Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Spring again.The warmth rises from the soil and the light of morning is polished to a crystalline sparkle. Once, in the bloom of youth I was a fresh red rose just waiting to be picked. Now I'm old and getting a cold and look more like a fresh red nose just waiting to be picked. Bees hum around the honeysuckle and the jasmine and the larvae of houseflies yet dream softly of the summer. And, och, if the snowdrops aren't already pushing through the earth and lifting their lilywhite heads o'er the tips o' the grass. Spring. And I'm sneezing like a bofors gun.

Your chair,  cine-pilgrim, come in from the lingering chill, sit by the fire with a glass of good substance, and witness these six tales o' trouble and desire.

All they say is "kiss kiss kiss kiss kiss"
                                                          Emiliana Torrini, 2009

Check it!

Season flier to download and print pdf or click on the image for a full size jpg


Friday September 2 8 pm
(110 mins, Pedro Almodovar, 1986)
Roll credits. Beneath them hunky Diego is proactively relaxing in front of the tv as a Jes Franco horror flick plays and he thinks of his instructions to his matador students about making the perfect kill and as this happens a beautiful woman seduces and murders men in the same way, marking the point of incision with a red lipstick kiss to the back of the neck. Young, virginal, brought up hyper Catholic Angel asks Diego about seduction and then takes the older man's advice with ugly literalism, dragging the latter's lover into an alley. This is the start of Matador, Pedro Almovodar's show of red cape to Spain's conservatism.

This film is not about bullfighting but the culture that celebrates it, at the centre of which is a former star of the bullring (retired through injury) who has lost touch with any intimacy beyond its violence. And it ain't just him. Blend here those he influences as a teacher of bullfighting including the dangerously malleable Angel (a very young and achingly earnest Antonio Banderas), the clingy girlfriend whose passion seems for the image rather than the man, the ravishing lawyer whose interest in Angel's case deepens and corrupts, and the detective partners who work through a baffling case of perp-confessed rape that turns into what might be serial murder. At the centre of this is an attraction both vile and disturbingly beautiful which, at its consummation, seems nothing less than perfect.

Almovodar, famous for his excess and transgressive taunting, shows the kind of restraint he is alleged to have developed only in his maturity. For there beneath the sin writ large on screen beats a genuine heart.

Friday September 9th   8 pm
(90 mins + short)
Audry is young and beautiful and set for a life as a fashion model and future with her high school football star boyfriend. Then Josh comes to town. Strong and silent, he has returned to Long Island with a past. He's been in prison but no one can agree what he was put there for, though most assume it was murder. Audry's father is the only person in town who'll give him a job. It's said we covet what we see every day. If what we covet is a mystery as well then coveting pulses up to desiring. Bye bye, footballer.

 Hal Hartley's first full go at his entwined themes of trouble and desire remains his rawest and so freshest. His comic touch is light but assured, transparent over more serious issues like trust and deception. Further sorties into this territory like Trust or Henry Fool might have been crafted with greater sophistication  but they never felt more sincere than here. The trademark deadpan delivery of smart dialogue begins here and, though it can come across as stiffly contrived, it works. I don't care how false the circular exchange sounds between Josh and the waitress, it's just fun, like a good big dumb pop song. Adrienne Shelley lights up every frame she's in. Robert Burke shows real intellect through his tall dark stranger persona. Great dialogue, cast and characters, good story steered by a helmsman setting out on a voyage of discovery. What's not to love?

Friday September 16th   8 pm
(85 mins, Pang Bros. 2006)
 Since her baby left her Winnie passes her time in Lonely Towers, making dolls and keeping a diary. Writing to him and trying to contact him through his work continually fail. Then one day, going to his building she meets someone whose resemblance to him stops her dead. He is so like Mr Silent that she is compelled to approach him. Soon they're having coffee. Soon he's moving in. Next task? She needs to keep in touch with the difference between him and the dolls.

The Pang brothers who brought us the extraordinary The Eye and Ab-Normal Beauty have been in the genre bending business for most of the last decade, injecting cavernous character depth into what might otherwise have been above average horror tales. Here we go on a psychological dive in a bathysphere, all the way to the final line, delivered quietly for maximum gutpunch.

Friday September 23rd   8 pm
(88 mins + short)
Detective Mark MacPherson, NYPD, has been in love with Laura Hunt from the moment he saw her. Trouble is she's as dead as a shotgun blast can make a dame. Following her troubling life from those who knew her he becomes increasingly fascinated with the woman.

Clifton Webb plays the queen bitch newspaper columnist as though his veins ran with nourishing strychnine. Vincent Price in an early, rare non-horror role, is an idle yankee aristocrat and proto metrosexual. Dana Andrews, pointedly at the other end of the class spectrum, hard boils smokily as the haunted detective. But it is Gene Tierney in flashback as Laura whose radiance and benign innocence give clear indication why she was able to rise from obscurity to society damehood without corruption.

A study in fascination by a master of the form.

Friday September 30th   8 pm
Mini Double Bill!


Brian takes John on a trip to Barcelona in the hope that this occasion with the younger man away from his boisterous cronies might finally give a sign no matter how slight that there is more to their relationship. So what? Well Brian is Brian Epstein and John is John Lennon. This is a self-avowed speculation based on a genuine event that the straight world of Beatle fandom tends to skip. Whatever happened, the idea that the young Lennon might have found something in himself outside of the Beatlemania world that had already grown cage-like at this point is an intriguing one.

