Sunday, March 25, 2012

Review: and another THING!

Did you ever wonder just what went on before the opening scene of John Carpenter's 1982 remake of The Thing? Nor did I. It's really pretty well explained in the first act of that film and the ensuing acts demonstrate it. The dogs, the search through Norwegian station, the icebound spacecraft, the mayhem back at base. It's all there.

So, someone caught the now popular meme that the only two movies that have survived the remake treatment with honour are Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (twice!) and The Thing. Like a lot of people to whom that thought occured I believed I'd discovered it. It's a strong demonstration of exception proving rule. So what's to lose by taking that one up? Read on.

Ok, plot. Fade in to the great white Antarctic, sweeping strings whose tonality bears a striking resemblance to ... you get the idea. Three Norwegians are travelling o'er the ice in a truck with tracks. You know they're Norwegian because their unsubtitled dialogue sounds like the chef from the Muppets. But the guy in front is telling a joke to the driver and the guy in the back is getting worried about some readings on an instrument that we don't need identified. The truck suddenly falls through a thin stretch of ice and lodges between the walls of a huge fissure, through which we see a spacecraft the size of Greater Geelong. A light suddenly gleams from its centre.

Cut to a lab at McMurdo Station, home of the good guys, the people who speak 'mer'can. A young woman in Antarctic fatigues listens to a year-marking Men at Work track on her walkman headphones. Enter a clean, ash blonde, humourless and so immediately suspect older man who speaks in an accent which casts him far from the safety of 'mer'ca (ie he's the baddie and shall be hoist on his own petar in due course). He's one of the Norwegians and he's looking for a paleantologist. He's found one. Right! Everybody in the chopper!

Back at the Norwegian camp they find a creature, dig it up and suffer the consequences finding out along the way that it can replicate any living thing it comes across. This offers an opportunity for this film to replicate the earlier version's powerful blood test scene but wait, there's something clever they're doing with it. But it isn't really, it's just a way of acknowledging the source material and claiming a smidge of originality to keep the meme about remake-able films hale and hearty. End of original stamp. Everything else you see on screen in this outing was done in Carpenter's version. The SFX are superior but expectably so that they just run by. Oh that's happening. Oh that's happening. Right. There's a famous moment in the 1982 version where a character witnesses something bizarre and speaks for the audience when he intones: "you gotta be fucking kidding me!" No chance of that here.

There are two aspects of Carpenter's version that are notably absent here: he honed in on one theme, trust, and steered through it with an unflinching hand, knowing its potential to create situations of tension and horror; Carpenter was working with his first sizeable budget but still thought like an indy director, allowing for nothing that didn't serve to squeeze the narrative to claustrophobic tightness until the climax which blazed gigantically by comparison. This prequel, already hampered by its audience's guaranteed awareness of the groundbreaking earlier version, makes the mistake of both trying to extend the '82 one backwards as well as provide something new. It was doomed to fail on both accounts and does. Worse, it provides none of the suspense of the earlier film, keeping its unmanageably large cast muddling the waters until in desperation it has to remove them just to clear the stage for the great drama hiding at its centre. Trouble is when that happens there's nothing left but routine. The final scene of Carpenter's film is funny, unsettling and despairing all at once, an intimate and inesacpable truth delivered as a kind of joke. The ending of this one has already been told in the beginning of that one. I know that's the idea but I also know that when it happens it just ... happens.

I hate claiming expertise in what movies should be rather than what they present themselves to be but I can't help but feel that if anything it might have benefited from the weary found footage approach which can effectively withhold information until its potential matures. Not here.

The Thing's hold on the title of repeatable films (owner of said title since the 2000's remake of Bodysnatchers dropped the pod)  has loosened. Not forever perhaps but the only reason that Carpenter's is on a par with the Hawks/Nyby original is the further originality he poured into it. That's just not present here.

Oh (this time for real) and another thing! There's a great fact about the '82 version: finally having enough money to hire a great composer for the score he got Ennio Morricone on board who delivered exactly the kind of music Carpenter himself might have written for the movie. Morricone had been a fan of Carpenter's movie music for years (understandably, it's brilliant). The score to the 2011 film is like none of that ever happened. Someone picked it off a shelf at Woolies and gave it to an orchestra. It sounds like there's an old school action movie happening in the next soundstage. New approach? Nope, same damn Thing!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Milos at large

Well, soon...

He's worried about regaining his ability to draw, he's completely sick of being in hospital, he has muscle strain from enforced bed rest over months and his former landlord is being a dick, but Milos is doing well, walking unassisted and with about 80% of his right arm control regained and looking the better for the 21 Kg he has lost while in hospital. After a few more tests he is finally ready to move out of the ward and into the lighter supervision of a share house in Northcote.

