Monday, December 26, 2016

Review: LA LA LAND

Funny thing about musicals is that if you put them in a different format no one thinks of them as musicals. Frozen or Aladdin are thought of as animations or kids movies but they are stuffed with songs. When it's live action like Grease or Chicago everyone wants it to be innovative or subversive, never just a musical. Lars von Trier made a near Dogme one with Dancer in the Dark (the genre alone would have disqualified it but the look and dialogue were on the money). Chicago played Broadway for the MTV generation cutting all the fluidity out of the dancing with more edits than the human eye could register. And anyway, apart from a few rogue entries, musicals seemed to have died off after the big 60s bubble, recalled for their kitsch value and then their irony value and then the kitsch of their irony or the other way around. Why do one now?

La La Land doesn't promise much beyond genre and keeps to that lack of promise. Sounds like faint praise but read on. We open (after some cute jokes about technicolor and cinemascope) on a jammed L.A. freeway, closing in on a beautiful young woman in a car who's dubba dubba-ing a tune which turns into a big opening song and dance about the eternal sunshine of Los Angeles. The song itself is generic to the point that it needs nothing memorable in the melody or much or the lyric. It's big and loud and colourful and kinetic. It's an opening number which ends on a genuinely amusing note of bathos and the rom com element's meet cute.

Emma Stone is distracted from the traffic by the lines she will be reading in the audition she is driving to. Ryan Gosling can't get the cassette (yep, cassette) in his dashboard to cue at the right spot but when the traffic starts to move again he baaaaaarmps the horn in Emma's ear, overtaking her with a contemptuous sneer. In 1936 when we saw Fred and then Ginger we started following them from the get go. In 2016 this musical also gives us two movie stars and we do the same for them. We're soon to see some developmental dialogue, visual quotes from earlier eras of the genre and so on and the songs will get more character and narrative based. Bring the two together, prise them apart and then bring them back together stronger than ever. End.

With some variations that's what you get. If you don't like that this won't convert you but the curious cinema goer might well feel rewarded by taking the chance in this case. This is a rom com with the theme of following dreams vs sticking at more realistic drudge jobs. The reason you might care about this has a lot to do with that casting. Apart from an early scene between Sebastian (Gosling) and his sister which can't rise above it's old school dialogue about being a serious artist, the central pair put all their more typical dramatic chops into these roles to warm up what might have legitimately been vessels for song and dance numbers. The dramatic and comedic two-plays work well and both get their moments at breakout performance.

The trouble is that the second act sags without strong numbers as we live through the origins of the conflict and it is here that we might have softened the determination to appear like a legit drama between songs and created something more convincing for confidently joining the rest of the musical. As soon as we accept these young A-listers as musical actors we're happy following them through that. Why have such a lengthy dialogue about conflicting lives when a song would have lifted it into compulsion? We know Gosling and Stone can drama how wonderful to have seen them sing it (as they already, creditably had).

The third act lifts itself ably and when director Chazelle (of the compelling Whiplash) amps up the cinema it feels worth the wait. Here we have Mia (Stone) putting the kitchen sink into her audition number. The final what-if sequence, similarly is masterfully handled as the piece remembers it's a movie and can do what it wants which is best done with depth and the director's own obvious musicality.

The score deserves a plaudit for erring on the side of the jazz at Sebastian's core which even knocks on the door at more orchestrally-appropriate moments. This feels less like a tribute to Michel Legrand's masterful Umbrellas of Cherbourg than an extension of it. And we can't leave without stating that the choreography is not only always welcome when we see it but given as live as it can be without those Chicago split second cuts. Stone and Gosling really dance well and one sequence involving swapping places on a park bench rises above it own cuteness with sheer wow-factor.

While I might not see this again soon, I enjoyed it but would rather see another one with even more confidence and commitment to the genre. Now the twenty-teens homages to Singing in the Rain etc have been played out let's find something else (between this and London Street, perhaps) and forge a way. I liked musicals as a kid. They were played on the ABC on Friday nights before I had a legitimate party life at school. I still like them. This shows they can still work but let's keep going and find out what else they can do.

Review: I, DANIEL BLAKE: Rockin' a Hard Place

Dialogue over a black screen with the credits. An ageing man, Daniel, is struggling to get through a welfare interview about his health and capability. He has a heart condition that keeps him from employment, especially in his trade as a carpenter. The interviewer has to keep hooking him back to the script of the form, warning that a combative attitude will only go badly for him. It does.

But it does not because he is difficult but because the Kafkaesque system of queuing and eligibility and eligibility to queue has left no room to move. He can't get his suspension from benefits appealed until the overloaded system allows it which means that he will have to sign on for the dole but that means that he will be obliged to look for work that he has been declared unfit for. That's all assuming he can make his way through the computer form because all applications must be online. He doesn't know what a mouse is when he gets in front of a public access computer and by the time a helpful fellow beneficiary can get him through the form he has run out of time at the terminal.

Trying again at making it personal (the phone queue torture has led to more absurd frustration) at the welfare office he is again rejected but is stopped when witnessing a woman with two children being ejected before their interview for being late. He stands and cries out for the stranger to be given a chance and it is the first moment of control we have seen him take. It leads to more frustration but also a personal bond and that's when we really know that we are in a Ken Loach film.

Why? Well, like Belgium's Dardenne brothers whose work his precedes, Ken Loach has documented the anger of the dispossessed but is always careful to steer away from nihilist revenge fantasy to serve an fanbase. We understand the constraints and feel the anger but instead of going to bed angry afterwards we will leave the end credits with some perception of the value of retaining humanity in dire circumstances and also of keeping lucid when faced with frustration.

Daniel's fatherly relationship with Katie and her kids has the kind of goodness to it that feels like the last vestiges of currency they have. This is not saintliness and it is important to avoid characterising Loach's filmmaking as documentary style. Loach makes fiction cinema and it doesn't pretend to be objective reportage. The good in Daniel Blake (whose name is drawn from the Old Testament and the pantheon of English poetry) is the same that suggests a need for the welfare system that has been so tightly wound that it must reject him. The common good and the commonality of good. While Daniel's efforts to keep the young family's spirits up might give us some unease when we know how others might misconceive it there is plenty we have seen to allow for it. He's not a saint he's just a bloke who, stressed, is yet unbroken.

