Sunday, November 29, 2015
Here and there. Incidentally. Actually, any watery qualifier you can think of that fuelled many a strong Python sketch in the heyday would apply here. This is not a Python film, even though they are in it and it was directed and co-scripted by Terry Jones. It is not a Python film because apart from some absurdist situations that pop up it is far more like a grimier Richard Curtis film. Acutally, if this were a Richard Curtis film it would be a breakthrough and feel funnier than it is through the sheer relief that it isn't yet another rollout of his big canvas romcoms.
When the darkly reptilian aliens switch to English they call each other names like Sharon and Maureen. This is old rather than classic Python and to hear it here offers more of a wince than a laugh. And, while much of the action and the hijinks with the various wishes and their consequences can delight, it plays so far short of the standard that might bypass delight and speed on to screaming edgy laughter. Jones co-wrote and directed Meaning of Life, after all which is one of the least loved Python outings until individual scenes are recalled and the reconstituted memory elevates it to the highest of their work. Its darkness and violence took the brand much further than the various projects of the individuals and pairings from the team at the time (anyone remember Yellowbeard or Erik the Viking?) So, if I admit that it's not a Python film what am I going on about?
Well, it pretty much announces its intentions to try to be a kind of Brian for today. I don't just mean the spaceship from that film prominent among the junk gathered in the alien craft. Neil is the same kind of nebbish as Brian, feels as defeated by life, falls in love with an apparently unattainable beauty (a glowing but underwritten Kate Beckinsale) and --
And this review is disintegrating in my hands. It's not just my hangover, I just can't find much of any value to say of it beyond its flagrant waste of pedigree. How such a crew of good, highly watchable performers could be left wandering the screen, their responses to situations too lingering rather than overplayed is frustrating.
As a child I saw a British film from the same H.G. Wells short story, The Man Who Could Work Miracles, and remember it as a tightly constructed and enjoyable morality comedy with a typical but permissible Wellsian sermonising climax. This not only serves as a ready comparison with Absolutely Anything but a reminder of all those times I've heard someone herald a recent film, song, novel or tv show, or other cultural artefact as a whateveritis for the twenty-first century. Usually, all they are referring to is that the thing they are lauding so was made since 2001 and not to any cultural, textural or profound updating to bring an old story in through the filter of contemporary life. This film is not a Life of Brian for the twenty-first century, it's a lightly enjoyable shadow of Life of Brian from the twenty-first century. If that's your dig, run don't walk. I staggered ... away.
Friday, October 23, 2015
Insert usual blurb about celebrating Halloween in your own style rather than bending over for the empire and doing it the American way. That aside, one thing I like about Halloween as a contemporary folk feast night is its association with the horror genre. Here are some suggestions for a film night on October the 31st. This year I've gone for energy. That doesn't always just equate to action but can mean the sprightliness of the ideas. Oh and running times on the shorter side.
IT FOLLOWS (2014)
THE HAUNTING (1963)
TIME CRIMES (2007)
GINGER SNAPS (2000)
One of all time favourite genre game changers. Blending the high-school social order, emo-anti-cool, and real wit, Ginger's plummet into the life of the beast is as funny as it is scary and, in the end, genuinely tragic. If you liked the recent series Orphan Black, know that this is from the same writer/director team of Karen Walton and John Fawcett.
So, there it is, enjoy your Halloween in your own way, avoiding, if you can, locally-meaningless rituals and any movies directed by James Wan. Boo!
Sunday, October 18, 2015
So, it's a ghost story.
It's more a story with ghosts.
Edith explains this more than once in the opening scenes of Crimson Peak. She's writing a novel. Already she's been told to put a romance in it and then she has decided to conceal her gender from publishers by drafting the book on a typewriter. And behind her, writer director Guillermo del Toro is telling us that we should cast off ideas that we're in for a horror movie. It's not a clumsy breach of the fourth wall as much as a kind of wink to anyone who has followed his career. So far he's made popcorn genre films in English and highly original dark fables in Spanish. Well, this is a dark fable in English.
