Friday, August 26, 2016

Review: HIGH RISE

Laing, a young neurosurgeon, moves into a new high-rise development, on a floor around the middle. At the bottom are the least affluent tenants and the penthouse on the fortieth features the landscaped garden (with horse) of the architect Royal. We are waiting for something to spark a revolution and are not surprised when it happens but surprise is not on offer here, anger is.

J.G. Ballard's troubling mid-70s dystopia of a social microcosm on every corner was a slap in the face of a post-war Britain whose contrary pull of a concrete band-aid utopianism and an entitled class in siege mode. Ben Wheatley keeps it 70s without falling prey to fulsome nostalgia. While we get a couple of versions of an ABBA song the commissioned score fends off what might have been a jukebox of Sweet and T-Rex or the Glitter Band (thank god!). The temporal setting is a nod to the source not a drawcard for the boomers who remember.  But it's also the time of a Margaret Thatcher on the rise and the gestation of a nightmarish push for a new lassez faire hell. That's what we get here.

So, as we start with a pleasant mid-level round of parties, drinking and sex and see the rarified snobbery of the upper floors we know it ain't gonna last. The kids barred from the pool while an upper crust nong has a private function which leads to an invasion led by malcontent in chief, Wilder. And then the power fails on the lower floors (and references to cake and some poignant checkout-chick French phrases). The barriers burst and it's orgies for all. The commune lasts until it gets boring and then the savagery takes over from below and above.

If Wheatley lingers on that last phase too long for some folk it should be remembered that this chaotic stage might well be made of sensational events but as a whole can sicken a witness through surfeit. It feels oppressive because it's meant to and if there's a film director working today who knows the power of a finely tuned excess it's Wheatley. There really was a point to the repetitive steps in Sightseers and the off-putting genre hopping of Kill List. Even in the open of A Field in England we could feel breathless and caged. Wheatley's films don't look much like each other but boy are they heavy lifting when they need to be.

A character describes Laing's apparent middle class complacency as hiding in plain sight and if anything might describe the visual heft of this film it is that phrase. The towers seen against the sky look like predators on the lookout. The beauty of the new building seems to carry the look of building rot in its texture. The fresh primary coloured walls and furniture on the lower floors assume the smell of the toddlers screaming around them and the sense of sweating human waste seems inescapable. This really is a Ben Wheatley film.

The cast never disappoints with an ensemble of the best the UK has to offer. Tom Hiddleston might seem to coast along in his placid bearing but his journey is one from hedonistic laxity to a controlled mania. Jeremy Irons dispenses with the creamy charm to remind us why David Cronenberg cast him three times (counting Dead Ringers as two) as Royal whose clueless anger reminds us of Louis XVI and whose white round collared smock recalls Nicholas II. Luke Evans shines in the range contest as Wilder, going believably from rogue to freedom fighter to perfect gentleman without a contradiction.

I forgot to mention the other sourced music. High Rise is framed by two points of irony. The first and most conventional is the bright and glorious 4th Brandenburg Concerto playing over the opening scenes of devastation. And then we end with a kid of art brut irony  as the Fall's Industrial Estate clanks and whinges over the animated perfect soap bubble of the end credits. Strange thing to say about such a piece but with this kind of hospitality we really are in caring hands.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

MIFF 2016: The O'erview


Another year, another MIFF and what a blast it's been. First, there's the meteorological bedrock of decently solid winter to make it feel like an achievement to get out and haunt the foyeurs. Second, is it me or is there really a pleasant move away from a dominance of Sundance and Cannes and more of what you like outside the crust? It really was harder this year making my minipass' thirteen (in fact I added three more and made a few exchanges). So, well done, youse.


THE MOVIES
I'll apologise here for the brevity of most of my individual reviews posted after I'd seen them. I had a lot less free time this year and my holiday cold was more a slowburn than a rage-for-a-day sharabang.

HIGH


Evolution - If you are going to set up a sci-fi scenario with almost no exposition (and if it's as whacked out as this) you'd better have the courage to drive it hard and keep going. That's what happened here.

Fear Itself - Clip movies can be a waste but this monologue (delivered over very thoughtfully chosen clips from the spectrum of horror cinema) added layers to the commentary by imposing a true-life horror scenario that brought clarity to the narrator's observations.

Kedi - I love cats and revere the city of Istanbul. This gave me both.

Fata Morgana - An extraordinary presage for the future of exploitation cinema delivered at its dawn, this absurdist wonder gets everything right before it was got.

Right Now, Wrong Then - The great Hong Sang-soo once again gives us depths beneath a seemingly light surface. One story told twice, once with vanity and then with candour. The difference is pleasing and disturbing.

