Saturday, June 29, 2013

Top 10 29/06/13

PURPLE NOON: Lean and spry telling of The Talented Mr Ripley with none of the condescension of Anthony Minghella's blob of an attempt. The outstanding 1960s location work in Italy comes across less as big important cinema than a master photographer's travelogue. Alain Delon is magnetic. His amorality entices rather than alienates. There is an impressive focus on the processes of his criminality. His signature-forging scene with a projector prefigures the titular scene in Blow Up, giving off the same kind of thrill. The decades later Minghellla version feels pointless after seeing this.

THE GREAT DICTATOR: Less a fan of Charlie Chaplin than an admirer. Seeing this on blu-ray recently reminded me of how strongly he came back from the bridging silent to talky film Modern Times which, while inspired, still relied on the visual over the verbal. Here there's an interplay of the two so seamlessly woven that it feels natural. Hinkel going from his Hitlerian sub-gibberish to his calculating paranoia allows a chill through as the laughs flow. His poor Jewish barber more as you would want to imagine Chaplin in real life. The situations, language play and dizzy absurdism make this a legitimate predecessor to the anarchic genius of Python at their best, or they its inheritors. Genius.

ERASERHEAD: Because it is and will always be for me the bestest of the best.

MOUCHETTE: A village girl on the outer of her tiny society ventures outside its constriction to find a troubling kind of freedom. Its aftermath and her response are both incredible and inevitable. I first saw only the tail end of this film after a sizeable night out but went to bed sober.

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK: The refined and privileged daughters of the invading forces meet the spirit of the ancient clay and are consumed. With all that corsetry and summer heat this is a record of the worst case of the vapours in genteel history. But haunting, frame by frame.

NETWORK: Because when someone who shouldn't says that he's tired of all the bullshit we should listen. A time capsule for our times with some of the most finely wrought speeches on screen. Not a syllable of them is believable but that's the point.

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO: I know of many films that document the process of corruption as absorption but none so finely nor so brutally as here. There is a violence to this thinking that need never speak louder than a whisper. Toby Jones's career will carry this brand.

THE PRODUCERS: It has never not been funny.

CITIZEN KANE: Because it doesn't need its reputation to impress.

WAKE IN FRIGHT: Because horror lives in blinding light.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: Nothing Can Hurt Me: The Big Star Story

At one point in this film the record producer Jim Dickerson makes an astute observation which I'll paraphrase and expand before going any further. The task of the would be successful pop star is to put in the time and toil to make the reality match the fantasy. The difference between this being eyes-on-the-prize and desperate naivete is usually the willingness to put the grinding hours in but what if you do a lot of that and still get nowhere? What if your effort is completely de-carpeted by the machinery you are meant to rely on? What if that isn't poor workers blaming tools but the people at the tool factory taking a massive sickie?

Big Star's story is one of pop music history's disturbances, kicking at the door of our assumptions that all the really good people get through. They were made up of good players and writers (one of whom had already been a teenage pop star) who put together a tightly constructed album, richly textured and confident, who were feted by the music press, who had a record deal in one of America's major music towns, who even looked like rock stars, and they failed at everything they tried.

Admitting that the taint of failure matters exposes the shallowness of our relationship with pop music. So that means that it shouldn't matter, doesn't it? But it does. A documentary about Nick Drake (there is a good one, btw) might sadden and frustrate us at Drake's incapacity to meet the duties of the aspirant but a case of a foursome with high powered tunes that should have been all over the radio and weren't gives us a creepy crawly feeling.

The examination this film makes of the failure of the record industry machine to support and promote (and distribute) Big Star is solid and heart rending but its coverage of the internal problems is less penetrating. Chris Bell's personal difficulties after his departure are all but described as the mental stress of a Rocky Erickson or Syd Barrett which might well have been there all the time. No one talks about it to any depth here. Why was Alex Chilton so self-murderingly contrary in his subsequent career. The sole point of success he was to enjoy was heading the revived Big Star. Otherwise his story is one of such frustrating perversity that its witnesses must soon retract their interests at what might well be a decades long tantrum (Chris Stamey says he would rather see Chilton do another turn of Volare than an Arcade Fire set: not me) and find better things for their attention.

Was the failure of Big Star to blame for this? Was it youth alone that could fight to organise them to banding and writing and playing and bringing out these records before impatience and their own demons abandoned the effort? Ex-Beatles can afford to be disappointing and even embarrassing after creative and popular success on their planetary scale. There were few ex-Beatles to begin with and now there are fewer.

The film avoids a lot of the pitfalls of rockumentaries in that it keeps the platitudes low and the relevant content high. There is some wonderful footage of the band in the studio and images of publicity photos contemporary recording equipment over audio-only interviews. The origins section is enriched by extension to figures like producer John Fry whose youth and drive were obviously great assets to the band's creative progress. The story of the fall down the other side of the mountain is also pithy and well-played but then we run into problems.

