Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2015: THE HIGH

Yo! Ragers o' the Flickering Field!

Not as busy a year at the cinema for me as last year but a good one(any year with a new Guy Maddin film is a good one). Work and other projects just took the time away but some solid sci-fi, some future classic horror, experimental quirk that worked and more gave the year a lot of spice. The Festival was one of the most consistent of recent memory. I do regret missing out on the Japanese Film Festival in particular but everything just got the better of me and it slipped by. I'll have to investigate it by other means. Meantime, there was new Peter Strickland and a .... well, it's all there below. Enjoy!


A dizzying Russian doll of a film in celebration of narrative by which the very best (and some of the worst) traits of favourite contemporary auteur Guy Maddin come charging to the fore. Collaborating here with another writer/director (but it looks like nothing but a Maddin movie) and adding about half an hour to his usual ninety minutes, Maddin interrupts story with story with story until after being introduced to about thirty of them each gets resolved. No mean feat in an era when even the blockbusters are called post-narrative. I miss cinema like this. My favourite of the year.

Boy did I get sick of reviewers reviewing the hype rather than the film. I just saw a tour through the mind of a man struggling against a comatose career, his own failings as a husband, lover and father and a funny collision of refined and popular culture. Standout performances from Keaton and Stone seal the deal.  I couldn't care less who thought it was overrated. It was a good movie.

Another one that reviewers annoyed me over. If you watch all of this movie and still think it's about a revival of the sex/death equation it's because you want to. That template stops fitting the film early on as it charges into a fable about knowledge and responsibility. A great horror trope and some genuinely white knuckle scenes, a fantastic electro score and energetic performances later and you have a new horror movie that doesn't need sudden shocks to carry its dread. Old fashioned in the best way.

Teen horror's second victory this year showed a familiar age-based pecking order used as the breeding ground of interpersonal atrocity and went beyond just using current communication media as a gimmick by showing its compulsive attraction. These kids can't just turn off. It's just not an option. A little clumsiness in the denouement is forgiven because of the strengths.

Great old-style sci-fi with superb acting turns from everyone, a committed pursuit of the issues and the narrative and an eye to leanness in execution overall.

A patchwork made from a chaos of selfies, phone video and memories in which we see a pop star soar to stardom and hurtle back through the earth's crust to the hell beneath. Heartrending but just as importantly, angering. The social media, personal content creation remind us that we are part of this, too. A great documentary.

A complex and developing negotiation involving trust and intensity. This looked like a Eurosploitation film from the 70s but, as with the director's previous effort, brought new tricks to an old genre. The ending appears ambiguous until you really weigh up what has happened. Peter Strickland has become a new director to watch closely. The more of them the better.

A wrenching trek through the murky margins at the edge of the law. Ace cast and superb balance in the writing and the filmmaking render this one a haunter. Villeneuve is not always to my taste but this is him at his best.

Despite some history tourism (the Good Vibrations moment) this biopic earned its attention by concentrating on the journey from creative greatness to gibbering dependency and boldly used two different actors to play the central character. It was attacked for the last feature but I liked how it kept the film from being dully linear. Swinging between decades and mental states we could see the picture. The score was a feat of editing raw beauty and using it both to express the wonders of Wilson's mind as well as its pain. Also, I loved the recreated studio scenes. They got a little touristy but I forgave them as the totality of the piece rolled on.

The New Greek Weirdcore is really just imaginative cinema. It's just that we haven't seen much of that for decades. Yorgos Lanthimos' satirical fable of normative totalitarianism, an even worse resistance and a hopeless quest to live outside both turns into some hard work in the second half but what lingers afterwards makes that worth it.

2015: The MIDDLE

Interesting idea sabotaged by its own quirks. I kept wanting it to shed the cute self-aware dialogue and exhausting attempts at showing stuffy old characters' loosening up.

A smooth but solid package of crime and business that made me think very positively of Sidney Lumet's best work. Director Chandor has been producing very good things. This is his third and I will be watching his fourth in a cinema.

Verite blended with magic realism with mixed results. Gomes can handle the everyday but, boy, do I prefer him when he flies into imaginative skies. If you get the chance to see all six hours of it but don't want to go for the middle one with the trial, it's bloody wonderful. All worth seeing but I miss the maker of Tabu.

Russian retrospective on the revolution reminds me of Hollywood's second take on the Vietnam War in the 80s. Being Russian, there is an attendant need to diverge from nostalgia and present this new take through stylised eyes. It worked but I was left hungry.

Once you relax that this is not a hard horror fable and much more a gothic melodrama it's easy to fold yourself into its charms. Once it's over you might have difficulty recalling it. Not so Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone.

Involving baton-passing narrative but the social comedy possibly doesn't travel out of its topical zone. Couldn't hate it but didn't love it.

More nose thumbing from this forbidden filmmaker and it's consistently good but there is a undercurrent of contrivance which teeters on the edge of cuteness which undercuts the whole. The final shot and its gravity almost makes up for it.