David Angus presents a suffering Epstein. Ian Hart gives us a seemingly note perfect Lennon, even chewing gum as a kind of conversational defence shield. This performance clearly gave him a taste for the character as he ressurected it two years later in Backbeat.

While this story is less about the Beatles than it is about love the fact of the historical place of the two men adds significance. There is the class divide that separates them and which both know as a struggle. And there is the divider of fame. A scene where Lennon's attempt at seducing a woman does not go as easily as he expected is powerful for all its underplaying and the suggestion that while soon he will never have to do that much work again he will have lost something by that.

The other part of this screening is the MYSTERY FILM. When I unlock the mystery I'll post it here. Now, I gotta post this blog as time is running out.

Friday October 7th 8 pm
(105 mins Michele Soavi 1994)
The girl of his dreams is killed after their night o' magic so Franco falls into a wallow. Then he meets her again and the same thing happens. Maybe here I should point out that Franco is the keeper of the local cemetery whose duties include putting bullets into the brains of corpses who have dug their way out of their graves.

Rupert Everett brings a careworn aristocracy to Franco, dispatching zombies during a phone conversation as though brushing off a fly. The Quasimodo-like Naghy can solve complex puzzles but only speak in grunts. And into this gothic everyday floats the ethereally beautiful Anna Falchi ("She" in the credits), a femme fatale as Edgar Allen Poe might have imagined.

Far less a horror film than a romance with a setting that happens to be gothic, Dellamorte Dellamore refuses to cheapen the genres it appeals to with self reflection. There is comedy here but it rises from the overall arc (this from when Scream was corrupting the horror genre into harmlessness). It's fitting that journeyman of Italian horror, Michele Soavi chose this extension of genre as his graduation piece. There is a little showing off with reference to European art (Magritte's The Lovers, particularly) but the ossuary which looks like an overdressed set was, in fact, a real one. Soavi serves up all his elements in a big showy blend before slamming on the breaks for one of the genre's strangest endings.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

MIFFdrawal session 5: Hanna

A hunter's cottage deep in the snowy woods. The hunter spends the long winter nights teaching his daughter, Hanna, about the world. One night she interrupts him with the words: I'm ready. He stops, looks to one side in thought. The next day he goes into the woods and carefully paces a location. He digs and retrieves something very contemporary which he places on the cottage table when he returns. When Hanna asks what it is he replies that it's a tracking device that will tell Marissa where they are and their world will change. Hanna flips the switch. Then it's out the back for weapons training.

Dad cleans up to look more like Eric Bana than he did as a hairy hunter and makes his way toward their planned rendezvous in Berlin. Big military choppers swarm down on the cottage. The first assault ends in silence. A second team bash in to find the first few slaughtered on the floor. A slight blonde snow maiden looks down at them with a disturbing passivity.

Ok, so far that's a hunter and his daughter, a magic device and the powers of a wicked witch. Why is this any more than a fairy tale with assault weapons? Why the hell would you want it to be?

The themes here are genetic modification, wicked witchery, fathers keeping secrets and a babe out of the woods, pure of heart and powerful because of it. Magic and mayhem. But this film has sustained a lot of hate. A lot of paid critics I've read on this one complain about the heavy hand and others (like the ones on imdb) talk about plot holes.

To the first charge all I can say is that the references to Grimms fairy tales, however large they may be writ, work. Yes, I get Cate's witch emerging from the mouth of a huge wooden wolf, but I suspect I'm meant to get it. It's not failed cleverness, it's the film doing it's job. Fairy tales aren't just about princesses, witches and magic they are about strangers and dangers. The thing that I think looks hamfisted to some critics here is the film going beyond use of fairytale iconography for its premise and continuing to become a fairytale itself. Its constant mashup of naivete and worldly gravity (strongest at the Grimm-themed funpark and with the liberal English family Hanna hitches with) serves this end with no necessity to break free of the paradigm. Freeway is a film that does something very similar and, while having plenty of merits, it doesn't succeed to my mind half as well as Hanna.

Second, there is a good deal of inconsistency here, particularly in Hanna's skill set. Why does she freak out at the electricity in the hotel room when she's already experienced a truckload of it at the CIA base? How does she develop sudden skills with internet searching right at the moment when a quick Google would solve a lot of problems? Bumps. One imdb reviewer (I read them first as they are speaking through the experience of paying for the tickets and popcorn) found about eleven major voids in the plot of Hanna which, in his mounting anger, he tabled as evidence of narrative death. I can honestly say that I read all of them, considered them, agreed with most of his points, and didn't remember caring about any of them as I watched the movie. The poster's anger at these resembled that of any other critique of a mainstream film's narrative strength: it's as though they'd thought they were seeing a documentary whose unscrupulous creators delighted in nothing better than deceiving their audiences. Hanna is not only a fiction, it's a hyper-fiction, a story about stories, a fairytale about fairytales. It's really, really not going to be able to stand a lot of scrutiny.

