Sunday, July 31, 2011
That's the sum of the plot information I'm going to give. The rest of it is best experienced fresh and without peeping at the imdb. That might be hard to do for awhile if you don't see it at the festival but I urge you to wait until a cinema release (unlikely now our arthouse scene has been cremated) or on an optical format snared from o'erseas. If you have any genuine love for what cinema can achieve at its wildest and yet most intentional then you need to see this film. Simple as that.
I have seen gorier films and films more unrelentingly violent than this but not since Martyrs and Irreversible before it have I been so exhilarated by relinquishing my control over a film and letting it force its way into me like this.
I am unaware if director and co-writer Lucky Mckee has made any statement to this effect but this film, even more than Martyrs (for which the claim was made) this is an anti-torture-porn film. Where Martyrs takes a kind of Kubrick approach to the use of pain in art The Woman chooses a linear assault on its audience as brutal as the actions and motives of its characters. There is no luxuriating in the means of pain and, crucially, no path of identification with the perpetrator. The person who can empathise with Chris and his very scary son will require immediate and terrifying psychiatric attention. There is similarly no sleaze or covert invitation to fellow travel. We are meant to be appalled by what we are seeing. If the silence of the full house at the Russell this evening is anything to go by, I think we won't be hearing of any copycat cases any time soon in this neighbourhood.
The film's great strength is the shift in ethical position. An impossibly oppressive situation presented to the family reveals a range of responses that for the most part must be kept secret from the family autocrat. The results of dissent to the latter are horrifying. The real achievement of the film lies in its management of this complex interrelationship. The morality here is front and centre but also protean, self-preserving as well as righteous.
There is something else that impresses me about this film (note that I haven't even mentioned any performances yet: they are uniformly strong): the music. It starts out with a winceable reliance on the kind of American indy rock that parties like it's 1974 and punk is never going to happen, a robotic constant replay of old man's music presented as new. Then when things start getting very very serious it is temporarily binned in favour of some old style synthesiser grind that really does sound fresh by contrast. Why? Because its violence is entirely appropriate to the atrocity happening on screen. No coy, winking irony, no reprieving levity, just a big ugly noise that matches the pictures. Then it's back to the robot rock and the sense that this America is culturally on borrowed time. Morally, as well.
I should stop gushing and let you get on the case of tracking it down or booking yourself any session left.
Other things that occurred to me: rather than the resolutely ok Life During Wartime, this is exactly the kind of thing Todd Solondz should have developed from his masterful Happiness. Chris with his violence with a smile and unrestrained colonising of other human life reminded me of Dubbya and his delivery of US foreign policy in the 2000s. The power of the woman is solid and punishing in this tale that, while it might in fact preach, practices practices practices....
Friday, July 29, 2011
"You think of the earth as a small blue dot. I think of it as a cluster of rocks"
So screams Murata San to Shamoto San as the former stands over the film's first murder victim who is still choking to death. Here endeth the lesson. Well, not quite.
(Shamoto, who runs a) LITTLE (tropical) FISH (shop) MEETS (Murata who runs a) BIG (tropical) FISH (emporium). Shamoto's life is small and low on function. His daughter is a tearaway and hates his new wife who has grown cold on him. Called in one night to a supermarket to represent the daughter who has been caught shoplifting, the couple are desolate and expect the worst in this latest of minor atrocities enacted by her. Then Mr Murata influences his way into the scene and charms the supermarket manager out of pressing charges. He then charms the unglued family to see his bigger and better shop. It's the big business version of their own dowdy place and they are humbled and excited by it. Mr Murata suggests giving Mitsuko (daughter) a job to keep her honest and start her earning.
Things already aren't looking quite right with the appearence of the burningly sexual Taiko (Murata's wife). Mitsuko goes to work in the Murata uniform and when her father goes to check on her and visit the family saviour he is treated to the scene I started with above. One step and he's an accomplice. The corpse is dismembered (in more senses than one, though it's offscreen) and rendered ...elemental and cast to nature. Mr Shamoto didn't know he was weak until he met Mr Murata. Now he does, how will he cope with the knowledge and what can he do about it?