There are indeed ghosts. They are fleshy but also ashen. Trails and dribbles of ectoplasm flow around them like the spectres in The Devil's Backbone. They are scary when you see them but they are also messengers. What's on show here is not horror but melodrama and it is played as a kind of spoken opera. The grand orchestral score for once in a contemporary film really has a welcome place. Edith's insistence on the relationship of ghosts to the story plays, in effect, like a theme in an overture.
The plot is a compound of gothic melodramas like Jane Eyre or Rebecca. Young and beautiful and Edith (a golden Mia Wasikovska) falls for the suavely dark Sir Thomas Thorne (the utterly dependable Tom Hiddleston) as he tours the Americas seeking investors for his clay mining machine. His sister, the arch and sinister Lady Lucille (a posh accented Jessica Chastain) slinks through the society crowd like a crimson serpent and descends a gothic stairwell like seven Mrs Danvers all at once. We're not talking new, here, as much as well expressed.
As a child, Edith was warned by the ghost of her mother to beware of Crimson Peak. And it is to a crimson peak (a natural phenomenon explained in the second act) that she is drawn. The mansion is slowly sinking into the blood red clay. The ceilings in some rooms have caved in; snow falls gently through the holes. Corridors give way to more corridors. The basement, accessed by an ancient lift, is filled with vats of bloodlike clay that could hide many bodies. And the cupboards and the recesses, the bathtubs and the entrances crawl and slide with the blood red dead.
Edith runs through this increasingly grave life decision like a gothic heroine. Well, she would if she weren't written as she has been. While she is under constant threat, at first from the ghosts and then from her sister in law and even her new husband she is more of an action heroine. And it is this that lifts Crimson Peak from being a beautiful but pointless melodrama to a Guillermo del Toro film.
Mia Wasikovska's bright performance goes from naivete to hard, canny survivalism as the full picture of where the real threats are coming from. Without this element, character and performance, the film would be pedestrian, if spectacularly so, on the same shelf as almost everything by Tim Burton after Ed Wood. Until this role solidifies it can be difficult to see where del Toro is going with the material but as blasting mini opera about life's mistakes it takes an honourable place beside the Spanish speaking masterworks. Perhaps a little softer than Pan's Labyrinth, which might well disappoint, but this could be the mellowing maturity brings and that might well spell more depth. We shall wait. We shall see.
First the top level, conceptual stuff. It works. Themes like grief and retribution without a vengeance plot could easily clash but here they converge without effort. Very good use of two purposes of photography that are opposites in intention but identical in power; both the secret of the atrocity and the exposed secrets of the tabloid rags relate father to son immediately and convey a sense of duty to the latter powerfully.
So much was established before a word was spoken. Evocative use of colour and mise en scene (the old man's apartment, the exteriors of the housing commission tower and the luxury apartment complex etc. Some dialogue scenes felt too expository and came off stilted for me (the confrontations between George and Eva). Contrasting with this, the dialogue between George and his boss warmed things up with humour. The monologue of George's mother was emotive, well performed and shot with a clear eye to the depth of its meaning.
I enjoyed the electronic score. The final stretch which laid down a slight drone so quiet it was almost imperceptible was exactly what was needed. A mainstream composer would have drowned it with a string section. The restraint shown with these elements reveals a clear respect for the material. That's why it didn't feel a second longer than it should have.Good luck in L.A., Tatiana. Break a sprocket!
Monday, September 21, 2015
We open on an FBI raid as agents in field armour move in while an APC heads towards a house in Arizona. The APC crashes through the walls and the agents spill out, shooting everything that moves. They don't find their objective but instead discover that the walls are stuffed with rotting corpses in plastic. Outside an agent fiddles with a locked trapdoor until it explodes, leaving a crater and piles of dismembered agents.
