Friday, July 8, 2016

MIFF 2016: New Fest New Approach

Yo, kinderoons. Sat time o' year again when I rug up in the ol' o'er coat, throw a woolly scarf 'roun' my neck and strut into the blast for two weeks o' cinema the great in August. Can't wait.

The fare this year is really on the up. I don't get a sense of any particular region or industry dominating or even forming a profile bump. You could pretty much throw a few darts at the program and pick your tickets that way.

That's almost how I'm going to do it, too. Instead of making 13 choices good and true for my mini pass I'm leaving it to the time to decide finally and make it more spontaneous. I'll probably end up adding a few but I'm also thinking I want this to be much more an infiltration rather than a big social charabang holiday. I want it close and reclusive.

So, this time I won't be posting any picks I've already made nor any I make on the day. Sorry to anyone who might have expected the big list but it just won't work with the approach I've taken and am looking forward to. The holiday has become a little routine o'er the last few years and I'd like to surprise myself. So, no offence to any who might take it but I'm doing as much of this as I can solo. Roll on, winds o' August.

PS - I'll be reviewing everything I see and doing the round up at the end, as usual. Just this time I won't know exactly what will be on it ;)  Strangely excited by that.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Do We Really Want Vinyl Anymore?

It's 1973 and Richie Finestra is about to sell his minor record label to German acquirers on the promise of it bringing the weight of Led Zeppelin. He's cleaned up his act, having dragged his young family through alcohol and cocaine excess and now is settling in to what looks like a comfortable middle age. Things go wrong almost straight away. Soon enough he's back on the bad stuff and rediscovering his wild beast as he sees a New York Dolls show so explosive it seems to bring the house down, literally. We get glimpses of where he's come from, the mafia connections, the blues guy he tried to popularise but had to sell to the mob. Now, with all this guilt and rapacious nihilism beckoning, we join him in the decade of decadance. so why isn't Vinyl any good?

First, the time travel tourism it falls into with a mix of composites (there's a Sly Stone alike who's actually pretty intriguing), anachronisms of convenience (hip hop style sampling shown at its birth) and actors playing historical figures like Robert Plant. This could work well but so much of it is laboured and indulgence-begging. The intended thrill of "hey, that's Lou Reed" does not progress further than the appearance of historical figures in music bios like The Doors or Walk the Line as namechecking.  The cockney-led band that look and sound like late '70s punks feel less like what is to be than a grab at a kind of retrospective prescience (hey, we knew about this stuff  back in '73). The era would be more compelling if we saw what we had to do without.

Second, Richie Finestra stands at the end of a long line of bad guy heroes who bellow with machismo and lumber into plot-thickening disasters of judgement. Like the mafia scenes his characterisation feels tired, like a nineteen year old whizz bang rocker churning out powerchords like Pete Townshend never happened. His identikit features, brutally handsome, sensitive but oafish, honorable but sneaky, with a ton of hooky vices to bring him down when the going gets a little too good. The extra here is a sense of vision he is supposed to harbour despite all the crassness of the music industry around him pressing in. But this vision all too frequently gets articulated as the kind of cliches that would make a fanzine blush. He's not a maverick of the record industry, he's a cover version, note perfect but not the real thing.

See, Tony Soprano had the chaos of a whole crime empire to contain while dealing with his own instability. Same with Nucky Edwards but the constant outbreaks of all out war and terrifying decisions wore him thin. Don Draper ground against his times that were a-changin' until, at rock bottom, he found a way of absorbing and exploiting them, learning very little in the process. But by the time we get to Richie Finestra the thing that sets in for me is exhaustion. He's a loser who, by all appearances, fully deserves to keep losing. It's very hard to watch this and not just because of the constant parade of failure. We've reached peak male psycho from US cable series. There's no turning back.