This is a non-Yakuza gangster story based on a much smaller story from the news. Sono, as he did with Suicide Circle, Noriko's Dinner Table and Strange Circus, brings his own vision to the table. This outing is visually restrained (as Noriko was) by comparison. These are the deep waters of a character study and would only be muddied by the flamboyance of Suicide Circle or Strange Circus. Sono uses 35 mm filmstock and sticks with it, favouring a plain optical tone until the setpieces towards the climax demand more. As usual, he draws strong perfomances from his cast and takes his audience to the far side of crazy to the point where even those chortling nervously are equally in the spirit as those who gasp in horror. At some points the only response entirely individual. Seeing it at a packed Greater Union tonight, this phenomenon was both disconcerting and thrilling.
As with all his films, however far into gaspingly violent mayhem he can take us, Sono never loses sight of morality and doesn't mind showing how ghastly its face can get. This story of a weak man who finds his strength when forced is pushed far beyond the shadows on a multiplex screen, however strong they might be. Morality bends, warps and acts like it's on the same acid that Hendrix took at Woodstock but, unlike the Tarrantino or Ritchie gangster comedies, it never surrenders to nihilism, however close it comes. This is exhilarating cinema!
Screening note: I sat in my usual third from front row centre. At the point of the feature starting, as those around me cool talked into their moblies, saving seats and closing off anodyne chats, a huge guy sat a knight's move away from me. The moment he removed his jacket I caught a gust of the worst B.O. I've ever smelt outside of a friend of mine who went for weeks at a time claiming that nature was its own soap. A thick, almost staining acrid stench. He managed to clear a near perfect circle of seats around him and reminded me of photographs of the devastation of the forests at Tunguska.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
As one tabloid got the exclusive rights first they followed her version of events. Its rival in chief dug for dirt and found a continent's worth of it. Far from the wronged southern belle her version held as essence, she was a thoroughly experienced sex worker, offering myriad services for the gentleman half of the great unwashed including, crucially, a lot of role play.
Ok ... if that's true why did she drag a licenced pilot and bodyguard to accompany her to the UK (where the Mormons had sent him), financing the entire jaunt. Publicity? She didn't want for clients back home. Doesn't gel unless the part of her story about her life's great love is actually true. Alright, call it psychotic obssession, her motives here are not entirely impure. There's more to come which you will NOT expect but for that you'll have to see the movie.
Errol Morris pioneered a technique whereby his subjects are lined up to look him and his camera in the eye, allowing for a conversational warmth and relaxation to pervade their testimony. This works here as it always has; the connection between the speaker and the auditorium a solid current.
Next, Morris injects two other tropes, a series of tabloid fonted statements which flash over the image like Fleet St headlines, adding irony to, often contradicting and now and then very cheekily correcting what is being claimed behind them.
The second device is the use of campy old footage from various sources to the same effect as the headlines. This can fall like a lump of granite through a frog pond but here the choice of material is so sharp and precisely timed that it serves to support the form AND luxiuriate in the embellishment and fabrication that we are experiencing. The central turth alluded to above, thus is rendered curiously inviolate, however little we can eventually credit the speaker.
This was an all but full house which roared along to its mastery. That's another reason why I love MIFF: I can wash and bash around in the cinematic equivalent of a mosh pit in front of films that I might otherwise quietly enjoy at home accompanied by few or all on my lonesome.
You could easily point to the timeliness of this project, given the current story of the stories, but what it damns and celebrates are timeless things: sin and human curiosity.
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
So, a lean 'n' mean crime story? No, it really is a folk tale dressed in post-Soviet garb. Action sequences, particularly kills, happen swiflty and decisively with an almost naive neatness. Ivan's realisation that leads to his vengeance is done quietly. We see his emotion but he never been in the habit of showing more than a hint of it. So, lean, at least? Well, no, apart from the kills we are presented with continual evidence that it takes a lot of time and effort to walk anywhere in St Petersberg. Add to that the four easy listening latin guitar tracks that are plastered end to end on high rotation until the climax, after which a new one is introduced. This at first looks sloppy and cheap but the repetition of the music is so unignorable and patterned that is clearly intentional; a kind of bullish muzak as authentically Russian as the Yakut furs are Yakut that Ivan's daughter sells in the shop where she works.
But through all this hard surface we can yet see the heart beating and it is that of Ivan and his lost tradition. A silent but narrated coda delivers the story he has been writing about a Russian's oafish assaults on a simple Yakut family.
If what we have seen seems naive or shallow we are best to remind ourselves that the account we have just been through is not meant to be sophisticated but a true and heartfelt rendering of events by a (mostly) gentle soul who could relate them in no other way.
This won't be my favourite from the fest ... but it's working its way in.
