Sunday, July 26, 2015


Abbie and Lydia have a bond deep and strong. It withstands the worst bickering that adolescent power can muster. It withstands Abbie's treacherous deflowering in the back of a car and her subsequent pregnancy. And then it withstands her death as Lydia plunges into an emotional chaos as she makes her unguided way through grief. As Abbie's last days were broken by increasingly serious fainting spells, Lydia is beset by her own. Soon this spreads throughout the school as the other girls begin falling, culminating in a mass faint at assembly. Is it hysteria, a neurological plague, a weird protest? This film's strength and weakness lies in its evasion of the answer.

It's a strength because it allows the film to explore by posing questions. Why is that happening? Is it related to this? Is there something significant about the relationship? We are invited to draw our conclusions from a mass of information supported by strong performances and a characterful aesthetic. Plot is kept necessarily slight to facilitate this and you will find yourself continuing to make connections after the credits have rolled.

It's a weakness because all that depends too much on how much empathy you want to shell out to the characters. The lead performances are strong but the best played shallow sketches will only clarify the lack of depth. Do we need better developed characters if the piece is so thematically driven? Well, we do when it declares itself to be about bonding, empathy, various forms of violation and repression and their effects. As with the quirk of films like A Fistful of Flies or What's Eating Gilbert Grape or anything by Wes Anderson the difficulty connecting between the people on screen and the ones watching them makes what might be an engaging flow into a clod-hop over a scrapbook.

And you want quirk? Lydia has a twitching eyelid. When I first noticed it I thought it was a sign of her exerting control over the other girls. But it's really kind of nothing. Her brother has moments when his eyes look a little splayed but again nothing. Nothing substantial, at any rate though it's not that hard to impute meaning to those traits they come across as spontaneous inspirations of indulged actors. The brother introduces himself as Kenneth-not-Ken. He is pollinating wildly, roaming the ward of fainting victims spreading charm spoors. He recognises the boundary drawn at his sister but that barrier doesn't seem to bother either of them. Their mother, working from home as the neighbourhood hairstylist, hasn't left the house in years though she dresses and makes up as though she's never at home. You got quirk.

So did I like it at all? Well, Masie Williams provides a solid centre as Lydia, making the writing she has to work with less grating through her obvious and effortless conviction. Greta Scacchi's knotty oak Mrs Mantel allows a warmth to the dessicated bitterness by which her character might have otherwise been wholly composed. Director Morley has a fondness for near subliminal shock cuts but skill enough to use them to inform rather than distract. She plays fair, also, by keeping the initial restlessness of the narrative style under control, making it clear that we shouldn't be expecting too much plot. There is a pleasing ambiguity to the depiction of the falling itself whereby it looks genuine in this case but completely contrived in that one. The score is a pleasing mix of folky freshness and electronica which didn't let the film down once (that's not faint praise; listen to the next blockbuster you go to).

But then there are so many threads that are allowed to bend beyond recognition and either wobble unevenly or more simply fade from view. Forced moments like the older teachers' private loosening chat or the atrocity straight out of a Greek Tragedy primer in the final act jar rather than deepen and too often being taken out of the picture this way results in exposure of the void between the patches and fragments that make it up. These pieces are chosen with scholarship and taste (If, The Devils, Picnic at Hanging Rock etc.) and placed with great intention but, I fear, too little consequence.

I did continue making connections on the walk home from the cinema and quite happily found many that I hadn't consciously made while watching. This is a pleasant effect and I have no objection to a film that manipulates me into it. However, this comes at a cost of the thought developing an apologetic rather than participatory tone. I don't wish to damn any film for being different and so boldly itself but in this case my praise can only be ... faint.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: AMY: Selfies in the Maelstrom

The millennials' very own 27 Clubber, Amy Winehouse soared to fame like an F-18 and then crashed like a 747 but this time in slow motion. In that short time she pushed a timeless jazz through filters of her own history and templates cut from everything she didn't like about contemporary music into the 2000s to create an untouchable style. She also made cataclysmic life decisions which saw her go from a plucky teenager to a desiccated husk. This stuff we know. And we assume that because it was so public in this time where the line between public and private is so shaky that that is all we need know of this case. Amy is dead and buried, sang well but, boy, was she good for a joke. It's that bit that this film addresses.

