Friday, August 31, 2012

Fibula films Pt 1

Here are some of the movies that I've seen since mid July when I broke my leg. This meant that not only did I have to give up MIFF but MUFF as well. I did a lot of reading but also set myself in front of a few titles from various sources that have stood in for my absence from festivals in the last couple of months. Oddly enough, as I approach re-entry into the bi-pedal world (toes crossed) I don't have much of an appetite for full length reviews of each.

The Party and the Guests. One of the strikingly original and threateningly unclassifiable films that might have told the Czech apparatchiks to check their rollerdexes to make sure all their Soviet contacts were up to date. Political or social satire work for this but neither category quite does it. At heart there's something more disturbing to the collectivist mind happening here and like all good politically influenced art, this does not declare its hand without a fight.

A group of young but ageing middle class people are enjoying a picnic in a forest when before they know it they are absorbed into a larger, more organised celebration which begins like a prison induction but turns into  the birthday of an avuncular grey eminence who at first seems happy to allow his guests their freedoms (the other guests seem to have be annexed from their own celebrations including a wedding party) but soon tires of the effort of maintaining the tolerance.

Banned "forever" in then Czechoslovakia, this one makes its points in under eighty minutes and lets you get on with the dealing. If you can find a copy sit yourself in front of it.

Living in Fear: 2005 Redemption tale from Vietnam has ne'er do well Tai in the years immediately after the war being discovered as a bigamist and layabout. That, heaped on to his war record fighting for the bad guys from the South and the West, puts him in the local cowpat. And then he finds he has a talent for finding and extracting land mines, the same limb removing tin cans his old war buddies had been busy planting in the local crop fields. There is more to it than this and Tai's redemption isn't simply the irony of repairing his past. There's a sincere message about self-worth here and the difficulties that a self-righteous new order can offer the penitent. The final image of a man tending his garden is both pleasing and disturbing.

This was a catch-up for me. I had it unwatched on my PVR hard drive for over a year. Glad I pressed play and stuck with it. Gorgeous photography of the new agrarian land and some very poignant composition in the service of character development supporting effortless performances make this one worth catching. You'll probably have to wait until SBS shows it again, though, as it hasn't made it to disc yet.

The Hunger Games. An utter revelation. I sniggered along with everyone else who vectored the Facebook meme of John Travolta calling The Hunger Games Battle Royale with cheese and passed on what I understood was a blockbusterisation of a derivative tween lit series. Not for me. A friend, however, insisted and brought the blu-ray over. This is no more derivative than a lot of dystopian sci fi I've seen and admired from decades long gone. The parallels with contemporary reality tv need no comment as the point stretches a lot further than plain popular critique. This tightly plotted actioner remembers (like the still wonderful Rollerball) it can cast its future is now shock aside in favour of suspense and themes of survival, finding courage, loyalty, defining the good fight etc.  Muscular. Rises o'er its hype. Is good.

Centurion. Roman legion in Britain is almost entirely erased by the locals and the survivors have to make their way back home. Some enjoyable suggestions of ancient military life and clear parallels with the Iraq and Afghan conflicts but the tale resists any real development and finds nowhere particularly interesting to go after the second act. Michael Fassbender-led cast is stronger than their material.

Bronson and In Bruges are written up to about the same extent as these in the previous Top 10 entry.

The Year of the Sex Olympics. Future shock from Nigel Kneale that proposes a dystopia ruled by television the job of which is "apathy control". The inner party here are the High Drive people who keep the Low Drives smothered with cathode culture. This ranges from the Hungry Angry show (two fat men throwing food at each other) and the Sex as sport and art. The problem is that the audiences are growing blase about even this fundamental neural  hit. Central office, we need a new angle. This comes in the form a a dissenter, a High drive malcontent who creates studiously ugly art which he shows to the population by hijacking the signal. Two other High Drives who are teetering away from the norm. They elect to be the subjects of a kind of proto Big Brother/Survivor. That's where the Nigel Kneale really kicks in and anything you thought was going to happen gets detoured as the Knealester finds something far more interesting to show you.

I'm a big fan of Nigel Kneale and am always eager to see something of his that is new to me. This one does have a lot of highly accurate predictions about what lay after its 1969 vintage such as interactive tv, a kind of truncated adspeak not too far from the experience of listening to people vocalising Facebook statuses, virtual experiences and the redefinition of have and have not divisions. Nevertheless, I did struggle with the datedness of the "futuristic" dialogue and the attempt at making the players intone in a kind of Briterican. The appearance of the malcontent and his fate feels mechanical rather than an organic extension of the setting and plot. But once the new show with the two High Drives and their daughter gets under way the Knealeist surprises start and don't stop until the words THE END appear. A chore at first and then a delight.

