Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: VENUS IN FUR

Why are there adaptations? If the bond between a novel and its reader is so compelling, the immersion, the dreamlike experience of literature nourishing the imagination, is such a complete deal, why do we need it contained by other conventions like theatre or cinema? We are sitting in a cinema watching a noted film director's take on a playwright's take on a novel. The novel is by Sascher-Masoch who inadvertently teamed up with the Marquis de Sade to give history the term sadomasochism. As with the very best of anything that diverts us with its power we are in for some intense role play and reversal.

We rush through an avenue of storm bashed trees in the credit sequence in a pallette of steel blue and grey. Turning like a predator at the sight of a theatre we head in past the posters for something gaudy and unsuccessful and into the auditorium where a lone man on a stage is pouring anger into a mobile phone. He's frustrated at the range of actors he's been auditioning. They're all unsuitable for the gravity role of Vanda the dominatrix of his adaptation of Venus in Fur. They're young and too fragile or young and too bold and all of them are too distant from touching base with the character as he sees her. The story is important to him. His adaptation was written from compulsion. His identification with Severin and his complicated subjection to Vanda total. And then in walks Vanda.

As soon as she bursts chaotically through the theatre doors and stands as the most active eavesdropper you will ever witness, you know that it is her force you have been following through the storm to this barely warm refuge. Yes, her name really is Vanda, just like the character. She knows all about it this story taken from a Lou Reed song. In that way, little by little, this Vanda persuades Thomas the director to hear her as that Vanda.

We have been encouraged in this film's publicity campaign to recognise how Mathieu Amalric resembles the young Roman Polanski (the film's director) and that Vanda is played by Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner. It's also inescapable to note, while watching that this story of adaptation is Polanski's adaptation of Martin Ives's adapation of Venus in Fur. What we are seeing works without knowing any of this but it does add a tang. And tang is what this piece is all about, the pleasurable sharpness, the irresistible ache, the lemon juice through the cream.

Vanda's chaos is so successful at disarming Thomas that he agrees to read the part with her. She has betrayed no knowledge of the role or its source and, while obviously forceful, she doesn't hide that her age puts her beyond the role; what can he lose by giving her a few pages of audition before getting back home to his fiancee and dinner? Actually, a lot.

Vanda not only has her own copy of the script, claiming her agent gave it to her, but a bag full of costumes and props (she enters wearing a dog collar and general SM style) but when he feeds her Severin's lines she responds with Vanda's without once looking at the page. Vanda the actress and Vanda the character are going to become by turns indistinguishable and antithetical. Thomas is going to phase within and outside of Severin. These are actors playing actors in an adaptation within a naturalistic setting but one that plays behind the proscenium arch.

There is a point to all this self reflexivity and also to the smoothness with which Polanski handles it. When we are meant to know that one of the actors is briefly stepping out of role to comment or consult we know. When the line needs to be more obscure it is so. Through all of this mask and bare face we begin to approach the hazards of the relationship at the centre of the source material, how it is like the act of staging, adapting and filming and offering an audience the opportunity of willingly entering into the risky contract of fiction. Like all good fiction this one and all the other layers of artifice it represents we don't know at the start who's on top or if we are going to like it that way.

Roman Polanski has never disappointed the way that Martin Scorsese has. Responding to changes in cinema fashion, having done his share of leading it, has not always been easy for him but I suspect the main reason that this is far more gratifying piece than he has presented for many a year is due to the rebooting it required: show your stagecraft as well as your cinemastery, bring your audience closer to your actors than in a more conventional film and you'll have them eating from your open palm. We do because we feel all that second by second, here. This actor's paradise film is almost entirely dialogue but is so constantly involving that we never think it's wordy. Seigner and Amalric, already familiar with each other from the dependency drama of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, go to town, overacting here and there because they can but also kid-gloving but beautifully subtle moments. I particularly love Alamric's take on Thomas' performance as Vanda as it channelled Polanski's own as Trelkovsky in The Tennant. Clever but effective even if you don't know that.

Through these two way mirrors, Polanski has taken us into the darker corners of adaptation and the contracts between the word, its speakers and we the audience. At the end of this process we had nothing to look at but ourselves but even that was fun. Here's an example: as I was watching it I imagined the final scene without the bamming Prokofiev music, imagining instead the sound of feet on the surface of the stage. It was good but it wasn't better.

Monday, July 14, 2014

MIFF PIX 2014


It's festy time again. The chill's i' the air and the projectors are a'hummin'.

Here is my basic list. Got recommendations? Bring 'em awn. I usually end up adding a few to the first set. So lemme know.

PJ

LIFE ITSELF
Fri 01 Aug 2014 11:00 AM
"Far more than just a tribute to the career of the world's most famous and influential film critic, the often revelatory Life Itself is also a remarkably intimate portrait of a life well lived." – Chicago Sun-Times
The legendary Roger Ebert passed away last year. Life Itself is an unapologetic but touching portrait of the movie reviewer who towered above all others and forever changed the landscape of film criticism.
Directed by Steve James, whose 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams Ebert himself crowned "one of the great movie-going experiences of my lifetime", Life Itself recounts his life and career from his school newspaper beginnings to his Pulitzer Prize-winning heights. Based on Ebert's own memoir, it lays bare his struggle with alcoholism and cancer, and sheds light on the tempestuous rivalry with frequent collaborator Gene Siskel.
"A profoundly moving story about one of cinema's greatest superheroes." – Twitch
D Steve James P Zak Piper, Steve James, Garrett Basch WS Magnolia TD DCP/2014
Find the book at Readings.

