Tuesday, August 19, 2014

MIFF 2014 WROUNDUP


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.

APPY IS HE!
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!



QUEUEING
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.



FESTIVAL CLUB
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.

SWEET RELIEF
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.



WELCOME BACK!
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


THE MOVIES

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:

High:
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.

Hovering:
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.

Low:
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?




EPILOGUE
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

MIFF Session 17: HARD TO BE A GOD

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

MIFF Session 16: THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG

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)?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

MIFF Session 15: I ORIGINS

Should I be worried that projects associated with Britt Marling have been showing a kind of new age vs science wishfulness? Are films like Sound of My Voice, Another Earth and this indications of an agenda beyond a flair for the everyday fantastic or are they more like interesting what ifs? One thing I can say is that whatever the motivation behind the scenarios her co-scripted projects feature some of the best dialogue of indy level films coming out of the US for years and the tightest narratives of anything on screens for that period. If there were to be a sincere resurrection of a Twilight Zone format I'd no one more than Cahill, Batmanglij and Marling to helm it.

Ian Grey is a molecular biologist whose subfield is eyes. We first meet him catching some rooftop air during a Halloween party. He is captivated by the luminous stare of a woman in a kind of bondage costume. A dialogue creates sparks. He photographs her eyes and they make it in the toilet. And then she's gone.

Obsessed, he hardly notices that he's been a assigned a beautiful young lab assistant until she asks a question that surprises him about his study. That thread may be termed the anti-god theme. The other one takes turns we don't expect which I won't spoil but involves the scientist being confronted with evidence of something that would turn his world upside down.

Throughout, the filmmaking is top notch. Performance centred direction of actors, more thematic eye references that you would ever need in a lifetime, dialogue whose wit is set effortlessly in naturalism, and a narrative-serving visual style and edit that breaks out when it needs to to take our breath away with an expertly physical camera movement. This is a movie you would only welcome once you're before it.

The problems are similar to those in Cahill's earlier film Another Earth except that here they suffer from increased ambition. Rhoda's story in Another Earth is given so much weight over the improbability of the scenario that we are happy to accept it. The issue at hand in I Origins while its conclusion is tempered by some neatly expressed confirmation bias, has more to struggle with. We are being asked to believe a lot more this time. Should we speculate that Marling's absence from the writing credits has resulted in this? I think there's no need as it feels like a large pace beyond the cheek of the earlier feature. But the notion that a scientist changing his mind when faced with compelling evidence loses note when he has already answered that question in dialogue. The false dichotomy that if it isn't science it must be god hangs too nakedly in the light after such a robust what if.

But then this is a what if and a strong drama beautifully played. I'll state my objections and sit back. It's only a movie, only a movie only a movie....


Friday, August 15, 2014

MIFF Session 14: OUR SUNHI

Sunhi, a young film student returns to the campus of her university in Seoul only to fall victim to a flat prank by an acquaintance. She goes to see her old professor and asks him for a reference. She wants to study in America. He tried to talk her out of it using a massive projection of his own listlessness but agrees to write her a reference.

Generally annoyed, she goes into a cafe to get drunk and spies her ex on the street. She calls him up. They get drunk together and in the first of a series of profile two shot dialogues we start realising that we are going to see a lot of other people attempting to define her. She will reject all of them but provide no real evidence to the contrary. The ex leaves the table drunk and confused, filled with such wine-fuelled longing that he stirs an old mentor out of his own listlessness and has a lot more wine with him in a local cafe. Second lengthy one-take two-shot dialogue spent mostly discussing Sunhi and pingponging plattitudes about her back and forth. There is a very funny moment where the ex struggles drunkenly to form a metaphor to explain his need to fully understand Sunhi. It's about digging but he can't quite make it. Between the two of them and the cafe owner they kind of nut it out.

Sunhi gets the reference but it is so devastatingly damning with faint praise that she demands it be rewritten. The Professor agrees to meet with her to discuss this and the pair get drunk together and have another one-take two-shot tete-a-tete during which she is defined slightly differently. Swinging on his shoulder at the end of the night she goes home with him. The next day he rouses the mentor from his torpor and they have a dialogue about her without mentioning her name.

Sunhi gets the new .... You get the idea. While there is an awkwardness to the start of this that is really only a means of getting its audience used to the deadpan style. Once you are with it, assuming you get with it, this film offers some great delights. We eavesdrop rather than witness the characters and the wayward nature of conversation and its myriad micro management possibilities are laid bare with an increasingly apparent frown. But the frown is a comedian's, delivering back to us the situation of needing to get around the niceties of communication and go straight to the goal, regardless of whether it's on offer or not. The dialogue is increasingly peppered with the detritus of previous conversations which only gets funnier. The finale which is a comedy of errors of a brilliantly staged and vengeful manipulation by Sunhi manages to be both deadpan and dizzy.

I'm still smiling as I recall scenes from this heavily understated comedy which plays its hand so cleverly it can feel like a chilling con trick. If trick it is it's one we are happy to admit.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

MIFF Session 13: COME WORRY WITH US/Amanda F**king Palmer On The Rocks

Ok, so, a short with a shorter feature. In 17 minutes I learned that Amanda Palmer has used social media to free herself from the tithe taking music industry, has run into criticism because she doesn't pay people who volunteer to help her through twitter etc., is at ease playing to large or small audiences, allows a potentially frightening level of access to fans, copes with a distance marriage to comics god and novelist Neil Gaiman, and has understandable optimism about her future. In 82 mins I learned that two members of Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra have had a baby and it's altered the way they work.

