Thursday, October 25, 2012

Various Apocalypses Part 5: The Dark Hour

Spanish film about knowing what you had once it's gone. A group of survivors from an unidentified cataclysm go about their lives, educating their young, maintaining what they can of their life support in what looks like the last available underground bunker.

Frequent sorties are needed to the outside to cull the zomboid hordes who are encroaching and can infect through the slightest contact. The infection works faster than the one in 28 Days Later and when one of the party does get touched he agrees to be shot to death on the spot. Also, there are the invisibles creatures violent and stealthy that move through the bunker and enter any unsecured door with fatal results. This happens during the "cold hour". The reasons for this naming of hours are unclear until the end. As they constitute a massive spoiler I'll leave them out here.

The day to day is being recorded by the ten year old boy Jesus with his mini dv camera. He stands in as unofficial narrator. He is not in every scene nor is his narration. Though it begins looking like one The Dark Hour is is not a found footage piece. The entire film's video look is there (apart from budgetary concerns) to lend a claustrophobic and ugly edge to the setting. Works.

Jesus and his friend Magda visit old timer Judas in the lower bunkers for their education. Though Magda is a little older than Jesus neither can remember the time before the disaster. Judas plies them with tv, cinema and books from the time as well as his own knowledge and experience. The hopelessness of any idea of a return to this state is almost solid. When Judas gives Magda an old makeup kit, her delight is profoundly saddening in the grimy light of her home.

This is a studiously plain film, measuring its action and dramatics with a weary eye on the maintenance of life. Quite a lot happens in its reasonable 90 plus minutes of screen life but the sense that it would anyway is strong. Only when the pressures of the zombies and phantom visitors mount too dangerously to ignore does the flat and pointless existence meet its inevitable and probably final challenge. The rest is spoilers.

Because of the intentional lack of action movie flash and the surprises of the climax it's hard to say much about this film. If it is to be so realistically grim and ugly why have the big signpost character names like Jesus, Judas and Magda? Wouldn't Juan, Salma and Ignac have worked better, considering the end-time theme was impossible to misconstrue to begin with? They stick out like uncorrected writer brainstorm session contrivances. But this is really the worst I have against The Dark Hour, a film that blends its cinematic heritage and welcome morsel of orginality so well that even at its grimmest it manages to disarm. I saw mine on an imported dvd. Maybe SBS?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Top 13 horrors for Halloween

Okay, as this is an occasion for my favourite film genre I'm doing two unusual things in my tops lists: there are more titles and Eraserhead isn't one of them.

What's the same is that this is not an attempt at a definitive list. Horror is my favourite genre and I like far more than thirteen. I left the inclusion entirely up to what I could think of at the time. This would almost certainly change if I thought about it again this time next week. So, sorry if your favourites aren't here, a lot of my own aren't either.

Halloween: This bloodless coup of a film was the most profitable independent American film until The Blair Witch Project. Through the kill scenes and an atmosphere of undiluted and understated creepiness there is a powerful arc of nerd girl Laurie finding her courage and standing up to the monster. It was this where the masked killing machine who just keeps coming back originated. Original still best. Oh, and one of the best realised music scores for any film in any genre, by director Carpenter himself.

Dark Water: Shivery ghost tale remembers that the best of them include a tragedy at their centre. The convergence of this and the haunting results in a powerful and heartrending climax. Wash this down with a creepy and crushing coda and you have the logical end to the J-horror genre.


The Blair Witch Project: Campfire tale as cinema verite. Three students try and make a film about a witch in the woods and either fall under her control or get literally scared out of their wits. Not the first found footage film but still the most effective.

Ringu: The man who ended J-horror also began it with this tale of a curse and race against time. Like Dark Water this is also the story of a mother's bond with her child and the rediscovery of mutual respect between a woman and her estranged husband. Climax still freezes me and it's still better than the exponentially higher budgeted American re-bloat.

Suspiria: Giallo maestro Dario Argento's apex drives to the heart of why our nightmares scare us (we have no control over them) and serves one up with frozen blues and thick blood reds. Some of the most tightening murder scenes you'll see and a music score on a par with Halloween.

Martyrs: Outside of Asia contemporary horror has fallen to cliche and uninterestingly slick digital effects but this French/Canadian entry not only gives us gore that is painful to the eye but concepts that make us feel ashamed to be alive. The really nasty stuff has less gore but the ideas behind it are petrifying.

The Haunting: Citizen Kane alumnus Robert Wise made one of the finest haunted house movies of all time with this adaptation of a popular novel. Some still impressive special effects, almost three dimensional lighting design support a very very sad central story. Could watch this on a weekly basis.