Third, if you look around Richie's thundering bulk you will see a whole cast of incompletely drawn but enticing characters whose stories, if awarded some lasting focus, could really get something done. The tiny but wonderful Juno Temple does so much with her upstart character Jamie that you want to drag her back into the room with every exit. She uses her frail physicality to emphasis her force. The story from her perspective, of lack of power striving to consolidate and triumph, is instantly more watchable than Richie's. Richie's wife played by the impressive Oliva Wilde, does enough with the trouble the story gives her, also to give more to viewers than the Finestral centre. Ray Romano proves there is life after mediocrity as the hapless Zak, colleague of Richie. Even Jack Quaid's Clark Morelle, a young Ivy Leaguer fallen on hard times in the mail room who explores the newly forming world of disco would give us a hotter centre. But what we get is more of the same. Bobby Carnavale who tries to inject Finestra with charm and charisma but is hampered by writing that keeps him snowed in, is an alumnus of Boardwalk Empire. He was the super bad guy of one of the seasons. It feels like he's just changed costumes.

Vinyl is the creation of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, two figures I'd normally trust to tell the tale of the record industry in the '70s. But the problem is not that these two lack any insights into the setting and era, both lived there and did some of their very best work in that environment. The problem is that we're getting the perspectives of the present day versions of them. Scorsese has long abandoned the energy that kept his films so electric (why does Taxi Driver still feel new but The Aviator seem dated?) Jagger has seemed happy enough for decades to float on a reef of laurels, distant in every way from the greatness that his younger self so fiercely created. Vinyl feels old fashioned the way that Oliver Stone's The Doors or Sid and Nancy did when they were new, plugged full of cliche and indulgence. There's still an interesting story to tell here but it isn't that of Richie Finestra, the very lumbering relic that the punks on the distant horizon would name dinosaur. Look around him. Write there. Shoot there. And we'll be there.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Thoughts on the Scorsese exhibition

I knew the name before I saw a frame. Being a kid awed by movies in the '70s meant that you couldn't get in to see the good stuff. My mental image of The Exorcist was pieced together by what other kids were able to glean from individual scenes: it was a room full of chaotic shocks that didn't hold a story but were just there to terrify. That's almost a better movie. By the time Taxi Driver came out I had another one I had to make up myself.

My grown up sister came back from Babylon (Sydney) one Christmas holidays and reported that the film was so violent she had to walk out. Shaken, she'd sat in the foyeur waiting for it to end when her friends would come out. The usher grinned a sleazy grin and said: "oh, it gets better." Years later I understood that differently. It does get better. It heals. At the time all I could think was that it was a malevolent demon that waited in the gutter to grab your ankles.

I finally saw it as a film student at Griffith University. We had a cinema there but this wasn't being shown there. Someone told me to get up to the editing suite quickly and I did. Well, we did, there were a few of us. I first saw Taxi Driver on a Steenbeck editing desk. The picture was tiny but the Picture became gigantic in minutes. Those near two hours changed everything. At the pub afterwards we pieced together the standout dialogue (Sport and Travis, Travis's monologues, Marty in the backseat) and had routines to last us the rest of our lives. After graduation the well liked Dr. David Saunders approached us but as soon as he heard us doing Scorsese he turned and fled, hoping none of us called him back.

After that Marty didn't disappoint. Until. Everything from Cape Fear to now (apart from Bringing Out the Dead which I still admire but probably because it's old Marty) has left me flat. Sometime after Age of Innocence I stopped seeing new Scorsese films at the cinema and let them appear on free to air tv. I bought into the return-to-form nonsense on a few occasions but each time found myself apologising for someone who had really only done the decent thing by himself and sold out to the money, applying what he could of his art to the high profile.

So, what did I want from an exhibition of Scorsese? Hard to answer without an embarrassing pause. In the end I bought a ticket and took the escalator down to the ACMI underground hoping for nothing but a few artefacts as cruisey as my mood on that pleasantly chilly late autumn Friday off. Well, ok, a few risers of headless mannequins dressed in costumes and a lot of typewriter pages with scribbled pondering and corrections. These are pretty good but feel like they are there to flesh out the absent living subject.

