Name: Laurence Barber
Twitter handle: @bortlb
City I call home: Brisbane
Area of cinema I am most passionate about: Comedy, from indie to studio.
A film that changed me/my mind: 2001: A Space Odyssey because, budding cinephile cliché or not, it truly opened my eyes to cinema's possibilities and the idea that there's no one way to watch or read a film.
MIFF film I’m most looking forward to: Hard to be a God, because it seems set to provide a totally new experience and it's difficult not to be piqued by its sheer ambition.
I’m looking forward to Critics Campus because: Criticism as a profession is talked about these days with such a creeping fatalism, so to have an opportunity to learn from and interact with other critics in a program like this feels like something of a glimmer of hope.
Cinema excites me because: Cinema as a whole is arguably in flux now more than it ever has been, and so I'm excited to see how filmmakers adapt their art to the shifting distribution landscape.
A publication I’d one day like to write for: There are so many, but The AV Club, and now also The Dissolve, by transfer, are sentimental favourites.
Favourite critic and why: It changes awfully often, but I've been revisiting B. Ruby Rich's writing on New Queer Cinema and it really is incredible, and it only becomes more fascinating as time passes and the contrast between then and now becomes more pronounced.
Review: White God
There is something bewitchingly earnest about White God, from its unsubtle title to its strange ability to overplay and underplay at the same time. The sixth film of Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, its Planet of the Apes-esque animal uprising story is wildly ambitious and, as is so often the case, flawed as a result. The film is most successful when it’s a tale of canine mutiny; when Mundruczó then strays from that path and invests heavily in the human drama that started it all, White God loses a great deal of vitality.
At the epicentre of the revolt is the slight, teenage Lili (Zsófia Psotta). It is her dog, Hagen, who is tossed onto the streets by her father Dániel (Sándor Zsótér) after having the dog – and perhaps Lili, too – dumped on him by his ex-wife, and a tax levied on him for harbouring a mutt. Hagen becomes a member of a pack of strays that must avoid animal control patrols, and is later captured and trained for dog fighting.
Lili’s teenage rebellion parallels Hagen’s revelatory retaliation at the pound rather clumsily. Part of the problem is that the dogs’ story feels immediate and perilous, aided by the intuitive camerawork of cinematographer Marcell Rév. His tricky, jumpy handheld images mimic the olfactory curiousness of its primary subjects, seemingly sniffing around to find tension and beauty. It is formally engrossing, from its foreboding opening sequence to its tranquil grace note.
It’s nearly impossible to miss the allegory of White God, which, to the director’s credit, isn’t directly referenced quite as often as it could have been. Its critique of the growing power divides within structures of race and class – as alluded to by the title – is overly obvious but also naïve in a disarming way. The pushing of the gentle Hagen to extreme violence is as matter-of-fact a representation of how a lack of power can corrode our very natures as any. It allows the film’s crucial challenge to be made succinctly: how can we divide ourselves for reasons so arbitrary?
None of this would work without the incredible canine performances, particularly those of the dogs portraying Hagen, Luke and Body. Hagen’s soulful eyes and alert tail bring him to life and the sheer amount of personality he and the other dogs exhibit is a testament to the work of the film’s animal trainers. And without a solid performance from Psotta and the swollen, diapasonic score, the film’s emotional fundament would also crumble.
There will, though, be a segment of viewers who either take White God too much at face value, or who view its premise as schlocky cult fare more in the Sharknado mould. Obvious budgetary constraints eat away at the film’s ability to depict its third act inevitabilities as cleanly as Mundruczó might have liked, but the scrappiness belies the drama’s sliver of self-awareness. White God asks for a certain amount of leeway, and many will not be forgiving. But for those who are, something unpolished yet beguiling lies at its core.
Review: I Origins
In 2011, Another Earth announced the arrival of two major new talents: Mike Cahill, who handled most of the film’s major technical work, and actress and co-writer Brit Marling. The film proved divisive at MIFF, with many lauding it for its clever premise and humanity, while others derided Cahill and Marling for its misuse of said premise and a perceived woodenness in the writing and performances.
Marling has since starred in two films from Zal Batmanglij, a classmate of hers and Cahill’s: Sound of My Voice and The East, both of which played MIFF to similarly mixed receptions. That she stars in Cahill’s sophomore feature, I Origins, is no surprise, nor is its presence at MIFF. Even more expected, at this stage, is that the film has split audiences.
Dr Ian Grey (Michael Pitt) is a biologist whose research focuses on the complexity of the human eye. His intention is to find an evolutionary link to disprove the argument regularly trotted out by creationists: the eye isn’t evolutionarily explained, and therefore its existence proves the presence of intelligent design.
He reencounters gorgeous model Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) – after flubbing a hook-up at a party – thanks to a series of coincidences. Her vibrant eyes prove a particular source of fascination to him; in this sci-fi inflected reality, iris scanning has become the primary form of identification. His new lab assistant Karen (Marling), proves invaluable to him in his quest toward the eye’s origin as these disparate elements come together and the mystery of Sofi’s eyes unfolds.
Cutesy title aside, I Origins is a solid and provocative film. The series of scientific revelations throughout the film prove its most fascinating element, even if they might drift into junk science here and there. The film’s speculative approach meshes well with the earnestness of its characters and of the love story; both elements will rub some people the wrong way.
But it’s difficult not to admire Cahill’s quiet ambition when the story takes a sharp mid-film turn that entirely reshapes what follows. The beauty of Another Earth was its simplicity, using the concept of a mirror Earth as a backdrop for more intimate interplay. I Origins’ premise is loftier, and unwieldy as a result. But its heart-on-sleeve emotionality is rewarding for those able to get on the film’s wavelength.
I Origins goes some way towards clarifying exactly what Cahill’s cohort does, which some find so irksome. The film doesn’t dwell on the science vs. religion debate inherent in its metaphysical suppositions, which means that thematically it’s unlikely to ruffle feathers. Cahill’s supreme confidence in the film’s fanciful internal logic is much more likely to frustrate, but this kind of writing is the niche he appears intent on carving for himself.
A terrific piece published on The Dissolve by David Ehrlich last month explored the disjointed history of Radiohead songs in cinema. I Origins employs a couple, most notably the Kid A album closer, Motion Picture Soundtrack, over the film’s final scene. Radiohead’s music – and this song, particularly – is so singularly cinematic that it manages to both undermine and reinforce I Origins’ core. Thom Yorke intoning, “It's not like the movies / They fed us on little white lies,” near its climax doesn’t improve the film, but it’s a hell of a way to end it.