A post GFC broadside at the continuance of ravenous capitalism with a dependably mighty performance from Michael Shannon and a committed one from Andrew Garfield. It impressed on first look but hasn't lingered. It has, however, interested me in Ramin Bahrani and his future.

2015: THE LOW

I like to keep my worst lists short as that suggests (to me, at any rate) that I'm getting better at vetting the bad stuff. Having gone against the grain by resisting the execrable Frances Ha I saved myself the trouble of sitting through two new Noah Baumbach monstrosities. The new Mad Max tempted me not and I feel no pain at its continued absence in my memory. An early bailing on the Entourage tv show saved me the grating pleasure of paying for a cinema ticket for it. The following are, as usual, more like disappointments than outright turkeys. Oh, the exception is The Nightmare, a thing so irresponsible in its purpose I would have to call it shameful.

A poorly written novel got much better treatment than it deserved by a director who deserved a better screenplay. There will be sequels but I won't be there to see them.

A disastrous screening at MIFF (a film about the managers of a rock band with bad audio!) I was willing to give it some slack. While there is a lot of promise on the screen there is too little focus on the title characters than on their charges which makes it another Who documentary.

If you're going to make a film about an intriguing neurological phenomenon and put so much work into supporting its sufferers' anecdotes with cinematic imagery you really ought to seal it with some neurology as well. Instead, the doctors get dismissed and the loonies who get religion and new ageism are given centre stage. Like giving a tram stop ranter the last word in a political history documentary.

If you're going to reassemble the Python team and deny that you're making a Python movie you might want to consider making a Python movie anyway rather than this tired old thing. They might have gone out on Meaning of Life...

Compelling until it committed to a particular reading which turned an enticing realist fable into a flat and literal-minded copout. Damnably OK.

Friday, December 18, 2015


A woman drives on a country road, stops in a paddock where two mules graze. She shoots one with a rifle and drives off. We are never to discover the exact meaning behind this and will never meet the woman again but by the end of this film we have a pretty good idea of what has happened in this prologue.

After the credits we meet David (Colin Farrell) who is fronting up at his society's regulation partner-finding process. He is to stay in a hotel for forty-five days, mingle with the guests and, find a new life partner. It's not just illegal to be single it's socially intolerable. If he fails within the time he will be turned into the animal of his choice. The dog he brings with him used to be his brother. He chooses, if a failure, to become a lobster. He gives very practical reasons for the choice and is praised.

The life at the hotel begins with a mass breakfast each day (sometimes with an imposed handicap) and continues through the day with hunting parties in the local woods to cull the loners, those who have exited the society and its coupling rule, with the kind of dart rifles that large animal vets use. There are also dances, induction ceremonies, public torture for masturbators (a forbidden solo pursuit), strange virility-testing contacts with the staff in the rooms and rewards for every coupling that happens.

At this point The Lobster resembles the kind of brutal social satire more commonly found in the cinema of the 60s and the 70s. The kind of films like Valerie and her Week of Wonders, The Holy Mountain, Salo or Immoral Tales that asked violent questions about the way we live and mixed irresistable comedy with gut-wrenching imagery. I caught up with these decades after their release so any nostalgia I feel about them is a delayed one. Nevertheless, watching The Lobster felt comfortable for its resemblance to those films and discomfiting for the dread just below the surface which pulses constantly.

As we watch the richly crafted dystopia and laugh along with it (there are many dizzily absurdist moments) we suspect there is more to come and that it will probably be less pleasing. The loners who are hunted by the hotel guests have their own society, eking out a bandit life in the woods. But here, where David flees (after a funny and difficult failure to couple) is the counter regime. The loners are paradoxically collectivist but anti-copular. Their punishments for affection between members are horrific. As cold and severe as the mainstream's regulated partnering is the savagery of the alternative leaves so little room for warmth or hope that the option of surgical metamorphosis back in straightsville (not shown but described repellently) seems a viable one. When David falls in love with the Short Sighted Woman (a committed performance from Rachel Weisz) we know their problems are going to dominate the film.

A frequent criticism of this film states that the first act in the hotel with its instant satire and black comedy is dwarfed by the slower and heavier remainder but I disagree. The life among the loners chapters do feel disproportionately long and can drag and, yes, the pace and laughs of the first part are missed. However, for me this section is the film's core; we have seen the workings of conformity distilled into a harsh concentrate in which single shaming has become terminal and we need to then really examine the alternative and if it is less funny then we might want to think about why. Do we force people into couplings or prevent them from intimacy? Do we develop struggling countries or promote population culls toward a more sustainable future? Do we have warfare or leave ourselves open to takeover? These are extremes and there are always more pragmatic compromises in the gaps they leave but these are always harder work. For me this film suggests the slog and the sacrifice might not just be the better, more humane way but forced upon us if we aren't prepared for it.