That Loach is still making films like this after four decades should tell us just as much. These stories don't go away, are not ironed flat by the rhetoric of neo-liberalism nor so bludgeoned by the hard right. That he makes each one with consummate craft and keeps the blocks between us and the characters clear so that we might walk beside them in their trials is testament to his own resolve.

We need Ken Loach, we still need Ken Loach. We need him, his spare but powerful writers, his perfectly chosen casts and the plainness of his eye. We need him as the eighteenth century needed Hogarth and the nineteenth Dickens. And you will need a tissue or two if you want to get through this film. But if you do get through it you will be, however slightly, stronger for it.

Monday, November 14, 2016


It took Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters to work out how to communicate with the aliens. Before that they just spoke English and got down to the business of planet acquisition. The tv series V in the early '80s had its reasons for Anglophone E.T.s and they made sense. The goopies from the deep in The Abyss spoke in slideshows that even alpha-oaf Ed Harris could understand. So what happens when you get apparently peaceable aliens hang above the Earth in seamless hollow boulders waiting for someone to say hello? You get Amy Adams whose thousand and one ways of facial control allow her to emote intellect.

Coming from the tragedy of losing her daughter to cancer, Adams' Dr. Louise Banks finds her linguistics class interrupted by news of the aliens landing. Soon enough Forrest Whitaker's Colonel Weber knocks on her office door to give her the job of outreach. The language she is presented with is more like industrial noise and she begs off. A visit to her rival later and she is whisked off at midnight to the American landing site (there are eleven others around the world linked by two things, one intriguing and the other intentionally hilarious). There she meets the team and ascends in a beautifully realised transition to the giant stone craft to have a crack at communication.

Meanwhile the world of international and perhaps even intergalactic politics tenses up as this place heads for conflict with the newcomers and that place falls into chaos. The race is on for the world's good guys to find out what the visitors are doing in the backyard. Louise uses some nifty logic to scratch the surface of the language barrier through the use of an extension of human language.

From this point they will or won't find the answer and the Earth will or won't be either conquered by hostile aliens or plunged into self destruction. And that's where this film's problems begin.

First, just when Louise gets her break and digs into the problem solving we are robbed of a scene or even a montage of her getting further to the point where she can communicate in real time. We do get a montage but it's narrated. From this point, were it not for Adams' screen magnetism, we would be cast off from the film's dock. The narration isn't complex. The points it makes are clear and logical and bring us to the next major point but we feel as we might in those re-released films with reconstructed passages made of meagre newly discovered footage and onscreen notes. Except there's a reason for those to look gaffer taped together. Here it just feels like the other side of the too-hard box. The rest of the film must struggle to regain its sense of wonder and the tension of its moment.

There is a clever idea on the way but by the time we get to it we've already guessed most of it and the lost impact at its revelation weighs heavier than the moment we should be hoisted by. Actually, by that point the film starts feeling like a Christopher Nolan epic (albeit about a month shorter) in which the human story at its heart is shown to be what was important all along and everybody feels nice. The idea is still clever, mind you, it's just buried under a stack of warm pancakes.

Arrival is not so much about the alienness of species or even races but the alienness of language itself, how different translations can mean the difference between war and peace both between and within languages. This premise is given with an effortless compulsion by the film (even the few lines about the strangeness of Portuguese among its neighbouring languages, given as a scene instensifier, are compelling). The road to discovery about the language of the aliens has a dark momentum to it which is given such thrilling weight in the gravity shifting scene of the first interspecial encounter we see (initially announced by a quick shot of a tablet whose screen rotation is lost and starts spinning like a fan). If we thought this was going to be a tough assignment before this moment we now know how tough. It's cinematic greatness. And then it gets vacuum-packed into a montage with a voiceover and we start floating on the Zoloft of the bigger picture.

Director Denis Villenevue has done so much to impress already. He's good with actors and concepts. And the flair for cinema he has shown with Incendies, Enemy and Sicario has assured him a place among the best of his generation. Whether he's wresting stark allegory into a story of deep existential horror (Enemy) or coolly drawing the slippery connections between pragmatism and corruption (Sicario) he conquers the screen with them. And he does so with an eye to the comfort demanded by a mainstream audience. Here, as in Prisoners, he seems to have dropped a strange looking pebble to pick up a shiny coin. I can only hope he doesn't believe the hype building around him and turn into the next Christopher Nolan ("Your movie took four hours of my time to tell me THAT? You are not Tarkovsky!) Maybe he should try a musical next, something that will make him work. I'm serious.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Nude obese women writhe and gyrate against a red background. In slow motion we can see every square centimetre of excessive flesh. Are we being invited to judge them? Once the credits have passed the final directorial byline we roll back and see that this is a backdrop for an exhibition. Young, slim and beautiful Los Angelenes mill around risers bearing either the women from the projections or latex sculptures of them, a kind of Patricia Piccinini confrontation.There are many viewers but this is an exhibition opening and they're not looking at the art they are looking at each other. In their midst sits a detached Amy Adams as Susan using her expertly expressive face to tell us that her mind is elsewhere.

Later, back home she confronts her husband for not turning up to the opening and gets a generic response about work demands. The dinner party they go to mixes talk of genital frankness with anodyne life advice. Husband absconds to New York halfway through and Susan is again left in her world of architect interiors, affectless conversations, like a feature in one of its many artworks. But she is haunted. She has received an envelope containing the manuscript of a novel written by her first husband and dedicated to her. It is a crime thriller, heavy on the violence and a theme of revenge.

From this point we will weave in and out of a cinematic realisation of the novel, the cold emotionless world of Susan's L.A. and a play-through of how she met author and ex Edward and how they parted ways. This weave will progressively tighten until united by the pattern they are part of and the final blow can be administered.