It opens on two teenage girls as they sing Happy Birthday to the one holding the camera. Trumping her friends with a huge, gleaming grin, the cherubic Amy, cigarette in fingers, trills the song like Monroe and everything we know about her life hits us between the eyes. The voices of those friends (often stilted by sorrow) will keep surfacing through the media blitzkreig like rescue signals. That's necessary because for the next two hours we are immersed in a life story, a few years short of three decades of intense withering.

That this film is neither dirge nor freak show is testament to director Asif Kapadia and his team. I didn't see his highly lauded Senna as I couldn't bring myself to watch anything about motorsport (I know, if the film is good enough that shouldn't matter) but now I think I must. Winehouse's fame coincided with the dawn and rise of social media and if I say that Kapadia succeeds here because of a deep understanding of Amy Winehouse it's less from any personal insights than his skill with the ocean of content she generated.

Home video, phone video, selfies, talk shows, holidays, performances and paparazzi all contribute to the motion jigsaw we see. The new content is supplied by interviews done for the film and the massive editing job. Those interviews are audio-only; taking the talking head out of a biographical documentary removes the safety buffer for the audience so that there is nothing but editing between us and the sounds and images of the life on the screen. There is a delightfully clear path to Winehouse with her friends teasing and laughing as the cam silently records as a now natural element in a social situation. But there is also no protection offered from the video selfie of the later Amy, emaciated and self-aware, recording her wasted physique in the dark with a slight, unsettling smile.

Because the first video is so arresting it's a doddle to settle in to this format of content tsunami with only spare commentary (and that varying and unshamedly  personal), however difficult it can be to watch some of it. The balance Kapadia strikes, given how much raw source he would have begun with and how tempting it would have been to have editorialised rather than edited, is exemplary. But the balance would only rate for worthiness if it weren't also for the unflagging sense of journey that testifies to Kapadia's guidance: he knows we know the story but he wants us to know all of it so that by the time we see the montage of comedians, presenters and talk show hosts taking cheap shots with howitzers we recall our own and shrink from the memory: the film is not judging us, it happily invites us to do it ourselves.

Meanwhile we see Amy, the songwriter who slogged it out in tracky daks at home with a Strat and a writing pad, who showed astute judgement of her own performance in the studio as she perfected lines, take after take. We see a bona fide star struck dumb as she watches one of her idols present her with a Grammy, her gaping awe draining all self awareness. We see a friend in high London sass, clinking glasses with her lifelong friends. And we see a girl in plaits with a huge grin as we are told of the difficulty of an unguided childhood in a house she dreamed of escaping from the age of nine. And if we see her plummet into raving insensibility with the clubland alpha whom she worshipped, married and then accompanied on a slide down to the kind of Hell it took Jean Paul Sartre to imagine, we take it with the rest. There's a lot of drugging and boozing and clubbing here but the line between reporting and leering is never crossed. We are being informed not invited to salivate, and by the time we watch her mutely wander the stage at the infamous Belgrade concert we can no longer tut-tut or smirk at the psycho drugs and pills lady living up to all her jokes: we're lucky if we don't well up.

Eventually, there are as many scenes of Winehouse trying to make her way through the masses of pappazzi constantly on duty outside her Camden house. Even sober, she must have felt transported to another dimension where the breeze sounded like metal on metal and the sunlight came in blinding flashes. But we are compelled to remember as we watch her walk numb through the ratcheting storm of camera shutters, the insensitive eyes in her skeletal face violated by constant speedlights, that this was once a cheeky girl who just wanted to sing. And when we see her last procession through the cameras, on a covered trolley pushed by paramedics we need to remember.

