Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thirteen for Halloween

No, I haven't bought into the bend-over-for-the-empire practice of Americanising my October but I am a fool for any opportunity to make a list of horror films. This time, though, I'm going to do two, one for the horror-curious and another for those who just want the genre for the occasion.

While I as an Australian born and raised didn't experience Halloween as part of the calendar I knew about it from American shows and kind of envied the costumes and rituals. Most of all I liked the mood and always considered horror fiction nourishment for the imagination and I loved how even though I've never believed in ghosts I would be haunted awake in the pre dawn by the stories of M.R. James or Sheridan LeFanu. The Christmas tales from UK television added location and atmosphere. In the end I had to admit that I lived in the tropics which see neither snow nor fog and when there were human atrocities in the air they had the weight of close reality. Otherwise there were the movies and I never tire of the best of them nor discovering new avenues into the self-confrontation that genuine horror demands.

As you'll read, I'm biased toward originality and genre-warping but these qualities are by no means prerequisite for a good horror fiction experience. There's a lot of real cinema to be had with movies that just behave themselves in their margins and deliver what they say. There is, of course, a spectrum of how well this is done.

Hey, there's more than thirteen here! It rhymes with Halloween .. and count the genres in the second section

For non-horror fans...

Contemporary Mainstream
Wahhahahahahahahahahahahahaha! which
is the kind of dialogue I hear when I see
something like this.
Insidious and anything else by James Wan or anything like them. These scary-skull party decorations wear me out with their quiet quiet LOUD formula but for all their identikit nature they are at least reliable and you can talk over them as you won't be missing any suspense. Serve with the free-chicken-wing-and-family-size-softdrink deals from the nearest franchise pizza place. No concentration required and you won't retain a second of screen time to haunt you later. Examples, The Conjuring, Sinister and the godawful "Harry Potter and the Woman in Black".

There is a notion afoot that these are generationally restrictive so if you're too old you'll gurmpily reject them and if you're young enough you'll dig them. If that worked I'd prefer the 1982 Thing over the 1956 one and Friday the 13th over The Exorcist (wrong in both cases). Sorry, it's not me being old, it's these movies being mediocre.

But quite seriously, if you aren't into horror but want to use the occasion, these will work.


Remakes of 70s and 80s genre. It's often observed that it's only bad movies that should get remakes to correct the errors of the past. Instead, we get the errors of the present whose makers have learned nothing from the originals. You can count the as-good or better remakes on one hand. Like the contemporary Hollywood fare mentioned above, these are not taxing and have been declawed so that only the serviceable gore gets through and none of that disturbing concept work to bring things down.

Remakes of films originally in languages other than American. If you can't read subtitles you shouldn't be reading this. Seriously, if getting close to a good arresting idea is blocked for you by a series of titles in the most basic of English (as they have to be for speed alone) then all you can experience is a series of someone else's ideas at a cultural remove. Not it's not Let Me In but Let the Right One In. Not The Ring but Ringu (seriously, this one involves a major failure of interpretation when in English). Not Quarantine but .REC. The American version of Pulse has a line about the use of gaffer tape common to both films: "It just seems to work somehow." Why didn't anyone in Kyoshi Kurosawa's original have to say that? Because they wanted YOU to work it out. I have known no exceptions to this rule that didn't take a lot of indulgence and apology.

Would you really rather hear a note perfect cover band play your favourite songs or the original band? If the latter aren't available wouldn't you at least want some interpretation to be part of it rather than a re-enactment? You wouldn't? Fine, the remakes are over there. Let's just never talk about music.

Mainstream gothic
All the scares of the Ghost Train ride
Blade, Underworld, Mama, etc. All serviceable narrative pieces with a few scares and suspense but I find so much backstory really wetblankets a horror movie. It give its audience too much control over the events. The reason we wake up gasping from nightmares is precisely because we can't control them. But these usually have some fine art direction.

