cramp jolted up my right leg, resulting in me watching the last third of Little Rock (review below) standing up out of sight on the stairs. But a profoundly strange series of events occurred late last week in the middle of a film, the likes of which I have never experienced before. I need a little more time to succinctly articulate what transpired; check back tomorrow, or latest the day after.

Onwards we travel. See reviews for the films I saw on the weekend below, including Toomelah, POM Wonderful: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Page One: Inside the New York Times and I’m Not Dead Yet.

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Writer/director Ivan Sen explores the lives of a rough-as-guts Aboriginal community situated on the border of New South Wales and Queensland in Toomelah (film #35), a Cannes pedigree nano-budget Australian feature buoyed by an ensemble of exceptionally authentic performances.

10-year-old trash-talking whippersnapper Daniel (Daniel Conners) is already mixing with the wrong crowd. He’s encouraged by adults to fight another young’un and does dodgy errands for the local drug dealer, Linden (Christopher Edwards). When a muscular singlet-clad fellow dope dealer (Dean Daley-Jones) arrives in town from a stretch in the can, tensions simmer before eventually reaching boiling point.

Sen’s cameras eats up Toomelah’s harshly beautiful surrounds and create the kind of visual tapestry we’ve come to expect from location-centric indies: shots of the sun penetrating clouds, leaves and trees in warm golden light, interesting architectural compositions and so forth. Sen finds a lovely balance between floaty atmospherics and character development, unlike many films that binge on the former at the expense of the latter.

Scenes with the kids, especially Daniel, feel like Bugsy Malone crossed with Samson and Delilah. Children behaving like adults who behave like children in a place where lack of basic infrastructure — and everything that comes with it — creates complex self-replenishing problems.

The film, which runs subtitles throughout, is fascinating on a linguistic level, with a local slant on English that will sound completely fresh to most ears (for a case in point, watch the trailer below). The actors are unfailingly naturalistic and leave an indelible impression: the pithy cigar smoking granny, the dueling drug dealers and particularly the key performance from pipsqueak Daniel Conners, which, a potent combination of competing bottled up emotions, is nothing shy of a revelation.

It’s a shame that Ivan Sen’s slice-of-life approach doesn’t fully capitalise on the richness of these performances. Toomelah’s screenplay seems so afraid of invoking moral didacticism or casting aspersions that it refuses, to its detriment, to fully flesh out its characters in revealing dramatic moments.

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Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s latest vial of cinematic snake oil, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (film #36), sees him flogging product placement in a film about rampant product placement.

Spurlock meets with clients, secures deals in front of the camera and inevitably gets knocked back by the big players (Coca-Cola, BP, KFC, etc). There’s clearly not enough flesh on the bone to create a film solely about this process, so Spurlock adds various deviations: theories behind TV commercials, MRI-like scans used to study the brain’s response to movie trailers, a town that banned outdoor advertising, commercials aired in schools and so forth.

The film is enjoyably paced and helped along by Spurlock’s naturally entertaining presence The film reinforces the despairing assumption that virtually anything can be bought or sold — including real product placement in a movie about rampant product placement — but does so with a coy sense of playfulness.

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Little Rock (film #37) is a drifting semi-improvised cross-cultural drama structured around two Japanese 20-something’s who visit the eponymous town and befriend a well-meaning local.

The focus is skewed towards a pretty Japanese girl, Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) who can speak no English, and her relationship, romantic and otherwise, with a couple of Little Rock fellas. The two other key characters are her brother Rintaro (Rintaro Sakamoto) and local Cory (Cory Zacharia).

The closest we get to a linear plot line concerns Cory’s inability to pay back drug dealers, a repercussion of the classic stoner’s blunder: he was going to sell pot but smoked it all instead.

Director Mike Ott’s floaty, visually uncommitted style takes its toll after a while and it becomes hard to keep engaged with the characters when they do so little dramatically. One interesting touch is a key moment exchanged over the phone between two characters who can’t understand a word of what the other is saying. It’s very Lost in Translation.

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Director Andrew Rossi’s engrossing albeit scattered year-in-the-life-of-a-newspaper documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times (film #38), is set in the most tumultuous period in news and journalism history, which is…now.

Colourful personality David Carr — a former crack addict cum NYT media writer — is scene-stealing “good talent,” as journos would say, and wisely selected by Rossi as the central character. Acerbic, snappy and world-weary, Carr, when, he’s fired up, is like a character out of In the Loop or The Thick of It.

Rossi’s disorientating direction keeps breaking away into side topics. Almost all of the key talking points — Wikileaks, social media’s impact on journalism, the news industry’s core business models or lack thereof — could easily consume an entire feature, even a TV series.

Tying this mess of topics together neatly would have been impossible unless the film had stuck more closely to its original brief: to capture a year at the paper (it was originally titled Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times). Realising the breadth of material at hand, at one point Rossi decided, consciously or otherwise, to change the core focus from one newspaper to the changing news media landscape. Page One is no doubt the better for it, and even if there’s an overload of material and a subsequent lack of cohesion,  pace, tempo and quality of the subjects keep the film rollicking along.

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79-year-old Aussie troubadour Chad Morgan has been reported dead too many times to count. “I’m not dead yet,” he reassures a concerned friend early in Janine Hosking’s straight-laced tributary documentary (film#39) delivering the perfect title for a chronicle of one of country music’s strangest looking and sounding performers. With gigantic buck teeth, a silly hat and a series of inexplicably odd face expressions that accompany his songs, it is not rare to hear Morgan woofing like a drunk dog.

With almost 60 years in the music biz, Morgan’s specialty is country Australian porn: funny risqué songs about “thrashing machines,” sheilas with big knockers and fornicating flies. He struggles to walk these days but still performs with the infectious energy and crazy quirks that made him famous. Morgan can also still handle irate audience members: “it’s not good to drink on an empty head,” is his sage advice to one unhappy punter.

Narrated by Tex Perkins, I’m Not Dead Yet is sprinkled with Morgan’s music and plays more like an elaborate career award than a documentary. Awkward and superfluous re-enactment scenes of his youth are kept mercifully short and sparse, and the scenes in which he interacts with Perkins, while a little less awkward, are just as unnecessary. Hosking nevertheless presents an endearing portrait of a funny ol’ fella, and it’s hard not to smile along with it. Watch Morgan’s most famous song below (The Sheik of Scrubby Creek) and say it ain’t so.

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The MIFF 2011 short film awards screenings (film #40) featured a selection of the crème de la crème of this year’s shorts. The awards were announced and distributed before the screenings, a lengthy process during which ripples of shock spread through the audience – at least those in my row – who feared they may have coughed up $18 for a bunch of speeches. Highlights included a terrifically twisted take on an Australian formal (with a difference), a long, weird film about sexual discovery, loss of innocence and betrayal, a white knuckle Greek/Cypriot war drama about a family hiding in a wardrobe and a brilliant cold war piss-take about an American government plan to beat the Russians not just to space, but to heaven.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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