The luxuriant look of this film, whether in the deep polished wood of the hotel's interiors or the enlivening dewy woods of the world outside and it is created through hard slog as most of it was done with available lighting. Always good to hear the mighty Shostakovich used in a score, undercutting the ersatz joy of the world of the hotel and highlighting its severity. The cast has been picked with an obsessive precision. If we recognise alumni from Dogtooth or Blue is the Warmest Colour we can rest easy knowing they are here for more than the cachet of the cool films they've been in; Angeliki Papoulia's Heartless Woman is terrifying as is Lea Seydoux's Loner Leader: we're not just seeing the pretty faces and feeling cool because we recognise them. Rachel Weisz goes from passionate, to desperate to eerily urbane without a seam visible. Ben Wishaw, Olivia Coleman and John C. Reilly work hard at small roles. And Colin Farrell, especially welcome speaking in his native Dublin, anchors everything with a palpable depression that he makes both pitiable and appealing. This film is made of very good things.

Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos had already wowed me with 2010's Dogtooth, a film so obstinately its own that its viewers were forced to accept its terms or use the door. Because of it and others like Attenberg terms like the new Greek weirdcore were coined to cope. But they don't help, especially when a phrase like imaginative fiction serves perfectly well. This film is made of fears rendered recognisable through great craft. It stands as resolutely outside the mainstream as its loners in the woods but the difference is that it knows better and knows we know.

Sunday, November 29, 2015


So, Simon Pegg's Neil is unwittingly given the power to wish absolutely anything into being. From penile dimensions to climate control he tries this very thing, fulfilling the film's sole joke about the need for care when being absolute. There's more at stake, though. If his wishes are for good rather than evil he might also save the earth from extra terrestrial destruction. The aliens who have staged this test are animations voiced by the surviving members of the Monty Python team. And the dog is voiced by Robin Williams in his final screen role. So, good times?

Here and there. Incidentally. Actually, any watery qualifier you can think of that fuelled many a strong Python sketch in the heyday would apply here. This is not a Python film, even though they are in it and it was directed and co-scripted by Terry Jones. It is not a Python film because apart from some absurdist situations that pop up it is far more like a grimier Richard Curtis film. Acutally, if this were a Richard Curtis film it would be a breakthrough and feel funnier than it is through the sheer relief that it isn't yet another rollout of his big canvas romcoms.

When the darkly reptilian aliens switch to English they call each other names like Sharon and Maureen. This is old rather than classic Python and to hear it here offers more of a wince than a laugh. And, while much of the action and the hijinks with the various wishes and their consequences can delight, it plays so far short of the standard that might bypass delight and speed on to screaming edgy laughter. Jones co-wrote and directed Meaning of Life, after all which is one of the least loved Python outings until individual scenes are recalled and the reconstituted memory elevates it to the highest of their work. Its darkness and violence took the brand much further than the various projects of the individuals and pairings from the team at the time (anyone remember Yellowbeard or Erik the Viking?) So, if I admit that it's not a Python film what am I going on about?

Well, it pretty much announces its intentions to try to be a kind of Brian for today. I don't just mean the spaceship from that film prominent among the junk gathered in the alien craft. Neil is the same kind of nebbish as Brian, feels as defeated by life, falls in love with an apparently unattainable beauty (a glowing but underwritten Kate Beckinsale) and --

And this review is disintegrating in my hands. It's not just my hangover, I just can't find much of any value to say of it beyond its flagrant waste of pedigree. How such a crew of good, highly watchable performers could be left wandering the screen, their responses to situations too lingering rather than overplayed is frustrating.

As a child I saw a British film from the same H.G. Wells short story, The Man Who Could Work Miracles, and remember it as a tightly constructed and enjoyable morality comedy with a typical but permissible Wellsian sermonising climax. This not only serves as a ready comparison with Absolutely Anything but a reminder of all those times I've heard someone herald a recent film, song, novel or tv show, or other cultural artefact as a whateveritis for the twenty-first century. Usually, all they are referring to is that the thing they are lauding so was made since 2001 and not to any cultural, textural or profound updating to bring an old story in through the filter of contemporary life. This film is not a Life of Brian for the twenty-first century, it's a lightly enjoyable shadow of Life of Brian from the twenty-first century. If that's your dig, run don't walk. I staggered ... away.

Friday, October 23, 2015

13 for Halloween 2015

Insert usual blurb about celebrating Halloween in your own style rather than bending over for the empire and doing it the American way. That aside, one thing I like about Halloween as a contemporary folk feast night is its association with the horror genre. Here are some suggestions for a film night on October the 31st. This year I've gone for energy. That doesn't always just equate to action but can mean the sprightliness of the ideas. Oh and running times on the shorter side.

Derivative but uses what it likes about the legacy rather than just copies. Disregard shallow criticism that the real revival here is the 80s teen horror sex=death. It's far more about wisdom=responsibility. But even more, it's about good fun with good scares and music that gets away with being retro.

Set almost entirely on a single computer screen, this messenger revenge tale transcends its occasional cheesiness by its deep comprehension of what compels the characters to stay glued to their screens. Clever, but not so clever that it isn't rivetting.