The Daily Mail muckreported that Amy Winehouse died watching Youtube clips of herself. If we read something like that at the time it was without surprise. As this quilt of electronic evidence suggests, though, we should step back from that and remember that any of us might well go a similar way, gasping our last as Gaz the Raz yet again does the streak at our graduation ceremony on whatever forehead implant Youtube shall have become. If Winehouse were able to see this her horror would not be from the images of herself flailing through a drug haze but the breathtaking invasion of the images themselves. The stretch between their intimacy and the alienating effect of their edited presentation creates a dizzying eeriness. As this documentary is made entirely of digital source material it might very accurately be called The Amy Winehouse Files. But the confidence of the edit and the craft in the construction prevents this from the tabloid sneer that a title like that suggests.

If you had fun in your twenties you knew an Amy Winehouse. Actually, you more than likely knew a few. Those boys and girls who sped themselves up to cope with the velocity of their own brains and boozed back down to be with the rest of us, who landed in Emergency at three in the morning, who were famished for sex and noise, who found their bedmates in gutters and agar dishes, who constantly craved neural relief, who clung to the walls in quieter moments, barely able to make it down the hall, whose laughter thrilled and terrified us, whose phone calls could drain or energise us, who were as silly as death and as grave as a good joke: we knew all those ones who gave our times their signature and colour, and we either went to their funerals young or watched as they settled into awkward mediocrity and judged them worse than those who died.

The difference was that Amy Winehouse, like Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain, was famous. The difference between that and this film is that the mass of the kind of material it's made of doesn't look all that different from what we upload ourselves. When Facebook a few years back offered the dinky Gallery of Your Life app we clicked and let the algorithm give us a pack of Vanity filter tips. Kapadia has protected us from seeing the result of Amy Winehouse clicking on what the whole internet would return and instead given us something to celebrate and learn from. Any Amys in the audience won't stop being Amys, it's not their nervous systems up on the screen so they're not bound to admit any kinship, but if the rest of us should learn to extend a little care to them then this story's work is done.

Friday, July 10, 2015

MIFF 2015!

Ok folks, it's on again. As the choirs and crowd chatter rises and drifts from the Gertrude St Projection Festival outside (just went and shot some video of it) I am at the end of a very long hungover day spent mainly getting these thirteen titles chosen from the hundreds in the MIFF guide and putting them all on my mini pass. Long, slow, cold day.

So, now as I take some hospital grade haberdasherin for the pain, visions come forth of the Dr Seuss exterior of the Forum, getting acquainted with the Comedy Theatre (very fond memories of the Princess as MIFF venue in the mid 2000s), the very fondly recalled Treasury Theatre and the Festival Club at the Forum downstairs.

So, here are the initial 13 on my mini pass:

The Duke of Burgundy
To kick off, the new one form the lad who gave us the strong Katalin Varga and the brilliant Berberian Sound Studio. A mix of Persona and Bunuel with Peter Strickland at the helm sounds good to me.

Arabian Nights
A triology from Miguel Gomes who made the extraordinary Tabu, a favourite of 2012 brings an epic of classic storytelling filtered through the state of post-GFC Portugal.

Lambert and Stamp
I dig rock docs and this one about a duo of managers who were as interesting as their charges, the Who caught my eye.

99 Homes
Interesting premise. Michael Shannon.

Battles Without Honour and Humanity
Classic Yakuza from the 70s by the man who brought us Battle Royale.

Two Shots Fired
Just had to read the synopsis.

Tehran Taxi

Hill of Freedom
Loved the same director's Our Sunhi last year for its quiet but powerful comedy of manners. Looking forward to this one.

Angels of Revolution
Stalin's Russia. An atrocity. Always like to get a Russian film in if I can.

The Witch
Noticed this title on a few best-horror-movies-you've-never-seen lists and now here it is.

The Forbidden Room
Guy Maddin. Nuff said. Alright. I've been fascinated with Maddin's rich and strange blend of early cinema with indy smarts. His films might look a little like Nosferatu with tints but they never feel like anything but the mind of Guy Maddin.

As usual, I'll probably add to this once the fest has started so feel free to suggest a session. Hope to see some o' you out 'n' about among the scarves and the projector beams. Roll on, August!