I actually wasn't expecting to like this film. I'd read a lot of negative responses (mostly along the lines of the above paragraph) and others about it suffering from a surfeit of quirk. I'm the first to break out in hives at quirky indulgence on the cinema screen but made it through the screening with skin as smooth as it was while the ad slides were on. Instead, I found a very lean film that did more than its job by doing it with wit and style. Great end to a fun holiday.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

MIFFdrawal session 3: Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte's GothRom revisits the big screen again in subtle but hearty form. Mia Wasikovska (our own) plays a Jane plain but with a wandering eye and a frustration at the horizon seen from the window doing the same to her as her life: nix adventure. Jane is a furnace beneath her composure and Wasikovska portrays this through her coal black eyes that smoulder from her poise and cleanliness. Then, as this setup demands (of Bronte and any adaptation) all this control must be exposed to disassembling chaos.

Enter Mr Rochester, master of the castle, lands, goods, chattels and anything else in his ancestors' domesday book entry. Dark and sexy as a blue pointer shark he appears in a crash of violent movement as Jane unwittingly spooks his horse while walking through a fog in a forest (blame Charlotte Bronte!) From that point on it's Jane vs Rochester and the tall dark and sexy Michael Fassbender fills a role most memorably substantiated by Orson the Great many decades ago. He doesn't do Orson. He is far closer to the Rochester of Bronte: aristocratic ad hedonistic when not lightlessly gloomy.

He's a good Roch, she's a good Jane. Is it a good Jane Eyre? Yes, because it lets its strengths (undercurrent, unspoken dialogue, robust control over light and landscape to play the atmosphere like a pipe organ) work under their own momentum and forbids the suddenness of melodrama (Bronte's book is fraught but not bodice-ripping). No, it's not a good Jane because the element that might save it from being too plain , the novel's wafting but everpresent creepiness, is turned down so low that it never quite takes to the air. Without the spookiness Jane Eyre can only be a serious study in restrained power. Is it a middling Jane Eyre? No, because the central performances are so exact and never mannered. Maybe middling because the score is a by the numbers string section wash that while not fulsomely everpresent is always unwelcome to my ears and makes a potentially extraordinary film veer toward becoming a resolutely ordinary one.

So, contradictions. I won't rush to watch this again but I'm glad I took the effort.

Little else to say but this from my particular screening. There was an audio anomaly in the first reel or so (assuming reels were in use) which had the pitch wavering down a noticeable microtone every few minutes. This was only noticeable in the music score with its languid strings but it had the curious effect of sounding like 20th century modernism as though the composer, ashamed of his work's conventionality, was twiddling a pitch control in a last ditch effort to gain some edge. It was corrected about twenty minutes in and the problem didn't return. Made me wonder how it happened, though. That pitch waver takes a lot of work in the digital realm but might only be a dirty pinch roller on an analogue machine. That's why called the duration a reel above, by the way.

Now off to find something for tomorrow.....

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

MIFFdrawal session 2: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

When you make an action movie all you have to deliver is emotional engagement as constantly as possible but with a weather eye on its intensity. When you make an action movie with a sci-fi premise you need to deliver a message with the action payload: like a bomb dropped upon the blazing streets of Desden emblazoned with the words: HELLO HITLER!

You often get the action without the sci-fi and just as often the sci-fi without the action. Sometimes you get the sci-fi and the action without the message. Michael Bay has tried his hand at all of these and has become unassailable (his Independence Day - ID4 for anyone who couldn't spell Independence Day - set the bar for the latter). So, though it wasn't by Michael Bay, when I bought my ticket for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I knew what I was going to get.

That's why when I say that the best actor in this film is a CGI ape I'm not trying get all narky and sarcy, just stating the facts, ma'am. The great swag of ones and zeros built around Andy Serkis' creates a convincing impression of the animal it is meant to be. Along with the others who are similarly cocktailed, this is the emotional focus of this film and makes sure it does what it says on the title.

The humans need not be anything more than fine looking and flavourless (enter James Franco and the vet he picks up, played by Freida Pinto), instructively pitiable (John Lithgow as the best human performance) or evil (the rest of the cast).

Then you need action which you get here by the truck load and it carries a lot of emotional engagement.

As a kid I saw the first Planet of the Apes and loved its freakiness. I saw two sequels but missed the last until I was too old to care about it. Not all of these films worked as well as the original but they made solid work of its claim. Through the series the rising sense of the disaster of human folly is brought closer to the centre of the screen until the final installment becomes a clear condemnation of racism. See, as diluted from the ancestor as it could get, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes still found a way to punch. Who knows, if Rise starts off a new series we might get some truly ok sci-fi action on our screens.

Tim Burton's ten year old failure needs very little mention here. I'll only say that my love for it does not extend beyond my love for his Batman movies (which I do not love at all).

Oh, there are a lot of "sly" tributes to the original series. I hate these things. Make your own movie. Everyone knows you know where it's come from just get on with it.

Oh, I said this was an action film with a sci-fi premise, didn't I? That might mean there's a message. Is there? Why yes, there is: Don't play God, there's a good chap.