Then here and there things do pop out. De Niro's Taxi driver licence that allowed him to drive a cab around New York for real in preparation for the role stopped me as I imagined him making chit chat with customers or weirding them out with edgy monologues. A wall of congratulatory letters and telegrams for Scorsese's efforts in film preservation is like an index of twentieth century film auteurs (including Leni Reifenstahl!) which feels like a boyhood fantasy that came crashing out of Marty's daydreams.

The commentary comes through your phone's wifi and can take a few stuttering starts to get going. But its works ok once that's done. You see a number on the exhibits and press that on your app and listen. Marty's own clipped and tight tenor takes you through a lot of it but there's also his long time editor Thelma Schoonmaker and actor Rachel Griffith to voice you through. I listened to a few of these but gave up relying on it due to the clunkiness.

What I noticed as I walked through and the family portraits turned into artefacts of a nascent film career (pieces and tales of Boxcar Bertha and Who's That Knocking at My Door?) and they turned into the eventual leap into the mainstream and, for me, the end of Martin Scorsese as an auteur of interest. I know, I sound like an undergraduate snob but really all I'm doing is drawing the line between the movies that grab me and the ones that don't.

Everything has exceptions but there are so few in the post Cape Fear timeline of Scorsese that I always have to struggle to remember what they are. Scorsese, like Woody Allen, has been given the return-to-form award for almost everything from the mid-'90s onwards. This means that from that time even his most loyal critics feel they have to apologise for him. I stopped after Cape Fear and stopped seeing everything by him at the cinema after Casino.

So the exhibition for me took on a kind of special plead after about the halfway mark. Almost everything in it was of some interest it's just that when it was associated with a film I'm indifferent to I concentrated on the point of the detail or the anecdote rather than associating it with the flickering worth of the title. I began to speed up at this point but then I realised I'd missed a section behind a wall and backtracked.

The area that celebrates Scorsese's close relation with music and his masterful use of it in his films. This room is the usual whirl of screenings on one wall and exhibits in cases. But it is here that I smiled at Bernard Hermann's manuscripts for the score of Taxi Driver. And then I saw the thing, the real thing, the thing that more than even the artefacts from some of my favourite films. There in a corner was a small red box with a clasp. In it were two rows of tabbed filing separators marked with numbers and on top of this was a sheaf of typewritten lists of every one of the vinyl 45s in the collection. This was from Marty's childhood. These thin black discs in their original paper sleeves had blasted pictures into the little cosmos behind the eyes he closed in passion as he listened. The doo wop and the jazz, the rock and the warbling arias collected here with the retrievability of anything at the New York Library. It was here that the steel trap recall and the songs and riffs that gave him such vision met. This, for me, was the artist Scorsese. Actually, better than that, this was Marty.

It was a cold day outside. I had the day off and it was still morning. Cold but gleamingly clear. Great walking weather. I went to the Kino and saw a movie.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Review: WHISKY TANGO FOXTROT

Kim, a copy writer for a New York based news service is deemed worthy of a frontline post as she is among the few available staff still unattached. She takes the opportunity to change her life and heads to Afghanistan in the wake of the Coalition incursion where she is rapdily inducted into the toughness of military reporting and the emotional steam-valving of the media back in Kabul.

She becomes part of the Kabubble, the live-fast-die-whenever fellowship. When she is asked for her motivation to come to this violent realm she tells a story of how she felt she was stagnating. Her anecdote is smirkingly described as white lady and she admits it. Whatever the cause, however came the first sharp taste she soon uses the phrase "I need a hit" to mean both a high profile story and a dose of adrenaline. The Kabubble is all about supply and demand.

This is a well told story that shares some cousinship with Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker though with understandably less white-knuckling. What fills the gaps here is not the looser tension of that film expressed in macho bouting but with wit and a kind of comedy of manners under fire. While this makes for a perfectly credible approach and a decent movie it also forms the chief point of resistance for any viewer even slightly versed in the career of its star Tina Fey.

