Sunday, August 16, 2015

My MIFF 2015


Well, that's that for another MIFF. I was a little more distracted than usual for this year's fest as I had some project work which took most of my time outside of the screenings. I added two to my mini pass's thirteen and left it at that (having gone up to twenty last year). Because things were happening in the real world that needed my attention I had to consider the festival a relief rather than a celebration. And this is the first MIFF since I started getting minipasses which hasn't given me a cold. Nice.

THE FILMS

High
The Forbidden Room I discovered Guy Maddin at MIFF 2003 (a series of shorts) and it was love at first sight. Not everything has charmed but this powerhouse blew almost everything else off the stage. Maybe just not see it rising from a hangover due to one too many Mai Tais the night before with the ol' significant other ("I'm not ol' !)




The Duke of Burgundy showed that you could enjoy your favourite era without becoming a slave to it. Strickland breaks free, freer than he did with Berberian Sound Studio and that's saying something.

99 Homes gave us an update on the kind of voracious capitalist beloved of Oliver Stone or Martin Scorsese without any of the fetishising of either for the villanous capitalist at its centre.

Battles Without Honour and Humanity was a sumptuous restoration that offered a violent Yakuza history without an invitation to join the machismo on screen. No wonder Battle Royale was so good.

Hill of Freedom gave us another sly and gently deceptive comedy of manners based on the social difficulties of using an imported commonality to express difficult things.

Middling

Two Shots Fired. I liked this wandering fable of first world naivete but wanted a little less standoffish cool and a tinge more archness.







The Arabian Nights (three feature-length films) attempted much but allowed its plainer passages to venture outside the acceptable boring limits. Still want to see what Gomes does next but that's still because of Tabu rather than even the finer moments of this.

Angels of Revolution was a strong tableau-driven expose on revolutionary fervour, political naivete and the force of tradition which transcended its subject-appropriate low-profile narrative with great colour in several senses but it might have pushed the culture collision more fully and forcefully by focussing less on the more familiar westerners.

Teheran Taxi worked well, played nice at a non-rambling run time and delivered a strong message. The pity of it is that it seems intoxicated with its own worthiness. This one's on the blade of middle and high.

Lambert and Stamp would've been great if I had been able to make out what half of them were saying at the screening due to crappy audio (a session-based problem rather the film's as such) but managed to offer some insights into a well-worn story.

Dalmas A time capsule of new wave genre and generic new wave from the dawn of the Whitlam era is more fellow traveller than agitprop and, for all its quaint rough edges, remains a decent statement beyond its time of greatest impact.

Low

The Nightmare demonstrated that documentaries that endeavour to understand phenomena need to find a point outside of that phenomenon or they'll look plain silly. This film followed its participants in rejecting the science that would have made it intriguing. It ended up ranting like a tramstop loony.





THE PROGRAM
What I've noted in this the third year of Michelle Carey's tenure as artistic director is a more adventurous touch with selection. Yes, there's the usual hot-at-Cannes burble but there's also a greater confidence with cinema outside of the main feed. I was annoyed at the dominance of U.S. independent titles in her first festival program but had to concede that this might have been the pragmatic means of filling a first program: get what's easy and make it a feature. But the last two line ups have proved to be rich and diverse.


BOOKING
Booking is very easy with the website and the app but I wish that I could mass book via the wish list. This was a feature of a few festivals during the 2000s that has disappeared. Why? I used to love setting up all my sessions on the day they were released and then clicking on book these or buy these or whatever the terminology was and that happening. It was a small moment of super-villainous triumph; one click and I rule the next two weeks with the pieces of my plan falling effortlessly into place. Now you have to go to each title (which you can do from your wishlist) and book each one. Ah, well, doesn't take that much longer.

The move from the credit cards to the app was a good one. Before the cards the mini pass was a carboard card which you could add sessions to which were then punched on the card on a desk with a queue separate to the one at the cinema door. With the app you can, if you wish, still print your tickets out or even go to the box office and get that done for you but having an app on your phone with everything you need beats everything prior to it. If there are still people who line up to waste the staff's time by making their mind up when they're served (yes, that used to happen) I hope I never meet them.