As that is as good as seeing a sticker on a shop door saying "back in five minutes" she embarks on her own trek to the rest area. From this point she meets a small number of characters mostly unrelated to each other. Each encounter leaves her a little worse off until she is hobbling through the desolate landscape persistently failing to get to the rest area even when she has a map to follow. Weird animal voices rise, bellowing from the distance. The stranger from the opening scene occasionally contacts her through the sole electrical device that still works. He gives her survival advice that is not always timely in a manner that is both enigmatic and throwaway. Theft, bullying, attempted rape and a series of further interpersonal atrocities later, our pregnant heroine finally arrives at the troubling reason for everything she has been through which I shall not reveal.
Shot mostly in determinedly distressed video, a sickly amber tint dries every character into constant discomfort, the film uses its scant resources in a way with confidence rather than apology. A few hi-def sequences surprise with their clarity but also reassure by their control. At first the restlessness seems like a lack of overall direction but a little patience later, once it's clear that this is how this story will be told, like it or not, this film is here in front of you, resist it at your peril. We are in the hands of a filmmaker who knows what he wants to say and what he needs to say it AND NO MORE. This is a debut feature!
This extraordinary film is why I go to MIFF on a mini pass every year: the chance to see something
fresh and powerful and individual. 10/10 on all three counts. I'm loath to call this film post-apocalyptic as its purposes are more complex than that usually suggests. I initially compared this to The Quiet Earth, Geoff Murphy's extraordinary 80s entry but that's because this one is so difficult to compare that any point of similarity suggests itself as a relief. But I think End of Animal is happy enough to be out on its limb and stay there. Even if the rest of the sessions are middling to poor (unlikely with two Sion Sono films to come) I will consider this MIFF a hit because of this one film.
I this has been released, I'm hunting down my own copy.
PS -- I saw this with a hangover so I was constantly hydrating myself. By the time I got to the session my bladder started sending some very urgent pages which made me seriously check the exits and plan on a quick dash. I kept watching while scheming but within 20 minutes I was so aborbed by the film that the urgency subsided and I forgot all about it. The only more gruelling hold-in was another MIFF title from a ew years back: Inland Empire.
Monday, July 25, 2011
The overall story plays out in three time zones, childhood, adolescence and adulthood (though this last is itself split up). Basic arc? A boy and girl, unrelated, start out in life as perfectly functioning beings until meeting with their own personal cataclysms which send them plummeting into withdrawal. But the arc is fractured. You get to know these two better as adults first and then when the time is judged right to reveal the shaping disastrous experiences we get to see those.
Between those experiences and the pitiable adulthood this pair attains we get quite a lot of the adolescent experience. Alice is cruelly bullied but her National Geographic Afgan Girl stare breaks through (subtly and credibly) to the bully in chief, Viola who then takes the frail outcast under her wing. At a party where the big kiss is meant to happen between Alice and the geeky Mattia this goes sour when Viola's gaze after her protege reveals a kiloton of homoeroticism and basis for near future self loathing. So, Alice either kisses Mattia or doesn't and will still go back to victimhood. The party sequence where this takes place could be from a Gaspar Noe film (acid lighting, eardrum shattering bass and human beauty in dirty colour.
I'm going to stop describing the plot now. Not for fear of spoiling it. I'll stop there because this film is less about plot than the revelation of important experiences and their often saddening results. This is a film about unhappiness but draws a lot of its audio visual inspiration from genres which feature little sadness, horror and giallo thrillers. Long slow tracks down school corridors, the Carrie-like bullying scenes, and Gaspar Noe's teen shindig all contribute to a film filtered through another type of film. The director and female lead were present at my screening and I was itching to ask about their effective use of Morricone's la-la girl voice music from The Bird with the Crystal Plumage but then saw that Mike Patton had been in charge of that (and someone else asked, anyway).
The strength of this film is in its performances. The players in each time zone go to the ends of their parts, convincing at every moment. Isabella Rosselini is particularly strong as Mattia's mother. The two adult leads, Luca Marinelli (Mattia) and Alba Rohrwacher (Alice) take us down into their pendulum pits with unflattering concentration. We follow because we are compelled by their bravery. Not fun. Not meant to be. But sincere without the apologetic cuteness. Not Miranda July, in other words.
PS-- the Q&A session after this screening was not heralded well enough to prevent the outflow of most of the audience. This was a pity as the interaction was pithy if brief and well worth the trouble. Alba Rohrwacher began answering a question in English (which was fine) and explained something humorous but took the responding laugh to be directed at her use of English. It would have been too awkward to have corrected this so she finished her answer in Italian. Pity.
