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...

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