THE APP
The least faulty Android app since the introduction of them a few years back. It was ready before time and there were no strange display bugs or glitchy behaviour.There is still an issue with what can be done while logged in and logged out. Shouldn't I just be able to access every feature with a login?Why can't I access my wishlist from the app? Rating films takes a drill-down and some of the search functions could use a little attention. Nevertheless, using the app for its primary value as a ticket dispenser is flawless. The only time I had a problem with it was due to my phone thinking it had to log in to the ACMI wifi and kept throwing me out. So, not the app there.

THE STAFF
Someone has worked out that if you budget enough for the preparation of the volunteers the savings come back in happy customers. My problem with MIFF staff in the past has not been with rudeness as much as cluelessness; people who implode into shortness of temper when encountering irregularity. This year I saw the bright young things of the Vollie brigade welcome everyone in with smiles that weren't stapled on to their faces and a patience I've never known as widespread throughout the festival. If there was a snooty waiter syndrome one among them at any of the venues I missed out on them. If someone strayed I saw polite firmness rather than caving in the face of punter-aggression or assumed superiority from previous years (should  point out there that I haven't seen any real upleasantness for a few years anyway).





THE AD
What ad? Well, there was one and, finally, it wasn't a lame joke that we had to live through at every screening. I did get sick of the people getting so excited they turned into popcorn rapidly and the classy number plate one

THE VENUES
I always wince when the only choice I have for a particular film is ACMI. The screen is big n wide. The sound is good. You'd think the seats were so well placed in rows as to leave too much room for the lizard creatures from Beta Grongo to stretch their hind pincers and push into the seats in front of them. I saw one guy actually stretch his extraterrestrial pins so far that his feet were rubbing their footpath filth over the headrest and arm of two seats in front of him. What the hell goes through the minds of people like this? So, I reluctantly went to ACMI for most of my screenings. Last year I avoided it completely, not a single session there. Can't always get what you want, though...

The Forum is always one of the joys of the Festival. Love the building and atmosphere and the club downstairs. It's a winner.

I'm glad the Treasury is now a venue for all its cruddy seating with the shifty cushions. I just wish they'd let me put a film night for the rest of the year there. I can but dream which is what I'll have to settle for.

I liked the experience of the Comedy but wouldn't want to make a habit of it. The sense that the seats were all squashed in was strong. While this didn't really affect me as I was in the front row for my only screening there (99 Homes) I would not like to be more toward the middle. Then again, they have a bar in the auditorium.

SO...
All up a cruisey business. Being strapped for extra leave this year, I'm not taking my usual post-MIFF week off. Well, I don't need it anyway as the work I was doing crammed up against the screenings left no time for filmy shenanigans anyway and, spending a lot of time without anyone else in the room meant that wasn't doing a lot (actually any) partying to make a recovery week necessary. So, it's off to work I return, having an easy Sunday eve not spent ironing shirts (did them a week ago).


ALSO ...
Having harped on this for most of these roundups for the past few years I can add a little something about queueing. Anyone who has read these o'er the years will know I like the front few rows. I learned a fair few years back that it didn't matter if was at the beginning of the line or at the freezing element-exposed end of it, I pretty much always get the seat I want, front and centre ... ish. Well, this is the first fest where I didn't wait in a queue once. This is easy for me as I live in a suburb that borders on the CBD where the venues are. I'm about fifteen minutes brisk winter stride from the furthest of the venues. So, I would turn up just after the main block had gone in while the first slides were running on screen. The one time this backfired was my first session. I had forgotten that the Kinos MIFF cinemas only have tiny front rows and capacities generally. So, I saw The Duke of Burgundy at a severe angle, idly checking for any anamorphosis in the compositions (well, you never know with Peter Strickland). The closest I came to queueing was getting to the end of the line for The Witch on Russell St but that was already moving when I joined it. (Then I had to dash ahead of the zombie-march exit for one of a few midnight Mai Tai meetings with the o- the autre significante.) That was a great result but I'll admit to missing the sense of event palpable from being in a long conga line for an eagerly awaited movie. Actually, bugger that, it's much better now.

Roll on August 2016!