Is this a lukewarm review? The numbers demand that some will be. But mainly it's lukewarm because the film is so on target with its objective. It's emotionally engaging, not emotionally memorable. I'll forget about this tomorrow until the first sequel emerges. I've seen Solaris once. Years ago. It's still with me and probably always shall be. Better? Worse? No, just different. Just different.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

MIFFdrawal session 1: Snowtown

Verdant farm paddocks fly by as a clanking rhythm track fades up. A young male voice recounts a dream the violence and strangeness of which make it feel genuine. Then it's off to an outer circle of what was once working class Australia but has now loosened down to life as the welfare belt. Folk here have nothing but the days and whatever they can to separate one from the next. In the kitchen of one dad, three boys are tucking in to some food around the table and the conversation is small talking but warm. Cut to the youngest boy taking directions to shift his position as he stands in another room. The camera pulls back to reveal he is only in his underwear. Same for the other two boys in turn, the last, eldest, having to remove all clothing. He turns, his face neither smiling nor traumatised, face numb as a dental patient's.

This is not the worst nor the end of it. It's life droning with atrocity of scale, appended but not relieved by church, the state distant and begrudging, socio-economically static. Into this, in a sudden introduction, comes John, a man who notices everything that is happening in a room and expert at evaluating relationships and personal power. We first see him in a vague approximation of a hero on a white horse (it's a motorbike and his white hat is a full face helmet but his retributive stare takes in our hero, Jamie (the last photo of the scene above). In the morning he is cooking everyone breakfast with a subtle but firm paternal joviality. By the end of it he's sussed them all, most of all Jamie.

The Snowtown murders are infamous and a wiki search will fill you in. The crimes shown here are in some cases compounded and there is no attempt to display the complete catalogue. This is not a film about murder but seduction. John Bunting is the centre of human gravity that everyone has known and followed at some point, whether a parent, teacher or any other figure who could make authority effortless by expert use of inclusion. The difference between him and those we have experienced benignly is that he has something on his mind that is not going to let go.

Daniel Henshall like the character he portrays is physically unremarkable, sufficiently overweight for it to be noticeable but not enough for him to be the Santa type, most of his face cloaked in dark beard, but his gaze works like the hands of a sculptor. Henshall is a terrifying screen presence and never more than when appearing to be reasonable and patient with anyone around him at the hate sessions he makes of every dinner, lunch or breakfast he's part of (there is a lot of eating in this film ... maybe that was the catering).

Demagogues don't speak of hate, they let others do that, they speak of love and family and they are never more successful as when one of their targets regards them with a smile that has come home. Such is on the face of Lucas Pittaway as he watches John ride his motorised stallion around the paddock. And that's only the start. From that point John takes and keeps Jamie, bringing the boy to the edge of life and then back from it, a changed and stronger life operative. This is a cinematic seduction which, unlike most, has not forgotten to include warmth. Yes, warmth. Most screen seductions go straight to the heat if they're sexual or rush to the afterchill if they're political. This is a seduction holus bolus, an absorption by one person of another, and is done with all the care of someone ensuring the quality and cleanliness of the igredients of the meal they are preparing for themselves.

There is no three act structure of any substance to this as much as the observation of this absorption. More  formal structure would hamper this piece. This is greatly helped by a music score that, praise be to Melodia the Wise, is in perfect harmony with the film, providing a fullness to the package. There's a range of approaches but most of it is based on thick drones, garnished here and there with what to my mind (and experience) sound like distressed field recordings. There are also moments of perfectly tonal guitar based music, as well, but the main brief of the film, its gravity and weight is given solid foundation in the drone. While not directly reminiscent of the sounds, the effect of it reminded me of the beautiful and often frightening  soundscapes Michael Gira and Jarboe assembled for the final Swans albums. Without an orchestral section in earshot, Snowtown's musical bed appears to have been made by itself. A look at the credits reveals the same surname shared by director and composer. If that's nepotism at its finest let's have more of it.

While I'll only mention one further cast member I'll just point out here that Justin Kerzel's direction of his cast reveals him to be what a lot of Australian directors are sadly not: good with his people. The remaining cast member to laud here is Louise Harris as Jamie's mother. Old beyond her years, careworn, she descends to a slow self-damnation with a sadness and anger that needs no spoken soliloquy. A thankless performance but a beauty.

This is the first of the however many I can fit in of post MIFF films that I'll be seeing in my last week of hols before I go back to work. I'm so glad it was still on a screen. I saw it at the Nova early afternoon in an otherwise empty cinema. Having variously missed and passed up several opportunities while it was a fresher release I savoured it minute by minute. Why? Because it's bloody good.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

MIFF 2011 Summary

That's it for 2011. It was a richer experience than  the past few. Highlights? I've already reviewed each film I saw so I'll start with something phsyical and trivial. I all but gave up queueing this year. Over last few years I've obviated something that used to make me gnaw things. I sit at the front. Third from is best but if that's gone the very front row is fine, too. As long as it's central. At that short distance your position gets very important.

It took me years to realise and relax about the fact that most people choose the middle rows and many even prefer the back. Now I only have to count every occasion when I've lined up around the corner on Russell St for a film at the Forum, standing for forty-five minutes in the cold and rain only to get the exact seat I wanted. I never failed to get my ideal seat this year only this year I only queued for three films. The rest I was able to swan in close to the screening time and take up my post.

This means that the sole attraction of membership has now disappeared. On those few occasions when I stood in queues outside the Russell and saw the members gathered at ease around a blazing privilege I thought I probably should have .... but no... Also, this year there was a lot more avoiding long unmoving queues by allowing people in a little ahead of time.

