The Wrap: Baz McAlister delivers his BIFF verdict

For those of us who work – especially for those of us who do shift work – it can be a challenge fitting in everything we want to see at the Brisbane International Film Festival.

This year, BIFF screened more than 100 films. I could have made a longlist of about 30 or 40 must-sees, but a man has to pay the rent, right?

Nevertheless, what I did see largely delighted me, in a year where BIFF was full of adorable sleeper hits. I’ll post longer reviews as some of these films deservedly go on general release, but for now, here’s my wrap-up of some noteworthy BIFF 2012 flicks.

1. The Angels Share

The Angels' Share

Baz said: Ken Loach’s adorable ‘whisky heist’ story sees four typically Loachian characters – flawed yet redeemable, down-on-their-luck, working class chancers from Glasgow – team up to siphon off a couple of bottles’ worth of very valuable whisky from a remote Scottish distillery. Lead actor Paul Brannigan – who came from the same rough background as his character Robbie and did some time in juvenile detention as a young man – injects his character with so much heart it’s quite moving to watch him vow to reform his thuggish ways and be a good dad for his new baby. Of course, he only stops battering innocents, instead turning to theft – but as long as he’s stealing from under the noses of snobs it’s okay, right? This brilliant wee film is a great take on the ‘one more heist then we’re done’ trope you see so often, but avoids anything close to cliché with plenty of twists. Even the desperately overdone Scottish clichés (kilts, Irn Bru bottles, whisky tragics, The Proclaimers) are all put to innovative use here.

 

2. Maniac

Baz said: It’s not an easy watch but Maniac is something genuinely different – a serial killer movie shot entirely from the killer’s point of view. Elijah Wood is said maniac, a man with mummy issues who spends his days fixing up old mannequins and his nights stalking young women in order to scalp them, top off his mannequins and create new ‘girlfriends’. It’s gory and gruesome. After all, as you see what the killer sees, you see every detail. In fact, while Wood’s voice is present throughout the film we only glimpse his face in the mirror occasionally. It’s a fantastic approach to material such as this, if a little gimmicky, and makes for a bit of squirming in the seat. Maniac isn’t without humour though – pointed use of Q Lazzarus’s Goodbye Horses had me chuckling for a solid minute.

 

3. The Man With The Iron Fists

BIFF 2012 Russell Crowe

Baz said: Pure grindhouse escapism, rapper the RZA (from the Wu-Tang Clan) impresses as co-writer (with Eli Hostel Roth), director and star of this crazy martial arts cartoon, The Man With The Iron Fists. Characters with names such as The X-Blade, Jack Knife and Brass Body explode off the screen in an orgy of whip-pans and crash-zooms. Set in 19th-century China (albeit a 19th-century China where a dude can forge living prosthetic fists of metal) it’s kind of a loose Seven Samurai where a bunch of misfit warriors have to defend a village against an implacable foe. Don’t take it too seriously and it’s great fun – a schlockier, less artsy Crouching Tiger with a gangsta rap soul.

 

4. Sinister

Baz said: Ethan Hawke has never been better – big call but there, I said it – than he is in Sinister, giving a fantastic, nuanced performance as a hard-times true crime writer chasing his next big break by moving into houses left vacant by recent mass murders. See, it’s already creepy. When he finds a stack of 8mm films in the attic depicting violent killings of entire families, he doesn’t do the sensible thing and RUN FAR AWAY but instead decides to try to piece together the connections between the murders. A brilliant film with some absolutely world-class jump-in-your-seat scares. Plus I can’t stress enough at how good Hawke is. His character might be something of a cliché, a whisky-swilling, cardigan-clad scribe, but his disgust at himself and what he’s become through his failure in his craft is palpable and defines him.

 

5. Sightseers

Sightseers

Baz said: No one does quirky black comedies quite like the Brits and Sightseers is well worth a watch. Chris (Steve Oram) and Tina (Alice Lowe) set of in a caravan for a tour of northern England’s hotspots: the Crich Tramway Museum, the Ribblehead Viaduct, the Keswick Pencil Museum. If it sounds dreary, well, it kind of is, and the classic British holiday experience is here in microcosm, complete with cagoules zipped right up against the impending damp. But the film is far from dreary. What really wrecks the holiday is litterers, drumming shamans, self-important authors – all of which get on ‘casual serial killer’ Chris’s nerves just a bit too much, with bloody consequences. The dark, dark humour wrung from his doing away with anyone who irks him is subtle and clever, symbolising what might happen if that mask of classic British repression was ever to slip. Oram and Lowe are both fantastic (Oram’s self-satisfied slo-mo smirk after his first kill is worth the admission price alone).