Big, brash, beatiful and baroque, Dario Argento's masterpiece eschews complex plotting for a viscerally true evocation of a nightmare state. The only time it sags is when it gets characters to explain the events but even then it's not for long. And that music!

Still one of the scariest, best edited and least bloody of all the slashers, John Carpenter's classic still grips and torments. Carpenter's own score was heavily influenced by Argento's use of Goblin and Friedkin's use of Tubular Bells in The Exorcist but this is something he really made his own.

RINGU (1997)
Try to forget about the big bloated U.S. remake which added a needless hour to the story. Hideo Nakata's original remains the superior piece. The pacing is more astute and the climactic moment far more terrifying for being less bombastic than the cover version. Also with a good hands-off music score.

Based closely on the Shirley Jackson source novel, Robert Wise's film version keeps the atmosphere forward and remembers that the real chills come from the central tragedy unfolding around the character of Eleanor. Vintage special effects still effective. Compare that with the gormless 1999 version which doesn't get the difference between shock and suspense.

REC (2007)
Infection-zombie piece lifts from normality into a fever pitch and an ending you will not expect. Lean pov filmmaking reminds us how this approach can be used to enhance shifts in pace and, in the right hands, can prove a powerful creator of suspense, using what the audience/characters can and cannot see. Remade as Quarrantine but see the original: if it's in English you're watching the wrong version.

The time travel paradox examined to an unnerving degree in this ingenious take on circuit breaking. See it before the unecessary remake.

A very dark fable about the horrors of intimacy unfolds as young newlyweds pile into a country cabin for a few weeks of private ecstasy and communion with nature. That kind of happens but not how either is expecting. Some very tough scenes but worth it for the overall purpose which is serious (nice for a change) and steady.

ALIEN (1980)
Set a few tonal standards by making the fantastical setting workaday before the horror explodes. High action and white knuckle suspense make this a perennial winner. I still prefer this to the action movie sequel and any of the others after that. It's scarier if you never see the whole creature. And don't waste you time with Prometheus; it's steeped in a creepy religious agenda that only leads to clunkiness. The first one is the real deal.

The beauty of this one is that it mixes real eerieness so easily in with its nostalgia and keeps the pace high. One of the highly imaginative Don Coscarelli's most complete. "Boy!"

A hidden broadcast is making people grow new organs and is changing their brain chemistry. "What we see on television emerges as raw experience." A wow idea every few minutes with Cronenberg's early unnerving visual style and James Woods' magnetic central performance. Still weird, still wonderful.

One of all time favourite genre game changers. Blending the high-school social order, emo-anti-cool, and real wit, Ginger's plummet into the life of the beast is as funny as it is scary and, in the end, genuinely tragic. If you liked the recent series Orphan Black, know that this is from the same writer/director team of Karen Walton and John Fawcett.

So, there it is, enjoy your Halloween in your own way, avoiding, if you can, locally-meaningless rituals and any movies directed by James Wan. Boo!

Sunday, October 18, 2015


So, it's a ghost story.

It's more a story with ghosts.

Edith explains this more than once in the opening scenes of Crimson Peak. She's writing a novel. Already she's been told to put a romance in it and then she has decided to conceal her gender from publishers by drafting the book on a typewriter. And behind her, writer director Guillermo del Toro is telling us that we should cast off ideas that we're in for a horror movie. It's not a clumsy breach of the fourth wall as much as a kind of wink to anyone who has followed his career. So far he's made popcorn genre films in English and highly original dark fables in Spanish. Well, this is a dark fable in English.

There are indeed ghosts. They are fleshy but also ashen. Trails and dribbles of ectoplasm flow around them like the spectres in The Devil's Backbone. They are scary when you see them but they are also messengers. What's on show here is not horror but melodrama and it is played as a kind of spoken opera. The grand orchestral score for once in a contemporary film really has a welcome place. Edith's insistence on the relationship of ghosts to the story plays, in effect, like a theme in an overture.

The plot is a compound of gothic melodramas like Jane Eyre or Rebecca. Young and beautiful and Edith (a golden Mia Wasikovska) falls for the suavely dark Sir Thomas Thorne (the utterly dependable Tom Hiddleston) as he tours the Americas seeking investors for his clay mining machine. His sister, the arch and sinister Lady Lucille (a posh accented Jessica Chastain) slinks through the society crowd like a crimson serpent and descends a gothic stairwell like seven Mrs Danvers all at once. We're not talking new, here, as much as well expressed.

As a child, Edith was warned by the ghost of her mother to beware of Crimson Peak. And it is to a crimson peak (a natural phenomenon explained in the second act) that she is drawn. The mansion is slowly sinking into the blood red clay. The ceilings in some rooms have caved in; snow falls gently through the holes. Corridors give way to more corridors. The basement, accessed by an ancient lift, is filled with vats of bloodlike clay that could hide many bodies. And the cupboards and the recesses, the bathtubs and the entrances crawl and slide with the blood red dead.