The Exorcist: A story of doubt, faith and mother and daughter. You don't need to be religious to get into this one anymore than you need to believe in ghosts to dig The Haunting. As a girl goes through severe changes in mind and body her famous and inevitably neglectful mother is drawn to attention. The father who is only suggested by the gaps in an international phone call has been absent for years. As the tumult within the girl explodes into freakish violence the priests are called in. One is a skeptic, grieving for his recently deceased mother and the other is an old stager who has met this demon before. A mix of tough seventies drama and supernatural pyrotechnics, The Ex remains a wonder of the medium. Try to find the original cut as the "version you've never seen" aka the director's cut just adds bloat and removes power.

Night of the Living Dead: Throw out the magic and ritual of the traditional zombie story and all you have is the dead come back to life. All? Romero's fable of fate, made for the shoe polish budget of a contemporary quirky indy gets everything it tries for right.

The Changeling: Effectively eerie haunted house film builds to a conclusion of real dread. Atmosphere and strong performances lift this already fine story into the ether.

Kairo: Would you like to meet a ghost? So asks the website visited by most of the characters in this apocalyptic tale. No you wouldn't, is the correct answer, not if they're anything like the ones here. A chaos of mass loneliness, Kairo (or Pulse or Circuit as it's variously known in English) was once beautifully described as The Omega Man as directed by Tarkovsky. Yup!

Prince of Darkness: Dismissed even by Carpenter fans my near favourite JC film has ideas worthy of its chief inspirator Nigel Kneale and a human diminishing concept at its centre AND another great music score by Johnno himself. I can watch this just for the atmosphere but love the rest of it too much.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari: Silent wonder as sleepwalker terrorises town at the same time as sinister bullish carny seems also to run the local asylum. Crazy expressionistic backdrops suggest a constantly unsettled state of mind which might be as easily fallen into as a gutter. Like a nightmare that has sneaked out from an Edvard Munch woodcut.

Top 10 22/10/2012

Withnail and I: Recently screened this to some people who hadn't seen it. This is a film remembered for its dialogue exchanges but I had forgotten a lot of them which freshened up the film no end. Perfect pacing and expert recall of what it means to be young and on the brink of missing out on making that big scratch on the world. Grant, McGann and Griffith all play and different pitches which should be disastrous in such a tightly cast film but here works like a perfectly arranged piece of music. And it's bloody funny.

Eraserhead: Does it to me every time.


I Walked With a Zombie: Jacques Tourner's second contribution to the Val Lewton canon keeps to the voodoo mythology but adds Jane Eyre. The walk through the cane fields still sends a shiver and then the socio-political harmonics start ringing in and you've got something typical of Lewton's efforts, a reach well beyond the basic requirements of genre into something other, rich and strange. I think of the Lewton canon as the chief precursor to Cronenberg and Lynch.

Night of the Living Dead: Story of the end of life doesn't need to be scary beyond that single thematic arc but plays beautifully on both genre cliche and new elements. One of the chief success stories of American independent cinema and it's very easy to see why. Romero stripped the magic away from the situation and refused to offer a sci fi cause for the phenomenon. There are zombies. They will get you. All you need. It works.

 The Tenant: Paranoia films don't come more threatening than this. Polanski himself is centre screen as the shrivelling emigre in a Paris populated by crassness, manipulation, ugliness, loneliness, violence, weirdness and Isabelle Adjani.


Fight Club: Because I knew nothing about it before I saw it and left with another favourite. I saw it new in a packed cinema. I was still thinking about it weeks afterward and giggling at most of it. Fincher when middling or poorly still has legs as a stylist but when his style is met by material like this (including the cast) he makes contemporary classics. See also, Seven.

Donnie Darko: Is he insane or a time traveller? If you watch the bloated and ruined director's cut you no longer get the choice as a viewer. In it's original cut, this one remains a series of bullseye shots at family, school, wishes and the explosiveness of being young. Writer/director looked like he might claim some precocious autership but quickly sank into pale repetition and loss of control over his material. That director's cut was nature's warning.

Naked Lunch: How do you film the unfilmable novel? You leave the text aside and look at where it came from and go from there. Cronenberg's take on the Burroughs confronting epic of addiction and alienation offers companionship with the source rather than a version of it. This film is better with a reading of the novel. The reverse, dare I say it, is also thus.