MIFF Session #15: THE FORBIDDEN ROOM

 I showed a friend of mine the 1950s version of The Thing. She enjoyed it but had to get out: "what if they made movies like that now." She wasn't referring to the durable compulsion of the Christian Nyby classic but the kind of acting that was the norm at the time and the way the film played out in spare, essential scenes to its final tension. Well, they do. Since the concept of post-modernism landed arse-backwards into populist cinema in the '90s and people started making movies designed to be cult, the movies have never looked older. But then there's Guy Maddin.

Maddin started clanging about in his Winnipeg workshop in the '80s, well out of the range of the spotlight, fashioning a kind of cinema that is both fresh and very old. His silent short films like Heart of the World look like Eisenstein but play like Lynch and the refusal to hop on the tribute band wagon clear from the start. Maddin doesn't copy old movies he makes his own new. The acting was a mix of stagey early sound (and the sound itself decidedly early), irised scene transitions and vignetting in sets that looked like the ones in Murnau or Lang. The stories were a loopy mix of old manners and joltingly modern ones. They were impossible to categorise (they certainly weren't just retro) even as comedy or melodrama and finally we who followed him in fascination had to admit that here was that rarest of cinethings in the current climate: an auteur. Guy Maddin makes Guy Maddin films.

Well, he did or I thought he did until I saw Keyhole (most recent before this) a bizarre retelling of Ulysses' return to Ithaca told in jazz age dress and in the cleanest scope image you ever did see (ditto for the audio). It was bizarre because its cleanliness did not fit the odd dreamlike mashing of the mythical story. That was clearly intentional but the intention itself was silent. So, I came to this with a wince of trepidation, knowing that I want my favourite artists to keep developing but also want them to stay where I like them best.

Well, it didn't take a second through the warping slide show and protean hybrid clean and dirty  electronics of the music to know that I was in for something I'd like.

Story? Too many. Ok, a submarine crew is carrying a gelatinous explosive that is melting and must be kept under a certain depth to stop it melting too much and exploding. They are looking for their captain who has disappeared. Suddenly into this scene, a lumberjack comes in through an airlock, telling a tale of trying to save his ladylove who is being held captive in the cave of the local brigands. After a hilarious scene of strength and skill trials the woodsman is welcomed among them but his goal, the lovely Margot demands greater proofs of his loyalty starting the next night. As she and the robbers are sleeping she dreams she has amnesia and enters a night club as a flower girl and then strange Lydia Lunch style cabaret singer and on and on. But every one, every new tale (and they average a new one every few minutes or even seconds), the forgetful and murderous husband, the literally broken motorcycle girl, her doting doctor and his brother, as escaped criminal and the miller (and "pillow hugger" he works for) and the various dreams by new characters, a volcano and the hairs of a moustache (this list doesn't begin to cover it) ALL, every one I remembered to count, get resolved for the end for, as dreamlike as Maddin gets (i.e. in every film he does and deeply) he keeps a strong hand on narrative flow and there isn't a moment that isn't set in it's own part of the greater arc.

And Maddin the stylist never lets up. The music ranges from clear high resolution string sections to muffled Victrola records to acapella songs to '80s ballads so precise and perverse they sound like Sparks (Youtube them)*. Images of the characters warping as though viewed through water appear like underlay. New characters are given title cards with the character names and the actors who play them. The palette shifts rapidly between desaturated colour, Technicolorish boldness, deep greyscale, vaseline lensed obscurity. The home workshop look to props and sets continues from Maddin's own traditions. The acting looks silent or wrenched from the early talkies. The gang's all here. It feels comfortable but just that step more assured and restless. Keyhole was an interesting detour; he's much stronger on the path.

Also, we're getting a higher profile international cast this time, including Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Mathieu Amalric and Geraldine Chaplin among many many others, often in multiple roles. I had worried about the high recognition casting back in the day of Isabella Rosselini in The Saddest Music in the World. No more need to worry now as then. He's come through with enough of what we liked on top and riches that we love in the middle. Might have to watch Keyhole again, now.


*Um, just found out that the Derriere Song is by Sparks.