Horror Comedy
This is a good one. It's almost the only one.
The best one is Shaun of the Dead because it remembers to be scary as well as funny. The rest usually just give up and try to be funny but the best of them are good at that. Scream (keep it to the first one) Bad Taste, Beetlejuice are all fine examples. Word of advice: don't start with one of these if you are going down the party atmosphere path as it will make everyone take the piss out of everything else. That might sound great but it really gets fatiguing quickly and any return to appropriate mood will feel like someone turned the lights on. Try it last or after something that does have an effect. That works.

Well, that should do you. Or ....

For horror fans and the curious of heart...

Kairo/Pulse begins with social erosion as the online realm vacuums its users' lives which allows ghosts to spill over from existential intertia into a steadily scarier real world. The ghosts here aren't just scary, they're disturbing. If the dialogue is in English you are watching the wrong version: the real one is in Japanese. Tasssuketeeeeee....

See also Pontypool, Canadian slowburner is huge on atmosphere, character and cleverness. What's in a word?

Body Horror
Shivers gave David Cronenberg to the world. A science experiment gone wrong begets a sexually transmitted parasite in an isolated luxury highrise apartment complex. Genuinely disturbing ideas rise above the often hokey action and acting.

See also Audition, Takeshi Miike's nightmare of emotional distortion and ugly morality/body confusion will stay with you.

Found Footage
The Blair Witch Project is still the champ of this and deserves a look by anyone who has only heard of it and a new look for those who have seen it. If we follow we descend. The human imagination can be a bad place at the best of times but with only a little frustration turns into a constant nightmare.

See also .REC, best descendant of Blair Witch takes us from a rookie tv reporter's slow news night into a terryifiying enclosed hell. Brilliant ending you won't expect. If the ending of the first Paranormal Activity hadn't ruined the entire film with its bubblegum hokiness that would have been .REC's rival. But no.

Too many. It's a favourite sub genre. Hmmmm. Ok, Dark Water. Atmosphere and genuine tragedy provide solid support for a ghost story that will stay with you. If you think the coda scene is sweet give it a few minutes and feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up. If Jennifer Connelly is in it you are watching the wrong version. This is a Japanese film.

See also Lake Mungo: local and vocal masterpiece. You will NOT expect the climactic scene. Did you see it? What did you see?

Quatermass and the Pit. One of the finest sci-fi minds of the mid twentieth century, Nigel Kneale, came up with this intriguer that like other greats of his takes narrative and thematic swerves you will not expect. Here it goes from possible unexploded German bombs in the London tube to human evolution. The locally released blu-ray is the same as the BFI, sensational.

See also Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) had two remakes on a par but this original still feels like the best with its American dream gone wrong or horribly right.

I'd normally put the ol' Exorcist here but this time I'll go subtler and nominate Rosemary's Baby. Before Friedkin drained the last gothic drop from movies about cults and the Divil Polanski had a red hot go substituting naturalistic acting for histrionics and worrying ideas instead of shocks. Expert casting of Mia Farrow and John Cassavettes bring this one home as a believable couple and Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as the old couple across the hall whose urbanity and comedy are equally sinister. "What have you done to it's eyes?" What did they do? Well, good horror requires you to use your imagination which ought to be more powerful than anything on a screen.

Also, the only available dvd and blu-ray of the Exorcist are of the long and plodding "version you've never seen" which is the only one anyone after 2000 has seen. You can get the original in a deluxe package from overseas sources so, if you're interested, hold off until you can see the shorter, tighter and scarier one.

The Brotherhood of Satan. Low-budget big concepts as the children of a small town vanish and toys come horrifically to life. Youth and age clash in a kind of Lewis Carrol verite.

Short Form

It's a really good idea to ease the burden of the parade of features with shorter pieces and they don't come much more curious than this series of twelve found footage ambushes collectively known as The Forbidden Files (also, Les Documents Interdits, in case you're braving the waves, sleets and torrents to find them). SBS showed these in the 90s as part of their Saturday night shorts showcase Eat Carpet. They were originally shown unannounced on French cable tv. From true life ghost stories, alien incursion, witchcraft and much more these ingeniously use the short running time (mostly only a few minutes) to maximum effect, playing on our trust at the sight of what looks like raw footage. Also, try some of the shorter form fiction that used to appear on TV like Twilight Zone (particularly the hour long Thirty Fathom Grave) or the shorter BBC Mr James adaptations like Whistle and I'll Come to You or Lost Hearts.