Bringing Up Baby: When romcoms remembered to be both romantic and funny, people like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn who could walk through a great range of roles through their sheer presence walked here. But both when still young were like power appliances when plugged into comedy. This one is all about sex and repression. Grant is a paleantologist headed for a sexless marraige with another paleantologist. As soon as the elegant chaos of Hepburn enters the scene, the dinosaur skeleton Grant is working on is relieved of a bone by Hepburn's pet leopard. It doesn't stop from there until the credits. This is one of the funniest movies you are ever likely to see. An ex of mine, however, sat through the entire thing without as little as a smile but did like the leopard. There's your caveat.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her: Jean Luc Godard read an article about lower middle class women prostituting themselves to keep up with the consumerism that rose like a flood tide in the 60s. While he would never have made a straight drama nor a documentary about this he loosened his grip even more from conventional cinema even more and gave us a bare-faced essay about consumerism and prostitution featuring direct commentary by himself, a kind of anti-narrative that yet involves fictionalisation and a logical time line that doesn't veer to documentary, both a fetishisation and an examination of fetishisation of colour and consumer good, direct address by incidental characters and too much else to list. Two or Three Things vies for my favourite Jean Luc with the same year's (1966) Mascluin/Feminin. While the latter wins the sheer watchability arm wrestle the former offers greater rewards for viewer patience. Before this, Godard might have continued cute, after it his seriousness led him as far away from his fan base as Kurtz got from his intended. Godard saw the prostitute in himself and couldn't unsee it. This is the moment that happened.

Monday, October 22, 2012


There is a kiss at the centre of Shadow Dancer and it is unlike any you have ever seen. It is impulsive and passionately physical but it is not sexual, not amorous. This is not through any lack of connection between the kissers, they are, by this moment, essential to each other. These characters are not in love; they are connecting this way because they are still alive. To find another screen kiss like it you might have to go to a film set in a concentration camp.

The setting here is the freezing, grazed knuckles world of Belfast during the troubles. The war on the ground is such that the suspicion of betrayal is enough to get you waterboarded, dumdum bulleted or blown up. The film has a prelude which sets the character of Collette for life: as a child she leans on her younger brother to go and do an errand she doesn't want to do and sees him shot by the IRA outside their house. Cut to 1993 we see the grown up Collette nervously convey a handbag so large and ugly that it must be a bomb on a train and then leave it at a tube station.

Bomb doesn't go off but the Brits do, catching her effortlessly and forcing her into the hard place by the rock (Irish girl, English gaol). All she needs to do is betray her brothers and everything will be alllllllright. It's Norn Irn, the very breath of the idea could get her splattered in bloody bits on the nearest steel grey backstreet. She has a young son. Damned if do or don't she does.

 Her subsequent days are spent fending off the suspicions of the local terror leader, taking part in IRA hits and feeling the squeeze of her impossible predicament. Now and then she meets up with Clive Owen's hunky chunky MI5 agent and reports what she finds out. In the meantime he, sick of the attitudes of his superiors and colleagues to these compromised and threatened operatives, tries to find out all he can about Collette's case and discovers something he didn't expect. Although he's in charge of her case he has been denied access to her file. He's about to find out something very troubling which leads to a pair of twists that will make your heart sink.

I say twists but this film does not play for narrative grip as much as a constant amping up of the tension of the beginning. This is not made any easier by the cheerless near monochrome (but not obviously desaturated) streets, homes and pubs of the town.

No ease either from Andrea Riseborough's intense performance. Her strange beauty, like a marzipan-face aristocrat from an eighteenth century portrait, is almost constantly marred  with concern which expresses itself in a stress furrow 'twixt the eyebrows which is almost always present. Apart from moments spent enjoying the sight of her young son's life her Collette is seemingly bound for early mortality or galloping premature aging.

Mac, Clive Owen, is similarly bound, knowing of the certain visceral mess to come but powerless to stop it. At the point of the kiss I began with he is devastated by the circumstances but compelled to play them out. That's why there is no eroticism in the act. That's why it is so simultaneously rivetting and uncomfortable. That's why this is a corker of a film.

There is also a kind of setpiece halfway through involving a street funeral. The British army are out in force to prevent the deceased from being publicly celebrated as a soldier (as opposed to a criminal). At one point a pair of pistols is passed stealthily through the crowd to a pair of men who don balaclavas and fire into the air in salute. As I watched this it occured to me that Stephen Spielberg would have fetishised this moment, luxuriating in the images of the cold steel being passed along lines of funereal clothes, perhaps slowing it down and throwing in some metallic clanks in case you did get the guns were steel. Here it is shown unadorned, grim, defiant and curiously moving and the hatred in it confronting. That's why this is a good film.

Still in cinemas at time o' writing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Various Apocalypses Part 4: Kairo/Pulse

A ship in the ocean. Extreme high shot, perpendicular. Silence. An image of immediately troubling loneliness.

Cut to contemporary Tokyo. A group of twenty somethings worried about the sudden drop in communication of one of their number investigate. His apartment is as it was but there is a vaguely human shaped stain on the wall. For a moment  in the dark this appears to morph back into their friend with a noose around his neck. Then it's just the stain again.

Case by case this seems to be happening all around the city. Suicides and disappearances. A clue appears in the form of a website that imposes itself on users with the invitiation: do you want to meet a ghost? We follow one internet illiterate student (this is 2001) to his university tech services department and meets Harue who tries to sort out the problem of the site which, by now doesn't even need the modem on to appear.