I've read on other blogs and heard in conversation with fellow punters of some atrocities of scale among audiences. I'm happy to say I didn't witness any. Some vague growls at the behaviour of the kind of goose who cannot tell cinema from loungeroom, perhaps but nothing egregious. Oh, well there was that guy with the dark ages body odour which made me find another seat but apart from that not even feet on the backs of seats. Are people getting used to cinema etiquette again or is it just old and/or gentle people like me who sit at the front?

I should also point out here that crowd control has not only got more efficient this year but that they seem to be a much nicer bunch. I hope that whoever did the recruiting for the misanthropes of previous years had a chance to catch some flix at this years' turnout. Eyes open.

The range was good for me, including two new ones from a favourite director, an exhilarating gut punch of a horror film that might suggest that the country that both consolidated and castrated the genre can still produce serious and powerful examples of it. The Woman is my pick of the bunch with its unironic embrace of tough eviscerating horror. Anyone who knows me personally knows that I don't have to elaborate on that statement to suggest why it might be my best of the fest. Maybe the way o' the future? End of Animal delighted both with its courage of its central conceit and faith renewal in what South Korea has brought to the table of imaginative and grotesque cinema. A debut feature I'll be hunting down and then seeking further work from the same. Attenberg provided a quite beautiful last movement to the festival. Was it really from the same team that produced the scarifying Dogtooth?

Even the middling entries had some merit. I didn't hate anything outright though I was increasingly unamused at Morgan Spurlock's new self promotion and wince at the extra luggage Errol Morris added to his otherwise tight story of scandal and elusive truth, Tabloid. Innocent Saturday worked a street level view of a major disaster and made some sly points about the society that allowed the disaster to escalate. The Silence of Joan struck me as Kubrick's lessons learned and applied.  Play, The Solitude of Prime Numbers and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia all show enough promise for me to follow the careers of their creators at least beyond the toe test. The urban folk of A Stoker passed easily, keeping within its welcome with a brief running time and plain rather than dull script.

Strange to see Sion Sono straightening up with two classical three act narratives. Both Cold Fish and Guilty of Romance played out in more or less linear fashion developing their themes efficiently along with their stories' momentum. Both good, engaging works but I was missing the weird flamboyant blend of grotesque and often anti narrative style of Strange Circus or Noriko's Dinner Table. I know, I should stop being such a fanboy, grow up and realise that every artist needs room to breathe and develop and this can often necessitate some relief time from the very thing that brought attention to them in the first place.

These two films reminded me of another occasion at a long gone MIFF when I was disappointed at Takeshi Miike's One Missed Call. I did my damnedest to imbue the film with great irony as the shock meister's take on J-horror. But really, it was just him trying it out. Good film but he came from and continued to better and more original. See also Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Loft and Doppelganger. Both disappointments I actually felt embarrrassed by. Gone was the singular grip on horror that he used on Kairo, Cure and Kourei and here were goofy winks that put distance between him and what had made his career.

A reversal of this directed my choice away from seeing Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse. Yes, I go on about how much I appreciate filmmakers who can reduce or abandon narrative structure and forge strong works of fiction. But it was seeing the water-treading Man From London a few years back and then the seven plus hours of his more acclaimed Satantango that had me finally nixing the new one as a choice (right up to the hour of its first, reportedly disastrous, screening). My somewhat uncharacteristic circuit breaker was a preemptive zombified boredom at two and a half hours of worthy nothing. I know better than this. Uncle Boonmee which does very similar things is a favourite of mine from the past few years and Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies is one of my favourites from the last two decades. Both of those have what most of Tarr's films lack, and it ain't long takes and careful studies of landscape and human behaviour however still it can get (I love seeing that work); they have warmth and whimsy to enrich what is already rich but never fulsome. So, no Turin Horse for this bum on seat.

All up a fun fest, catching up with folk o'er a hot flick and quenching it with an ale at the Forum lounge (always a pleasure). Oh, kudos, too, to the makers of this year's festival promos which proved well conceived and actually funny (and after more than one viewing). For once I didn't dread the next iteration of the inspired by committee promo after the still ads. The MIFF Tales 60th anniversary vignettes were also good but usually screened when the audience was still gobbling and texting. I only heard the audio of these on about two occasions. Start times were pretty much observed (memories of being full-bladdered in the queue for INLAND EMPIRE while the previous session's Q&A dragged on ... then there was the three hour film to get through). I did notice the lack of shorts before features this year but if that means that screening times were easier to organise then I'll put up with that. Still...

I initially frowned at the uncharacteristically high number of US indies in the program but then remembered that without a real arthouse scene in this city even these will probably plummet into obscurity without festival support, as much as any Armenian noir or Peruvian ghost tale.

Joke of the festival goes to my friend Tatiana who texted from the mangled screening of The Turin Horse that the endless long takes were like "waiting for Godard". I'm ashamed to report that I, Godard fan, Beckett fan and mashup fan, didn't think of that myself.

MIFF session 13 (final): Attenberg

A white wall. Seconds later the same white wall. Its texture of plaster pocks and flaking paint becomes interesting. Bela Tarr's idea about long takes and the creativity of the audience comes to the fore. Then, just as I was going to happily meditate on time and entropy two young women approach each other from each side of the screen. They stop short of an intimate space and gingerly crane their necks to bring their faces together in a kiss. But it is the kind of kiss two gekos might give each other. They are working out the process. Their dialogue has the naive lilt of absurdism. Unsuccessful, they assume the roles of fighting cats, snarling and clawing.