MIFF Session #14: DALMAS

A beefy ex-cop barges through the early 70s underground scene in Melbourne, looking for clues to find a Mr Big and investigate Plastic Man who is seeding seedy acid into the realm of corruptable youth. His encounters take him to a philosophy-spouting ex-cop current junkie (nice turn by a young Max Gillies), into the fists and boots of his old colleagues on the narc squad and a crew he meets in psychedelic clubland who are making a film about the counter culture. Soon after this, the quite solid private eye in edge-land has worked with real muscles, despite the stiff dialogue.

Everyone flees to the country where they try to keep the film going as the director and crew and cast of the film we are watching pull at the strands of the conventional cinema it started with and draw out, by group agreement, any theme or method that anyone can think of. That's not my criticism, it's what happens on screen.

So, before the film is half its running time old we have moved from cop land to late 60s Godard territory (which by this film's production was populated by anyone but Godard) and are presented with a mishmash of recorded meetings, avant theatre, satire, reconstructed anecdotes, campfire chats, and anything else that the people we have seen in the kitchen can think up. That's really it. So, why did I find this constantly diverting and thoroughly enjoyable?

It's before my time for nostalgia (my yoof movement was punk, a few seemingly long years later) but it did remind me of some of the friends some of my older siblings attracted in the early 70s, fabulous furry and freakish dreamers who proposed anything from the influence of alien races on local politics to plans for building flying saucer engines, the resurrection of the lost arts of tarot, organic farming and whatever was frowned upon by the straight world. I liked these familiar people from my glimpse of them from the sidelines of my childhood and who later appeared abundantly in Peter Carey's stories and novels.

The too frigidly dated anti-Viet politics are almost entirely absent in preference for resistance to Hollywood film convention. It took me a few scenes but the time capsule value on screen here is far less the wearisome hippydom of Godard and Antonioni fetishists (the characters here are happy to distinguish themselves from the "middle class" hippies they see). This is less film in revolt. This is 1973; it's an apotheosis of the big gleaming optimism of the Whitlam years. We were out of Vietnam, the White Australia policy and weren't even official colonialists with the return of the admin to New Guinea's people. This is less Billy Jack than Man With a Movie Camera, life, love and movies are going DIY and BYO. Life is free if you want it.

Still, worthiness doesn't cut it for even five minutes of directionless lens-pointing. What's left is the character of the people in front of the camera. These are fresh faced folk, rambled minded but charming with it. Their endless fraying of the points and arguments are neither naive nor particularly profound and most of them, without the restlessly changing visuals. The moment of violence I was hoping for came pretty much when it needed to and the looping self-reflexive finale, while predictable felt welcome rather than trite. I was expecting to be exhausted by this one and feared I might walk out but I easily settled into it on its terms, knowing that the director would heed his own lessons for his more famous Pure Shit a few years later. So, I met this with the enjoyment that it was made to combat and can't think of a finer outcome for a film that deserves a continued screen life.

Friday, August 14, 2015

MIFF Session #13: THE WITCH

A family of religious zealots are thrown out of a community of religious zealots for being too ... zealous. As they are leaving with their goods and chattles we notice a pair of native Americans walking unresisted into the village. The pilgrim fathers therein are clearly pragmatic enough to trust the heathen locals to help them get by. It also clues us in to what we are about to receive.

The family stop at some lush scenery near a forest and a stream. In the time it takes to build a decent farmhouse out of local materials, eldest daughter Thomasin is playing hide and boo with the family's newest, Samuel. "Oh where am I? ... Boo!" which she has the patience to repeat until she opens her eyes to say boo and the bairn is gone, only a shaking shrub at the edge of the forest to bear witness to the abduction.

Then we get a brief sequence which tells us that we are not going to see a film where the witchcraft is all in the mind of the iggrant god-botherers but actually happening. So, this throws out the Blair Witch in corsets, Crucible and Black Sunday scenarios because nothing is quite behaving the way we expect. That keeps up.