If you were inclined to help make his last few days in hospital bearable before he has to go out and learn yet a new set set of routines please do. He was saying they'd move him by Wednesday.

283 Cotham Road  Kew VIC 3101

(03)9272 0444 

Melbourne Free University

The Melbourne Free University is an opportunity for people who want a little more from a film night than they get from the local multi. The often rare movies are given with a little extra context and thought, screened and then everyone is invited to share their own thoughts. It's a means of connecting with current thinking on cinema without the papers and extension begs.

While I did wince at the recent cancellation of Richard Wolstencroft's scheduled talk through the pressure of a flock of geese (the talk went ahead at another venue and was a pleasure to experience), I believe the idea of the MFU is a great one and provides an opportunity to engage with movies in a way that is mostly not on offer.

Here is the publicity spiel: 

The Melbourne Free University (MFU) is an autonomous organisation that was established in 2010, and aims to create a space for constructive engagement with ideas and knowledge for its own sake, rather than the more outcome-oriented education of the formal education system. We are completely free and open - anyone can attend sessions regardless of their qualifications, and we do not take enrolments. The MFU runs regular courses on topics ranging from political philosophy, to permaculture and sustainability, to indigenous issues, refugee issues, law, politics, cinema, linguistics, literature and more. Further information about the MFU can be found at

Since February, 2012 the MFU has been running a cinema course called 'Controversies on Film,' which runs on Thursday evenings from 6.30-8.30pm at Long Play in North Fitzroy. Each session includes a screening, a lecture and an open discussion. Unlike most other film screenings that are currently being held in Melbourne, the Controversies on Film course provides an opportunity for academics, filmmakers and others to give a substantial talk on an area of interest or research and for the general public to not only see rare or seminal cinema but also discuss and debate issues pertinent to each week's presentation. 

On March 15, author and editor Rjurick Davidson will look at films such as Blade Runner and Dark City to examine the ways that screenplays and narratives are constructed in the film industry. He will particularly focus on how some of the 'exercises' suggested for scriptwriters, in conjunction with the process of getting a movie made, tend to create a certain kind of film. On March 22, Jack Sargeant, author of books such as Deathtripping: The Extreme Underground, will show a number of rare clips and extracts to examine the role of sex, perversion and the annihilating gaze in cinema. Sargeant is a key intellectual figure writing on underground and cult cinema and in this presentation he will show us how we can re-think about the nature of film viewing. Finally, on March 29, program coordinator of the Melbourne Cinematheque Louise Sheedy, will show Haskel Wexler's groundbreaking Medium Cool (1969) to discuss how the social and political upheavals of 1968 manifested in American cinema. 

For further details or to organise an interview please contact Tyson Namow at 

And Ladies and Gentlemen, start your browsers: the MFU website.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Review: THE DESCENT: how to bin a good idea

There's a SEQUEL!?
Saw this after finally shelling out for a copy, given my local vid shop's refusal to buy a copy for rent (poor me!). I bought it because I'd heard nothing but good about it and thought it might well be something worth having on the shelf to refer to, revisit and enrich my display of horror through the ages. Sounded strong enough to be a Ginger Snaps or Near Dark. So, one coolish Friday eve, the quasi-anniversary of my most successful season at Shadows, I sat down to behold and be mused by The Descent.

I'm going to start out by admitting my keen interest in the highly charged symbol clashing engine of the premise: a group of daring young women plunge into a deep damp cave in a thick forest. I'm sorry if this causes offence but there are just some movie setups that swell the imagination ...... Anyway....

So. Press play and dig. Three women white water rafting. It's obviously dangerous but they're having a great time. Back at still water they return to the bank and the only male in the cast, the husband of the Scottish one. That will do for his name as, after a few meaningful eye contacts with another of the trio, he is dispatched. I don't have to say how but it's ... final. And then in the hospital, his wife wakes from her post traumatic dormancy in the midst of a nightmare set it an empty golden lit hospital. Nightmare? Maybe and maybe not.

A year on, she, Sarah, joins a group of other women (read: early victims of the movie's bad thing) in the App'lacians to go caving for real. As the steps to annihilating easy retreat progress we find out that Juno (who'd had those serious glances with Sarah's husband earlier) has lied to them about the cave, claiming that they were to attempt a much easier one. This one is supposedly undiscovered and much more of an adventure. This also means that anyone they've informed of their caving plans is going to go to the wrong one. So they're on their own. Well, no...

Sarah hears something, we see something and then she sees something too. The women are trapped in a cave that they don't even know they can escape with some weird wild creature. No one believes Sarah, they have their own internal conflicts to workshop, until the creature actually appears. It's sudden and swift and shocking, a deformed white figure appears and then races back into the darkness amid the screams of the women. This is great stuff. Tense and beautifully realised. And now it's a monster movie! I don't want my money back. In fact could I donate some?