The blonde woman, Marina, waits at her father's side in hospital and at home, as he goes through treatment for a condition that, while undisclosed, appears to be terminal. Their continued dalogue soon becomes the focus of the film. What a relief it was to witness the examination of developing grief enacted in a perfectly functional father daughter bond. Their conversations touch on all that concerns them in the light of his impending death and are a realistic blend of grimness, fear and humour.

The third strain of this film is Marina's growing experimetation with sex and love. She works as a chauffeur for the local mining company and strikes up a relationship with a young visiting contractor. Step by step the awkward pair travel to their consumation which, though unerotic to the eye, is trauma free.

The first strain, which gives the film its title, develops into a series of odd dance duets which look like a mix of chrorus line routines and animal behaviour seen on David Attenborough documentaries (Bella, the brunette, misprononounces the name as Attenberg).

If all this sounds like Ingmar Bergman does Wes Anderson allow me to disabuse. The central relationship between father and daughter gathers a quiet but powerful momentum and while humour and whimsy trade time in their talk with the details of cremation (currently illegal in the film's native Greece necessitating complicated organisation to effect. The mounting gravity of this and its effect on Marina managed to bring me ust short of tears with its quiet and dignified intensity.

Marina's odd friendship with Bella, mostly the dances but also a number of dialogues that while funny reveal strong differences between the two. Quirky exchanges, often funny but never cloyingly cute, they place Marina in her self-limited social realm. This strain coalesces with a gentle power with the main, providing the finale with a reinforced sense of transition.

This is low-narrative filmmaking that prefers emtional movement over character motivation or the three acts. It is still fiction, though and yet more proof that fiction can play without narrative and still engage its audience. Because of this, Attenberg must take longer to settle into its rhythms and carefully guide its viewers away from the expectation of narrative and allow them to savour the work of a sturdy cast and some individualistic writing. Seldom has grief felt so light and yet so like grief.

An easy and fitting farewell to the festival.

Friday, August 5, 2011

MIFF session 12: Guilty of Romance

Two detectives find a bizarrely arranged body in a rainy alley in Tokyo's red light district. What at first looks like the corpse of a murdered prostitute becomes sections of  a woman's body with parts of a mannequin replacing what has been taken from the body. Another corpse, identically arranged is found in a nearby low rent apartment. The two complete a single body ... almost. The head, hands and genitalia have not been recovered.
Izumi is a young housewife who perfects the details of her husband's domestic life. Her constant rearrangement of his house slippers in the moments before his entrance looks like OCD at first but when he comes through the door and inserts his feet into them he congratulates her on their positioning. "You're improving," he tells her. She blushes and bows, delighted. The evening passes from the silence that accompanies his reading, through a sexless marriage bed, to the morning's parting ritual which will be reversed at the end of the day.

He is a writer of popular but trashy sex novels which we see him reading before adoring fans. She is allowed a career at the local supermarket pushing rubbish from the frozen goods section on to listless shoppers (you know her from your own supermarket whenever you politely refuse the satay chilli egg solutions sizzling on the grill as a host of cold ones lie scattered on a paper plate....anyway....) Here she is spotted by a pinku agent who coaxes her into a more lucrative career which occasions what seems to be her life's first orgasm.

Radient (everyone is saying so) with a new taste for the nasty and flavoursome she ventures into the realm of the Love Hotel and there meets a pimp who at first seems to be a street performer and, through him, Mitsuko, a wild and ageing beauty who promises an even more lucrative career than before. These two get on from the word go. Just as she had radiated admiration at her husband's readings she now does as much at her new mentor and friend's daytime work, lecturing in poetry at the local elite university.

The journey from here to the corpse of the opening is intriguing and pacey. As always with a Sion Sono film, for each splash of hedonism we get some extra depth as a counterweight. The everpresent theme of identity returns but here is given new faces as these two women's lives and wishes twine with increasing tightness. Central to this is the notion of women empowering themselves through sexual allure: is it buying in or playing strings?

Sono is often described as a transgressive filmmaker but I think that does him a disservice. As his control over his medium has visibly increased so has his power to metre his content. What once was shock value is now more firmly contextualised and so more powerful  (the violence of this and Cold Fish bear witness). If he was a bad boy once his excesses have led him to become a wise man.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

MIFF session 11: Innocent Saturday

Dark blue night. Young Valery, an industrial trainer, walks nervously along a walkway in a gigantic industrial complex. He is recognised by someone in a passing car. They exchange urgent but fragmented information. Valery is taken through part of the interior of the complex by a colleague who warns him against panic. He stumbles into a meeting of men variously dressed industrially or in business suits. The talk is apocalyptic. One says it will be worse than Hiroshima. Another rejoins that what they need is another Nagasaki. Ukraine, spring 1986, welcome to Chernbobyl.

A particularly  bullish apparatchik shouts his way into control of the talk and, seeing the lowly instructor, makes him swear an oath of silence. He is then free to go. He walks back to town as dawn breaks and is accosted by another colleague who seems to have been hit with the medieval martyr stick. He has been to the core, seen the great power slowly waking through exposure. It was so beautiful and humbling that he felt like diving in. Valery leaves him on the road. The inspired man starts coughing. We won't see him again.