BREADCRUMB TRAIL
Fri 01 Aug 2014 6:30 PM
"Lance Bangs has turned in without a doubt the best film he's ever made … Slint fans will find plenty to geek out over." – Tiny Mix Tapes
Even those who haven't heard Slint have heard Slint. Not only did the band's members go on to perform with acts as diverse as The Breeders, Tortoise, Interpol, Stereolab and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but the cutting, complicated dynamics of their second and final album, 1991's Spiderland, essentially birthed post-rock.
In a riveting study, veteran music clip director and Slint superfan Lance Bangs unearths priceless VHS footage of the gawky teens (some of it shot by Will Oldham) who crafted such elemental and unsettling sounds. And two decades of interviews with members, parents, hangers-on and indie luminaries – including Steve Albini, Fugazi's Ian MacKaye and Jesus Lizard's David Yow – reveal their influence.
This secret history of the Louisville scene and post-rock from the weirdos, punks and regular kids who created it is sure to fascinate acolytes and neophytes alike.
"Wildly entertaining" – Cinephiled
D/P Lance Bangs TD DCP/2014
SORCERER
Mon 04 Aug 2014 4:00 PM
"I have a great fondness for Sorcerer, more than any other film I've made ... Sorcerer is the one I hope to be remembered for and the one film that came closest to my vision." – Director William Friedkin
By 1977, William Friedkin (Killer Joe, MIFF 2012) had won an Oscar for his film French Connection and rocked audiences with The Exorcist. That year he released Sorcerer, a nail-biting reinterpretation of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear. Things didn't go to plan. It was initially panned as an expensive flop and buried when it premiered in the shadow of Star Wars. Newly restored (under Friedkin's supervision) with a 4K film resolution scan off the original 35mm negative, it is enjoying a fan and critic-led revival, with contemporary consensus acknowledging it as the work of a master at the top of his game.
As per its source, the story involves four men with dark pasts who agree to transport volatile dynamite across hostile Central American terrain for a big payday. Starring Roy Scheider, and with a synth score by Tangerine Dream, the film's iconic sequence – an explosives-laden truck crossing a rickety rope bridge – has became cinematic legend for its real-life risk and, like the film itself, remains as jaw-dropping today as when it was filmed.
"The new restoration makes the film appear as if it was just made ... It looks the way it looked to me when I looked through the lens of the camera." – William Friedkin
D/P William Friedkin S Walon Green WS Park Circus TD DCP/1977
HONEYMOON
Tue 05 Aug 2014 1:30 PM
A bride's perfect day turns sour when an uninvited guest crashes the party bearing an unusual gift.
Veteran filmmaker Jan Hrebejk won the Best Director prize at Karlovy Vary Film Festival for this nuanced character drama, the third in a loose trilogy that began with Kawasaki's Rose (MIFF 2010) and continued with Innocence. Written by Hrebejk's frequent collaborator Petr Jarchovsky (screenwriter of the Oscar-nominated Divided We Fall) and featuring his regular, the superb Ana Geisterová, Honeymoon initially takes the familiar airy route of wedding stories then veers into darker territory with the arrival of a slightly creepy school friend of the handsome groom.
Set over two days at an idyllic country house in South Bohemia, what was to have been a joyous celebration ends up as a tense revelation of guilt and forgiveness between the newlyweds.
"Gradually weaves some welcoming darkness into the frothy and cheerful façade, concocting a film that is both beautiful and memorable … (an) elegantly intimate drama." – Screen
D Jan Hrebejk P Viktor Tauš, Michal Kollár Tomáš Rotnágl, Jan Kadlec S Petr Jarchovský WS Latido Films L Czech w/English subtitles TD DCP/2013



PARTICLE FEVER
Wed 06 Aug 2014 6:30 PM
"Mind-blowing … a fascinating movie about science, and an exciting, revealing and sometimes poignant movie about scientists." – New York Times
Neil Armstrong taking humanity's first steps on the moon is one of the most significant moments in scientific history. The enormously uplifting documentary Particle Fever tells the story of our generation's equivalent moment: the Large Hadron Collider's discovery of the Higgs boson "God particle" (as it's been popularly dubbed).
Focussing on six uniquely fascinating scientists involved in the search, physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson tells a moving, and surprisingly nail-biting, tale of the human heartache and triumph behind this extraordinary feat of scientific endeavour.
Stunningly shot by Claudia Raschke-Robinson (award-winning cinematographer of My Architect, MIFF 2003) and masterfully edited by Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, The Godfather trilogy), Particle Fever won the Sheffield Doc/Fest audience award and has received a rock-star reception around the world for its accessible celebration of discovery.
"Jaw-droppingly cool stuff … And it's flat-out thrilling." – NPR
D Mark Levinson P David Kaplan Dist Madman Entertainment TD DCP/2013
 