Blood of My Blood - A hymn of retribution to ages of male privilege. A few missteps couldn't threaten the strength of its thread.

The Unknown Girl - The Dardennes do a mystery story. I'm there. Great final screening at the Comedy.


MIDDLE



A Dragon Arrives - A scaled up adventure in apocalypses and politics didn't quite fulfil its promises but, boy, was it fun.

Cosmos - Zulawski's swansong was not a conscious farewell but, if flying below his more extraordinary seminal works, it still pleased and worked unto itself.

Chevalier - Greek weird wave entry continues to promote the genre positively but the line between the severe realism and absurdism doesn't always blur well. Still fun, though.

Hedi - Like a A Dardennes piece (they produced) with humour as well as gravity. Wanted more of the latter, though.

Gary Numan: Android in La La Land - A documentary about creativity under Aspergers or a biopic that failed? Still don't know and would have liked to. Enjoyable with some insights but still wanted more of the journey that was.


LOW




Kate Plays Christine -  An interesting exercise eventually reveals itself to be one in futility.

The Demons - Michael Hanneke tribute band plays the Montreal suburbs but not even the man himself plays like that anymore.

The Lure -  Fun idea discards its own building blocks for no good reason and then ends.

Album - Not even Roy Andersson always gets away with his quirk with gravity but he does more often. Satire doesn't have to smile but it should ask you in. Or is this satire for the smug? Not interested.


MISSED
Anything that looked like it would turn up at the Kino, Nova or video on demand. Anything with too much of a buzz that ended up sold out (I like being part of a good sized audience but hate feeling crammed in) although some of my picks ended up this way and I did make a point of ending with the new Dardennes brothers movie. And on one occasion I exchanged a ticket due to a mix of illness and how that made the prospect of ultraviolence on screen at the end of a walk through some icy rain decidedly ungood. So, Eyes of My Mother, Operation Avalanche, Love Witch, Christine, Lily Lane, Harmonium, Beware the Slenderman, Zero Days, Don't Blink: Robert Frank, Francofonia, Gimme Danger, Paterson, National Bird, Lo and Behold, Neon Demon ... and (as they sang at the end of Gilligan's Island) the rest, I'll check ya later.

VENUES
The standard venues didn't disappoint. I maximise my Forum visits at MIFF as it's not open at any other time during the year and it's weird beauty still delights me.  While the seats can be a challenge I enjoyed by only screening at the Comedy with its dusty ol' ambience. ACMI still feels like going to the dentist but it's set up for good pic and sound. Hoyts doesn't feel like a MIFF venue but it's a well appointed up to date cinema with very comfy seating. I didn't go to anything at Kino.

In Memoriam: The Treasury Theatre, which had some screening trouble last year with bad sound but this is a sentimental favourite of mine. The Capitol: sometimes there, sometimes not. I love this old place with its kooky decor. The Regent. Boy I loved this one when it was a MIFF venue for a couple of years back i' the 2000s. Spacious and beautiful without a bad seat.

QUEUEING
I can go on about this. In my first MIFFs the unease that would assail me because of queues was deep and persistent. I'd plan on getting to the venue half an hour early to stand near the beginning of a queue and never noticed that the seats around the one I chose seldom seemed to fill out. One day back in 2004 I stood in the freeze of Russell St for a film on at the Kino (Innocence) for over half an hour only to get the best seat. I could have sat in the warm Forum foyeur all that time and just walked in after the queue was finished. I did that a couple of times this year. The only times I queued were with friends who don't like sitting where I sit and on one occasion I joined a line that was already moving. If I'd gone to a sold out session at the Kino I would have queued as its small seating area means the front gets filled quickly and only the sides are left which can make a film in scope look like it would before going through the stretchy lens.

APP/TIX/BOOKING
The Android app very pleasantly updated itself well before the start date. It was very easy to navigate and browse and book with. Very pleasantly I was also able to do a couple of exchanges pain-free with it. This in conjunction with a well designed home-base website has done a lot to ease congestion in the queues and the box office. Since the advent of the app a few years ago your ticket is on the phone you take everywhere with you and downloaded with the update before the festival began and gave you pretty much all the information you need about your day at the festival in your pocket. Compare and contrast the day where a mini-pass was a card that got hole punched, or a plastic card that might arrive in the post only days before the event or an e-minipass that needed the tickets printed out (or, if you were resourceful, kept as pdfs with readable barcodes on you phone).