Later that day, the leader of the raid, Kate Macer, and her second in command are sitting outside a glass walled office while their boss confers with a group of men whose anonymity gives them importance. One of them calls Kate in. She's not in trouble, despite the day's mishap, she's being offered a job to help an anti-cartel operation with Matt (no surname) who is carved out of rock and might be CIA or weirder. Kate is given the distinct hint that if she volunteers for this she might have to go into some very dark territory. It also might lead them to getting the guy who organised the bomb in the shed. She says yes.
Turning up at the base for her first assignment, her second in command is dismissed and she is put on a plane with Matt and the mysterious Alejandro who, when asked what his role is by Kate says it would be like explaining how a watch works and sometimes it's best just to know the time. From this point Kate is taken further and further into action that is only ambiguously legal and her conscience is under constant stress. And that's when you notice something strange happening.
Kate's sense of vengeance fades from the narrative. It is taken over by another for an act that has happened outside the timeline. The character who bears the titular role of avenging force while he started on the sunny side of the law has become so much a part of the weave beyond legality that there is no return for him. And when his confrontation arrives it plays out without significant tension release. At that moment it becomes clear why the strangely unengaging evenness of pace this film has insisted on has been completely deliberate. We are asked to be cool-headed, to be witnesses rather than moviegoers.
This is not to say that the action scenes you expect from the opening aren't compelling. They rivet. It's just that the effectiveness of a given operation is offset at all times by its cost. While the tension of the traffic scene is white knuckle the energy drains as we are given pause through Kate to ask about the blurred lines between the sides. The difficulties of this suggest not only the futility of the declared war on drugs but points (sometimes unsubtly) to the same quality in the war on terror.
Without decent writing and performances this would be as limp as official propaganda. The film's refusal to indulge the machismo of the government agents or distinguish it from that of the cartel players is key. The resulting question about how much point there is in combating the organised drug trade finds its answer in the stated objective (which involves spoilers so it won't be stated here) and this is the thing that delivers the gut punch. That punch is felt in slow motion in the epilogue sequence which involves the kind of elegantly brutal juxtaposition that an Oliver Stone or Michael Mann would envy.
As for performances they are strong throughout with the three part pivot shining. Emily Blunt, so energising in Edge of Tomorrow, plays Kate with the same intensity as an athlete moments after the event, serious, focussed and alert. Her deep, staring intake of the information around her singles her out among the uniforms before her gender does. Even when she's relaxing it's more like keeping her sense of hazard at bay. These things prevent her outrage from getting didactic. At no time does she come across as bureaucratic which her lines alone might.
Her counterpart, the Mt Rushmore-faced Josh Brolin, owns the rooms her enters and enjoys knowing it. His effortlessly imposing physicality and wisecracks might set him up as the centre of any other action film but the lines are understated and his calculated force precise, betraying a coldness beneath the cowboy exterior that keeps us from indulging him as an action hero. We are thus forced back into Kate's position of questioning him.
Benecio Del Toro is similarly physically intimidating but it's the lack of easy information that makes him a threat. While his apparent care for the alienated Kate feels genuine we are not surprised to see it vanish with his self interest. The silence at the centre of his self-restraint hides something we've only seen suggested in an early scene and soon begin to dread. Del Toro's use of his ursine physicality has a tense economy to it, hiding more power than he needs to show.
There are a number of establishing aerial shots of landscape taken at a great enough height to make the geography look otherworldly: frequently beautiful but with the same threat as brightly coloured poisonous plants. In one, the shadow of a small jet plane slithers over the undulating greens and pinks below, serpentine and deadly. This is more Kathryn Bigelow than Michael Mann and, as with the former, there is less fetish about the depiction than a trust in the power of its line and colour. Similarly, when a service pistol is expertly dismantled in a late scene we think less of the skill in the field stripping demonstration than in the slightness of the difference between it being chunks of metal and a killing device.