Black Christmas is Bob Porky's Clark's jump start to the genre that would be planted in the 70s and take firm root in the 80s. Those phone calls!

See also Halloween (if it doesn't say 1978 somewhere in the details you are watching the wrong one).

Sui Generis
Lovely Molly sees half of the Blair Witch directorial team venture only a comfortable pace from the scene of his fame. Nevertheless, by concentrating on the internal crisis storming inside the central character rather than sudden scares adds depth and eeriness.

See also Martyrs which starts like any Euro revenge piece but takes a terrifying turn halfway through. The violence dissipates into control and the control has a disturbing force.

Martin: Is he a vampire or a very naughty boy? Either way, Martin is as confused and pissed off as any other teenager. How many of them ever wished they had the powers of mythical monsters? The generation gap doesn't get more poignant .... or bloody.

See also Lips of Blood:Jean Rollin's mix of perve and unnerve with a genuinely poignant ending to surprise.

Ginger Snaps. Lighten up the marathon with this still fresh take on lycanthropy. Whedonesque smarts mix with a welling real tragedy which emerges in a climax worthy of Cronenberg.

See also The Wolf Man: uses pathos rather than threat to suggest the pity of heredity but also the anger in response to it. Lon Chaney Jr might have had a few things on his mind about that issue playing this role.

Suspiria. The phrase style over substance is so pejorative that even as I put it here in order to twist it into a positive I hesitate. But with a palette determined by aggressive lighting and intentional use of old film stock, a massively powerful music score and enough tension and stark violence to fill several genre pieces, Suspiria's style IS its substance. Its relentless genuine nightmare logic is in force from the word go and is only weakened by a scene which attempts to explain the events and plant a telescope. Not for talking over but its 92 minutes don't allow that kinda malarky.

See also Black Sunday, Bava bravura in black and white with a mad eyed Barbara on the roam.

Romero's Night is one of my favourites but for freshness I'll go with Lucio Fulci's Zombie. Very pervy and very gory but also strongly atmospheric. Aka Zombie Flesh Eaters and Zombi(e) 2.

See also Colin for a very British take that intrigues.

Sunday, October 5, 2014


Nick Dunne is still young but already jaded about marriage and the one he is part of. He goes to while away a few hours with his twin sister  at the bar they run and to bitch about things like anniversary presents. After a few too many whiskeys and board games he gets back home to signs of a struggle and an absence of his wife. He calls the cops. They suspect him. As the evidence piles up and his overbearing inlaws impose upon his small town community the finger is pointed his way. Intercut with this are flashbacks and diary entries by the missing person/deceased that also get dark 'n' nasty. Does he have a name left to clear?

This story has too many spoilers to go further than that. Something that isn't a spoiler is that this is a David Fincher film so there is a whole lotta filmmakin' goin' on.

At one point in this film a character comments that calling a bar The Bar is very meta. To do that in a David Fincher film is cute enough but Gone Girl is not Fight Club or Social Network so instead of folding itself into the general metafest the line scrubs up as meta as we are aware we are watching a David Fincher film. The line is played throwaway but is key to getting to know this piece about personae public and private and that most strident of personality tests: marriage.

As a probable meta comment on this Fincher has shot big and clean this time. The silver retention shadow detail and grime-on-the-Rolex-band of everything he's done with an urban setting is absent here. And apart from some fancy footwork of the flash back and forth of the present timeline and diary scenes is kept in strict reign with titling and narration. Everything plays up front and fair. So you know there's a lot hiding in the light.

At two hours and twenty minutes Gone Girl never bores but does keep to a leisurely novelistic pace that might make Fight Club fans  restless. The pace can be wearyingly even. It can, at times, feel like three episodes of a tv series  sewn together. Then again, the evenness is clearly deliberate. It gives us a constant examiner's eye view of the events (and some do demand close inspection).