After the final original album makes its strained appearence and the band splits the film begins deflating. Chris Bell's story is taut, heartrending and a useful extension of the lesson of Big Star's failure. Alex Chilton's solo career is propped up in the film as it was in life by latecoming fans and celebrants like Chris Stamey and Mike Mills. Chilton shows us nothing but burnout but boy do we get to see a lot of it. Why, for example, does his involvement with the excerable Panther Burns get so much screen time? He was with them for all of five minutes but we get what feels like fifteen telling us.

Panther Burns are what happens at a school party when the band takes a break and five of their tanked and talentless friends strap on the guitars and get behind the drums to show how it's really done except that Panther Burns emerged from the remorse of the next day's hangover to try and make a career of it. I'm punk generation and can put up with a lot of quirk and anti rock but I have to cry bullshit on that one. The film suggests that they were some wild, outrageous renegades but can only produce the kind of whacky tameness I can imagine from the staff Christmas party at the Wiggles business office. Panther Burns perp in chief, Tav Falco, gets a few needless and unwelcome minutes on screen smugging through his plastic face about how the 'Burns are still ahead of their time. If that's true then we are in for an apocalypse of unimaginable blandness. Please remove this material and add what you can to it to make a documentary entirely about the Panther Burns so I don't have to see it.

Apart from this highlight the slow descent to the end credits is oiled by a lot of platitudes from indy rockers whose enthusiasm creates the room's elephant. Big Star emerged in the early 70s and went through to the mid. Apart from some beautifully eerie moments in the last album their sound was resolutely British late 60s. So what, you say? So what, in the era of Baby Ima Want You and Horse With No Name? Well think about it: around them were Bowie's feverish swift reinventions, Roxy Music's distillation of the prog rock bloat, Led Zeppelin's triumph over their metal-blues beginnings and even the Stones moving through the big four albums while Big Star are still partying like it's 1969.

While their attention to detail is not slavish it's really no stretch to think of them as proto-revivalists and less of one to imagine that the most vocal and active supporters of any who dug them up from the late 70s on were also revivalists: Chris Stamey (whose interviews are welcome) created, with the dBs some of the early 80s most sublime late 60s sounds; Mike Mills along with REM took the revivalism further by making it less slavish; see also Robin Hitchcock and the list goes on. Big Star legitimised these bands as the latter poignantly rose (at least in REM's case) to the celestia of stadium glory. And at the inevitable indy celebrities all star tribute concert we get to see a fair whack of the roll call. But by that time the film's point has long blunted.

The paradigm shift we have been seeing in music distribution since the online realm allowed it seems to be preventing the problems Big Star faced from the business side of the deal. Online do-it-yourself retail makes the machine work better with less parts but also means that an exponentially larger and ever expanding user base is clicking away at the machine itself and it has become ever harder to get noticed. This means that the problem of reconciling the dream with the reality has only got harder and the naivete that talent alone will break through is more of a naivete than it was and the disappointment at its failure potentially more crushing. Would Big Star work better now? Given that they were only doing what later bands have done wouldn't they be risking the same obscurity? Indy bands that stay indy tend now to manage that and, failing at the greater world just shrink the world until they seem big in it. Then with the revivalism of the stadium lard of previous generations still healthy (I've known current indy bands to cite Fleetwood Mac and ELO as influences) maybe they would stand a much better chance.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review: THE HUNT

We have responsibilities and Responsibility. If we shirk the former we're anything from idle and uncaring to criminal. If we violate the latter we'd better have some serious safety netting on hand as the lies can only do so much holding. If we violate it as children because our emotional wounds hurt more than our sense of propriety then correction might be out of our power: grown ups who believe the initial lie are going to resist the truth. We protect our kids.

Small town Denmark. Kindergarten teacher Lucas is accused by a child of sexual abuse. His friendships and effortless popularity drain like bathwater and he is left in a constant shiver. If he cannot reclaim any of his former status can he at least continue to live among his own when their genuine honest concern has festered into a shaking vengeance?

Director and co-writer Thomas Vinterberg exercises great care here. If there are lines that can be crossed without ill consequence (Lucas assists a child's toileting) they must be shown in contrast to other cases where it is a child who makes the crossing. The elements of the lie that young Klara tells the head teacher are clearly shown to us so that their reconstruction in warped form appears both credible and heart rending.