Across town, Michi is trying to work out what's happening to her friends. We see what happens to one of them as he encounters one of the stains on the walls that has come to life. The scene is unrelentingly strange and terrifying, removing all the control we think we have over it at its start until we feel like screaming along with the boy in the room.

In other settings we see similarly disturbing things. One of the worst is made from the simplest of ingredients. A computer screen playing video of a human figure walking across a room. Just before it gets to the other side the loop replays and its back to where it started.

There is little plot to this film as it is not fuelled by plot. It is a situation that once revealed only needs to keep developing. Althought made within the time frame of the big wave of J-horror (1997-2003) it doesn't belong among the Ringus and Ju-Ons with their clock-beating survival or ghost exorcising climaxes. Kairo's brief is the notion of what might happen if we keep ignoring each other, nurturing isolation and loneliness. By the time one character, literally reaching out to her friend, explodes into a cloud of swirling ashes (or is it insects?) we sense we are beyond hope.

Shot on DV which carefully only ever falls short of a film quality image, we are in a world where dark stains can look like people for a few seconds and people who shoot themselves in the head don't seem to even need to bleed anymore. Ghosts wander the streets, indistinguishable from the living. This warm-toned but increasingly grimy world is coming to an end and there is nothing to be done about it.

This film contains my two favourite moments of CGI. A hercules transport aircraft crashing which is as gutpunching as it is spectacular and, more poignantly and a lot less flashily, a figure in the background of a shot, climbing a tower and leaping off. Perhaps I should add a third as we end (this is not a spoiler) with the image that began the film: the gigantic silent ocean rippling on.

Supplementary 5 for week beginning 14/10/2012

Fellini's Roma: Again, my Fellini fandom rests easiest with his unfashionable 70s output. Big, vulgar and colourful as a nouveau riche living room, they are also funny and often surprisingly beautiful. See also Amarcord.

Eraserhead: Nothing has ever come closer to the space between waking and dreaming life than this. Only like anything else that copied it.

Ginger Snaps: Gamechanging reinterpretation of the werewolf myth involves mensturation and the force of youth rather than just lump it all into sexual repression (which is dealt with but in a way characteristic of this clever film). Winning dialogue falls efforlessly somewhere between Heathers and Joss Whedon.Two sisters, caught between their new-age mother, indifferent father and the big bad straightness of high school, meet the werewolf that has been savaging the local pets. But is that an entirely  ... bad thing?

Seek the se and pre quels if you wish but you won't find there what you find here.

The Eye: Pang brothers retake on The Sixth Sense outdoes the original (this never happens in the reverse, when US versions of Asian movies appear), baypassing the BIG TWIST and looking into something even more troubling. At first I was annoyed by what I thought was a big Hollywood ending but now it seems to fit well.

The Offence: Sean Connery bargained with Universal to back a film he wanted to do if they wanted another Bond film with him. Actually, there were two but Polanski beat him to McBeth. The Offence is a mean as mustard story of a detective at critical mass who committs an atrocity during an investigation. The question here is whether police work, all that tough stuff we shy of doing ourselves, brutalises good people or attracts brutes to it. The undeclared centrepiece of the film is a double play of a series of ghastly memories from his career. The first play is images that he cannot get out of his head as he drives home and the second is his verbal revisit to his wife who has insisted on hearing him tell her what's wrong. His account, only ever vocal and quiet, approaches domestic violence. Occasionally stagey, The Offence remains one of Connery's finest hours and an intriguing outing for director Sidney Lumet.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Top 10 15/10/2012

Planet of the Apes: Originally saw this on a cinema outing while on school holidays and it was already old 'n' creaky but it was also freaky. No sequel, reimagining or reboot has that power and freakiness. I read the Pierre Boulle novel Monkey Planet somewhere halfway through my teens but gave up as it was nothing like the movie!

Eraserhead: Always and ever!


Life of Brian: It's shock value long gone (and even then no threat to anyone's genuine faith) Brian remains the tightest statement of the Pythons' dizzying absurdism. Each year I contrive to show this (preferably to at least one person who hasn't yet seen it) at Easter. Too many scenes in a film wall to wall with strong comedy but I still love the Latin lesson and its eventual (gloriously irrelevant) detour into Star Wars territory a long sequence that, from Cleesian verbal pyrotechnics to Gilliam's weird mix of goofy and violent, contains the essential range of the team. If you're a young 'un and skeptical about Monty Python and don't want to trawl through the tv series (and it does get surprisingly draggy even for big fans) you should start here. The blu-ray is exemplary.