That sounds damning but it really only bears witness to the differing approaches each film makes to its subject. In the short we get a breathless and thrilling explosion of sound and video bites about and from a frenetic extrovert indy star. By its credits we feel that we've been holding our breath. Come Worry With Us wants us to look and think about how something as timeless as a new child can alter all the lives around it permanently. Mount Zion are a typical post rock outfit in that they operate on a kind of modified hippy ethos of equal internal wealth distribution, a tolerance of fans getting their music for free, a determination to keep their ticket prices affordable etc. They care and want to continue to care despite that becoming increasingly difficult with the addition.

Three members of Mt Zion are also members of the much loved post-rock Godspeed You Black Emperor who reform for a tour which nets some much needed funds and then Mount Zion go on their own tour which. with the child accommodated, involves a massive upscaling for a band used to touring in their own cars. At each stage along this thread we are introduced to a lot of the same themes in the conversations between members (particularly the central couple of Efrim and Jessica) and to-cameras but that is the nature of this account: everyday life facing everyday obstacles with the exception that the people are in a touring indy band with strong anti-maintream principles.

On the way out of this screening (at the wonderful and resurrected Treasury Theatre) I heard people who were pretty obviously fans of the band laughing about how boring they had thought it was. What a pity. What I saw was a really important issue that never gets more than an over shoulder glance in this kind of cultural milieu laid out in reverse relief to what it might have been had a more conventional music documentary path been taken. The music and live performance were there in sufficient measure but mostly we saw these people who we'd more typically experience in the euphoria of a gig having to deal not only with the nappies and nannying of an everyday complication in their lives but openly discussing, not without a wince, how their principles might not make them rich but will keep them convinced that they are living well.

It has been said more than once that there is no such place as outside the system and that living well, honestly and doing what you can to help others is the closest you can get to subverting it. One way the film illustrated this was in the mix of stock between feeble video and very lush DV. Sometimes the mix happened while covering a single event like the neighbourhood wide protests in the band's native Montreal following the GFC. This is as much editing as it is shooting. Like the band whose recording is as principled as their live performance, living well has become the sole option. The rest is surrender.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

MIFF Session 12: RIGOR MORTIS

We know from the opening scene that this film will be something of a purgatorial journey like Sorcerer was. Here we begin at the end. A character will work to purge his spiritual illness and attain grace. Unlike Sorcerer we will be travelling beyond the real into the high fantastical. Like Sorcerer we are in for some very strong style. A man covered in grey mud at the bottom of a pit created by the crumbling high rise towers around it stares lifelessly into us as his voice says that he got out of movie acting because it was so ridiculous. Nearby, an older man, also covered in mud sits against a column and lights a cigarette.

Yau climbs the steps of a beautifully forbidding Hong Kong apartment megacomplex, preceded by a small boy with a peroxide bowl haircut. Uncle Yin, the caretaker with the knowledge of all the history of the building and its people lets Yau into his new flat. Once alone, Yau, floating on memories of the loss of his son through divorce, strings himself up with enough rope and kicks off the stool. Suddenly an older man rushes in and in a martial arts flypast severs the rope with a knife. Yau is alive and ashamed. His neighbours crowd around with a sadness that seems habitual. Only his saviour has noticed that just before the rope was cut, the tarpaulin on the floor assumed a vaguely human shape that leaves bloodstains on each part of the fabric it touched as it headed hungrily toward the dying man.

Back among the living Yau settles into life among the poor and destitute of the big grey world he has moved to. The endearingly gruff old timer who cooks glutinous rice for the people of his section reveals to the newcomer that he was a vampire hunter and that Yau narrowly escaped possession. But the twin sister spirits are on the rise and hungry again and will need to be dealt with. Can Yau, washed up actor with sin on his shoulders offer any help?

This thrilling ricochet from the 80s Hong Kong hopping vampire movies is less innovative than expert. Founded on reinforced art direction and great swathes of atmosphere, its action feels less of a relief when it waxes climactic than a natural explosion. We are in a tradition remote from the James Wan cattle prod scares of the Insidious movies and are resting more uneasily on older traditions. This even more so than the Pang brothers' masterpiece The Eye which, while it exuded its own style, borrowed heavily from contemporary Western horror. The extensive CGI used for the creatures and ghosts is about as Hollywood as it gets but even there the apparition of the myriad tentacled vampire girls and monstrous golem like host body bear little resemblance to their US equivalent.

If the CGI of the vampires can feel a little fake at times with figures appearing to have no contact with their surfaces there are moments of great craft using the technology. My favourite of these was a stitched-together crane shot that went impossibly from the ground floor up several storeys to a character's face. David Fincher started using this in Fight Club to dizzying effect and it's all through Irreversible to give that film the appearance of being a single take. Here it has enough narrative weight for us to notice nothing more than the pleasure of such an easy transition between an event and a character's sight of it. It feels right rather than looks flashy.

The overall palette of the film is desaturated colour bringing the base grey out and is a shift away from the aquarium green of the previous decade (The Eye, Horror Hotline etc). Lest this should be misconstrued as a Western influence I'll just quickly point out the importance of grey in the overall visual scheme. This is a tale of limbo or purgatory, a place where the black and the white must blend until purity can separate them.

The music score is a robust blend of electronic and orchestral, fitting the murk of the colour palette perfectly. At one point the sound mix included a creaking that came from the host vampire's movement which had an euqivalent in the synthesiser of the music. When the two coincided there was a delicious concordance.

Finally, I will congratulate this film on leaving the comedy to brief moments in the dialogue and not wussing out by undercutting its own work. This film does work and work hard; there is no need for it to be self conscious or even as embarrassed at itself as the worst of the genre are. Do you like your horror rich and atmospheric? Do you like being taken seriously as a viewer? Try this, then.