EXHIBITION
Thu 07 Aug 2014 11:00 AM
"Le Corbusier's famous assertion that a house must be ‘a machine for living' acquires new force in Exhibition, an exquisitely crafted and thrillingly ambiguous chamber drama." – Cinema Scope
Set almost entirely within the confines of a modernist West London house, two artists, D and H (played by musician Viv Albertine, of 1970s post-punk band The Slits, and Turner Prize-nominated artist Liam Gillick), go about their day. With the house for sale – an ongoing source of tension – the married couple exists in an odd stasis, alone in each other's company in a precisely designed space.
Joanna Hogg's (Unrelated, MIFF 2008) spare yet expansive drama is filled with small, incremental, pointed scenes that allow the striking space to have a life of its own, building an observational character piece that is unique and beautifully detailed.
"Every shot is composed with the rigour of an old master, packed with painterly juxtapositions, quilted with signs and symbols." – Huffington Post
D/S Joanna Hogg P Gayle Griffiths Dist Vendetta Films TD DCP/2013
SONG FROM THE FOREST
Fri 08 Aug 2014 1:30 PM
Winner of the top prize at the 2013 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.
Haunted by a song he once heard on the radio, American ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno tracked the exotic sounds to a Central African jungle tribe. He fell in love – with their way of life and with his future wife – and spent the next 25 years living among the Bayaka, recording more than 1000 hours of music and, eventually, starting a family.
When his Bayaka son, Samedi, is 13 years old, Sarno fulfils a promise to show the boy the world he came from, taking him to New York to meet family and friends (including his college buddy Jim Jarmusch). It is the first time Samedi has left the forest, and the first time in years Sarno has returned to a home he no longer recognises.
Contrasting the urban jungle with the African jungle, journalist and first-time filmmaker Michael Obert crafts an exquisitely gorgeously shot, moving study of a man caught between two incompatible worlds, and his relationship with his family, his heritage and his environment.
"Perceptive and utterly gorgeous … Song from the Forest compellingly foregrounds the ephemeral nature of all culture." – Indiewire
D/S Michael Obert P Alex Tondowski, Ira Tondowski WS Deckert Distribution L Yaka, English w/English subtitles TD DCP/2013
WHEN ANIMALS DREAM
Sat 09 Aug 2014 6:30 PM
"A tremendous feature debut, haunting and elegiac." – Twitch
Sixteen-year-old Marie lives in a remote Danish fishing village with her father and her heavily medicated, wheelchair-bound mother. She has begun working at the local fish-processing plant, and is harassed by her co-workers. But when Marie's body begins to transform in a superhuman manner, she discovers a long-kept family secret.
Filmed on the beautiful stormy coast of Jutland, When Animals Dream is a stunning coming-of-age story, full of a restrained horror tonally reminiscent of Let The Right One In (MIFF 2008). With impressive cinematography and a beautiful score, it's an intriguing supernatural drama that uses lycanthropy to examine the role of women in remote, repressed communities.
"An atmospheric fantasy chiller that marks an accomplished feature debut from director Jonas Alexander Arnby." – Screen
D Jonas Alexander Arnby P Ditte Milsted, Caroline Schluter Bingestam S Rasmus Birch Dist Madman Entertainment L Danish w/English subtitles TD DCP/2014
NIGHT MOVES
Mon 11 Aug 2014 9:00 PM
"A crackling little suspense thriller/morality play indebted to Dostoyevsky and Hitchcock." – The Playlist
When admirable aims lead to disastrous deeds, does the intention or the aftermath win out? Writer/director Kelly Reichardt (River of Grass, MIFF 1993; Wendy and Lucy, MIFF 2008) probes this quandary in Night Moves, an eco-activist parable brimming with the simmering tension of ‘70s psychological dramas, including the Arthur Penn neo-noir that inspired its title.
Fringe-dwelling farmhand Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), his high school dropout girlfriend Dena (Dakota Fanning) and their ex-marine mentor Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) plan an attack on a hydroelectric dam in Portland to protest the environmental devastation in their midst, but they are sidelined by the unforeseen consequences of their actions.
Aided by exceptional performances, Reichardt carefully charts the before and after in intensive detail, crafting a restrained, seductive picture of moral and ethical murkiness.
"Night Moves gives us the pleasure and satisfaction of an established voice having achieved perhaps her finest work yet." – Sight and Sound
D Kelly Reichardt P Anish Savjani, Neil Kopp, Chris Maybach, Saemi Kim, Rodrigo Teixeira S Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt Dist Curious Film TD DCP/2013

TRAP STREET
Tue 12 Aug 2014 11:00 AM
"A thought-provoking gem … as courageous as it is terrifying." – Twitch
Named for the fictitious or non-existent streets cartographers sometimes include in their maps, Trap Street introduces us to happy-go-lucky Li Qiuming, who has a good life digitally mapping the labyrinthine streets of an unnamed but ever-evolving Chinese city. Then one day he spies an attractive woman who flits out of sight and down a secluded alley. This brief glance, while sparking his romantic interest, sets in motion mysterious events when he returns to the spot to find the data he collected was never registered – the alley has fallen off the map.
Embedded in China's recent history and with a restrained observational noir style, first-time director Vivian Qu's (producer, Black Coal Thin Ice, MIFF 2014) Trap Street sets young love in a place where personal freedom clashes with modern forms of control.
"In the film's world full of prying cameras and cloned SIM cards, where everyone seems to be spying and spied on, paranoia is good policy." – The Hollywood Reporter
D/S Vivian Qu P Sean Chen L Mandarin w/English subtitles TD DCP/2013