Cruising: Even the few Friedkin fans who revere both French Connection and The Exorcist seldom mention this one. There was a misguided reaction against it when new from the gay community which might well have left an everlasting taint but if so it is unfairly so. This is a story about alienness that seeks not to resolve difference but to gaze upon it and bids us ask ourselves how we should sit with it. I remember seeing a crumbly old vhs copy of this which I paused at the shot of the killer's diary page. Just cursive words on paper and seen so briefly you'd hvae to wonder about their subliminal power. Friedkin put them under our skin before we could press the pause button at home. Think on't. Comparable to the lightless snarl of Looking for Mr Goodbar, also from the twilight of American mainstream originality. Goodbar might have made it in by itself but hasn't appeared (to my knowledge) on any optical format yet so I can only report a distant memory of it.

The Producers: Because it's funny and never gets old.

M. Hulot's Holiday: First Jacques Tati film I ever saw, this appeared late at night when my rowdy twenty something household greeted it with parodic ridicule. A few scenes later we were laughing breathlessly with it. Something like the opposite happened when my last programmed Shadows screening, Tati's Playtime, got me my biggest audience turnout who sat in puzzled silence in front of it. That was an awkward couple of hours.

Being John Malkovich: Because I laughed everytime I saw the expository trailer and all over again when I saw the whole film at a packed Nova back in '99. Jonez might make bigger and further reaching but probably never stronger or funnier.

Irreversible: Goes backwards to make it hard to empathise with the leads as they go about their violent revenge. Begins in hell but ends with a vision of heaven that the order of events makes heart rending. Gaspar Noe continues to create power on screen but never deeper nor as purposed as here. Seriousness often draws a nervous laugh. This cannot.

Unbreakable: M. Night Shamylan's least remembered film is also his best as it expertly balances its  concepts with the narrative that should carry them until the delivery of the purpose of what we have seen comes to us unruffled and immediately useable. The clunking ending, notwithstanding.

Cure: A tale of stress tightens as a Tokyo detective with the double burden of an apparently insoluble series of murders weighs down along with his wife's worsening dementia. The answer to both is in the investigation and, though effective, is more terrifying than the disease. Kyoshi Kurosawa's acknowledged masterwork has a subtle brutality that has the strange effect of warming up the icy proceedings and carrying us on to the what-did-I-just-see ending.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Various Apocalypses: Grab Bag

These are ones that I haven't seen for a while and must only remember. Thus I can't give any of them a full review.

 Miracle Mile: Boy meets girl but sleeps through his alarm, waking up to miss his date and take a call from a diner payphone that informs him that of an imminent nuclear attack on the city. Progresses with authentic dream logic but a real sense of urgency. You will not expect the ending. If you find a copy, do NOT allow anyone to spoil it for you.

Day of the Beast: Spanish film from the 90s poses the question what if you knew the apocalypse was coming but nobody believed you and stretches further to ask: then, if you prevented it how could you convince anyone. Mostly comedic but knows when it has to be a horror movie.

Letters From a Dead Man: Soviet era post-apocalyptic dirge doesn't insist on the bleakness that is apparent enough to need no comment. The cause of the cataclysm is, interestingly, operator error. Final scene with the children marching off into a puzzling future, in anti-radiation gear to the strains of Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music is both inspiring and heart-rending.
The Last Wave:Peter Wier's steadily eerie tale of cultural displacement and its consequences improves with repeat viewings, going from a creaky paranoia fable to a haunting warning. Why doesn't he still make films this good?

In The Mouth of Madness: John Carpenter's mashup of Stephen King, HP Lovecraft, Clive Barker, the power of the word can be a little too self conscious about its own cleverness here and there but survives this and the reliably uneven performance of Sam Neill in the lead role. Creepy and paranoid, it's unfortunately neglected among JC's output.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Various Apocalypses Part 3: THE TURIN HORSE

I passed on this one at last year's MIFF. I fell under the mighty spell of the same director's masterpiece Werckmeister Harmonies last decade and considered him incapable of making bad movies. Then I saw as much as I could of the rest. No bad movies but so little else as coherent and powerful as Harmonies. His touted apex, Satantango, has great merit for most of its SEVEN plus hours but cannot compete with the later film for sheer enjoyment of it. Harmonies is a film that features all of Bela Tarr's stamps like expert use of long takes, sumptuous black and white cinematography, a kind of medieval approach to daily life and the absurdity visibly beneath its surface. After The Man from London, Satantango and the great struggle to get through Damnation, I was well tarred and fatigued. So when this came up last year, even though I knew it wouldn't even be shown at ACMI and if I changed my mind later it meant buying a blu-ray from overseas. So....

The title of this film refers to the detail of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's biography that has him collapsing into pity at the sight of a maltreated horse and embracing the animal in tears. When Bela Tarr heard that story his response was: what happened to the horse?