And then the situation worsens. It's not just one there are many. They look human but are completely hairless and apparently blind, their eyes shine like freshly poached eggs. Next good idea: to get past them on the way to freedom, the women need to be very quiet. We get a few scenes like the famous bodyheat one in Hardware in which various members of the team thwart or suffer some white-knuckle closeness with the creatures. Get it? These scream queens can't scream. The trad primary use of women in horror scenarios, especially those involving violent grotesquery, is the scream. This can be conquered through the force of will that any final girl worth her salt will turn into decisive confrontation. But these ones can't do it. Brilliant! However ....

The Descent commits the error of all horror movies that fail their initial promises: it peaks and then collapses into repetition. The problem is that it shows the monster too well and too soon. After this second act exposure the suspense begins draining from the film and can never be restored. Consequently, most of this film, when it involves the creatures must use ever more desperate surprises to maintain the feeble tension that remains. The other trope is to keep increasing the threat until the situation looks hopeless. So when they aren't suddenly coming to life like your badboy older brother who plays dead and then screams "BOO!" when you're close enough, there are so many of them, creeping nimbly around the rocks, clicking their batlike echolocation to each other and swarming on the poor humans.

The other thing, as these leave nothing for the viewer beyond waiting for the next one, is violence between the women themselves. Some of this has the desperate stupidity of most of the killing in Eden Lake and there is one foreshadowed act of violence between two of them which might have been breathtaking in its boldness and the sheer force of its hatred if it hadn't been for all the ghost train shocks and gorings. It's clear to me that this moment stood tallest in the conception of this film but it is so swamped by routine that it's hard to take very seriously.

The very ending, foreshadowed very craftily, is quite stunning. Quiet, doomladen and heartbreaking.

My problem is not that The Descent isn't any good, it is. My problem is that in a kind of panic to establish itself as a horror movie it blows its wad too early. The first time I saw Alien I felt dread at the memory of the monster yet could not, for the life of me, imagine it in full. It wasn't necessary to see it fully, you just needed to know it was there in the dark, with that endlessly fatal dentistry. The sequel had to change genres from horror to shoot-em-up action as it insisted on showing the alien completely. And then it had to pile them on so the prospect went from the dread of unknowing to an excessive war game.

The Descent also bins its most intriguing genre innovation, forbidding the scream, by giving in to laziness: well we all know they scream, let them. This dulls the sheen of all the really interesting plot points that are present on screen, just obscured by unadventurous thinking.

But it didn't have to be that adventurous to be better. Good  traditional horror movies keep all the control to themselves and mete it out to the viewer only when they have to. Suspiria, Night of the Living Dead, The Haunting, Dark Water, Alien, Inside, Martyrs and Ju-on were all made with this knowledge. If you can get used to a threat it is no longer a threat but an inconvenience. That is why this story of daring women facing terror inside and out is kept from greatness and can only barely keep its head above its high gloss mainstream waterlevel with the briefest of glances of its potential greatness. What a bloody waste!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Review: A SEPARATION: honour in lab conditions

Simin wants to take her family overseas for a better life. Her husband, Nader, wants them all to stay in Iran. He  has a father with advanced Alzheimers who cannot be transported. The film opens with the pair speaking directly to the camera which is standing in for the judge hearing Simin's plea for divorce. Nader agrees to the divorce but not to loss of custody of their daughter. Both have to agree in full to a list of conditions but there is no resolution. They agree to separate. No one is happy.

Without Simin, things rapidly fall apart at home. A new housekeeper proves disastrous. By the second day she has neglected the Nader's father and abandoned him. Nader pushes her to keep her out of the flat. She falls. Next stop hospital where she has suffered a miscarriage. Her hothead husband blames Nader and assaults him and then brings a charge of murder against him. Simin, who recommended the woman for the job, is drawn back into the family and must find a way out for them all. Their daughter, Termeh, watches, knowing she will be called upon, suspecting it will be painful.

I've left a lot of detail out here because it's worth watching the threads wind and weave a tight fabric. This film pits reason against honour and the crushing failure of everyone involved to resolve them. There's decision making under the influence of anger, fear and desperation, all taken to a point where anyone stepping back and admitting to the untruth that they have presented so adamantly would result in an unravelling disaster for them. Any number of solutions conceived and offered are barred by circumstance or ethical principle. There is no hope here that is not quenched by a single thought.

The primary impression you will have from watching this film is the powerful naturalism of the dialogue and performance but this is no affected cinema verite. Either that or you might find the depiction of the Iranian legal system fascinating. Perhaps it will be the depth to which the daily life of this middle class family is presented. What you will end up with might appear a treasure trove of keen observation and miss altogether how strongly cinematic this piece is.