Also, it allows us time to appreciate some of the strongest film acting we will be seeing all year with everyone on screen going beyond the call. We are led into some finely wrought duplicity and are often compelled to believe accounts that we might otherwise resist and that is good reading of good writing, pure and simple. There is one moment in particular (the only detail I'll give is creme brulee) in which two characters separated by the intimate distance of a tv screen reach a perfect allignment. We don't expect it but unlikely as it would be if played poorly, we don't doubt it for a moment.

So, while my sense memory still complains about unnecessary length the delight I take in re-examining the evidence as laid so patiently out by Fincher and co resonates. We love our fictions, even those thrust upon us, but then we are compelled to.

Monday, September 15, 2014


This film was shot over 12 years. Everyone ages on screen as they did in life and no more dramatically than the characters who go from children to young adulthood. I could go on but you could look up the trivia section of the film's IMDB entry. There are screens worth of stats form this film's production that will make your jaw drop. The good news is that you can watch this movie without caring about any of that.

What you get is a journey through a family album. So what? Well, a family album can tell you a lot. I had a great job a few years back digitising collections of glass negatives from the early twentieth century. Among them was a series of family photos taken in the back yeard of a Melbourne house and spanned decades. They were not rich people but could dress for church which is what they did for their annual group photo. When World War One comes up the oldest brother is suddenly in a slouch hat and puttees. And then he is absent forever. Sometime after the flu year of 1919 the mother vanishes never to return. The garden, a mix of food and flowers goes to seed and eventually disappears. At some point in the early twenties the father, too, vanishes and in his place is a slightly younger man who can hold a grin for the camera and doesn't mind if it catches the glint of his pocket watch. The photo is black and white but that watch is gold plated. Uncle made good? Someone. No one else is happy. I took extra care on that set. They were glass negatives and delicate to begin with but the extra care was from being so moved by what I was witnessing.

Richard Linklater at his best is painstaking. Whether it's deceptively meandering like Slacker or the Before series or disciplined and tight like Me and Orson Welles, he's one to sweat the small stuff so the big stuff shines. And so it does here as we turn page after page of family history, smiling knowingly, laughing at sibling competition, wincing uncomfortably at the leavings of dysfunction and pain. 

We come to know how Lynne (Patricia Arquette) makes such hasty and poor judgements in her choice of partner but we don't judge because we see how hard she works to keep everything afloat. One of those poor judgements is, of course, Mason Snr (Ethan Hawke) whose dad-of-convenience learns to accept his responsibilities not through a sudden trauma but over time. The other two big mistakes we meet are believably magnetic. We see, too, the saddening ease by which a parent or parental figure can fall in a child's eye from natural authority and trust to disappointing weakness. And we understand the weakness, the shift to self-medication in the face of unbearable self-dissapointment.

Ellar Coltrane, who goes from seven to eighteen in the running time, develops as we would expect him to: quietly confident and increasingly capable of concealing profound anger at the unfairness around him. We come to know his flaws and the plaguing doubts that nurture them. When he is brought up for these by two authority figures their chiding at first feels annoying but soon proves accurate. Mason Jnr is slow to take direction, self-sabotaging the way that every teenager can be. When he is compelled by his teacher to go and photograph a local football match even his friends tell him to turn around and shoot the game. He's been perversely taking pictures of the crowd. He's a kid and resents authority more because it inconveniences him than from any nascent revolutionary fervour.

It is Lorelei Linklater (yes, director's daughter) who diverts us throughout as the mischevious Samantha, Mason Jnr's sister. She sneaks torment of her younger brother, throwing pillows at him while yelling a version of Opps I Did It Again. She serves him at the dinner table in a made up language and protests after he does that she only speaks perfect English. There might not be a single scene that includes her that doesn't involve some infruiating and genuinely funny smart-arsery. As with Ellar Coltrane, her personality arc feels natural. You will not be surprised at her response when the moment comes to make good for all those years and give her brother a proper sororal hug.