We then follow the sinking fortunes of a family who are discovering the history of farming all over again and the disappearance of one of their own even serves as local legend of sorts (was it witch or wolf that did the deed?) which compounds their already nutso Christianity. Eldest boy Caleb is having to work out his own burgeoning sexual development by himself, gazing at his nubile sister with an intensity that he both enjoys and is deeply ashamed of. The parents have a number of conflicts left unresolved while the business of survival rolls on. But they are no readier to dissolve than the fears of the witch in the woods and will soon find explosive venting of their own.

That's not quite it but to say more of the events unfolding on screen would become exhausting for their sheer linearity. And linear it is. And this is where this film earns its points. This is far less the wild freedom vs constrained civilisation of The Woman than the grinding depth of Kes. Uh huh, this is the horror film that Ken Loach would make if make a horror film he would. As such, we bear the daily drudge of life the slow-as-corn-growing lane at the same time as we receive glimpses into what seems like a literal manifestation of a witch in the woods.

But is this waht we are seeing or the product of religious minds so extreme they were thrown out of sawdust breakfast central? Is the scene where Caleb's teenaged horniness finds fulfillment as blackly magic as it plays for us or something more private and personally explosive? But even this plays strangely with our expectations. We are given the strange comfort of seeing a monstrosity in pleasingly ghastly detail, draw our own conclusions from the incantations of the younger two children playing with the local ram, Black Phillip, and the appearance of the hare whose wrangler deserves all the grass that is edible for giving us such a projectible creature.

The Witch quite simply eats its cake and has it. We get the undeniable but it happens to people committed to denial, fighting the environment in a place where they do not belong. So, we get a horror movie that is short on scares but gigantic on unease and its causes which lie firmly in the familiar territory of the kind of belief that seeks to conquer at all costs, the kind of belief that can scarcely distinguish between childrens' songs, infernal chanting and the language of the psalms. I can hear Ken enviously grinding his teeth in the auditorium from here.

Liked it. Didn't love but like is a high score for a contemporary horror film in a field so bereft of them.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

MIFF Session #12: ANGELS OF REVOLUTION

It's easy to assume that the Russian revolution spread like electricity. It happened in Petersburg and the switch was thrown painting all ten time zones red. The proliferation took years as the agents of change went out in expeditionary teams to integrate the babel of local cultures with the rising Soviet force. This was harder the further away they went from the industrial and agrarian areas more familiar to them. This is the story of one such.

I say story but in effect that should read magic lantern show. After an introductory scene that serves to both tell us about the local resistance to the Soviet team and shake hands with the tableau approach that will make this film. We are then introduced to the team one by one as they are selected from the aspects of progress which will be used to lure the natives from their subsistence into the blinding light of the new. So, in addition to the cinegenic Polina we get a filmmaker, a doctor, a photographer, an industrial designer, a composer etc who head off to the wilds several time zones away to convert the people and vanquish their gods.

While not strictly non or anti narrative, Angels of Revolution takes its time to establish depth rather than sequence in its first half as we follow the team's recruitment and preparation. The sense of their mission being a non-returnable grows as we watch them training and playing like cosmonauts. Indeed, I was reminded more than once of Alexei German's sprawling Hard to be a God as the team set about bring the Inuit-like peoples into the modern world. We already know this will end well for them and here we witness why.

A sumptuous pallette, a great feeling for landscape and a strongly managed demonstration of the differences in culture either side of the divide, the bursting, assisted colour of the pre-Stalin Soviet world and the frosty primeval rites of the forest and lake peoples whose god-invested effigies might as well control the seasons and the yields of the land.

The home made hot air balloon is straight out of Andrei Rublev and there are many reminders of Dziga Vertov and Eisenstein all of which can only fail to win the Khanty and Nenet from their wooden magic. Only one thing might have done this and the sight of it dazzles with its elegant power: a film the team have made is projected on the smoke of a bonfire.

This is not an easy film to approach if your preferences run more to Dr Zhivago than Man With a Movie Camera. It is, nevertheless, made in the spirit of the thing it depicts, in ruminant recognition of its adventure and naivete. As such it is a fitting eulogy for the effort and a solid reminder of its built in disaster.