From the opening sensor-eye view of documents being flattened and scanned on a photocopier plate, to the get-involved-or-get-left-behind extreme point of view shooting of the opening dialogue and the long takes that revisit the memory as conventionally edited scenes (for the opposite of this see Irreversible), A Separation keeps the events and relations in compelling close view to the effect that we are examining or bearing witness to a case rather than simply viewing a feature film. And yet there is no artificiality to this, it feels natural.

The only other film I've seen by Asghar Farhadi is his justly celebrated About Elly. I chose that one from the MIFF schedules a few years back on the strength of its synopsis. In that film, a woman goes missing from a holidaying group of friends, possibly drowned and their best (and sometimes worst) intentions come out for some intriguing and ugly play. Like A Separation, while there is some levity, the gravity of every word is observed as it falls from the tongue, the damage it might do constantly on our minds.

While this would work well as melodrama the choice here is to veer from that closed system of sin and redemption and allow the unnervingly unguarded forces of these people, their values and tight constraints to work their own chaos. The only apparent control is our view of it through the microscope. This might not appeal as a night at the movies but it has rewards greater than those on the entire screen populations of any multiplex. While those popcorn feasts are true cinema, perhaps even purer when you consider the primary historical use to which cinema has always been put, this is rather possible cinema, the difference between representing Sydney Harbour as a Ken Done teatowel or a closeup of the rust on the Bridge. With one, you can happily join in, knowing how goofy it is and enjoying it anyway, with the latter, you spend time up close, get fascinated and leave haunted.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


The walk along Perry St, the home stretch.
A year ago near enough to today I was greeting the largest audience I'd yet had for Shadows.I'd spent the summer inserting my opening film into conversations at parties, barbies, afternoons at the pub, home dvd nights and it had taken. It was the first full house I'd ever had. Around this time I was standing in front of the screen and the audience, shining a small torch on my face and telling them why The Fall was good and why they hadn't heard of it (outside a conversation with me).

This evening I had an odd sense memory of needing to check everything in my backpack to make sure I had every connector and converter I'd need and a host I wouldn't but felt better about including. I even felt a tiny panic that I hadn't organised the program for Autumn 2012. If everything had gone the way I wanted I would have done that two weeks ago. I've just come home from the supermarket and on the walk home I was thinking of what I'd put into a 2012 Autumn program.

I have a good number of new movies on disc, garnered o'er the holidays,most of which would qualify for a place in the first program. This time last year I would have watched them all, made notes, mentally practised the spiels I'd give the audience (and dismissed any I couldn't sincerely celebrate). When I had got the six or seven for a half season I'd put them in a sequence that flowed well, often letting nothing more than an alternation between English and non English language pieces (when it came to the seven titles in my season of women protagonists it got tough as none of them was in English). Generally, though, I'd progress through them according to mood, making sure that there was something like light and dark all the way through the list.

Then, I'd think about a song for the trailer and let that dictate the pace, editing and choice of material for the season trailer. Once I'd extracted the video only of each of the features I'd go and gather every significant shot I could find and string them together against the rhythm of the song. When that was done and I'd made a good copy of each feature and chosen short supports,I was ready. Oh, then I'd write the season program including a short spiel for each one. And then as each was a week away I'd write different copy again for the Facebook event and mailing list and left it to the four winds.

I'd check the response to the FB event and come Friday 6.30. I'd lug the laptop, armed with the movies, trailer and support feature and my entire record collection in flac form, a bag of Turkish bread and dips from my home in Fitzroy to the ABC Gallery in Collingwood. Not a long lug but a good hike on foot. I'd push the heavy door open and take happy receipt of Milos' jovial bellow: Hello, Mr Peter! I'd connect the projector to the laptop and test that the material was going to look and sound the way I wanted and then either put some calming Brian Eno ambient on or go and play the upright piano that I still hadn't got around to tuning and wait for whomever would turn up.

I miss that. I still miss it. Even on nights when only a pitiable few turned out in the icy rain and gales to sit through whatever grim obscurity I was offering I felt like I was doing something worthwhile. I miss the gratified surprise at the appearence of a sudden audience swelling influx just as I was about to run the trailer and I even miss the transition from disappointment to warmth witnessing a small audience appreciate what they'd seen personally and with depth. I miss the ritual and the unexpected. The lot.

But tonight I'm writing in a break from what has largely had to replace Shadows as my weekend industry. I came home this mild autumnal Friday to work on the dialogue and drawing of my graphic novel, The Monsoons. I'm doing that while carrying on a Facebook PM conversation which has gone from jokey through bizarre to enjoyably philosophical. The evening stretches. Tomorrow night a new film at a cinema.

Yeah, it's all changed now and I've got other things to do. God, I miss it, though, I really still miss it.