Songs From the Second Floor. A series of tableaux that play out a loose arc surrounding a man driven to sabotage his own business to survive. This opens up some big themes of order and chaos, love and abandonment, loneliness and crowding. The sub-horizontal narrative is very deliberate as we take the events and various testimonies in with hearty dollops of absurdism. When I say that I do most definitely not mean Wes Anderson style quirk but moments drawn with sincerity and a genuine sense of the folly of life. You will need to go very far and wide to equal some of the grandeur and wit in some of these setpieces. And lest you should think I'm describing something precious and rarefied I need to point out the humour that is almost always centre screen. Pelle stands in the train home, his clothes burnt and ashen from his act of arson. The commuters around him cannot keep from yawning but as soon as they open their mouths they become a choir. Pelle's son, a cab driver has a strange conversation with his military passenger as a crowd of self flagellating stockbrokers from an earlier scene pass by in the deep background. A weird religious ceremony .... Ah, that's it!

I tried to work out what this film reminded me so strongly of while watching it and now I've got it. Bunuel. Luis Bunuel who started out making violent acts of celluloid surrealism with his pal Sal Dali and progressed to a long career alternating between straight melodrama and increasingly refined surrealism might have made this. But no, the more I think of it the less convinced I am by it. For all the audacity on screen here, all the confronting humour and eye popping visual invention there is something important missing. It takes a while because it's an unusual thing to claim for Bunuel; heart. For all the effectiveness of the feast for the eye and mind on display there is just so little to engage the viewer beyond the fact of the strange beauty itself. Hell, let's throw Zulawski in here, too. The coldest he can make his films they still warm up more profoundly than this. Nothing in Bunuel's Phantom of Liberty or Milky Way, as difficult as they get, so effectively defies the involvement of the viewer as Songs From the Second Floor. I can't cry pity, either, as it is so obviously intended to be that way. I just can't bring myself to like it. That said, the final tableau is one of the most inventive uses of coreography in a long take I've seen since Werckmeister Harmonies. I will give it that. See it. At ninety minutes it won't kill you and you won't see anything else like it.

Sugarland Express: Spielberg before he knew he was Spielberg gives us this cross country romp as Goldie Hawn breaks her boyfriend out of jail and the pair hijack a police car complete with Highway Patrolman at the wheel and carreen down the road to retrieve their son who has been in foster care. Behind them the massed squad cars of the state of Texas and a grey eminence alpha cop trying to keep things nice but prepared to break out the grapeshot if called. This is a road movie in which the kidnapped cop finds a believeable bond with his captors and the wider dialogue between them and the top cop make for a lot of engaging thoughts between the smash em up derby. Performances superb all round and very pleasant to see Slaughterhouse 5's Michael Sacks in another role.

Appearing just a year before the breakthrough and gamechanging Jaws, Sugarland Express impresses not just because it points so clearly to where Speilberg would be travelling (expert mass choreography of man and machine, almost fetishistically clean cinematography, drum tight narrative etc) but also because in light of his future oeuvre it is a remarkably restrained film. While there is a great deal of smash 'n' bash and gunplay pyrotechnics on display, Speilberg seems happy to allow the issues in the story emerge without the application of his later trademark sledgehammer. A scene in which bad boy Clovis (William Atherton) watches a stolen view of the Roadrunner on a nearby drive-in screen, entertaining his girl by supplying the sound effects, he falls silent at the sight of the constantly losing Coyote and his face settles into sadness as he understands how much of a coyote his own decisions have made him. This works as the kind of trope gleefully inserted by fellow movie brats Scorsese, Coppola or De Palma and like them, this time, in Spielberg's hands it is effortlessly part of the weave of the film, not a self pleasing distraction. The cartoon seems projected on to his face because we see it reflected in a window. That's the extent of the special effects for such a genuinely profound moment of self-realisation: a movie in a window. This unsung early feature from one of today's cinegods is worth a look by fan and foe alike; not because it shows what might have been but simply what was before the legend and the hype took over.

Mississippi Mermaid: Truffaut gave Godard his break but I've never considered him the latter's equal in the Nouvelle Vague as, while he always showed a ready mastery of the form, Jean Luc, like the wily younger brother, always pushed it further, badder, bolder. Thus when I see a film by Truffaut I have to take the Godard shades off and forget about that. This case is harder than normal, though, because of a number of similarities between this and Jean Luc's Pierrot le Fou. They aren't the same movie nor trying to be but the sight of Jean Paul Belmondo in a nouvelle noir acting opposite the director's wife (Catherine Deneuve) in the later film rubs against that of Jean Paul Belmondo acting opposite the director's wife (Anna Karina) in the earlier one.