Edith runs through this increasingly grave life decision like a gothic heroine. Well, she would if she weren't written as she has been. While she is under constant threat, at first from the ghosts and then from her sister in law and even her new husband she is more of an action heroine. And it is this that lifts Crimson Peak from being a beautiful but pointless melodrama to a Guillermo del Toro film.

Mia Wasikovska's bright performance goes from naivete to hard, canny survivalism as the full picture of where the real threats are coming from. Without this element, character and performance, the film would be pedestrian, if spectacularly so, on the same shelf as almost everything by Tim Burton after Ed Wood. Until this role solidifies it can be difficult to see where del Toro is going with the material but as blasting mini opera about life's mistakes it takes an honourable place beside the Spanish speaking masterworks. Perhaps a little softer than Pan's Labyrinth, which might well disappoint, but this could be the mellowing maturity brings and that might well spell more depth. We shall wait. We shall see.

Earth: notes about a short film

I don't review unreleased films here. However, a filmmaker acquaintance of mine got in touch a few months back to get some feedback for her new short film Earth. The writer/director is Tatiana Doroshenko. While I had problems with some of the dialogue I thought the visual storytelling was strong and said that in an email. More recently, she got in contact to say that she was taking it to Los Angeles for screenings there and asked if I would put those notes up here. As the notes were as much a personal encouragement as my impressions of the work they do not constitute a review. This is my edit:

First the top level, conceptual stuff. It works. Themes like grief and retribution without a vengeance plot could easily clash but here they converge without effort. Very good use of two purposes of photography that are opposites in intention but identical in power; both the secret of the atrocity and the exposed secrets of the tabloid rags relate father to son immediately and convey a sense of duty to the latter powerfully.

So much was established before a word was spoken. Evocative use of colour and mise en scene (the old man's apartment, the exteriors of the housing commission tower and the luxury apartment complex etc. Some dialogue scenes felt too expository and came off stilted for me (the confrontations between George and Eva). Contrasting with this, the dialogue between George and his boss warmed things up with humour. The monologue of George's mother was emotive, well performed and shot with a clear eye to the depth of its meaning.

I enjoyed the electronic score. The final stretch which laid down a slight drone so quiet it was almost imperceptible was exactly what was needed. A mainstream composer would have drowned it with a string section. The restraint shown with these elements reveals a clear respect for the material. That's why it didn't feel a second longer than it should have.

Good luck in L.A., Tatiana. Break a sprocket!

Monday, September 21, 2015


A black screen with a lightly pulsing percussive score, so faint it might be a spill from one of the other cinemas. A title card, white on black, explains that Sicario is a term from the Roman occupation of Jerusalem and referred to the vigilante zealots who would hunt down and kill key colonisers. It was adopted by the Mexican and further southern drug cartels and came to mean hit man. This is a film about vengeance.

We open on an FBI raid as agents in field armour move in while an APC heads towards a house in Arizona. The APC crashes through the walls and the agents spill out, shooting everything that moves. They don't find their objective but instead discover that the walls are stuffed with rotting corpses in plastic. Outside an agent fiddles with a locked trapdoor until it explodes, leaving a crater and piles of dismembered agents.

Later that day, the leader of the raid, Kate Macer, and her second in command are sitting outside a glass walled office while their boss confers with a group of men whose anonymity gives them importance. One of them calls Kate in. She's not in trouble, despite the day's mishap, she's being offered a job to help an anti-cartel operation with Matt (no surname) who is carved out of rock and might be CIA or weirder. Kate is given the distinct hint that if she volunteers for this she might have to go into some very dark territory. It also might lead them to getting the guy who organised the bomb in the shed. She says yes.

Turning up at the base for her first assignment, her second in command is dismissed and she is put on a plane with Matt and the mysterious Alejandro who, when asked what his role is by Kate says it would be like explaining how a watch works and sometimes it's best just to know the time. From this point Kate is taken further and further into action that is only ambiguously legal and her conscience is under constant stress. And that's when you notice something strange happening.

Kate's sense of vengeance fades from the narrative. It is taken over by another for an act that has happened outside the timeline. The character who bears the titular role of avenging force while he started on the sunny side of the law has become so much a part of the weave beyond legality that there is no return for him. And when his confrontation arrives it plays out without significant tension release. At that moment it becomes clear why the strangely unengaging evenness of pace this film has insisted on has been completely deliberate. We are asked to be cool-headed, to be witnesses rather than moviegoers.

This is not to say that the action scenes you expect from the opening aren't compelling. They rivet. It's just that the effectiveness of a given operation is offset at all times by its cost. While the tension of the traffic scene is white knuckle the energy drains as we are given pause through Kate to ask about the blurred lines between the sides. The difficulties of this suggest not only the futility of the declared war on drugs but points (sometimes unsubtly) to the same quality in the war on terror.

