MIFF 2011: A Hip Hop, Car Racing, Swedish Lesbianism Kinda Day

There was a great deal of hype (some may say hyperbole) surrounding SENNA as its MIFF screenings arrived. I missed it in Sydney (from which some friends returned after the screening with ridiculously high praise) and have simply been hearing such strong general word that I was personally wary. I remember reading a tweeter describing it as one of the best films ever made! You know who you are. Had it been over hyped?
It honestly pleases me to say that SENNA absolutely lives up to the hype. It is a genuinely powerful, gloriously manipulative and entirely entertaining film.
Last week when writing about EL BULLI I briefly touched on the question of how personally interested does one have to be in a topic to enjoy its given documentary. While I usually advocate the generalisation that a good documentary should be able to appeal to those with no specific interest in its subject matter, I did find EL BULLI an exception to the rule as I was greatly interested on a subjective level but its wilful verite style could easily alienate and bore many. SENNA, on the other hand, is a film on a topic I have absolutely zero interest in. Formula One racing holds no fascination for me and actually occasionally tips into the area of 'things I actively dislike'. The great achievement of SENNA as a film is that it made me not only enjoy a film on this topic but actively engage with interest in the dynamics of the sport.
SENNA tells a classically straightforward story, beginning with Ayrton Senna's early races and following his life chronologically as he became world champion, conquered evil team mates and finally met his tragic end. The film keeps all talking heads off-screen, using only voice-over, and constructs it's narrative solely through cleverly edited stock footage (a similar conceit to Alex Gibney in MAGIC TRIP but where he markedly failed, SENNA magnificently succeeds). Needless to say this is one of the most impressively cut films I have seen all year. It's a master-class in film editing.
I hesitate to use words like 'perfect' but SENNA truly is a near-perfect documentary. Its narrative is sharply paced and solidly constructed. It's a contrived film (some may say Alain Proust's character is a bit too much the 'one-dimensional bad guy') but all great film is manipulative and the story being told here warrants the melodrama that is laid on so thickly. I cannot recommend SENNA highly enough. Regardless of one's interest in F1, this is a rich, enlightening and exciting film that I suggest all will enjoy.
Unfortunately my next film was scarred by the worst audience experience I have had all festival (and to be honest, in as long as I can remember). SHE MONKEYS is a Swedish film exploring the ambiguity of young female relationships. Winning best film at Tribeca Film Festival this slow-paced mood piece was rather uninspiring. Tonally misdirected and thematically lazy, it felt like it should've run through a few more screenplay drafts before going to production. While a sense of all-consuming dread runs through most of the film, it never offers a catharsis which in combination with the ominous sound design really annoyed me. It felt like cheap misdirection rather than suitable portent.
Of course as I mentioned, the audience was horrible so I'm not sure how to react to the film. Behind me was a group of four people who behaved like absolute children who had never seen anything more edgy than a Harry Potter film. Apparently SHE MONKEYS was a comedy as they were laughing consistently from beginning to end. Giggling at two girls kissing, cooing at shots of lovely horses and laughing hysterically at the cute little girl. This was the most momentously frustrating experience in a cinema in memory. Those people were simply immature pieces of scum that should be punched squarely in the face. They wrecked the film for me. A truly unbelievable experience.
BEATS, RHYMES & LIFE cheered me up after that honestly traumatic experience. I'm a Tribe Called Quest fan and my expectations, luckily, were low for this film. Actor Michael Rapaport stepped behind the camera for this simple look at the origins and tribulations of this definitive hip-hop outfit. Rapaport's inexperience is clear for most of the film as it's quite scattershot, especially early on. He seems to struggle to find a good narrative through-line with the film (maybe the Tribe story just isn't that interesting).
Sure, there were fall-outs in between members and arguments here and there but they really all come across as petty disagreements. When the film reaches the central dramatic conflict in the Tribe story – a member gets diabetes, fights a sugar addiction and gets a bit shaky on stage – one really begins to yearn for a good 'sex, drugs and rock n' roll' story. It seems A Tribe Called Quest were really just good, clean boys and the film offers no real insight into their creative process either.
Having shot my load of snarky rant I'll say the film is still fun, especially for fans. Hearing the music big & loud was great and I probably smiled a few times over its running time so I'll give it 3 surly Ice Ts...