Saturday, July 23, 2011
The voices which led her and France to military victory over the hated English have also gone silent. If she has become reviled since the victories have dried up her own silence spooks her captors. What follows is a number of associations which illustrate a range of sanctification. Her prison physician sees her as a force of nature as essential to his life as the bees whose honey he delivers to his patient. The English captain charged with delivering her to his superiors bows to her as one warrior to another. Then, as the inevitable conclusion at the stake approaches we find two religious figures, a monk and a pilgrim, pragmatic and ethereal by turns failing to save her from the flames.
The sole needless material in the film is that which shows her treatment at the hands of the English. A number of informative titles appear throughout which provide minimal background to what we are seeing. What we are seeing is the very kind of thing Kubrick referred to as non-submersible units: sizeable scenes, even in weight and depth that give a sense of witness to an audience rather than more conventional emotional empathy. The scenes around the trial, the cruelty and mockery of the English are possibly there to contrast with the awe in the other units but they take a trip down biopic lane which feels like the lights going up at closing time. Still...
Clemence Poesy in the title role is continuously impressive. It took me half the film to work out why she was so familiar. She'd already compelled my eye by making a lot of the scanty role she had in Phillip Ridley's superb Heartless. As Joan she starts at the deep end by acting without words (and makes it look like real determination). As her physician delivers a eulogy of her victories her supine profile is like a sculpted Christ on a sepulchre come eerily to life. When the English captain gives her her first sight of the ocean, the peasant girl who has known the Boschian hell of mortal combat is shocked into white faced terror at this force she must compare to the god of her voices. Her delivery of the statement demanded by her English judges has an anger and sadness that has the cool quiet of the cloister but also the hiss of the flames that await her.
M. Night Shamylan's Signs was a strong thriller/family drama that pulled the plug on its own power by a screamingly oafish character reversal at the end. The Silence of Joan would not allow such a thing as it finds the notion of sanctity so fascinating (not just useful). In the end here, after the big event, are two moments of consecration, one earthly and compulsive but sweetened with ritual and the other bafflingly ascetic, performed using water from the same river. Roll credits. Beautiful.
Don't sit through the credits for the gag reel. Not worth it.
Saturday, July 9, 2011
As the chill thickens and Milos shatters another chunk of combustibles, come in out of the fog, sit by the fire and thrill, ogle and wonder at these seven tales of humanity's better half. No agendas here beyond the fact that I've never put a program like this together until now. From irreverent political intrigue, through psychedelic melodrama and edgy gangster comedy to the ghostly silence after a war, we have something for ev- lots of people. I didn't choose a mother, a daughter, a freedom fighter etc, just made sure that a lass were front 'n' centre. Enjoy!
THE NASTY GIRL
(Michael Verhoven, 1989, West Germany)
Sonja wins a highschool essay contest which only encourages her. When she announces that her next prizewinner will be about anti-nazi resistance in her Bavarian hometown she gets a lot of pats on the head. Then she starts finding things out.
At first she's met with a series of bureacratic stalls that would make Kafka blush if they hadn't actually happened. Then it's poison answering machine messages. Then it's the local neo-nazis whose insults blow doors off hinges and render whole floors of houses uninhabitable. By that time, Sonja is married with kids, under pressure from the living to forgive and forget the dead. But some of the wrong people aren't dead.
Sounds grim but this film about atrocity and community fear manages to be by turns, cheeky and hilarious as well as sobering. Michael Verhoven has a lot of fun exposing the problem of seeking the truth where it seems forbidden. He gleefully uses obvious back projection to stand in for the hallowed halls of officialdom and shows the effect of neighbourhood gossip by showing the family discussing it atop a double decker bus furnished like their loungeroom as it courses through the town for all to see and hear. The energetic Lena Stolze (a kind of young teutonic Sally Field) plays Sonja with a youthful electricity that yet allows gravity.
Who said political films had to be serious? This is one of the most enjoyable political movies I've ever seen. An odd call when you consider that its chief influences lie in the graver annals of new wave cinema. But even in his cloudiest hour Godard could still deliver a joke. And wasn't it Bert Brecht himself (very much in evidence here) who said that a theatre that can't be laughed in is a theatre to be laughed at?