Without decent writing and performances this would be as limp as official propaganda. The film's refusal to indulge the machismo of the government agents or distinguish it from that of the cartel players is key. The resulting question about how much point there is in combating the organised drug trade finds its answer in the stated objective (which involves spoilers so it won't be stated here) and this is the thing that delivers the gut punch. That punch is felt in slow motion in the epilogue sequence which involves the kind of elegantly brutal juxtaposition that an Oliver Stone or Michael Mann would envy.

As for performances they are strong throughout with the three part pivot shining. Emily Blunt, so energising in Edge of Tomorrow, plays Kate with the same intensity as an athlete moments after the event, serious, focussed and alert. Her deep, staring intake of the information around her singles her out among the uniforms before her gender does. Even when she's relaxing it's more like keeping her sense of hazard at bay. These things prevent her outrage from getting didactic. At no time does she come across as bureaucratic which her lines alone might.

Her counterpart, the Mt Rushmore-faced Josh Brolin, owns the rooms her enters and enjoys knowing it. His effortlessly imposing physicality and wisecracks might set him up as the centre of any other action film but the lines are understated and his calculated force precise, betraying a coldness beneath the cowboy exterior that keeps us from indulging him as an action hero. We are thus forced back into Kate's position of questioning him.

Benecio Del Toro is similarly physically intimidating but it's the lack of easy information that makes him a threat. While his apparent care for the alienated Kate feels genuine we are not surprised to see it vanish with his self interest. The silence at the centre of his self-restraint hides something we've only seen suggested in an early scene and soon begin to dread. Del Toro's use of his ursine physicality has a tense economy to it, hiding more power than he needs to show.

There are a number of establishing aerial shots of landscape taken at a great enough height to make the geography look otherworldly: frequently beautiful but with the same threat as brightly coloured poisonous plants. In one, the shadow of a small jet plane slithers over the undulating greens and pinks below, serpentine and deadly. This is more Kathryn Bigelow than Michael Mann and, as with the former, there is less fetish about the depiction than a trust in the power of its line and colour. Similarly, when a service pistol is expertly dismantled in a late scene we think less of the skill in the field stripping demonstration than in the slightness of the difference between it being chunks of metal and a killing device.

Johan Johannson's score moves seamlessly between electronics and orchestra and is spare and grave. As one who notices the music in films and can be turned off by overscoring or over-reliance on the bamming effects used by poorer composers, I am always appreciative of good work. The music here is as focused and serious as the film as a whole, supporting the seriousness of the fare and never congratulating the violence we must see.

I know little of director Denis Villeneuve's other work beyond titles but after this I'll make it my business to catch up. By keeping us looking at the conscience of the piece through hard muscular skill he has made this genre grow a little. Do you like your political action movies to deliver great thrills but also compel your thoughts? You should.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

My MIFF 2015

Well, that's that for another MIFF. I was a little more distracted than usual for this year's fest as I had some project work which took most of my time outside of the screenings. I added two to my mini pass's thirteen and left it at that (having gone up to twenty last year). Because things were happening in the real world that needed my attention I had to consider the festival a relief rather than a celebration. And this is the first MIFF since I started getting minipasses which hasn't given me a cold. Nice.


The Forbidden Room I discovered Guy Maddin at MIFF 2003 (a series of shorts) and it was love at first sight. Not everything has charmed but this powerhouse blew almost everything else off the stage. Maybe just not see it rising from a hangover due to one too many Mai Tais the night before with the ol' significant other ("I'm not ol' !")

The Duke of Burgundy showed that you could enjoy your favourite era without becoming a slave to it. Strickland breaks free, freer than he did with Berberian Sound Studio and that's saying something.

99 Homes gave us an update on the kind of voracious capitalist beloved of Oliver Stone or Martin Scorsese without any of the fetishising of either for the villanous capitalist at its centre.

Battles Without Honour and Humanity was a sumptuous restoration that offered a violent Yakuza history without an invitation to join the machismo on screen. No wonder Battle Royale was so good.

Hill of Freedom gave us another sly and gently deceptive comedy of manners based on the social difficulties of using an imported commonality to express difficult things.


Two Shots Fired. I liked this wandering fable of first world naivete but wanted a little less standoffish cool and a tinge more archness.

The Arabian Nights (three feature-length films) attempted much but allowed its plainer passages to venture outside the acceptable boring limits. Still want to see what Gomes does next but that's still because of Tabu rather than even the finer moments of this.

Angels of Revolution was a strong tableau-driven expose on revolutionary fervour, political naivete and the force of tradition which transcended its subject-appropriate low-profile narrative with great colour in several senses but it might have pushed the culture collision more fully and forcefully by focussing less on the more familiar westerners.

Teheran Taxi worked well, played nice at a non-rambling run time and delivered a strong message. The pity of it is that it seems intoxicated with its own worthiness. This one's on the blade of middle and high.

Lambert and Stamp would've been great if I had been able to make out what half of them were saying at the screening due to crappy audio (a session-based problem rather the film's as such) but managed to offer some insights into a well-worn story.