MIFF Session #11: HILL OF FREEDOM

Mori returns to Seoul where he taught Japanese to get back with the girl he fell in love with then. We see her pick up his letter to her about this and then we see Mori as his voiceover reads the letter. He has found a guest house close to where he remembers her living and knocks on her door, leaving notes when it doesn't open. We see her reading the letter with an expression that tells us it isn't welcome. Meanwhile, Mori gets busy acquainting himself with the other guests and the girl at the local cafe and from an early point we see that the progress of his visit is delivered in reverse. Well, kind of. When his correspondent opened the letter the pages spilled out and she read them in the order she put the unnumbered pages together. So, the events sometimes play in the right order but mostly they're backwards.

Mori doesn't speak Korean and the Koreans he meets don't speak Japanese. The dialogue is almost entirely in the third language of English. This means that not only does Mori face commicating with a lack of precision but the Koreans have to speak like tourists in their home town. Even when the conversation is warm or intimate it must pass through this filter. No one is saying quite what they mean and, even if their English is fluent, what they say is constantly compromised.

Just as he did with information deficit in last year's wonderful Our Sun Hi, Sang-Soo Hong plays with the fullness and clarity of meaning in the speech of his conversants. A subtle warning might emerge as a pleasantry, a compliment patronising. Through all of this the characters work on saying what they mean but the cheaper shot of farcical misunderstanding is not on the menu.

Instead, we get a deceptively gentle meditation on the constant problems of communication which scrubs up beautifully as comedy. It's easy to lose sight of Mori's trouble with love but that is the thing that informs almost every frame. Hong continues his great trust in his actors by keeping most of the scenes single shots and the focal length medium and the angle a profile while never feeling stagey.

This was shown with the Claire Denis short Voila l'enchainement which also used static close shots to describe a couple's disintegration in dialogue and monologue. It made its point and continued to do so, growing weighty and oppressive very quickly. Its thirty minutes on screen felt like Hill of Freedom's sixty-six and the reverse is damningly as true. Long live Sang-Soo Hong!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

MIFF Session #10: THE NIGHTMARE: No credit refused

A disparate group of people ranging from twenties to forties in America and the UK describe their experiences with sleep paralysis. The accounts vary from a very simple but clearly haunting child's encounter with a tv news broadcast that didn't behave as it should to seeing aliens made of static peering over the narrator's crib. The format starts with to camera one-on-ones and, when necessary, branches out into effective cinematic realisations using an array of now familiar but still potent audio visual cues.

We follow the chain of accounts from the first experiences with these terrors through to their victims' discovery of the documented phenomenon of sleep paralysis and delve further into the nature of the condition and in some cases it's even more fearsome developments. The cast of interviewees is appealing and the sense of cinema extends to the notion of cultural feedback from horror cinema which, while diverting, is not investigated. Some fourth-wall breakage here and there adds stylistic texture and an arc of sorts is established. This is never less than enjoyable and engaging to watch and doesn't outstay its welcome at a tidy ninety minutes.

But there's a problem which starts early and doesn't go away. I and the documentarians have no problem believing that the accounts of the sufferers are accurate reports of their perceptions in this state. However, there are signs quite early on that we are not going to get any commentary from science or the medical profession as to the nature of the condition which would expand the account and render it even more fascinating.

Instead, we are given frequent testimony that the sufferers have gone to medicine only to be dismissed. Their own dismissal of science and the breadth of that dismissal across the cast lets the sense of investigation slowly and quietly collapse and soon enough the film itself assumes the ambience of ghost stories at a sleepover. When one of them mentions that one particularly powerful encounter with the monsters of his paralysis he was no longer an atheist. When another claims that she banished her demon by evoking Jesus' name the game is up. She goes on to attest that not only had she been scornful of the notion of marrying a Christian but that her time with the night terrors drove her into the arms of such an one.

After this, any further accounts start looking like actors' show reels for X-Files auditions. And is the notion that horror movie feedback is informing the accounts is the same thing that is giving this film its look and feel too obvious?

We end with a series of the sufferers refuting science with a babel of wishful thinking and it is like watching a group of mentally ill people swearing allegiance to their own delusions. Simply, this film can only be entertainment without the moderation of science and without taking its meds is left lost and pretty. As the banker in Bedlam cries by night: come all, come all, no credit refused.