Johan Johannson's score moves seamlessly between electronics and orchestra and is spare and grave. As one who notices the music in films and can be turned off by overscoring or over-reliance on the bamming effects used by poorer composers, I am always appreciative of good work. The music here is as focused and serious as the film as a whole, supporting the seriousness of the fare and never congratulating the violence we must see.
I know little of director Denis Villeneuve's other work beyond titles but after this I'll make it my business to catch up. By keeping us looking at the conscience of the piece through hard muscular skill he has made this genre grow a little. Do you like your political action movies to deliver great thrills but also compel your thoughts? You should.
Sunday, August 16, 2015
Well, that's that for another MIFF. I was a little more distracted than usual for this year's fest as I had some project work which took most of my time outside of the screenings. I added two to my mini pass's thirteen and left it at that (having gone up to twenty last year). Because things were happening in the real world that needed my attention I had to consider the festival a relief rather than a celebration. And this is the first MIFF since I started getting minipasses which hasn't given me a cold. Nice.
The Duke of Burgundy showed that you could enjoy your favourite era without becoming a slave to it. Strickland breaks free, freer than he did with Berberian Sound Studio and that's saying something.
99 Homes gave us an update on the kind of voracious capitalist beloved of Oliver Stone or Martin Scorsese without any of the fetishising of either for the villanous capitalist at its centre.
Battles Without Honour and Humanity was a sumptuous restoration that offered a violent Yakuza history without an invitation to join the machismo on screen. No wonder Battle Royale was so good.
Hill of Freedom gave us another sly and gently deceptive comedy of manners based on the social difficulties of using an imported commonality to express difficult things.
The Arabian Nights (three feature-length films) attempted much but allowed its plainer passages to venture outside the acceptable boring limits. Still want to see what Gomes does next but that's still because of Tabu rather than even the finer moments of this.
Angels of Revolution was a strong tableau-driven expose on revolutionary fervour, political naivete and the force of tradition which transcended its subject-appropriate low-profile narrative with great colour in several senses but it might have pushed the culture collision more fully and forcefully by focussing less on the more familiar westerners.
Teheran Taxi worked well, played nice at a non-rambling run time and delivered a strong message. The pity of it is that it seems intoxicated with its own worthiness. This one's on the blade of middle and high.
Lambert and Stamp would've been great if I had been able to make out what half of them were saying at the screening due to crappy audio (a session-based problem rather the film's as such) but managed to offer some insights into a well-worn story.
Dalmas A time capsule of new wave genre and generic new wave from the dawn of the Whitlam era is more fellow traveller than agitprop and, for all its quaint rough edges, remains a decent statement beyond its time of greatest impact.
What I've noted in this the third year of Michelle Carey's tenure as artistic director has featured a more adventurous touch with selection. Yes, there's the usual hot-at-Cannes burble but there's also a greater confidence with cinema outside of the main feed. I was annoyed at the dominance of U.S. independent titles in her first festival program but had to concede that this might have been the pragmatic means of filling a first program: get what's easy and make it a feature. But the last two line ups have proved to be rich and diverse.
Booking is very easy with the website and the app but I wish that I could mass book via the wish list. This was a feature of a few festivals during the 2000s that has disappeared. Why? I used to love setting up all my sessions on the day they were released and then clicking on book these or buy these or whatever the terminology was and that happening. It was a small moment of super-villainous triumph; one click and I rule the next two weeks with the pieces of my plan falling effortlessly into place. Now you have to go to each title (which you can do from your wishlist) and book each one. Ah, well, doesn't take that much longer.
The move from the credit cards to the app was a good one. Before the cards the mini pass was a carboard card which you could add sessions to which were then punched on the card on a desk with a queue separate to the one at the cinema door. With the app you can, if you wish, still print your tickets out or even go to the box office and get that done for you but having an app on your phone with everything you need beats everything prior to it. If there are still people who line up to waste the staff's time by making their mind up when they're served (yes, that used to happen) I hope I never meet them.