Tom Ford has created a work of impressive design here. Present-day Susan might be lodged into the scarlet of her past with Edward or lost at a work meeting in a white infinity. Crime victims are juxtaposed with the posed bodies of the living in different timelines. From the perfect architecture of the present day to the dust of the novel's Texas setting to the New York winter wonderland of the recalled romance we are given easy cues to orientate us in the complex structure which readies us for the grip and weight of the climax. It is heavily designed but if that term brings images of Peter Greenaway's tableaux vivant it shouldn't. This is cinema by industrial design a seamless mesh of form and function.

And Ford has assembled a cast of some of the most compelling talents of the last fifteen years. Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams can be watched closely in anything and there is even a scene in which these two gorgeously screen-filling heads actually do fill the screen and it is a delight. But there's also the wizened Texas detective by the great new heavy on the block Michael Shannon. Aaron Taylor Johnson, so impressive in Kickass and Nowhere Boy lives in his unwashed redneck chaos. Laura Linney appears as a queen bitch mother and even Armie Hammer as a trophy husband letting go of his marriage impresses. So, why didn't I care about this film?

The design is heavily draped, yes, but it is inventive rather than cloying. The cast is stellar. But the characters are almost all repugnant. The hand of craft that felt it needed the colour of the weave perfectly in line with the place of each thread in the scheme did its job so well that we cannot feel anything for these people more than to admire their expert incorporation into the pattern. Even the potentially humanising failings of Edward as a shapeless lost would be novelist and Susan who recognises art but knows she can never create it just carry them into preciousness rather than despair.

The sense that no one is really losing anything important or lasting is so strong that the heightened stakes of the dramatised novel can do nothing but expose this. We are left with the feeling, which we shouldn't be, that this internal story should have been the movie. Then we would have had another redneck noir like Blood Simple; fine but why now? We need the shell around it as that is where the question has been placed, the philosophy we must engage with. What a pity, then, that the polish that gives that shell its beautiful pink gleam works so dully against its hold.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

POPCORN, ROAST N VEGIES, CAVIAR: Three approaches to a Halloween Movie Night

Halloween is here again. No, I don't celebrate it, either, but the opportunity to get together with friends and watch some scary movies always appeals and if there's a designated date for that then it's this one. I've listed a few titles below but really this is all about the approach, knowing what you want and allowing for that to fly out the window (except for the last one). The night's for enjoyment, remembering there are all sorts of interpretations you can slug on to that term.

The line before this shot really is: "she's behind you."
This one's the most fun. It's also the hardest one to get right.

Large crowds are restless crowds.  You need fun food and easy drinks. But fun doesn't mean stupid. Don't rely on unintentional humour. You might like the idea of everyone chortling over Bela Lugosi overacting or a goofy effect from the 80s but, boy, does that shit get old fast. I personally think it's wasteful and insulting to your guests trying this on. (On the other hand, if you wanted your friends to star in a found-footage sci-horror movie of how robotic they sound as they start laughing at every line of dialogue and scene change get your DLSR out and shoot from the screen.)

No, you need to think design. The films of James Wan and those like him work best here. They are offered seriously and deliver all the scares you can eat. They offer no emotional engagement with the characters and only the most rudimentary narrative construction before the cattle prod effect kicks in and the jolts start happening every five or so minutes. You can't invest in them and their stories don't hold up and, out of context, they fail against classic horror cinema. But they are no more designed for critical analysis than sharks are designed for triathlons. You start them, shove in the popcorn, talk, yell, daydream about anything, gossip, and scream every five minutes.  Start with titles like The Conjuring, Insidious, Sinister, or Paranormal Activity (though the first one's pretty good) and pick anything from part one to infinity.

But just like the fun food on the coffee table too much of this gets bloating and sickly and you will need some relief now and then.

Unfriended: It's a gimmick and knows it and it cares not. A Skype party goes wrong and wronger still. There are real cultural issues here but they happen at the same time as you yell, along with the characters:"It's behind you!" Brilliant, dumb and fun all at once.

Rec: Short and gets pacy quickly. A found footage festival of infected zombies in a quarantined apartment block in Barcelona.Yes, the subtitles might be a drag for some but, really, they are only there for a few plot developments. It's not hard to get the point of this one.

Halloween: Huh? But isn't this a classic, why is it in this section? Because it was made to make people tense and scared and then provide relief at perfectly timed intervals. It's also the story of a girl finding her strength against a terrifying threat. And it's still effective.

Sean of the Dead: One of the few horror comedies that fulfils both genres.

The Host: Great pacy monster movie with more than a little social commentary and a knowing eye to family dynamics. Still works a treat.

Young Frankenstein: One of the few horror spoofs that keeps on giving. Put it on early and leave the cattle-prod boo-fests till later. You will have set the mood and kept it while appearing to have intensified the fare.

Pontypool. Listen and you shall hear.
This is the most balanced option. That said, it still requires some serious planning. What's happening with this is that you are curating a celebration of horror cinema for people who aren't fans of the genre. The thought of turning the mild mannered Niles or over-talkative Shay into crumbling pillars of salt with the likes of Martyrs or Cannibal Holocaust might well stretch your face into a rigid grin but if you're doing it properly you might win a few converts with a good blend of warm convention and real art.

Now, you know that Niles considers himself a bit of an Oscar Wilde even though no one else does and he's likely to start finding things to deride in the movies you have chosen. Shay will light up at the connective cues and start laughing along. Well, keep your Assyrian sacrifice dagger in the pool room and remember that this is a social occasion as well as an opportunity for outreach. Roll with it enough to show that you're really not Hannibal Lecter but maybe also take the curation side of it seriously enough to talk about why the movies are important. Did they defy the moral code of their times? Is there a production quirk worth noting? Is there something they can look out for and feel invited to participate in? Yeah, sure they can giggle at some of the acting but have a look at what's happening with this peripheral character. Show your love of the things and serve them up on the chipped plates that you won't miss. This is about the food and the sharing.