Right up to a very few years ago you still had to go in to the box office, join a queue and book all your picks at the counter (some people were making decisions only when they got there) which made for long waits on your feet. The one thing I miss is the feature of the wishlist that allows you to set it up for your pass and with one click put everything into your cart and buy the lot all at once. That's gone and it's a pity.


AVE ATQUE VALE

So, there you go, one of the most enjoyable Fests I've had. A great range of material from around the globe and the margins of genre and invention. Astute use of technology has eased the more annoying aspects approaching the festival and the day to day management of it. Another year of polite and enthusiastic staff, paid or voluntary. As the logistics smooth, the stuff on screen can afford to be rougher, spikier and newer. May that continue. This one really felt like celebration rather than just a screening schedule.

MIFF Session #16: THE UNKOWN GIRL

Jenny, a young GP in a small Belgian town, is taking her intern through some tough criticism. He froze at an urgent moment and while she's being firm but fair he's taking it hard. The door buzzer sounds but she stops him responding, saying that all their patients know it's after hours and need a little tough love themselves. He storms off soon after. The next day she is stopped by two detectives who want to see the practice's security camera footage. A woman was found killed nearby. And there she is on the recording, the one who pressed the buzzer.

Racked with guilt, Jenny takes a still from the video and begins her own investigation. The victim carried no identification. Beginning with those closest to home she passes the image around but no one can identify the girl. Going wider, she establishes that the victim had been a sex worker and had just come from a client before her death. This takes her into some very dodgy territory, both police and local thugs warn her off the trail. But she's too haunted and can't stop.

Adele Haenel plays against her delicate youth with a hard seriousness. She lets us know the struggle that Jenny has been through just to get to this lower link on the medical food chain. When she is threatened with physical violence her surprise at her vulnerability feels genuine. And as her driving guilt over the death morphs into more of her sense of responsibility we understand the strength she is gaining from it. Gravity ensues.

The Dardennes have been my go to struggle-core team for a few years now (I was very late to them but now think they just have no competition). They've taken the grey-day look of social realism and found riches within it so that their visual style is both signature and unobstrusive. Their observation of the delicate balance of life at the bottom is always compelling because it's always driven by performance performance performance. That's what takes these unsmiling tales of life from grim-oop-north grinds into essential dramatic cinema. That's what we have here.

MIFF Session #15: HEDI

Hedi is a young Tunsian whose life is controlled for him. His mother manages his salary and gives him an allowance. He's about to wed in an arranged marriage. His boss notices how little he cares for his job and not only won't give him time off for his honeymoon but sends him to a regional branch to solicit car lease deals with local businesses. There, he meets a woman whose concern when he has appeared to take an important call touches him. He had lied about the call to amp it up but later approaches her with the truth and an apology. Later during a moonlight swim their mutual attraction sparks and Hedi, for the first time outside of the cartoons he draws in private, feels alive. Oh, and there's that wedding in a few days...

Mohammed Ben Attia's debut feature is confident but subtle, asking serious work of its cast and lensed with a deceptively plain eye. If it should remind you of a lighter Dardennes brothers film you ought to know that they are its producers, recognising in the new filmmaker something akin to their own fearless examinations of the dispossessed and drifting.

Majd Mastoura brings to the title character a kind of imprisoned wonder as he comes to recognise the possibilities beyond the plan with a blend of a comic deadpan and surprise. That's a lot of work in a film that is determined to show the dangers of personal freedom visible almost immediately after the first burst of escape. One to watch.





MIFF Session #14: GARY NUMAN: ANDROID IN LA LA LAND

Gary Numan was a gift in the late 70s. Punk had imploded and at that stage it was very difficult to find anything that was happening in its wake. Tubeway Army didn't try outdoing the rock onslaught of the first wave but came in through a different door. His crystal stare and awkward-boy voice rode the swell of tides of synthesisers that were tighter than the ones on Low and more intense than Krafwerk's. It was great pop that felt like a horror movie and it was exactly what I needed. I listened to Down in the Park in the heat of a Townsville spring and shivered.

After pushing pop music into a decidedly unrock few big years his fortunes plummeted and he fell from favour, releasing fewer and fewer records to a public that had forgotten him and were somewhat ungratefully drifting back into rockness in the alternative scenes. And this, three decades later, is where we find him, visibly older, married with kids, standing up to a life of Aspergers and depression, making a new album.

While the film is generous with backstage views of the creative process most of what we get here is the continued struggle and the clearly beneficial family setting. It's actually quite a relief when his wife and daughters are on screen (the quartet of them are joyous camera hogs) not because Numan is so dire (he's personable, self aware and carries his own charm) but because they remind us that he is no longer in the nadir that he fell to in the wake of his fame.