While what I said at the start of this review is true. You don't have to care about the epic-scale feat of this movie's production. However, if you do care, you will experience the same pleasant alienation at moments as you might have at the sight of the rescaled actors in Lord of the Rings. You really are seeing people grow up in front of you AND it looks and feels like one film. A girl from one scene is visibly older in a later one. Her only line is, "I'm thirteen," answering a question put to her by Samantha whom we remember first seeing as an eight year old. That alone, feeling as big as life and small as fiction at once, is an epic moment.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


A guy walks into a bar and says to the bartender' "I've got the best story you've ever heard". The bartender bets the guy a bottle of decent scotch that it won't be . The guy begins: "Well, when I was a little girl..."

We already know that the bartender is a time travelling agent on the trail of the infamous Fizzle Bomber whose 911-like atrocity is (in the guy-walks-into-a-bar time) soon to take place. Could he have his man here? Is he recruiting from the down and out who have no ties and nothing to lose? Well, it's complicated.

I already knew this new piece from the Spierig brothers was based on a mind bending short story I'd already read. It's an easy read by virtue of its length but it does make your head spin and, despite all the author's influential novels, I'd call it his masterpiece? Author? Title? Even that much would spoil this film. See it and check the credits for the story. But then read the story.

So what is there to say if I can't spoil this extremely spoilable movie?

It's two central performances by Ethan Hawke and Sara Snook give good gravity to this tale which, if played a hair below seriousness, might easily collapse in the first act. Snook brings a cold loneliness to her character, sustained through some sizeable changes. Hawke's isolation has more padded assurance but his thousand kilometre stare when alone shows inescapable pain. Without these neural fields buzzing this film would be just a cool idea. The short story, similarly remembers to go beyond the brain-tearing central conceit and deliver a big boomy sadness. It's the weakness that makes it strong.

The various time periods are expressed by pallette as well as decor and costume; brown 70s bar, Kodak-bright 60s colour etc. This is good show-not-tell and the dialogue extraneous to the pretty strictly adhered bar-room exchanges of the short story is kept light so that much is expressed without spoken exposition. I appreciate this feather touch with the necessary expansive material as it allows some weighty thinking in through what always feels quite breezy. The only time this is compromised is in the closing scenes where too much is explained. The notion at the heart of this story is a fragile one, for all its power, and would be better served by the trust in the audience we began with. It doesn't ruin the film, by any means (the Spierigs are going from strength to strength: may they work long and prosper) but a few lessons in restraint from the oft recalled 70s might have gone a long way.

A vote for Peter Spierig's score should be recorded here: a fine mix of orchestral and electronic is kept to supporting the energy rather than overwhelming it. Always a pleasure.

This film about balancing what can change you with what you can change is a sustained howl we all have loosed at some time. It's fitting that this time an approach that involves an educated retrograde approach recollects the special feeling of sci-fi's great eras (late 60s, early 70s, early 80s). Hang the over-explained ending, this movie feels like something.Yeah, that'll do. It feels like something the way that Blade Runner, Liquid Sky and The Quiet Earth felt like something: seamlessly produced or gaffer taped together, you've just seen a movie. That's more than I can say for most of what I've seen this year.

See it. And read the story. In that order.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014


So, MIFF 2014. A mild winter presaged less than rugged up strides to the venues for my three week holiday (two for movies and one for recovery) but the day of my first screening was the coldest of the year. One and a half colds kept me indoors but they were only passing affairs. Microbes aside, although nothing out of the program on first look leaped out but I managed to glean the necessary very little about those that looked enticing and left the rest to risk. See below. Not too shabby.

The first year we had the Android app I had to stay home and nurse a broken leg. Using it last year was ease itself and this year was even slicker. There was a serious glitch at one point whereby the My Tickets link led to the entire program with the wishlist hearts confounding things even further. This made for a few fumbling moments approaching the scannervolk. That was sorted though and I had no trouble selecting and booking my initial minipass thirteen (those daytime sessions). When it's up and running which is usually the case it is a complete improvement on both paper ticketing and the credit card passes (lost by the admin one year and arrived in the very nick of time for the start day another). The effect this has on queueing is a profound pleasure. Hurrah for the app!