WHY DON'T YOU PLAY IN HELL?
Tue 12 Aug 2014 6:30 PM
"Absolutely mad. It is every insane urge and image that Sono has had banging around in his head unused over his career distilled down and splashed on screen in all its absurd, and frequently very bloody, glory." – Twitch
Described by its unfailingly unpredictable director, MIFF regular Sion Sono (Himizu, MIFF 2012; Guilty of Romance, MIFF 2011), as "an action film about the love of 35mm", Why Don't You Play in Hell? sees the cult auteur at his most fun-lovingly bloodthirsty.
Things spin out of control when an aspiring film troupe known as The F**k Bombers collide with a yakuza boss who wants to make a movie with his daughter. Within this, the yakuza genre gets mashed with martial arts, gore, slapstick and whatever else you care to nominate in a wonderful mess that boils down to one thing …
Huge fun.
"A deliriously gaudy celebration of the decline of everything (including Japanese cinema, film as a medium, and any notion of good taste), it plays like the improbable bastard offspring of Cinema Paradiso and Kill Bill." – Sight and Sound
D/S Sion Sono P Takuyuki Matsuno, Tsuyoshi Suzuki Dist Madman Entertainment L Japanese w/English subtitles TD DCP/2013

EXTRA - RIGOR MORTIS Tuesday 12 Aug. Kino2 9pm

I ORIGINS
Fri 15 Aug 2014 6:30 PM
Are the eyes the window to the soul, or a portal to the past?
After Another Earth (MIFF 2011), director Mike Cahill and actress Brit Marling spark a new existential scepticism-versus-spirituality debate, again exploring the immutability of faith in the absence of proof.
In I Origins, biologist Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) finds love in the gaze of beguiling beauty Sofi, until their opposites-attract connection ceases abruptly. Haunted by her memory, his research into the evolution of the human eye with partner Karen (Marling, Babylon, MIFF 2014; The East, MIFF 2013) triggers hope for a different ending to their romance.
Cahill's second consecutive effort to win the Sundance Film Festival's Alfred P Sloan Feature Film Prize for the innovative depiction of science in film, I Origins is "a bracingly venturesome, exploratory work that achieves an exceptional balance between the emotional and intellectual aspects of its unusual story" (Hollywood Reporter).
D/S Mike Cahill P Mike Cahill, Hunter Gray, Alex Orlovsky Dist Twentieth Century Fox TD DCP/2014

HARD TO BE A GOD
Sun 17 Aug 2014 4:00 PM
"Hard to Be a God is brutal and visceral, visually and aurally dense, with a loose narrative thread and unheroic protagonist. It is, essentially, cinema reinvented." – Calvert Journal
A legendary and frequently overlooked enfant terrible of Russian filmmaking, Alexei German spent nearly half his life on this incomparable film: inspired by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's 1964 sci-fi novel of the same name, he wrote the screenplay in 1968, shot between 2000 and 2006, and died before post-production was finalised in 2013 by his wife, Svetlana Karmalita, and son Alexei German Jr (whose Paper Soldier screened at MIFF in 2009). A notorious perfectionist, German's uncompromising attention to detail lent the film a semi-mythological status for years. It is finally here and does not disappoint.
Thirty scientists are sent from Earth to a present-day planet stuck in a perpetual medieval existence, to bring it through renaissance. German's camera fixates on one burly inhabitant (or is he?), treated by the locals as a kind of god. Like him, we observe this world, in as close to documentary vérité of the Middle Ages as we're ever likely to get: it's a narratively anarchic cinematic immersion in a violent, grotesque world so palpable you can almost feel it.
At 170 minutes of richly detailed black-and-white historical mimesis, Hard to be a God is a living diorama not for the weak stomached; but for cinephiles seeking a big-screen spectacle of unparalleled visual and aural grandeur, there's nothing that comes close.
"Hard to Be a God is like stepping into a panoramic Bruegel painting and putting your foot right into a shit-stained corpse… in a good way." – Film Comment
D Alexei German P Marina Dovladbegyan S Svetlana Karmalita, Alexei German WS Capricci Films L Russian w/English subtitles TD DCP/2013

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review: CALVARY

There is a memento mori on display early on in this movie. Two characters are standing in front of Holbein’s The Ambassadors which features an anamorphic skull that floats very oddly in the foreground of the picture. If you know it’s there you can see it straight away but if you don’t you might need to be told that the weird looking disc hovering like a UFO needs to be viewed almost from side on before it looks like a skull. Neither character mentions it and the scene works whether you see it or not but if you do see it you’ll get a little more out of this film that stands as a whole as a memento mori.


Also, we've already begun with an epigraph from St Augustine about the two thieves on either side of Christ at Calvary: Don't despair: one of the thieves was saved. Don't presume: the other thief was damned.

Don't despair. Don't presume. Hope all you like just don't hope too comfortably.

Along the same lines the frequent aerial sequences of the rich emerald hills and dales of Ireland which at first seem to have no purpose begin to look like a pre or post human world. After the nutrition has been tugged from the soil for the last time nature breathes on in silence: “I am the grass. Let me work.”