And that's what the concern is here, not the journey but the arrival. The time and strain are evident on his face which often fills the screen. If nothing else, his candour and the wrinkles and all approach serve as reminders of how unforgiving a public is when it comes to the ageing of its idols and the assumption that their natural state is the pursuit of fame until death. It troubles us to think that a creative life without this urge is possible as it means we lose control of them. But here it is, certainly motivated by the need to make a living but also, as it must be on some level, for its own sake. See also, Syd Barrett

This thoroughly enjoyable portrait is kept trim. The family life quotient is there as it should be and never feels like padding. It's not for the beginner, perhaps (there's just not enough early career material on screen) but it does offer a solid depiction of survival in an industry which doesn't even tolerate many first acts. You could instructively double bill it with The Sunnyboy ... but maybe empty all those depressants in the bathroom cupboard first.

Friday, August 12, 2016

MIFF Session #13: RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN

Cheon-soo, a young film director, in town a day early for a screening and lecture, takes in some local colour and meets Hee-jeong, a young painter at a local tourist attraction. At first awkward, their conversation establishes connection enough for Cheon-soo to suggest coffee. The cafe conversation warms them up enough for Hee-jeong to invite him to her studio where he praises her new canvas. At dinner they get drunk enough for her to invite him to a social gathering. Here, the wider conversation reveals his earlier praise to have been drawn from platitudes in interviews he has given. And then, as his vulnerability and confidence soaring, he reveals a truth which scuttles every lovely thing he had established with Hee-jeong that day. The next day's screening and Q&A session fizzes and he wanders back to his life in deflation.

A title card that reverses the first one appears and the entire story replays with one big difference: the pair are more candid and truthful with each other. From the first halting chat it is clear that things are going to turn out very differently. Within the parameters set the two outcomes are polar opposites because of this. While new steps toward romance take more time and effort they are also more binding and durable. We also feel very differently about them this time.

The wonderful Hong Sango-soo who made a fan of me at MIFF 2014 with Our Sun-hi has done it again. With characteristic attention to detail and nuance, strong casting and a firm hand on performances we have another astutely observed and deceptively light social comedy about self representation and the value of truth vs pleasing fiction. Of the title and the two versions I don't know if we are to see them as a kind of oblivious Groundhog Day, parallel universes, or simply a patiently constructed essay in the value we place on our statements when we want something. In the end any of those interpretations work for me and I, for one, did not resent the quick revelation that we were going to relive the same hour long story once the second title card gave way to the exact same opening shot of the previous story. I was just happy to see it again.

MIFF #12: THE DEMONS

Felix, a bright ten year old boy, absorbs pretty much everything around him in his quiet outer neighbourhood of Montreal and it makes him worry. His observations of his father's intimacy a female family friend stop short of anything damning but not knowing all of it only makes it worse. He worries about his own sexuality as he puts a more gullible boy through an increasingly edgy role play game. He worries that that experience might have given him AIDS. Worse, the boy he played that game with (and who is subjected to a cruel prank later) is abducted, raped and murdered by a local paedophile and is haunted by the boy's gaze in the dark of his room at night. The demons of the title are made of this.

And so on. Woven through this are scenes of genuine warmth and others of astutely observed behaviour with the sense of a continuum between childhood and adulthood increasingly evident. There is real energy at work to this. One scene involves Felix and his two siblings physically coming between their parents during a severe shouting match which travels from room to room until collapsing in a believable group hug of regret and exhaustion. It's not just the impressive choreography involved and the expert lensing but the question that arises in the viewer about what he or she would have done as a child in that situation. The paedophile's seduction of the boy is appropriately nauseating as it begins to take and the predator's power engorges.

But that's what this film cannot transcend, a group of serious and impressively managed scenes that hit their targets before flatly moving on to the next. There is an overall arc which ends in a poignant moment of affirmation but it left me shrugging. Why? Because this is cover version of early Michael Haneke. One take scenes, often with ostensibly neutral setups, sudden and puzzling use of sourced music, and the overall sense that the chief motivation for every action is pain. I'm not a fan of Haneke but I appreciate the effort he puts into adding real weight to his pieces, building dread with great competence. Here we have dread-shaped Lego blocks arranged in an appealing diorama. But it's still just Lego and we indulge it, perhaps even admire the skill involved. The problem is that where once it was just blocks, Lego developed into a vastly enabling library of figures and movable parts so that we expect the slickness. And the hobby kit arms race just promises greater authenticity while really only delivering more plastic lookalikes. Like this.