What you choose here will be personal (though maybe leave out Martyrs or Cannibal Holocaust for different occasions) but here are some that always work for me when making this approach.

The Haunting: Robert Wise's expert adaptation of Shirley Jackson's chiller combines strong characterisation, snappy dialogue, epoch-influencing art direction and an insistence on tragedy to drive the scares (which are few but still chilling).

Videodrome: David Cronenberg's accurate vision of the future of media remains my favourite of his works. The cold sci-fi concepts are warmed up by James Woods' career-best performance and rock star Debbie Harry's air of having lived her edgy character's life before anyone yelled "Action!"

It Follows: Less something to talk over than with as the issues it raises can provoke while playing like a classic dread fest (is it a creature feature, an evolved slasher, a supernatural thriller?) Real themes and real scares (and no cattle prodding, either, so real tension)

Night of the Living Dead: Great classic of shoestring cinema, this never quite gets old because it's so muscular in its execution and relentless in its theme. Nothing is really old timey about it beyond a few things like the news broadcasts. It's played so vigorously that you probably won't have time to rag it. Just watch.

In fact, the really important innovation writer/director Romero made in the thinking has seen this film used as the basis for every major zombie movie after it, from its own sequels right up to The Walking Dead. Find out what that is and you will have sold a viewing to the most genre-resistant person there. Hint, it has to do with what he left out rather than what he put in.

Phase IV: Ants, but not giant ants. Just little ants that together can be a conquering force and agent of evolution. Thoughtful 70s sci-fi that keeps on thinking and delivers like a Cronenberg movie from its future. All that said, it's kept light enough to withstand industrial strength murmuring. If you can get Youtube going on the TV find the original ending and watch it after this. It's worth it.

Dellamorte Dellamore/Cemetery Man: Very funny yet grim tale of fatal recursion. Rupert Everet irresistable as a cemetery keeper who falls in love with an Anna Falchi whose multiple characters have a terrible habit of dying violently and then coming back for more.

Pontypool: You really do have to pay attention to the dialogue here as this one is all about language. The threat at its centre is the spoken word. It's a zombie movie. Let those two things sink in. The tension is well mounted and the performances are enjoyable. Once you've got it, it's a fun ride, though.

Under the Shadow. Oppression + imagination = terror!
This is the easiest to plan and the least fun. But it is the most engaging if you invite from the secret coteries and invite from the strongest of the curious. The numbers are small, the lights are low, it's warmed sake or icy vodka on the table with the best of anything you like. Talk is allowed but whispered below the dialogue. You're not at the Drive-In you're in the PRESENCE. Shut up and absorb. ... See what I mean about the fun? If you're inclined to loud in the crowd this approach will suck like a polar vortex. It's my favourite approach.

You can be as daring as you like, either challenging your guests to make it along to Inside or A Serbian Film, or you might want a night of quiet reverence for a mix of the well-thumbed and the mint fresh.

This is the horror-nerd cave and works best if each co-celebrant knocks bearing their own treasure. Could be a piece of old cheese from the 80s fermented with some mind-blowing philosophy between the latex syrup effects. Could be something involving a theme or depiction of something one of you genuinely fears which the company will help with. Could be something you just can't get out of your mind, old or new. Could be vintage splatter because you feel like talking about splatter. But that's the thing: if you bring something you will have to talk about it before we press play.

This is potentially infinite but here are some I'd think of :

Dark Water: This one spends its time wisely, building up why we should care about these characters and what's important to them before plunging them into the thick and breathless atmosphere and the horror that lurks within. If you've seen it before try it again without subtitles (if it's not in Japanese it isn't the real Dark Water). Keep it quiet, watch, absorb.

Excision: In the same neighbourhood as Ginger Snaps or Heathers (but at the scrappier end) Excision takes us on a tour of a teenager's psychosis. Pauline's fantasies are Matthew-Barney-quality challenges but her waking wit is worthy of Daria and the overall arc goes into a nasty place made of madness and despair.

The Woman in Black: If it stars Daniel Radcliffe send it back; that's a point-missing piece of garbage. The real one was made in the '80s and scripted by Nigel Kneale for TV. Simple means used to great effect. Genuinely chilling. Also, near impossible to find so the appearance of it will have a near-supernatural cache.

Kairo: Kyoshi Kurosawa's poem of loneliness in a life connected by bits, bytes and surrender. Glacially slow but ocean deep. The scares come from the bedrock of the story and strong atmosphere. You will absorb this through your pores and feel it long afterwards. Also known as Pulse but there's an American remake you need to avoid with that title. Check the case. If the names are Japanese you've got it right.

Martyrs: Rough and constantly violent until the second half which slows down but gets more disturbing. There is a point to it but, boy .....!

Eraserhead: My favourite film of all time. I've been lucky enough since the marvellous Criterion edition was released, to have shown this three times to people who had never seen it.

Under the Shadow (only at the Nova at the moment but also through itunes): a strong and clever updating of the Dark Water model shifted to find its own character constraints. Like Dark Water it remembers that horror is at its strongest and impactful when built on a bed of hardship or tragedy.

Fear Itself: A very clever essay on the relationship between horror cinema and its fans that will delight and compel at either end of the night. Uses fictionalised narration over brilliantly edited clips from horror or fear-based scenes both mainstream and obscure. Not too long and cheerfully unacademic.

Beyond the Black Rainbow: The makers of this one play down the philosophy involved, preferring to highlight the design and atmosphere but this goes beyond just looking like Kubrick or the stranger sci-fi from the 70s (like ZPG or THX 1138) and begins to act like it as well. If you like the futuristic elements of Rollerball but also the vibe of Farenheit 451 you'll dig this.