Father James Lavelle who opens the film sitting in the confessional of his church, his weathered face concerned at the silence around him is about to be forced into this line of thought. The first line of dialogue comes from the man whose words the priest awaits: “I first tasted semen at the age of seven.” To keep composure, tough though he is, Lavelle says what we think: “Certainly a startling opening line.” The man beyond the screen proceeds to explain that his childhood abuser, a priest, is long dead and there is only futility in challenging the monolith of the church. So, he’ll kill a good priest which will cause even more of a stir. Lavelle has a week and a meeting place. So yeah, that opener really is a killer line.


These self-reflexive devices can grow tiresome in the wrong hands but here they are appropriate as, like Holbein’s warped skull they use the idiom of painting or picture-making the same way that the leadlight windows of a church can tell a story like the stations of the cross. Lavelle is about to embark on his own stagger to Calvary and will be served by vignettes and scenes in the same way. It is to this film’s great credit that while this can be obvious it is never oppressive or gratuitous.


So, along the way we meet an aging novelist who has failed to defy Donne’s law about being an island, slowly dying of despair on his rock home, begging the priest for the lend of a pistol. The new divorcee who’s playing the field to the point of bruising. The outsider accused of doing the bruising who denies the charge but is untroubled by it. The atheist doctor whose cynicism could disinfect the entire hospital who describes himself in similar terms. The rich man who taunts those around him by describing his possessions as expensive rather than beautiful. The serial killer who demands an audience not for contrition but from boredom. The daughter from the past life whose wrists are bandaged from the last bastard she smiled at more than once. The fellow priest who seems to have fallen into the role without vocation and preaches less than gossips. And so on. This can take on the brittle feel of a passion play with its parade of archetypes meant to cut through the shouts and raspberries of a village fair.

What stops it from falling into its own machine is a strong feel for the utility of performance and some bloody good writing.

We happily just keep looking at Brendan Gleason as he sits there against the wood panelling for minutes upon long screen minutes because he performs his waiting just shy of theatricality but more than he might otherwise for a different scene. We feel as though we are waiting with him. His careworn face covered by a beard which itself has surrendered to time and his outsize bulk give him the weight of a man who has fought, lost and returned. It is this rather than the dog collar that the friendless world outside the church will heed and he knows it. There are moments of sincere religious moment (the French widow) but this is a post Catholic Ireland without the cute eccentrics and loveable rogues. Gleason's gaze transmits his thoughts like a sci fi beam weapon and few character's speeches survive it. He will readily prevent an aired platitude by separating its truth from what he frequently pronounces its "nonsense". And he knows that if he can't talk his would be murderer out of it at showdown then he is almost dead and must do what he can to alleviate the pain that will survive him. Gleason's gravitas, tempered here and there by warmth, is not going to let up and from those few minutes of waiting, we are glad of it.

The rest of the cast please, too. Aiden Gillen (perhaps a little too recognisable from his Game of Thrones hair) shows his heartless Dr Harte to contain a rage as cold as his ice blue scrubs. Kelly Rielly's slowly healing hopelessness is subtle but genuine. But it's Dylan Moran who impresses most outside of Gleason's centre of gravity. Moran's detachment from his wealth and all other aspects of his life approaches anhedonia. Oddly enough it is he among the angered and dispossessed who will suffer most from the slow tearing scission happening on screen between Ireland and Catholicism, less from a need for spiritual guidance than a communal foundation and a listening ear. His rich man will never pass through the eye of the needle and he's only just understanding it now. This couldn't be further from the loveable grump Bernard Black who at least took pleasure in a good glass of red. The coldness in the character could have been dreamed up by Beckett.

This film that refers to religion rather than expresses it might turn some potential audiences away with its passion play archetypes and notions of sin but like all good westerns (it's even set in the west of Ireland) and sincere religious literature, it offers its story ethics first. If Fr James Lavelle is Christlike enough to warrant a personal Calvary then he is the Christ of Breughel, the one who could jig with the best of them at the local tavern, curse the money lenders in the language of the stall holder, tuck into the fatted calf, dig for tubers in the shit-rich soil and hug like a bear when comfort was more important than scripture. For this religion-proof bum on a seat Calvary will probably make the year's top ten.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Review: THE UPPER FOOTAGE

I wonder, are we past the point where a found footage film needs to justify the approach by pushing its viewers into being witnesses. This didn't start with Blair Witch, that just had the first instant global reach, but all of them since have been measured against it. The Upper Footage begins with an overture suggesting a true life mystery, dipping us into the impact on social media and fiercely soaring to the celestium of TMZ to tell us that we ought to brace ourselves for what we are about to receive.  

Blair Witch used two title cards to set itself up. That was after months of tease and intrigue using the still young internet, infiltrating newsgroups, bulletin boards and chatrooms with something that felt fresh, however tried and true it was: even if you didn't believe the movie was real footage playing into it felt fun and, in a way that's difficult to understand in today's online environment, privileged. This can't happen now. So, when The Upper Footage folk set out to get their film seen they have to YouTube it without accreditation and then, after some aided virality, yank it from view as though someone powerful had ordered it, and sit back and wait for everyone who'd copied (or just cached) it to upload it again. Then it's reappearance was the stuff of popular heroism. this crime cannot go unpunished etc etc.