By implication, it went to serve a father/daughter team on a farm in the literally windswept plains of Hungary whose life is difficult, stretching from one boiled potato to the next and going on, getting tougher. This description might make draw a chuckle if you are in any way used to the tradition of cinema that insists on the grind of life, especially in a rural environment. A single instance might suffice to leave the experience with a hearty disdain. But when I say now, that the difference here is that it's Bela Tarr doing it, I mean that if you are tempted to see it you will see something of its own kind in the best possible sense of the phrase.

What's the same as those other films is the casting of plain or gnarled rustic faces, sparse and grunting dialogue and stretches of grinding inertia. What's different is the most decisive item in Bela Tarr's amoury: the long take. Perhaps I should amend that to: use of the long take with the expertise of the specialist. This is not as plain as it sounds.

Tarkovsky spoke of the long takes he used as tools for a very direct audience involvement. Without  dialogue or even characters, think of a shot of a wall. For the first few seconds you wait for something to happen. When it doesn't after a long screen thirty seconds you start to look at the details of the wall, the unevenness of the paint job or the texture of the material and ask yourself if this is tells us about the people who live here, how they touch up the weathered patches or leave stucco or wood grain bare against the elements. You might wonder how well you'd do at maintaining it. Even if you wander off and go through your shopping list you've still engaged with the image and it has been instrumental in your present experience.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives is such a case. There is a scene in which a character takes a shower. You see the entire five minute shower. Nothing extraordinary happens. A man washes himself and then dries off. But if you aren't thinking of what a shower is by the halfway mark in this scene you are sitting in front of the wrong movie.

Bela Tarr's long takes frequently strive for this heightened involvement but in more signature mode go somewhere else entirely. He's not the only one to do this but he's one of the best. Through use of extraordinarily painstaking planning his long takes keep to their centre of gravity, following characters or points of focus around the scene, Tarr creates scenes that are both smoothly narrative and wildly virtuous. The opening of Werckmeister Harmonies, where Valoushka is explaining the eclipse using the drunken villagers to create the dance of the earth moon and sun, is a tour de force; not only do you get the breathless feeling of seeing every moment that might have been wasted with a lot of cutting, seing it fresh as performed, but at least the first time, you don't even notice you have been watching one shot. This is a cinematographer's nightmare to light and very difficult to choreograph but there it is on screen with one of the performers playing the role of choreographer himself. At another point we track along beside to characters as they walk for about three minutes in silence. We are looking at Valoushka thinking of what he has just been told. What in a lesser filmmaker's hands might be an indulgence with Bela Tarr is a modus operandi. His films would be boring without this and, even at their most gruelling, they are never boring.

I decided against being clever and noticing the course of the long takes in The Turin Horse and didn't notice a single scene that felt too long or overdrawn. That's only 30 cuts in a two and a half hour film. For reference the shower scene from Psycho has ninety cuts in three minutes.

So, after all that, is it worth it? Yes. Six days in the shared life of a father and daughter on a farm that is between fecund seasons or beyond them. The life is hard, water comes from a well and must be hauled out in buckets and poured into others and then carried back to the house. This takes obvious effort and is a daily task. The father's right arm is paralysed and he needs assistance dressing and undressing. Dressing is important as the gale that blows endlessly outside seems lethal. Dinner, any meal, consists of a single boiled potato for each which is eaten with the fingers (which get scorched by the force of hunger behind them). The horse of the title (if it is) no longer obeys commands or the bit and bridle and must, after great effort, be returned to the stable where it stands and stands and stands.

At one point a Gypsy wagon clops up to the well. The father commands his daughter to remove them as they poach some (obviously scarce water). She is handed a book in exchange for the water. We see her reading it word by word, tracing the letters on the page by the light of the hurricane lamp. It is a bizzarre religious text.

A man from the plains comes knocking, after some of the local moonshine. He reports that the nearby town has blown away and then sets into a monologue about the powerful acquiring and debasing the good and the noble until all is rendered into property. This could apply to the GFC, to the pervasion of social media and its constant and compliant invasion of privacy, or just to the archetypes in the book of Revelation where the bad guys stage false miracles and sew up commerce and social interaction. Keeping it to the principles allows it a necessary timelessness.

The horse's failing life, the depletion of their foodstock and the general drying and weathering of the land by the neverending wind blowing outside force the pair into the brief hope of escape and in one of the most powerful shots we see the failure of even this. At first the sight of the silouhuetted horse vanish over the horizon and then return minutes later seems funny, a replay of a thousand movie jokes but because we have to keep looking and waiting for this action to progress we are left feeling nothing but pity. We return to the farm house with them and wait with them until the last fade out.