Sunday, October 9, 2016


Tehran in the 1980s. The revolution has established a brutal theocracy and set back the cause of reform in Iran by about seven centuries. Except for the weaponry. Iran is at war with Iraq. As Shideh sits across from an education bureaucrat, learning that her days of student politics mean that she is indefinitely forbidden to pursue her medical study for the rest of her life. Through the window of the office a building explodes with a plume of black smoke in the distance. Both glance at it with unease rather than horror and finish the interview.

Shideh returns to her family in their apartment to find her husband Iraj, already a doctor, more fearful of the regime than supportive of her. His quiet attempt at placation - "maybe it's for the best" - brings an understandable fury out in Shideh. The already strained marriage is pushed further still by his being drafted. Their preschool daughter Dorsa is not coping with what she can clearly feel in the mood of the home. Iraj goes off to war with the thought that the aerial bombing by the Iraqis will soon turn into missile assaults which will carry no warning. Shideh and Dorsa settle in for a grinding year ahead.

During the next air raid mother and daughter hurry down into the basement with the other tenants and wait it out. Dorsa loses her doll. She has been speaking with some of the other kids and one, an orphan taken in by one of the other families, tells the little girl of the Djinn, a monstrous spirit that can possess anyone through taking something they cherish. Shideh chides her daughter for listening to nonsense and goes to warn the family housing the orphan of the stories he's spreading. The woman of the house (the landlord's wife) seems more likely to be spreading the stories as she is completely credulous. Oh, also, that orphan, he's mute. Shideh has some tough nightmares and throughout the next days of the first missile raids weird things start happening.

This is a story of stress and it reminded me most strongly of another, one of my favourite horror movies of all time, Hideo Nakata's Dark Water. Both films are centred around a mother and daughter pitted against a grey and unsympathetic world which has the power to place strain in the bond. Shideh's sense of imprisonment is palpable. When she and Dorsa flee the house after a horrific scene the soldiers are far more concerned about her lack of head covering. As she is berated by the senior cop at the station for walking around exposed, she sinks back into herself, covered in a supplied black chador, the rage in her show of resignation is unignorable. She just has to bite her lip so she can get back home and get rid of this thing that seems to have gestated in the emotional pressure surrounding them. If you've seen Dark Water you'll remember that the mother Yoshimi makes a point of donning or removing her shoes. It shows us something of her culture but also how tightly woven in she is. It's the same with the head covering. At points of crisis in Under the Shadow it occurs to us to feel anxious that Shideh doesn't forget her scarf.

Like Dark Water, the trouble between mother and daughter takes the gravity and the Djinn, when it begins to manifest (if it does), draws its power from that situation. The stakes raised by this mean that the scares have real weight and resonance. There is one in particular whose jolt finished with shivers consuming my neck and shoulders. It was born of expert tension and dread. We want to see but we can't look. And what do we see? Buy a ticket and witness how simple it is.

I'm steering clear of plot for this one as the situation that emerges is so dependent on the course of the tale and revealing even slight details could spoil it. Cattle prod movies like the Paranormal Activity sequels and anything by James Wan that deliver timed shocks to people who aren't paying that much attention can't really be spoiled as their identikit themeless plots all have the same conclusion. While you might find some familiar things in Under the Shadow you will care about its people. That's the difference.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


Teenaged Sigourney Weaver at a Beatles gig. Kewel!
The great acerbic music commentator Nik Cohn stopped at his chapter on the Beatles to point out the apparent futility of writing it as he wondered what else there was to say. That was in 1969. Decades and communications evolution later and the band is still being discussed, examined, prodded and tested. We just aren't finished with them yet. Not even the massive Anthology series put an end to that.

But then the one area that never quite got the attention was the world of the tours. John Lennon told Rolling Stone's Jan Wenner in 1970 that the Beatles on tour was like Fellini's movie Satyricon. Now after all this time mention of the secret world of all that youth and power still goes undocumented. It is still formless, wafting like a fog behind the masses of archival footage of sassy press conferences and scenes of teenage girls in screaming thrall.

Ron Howard's documentary doesn't go on the trail of the debauchery that Lennon hinted at with his image. The most we get is the story of cannabis which has long entered the realm of the mass public knowing giggle. Where are the stories of ethical dilemmas or spooking moments of revelation that the power of such deific adoration might engender? Not here. It's a beautifully constructed home movie night with the uncle who was there.

That said, it's a pretty bloody good home movie night. The polished film and audio blast and shine on the cinema screen and the sense of thrill the makers must have felt in piecing it together is communicated without effort. This is a beautiful hour and a half of memory.

Aside from the to-camera interviews with the surviving Beatles and the archival ones of the now deceased, we are given a series of recollections and comments from Larry Kane who joined them as a broadcaster on the first tour to now high-profile contemporary fans like Whoopi Goldberg or Sigourney Weaver. It's these last that really deliver the unknown here as they tell of life in the queues and the stalls, the tidal force of the screaming mass and its gleaming centre of gravity. Soon enough all care about the problems of saturated history fall away as this exhilarating film continues.

However, the reason to see it at the cinema is the post-credits feature, available, as the claim goes, only in cinemas. The entire Beatles set from the legendary Shea Stadium concert. This was shot in 35mm with a host of cameras trained on the stage and a small mass of them facing the other way, recording the audience, the great entranced public who filled this birthing ceremony of the stadium gig. Both are essential here and both compel.

On stage the Beatles, by now blase about the constant screaming worship, are yet taken aback by the sheer scale of this audience. The sass and wit that coloured their banter is infused here with some of the dizziness before them as Lennon throws his arms out and quacks out strings of wordless garble. The set, of a brevity that no international touring band would ever get away with only years after this. Most of it is singles and covers of 50s rock and roll which would continue to make up their sets. By this concert the band had released eight US albums, mostly comprised of originals. It was either just easier to play hits and memories or the thought of slogging through the newer, more complex material only to have it dissolved in the jet engine scream of the fans was too much.