Dig? The decade and a half since Blair Witch has been so bloated with the same thing that if you want to do it now you have to give in to the same arms-race bullshit that the big studios wage. This is a pity because the result is that those few genuinely substantial morsels that make it through will sink under all the piano cats and farting preachers never to be seen beyond the friend network. Not only are we not past the point where found footage audiences are meant to be witnesses, that's the future of it. This is not to say that you can't make a lofi masterpiece anymore or that even one couched in the found footage conceit will necessarily be outdone by its own marketing, it'll just be harder for it to get through.

So, is The Upper Footage any good?

Mostly, yes. Four young socialites (it is my belief that our American cousins refer to them as preppies) start their night in a limo, guzzling Kristal and phoning around for something zippier. After a brief detour in a nightclub they are joined by a girl called Jackie. Jackie's face is pixelated to conceal her identity (but, really, this identifies her as the victim). The furious five then make it to someone's cloud level apartment and they all get into some more neural mutation, variously dancing, personally plotting, matchmaking etc etc. When pixelgirl gives the bidet great big blood red kisses and then doesn't get up again, everyone panics and they scream at each other about what to do. The rest is in your rental fee.

So, what's good about it?

Well, first, what isn't. The media overture which is supposed to be the deluxe version of the online guerrilla campaign is energetic but by now just too ho hum. It's not just that we've seen it all before it's the the contrary motion of the solemn infotitles mixed with the zappy TMZ editing make its five-ish minutes feel like half an hour. It's like those get rich/thin/healed/etc FB clickbaits that give you slide after slide of platitudes that almost say different things until you bail amid a flurry of grasping protest slides that scream about you missing out on being the real you I started following one for amusement until the goofy joke wore numb and I had to go and have a shower but that's a story for another day).

And then we're into the roll call opening. This has been done since Blair Witch where the character with the camera picks out the main players and after some shuffly shakey moments we settle into the rest of it, knowing names and keynotes. The clever and wonderful Chronicle almost perversely delayed this by having its opening shot of a road from inside a car while the dialogue started. It relented but it did that first.

The role of the camera character here is more central than in most and this is where The Upper Footage ventures a little further than its fellows. For a while we get what we are used to, characters getting used to the camera being on and variously avoiding, forgetting or playing up to it. This is guided by the dialogue which feels pleasantly raw and the focus literally changes accordingly, taking care to intrigue by omission and confirm by exposure.

One moment of this pretty good verite improv is really good. It's the  moment I started giving credit to the filmmaking and it happens quite early. In the limo amid the miasma of taunts, jibes and shoulder punching the lens rests on the effect of light through a glass of champagne. It's only a few seconds but it's exactly the kind of thing a twenty year old with a video camera would do, come across a stunning image and gorge on it, however briefly, in the belief, however brief, that they have been tapped on the shoulder by a hitherto dormant genius.

My brother used to do this when Dad mistakenly allowed him to use the super 8  on holiday. It's the moment during the schoolnight screening where the endless wavering pans of the edge of one of the waves of the Sydney Opera House begin and the absent brother is ridiculed with howls of resentment. Later, my flatmate borrowed a video camera to record a celebratory tape for two friends overseas who were getting married. He'd written a funny script but when he got together with a few friends and allowed them to handle it we ended up getting zonked in the loungeroom as one or other of them made slow directionless pans of the walls while a dull pool of mumbling splodged below. The next morning he and I shot what was salvageable from his script at home and the went out and did some slightly rehearsed freer stuff out in the neighbourhood. We even managed a body spin from two angles that matched in camera! Using a second vcr he was able to send his friends something of the charm he possessed in quantity that his friends would recognise.

The champagne glass, like the unmoving ten minute shot of he back of a girl's head later while muffled screaming arguments happen on the audio and some of the road trip toward the end, demonstrate skill, real skill. Not only do they give the character seen least on screen the most substance by showing us his unspoken decisions, they add flavour to an otherwise unremarkable plot. They also serve to illustrate what might have been if convention had been thwarted just a touch more. Found footage marches on with a weary mechanical gait. That the greater part of the skill on screen here is devoted to fulfilling that mechanism's requirements results in a film that will divert and even absorb. But I will bet a silk pyjama that you won't catch yourself caring about what you learn in the closing moments.

Maybe it's time to have idea sessions for lofi video features that put the found footage suggestion on serious trial before committing to it. The Upper Footage asks you to bear witness to something that holds no shock value, something that can only look like conventional fiction in this cultural clime, something that might have gained more power from the lessons of an older school or by venturing outside a current one.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Review: PALO ALTO

When you're bored, horny and under twenty the days go slow. Two friends sit in a car in a carpark because they might as well and play what if games. Even these are too involved and when one of them refuses the other one's rules the latter drives the car into a wall as a big loud, impacting and pointless exclamation mark. As this film progresses with a kind of checklist of teen movie essentials it gathers the same kind of ennui as it's depicting but there's method in this and by the end its form has cooked and set almost because it might as well. And that's a good thing.