A little later, Valery bustles his way into his girlfriend Vera's worker's dorm, pulling her by the elbow from the line of them as they file out. He explains the situation hurriedly and begs her to dress and go with him to the train station. Their run to the station, using shaky cam and it wayward focus is strong visualisation of a panic kept secret in a crowd. It's spring, labour day and everyone is happily in short sleeves in the sunshine. Only two people among them know that the sunshine and fresh air will soon turn to poison. They reach the station in time to see what will surely be the last train pull out and leave them there, sentenced to either cataclysm or decades of slow death. We linger on their faces. We need to.

What follows is a number of small circumstances that contrive to get Vera and Valery into a wedding party and keep them there. He fights through the rejoicing crowd the same way he might have to fight through another very soon. This drunken one is no better than the imaginable survivalist one as both are large groups of people continually colliding in celebration of life but condemned to death.

This party is where the majority of the film takes place and while it can drag the sense of hopelessness that its claustrophobia grinds soon becomes the central point of the film. These people have nowhere to go that will free them from their doom. This might be enough but as Valery rejoins his old cronies in the wedding band and plays part of their gig with them, another theme emerges which touches on the use made by the Soviet system of fear and personal gain achieved through betrayal. Valery, like the machine he's bolted himself into, uses his knowledge now the same way he once did. Much of the film sees him trying to undo the opportunism of his past through good  works but he also knows, as one of his old bandmates points out, he might be executed for inciting a panic. The final sequence is a compression of freedom and despair and features an extraordinary fadeout device that should be in flimmaking textbooks for its simplicity and power.

We are then treated to a mercifuly few consequential titles of the fate of the people of Chernobyl which are less than necessary in light of the abstracted account of it we have just seen. If that fade had given to a few seconds silent blackness before the credits rolled, its power would have said more than the words on the screen. A small pick but a pick nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

MIFF session 10: Once Upon a Time In Anatolia

A perfectly serviceable episode of Law and Order just directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Three cars roll through a softly undulating landscape that by day would look verdant and lush but now at night looks like the setting for a nightmare. They stop and frogmarch a young bearded man to an ancient looking drinking fountain. Is it here, they ask him. No, he says, I was wrong the tree was rounder. Everybody back in. Again and again, eah wild goose chase taking about fifteen minutes. Finally they stop for the night at a local inn and take in a meal along with a huge dollop of local history. Morning. The next sortee to find the buried victim of the killer in their care hits paydirt. The next half hour is given to a real time field police report of the crime scene. And then on to.... you get the idea.

If you were playing the Tarkovsky drinking game with this one you would be a casualty by the end of the first thirty minutes. This extremely long police procedural goes at its own pace and will neither be hurried nor suffer the illusion of hurry through nervous editing. The body is located, examined. End.

No, you don't get out of it that easy. Throughout all the waiting you do with these characters (and there is more waiting than anything outside of a Bela Tarr film) a dialogue strikes up and develops between the doctor who needs to be present and the chief prosecutor. It is about the unfortunate death of a beautiful woman. The conversation, taken up and put down repeatedly, becomes the real story of what we are seeing and as soon as that is understood, you are watching an interesting film. A film too long, for certain, but an interesting film with good characters fleshed out well with fine performances.

But at 157 minutes this tests the patience of the blessed and the canonised. Beautiful lensing over landscapes that scream cinema, faces lingeredon which time has carved with lessons and hardship. A constant and believably serious underburn. But so long and so shiftless that the arrival of the subtle denoument plays like a moment of inspiration and the final and finally arriving, at last, please make it the last, amen of a funeral service. Strong effort and modest payout but curiously satisfying.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

MIFF session 9: Pom Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold

See that title, see the movie. It does what it says on the tin. Morgan Spurlock sets his sights on nefarious comedy of product placement, financing a documentary about it which ... is about it.

A series of meetings with a spectrum of intimidatingly urbane whitecollars, self perjuring Hollywood high-fliers, social commentators and consumer guardians takes us through the concept of co-branding as the arc: we are seeing this film pre and post natally at the same time. Spurlock cuts deals, thrills at acceptance and sighs at rejection and gets his film made. Here's proof!

We watch the erosion of everyday variety into a focussed travel from one product to the next from those who have coughed up the most to dominate the film until we are getting full 30 second tv syle commercials right there in the middle of a feature documentary. Spurlock keeps it light but our eye is always on his central question about integrity.

This film is never boring. It can't be. It's targets are the same as ours and they are easy to shoot. Does what it says on the tin. But here's my problem:

It can't work.

Everybody knows about product placement and few in any of this film's audiences would be under any delusion about commercial cinema being .... commercial. Spurlock's films veer even closer to the flame of entertainment over veracity than Michael Moore's. He did get away with it once. Supersize Me had an agenda and, by aiming a home made ging at a corporate Goliath none would quibble over his popcorn sensibility.

He's good at what he does. There is a lot of information in every minute of this film and it is served in perfect bitesized portions. Who cares that it's information we either already know or can guess at from what we do know? It's fun. Who cares that making a infotainment such as this needs only the very slightest of veils of commentary to give its creator's sellout an ethical cool? Dig? Morgan Spurlock isn't selling out, he's buying in. Morgan Spurlock isn't six of one, he's half a dozen of another. And the lossless march of market-proof irony goes on.