They are troupers, though, ploughing through a set as close to note and beat perfect as any band with so little notion of the sound they were making that they might as well have been guessing. There's a flub here and a miss there but take the screams away and this is a band that is playing like they love it. Put the screams back in and it's a spectacle of the effect of city-sized audience pushing a tsunami of love. All the band has to do is play well enough to start and end together and this will continue. That's what happens, they play and sing, screaming back the love that would carry them into unshakeable fame for evermore.

This isn't just because of their talent. As this half hour of footage demonstrates, the great win of a Beatles concert was only partly dependent on the fabs themselves. When we look in the opposite direction we see it all. Every few minutes a teenage girl is passed like roll of Persian carpet from cop to cop until her senseless limpness reaches the aisle and she is borne out of the heat and the din. I thought of the story each one would tell decades later, how she almost saw the Beatles even though she was there. Elsewhere there are tears and screaming and more screaming. Take any one of those girls out of that context and her paroxysms, the constant desperate scream distorting her soft features into hard masks of terror would suggest unimaginable trauma. And that's what this footage does. Every closeup of a girl in the crowd is startling as we see with such fresh clarity the screen fills with yet another fallen to deafening, twisting possession. Some middle aged dads frown behind their ray bans until it's over. But mostly it's the girls, each screaming, shaking one of them, girls, thousands and thousands and thousands of girls.

A shot of manager Brian Epstein appears. He's by the stage, absently rocking with the beat of the song, rolling his eyes to the sky as though this greatest moment his clients would ever know while playing live is just a bigger model than all the ones before. He knows no more than they do that this will end in a year's time as the band retreat to the studio to improve and intensify, leaving him little more to do than be nice to the press when the next album comes out. It's this moment, this one shot, that tells me that I am in a cinema watching a thirty minute document that has just been preceded by a ninety minute introduction.

Friday, August 26, 2016


Laing, a young neurosurgeon, moves into a new high-rise development, on a floor around the middle. At the bottom are the least affluent tenants and the penthouse on the fortieth features the landscaped garden (with horse) of the architect Royal. We are waiting for something to spark a revolution and are not surprised when it happens but surprise is not on offer here, anger is.

J.G. Ballard's troubling mid-70s dystopia of a social microcosm on every corner was a slap in the face of a post-war Britain whose contrary pull of a concrete band-aid utopianism and an entitled class in siege mode. Ben Wheatley keeps it 70s without falling prey to fulsome nostalgia. While we get a couple of versions of an ABBA song the commissioned score fends off what might have been a jukebox of Sweet and T-Rex or the Glitter Band (thank god!). The temporal setting is a nod to the source not a drawcard for the boomers who remember.  But it's also the time of a Margaret Thatcher on the rise and the gestation of a nightmarish push for a new lassez faire hell. That's what we get here.

So, as we start with a pleasant mid-level round of parties, drinking and sex and see the rarified snobbery of the upper floors we know it ain't gonna last. The kids barred from the pool while an upper crust nong has a private function which leads to an invasion led by malcontent in chief, Wilder. And then the power fails on the lower floors (and references to cake and some poignant checkout-chick French phrases). The barriers burst and it's orgies for all. The commune lasts until it gets boring and then the savagery takes over from below and above.

If Wheatley lingers on that last phase too long for some folk it should be remembered that this chaotic stage might well be made of sensational events but as a whole can sicken a witness through surfeit. It feels oppressive because it's meant to and if there's a film director working today who knows the power of a finely tuned excess it's Wheatley. There really was a point to the repetitive steps in Sightseers and the off-putting genre hopping of Kill List. Even in the open of A Field in England we could feel breathless and caged. Wheatley's films don't look much like each other but boy are they heavy lifting when they need to be.

A character describes Laing's apparent middle class complacency as hiding in plain sight and if anything might describe the visual heft of this film it is that phrase. The towers seen against the sky look like predators on the lookout. The beauty of the new building seems to carry the look of building rot in its texture. The fresh primary coloured walls and furniture on the lower floors assume the smell of the toddlers screaming around them and the sense of sweating human waste seems inescapable. This really is a Ben Wheatley film.

The cast never disappoints with an ensemble of the best the UK has to offer. Tom Hiddleston might seem to coast along in his placid bearing but his journey is one from hedonistic laxity to a controlled mania. Jeremy Irons dispenses with the creamy charm to remind us why David Cronenberg cast him three times (counting Dead Ringers as two) as Royal whose clueless anger reminds us of Louis XVI and whose white round collared smock recalls Nicholas II. Luke Evans shines in the range contest as Wilder, going believably from rogue to freedom fighter to perfect gentleman without a contradiction.

I forgot to mention the other sourced music. High Rise is framed by two points of irony. The first and most conventional is the bright and glorious 4th Brandenburg Concerto playing over the opening scenes of devastation. And then we end with a kid of art brut irony  as the Fall's Industrial Estate clanks and whinges over the animated perfect soap bubble of the end credits. Strange thing to say about such a piece but with this kind of hospitality we really are in caring hands.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

MIFF 2016: The O'erview

Another year, another MIFF and what a blast it's been. First, there's the meteorological bedrock of decently solid winter to make it feel like an achievement to get out and haunt the foyeurs. Second, is it me or is there really a pleasant move away from a dominance of Sundance and Cannes and more of what you like outside the crust? It really was harder this year making my minipass' thirteen (in fact I added three more and made a few exchanges). So, well done, youse.

I'll apologise here for the brevity of most of my individual reviews posted after I'd seen them. I had a lot less free time this year and my holiday cold was more a slowburn than a rage-for-a-day sharabang.


Evolution - If you are going to set up a sci-fi scenario with almost no exposition (and if it's as whacked out as this) you'd better have the courage to drive it hard and keep going. That's what happened here.

Fear Itself - Clip movies can be a waste but this monologue (delivered over very thoughtfully chosen clips from the spectrum of horror cinema) added layers to the commentary by imposing a true-life horror scenario that brought clarity to the narrator's observations.

Kedi - I love cats and revere the city of Istanbul. This gave me both.

Fata Morgana - An extraordinary presage for the future of exploitation cinema delivered at its dawn, this absurdist wonder gets everything right before it was got.