Teddy, blonde and cherubic has a limited talent as an artist but at least he uses it. He makes his own trouble but is aware of it. His best friend Fred is a barely controlled miasma of boredom and anger who would get anything he wanted if he wanted anything. His harvesting of pranks, thrills and backyard blowjobs only seems to lead him back to powerlessness and anger. April has a crush on her soccer coach (the ubiquitous and irresistible James Franco) and he has a crush on her and her babysitting nights with his son flick the intimacy meter needle toward danger. That kind of thing.

This film's narrative fashions an arc from a group of short stories that blend seamlessly enough to feel like one, if the creative writing class threads can be a little bare. A light motif about reversing one cigarette out of a new pack as a lucky one is used like a homework assignment (find a folky habit and use it to bring two characters together). Other moments play like character keynote exercises. Perhaps there are a few too many scenes which clog rather than widen the flow (the friend's stoned dad coming on to Teddy) by diverting from the already fragile central weave about the teens. While the grownup world is kept at arm's length there is enough of it shown from an adolescent point of view to emphasise authority here and light-on care there. When we are sitting among the teens at their slobbering, crapulent parties, wincing at their doughy morality or waiting listlessly with them as they sit and stare into the surrounding inertia.

Most of the setups here are medium or close, intimate. The wide or long shots are used conventionally for scene establishment. However, this film does not come across as form-chasing as the short stories for beginners mentioned o'erhead. If anything, the approach reminded me more of Gus Van Sant's Elephant than Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Both of those are worthy entries in the teen genre but the former feels more of a model here for the admission it encourages of a lighter touch. Light is what you get here but, as it's Bloomsday at the moment I'll pun, light is what's needed to see what depth there is, and there is.

Is it too neatly wrapped at the end? Maybe. But maybe that is in tribute to the short fiction at its source. But there is a moment of pure cinema that I wish had been held longer. A character is driving against the traffic at night. Cars are swerving to avoid a collision. Apart from the clean analogy of the best defence against forces of chaos there is such a beautiful and gripping motion to it, a kind of weightless choreography that would be mesmerising ... if it were just a few seconds longer. Anyway.... whatever, dudettes.

The stream of Coppola's that sprang in the 70s with Francis and some monumental cinema is, like the poor, trickles still. And for all the Jason Schwatrzmans and Nick Cages there are Sophias. And for all of Sophia's formless Somewheres there are the stronger fabric of a Marie Antoinette or a Bling Ring. Now there's a Gia. I saw this film as a surprise given me by friends for my birthday. I saw the credits only at the end. Oh .... that's what it was chosen.

I had refused to put my specs on to read the title on the ticket given me and my friends honoured my wish to carry the surprise to the credits. I'm glad all that happened. Knowing the Coppola brand attached might have weighted my perception unfairly toward or from but the merits and drawbacks stood and it was with a smile that I saw the name come up. It didn't have to be good bad or indifferent but I happily recorded it as a curate's egg with a few genuinely impressive cinematic moments which the name sealed. Apocalypse no. But neither a retrod Heathers or Mean Girls. Most hauntingly, there is the solid empathy with a recently lived adolescence and a clear commitment to put it on screen. Next one, please.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Review: UNDER THE SKIN

Jonathon Glazer has given us three feature films almost completely unlike each other and almost completely unlike anything else. But it hasn't been smooth sailing. Sexy Beast shot itself in the foot with a clunking geezer caper in the third act that clouded any deeper themes aired in the first two. Birth should have been an eerie imaginative fiction but was so glacial and whispery that it came off as precious rather than compelling. So how's this one?

Plot: Two aliens arrive on earth to harvest humans. One supervises from a motorbike and the other lures men on the streets from a van, asking directions and data mining chit chat before offering the eligible a lift. The luring alien begins to identify with the guise she has adopted and splinters from the mission and begins one of her own to assimilate with the locals.

Physicality is an anchor in this almost entirely cold film. Without it being so deliberate there would be too much threat to the integrity of this almost entirely fragile film. The reason the alien so easily lures the men into the van and then to a bizarre fate is that it's wearing a Scarlett Johanson skin. This was assumed along with clothing from the first victim we see.

But while sexually irresistible Johanson is able to carry the dead eyed blank of her character's natural state through moments where she presents the human traits absorbed earlier it is impossible to feel anything but chilled to hear her laugh and flirt knowing she is really the alien. It's desirable (well ... we want our beautiful movie star back) but intentionally barred from us until the film on its own terms provides a way as the alien begins to understand the power of her guise, her skin.

This creates an unnerving companionship with Her in which the same movie star was used to similar effect. In that film it was impossible to imagine anyone but the A-List beauty talking, giving everyone in the cinema an instant key into the protagonist's growing romantic obsession with the voice. It was a trick but I bet no one minded it (I didn't). Here we are saved from too much alienation (boom boom) because we feel familiar with the visage. The same thing was done in the 70s when Nicholas Roeg cast David Bowie as an alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The sight of the naked movie-star-skinned alien gazing at herself in a mirror makes us wonder how we would feel to look upon ourselves in such perfection. It is enough for the being under the skin to want to be the one who first possessed it. This is the journey that engages us emotionally, after we have seen such confronting coldness, and your acceptance of this film will depend on how much you engage with that journey.