Screens with Twilight Zone episode Mirror Image
CLEO FROM 5 TO 7
(Agnes Varda, 1962 France)
Life's still dizzy but now it has an anchor chained to its ankle. But this is neither a gloom fest nor a whacky black comedy. Left Bank auteur Agnes Varda keeps Cleo real through a nonstop gauntlet of social and professional errands where, for all the glamour she imparts and is awarded, she must cope with the worst possibility. Then, an encounter with utterly unexpected side of death stops the merry-go-round. Suddenly the lightness of this film's style broadens into real philosophy, however plainly expressed, and the film delivers a punch both elegant and profound. Well, it's Paris 1960, how could it not be elegant and profound? Oh and there's a short silent movie in there featuring Jean Luc Godard and Anna Karina in the leads! Coolest doctor's appointment on film.
Screens with Daria episode Too Cute
(Gabe Ibanez, 2009, Spain)
Years later she is contacted by the police who want her to identify the body of a drowned boy of the right age. Despite their best efforts to convince her otherwise, she knows it isn't him on the slab. Crumbling, she tries to make a holiday of it but then thinks she sees him in a creepy caravan park. Her plan takes shape before she can articulate it. She begins to move toward the reunion with neither caution nor fear.
Elena Anaya (Talk to Her, Sex and Lucia) plays the mother with such single minded intensity that at first it's easy to think that she might allow us no further than the surface. But as the tale progresses and she begins to see what she's up against her constant concern shows the same range of nuance as Hitomi Kuroki in the motherhood thriller Dark Water. That this is set in the Canary Island paradise with a constant parade of natural beauty adds a slow burn of creepiness.
(Sion Sonno, 2006, Japan)
But can fiction like this even exist ... in fiction? Is the act of imagining itself not just an anti-trauma screen for her? And who's imagining what? And what's with the circus of the title where the audience is invited to play themselves as a performance? With questions like this and a painter's pallette delivering imagery both breathtakingly beautiful and gaspingly horrible, this must be Sion Sono, master filmmaker who brought 2002's Suicide Circle to the screen.
The successful author writes with her agent hanging on every paragraph and a coterie of minions lounging about her psychogothic house. Among them is Yuji, new to the team and unimpressed with the fame and the specialness shown by the others. He has a driven interest in his boss' origins not only to expose their truth but his own.
Suicide Circle for all its flamboyance and confrontation was really a sombre essay in what Sono saw as Japan becoming a servile culture. The paraquel Noriko's Dinner Table took a cult's eye view of the same events to more challenging extents and suggested a glimmer of hope. Strange Circus takes the theme of identity further into the heart of darkness than he has ever gone. I can think of no one I'd rather trust with that helm.
THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE
(Victor Erice, 1973, Spain)
the village town hall to see the movie Frankenstein. Ana is haunted by the scene where the monster first plays with the little girl and then throws her into the lake. Trying to sleep that night she is teased by her sister who tells her that the monster lives in an abandoned building on a nearby farm. So, Ana, five years old like the actor playing her, goes looking for him.
A film as quiet and patient as a child's concentration but with all the colour and wonder as well. Victor Erice's strange tale of childhood is set just after Franco came to power in Spain and made just before his death released the country from Fascism.
As with Little Murders, I showed this in my first season of SHADOWS in 2009 but have since been asked to screen it again. I didn't have a film in this series centred on girlhood. So here it is.
Tum is made redundant from her Bangkok bank and goes home to find a box full of money on her doorstep. Miracles? Luck? The 9 on her flat door has a habit of swinging upsidedown and looking like a 6. That's the title, there, by the way, in case you were thinking otherwise.
What happens next is a wicked, breathless comedy of morality and error that moves like a thoroughbred until an ending that is both oddly and fittingly sober. Comparisons with Tarrantino and his tribute band, Guy Ritchie, are understandable but this is not a cover version of a 90s cinefad. As dark and misanthropic as this tale gets it is never the just for yucks nihilism of that tradition. The Bhuddist saying spoken at the end really does seem to express the point of everything that has happened in the previous hundred minutes.
Lalita Panyopas breaks our impressions of her as young and fragile when she crosses her first early-delivered hurdle. Petite and pretty, yes, but this gal is ready for everything heaven and hell can hurl.
JULIET OF THE SPIRITS
(Federico Fellini, 1965, Italy)
Did I say trip? You bet I did. This is the film Fellini made after his first experience with LSD. Thus we get not mere colour but the colours of Ambrosia and not a celebration of a woman but a paen to all of them: earthly goddesses and heavenly frumps: the fempantheon, I decree! And then he came down from acid mountain, made this and it was better than that.