Vinterberg was co-architect of the Dogme95 manifesto which sought to bring cinema back to its basics. Dogme #1 was Vintenberg's Festen which remains for me the strongest of the bunch. He later made the lead-handed Dear Wendy which was a kind of attempt at comprehending the Columbine massacres of its recent history. That was hampered by its higher production values' imposition on what might have worked in the starker Dogme approach and I had to remind myself that this was the same filmmaker who in Festen had created a  moment of genuine eerieness with a few lines of dialogue and the sound of a dripping tap in the next room.

While The Hunt is not quite plain in style it is determinedly pragmatic about its cinematic responsibilities. The colours and sounds of nature and the seasons and the sensations of Christmas and the hunting of deer provide solid heft to keep aloft what might crash as overly stark melodrama. Mostly, though, Vintenberg has placed a heavy reliance on performance. It is in the performance that this film may strut its stuff.

Mads Mikkelsen, in most of the scenes of the running time, is in more ways than one, the piece's centre of gravity. He's already carrying some weight in the form of an acrimonious custody contest with his ex for care of their son. When he sees Klara lost outside the local shops we see his concern but also the inconvenience of it. When he later returns her love gift and gently instructs her about boundaries he looks like he has done it before. After the lie, the suspicion and the hate he contains the fury of his innocence and is borne, though with pain, by the dignity this affords him. When pushed too far his response is considered and controlled and the more resonant for its contrast with the brutality he has suffered.

It's Mikkelsen's power as an actor to keep this extraordinary character from being a no-cred superman. No saint, he does not suffer in silence. No vigilante, his actions have no fatal intention. He cannot live under the revulsion of his community and his actions to break it are the results of difficult thinking. His simple gait as a popular man, natural and fluent as the stag and deer he hunts, is reduced to the cautious stepping of the dog we have seen him calm. Seldom have I seen such high cheeked handsomeness and physical confidence used so effectively against itself as here.

This performance effectively distracts from the heightened playing (rather than over acting) of key characters around him whose anger must inform and shape his bearing. This is where Vinterberg has grown as a director. His sense of balance here serves him more precisely than it ever has. He's already done so much here to understate his style and push the overall approach. This is genuine craft. The upset that Lucas dares in the church is not the only redemption going on here: Vinterberg has freed himself of the feyness of Dear Wendy. We are all better for this.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Review: MAMA: pushing the Del Toro button, the wrong one

Morning. Two angelic little girls at home. Their father bursts in and tells them to get ready. There is enough dishevelment around his bourgeois suityness for us to declare him insane and see what he's about to do. The girls' mother is nowhere to be seen or heard. We have already heard some radio reports of a crime and can now attribute it to crazy white collar dad who is now careening along a snowy road with his kids in the back. One innocently distracts him and the car spins and crashes in the icy forest below the road. Emerging from the wreckage the trio find a cabin nearby where they take shelter. Someone seems to already be there but we only see the vaguest glimpse of them. As Dad is going through the house his a pistol summoning the courage to put a bullet through his brain one of the girls says: "Daddy, there's a woman outside. Her feet aren't touching the floor."

At that second I thought: ok, assembly line horror but there's a shivery treat. And then BOO! the scene ends in a shock you know is coming. Credit sequence is a series of stock eerie children's drawings but there is also a name: Guillermo Del Toro. The great fabulist who rose in the nineties to show us how genre films don't have to be so ... generic. Right, I think, there'll be something worth watching here in all the standardised cine-decor.

Well, there is and there isn't.

The girls are discovered years later as scary looking ferals who move like the spider walk scene in the bloated recut of the Exorcist. They are reassimilated and join their uncle (who sent himself broke searching for them) and his girlfriend (a neogothed Jessica Chastain) and through a series of stock legal and psychiatric plot points the new ersatz family are settled in a large house outside their social spheres. Uncle Lucas and girlfriend Annabel meet the girls as they are delivered to their new home.

The younger of the two children hides behind her sister and whispers, "Mama." Annabel thinks Lilly is claiming her as a mother and is quick to  dismiss the notion. But we and the girls know different. It means that the woman from the cabin scene whose feet didn't touch the ground is going to be turning up and that Annabel, rock 'n' roller and self-centred narcissist is going to learn love and responsibility. From the opening, also we know that most of the horror of what we are to see will be a series of BOO! type scares and very little slowburning dread.

Horror from an assembly line, in other words. But is there anything of the Del Toro touch in this protege piece? Del Toro saw and admired director Muschetti's short film and engineered its transition from Youtube to the big screens o' the world. This happened a few times, particularly in Spain where young filmmakers, working on Del Toro and Amanebar's films and get to sit in the chair and call the shots. A really good result of this is Hierro, cruelly undersung slowfuse emotional thriller from a few years back. The idea that the seasoned masters' could keep the tyro from falling into cliche and blandness is an enticing one.