The scene in the news room establishing the reason for Kim's deployment turns on a joke about attachment, corporate culture and a threat to life and limb. It's a funny joke but it feels like a diluted joke from 30 Rock or Kimmy Schmidt. It takes a few scenes for this to clear but any fan of those shows will have to do some quick negotiating with this movie to avoid disappointment.

It would be a shame if that happened too often as the seriousness underlying this tale is weighty and well played. Fey's performance is nuanced and serious and triumphs against her movie's early attempts to sell an Altmanesque satire on the Afghanistan conflict and its reportage (nice exchange over that word in the dialogue).

Alfred Molina's Afghan minster might be brushed a little broadly. Martin Freeman's Scottish veteran reporter might remind us of an earlier Oliver Stone caricature. Margot Robbie's ambitious hot Brit might recall any number of tokenistic characters. Have we not seen Billy Bob Thornton's gruff field officer a little too often in the last few decades? All of these, though, bring enough lift to let the aisle jaffas roll under them without taint.

But that's the thing. Watch the performance. Follow the character. She develops and the trek is not an easy one. Allow the satirical, arch, cynical tones that fly around like ricochets their due but keep your eye on the centre and keep your head. Fey is funny, frequently, but she's good at that and always has been. Don't get fixed on it, though, it's not Fey, it's her character. This is not Liz Lemon does the War on Terror, it's much better.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Review: GOODNIGHT MOMMY (original title Ich Seh, Ich Seh)

A widescreen frame within a frame of a vintage clip of a von Trapp like family singing Brahms Cradle Song in angelic harmony. The mother directs them and while she might only be concentrating on their performance her face is cold with concern.

Two young boys, twins by the looks, gambol about in a rustic setting, running through corn fields or exploring forests. Two moments cool the joy down, one at a cave entrance and the other on a lake. They amble back to their designer house in a field and wait around the house.

An SUV drives up. Their mother is back. We don't get a maternal embrace. The boys have to find her by following a scraping sound at the other end of the  house. The mother is in her room, opening and closing blinds. She is back from surgery. Her face is bound in a mask of surgical dressings. She greets the boys sternly, chiding them for their dirty appearance and orders them to clean up and dress properly.

At this point  we are given what I think is the first token in a slow revelation. I won't spoil this but will note that it is quite clear if unstated. I believe this is deliberate. We are to follow this film with the notion in mind, wondering if we're right and when, if we're right, the big reveal will come and with what impact. It will be just one more fuse of tension.

Another is how the boys begin to doubt that she is their mother or a kind of reversed changeling. The evidence mounts and the boys must take action. They do. But it's not so simple.

There are fevered dreams, real and imagined atrocities, extraordinary events but mostly there is a tension that stands above the others in the tug of war between a dreamy fairytale logic and a cold European realism. Mostly, this plays fair (the head-rattling scene in the woods) by being certified either way but much is left vague. Were these boys really left to themselves while their mother was in hospital? Are we just seeing what felt like the case? The original German title is Ich seh. Ich Seh or "I see. I see." We know it in English as "I spy with my little eye."

If we keep up with this film we are rewarded with some definite statements in answer to our questions and then take delivery of a final question and here, if we know our classic weird tale tv history, we are sent, like the strange creatures Billy Mumy conjures in his Twilight Zone episode ,  to the cornfield.

If we are easily distracted we might dismiss Goodnight Mommy as yet another EuroHorror in the mold of a Funny Games crossed with a Martyrs. The traits are there and if that's all there is to it, you could go for your life flinging mud. But that its delivery of its guessing game is done with so much else should seize all of those charges before they make it out of your breath.