But it can't, really. At the bottom of all of this jokey dance with the devil and self parodic lamentation about artistic integrity is the idea that there is an art so pure that the most ethereal breath of Mammon woud kill it on contact. Without this point the film is next to meaningless and yet it cannot stand the most casual scrutiny. It is surely beyond cynicism. (Have yet the hallowed halls of academe produced a concept so apt, so progressive, so superliminal and so ... dicky as post-cynicism? No? Time.)

This is a clever prank but like most pranks can only be clever. The statement about money owning art is as old as human settlement. Playing corporations by playing into their hands is ok but then the film was made and did look as it did. I can't damn this film, it's brief eighty-eight minutes are packed with amusing and sometimes thought-nurturing material but the choctop that I didn't bother getting beforehand would have been similiary sugary and flavoursome, packed with enough scooped ice cream to give the impression that it's a legit dessert. Yeah, it's entertaining but so are the blockbusters whose posters we see repeatedly throughout in the offices of movie moghuls and on walls and the sides of buses.

I'd leave it there but for one thing that ruined my tolerance. In his quest for possible backers, Spurlock is often seen lurking around the shelves of supermarkets. He picks one bottle from a shelf and can only share it with us through helpless laughter. It's a shampoo for use on both human and animal. This is funny until you realise...why shouldn't it be? Hair is hair. Shampoo cleans it. Shooting at name brands is shooting cheap. Shooting at nonbrands (wih an assault weapon) is bullying.

"Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?"

In the spirit of the neopostcynical environment let me be the first to say: Bullshit!

MIFF session 8: Play

A gang of five black boys in a Stockholm shopping centre. Two snow pale Swedish boys stroll down a walkway, innocently flaunting their affluence. The gang take in every syllable and after a voting game make their move, crowding in on the white kids and conning them out of their mobile phone. Cut to two white kids with their Asian friend, being sent off by their parents on a spending trip. The gang moves in. This time we follow them from stalking to the move and far, far beyond. Bullying at its finest.

As frustrating and angering the gang's behaviour gets (I'm talking white knuckle fury in the auditorium, here) it soon becomes clear how deliberate it is. This is paramilitary bullying and it works a hair short of the Stockholm Syndrome (association intended by me and the filmmakers). This gang knows the power of its numbers and the effect its ethnicity has on its victims down to the youngest and most childlike member (the eldest couldn't be more than fifteen). It is this effortless calculation that carriesboth the narrative and our wish for its momentum. These boys are monstrous. Their victims are increasingly pliant. Where can this end?

But the gang is a group of boys. They defend themselves against a blustering but ineffectual attack by a group of men while on a tram but lift their feet at a train platform when the cleaner trying to mop the foor asks them. There is no contradiction here. Adults who act like adults carry authority for them, be they ever so humble. Adults who act like schoolyard brigands are met with force. But, again, it is the victims and their continued subserviance that creates a mounting anxiety. They aren't constantly compliant but the few acts of defiance they are capable of only lead them further into the gang's control.

This is presented in a series of long takes by someone who knows how to use them. This is not Bela Tarr or Tarkovsky whose still canvases absorb you into a new cosmos; the camera is set up to record variously with a roving eye or a stubbornly held stare, at all times delivering narrative information (yes, if you've seen it, the Native American busker shots, as well). The opening scene of the initial scam is a single shot from a camera mounted on a mezzanine, expertly taking us to whichever point of attention we need. This is not shaky cam it is a Kubrickian determination that requires an expert hand with the coreography of extras and speaking parts alike.

The colour palete is rich and the image has a sheen and depth that adds a shiver of veracity to us observing. Stanley Kubrick would have loved the Red Camera. From genteel innercity Stockholm, through industrial sites to the forests and wastes, we are shown a setting that seems to offer the victims less and less hope. If you go in knowing that the Swedish colours are blue and yellow you will see a lot of that combination. A running gag of a wooden cradle abandoned in a subruban train provides some light relief but also suggests a lack of care that might have created the central situation. The cradle comes into play later and poignantly.

I've been mentioning Kubrick a few times in this review even though I think his name is over-called whenever extraordinary cinema is discussed. I'm not a huge fan of him but admire much of his output and ideas. One of the latter is his notion that a film should be made up of six or so non-submersible units, blocks of the world through the screen where the events seemingly must happen, keeping well shy of stepping in himself to help out, leaving that to his audience. Well, that's what happens here. A few large blocks of this reality (including a kind of denoument that Michael Haneke or Gaspar Noe might approve of) and a coda.

A film's coda ought to both provide a final flourish of what we have seen but also add something mysterious or uncontrollable, a little wafer-thin mint on the pillow that tastes of salt and vinegar. Well, that happens here, too.

I pick MIFF films from the copy in the guide. Often I'll charge into a favourite director (there are two Sion Sono films this year!!!). I'll always try to find a film that I fear to see (eg The Woman from this year or Dream Home from last year). And then I'll go looking for outside chances. These simply have something in their descriptions that appeal to me, no depth needed, just enough salt or sugar in the presentation and they're on the list. These have the highest miss rate, almost destined to disappoint. Play didn't.