It's a cruel, cruel world

00:55, Jul 26 2013

My latest jaunt to the cinema has taken me to two extraordinary (and not necessarily in a "good" way) documentaries which stay with you for ages, bookended, thankfully, by some comedy. That's how this film festival lark goes - one day can produce such a range of emotions and responses, it's little wonder many of us die-hard (ie greedy) screen-crawlers fall ill as soon as it's over.

But I'm not sick yet, and the good times just keep on coming. The Spectacular Now is just the sort of thing you hope for at a daytime screening at the Civic - a coming-of-age movie where the cocksure young protagonist gets dumped by a girl, meets another girl, upsets his mum, worships his absent dad, and drinks too much - all the while with a winning smile that makes you root for him nonetheless. Sutter Keely is our purported hero, played with easy charm by Miles Teller (from Rabbit Hole, and a whole bunch of dumb, he's-better-than-this teen party movies). The Descendants' lovely Shailene Woodley dons gawky get-up, and there's even a cameo from The Wire's Bubble.

Written by the lad who created 500 Days of Summer, The Spectular Now displays a similar charm in its burgeoning romance, peopled by troubled souls who mean well despite their flaws. It wasn't until the next day my happy mind started to query some of the plot choices, but overall it's so lovely, you'll want to turn a blind eye.

Do not look away from my top tip of the festival, however. I'd been looking forward to Which Way is the Frontline from Here? but it still surpassed my expectations. Filmmaker and war correspondent Sebastian Junger has made a fascinating, moving documentary about his friend and colleague, Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Libya in 2011. The two men made Restrepo only a couple of years ago, and this film includes out-takes from that Oscar-nominated documentary, interspersing talking head interviews with the magnificent photos that make up Hetherington's legacy. The film is endlessly affecting, and so captivating I could have continued watching it for days. Hetherington comes across as warm, engaged and so approachable, his loss is felt strongly. It's a sensational film, and I cannot recommend it more highly.

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By comparison, The Act of Killing is an incredible film, although not necessarily one I would promote unreservedly. This documentary is notable for many things: its executive producers (the names behind a project whose endorsement usually delivers the clout factor) include Errol Morris and Werner Herzog. When you hear the story concept, you'll appreciate why: Death squad leaders who were among those responsible for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of their fellow Indonesians in 1965 are invited to "tell their story" however they wish - and consequently decide to re-enact scenes of the torture and murder they perpetrated, for the cameras and thus posterity.

It's an outrageous premise, all the more so when you see how willing - nay, enthusiastic - Anwar Congo, Herman Koto and their motley crew are to dress up and direct one another through graphic reconstructions of the terror they inflicted. Audiences will flinch and cower, but the main feeling I took away after a gruelling 2 hours 40 minutes was bewilderment. The seeming audacity with which the leaders describe their crimes; the hobnobbing with present-day politicians and admiration bestowed upon them by sycophantic talk-show hosts - it's all extremely bizarre, and the grotesquerie that is the mass murder itself is both enhanced and dulled by the completely unexpected behaviour of the players.

I'm still at a loss to describe both quite what I saw and how I feel about it, but The Act of Killing is without doubt an important film on a myriad of levels. The disturbing and bemusing "magical realism" in its tone comes not from filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (who seemingly just lets them get on with it, as they talk to him behind the camera as "Josh") but the gangsters themselves. It's a deeply problematic film in many ways (not for discussion here in the happy realm of Stuff) and this makes it a hard watch, but if you're going to tackle it, see it through to the end.

And finally, some light relief allowed me to come up for air. Sleepwalk with Me is a largely autobiographical tale, a sweet little movie about a sweet, dopey, wannabe stand-up comedian (Mike Birbiglia, playing himself) who isn't sure he wants to marry his glorious girlfriend of eight years. But this is the least of his worries, since Mike suffers from REM sleep disorder - a severe form of sleepwalking that sees him acting out dreams and getting into terrible scrapes. Hmmm - perhaps it's an indication that all is not well in his state of mind? The film is a fictionalised account of an at-times hilarious life, peppered with choice lines and wonderful supporting performances - Mike's dad (the fabulously droll James Rebhorn) in particular.

The stand-up scenes deliver hearty laughs as this 30-something slacker tale traverses familiar but perennially entertaining ground.

Thank goodness for that.