Right Now, Wrong Then - The great Hong Sang-soo once again gives us depths beneath a seemingly light surface. One story told twice, once with vanity and then with candour. The difference is pleasing and disturbing.

Blood of My Blood - A hymn of retribution to ages of male privilege. A few missteps couldn't threaten the strength of its thread.

The Unknown Girl - The Dardennes do a mystery story. I'm there. Great final screening at the Comedy.


A Dragon Arrives - A scaled up adventure in apocalypses and politics didn't quite fulfil its promises but, boy, was it fun.

Cosmos - Zulawski's swansong was not a conscious farewell but, if flying below his more extraordinary seminal works, it still pleased and worked unto itself.

Chevalier - Greek weird wave entry continues to promote the genre positively but the line between the severe realism and absurdism doesn't always blur well. Still fun, though.

Hedi - Like a A Dardennes piece (they produced) with humour as well as gravity. Wanted more of the latter, though.

Gary Numan: Android in La La Land - A documentary about creativity under Aspergers or a biopic that failed? Still don't know and would have liked to. Enjoyable with some insights but still wanted more of the journey that was.


Kate Plays Christine -  An interesting exercise eventually reveals itself to be one in futility.

The Demons - Michael Hanneke tribute band plays the Montreal suburbs but not even the man himself plays like that anymore.

The Lure -  Fun idea discards its own building blocks for no good reason and then ends.

Album - Not even Roy Andersson always gets away with his quirk with gravity but he does more often. Satire doesn't have to smile but it should ask you in. Or is this satire for the smug? Not interested.

Anything that looked like it would turn up at the Kino, Nova or video on demand. Anything with too much of a buzz that ended up sold out (I like being part of a good sized audience but hate feeling crammed in) although some of my picks ended up this way and I did make a point of ending with the new Dardennes brothers movie. And on one occasion I exchanged a ticket due to a mix of illness and how that made the prospect of ultraviolence on screen at the end of a walk through some icy rain decidedly ungood. So, Eyes of My Mother, Operation Avalanche, Love Witch, Christine, Lily Lane, Harmonium, Beware the Slenderman, Zero Days, Don't Blink: Robert Frank, Francofonia, Gimme Danger, Paterson, National Bird, Lo and Behold, Neon Demon ... and (as they sang at the end of Gilligan's Island) the rest, I'll check ya later.

The standard venues didn't disappoint. I maximise my Forum visits at MIFF as it's not open at any other time during the year and it's weird beauty still delights me.  While the seats can be a challenge I enjoyed by only screening at the Comedy with its dusty ol' ambience. ACMI still feels like going to the dentist but it's set up for good pic and sound. Hoyts doesn't feel like a MIFF venue but it's a well appointed up to date cinema with very comfy seating. I didn't go to anything at Kino.

In Memoriam: The Treasury Theatre, which had some screening trouble last year with bad sound but this is a sentimental favourite of mine. The Capitol: sometimes there, sometimes not. I love this old place with its kooky decor. The Regent. Boy I loved this one when it was a MIFF venue for a couple of years back i' the 2000s. Spacious and beautiful without a bad seat.

I can go on about this. In my first MIFFs the unease that would assail me because of queues was deep and persistent. I'd plan on getting to the venue half an hour early to stand near the beginning of a queue and never noticed that the seats around the one I chose seldom seemed to fill out. One day back in 2004 I stood in the freeze of Russell St for a film on at the Kino (Innocence) for over half an hour only to get the best seat. I could have sat in the warm Forum foyeur all that time and just walked in after the queue was finished. I did that a couple of times this year. The only times I queued were with friends who don't like sitting where I sit and on one occasion I joined a line that was already moving. If I'd gone to a sold out session at the Kino I would have queued as its small seating area means the front gets filled quickly and only the sides are left which can make a film in scope look like it would before going through the stretchy lens.

The Android app very pleasantly updated itself well before the start date. It was very easy to navigate and browse and book with. Very pleasantly I was also able to do a couple of exchanges pain-free with it. This in conjunction with a well designed home-base website has done a lot to ease congestion in the queues and the box office. Since the advent of the app a few years ago your ticket is on the phone you take everywhere with you and downloaded with the update before the festival began and gave you pretty much all the information you need about your day at the festival in your pocket. Compare and contrast the day where a mini-pass was a card that got hole punched, or a plastic card that might arrive in the post only days before the event or an e-minipass that needed the tickets printed out (or, if you were resourceful, kept as pdfs with readable barcodes on you phone).

Right up to a very few years ago you still had to go in to the box office, join a queue and book all your picks at the counter (some people were making decisions only when they got there) which made for long waits on your feet. The one thing I miss is the feature of the wishlist that allows you to set it up for your pass and with one click put everything into your cart and buy the lot all at once. That's gone and it's a pity.


So, there you go, one of the most enjoyable Fests I've had. A great range of material from around the globe and the margins of genre and invention. Astute use of technology has eased the more annoying aspects approaching the festival and the day to day management of it. Another year of polite and enthusiastic staff, paid or voluntary. As the logistics smooth, the stuff on screen can afford to be rougher, spikier and newer. May that continue. This one really felt like celebration rather than just a screening schedule.


Jenny, a young GP in a small Belgian town, is taking her intern through some tough criticism. He froze at an urgent moment and while she's being firm but fair he's taking it hard. The door buzzer sounds but she stops him responding, saying that all their patients know it's after hours and need a little tough love themselves. He storms off soon after. The next day she is stopped by two detectives who want to see the practice's security camera footage. A woman was found killed nearby. And there she is on the recording, the one who pressed the buzzer.

Racked with guilt, Jenny takes a still from the video and begins her own investigation. The victim carried no identification. Beginning with those closest to home she passes the image around but no one can identify the girl. Going wider, she establishes that the victim had been a sex worker and had just come from a client before her death. This takes her into some very dodgy territory, both police and local thugs warn her off the trail. But she's too haunted and can't stop.