The least faulty Android app since the introduction of them a few years back. It was ready before time and there were no strange display bugs or glitchy behaviour.There is still an issue with what can be done while logged in and logged out. Shouldn't I just be able to access every feature with a login?Why can't I access my wishlist from the app? Rating films takes a drill-down and some of the search functions could use a little attention. Nevertheless, using the app for its primary value as a ticket dispenser is flawless. The only time I had a problem with it was due to my phone thinking it had to log in to the ACMI wifi and kept throwing me out. So, not the app there.
Someone has worked out that if you budget enough for the preparation of the volunteers the savings come back in happy customers. My problem with MIFF staff in the past has not been with rudeness as much as cluelessness; people who implode into shortness of temper when encountering irregularity. This year I saw the bright young things of the Vollie brigade welcome everyone in with smiles that weren't stapled on to their faces and a patience I've never known as widespread throughout the festival. If there was a snooty waiter syndrome one among them at any of the venues I missed out on them. If someone strayed I saw polite firmness rather than caving in the face of punter-aggression or assumed superiority from previous years (should point out there that I haven't seen any real upleasantness for a few years anyway).
What ad? Well, there was one and, finally, it wasn't a lame joke that we had to live through at every screening. I did get sick of the people getting so excited they turned into popcorn rapidly and the classy number plate one
I always wince when the only choice I have for a particular film is ACMI. The screen is big n wide. The sound is good. You'd think the seats were so well placed in rows as to leave too much room for the lizard creatures from Beta Grongo to stretch their hind pincers and push into the seats in front of them. I saw one guy actually stretch his extraterrestrial pins so far that his feet were rubbing their footpath filth over the headrest and arm of two seats in front of him. What the hell goes through the minds of people like this? So, I reluctantly went to ACMI for most of my screenings. Last year I avoided it completely, not a single session there. Can't always get what you want, though...
The Forum is always one of the joys of the Festival. Love the building and atmosphere and the club downstairs. It's a winner.
I'm glad the Treasury is now a venue for all its cruddy seating with the shifty cushions. I just wish they'd let me put a film night for the rest of the year there. I can but dream which is what I'll have to settle for.
I liked the experience of the Comedy but wouldn't want to make a habit of it. The sense that the seats were all squashed in was strong. While this didn't really affect me as I was in the front row for my only screening there (99 Homes) I would not like to be more toward the middle. Then again, they have a bar in the auditorium.
All up a cruisey business. Being strapped for extra leave this year, I'm not taking my usual post-MIFF week off. Well, I don't need it anyway as the work I was doing crammed up against the screenings left no time for filmy shenanigans anyway and, spending a lot of time without anyone else in the room meant that wasn't doing a lot (actually any) partying to make a recovery week necessary. So, it's off to work I return, having an easy Sunday eve not spent ironing shirts (did them a week ago).
Having harped on this for most of these roundups for the past few years I can add a little something about queueing. Anyone who has read these o'er the years will know I like the front few rows. I learned a fair few years back that it didn't matter if was at the beginning of the line or at the freezing element-exposed end of it, I pretty much always get the seat I want, front and centre ... ish. Well, this is the first fest where I didn't wait in a queue once. This is easy for me as I live in a suburb that borders on the CBD where the venues are. I'm about fifteen minutes brisk winter stride from the furthest of the venues. So, I would turn up just after the main block had gone in while the first slides were running on screen. The one time this backfired was my first session. I had forgotten that the Kinos MIFF cinemas only have tiny front rows and capacities generally. So, I saw The Duke of Burgundy at a severe angle, idly checking for any anamorphosis in the compositions (well, you never know with Peter Strickland). The closest I came to queueing was getting to the end of the line for The Witch on Russell St but that was already moving when I joined it. (Then I had to dash ahead of the zombie-march exit for one of a few midnight Mai Tai meetings with the o- the autre significante.) That was a great result but I'll admit to missing the sense of event palpable from being in a long conga line for an eagerly awaited movie. Actually, bugger that, it's much better now.