Why the Nietschean angle? Couldn't they have just made the movie and called it Life's a Bitch? According to the more mythologised biographies of the philosopher, the incident left the great harranguer and celebrator literally speechless for the rest of his life which he spent drooling away in sanitoriums, staring into light and silence. The first images of the film which emerge as a fade in from the black of the opening titles are of the horse drawing the cart. It's in slow motion and expertly shot, showing the magnificence of the animal, the control of the farmer driving it and the power of the mission to grow food and live by its sale. When this stops so stops the world.

This is Bela Tarr's avowed final film. If he's as good as his word he might well leave the same legacy as Ellem Klimov whose force majere Come and See really was his last flim as he promised and he continues to be celebrated for it. Disliking most of his mooted masterwork Satantango, I considered him to be among the lucky few to create at least one work of genius in Werckmeister Harmonies. Now I think he's made two.

Various Apocaylpses Part 2: THE RAPTURE

Sharon has a stultifiying job at a call centre, serving the lazy and the idle by linking them to the phone numbers they seek. She's one of many among the dingy partitions. If this were god's job, and according to popular imagination it might as well be, no one would want it. She compensates with nights in Babylon, taking her drugs in the nose and sexual sparing anywhere else, coupling and recoupling. During one such sensual whirl she is mesmerised by the sight of an extremely elaborate tattoo on a woman's back of a pearl in a very odd looking setting. She asks about it and is only further intrigued by its owner's vague answer.

Further investigation leads her to the culty side of the fundamentalist Christian street and soon she finds some of these at the call centre, lunching together in the canteen and speaking in whispers. Outside of work she is increasingly haunted about her own dissolute lifestyle and begins to pursue the path, going from a backfiring slight toetesting to all out epiphany. She drags her most recent regular partner (a pre-X Files David Duchovny) from his own decadence into a dustless Christian marriage. They have a daughter. David suits up and eventually becomes a manager. Things, very bad things happen.

Sharon receives what she is convinced is an epiphany she takes her daughter to the desert, camps out by a mountain and waits for what she insists is the imminent apocalypse. Another non-spoily bad thing happens which brings the local sheriff into the picture. Then the apocalypse happens.

That bit isn't a spoiler as it's in the title. The notion relates to an interpretation of an old testament verse that suggests to the eager reader that at the point of the cataclysm, the faithful of the world will be transported to heaven. Here's the interesting thing about this film's presentation of this: it's literal. Act three is all Book of Revelation with additional dialogue. While the first two acts play like a candid Christian redemption tale the last one rolls out everything from the last book of the Bible as though it's really happening. But is it?

This film is a kind of necker cube. Look at it now and it's receding. Look again and it's advancing. What looks at first like a mega budget school pageant can very easily take on the icy tinge of psychosis. Sharon (Mim Rogers in her career's role of roles) descends through shock into a realm that she sees as biblical and ultimately blissful that you get a real sense that when she does the bad deed (and it is bad) she is aware of it's monstrousness as a human but convinced of its rectitude as a potential candidate for the rapture.

So which is it? Me, I'm an atheist, I'm incapable of accepting the events as literal truth without the same suspension of disbelief as I use with horror or science fiction. When I screened this at Shadows, one of the small but appreciative audience was an Anglican seminarian who praised the film for its "honesty". What she meant by that referred to my introduction which mentioned that writer/director Michael Tolkin, a Jewish-raised atheist who wanted to see what extreme religious belief looked like when played out for real. And it is honest. There are no moments of snidery here and the risk that the audience will only take what it sees one or the other way is clear and enormous. Whether this as a sobering parable of faith or psychiatry you will here find power and thought. It's not just honest, it's brave.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Top 10 01/10/12

Cabaret: High energy driving an increasingly sobering tale of youth and joy against the force of history as Weimar era Berlin decadents get crowded out by swastikas and jackboots. Great songs and stage numbers by the magnetic Joel Grey and centre-of-gravity Liza Minelli. Michael York's forced Brit out of water performance is smoothed to comedy. Somewhere in the shadow created by a gathering of George Grosz, Kurt Weill and Busby Berkley falls this wonder from the early 70s. The previous decade's more faithful British piece I Am a Camera looks like a cucumber sandwich by comparison. And the scene in the biergarten remains disturbingly stirring. People still think that scene's song, Tomorrow Belongs to Me, is a real Nazi song. It was written by a pair of American Jews who were condemned as antisemites for writing it (probably by people who were disappointed that it wasn't a real nazi song!).

Eraserhead: Semper!