Here's my real bone to pick, though. This film was given a generous publicity tease with a trailer that was reputed to be the scariest ever. It wasn't. It looked tense and weird but most of its audience have seen scarier. Regardless, the process was aborted locally by the film's cinema-bypassing appearance on one of the video on demand services (Stan, in this case). As I had already paid for the ticket, as it were, I put it on one night and then showed it to friends as I needed a second viewing. What I didn't have was a cinema screening. I wasn't discouraged from interruption or wandering attention. I wasn't its captive. If I had been then once would have been enough. It would have filled my consciousness and once would have been enough.

There's a smile in the credits with the words: Shot in glorious 35 mm. I know it still would have been projected digitally (no complaints about that but it does dampen the claim). But even that would have had the tang of the cinema as home rather than the reverse.

Just sayin'.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review: A MONTH OF SUNDAYS

Frank is numb. He functions through his job and marriage aftermath but little more. One day he comes home and takes a call from his mother. She complains about her hip and chides him for smoking. After a fairly lengthy chat both realise that this is a wrong number and sign off awkwardly. Frank is disturbed. The conversation made him feel something. He'd call his real mother but she's been dead for months.

Haunted he calls the lady again. They begin a self-avowedly weird relationship which she, Sarah, recognises as a kind of mother surrogacy. Frank is so hooked on the contact that he has no idea of the potential nervous cataclysm it might bring him. But he has improved. His ex, from deep in her narcissistic profession as a successful actor, thinks he's got a new girlfriend.

I began this film with resistance. There are some overplayed scenes. Frank and his boss being intimidated by a lawn sprinkler is annoying rather than funny. The score is a jarring brass-heavy jazz which misdirects us into expecting an offbeat comedy. A few colourful character sketches later and my heart went looking for icebergs in preference to a couple of hours of Aussie-movie quirk.

But all of this eased as this quite beautiful film found its stride. Matthew Saville's return to the big screen after his continued tv work is welcome. I've been aware of him since Noise and watching this latest one bloom into cinema.

He is a filmmaker who puts his chops on the table but only ever just enough. A long track from behind two characters as they converse takes us into the bustle of a tv studio and the expense of the personal time that one of them pays. It's not just Scorsesean flash. If we note the train of girls in pink going past in the background holding helium balloons like escapees from a Wes Anderson shoot we also see in the same take the released balloons drift back across the sky behind the focussed characters. There's a point to them being children and letting go of things that fly. It's a broad brush but the stroke is gentle (which is more than I can say for anything by Wes Anderson. But what about -? No, none of them).

This is a tale of grief and the responsibility of survivors to do more living. The levity that this demands is expressed throughout as a kind of day-to-day wit that, while it does on occasion feel written, is delivered by this film's dream cast with a natural finish.

I've taken too long to write this review, time spent mostly in editing gushes, so I'll finish here by paying it two well-earned compliments. The first is that it is the best Australian cinema experience I've had since The Babadook: it is a film made of cinema (in case you were concerned that Saville was smuggling his tv work into the dark); it's scope and execution form a capsule for its audience.

The second compliment is that I was struck more than once in the atmosphere and quality of observation of the writing of Peter Carey. The sense of place (Adelaidean Saville composes a rich portrait of his native town) is exquisite and a lot of the dialogue is allowed to be absorbed between characters who mentally finish thoughts the way we do in real life. Finally, there is a spring garden on a day a degree or two too hot to comfortably wear a suit. Like the houses up for sale throughout and Frank's voiceover real estate summaries of them there is a sense of home and transition in the heat and the greenery of the back yard. This leads to the final image in which Frank wordlessly understands something he has previously failed to grasp. I left the cinema imagining how Carey might have put that for an Oscar Hopkins or a Harry Joy.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Review: SON OF SAUL

As Saul emerges from the coloured blur of the opening shot into sharp focus, we are already troubled. The unfocussed landscape has been held for a little too long. There was a pair of figures in a huddle under a tree who seemed to be making sexual cooing sounds. They run off at Saul's appearence. And then when we see Saul's chiselled from wood face with its serious blankness we don't know if we want to know where he is going.