Only had to queue once due to first day gremlins with the scanners. I'm a front sitter. I got to the Forum last Sunday at 4pm for Hard to be a God. The line went around the block. I moseyed down to the club for ten minutes until it had gone in and happily took a favourite spot. There was even a friend of mine in the next seat. Doesn't get better and I'll just rub in that knowing this negates the only advantage I'd use from being a MIFF member.

Apart form the grossly overpriced wine from a sponsor the ambiance of the Forum downstairs is one of the atmospheric points of magnetism for the festival each year. That combination of classical Rome and Danger Diabolik lighting is irresistable. Didn't go to much in the way of events there this time (nothing can top the Romero interview and Q&A in the terrible winter of '08.

Clint Cure and I leaving the Festival Club after the
final session at the Forum, Hard to Be a God.
My old luminous nose problem is back.

There was no MIFF trailer this year. These fatiguing jokes over the last few years have proved excellent at draining the blood from the faces of the hardiest of cinephiles. Even if the joke were a good one it would wither to the quality of a bachelor uncle at Christmas telling the same joke every year. This year this was replaced by the number plate ad which was funny the first time (but I kept forgetting what it was advertising). Well done, thou good and faitful fest. You can keep making trailers but perhaps just consider stringing some clips of plain beauty together and setting that to music. The jokes don't just wear off, they wear.

Capitol Cinema and Treasury Theatre, so fondly recalled from festivals o' yore. The Treasury, once the State Film Theatre, served as an arthouse, giving space to the Melbourne Cinemateque after it's move from the Glasshouse at RMIT. It really did feel good to take the brief stroll from my place to the Treasury and reminded me of years of great gems on offer just down the road. It's where I saw the supposedly lost Ghost Ship (on film!) with a Val Lewton afficianado, Tarkovsky's Sacrifice, the then Spoleto Festival's free literary documentaries about Gertrude Stein and William Burroughs among others. And it was also where I would go to see MIFF films in the late 90s/early 00s.

At the much missed Treasury for
Breadcrumb Trail.
And the Capitol? Saw so much there and would choose screenings there just for the ceiling. Among many the great Primer and the fandom cooling Doppelganger. Just one there this year: Sion Sono's insanely fun Why Don't You Play in Hell?

That fab ceiling


First impression is that while none of the titles I saw leaped out and tweaked my nose with breathless anticipation I did manage to be impressed by more than I'd usually settle for. I went to a few more but even so. Normally, I'd be happy with four out of my mini pass thirteen if those four really got me. At this count five great moments out of seventeen and most of the rest good to really good is doing pretty well. Here's a quick run down:

Sorcerer's old school white knuckle action and sheer force of the narrative of its fable made me forget it was a remake (although reimagining really does apply to this one. It makes Friedkin's glamour run from French Connection to Cruising flawless. Astounding!

Why Don't You Play in Hell? showed Sion Sono in top tight form as he smashed amateur filmmaking and Yakuzas together with a eulogy for the grandeur of 35 mm. Mad as a milliner and percussively funny.

Song from the Forest kept its anger cool as a good man who chose the daily difficult reality of village life in Central Africa over affluence in New York because of music relates the story of his decision and his reception of the world he thought he left behind.

Breadcrumb Trail showed that all you really need to do to piece together the story of a seminal album is to ask nicely and be patient when the answer is long and wordy. A great documentary feels like it is part of the fabric of its subject. This one even talks like it.

Hard to be a God which I was expecting to be a mix of Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr proved to be neither but offered so much in its message and delivery method that it proved to be very much of its own kind. It lingers and acquires more sense than its viewing, like the experience of something that happened in your own life.

Honeymoon might have benefitted from pivoting on a less absurd coincidence if it was going to get all grim and Scandinavian (I know it was Czech, that's not what I mean). Good performances, though.