Mermaid is an interesting adaptation of the form in that it is a noir imposed on by the day to day. When Deneuve suggests they have a drink after discovering the corpse created by Belmondo, she really seems to mean it, it's not just noir style, it might as well be laundry instructions. This allows for an effective resetting of the genre from cliché to freshness and affords the players a lot more breathing space to express the more existential pulls of their plight. The final scene finds a great deal of power in its understatement.

Except that after Pierrot le Fou and its brainstorming fireworks make it look like slower Hitchcock. If you don't care about Truffaut and his place in the context of the 60s av-gard vague then you'll probably really enjoy it.

Tokyo Story: Ozu's most revered film is a closely observed study of family and responsibility takes its time and creates depth. Only the patient viewer will be rewarded here but rewarded they shall be. Can't seem to do this one justice in the limited scope I've given myself here and I might save it for something more just on the director's work.

Autumn Afternoon: Ozu's tale of an aging man concerned for his daughter's future, wanting her to be married and starting her own life rather than waste away as his old age's servant. Ozu's patience with creating the world around the ideas of the characters is unlike anything else I've seen along the same thematic lines. If Godard had made Two or Three Things I Know About Her as a straight narrative family drama with the same aesthetic as he used it would come close. Devastating final shot puts everything the viewer has endured into irresistable focus.

More to follow, over...

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Top 10 24/08/2012

In Bruges. I hesitated at this as I wrote it off as a Guy Ritchie style gangster frolic with quirks but when I caught it on tv recently I was pleasantly disabused. This is a strongly imagined, intelligent, characterful and continually funny piece about misconception and its consequences and the great mover redemption. Two London-based hitmen cool their heels in Bruges after a hit-gone-wrong.

Brendan Gleeson is a delight as a mild mannered professional whose calm surely hides tempests of will. Colin Farrell, always a hit with me whenever he plays his native Irish, is all frenetic chaos and brattishness. Ralph Fiennes outdoes his starmaking turn from Schindler's List and grows through it like an unkillable weed to Pinteresque Cockney force. And for the third time I've seen her (Heartless and The Silence of Joan) Clemence Poesy provides an effortless brainy sexiness and, particularly when smiling, seems to generate her own lighting. All that and a great third act that gives way to a fourth (not a coda but a full blown act in its own right) whose presence in the structure did not bother me in the slightest.


Eraserhead. Perennial.

Bronson. I'll treat this to a piece that compares it to Chopper later but for now this tough biopic of a career prisoner in the UK system stunned me with its force and sheer dandyism. Tom Hardy, as unrecognisable as any good character actor should be, takes us from the expected ultraviolence to a tenderness that is more powerful for its troubling sincerity. This, from the Meister of Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn, is a kind of slap in the face to a lot of Brit cinematic severity from over the last few decades (War Zone, Nil By Mouth, Wonderland, Naked etc.) Lads, it seems to say, this might be grim but it's still cinema.

Ringu. Self-assured, this horror tale allows the momentum of its terrifying core to dictate pace and intensity until the shivery climax answers what no one dared imagine. I watched this again recently to see if it still held the power I felt from seeing it in the Lumiere. I knew what was coming and still broke out in a cold sweat.

Seven Samurai. Saw the Blu-ray of this recently and was once again wowed by its depth, thoroughness and great humour. It's long but never really feels like it as Kurosawa maintains a constant balance between heavy and light. Mifune amazes me with his ability to go from buffoon to genuine strength without a note of contradiction. Deserves every sigh of its reputation.

Hara Kiri. A revenge tale as patient and meticulous as a tea ceremony. The sheer economy of the minimal sets and trust in actors to tell their characters' tales in word as well as deed. When the pieces fall to the conclusion and the action breaks out into the open field we witness one of the most haunting fights on screen.

Picnic at Hanging Rock. Still the most haunting tale of European naivete meeting the Australian wilderness on screen. A big spooky heart at its centre is created from a very few shots, none of which are particularly processed or generically horror.

Heavenly Creatures. Peter Jackson lifted off from his arch schlock and into the stratosphere of 90s mainstream cinema, towering above the assembly line grade blockbusters and rom coms with this piece about true love and imagination. All that does get corrupted by murder but it nevertheless is examined bravely and with the same kind of fascination Jackson knew welled in the minds of his audience. Both leads shine, even through dowdy glumness and teenage petulance. Nothing before or since by Jackson does it for me the way this one does.