 God Told Me To: Larry Cohen's career is not easy to characterise. He did blaxpolitation, crime, horror, monsters, suspense, sci-fi. And here he did almost all of those at once. A sniper picks off random targets on a city street. When the cops catch up to him, sitting on a water tower at the top of a tall building, he proves to be a straight laced all American guy. So why did he do it? "God told me to," he smiles before leaping from the tower to the hard pavement below, leaving Tony Lo Bianco's detective shaken. More disturbing murders later with the same pattern and it starts looking like an epidemic. There's one suspect and the clearest description so far is that he has no face. Where this leads goes into both sci-fi and religious territory with a crazy freakout ending that, yes finally (but I'm not saying how) involves some blaxploitation. Cohen keeps his first acts claustrophobic and tense before opening up on the weirder stuff which, oddly, feels like relief by comparison. Unsung brilliance!

 Jesus Christ Superstar: The musical that shouldn't work does. Jesus and his gang o' rebels tear up ole Judea as the Pharisee mob and the Romans get other ideas. Music and mayhem! The cast is good, the music is good and the story is a corker. I first knew this film as its soundtrack album whose liner notes introduced me to the word juxtapose which was used in reference to the deliberate anachronisms in the art direction, costumes and sets etc. Particularly I liked the Romans in Vietnam era (ie contemporary) US helmets. Works then. Works now. Don't believe me? Well, don't have faith, hunt down a copy and see and listen for yourself. Norman Jewison also made another musical favoured by me: Fiddler on the Roof. There was a popular classix conductor at the time called Arthur Fiedler. Wait as I might, he never did stage a concert called Fiedler on the Roof. Bastard! And Jewison also made Rollerball, and In the Heat of the Night and and ....

The Haunting: If ever I'm in need of a brief visit to a favourite while waiting or just idling, I'll put a scene or two from this on and press play. Robert Wise's helming included such strong design, performing and atmosphere that I can just walk right in and take a seat in this one. And it's one of the few ghost stories where characters can remain skeptical after evidence to the contrary without coming across as dicks. The central story has a heart rending sadness that gets me every time.

Amarcord: Said before and will again, the Fellini I prefer is from his less fashionable 1970s with pieces like Roma and this autobiographical epic for which he coined the word of the title (kind of means I remember but in a slangy, childlike mode). Fellini's Rimini is a more developed picture than that of the great I Vitelloni. Seldom does a two hour stretch pass by so swiftly as here in the seaside town with its street and family life brought back to sparking life. The family rings with chidren's laughter and harried parents, as gassy as it is loving. The classroom is tense with pranks. and the shoreline is eternal, junction of two forms of life. Even Fascism, seen through mocking children's eyes is rendered into a kind of comedy as confronting and hilarious as a father's anger. The seasons' chapters are divided by a motorcyclist ringing through the town like a herald. Breathtaking setpieces include an ocean liner, a fog and a peacock on the loose. I revere the Stradas and the Dolce Vitas but I'd rather spend time shooting the breeze with this.

Amadeus: Love Mozart and love having him at the centre of this non-historical fable of divine inspiration vs earthly competence. Sets, costumes and music as rich as the title subject and a great gaggle of actors make this a thoroughly enjoyable piece every time. Tom Hulce sparkles and jangles like a piano concerto, F. Murray Abraham smoulders with jealousy here and charms without effort there, Elizabeth Berridge, often left off the praise for this 'un, rings like a musical box or shrieks like a shrew, and Jeffery Jones is the musical king reigning with alienly porcelain mein, revealing only as much as he needs to, a great crowned axylotl. I wish Warner would release the original cut. The available one is too bloated and drags what was once a sprightly epic down into the nadir of indulgence.

One Plus One: Wrongly (but understandably) offered as a rock movie, following the Stones developing one of their classics from a chord progression to uniqueness. But what's almost always missed in commentaries on this piece is a question: the urban guerillas with nothing to lose go through wearying training drills, even taking pointless dictation, doing everything but take action: the rock stars don't have to get out of bed but work together in concentrated concert to fashion something powerful and great between them: what is wrong with this picture?

Australian dvd release thoughtfully provides Godard's original cut (and title, rather than the misleading Sympathy for the Devil) which deliberately omits the playing of the full, completed song at the end. It's a trial to watch but it's meant to be.

Grey Gardens: American quirk without the fiction. Edies Bouvier Beale, the little and the ... other, go about their days in a crumbling New England mansion, the steadily batty inheritors of their American aristocracy, and recall the splendour of their earlier lives. Between the Cecil Beaton style record of the high life and the decay of the home and lifestyle an image of entropy from the centre of the empire emerges. A film to entertain and disturb from the great Maysles brothers.

Harvey: Jimmy Stewart is all eccentric America in this off-the-map comedy abou Elwood P. Dowd, a gentle man who likes a drink and a chat to his friend Harvey, a six foot rabbit. The bane of his well-to-do family he must get through his day without being locked up and forever cast into the thickening shadows of treatment. Through encounters pleasant and exasperating Elwood (and Harvey) manage to charm and disarm all who would bind him with the simple gentleness of his being. Something to ponder at the end of the Truman years.