Dalmas A time capsule of new wave genre and generic new wave from the dawn of the Whitlam era is more fellow traveller than agitprop and, for all its quaint rough edges, remains a decent statement beyond its time of greatest impact.


The Nightmare demonstrated that documentaries that endeavour to understand phenomena need to find a point outside of that phenomenon or they'll look plain silly. This film followed its participants in rejecting the science that would have made it intriguing. It ended up ranting like a tramstop loony.

What I've noted in this the third year of Michelle Carey's tenure as artistic director has featured a more adventurous touch with selection. Yes, there's the usual hot-at-Cannes burble but there's also a greater confidence with cinema outside of the main feed. I was annoyed at the dominance of U.S. independent titles in her first festival program but had to concede that this might have been the pragmatic means of filling a first program: get what's easy and make it a feature. But the last two line ups have proved to be rich and diverse.

Booking is very easy with the website and the app but I wish that I could mass book via the wish list. This was a feature of a few festivals during the 2000s that has disappeared. Why? I used to love setting up all my sessions on the day they were released and then clicking on book these or buy these or whatever the terminology was and that happening. It was a small moment of super-villainous triumph; one click and I rule the next two weeks with the pieces of my plan falling effortlessly into place. Now you have to go to each title (which you can do from your wishlist) and book each one. Ah, well, doesn't take that much longer.

The move from the credit cards to the app was a good one. Before the cards the mini pass was a carboard card which you could add sessions to which were then punched on the card on a desk with a queue separate to the one at the cinema door. With the app you can, if you wish, still print your tickets out or even go to the box office and get that done for you but having an app on your phone with everything you need beats everything prior to it. If there are still people who line up to waste the staff's time by making their mind up when they're served (yes, that used to happen) I hope I never meet them.

The least faulty Android app since the introduction of them a few years back. It was ready before time and there were no strange display bugs or glitchy behaviour.There is still an issue with what can be done while logged in and logged out. Shouldn't I just be able to access every feature with a login?Why can't I access my wishlist from the app? Rating films takes a drill-down and some of the search functions could use a little attention. Nevertheless, using the app for its primary value as a ticket dispenser is flawless. The only time I had a problem with it was due to my phone thinking it had to log in to the ACMI wifi and kept throwing me out. So, not the app there.

Someone has worked out that if you budget enough for the preparation of the volunteers the savings come back in happy customers. My problem with MIFF staff in the past has not been with rudeness as much as cluelessness; people who implode into shortness of temper when encountering irregularity. This year I saw the bright young things of the Vollie brigade welcome everyone in with smiles that weren't stapled on to their faces and a patience I've never known as widespread throughout the festival. If there was a snooty waiter syndrome one among them at any of the venues I missed out on them. If someone strayed I saw polite firmness rather than caving in the face of punter-aggression or assumed superiority from previous years (should  point out there that I haven't seen any real upleasantness for a few years anyway).

What ad? Well, there was one and, finally, it wasn't a lame joke that we had to live through at every screening. I did get sick of the people getting so excited they turned into popcorn rapidly and the classy number plate one

I always wince when the only choice I have for a particular film is ACMI. The screen is big n wide. The sound is good. You'd think the seats were so well placed in rows as to leave too much room for the lizard creatures from Beta Grongo to stretch their hind pincers and push into the seats in front of them. I saw one guy actually stretch his extraterrestrial pins so far that his feet were rubbing their footpath filth over the headrest and arm of two seats in front of him. What the hell goes through the minds of people like this? So, I reluctantly went to ACMI for most of my screenings. Last year I avoided it completely, not a single session there. Can't always get what you want, though...

The Forum is always one of the joys of the Festival. Love the building and atmosphere and the club downstairs. It's a winner.

I'm glad the Treasury is now a venue for all its cruddy seating with the shifty cushions. I just wish they'd let me put a film night for the rest of the year there. I can but dream which is what I'll have to settle for.

I liked the experience of the Comedy but wouldn't want to make a habit of it. The sense that the seats were all squashed in was strong. While this didn't really affect me as I was in the front row for my only screening there (99 Homes) I would not like to be more toward the middle. Then again, they have a bar in the auditorium.

All up a cruisey business. Being strapped for extra leave this year, I'm not taking my usual post-MIFF week off. Well, I don't need it anyway as the work I was doing crammed up against the screenings left no time for filmy shenanigans anyway and, spending a lot of time without anyone else in the room meant that wasn't doing a lot (actually any) partying to make a recovery week necessary. So, it's off to work I return, having an easy Sunday eve not spent ironing shirts (did them a week ago).