The Ugly. Another transtasmanic entry. This time it's Scott Reynolds' entry in the serial killer chic that cursed the '90s with so much popcorn prurience. Reynolds removes the sleaze from the genre and establishes a compelling central account which is enriched by a stream of consciousness technique that, handled poorly, would have destroyed it. Paolo Rotondo surprises with a face of ice cream and a heart of reinforced steel. Silence of the Lambs can keep its undeclared Barnumesque cynicism, I'll take this mystery train over it any day.

Werckmeister Harmonies. Bela Tarr's masterpiece (IMHO). This cinema verite folktale, medieval quality satire on human vanity ascends well above its dour setting and gives us a centre in the extraordinary performance by German import Lars Rudolf. Constructed from a series of very very long takes which are alternatively deceptive because of the great choreography they contain or compelling in how they force us to really look at and consider what we are witnessing. Best of all, this film can simply be enjoyed for the story on its surface but greatly rewards even casual delving into what is really going on beneath it. I admire Tarr's approach but nothing he has done is so consummately powerful as this. One work of genius is more of a shot than most of us can dream of.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

4 Films I Dislike and How I'd Like Them Remade

"Which one am I, good or bad? Go awwn, have a guess."
Gremlins: Ok, before you cry "cheap shot!" I do know that this one was meant as a soft serve grotesque but the technology on display and the basic approach were both really good. It was just the cuteness of it that prevented it from being anything but unendurable to me. All the over telescoped "SURPRISES!", the laboured sight gags and the problem that goofy monsters are never scary still bother me. Was it Spielberg standing over Joe Dante? Maybe and maybe not, considering Dante's other films which, while more than competent always seem to fall prey to the same self subverting cuteness.

Remake: Dress the monsters down or even leave out the transition from cute 'n' furry to demonic 'n' reptilian so that you never know which one has turned or not. Keep the monstered ones cute and beguiling. Kind of a mix of Aliens and a plague of Tickle Me Elmos. Joon-Ho Bong probably doesn't want to do this kind of movie after The Host so you're going to ask him nicely. VERY NICELY.

"Some people will do anything to get out of a third act"
The House of Sand and Fog: We are meant to care about Jennifer Connelly's determination to keep her house despite doing everything to convince us that she just needs to be in care. We are meant to accept the deep compassion of an ex Iranian military officer who puts up with an insane amount of criminal bullshit doled out by Connelly. Not enough? How about a third act packed with sudden revelations and extreme actions in place of carefully established mechanisms that might give them a more fluid feel?

Give this to David Cronenberg to extract and discard all the deus ex machina and replace it with a more severe examination of the forces that are in the structure like the alien finding a home and the tenant alienated from her home. That kind o' thing.

"We'll they'll dig us."
The Last King of Scotland: Boy, this should have been good. A feisty UK doctor, freshly qualified decides to amp up his current by spinning a globe and vowing to go wherever he stopped it. Uganda, 1970s. Idi Armin country. A citizen of the former Empire Prime now idealistic and very uncolonial will give us a tour of one his empire's most monstrous creations. Sign me up.

Well, they do cast it well. James McAvoy as the young idealist plummeting under the dictator's glamour and Forest Whittaker as big daddy Idi himself make for a fine pair of complimentary performances. But the film doesn't seem to udnerstand that having established these archetypes there is no further need to feed them. Indeed, which such a primary coloured canvas we should be seeing nuance and moments of disturbing ethics. We get glimpses of the latter but they are too easily swamped by the writers' resort to violence and shock which has a decreasing power by the scene.

Result Armin = bad. Young doctor = redeemable. For that last one to work we have to forgive Young Doctor all of his trembling compliance once we see a tiny act of redemption followed by an act of self-preservation. Oh , that's ok, more atrocities form Hitler 2 will cover that up. If only that had been a comment on how completely fear can manipulate us. It's lost in clumsiness.

Remake as a faux documentary. Interviews interspersed with what little would have been filmable and then show some of Idi's home movies (mocked up will do). Give it to Lars von Trier. Then watch him at Cannes.

"Now wasn't Ah lahk this in Wahld at Harrrrt?"
Rambling Rose: Mother and daughter Diane Ladd and Laura Dern are joined by Robert Duvall in this tale of how a southern fahcracker transcends the the bimbo void by showing how much she has insahd. Every single scene snatches defeat from the jaws of victory by knocking out the interesting quirk and diverting the viewer with something poorly timed and anticlimactic. Nothing works apart from moments in individual performances which can be very good but the effect of seeing them is like the good bits in a stew that you come to understand has been left on the table for about a week.