Particle Fever might have given us more of its science and less of the human face of quirk.

Life Itself celebrated a great cineaste with a constantly apparent memento mori. I warmed to it far less than I do to Ebert's writing.

Rigor Mortis served up some fine Hong Kong horror playing mercifully little for laughs. Wasn't particularly scary either, though.

Come Worry With Us presented a cool indy band as people who have to put up with the same kind of life events as the rest of us but was probably too long for its material.

I Origins betrayed its own character's conviction with more of a Hollywood ending than I was expecting from the maker of Another Earth. That said, very fine dialogue and performances and a superb conceit of taking a highly unscientific notion and describing it scientifically. This team needs work but boy are they making headway.

Trap Street surprised with the subtlety of its fable about trust in the surveillance age but perhaps it could have taken one more pace into its own darkness.

Our Sunhi a fine deadpan comedy more Preston Sturges than Jacques Tati about the identity one professes and that bestowed by others. A gentle but firm hand on the helm kept it from cuteness and delivered a beautifully loopy (in more than one sense) final act.

Exhibition gave us an absurdist take on domestic space so dry it could been by Samuel Beckett's ghost which also means it got pretty funny when it needed to. Joanna Hogg's on the watch list.

When Animals Dream began so promisingly as a kitchen sink realist take on a risky horror sub-genre, persisted with that strongly but lost it to conventionality in the final act which played out like a non-scary copy of an 80s teen horror. Pity.

The Search for Weng Weng was rendered unbelievable to me by something it meant to sell: the filmmaker's sincerity. What can you say when a documentary that claims to be a celebration of a life through that of the documentarian and you still know nothing of the subject beyond a few clips you're meant to ridicule?

So a good un this year with a decent swag of transforming moments, a big happy middle section and only a brace of disappointments. Caught a cold. Slept in. Socialised and drank a lot of champagne. Had a lot of hangovers and plugged in once again to the great circuit of cinema major. Yes, it's still worth getting up in the morning on my holidays to grimace through some freezing air currents on the tightening walk to the venues. I still love treading the carpet of the Forum's mezzanine for a choctop or a coffee before going in. And I love sitting in any of the venues surrounded by other cinephiles who are almost always filling the seating to witness things they might never see again.

Right, that's done. And I'll do the lot again next year.

Monday, August 18, 2014


Organic. Brutal. Deliberate. With my post closing night hangover this near three hour film would want to be any one of those. Ticking all three allowed it not only to be durable but magnetic, if often viewer-resistant. I'm not going to go into the production back story or the life and method of its ruggedly individualist director because if the film doesn't work all that is as odorous as all that slimy stuff in the art direction of this one.

Hard to Be a God is a strong film that can list among its virtues one of my favourites in unconventional cinema: it doesn't care how strange it is, it just is. And it's not a film uncaring of its audience either as there are very few seconds of its epic screen time which don't feature someone in the cast looking straight out at us. Whether we stick it out or leave after the 17th faecal reference we are on its terms.

The very spare plot is more of developments within a setting than an action heavy arc. In the future among the inhabited planets discovered this one, Arkanar, has been medieval for a tad too long. Rennaisance style has been detected but the life and politics are still mired in the dark. That's because they keep hanging their nerds. An Earth team is sent to give it a gentle push. There are limits to this and chief among them is that they are not allowed to kill. We follow one of them, Rumata, whose knowledge and confidence have given him a godlike status among the locals. While he fails to save the intellectuals and cannot persuade any of the major warring sides (called Blacks and Whites) to conciliate. He must take drastic action that might be disastrous whether it succeeds or not.

Most of what you get is Rumata moving around the villages and towns having exchanges with the locals that range from brief unreferenced lines to longer dialogues. None of these do much to suggest the necessary hazards that conventional narrative needs but this doesn't claim to be that. Everyone at least seems to be speaking in earnest. We are not listening for exposition (that comes in infrequent slices of narration and is clear) but picking up moods and sources of conflict. After a very short time the viewer understands that the camera following Rumata around in its string of long takes is in the scene itself. Characters are looking into it, addressing it, offering it goblets of alcohol: and whether it is a floating sphere or one of Rumata's teammates it is part of the world we are in.