ALSO ...
Having harped on this for most of these roundups for the past few years I can add a little something about queueing. Anyone who has read these o'er the years will know I like the front few rows. I learned a fair few years back that it didn't matter if was at the beginning of the line or at the freezing element-exposed end of it, I pretty much always get the seat I want, front and centre ... ish. Well, this is the first fest where I didn't wait in a queue once. This is easy for me as I live in a suburb that borders on the CBD where the venues are. I'm about fifteen minutes brisk winter stride from the furthest of the venues. So, I would turn up just after the main block had gone in while the first slides were running on screen. The one time this backfired was my first session. I had forgotten that the Kinos MIFF cinemas only have tiny front rows and capacities generally. So, I saw The Duke of Burgundy at a severe angle, idly checking for any anamorphosis in the compositions (well, you never know with Peter Strickland). The closest I came to queueing was getting to the end of the line for The Witch on Russell St but that was already moving when I joined it. (Then I had to dash ahead of the zombie-march exit for one of a few midnight Mai Tai meetings with the o- the autre significante.) That was a great result but I'll admit to missing the sense of event palpable from being in a long conga line for an eagerly awaited movie. Actually, bugger that, it's much better now.

Roll on August 2016!


 I showed a friend of mine the 1950s version of The Thing. She enjoyed it but had to get out: "what if they made movies like that now." She wasn't referring to the durable compulsion of the Christian Nyby classic but the kind of acting that was the norm at the time and the way the film played out in spare, essential scenes to its final tension. Well, they do. Since the concept of post-modernism landed arse-backwards into populist cinema in the '90s and people started making movies designed to be cult, the movies have never looked older. But then there's Guy Maddin.

Maddin started clanging about in his Winnipeg workshop in the '80s, well out of the range of the spotlight, fashioning a kind of cinema that is both fresh and very old. His silent short films like Heart of the World look like Eisenstein but play like Lynch and the refusal to hop on the tribute band wagon clear from the start. Maddin doesn't copy old movies he makes his own new. The acting was a mix of stagey early sound (and the sound itself decidedly early), irised scene transitions and vignetting in sets that looked like the ones in Murnau or Lang. The stories were a loopy mix of old manners and joltingly modern ones. They were impossible to categorise (they certainly weren't just retro) even as comedy or melodrama and finally we who followed him in fascination had to admit that here was that rarest of cinethings in the current climate: an auteur. Guy Maddin makes Guy Maddin films.

Well, he did or I thought he did until I saw Keyhole (most recent before this) a bizarre retelling of Ulysses' return to Ithaca told in jazz age dress and in the cleanest scope image you ever did see (ditto for the audio). It was bizarre because its cleanliness did not fit the odd dreamlike mashing of the mythical story. That was clearly intentional but the intention itself was silent. So, I came to this with a wince of trepidation, knowing that I want my favourite artists to keep developing but also want them to stay where I like them best.

Well, it didn't take a second through the warping slide show and protean hybrid clean and dirty  electronics of the music to know that I was in for something I'd like.

Story? Too many. Ok, a submarine crew is carrying a gelatinous explosive that is melting and must be kept under a certain depth to stop it melting too much and exploding. They are looking for their captain who has disappeared. Suddenly into this scene, a lumberjack comes in through an airlock, telling a tale of trying to save his ladylove who is being held captive in the cave of the local brigands. After a hilarious scene of strength and skill trials the woodsman is welcomed among them but his goal, the lovely Margot demands greater proofs of his loyalty starting the next night. As she and the robbers are sleeping she dreams she has amnesia and enters a night club as a flower girl and then strange Lydia Lunch style cabaret singer and on and on. But every one, every new tale (and they average a new one every few minutes or even seconds), the forgetful and murderous husband, the literally broken motorcycle girl, her doting doctor and his brother, as escaped criminal and the miller (and "pillow hugger" he works for) and the various dreams by new characters, a volcano and the hairs of a moustache (this list doesn't begin to cover it) ALL, every one I remembered to count, get resolved for the end for, as dreamlike as Maddin gets (i.e. in every film he does and deeply) he keeps a strong hand on narrative flow and there isn't a moment that isn't set in it's own part of the greater arc.

And Maddin the stylist never lets up. The music ranges from clear high resolution string sections to muffled Victrola records to acapella songs to '80s ballads so precise and perverse they sound like Sparks (Youtube them)*. Images of the characters warping as though viewed through water appear like underlay. New characters are given title cards with the character names and the actors who play them. The palette shifts rapidly between desaturated colour, Technicolorish boldness, deep greyscale, vaseline lensed obscurity. The home workshop look to props and sets continues from Maddin's own traditions. The acting looks silent or wrenched from the early talkies. The gang's all here. It feels comfortable but just that step more assured and restless. Keyhole was an interesting detour; he's much stronger on the path.

Also, we're getting a higher profile international cast this time, including Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Mathieu Amalric and Geraldine Chaplin among many many others, often in multiple roles. I had worried about the high recognition casting back in the day of Isabella Rosselini in The Saddest Music in the World. No more need to worry now as then. He's come through with enough of what we liked on top and riches that we love in the middle. Might have to watch Keyhole again, now.

*Um, just found out that the Derriere Song is by Sparks.