Roll on August 2016!
Maddin started clanging about in his Winnipeg workshop in the '80s, well out of the range of the spotlight, fashioning a kind of cinema that is both fresh and very old. His silent short films like Heart of the World look like Eisenstein but play like Lynch and the refusal to hop on the tribute band wagon clear from the start. Maddin doesn't copy old movies he makes his own new. The acting was a mix of stagey early sound (and the sound itself decidedly early), irised scene transitions and vignetting in sets that looked like the ones in Murnau or Lang. The stories were a loopy mix of old manners and joltingly modern ones. They were impossible to categorise (they certainly weren't just retro) even as comedy or melodrama and finally we who followed him in fascination had to admit that here was that rarest of cinethings in the current climate: an auteur. Guy Maddin makes Guy Maddin films.
Well, he did or I thought he did until I saw Keyhole (most recent before this) a bizarre retelling of Ulysses' return to Ithaca told in jazz age dress and in the cleanest scope image you ever did see (ditto for the audio). It was bizarre because its cleanliness did not fit the odd dreamlike mashing of the mythical story. That was clearly intentional but the intention itself was silent. So, I came to this with a wince of trepidation, knowing that I want my favourite artists to keep developing but also want them to stay where I like them best.
Well, it didn't take a second through the warping slide show and protean hybrid clean and dirty electronics of the music to know that I was in for something I'd like.
Story? Too many. Ok, a submarine crew is carrying a gelatinous explosive that is melting and must be kept under a certain depth to stop it melting too much and exploding. They are looking for their captain who has disappeared. Suddenly into this scene, a lumberjack comes in through an airlock, telling a tale of trying to save his ladylove who is being held captive in the cave of the local brigands. After a hilarious scene of strength and skill trials the woodsman is welcomed among them but his goal, the lovely Margot demands greater proofs of his loyalty starting the next night. As she and the robbers are sleeping she dreams she has amnesia and enters a night club as a flower girl and then strange Lydia Lunch style cabaret singer and on and on. But every one, every new tale (and they average a new one every few minutes or even seconds), the forgetful and murderous husband, the literally broken motorcycle girl, her doting doctor and his brother, as escaped criminal and the miller (and "pillow hugger" he works for) and the various dreams by new characters, a volcano and the hairs of a moustache (this list doesn't begin to cover it) ALL, every one I remembered to count, get resolved for the end for, as dreamlike as Maddin gets (i.e. in every film he does and deeply) he keeps a strong hand on narrative flow and there isn't a moment that isn't set in it's own part of the greater arc.
And Maddin the stylist never lets up. The music ranges from clear high resolution string sections to muffled Victrola records to acapella songs to '80s ballads so precise and perverse they sound like Sparks (Youtube them)*. Images of the characters warping as though viewed through water appear like underlay. New characters are given title cards with the character names and the actors who play them. The palette shifts rapidly between desaturated colour, Technicolorish boldness, deep greyscale, vaseline lensed obscurity. The home workshop look to props and sets continues from Maddin's own traditions. The acting looks silent or wrenched from the early talkies. The gang's all here. It feels comfortable but just that step more assured and restless. Keyhole was an interesting detour; he's much stronger on the path.
Also, we're getting a higher profile international cast this time, including Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Mathieu Amalric and Geraldine Chaplin among many many others, often in multiple roles. I had worried about the high recognition casting back in the day of Isabella Rosselini in The Saddest Music in the World. No more need to worry now as then. He's come through with enough of what we liked on top and riches that we love in the middle. Might have to watch Keyhole again, now.
*Um, just found out that the Derriere Song is by Sparks.
*Um, just found out that the Derriere Song is by Sparks.