The world we are in is one of claustrophobically close quarters, mud and any other form of biological waste that the great age of the Churches gave us here on earth. The sense that these creatures have been living like this for hundreds of years longer is at no time in the slightest dispute. If Pieter Breughel had been a photographer influenced by Diane Arbus this is what his work would look like. Make that Hieronymous Bosch, actually, as the constantly crowed screen of the interiors creaks with inscrutable devices and thuds with people. There must be more shoving and face hitting in this film than in the entire Three Stooges back catalogue. Rumata is often seen to throw something like a white handkerchief into the slime at his feet as though he's had little trouble going native and is only barely holding on to the tenets of his mission.

And so we go, walking around this world, trying not to slip or have our faces sliced open for no apparent reason. But it works. The aesthetic repetition from scene to scene can deaden the senses and offer fatigue but if we groan a little past the second hour at a fade into yet another scene there is usually something compelling waiting around that corner. And in a way, this makes a film like this a lot easier that a blockbust of a comparable length.

If we were to be presented with a series of tightly plotted scenes containing only relevant dialogue for two hours and fifty minutes it would feel like an avalanche: so much snow and so little to know. We would forget details, grow impatient with uneven or too even character development, be wearied by what would always, however frenetic the scenes, end up feeling like bland repetition. The near four hours of Lawrence of Arabia, for all its wit and great setpieces, feels like torture by comparison with this one that allows its depth to develop, granting relief through dialogue so abstruse we cannot even pretend to get it. Instead we walk around an unfamiliar world and begin to feel the fear that that engenders through our survivalism alone..

Sunday, August 17, 2014


Weng Weng was born with dwarfism into a poor family. Virtually sold to a Fillipino film industry couple, he rose to fame in the movies in the 70s and 80s as a kind of toy James Bond. The roles dried up. He died in poverty.

All of those facts are on screen in The Search for Weng Weng. So are a lot of other things. Those things build up so solidly that the life that this documentary celebrates becomes obscured on a regular basis. We are treated to a good amount of images and recollections from the man's life and when the film faces the task of telling that life it does so with sincerity. But this piece suffers too greatly from a lack of discipline.

The problem is that it doesn't quite know how to resolve the footage from Weng Weng's screen career with this. We are openly invited to laugh at the conceit and the lo-fi filmmaking with its awkward dubbing and cut rate effects. There is no apparent appreciation of either the triumph of this man against his own odds nor much affection for the schlocky films he made. There is no celebration. We hear the interviewees softly remember how uncomfortable this chapter of Fillipino film history is but the next minute we're snorting at the next naff action sequence.

So, is there another angle, here? Am I witnessing the changes in the director, a notable figure in the cult video scene, as he gets to understand more of Weng Weng's life and the issues it brings out? Does his obvious enthusiasm for this cinema pick up some depth along the way? I believe it does but there is still too much left unresolved for me. And there are too many irrelevant digressions. The Imelda Marcos sequence is almost extraordinarily pointless, considering the paucity of her memory of Weng Weng, and would make a great DVD extra. Really? Imelda Marcos? Surely there's some intriguing sociopolitcal angle there? There is, and we see it, it just has no direct connection to the subject and serves only to make the film feel like it's wandering. This is a pity as there are some excellent interviews here that are getting swamped. While we indulge Imelda and her unhinged rituals and pronouncements we have forgotten all about Weng Weng.

I have heard others who saw this at the festival defend this approach by claiming it is a more personal one, an attempt to create closeness between subject and chronicler. Maybe, but between the exploitation of presenting the clips, the obscured interviews, and the genuineness somewhere in the cracks of what's left I felt mostly that I was being asked to indulge the filmmakers. Look at us! We've made something worthy AND entertaining! Maybe, it's just me and I should relax a little. It's their film and they can make anything they damn well please. Is it personal? Sure but what if you don't like the person (and I don't mean Weng Weng)?