Strangle all the cuteness of this one at birth and focus on some of the serious issues that are obscured by it on screen (like Duvall's creepy ease with the notion of sterilising Rose) and emphasise the menace the small town community feels from her refulgent sexuality (ie don't have her "creatin' a heatwave" by walking down Main Street to a raunchy ragtime version of Dixie). Allow this to be scary and we'll be so grateful for any morsel of warmth it will never feel fulsome.

Let's go against type and give this to Kathryn Bigelow. We all know she can direct men. Let's see her get inside their nervous systems without a shot fired.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


A man runs down an alley to his car and frantically tries to start it. Too late. They've caught up with him. A gang of stoney faced men attack his car with what look like spears or pikes but soon are revealed to be large lethal crucifixes. They are on the car roof piercing the metal with the crosses, screaming. Their leader, something out of the Salem witch trials, stands on the ground, laughs maniacally at the carnage and praises god for the victim. Roll titles.

Titles and credits are intercut with images of further carnage connected this time with a trio of young groovers. Drugs, sex, violence, highlife. Persistent through this montage is a haunting image of a naked man suspended by his ankles, his entire hairless body spattered with blood.

That's the movie in a few minutes. By the end of it you should be in no doubt whatever of what you are about to see. If you are in doubt then you are probably going to have to continually calculate how you are going to report it as stylish irony. If you are like that you will miss everything you are about to see. Watch a Wes Anderson movie as a palette cleanser and you'll feel better. (I can't believe I just typed that, even in jest!)

For the rest of us, it's a ride with three urban vampires of a decidedly non-gothic breed who prey upon the groovesters of any town they find themselves in, staging heists and tearing it up at the local clubs. Brother Bem (Salem-Witch-Trials-Man) and his team of virgins are in brimstone-hot pursuit as are the local mob boss (heisted by the vamps) and his gang of decidedly non-virginal thugs and two cops that are bent as a rat's knee. Oh, and weaponry! This the first time I've noticed the credit "Armourer" as well as a roll call of all the weapons that make an appearance.

Anyone else from Melbourne where this film was shot will notice that things seem to be a tad screwy as far as location goes. One of the cops twangs his way through a rebel states draw-wel and knocks back tins of Bud while his partner is all Melbourne gruff until about halfway through when he seems to have taken up the southern cop chicken pickin drawl. The deadly holy rollers similarly begin private school but soon enough twang out to ol'Alabam. A business card for a local car dealer is repeatedly shown with its owner's thumb covering the location Richmond. This is not Melbourne. No, I'm not going all Magritte on youse, I mean it's Exploitationville and it wants you to forget about the setting and dig the gig.

This is not a film about the essential chaos in mankind or the transmigration of souls through the element of evil to redemption in annihilation, it's about bad guys being chased by worse guys, some torture, boundary-breaking sex, fun with drugs and cars and weapons, lots of weapons. Shot number one tells you it was done on analogue video (and NOT ironically!) We're straight into the action from the word go and we won't be leaving it. Don't look for character development or theme, do some weapon spotting, instead, and you'll have a good time.

There is awkward pacing from editing here and from uneven acting there. There is overstatement in the writing as well as the performances which causes damage to the flow of the action. There are some good turns (all hail John Flaus as the festishist) and more than a few visual compositions to let you know someone on board has an eye. Does that create a balance? Not really; the schlock VHS-only mission the film is on overrides any steps towards mainstream cinema and gets down to the objective. Those conventional tidbits, while not flukes, are, and can only ever be, secondary to the gore, explosions (which effects, by the way, lift this well above student work) and general badassedness, however hampered that might be.

This experience will not turn anyone whose idea of good cinema is determined by production values alone (such folk need to be honest about the quality of the average slop in their multiplexes, though). It probably won't win many from the opposite camp who pounce joyfully on low production values in hope of finding depth in rawness. Bloodlust has flaws? Guilty as charged but in its defence as a locally produced film made without a cent of bureaucratic money or publicly funded approval, it provides something that embarrassing over-awarded bullshit like Candy or Somersault or The Burning Man don't for a second of their combined screen time: a celebration of its audience.

Get Twilight or The Hunger out of your heads and think early Peter Jackson or even the silly but effective Nadja. This is fun. Laboured and wincey fun now and then, but fun all the same. Spin it!