This isn't easy until that moment as we are given such an estranging world to move through. The harvesting process is by turns beautiful and wrenching as we see more than once the victim follow the woman across a mirror finish floor so enthralled by her that he fails to notice or mind that he is sinking into it. That's in the trailer. The other parts I'll leave you to discover when you buy a ticket but I will say that the state the victims find themselves in is masterfully designed, being both liquid and breathable. The sight of the alien walking back over the surface as seen from many metres below has an eerie beauty as her form grows more distant by the second. I can recall no scene from any other film like this one. It strikes me as something that formed wordlessly in the imagination and was translated image by image from that daydream directly and has less the quality of genre cinema (sci fi in this case) than the striking visions of Matthew Barney. And there's more where it came from.

Another moment when the supervisor is closely circling the female alien she is completely inert but his expression is stern. If there were any dialogue to this scene it would be punitive. An act of mercy shown to a would-be victim follows one of confronting detachment in the preceding sequence (and it's hard to revisit in memory). It is the mercy that compels her to leave the mission. And so her self image, borrowed or not, swells to life. A montage of women on the streets at first suggests that the alien is moving on to female targets but is more, with the process of subsequent scenes, like the stirrings of curiosity about them and her own guise, like a longing identification.

I wonder if the investment in the visual as primary carriage of meaning here has allowed Glazer better access to the sui generis movies he has sought to make. At first, the blend of Kubrickian perfection with an increasing earthiness (boom boom redux) feels insubstantial but this film haunts, tenaciously, and won't let you go until you've put more thought into it. Up to you.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Review: THE BABADOOK

Ever stayed up for so long that you hallucinated? Amelia's been doing that for seven years. Her husband died in a car crash the same night she gave birth to their son. People keep reminding her of it. They are often the same people who tell her to get over it. Her hyperactive seven year old Samuel makes weapons and freaks the other kids out by talking to invisible monsters. At one point early on there is a bullseye depiction of her exhaustion as a kind of time lapse effect (frame removal?) takes her sleeping face from midnight to daytime in about two seconds. Hours of sleep can't dent her fatigue. Then there's the Babadook.

Her son has night terrors and can take some assuaging at bedtime. Reading to him works (even if he sometimes presses replay). But one night when Samuel is given his choice of book he takes a big red popup number from the shelf called Mr. Babadook. A kind of Maurice Sendak by way of Francis Bacon, it is a starkly nightmarish threat with ghastly active illustrations on every page. From that night Samuel lives in even more fear. He wakes her at night with tales of the Babadook until she starts wondering about it herself.

Outside she works as a nurse in geriatric but the stress of the fatigue is bearing down on her. Samuel's school want to put a monitor on the already socially outcast boy and she withdraws him from there. He has a seizure which compells her to keep him at home. When the social workers turn up she's unkempt, her house is a mess, Samuel wakes from a groggy sleep and complains about the drugs and she tells them what appears to be a fantasy about a cockroach infestation. Not looking good. Gets worse. Since she has started seeing the Babadook in the house she takes the book from the inaccessibly high wardrobe and barbeques it in the yard but there it is again, this time reassembled to contain more violence and this time it's personal. Looking worse.

If you saw the trailer for this film you could be forgiven for expecting one of James Wan's cattle-prod sessions (normal life BOO normal life BOO normal life, possible threat, false alarm BOO!) with a supernatural baddie that creates a chasm between parent and child to be bridged by common struggle. This is not that film. We're not in this one for the jumps and jolts (though there are a few) nor a string of naff self-aware jokes about the horror genre. We are being invited to go somewhere hard but our guide has both compassion and understanding. That might count for little in some scenes of confronting emotional wrench (for both characters and audience) but even they feel drawn with assurance. This is a horror movie it's just not a cliched one. That's why you should see it.

It is a sustained study in grief and stress which, while it might seem to tread its own water at points or overstate at others, is being guided firmly. I was reminded less of Sinister or Insidious here than of Hideo Nakata's sublime Dark Water and its crescendo of threatened motherhood and whose hundred minutes contain only two jolts but a wealth of atmosphere and worry) with its sombre pallette (the colour scheme on show here is strong but not self congratulatory) and central humanity. We are witness to troubling things but they add rather than draw from the genre. I can't say that I've seen the paralysing terror of a parent's anger more forcefully loosed on screen than here. Amelia's episodes of rage which can lift her over the floor or give her the climbing skills of a jaguar are hard to watch. That's after you get past the near constant tension and sense of mounting dread.

But this is not a three-act thing. The trailer and the opening do suggest that it will be but after awhile that force loses power as we are immersed in the depths of the situation. And then when that errs toward repetition and irresolution we are finally given the point. It's daringly late but, moving with the energy of the final hour it feels not cathartic but certain. And there I'm also reminded less of conventional horror than the films of Andrej Zuwlawski (particularly Possession) that can frustrate for most of their running time before putting the final pieces on screen which offer the complete picture, thematically rather than narratively. This is what makes The Babadook the strongest Australian film since Snowtown.

Continually impressive cinematography, committed performances, the guts to allow us to (however temporarily) hate an innocent child character, the bottle to avoid the proven way of cheese and popcorn and join the contemporary praxis and stick to its guns and (something that for me is as relieving in concept as it is tense in sound) a strong electronic score. I heard Paul Harris' interview with the writer/director Jennifer Kent who hinted that she isn't married to the idea of being a horror director. Bloody hell, I wish she'd reconsider. I'd be the celebrant.