So why is Mama so unwaveringly cheesey? There are genuine scares and the atmosphere is maintained throughout but the amount of calculation boosting the effort spoils everything. The production values are Hollywood high and the orchestral score is bigger than a city block. Was this really the newcomer wanting this upgrade to everything? Upping the effects and score and fleshing out the tale so that the back story is present and unignorable? Maybe but I'm thinking that Del Toro himself was the one who came and poured the compounded popcorn butter on the project so that the short that I'll link to here ended up looking like overstuffed by-numbers guff like Insidious. Guillermo Del Toro whose best work never suffers from this but whose every Hollywood hack job is bursting with them was pumping up Muschetti's brilliant little short into a great bloated multiplex monster. I wonder, if Muschetti had insisted on making a Spanish language film (see the short for this) would GDT not have nurtured something a little more starkly original?

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Review: TABU

This film makes three declarations in its firs few seconds.

The first is that it will be in black and white, an aesthetic choice made by filmmakers since the seventies to suggest the past. The second declaration is that the frame is the old fashioned academy ratio (4X3) which consolidates the first, we're not invited back with the comfort of contemporary cinema's panoramic width, we're going to be up close and personal in the frame of vintage movies.

The third declaration is that the image of a pith-helmeted European man standing still in the glare of the African bush is going to be staying there, centre frame for a few long screen minutes. We will be asked for our concentration, patience and even indulgence.

Vintage look and feel, intimacy and indulgence? Sounds like memory to me and that is indeed where we'll be going. The explorer in this introductory sequence is heading for a particular waterhole. He is haunted by phantom of his wife who speaks to him glumly. He takes his exploration party of locals to the waterhole and jumps in. Next we see a crocodile at night, reptilianly still, described in the explorer's voiceover as melancholy. Is it his reincarnation?

After the titles we move to contemporary Lisbon. Part 1: Paradise Lost. Middle aged Pilar mixes the leisure of her days (we first see her at the cinema) with acts of conscience and kindness, joining protests, offering accomodation to overseas students, and prays for all who concern her. A retiree, she finds her days thanklessly lonely but moves through them with a visibly tiring resiliance.

She worries about the old lady in the next apartment, Aurora, whose slight battiness (variously praising and defaming her live-in maid, Santa) is tempered by an active imagination. She speaks of days in Africa in what sounds like whimsy and wishfulness at once and tells brilliantly of the dream that led her to gamble most of her savings away. When Pilar only incompletely succeeds in offering Aurora help she applies to the taciturn Santa for help with a success that only the very patient would recognise. Circumstances lead to Pilar tracking down a man from Aurora's past whose recollections prove the stories of Africa and tell of forbidden love between the man and Aurora.

Part 2: Paradise is told in pictures and voiceover as Aurora's lover, Ventura, tells the tale of their affair in the world of plantations and local strife. The film stock seems to have changed to something grainier than the deep clarity of the first part, more like the antique look of the introductory tale. There is ambient sound (wildlife and weather) and music but no voices but Ventura's narration and the younger Aurora's letters. The acting is not the jokey silent exaggeration of The Artist but naturalistic and the effect is like having home movies narrated by their maker. Except that these go where home movies do not.

The young Aurora's beauty has a radiance that only carefully lighted black and white photography can deliver. Without the distraction of colour we can more clearly relish her luminous eyes and patrician facial structure. Ditto for the younger Ventura whose thinner Deppishness also seems to seek the light. No narration is needed to show the immediacy and danger of their mutual attraction.

The crocodile as pet (unsubtle but still potent symbol of the wildness of the lovers) the always uneasy mix of displaced European culture among the Africans who are getting clearly sick of them, the odd blend of the beauteous nature and brutal humanity and the overriding guilt make for a potent pot that yet feels like a light and nourishing repast when it might easily have been a big bloat. I suspect that this effect is a kind of texturing on the part of writer/driector Miguel Gomes who has managed to regard his tale and scoop out anything too weighty that can be supplied more intuitively. While this means a little substance might be lost it also results in easier digestion. The trope of omitting direct dialogue and letting narration take its place might have been fatiguing but as the writing is so spare and the visual material so varied from rich to feathery the overall effect is of crafted poetry rather than assembly line cinema.

There is a little of the tweeness of magical realism in (at least the translation) the statements of the narration but considering we are given a film as signature as the best of Bela Tarr (Werckmeister Harmonies) or Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor) or Luis Bunuel (too many but Belle de Jour is a good starting place). There is an ache to Tabu that I have long missed in the movies that I see. The ache is a pleasant one, the slight burn that appears on a memory when the sense lifts the nostalgia out of the way and we begin to examine what is really there. Even if we still can't look at something painful or touch whatever remains toxic there is yet some comfort: we've noticed it again; it hurts but we no longer pretend it never was.

I need to see this again.