 

6. American Mary

Baz said: American Mary is a behind-the-sutures glimpse into the batshit bonkers world of extreme body modification – we’re not talking pierced nipples, we’re talking removed nipples. Spilt tongues, implanted devil-horns, there are a surprising amount of people out there who are into this stuff and unsuspecting surgery student Mary (the brilliant Katherine Isabelle) is drawn into this world in a quite wonderful way. However that’s as much as American Mary has in terms of plot; it’s not too deep in the story department, it’s more of a think-piece about this subculture than a straight-up thriller. An unlikely love interest never fires and a rape-revenge plot is reduced to kind of a subplot, while some of the body-modified characters (including writer-directors Jen and Sylvia Soska with their filed-down teeth and corset piercings) drift weirdly in and out of the film with no more to do than just look otherworldly. That said, it’s actually a substantially enjoyable film. It’s fantastically well shot, and Isabelle (who I remember fondly from Ginger Snaps and who’s wearing 30 well, having not seemed to age in 12 years!) is a captivating heroine.

 

7. The Sweeney

The-Sweeney movie

Baz said: Based, of course, on the legendary TV cop show, the reincarnation of The Sweeney (as in Cockney for Sweeney Todd, Flying Squad) falls flat on its face while strutting about, taking itself too seriously. Ray Winstone’s Regan is a humourless oaf who has nothing on original actor John Thaw. Ben Drew (rapper Plan B) is tolerable as his sidekick ex-crim Carter, but still there’s very little in the way of chemistry between them. Several times The Sweeney looks like going in the right direction, but avoids very easy ways to save itself: the bad guys have a poor backstory and no connection to the heroes (whereas Carter’s old gang would have made great adversaries), the police department’s trapping remain swish and their cars modern and hot (whereas an early threat of budget cuts by boss Damian Lewis looked like spinning things back to 70s-style). Imagine Gene Hunt from Life on Mars without the humour and you’re halfway towards realising why this just doesn’t work.

 

8. Compliance

Baz said: It’s worrying about us humans as a species that the events depicted in Compliance actually happened pretty much as-is. And not just once – many times, all across the USA. It went down like this: a prank caller claiming to be a cop phones up a fast food joint in some shitkicker town, tells the manager he’s had reports that an employee stole money from a customer, and convinces the manager to strip-search the employee because he’s too busy to come down. But it doesn’t stop there, in one particular case: it goes a whole lot further than that. Compliance is all about what happens when we blindly follow authority without question or without proof of its authenticity. The caller, of course, is sick and reprehensible, but the gullible pawns who do what he tells them – even if it means crossing the boundaries of sexual assault – are surely just as filthy. I’m not sure if Compliance is effective as a film – characters talking to a disembodied voice on the phone isn’t the most scintillating cinema, visually – but it’s a chilling story.

 

9. Liberal Arts

LIBERAL ARTS

Baz said: This gentle rom-com is the brainchild of Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother), recounting the story of how cynical and directionless thirtysomething Jesse returns to his alma mater and finds a connection with current student 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen). Both are on top form, and some of the minor players provide sublime little comic moments (particularly Zac Efron as a cosmic dude and Allison Janney as a cougar professor). It’s a perfectly-plotted yarn with a lot of charm.

the author

Baz McAlister

Baz has been a film writer for the past decade, and obsessed with film for the best part of four decades. A few things you should know about him: he’s a sucker for cheesy action movies. The first film he went to see without parental accompaniment was Ghostbusters. In the early ‘80s he saw Jaws on TV and wouldn’t go near the sea, or even walk on blue carpets, for a year. He’s spent serious money on Star Wars memorabilia. He thinks Tony Scott had more talent than Ridley Scott. And if you’re into Terrence Malick films, you won’t get on with Baz.

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