He moves along to help herd the new arrivals from their train to an antechamber where they strip as they are promised a life of hot soup and fulfilled labour after their shower. As the last of them are in Saul takes his place holding the door to the showers firm as the people on the other side clamour to escape the poison filling their lungs, his face a serious blank.

He is one of the Sonderkommando units formed by the Nazis from the camp inmates to control the rest at the ground level and he has done this long enough to know that if he shows anything readable on his face he might well join the ones on the other side of the door. We wonder if he is about to explode or if he has successfully smothered his emotions and we wonder at a life lived this way.

As he is scrubbing the floor of the range of waste left by people who knew they were being murdered he hears a wheezing form the pile of dead naked bodies and seeks it out. A boy in his early teens convulsively coughing. Saul carries him out, magnetised as though he recognises the child, only to watch a Nazi doctor casually finish the boy off and order an autopsy. Saul thinks he has recognised his son. Behind his hard mask his eyes burn as he resolves to save the boy from mass cremation and bury him according to Jewish ritual.

As a Sonderkommando member Saul is able to move more freely about the camp than most of the other inmates and his quest to find a rabbi who will say kaddish over his son's corpse during burial brings him into the circle of a group of militants planning a breakout. This sounds plotty and every scene contributes to both strands But this is not a conventional action movie nor a typical Holocaust film. And, though, it might well seem like it, it isn't really a story about a father and son triumphing into focus against a blur of inhumanity. More troublingly, this is a story of the value of life itself and the quality we expect of our time on earth to identify it as life.

Saul's quest feels futile, as futile as the planned resistance, and it can be a struggle to empathise with his determination. But that is the brief, here, we meet or reject the challenge thrown us to follow and support his quest. The reason we do lies in two things that, if only slightly mishandled, might have created a massive failure of a film.

The first is Gez Rohrig's performance. From his place at the gas chamber door, holding people like himself in and pushing his reaction back down where it can't hurt him to flopping like a rag doll when toyed with by a German officer we know very swiftly that there is a small cosmos of pity and anger beneath his flat functional mask. We know that he believes he has found a means to touch a humanity he can remember having. It is pointed out to him, among others' doubts that it is actually his son, that in Jewish ritual there is no requirement that a rabbi say the kaddish. Saul's insistence is less strict observance than a childlike overstatement: he's not getting religion, he's resuming his humanity.

The second reason this works is the filmmaking itself. Keeping to the near square academy ratio (the shape of all those old tvs you remember evicted on to nature strips at the end of the noughties) and a short lens, director Lazlo Nemes, keeps the focus deftly on Saul's head (front or rear) which often fills the frame, leaving all around it to remain a disturbing blur. The painstakingly intricate weave between camera, Saul and the mise en scene in these long takes (it often feels breathlessly like a huge single take) prevent us from thinking of anything or anyone but Saul and his quest. We are allowed to tire of it or be annoyed by it but its sincerity is never out of frame. The sound design of this film often fills in what we can't see with a weave so masterful it could stand as a musique concrete installation piece. One scene in particular, back in the antechamber, in the heart of the genocide-by-factory, the brown and sweaty light is bashed by barked orders and the drone of lists being read out. We are being invited in, as new arrivals but also guided by experienced inmates.

The Holocaust setting is important for this story as it gives us a constricting context that is instantly recognisable as history and suggestive of more recent events. It also renders credible the central thread of the quest to honour or save a corpse from a contemptuous disposal, to swerve away from the machinery at least that once. I've since learned that Nemes's primary inspiration for the look and feel was Ellem Klimov's harrowing and masterful Come and See, another film set against a historical backdrop that both benefitted from and transcended it. That film's retributive finale gives us a gun shot that can't be taken. Son of Saul offers a kind of redemption we might have given up on seeing but like Klimov's epic whether we cry at sight of it or triumph in it is for us, each in our seats in the dark.