Adele Haenel plays against her delicate youth with a hard seriousness. She lets us know the struggle that Jenny has been through just to get to this lower link on the medical food chain. When she is threatened with physical violence her surprise at her vulnerability feels genuine. And as her driving guilt over the death morphs into more of her sense of responsibility we understand the strength she is gaining from it. Gravity ensues.

The Dardennes have been my go to struggle-core team for a few years now (I was very late to them but now think they just have no competition). They've taken the grey-day look of social realism and found riches within it so that their visual style is both signature and unobstrusive. Their observation of the delicate balance of life at the bottom is always compelling because it's always driven by performance performance performance. That's what takes these unsmiling tales of life from grim-oop-north grinds into essential dramatic cinema. That's what we have here.

MIFF Session #15: HEDI

Hedi is a young Tunsian whose life is controlled for him. His mother manages his salary and gives him an allowance. He's about to wed in an arranged marriage. His boss notices how little he cares for his job and not only won't give him time off for his honeymoon but sends him to a regional branch to solicit car lease deals with local businesses. There, he meets a woman whose concern when he has appeared to take an important call touches him. He had lied about the call to amp it up but later approaches her with the truth and an apology. Later during a moonlight swim their mutual attraction sparks and Hedi, for the first time outside of the cartoons he draws in private, feels alive. Oh, and there's that wedding in a few days...

Mohammed Ben Attia's debut feature is confident but subtle, asking serious work of its cast and lensed with a deceptively plain eye. If it should remind you of a lighter Dardennes brothers film you ought to know that they are its producers, recognising in the new filmmaker something akin to their own fearless examinations of the dispossessed and drifting.

Majd Mastoura brings to the title character a kind of imprisoned wonder as he comes to recognise the possibilities beyond the plan with a blend of a comic deadpan and surprise. That's a lot of work in a film that is determined to show the dangers of personal freedom visible almost immediately after the first burst of escape. One to watch.


Gary Numan was a gift in the late 70s. Punk had imploded and at that stage it was very difficult to find anything that was happening in its wake. Tubeway Army didn't try outdoing the rock onslaught of the first wave but came in through a different door. His crystal stare and awkward-boy voice rode the swell of tides of synthesisers that were tighter than the ones on Low and more intense than Krafwerk's. It was great pop that felt like a horror movie and it was exactly what I needed. I listened to Down in the Park in the heat of a Townsville spring and shivered.

After pushing pop music into a decidedly unrock few big years his fortunes plummeted and he fell from favour, releasing fewer and fewer records to a public that had forgotten him and were somewhat ungratefully drifting back into rockness in the alternative scenes. And this, three decades later, is where we find him, visibly older, married with kids, standing up to a life of Aspergers and depression, making a new album.

While the film is generous with backstage views of the creative process most of what we get here is the continued struggle and the clearly beneficial family setting. It's actually quite a relief when his wife and daughters are on screen (the quartet of them are joyous camera hogs) not because Numan is so dire (he's personable, self aware and carries his own charm) but because they remind us that he is no longer in the nadir that he fell to in the wake of his fame.

And that's what the concern is here, not the journey but the arrival. The time and strain are evident on his face which often fills the screen. If nothing else, his candour and the wrinkles and all approach serve as reminders of how unforgiving a public is when it comes to the ageing of its idols and the assumption that their natural state is the pursuit of fame until death. It troubles us to think that a creative life without this urge is possible as it means we lose control of them. But here it is, certainly motivated by the need to make a living but also, as it must be on some level, for its own sake. See also, Syd Barrett

This thoroughly enjoyable portrait is kept trim. The family life quotient is there as it should be and never feels like padding. It's not for the beginner, perhaps (there's just not enough early career material on screen) but it does offer a solid depiction of survival in an industry which doesn't even tolerate many first acts. You could instructively double bill it with The Sunnyboy ... but maybe empty all those depressants in the bathroom cupboard first.

Friday, August 12, 2016


Cheon-soo, a young film director, in town a day early for a screening and lecture, takes in some local colour and meets Hee-jeong, a young painter at a local tourist attraction. At first awkward, their conversation establishes connection enough for Cheon-soo to suggest coffee. The cafe conversation warms them up enough for Hee-jeong to invite him to her studio where he praises her new canvas. At dinner they get drunk enough for her to invite him to a social gathering. Here, the wider conversation reveals his earlier praise to have been drawn from platitudes in interviews he has given. And then, as his vulnerability and confidence soaring, he reveals a truth which scuttles every lovely thing he had established with Hee-jeong that day. The next day's screening and Q&A session fizzes and he wanders back to his life in deflation.

A title card that reverses the first one appears and the entire story replays with one big difference: the pair are more candid and truthful with each other. From the first halting chat it is clear that things are going to turn out very differently. Within the parameters set the two outcomes are polar opposites because of this. While new steps toward romance take more time and effort they are also more binding and durable. We also feel very differently about them this time.

The wonderful Hong Sango-soo who made a fan of me at MIFF 2014 with Our Sun-hi has done it again. With characteristic attention to detail and nuance, strong casting and a firm hand on performances we have another astutely observed and deceptively light social comedy about self representation and the value of truth vs pleasing fiction. Of the title and the two versions I don't know if we are to see them as a kind of oblivious Groundhog Day, parallel universes, or simply a patiently constructed essay in the value we place on our statements when we want something. In the end any of those interpretations work for me and I, for one, did not resent the quick revelation that we were going to relive the same hour long story once the second title card gave way to the exact same opening shot of the previous story. I was just happy to see it again.


Felix, a bright ten year old boy, absorbs pretty much everything around him in his quiet outer neighbourhood of Montreal and it makes him worry. His observations of his father's intimacy a female family friend stop short of anything damning but not knowing all of it only makes it worse. He worries about his own sexuality as he puts a more gullible boy through an increasingly edgy role play game. He worries that that experience might have given him AIDS. Worse, the boy he played that game with (and who is subjected to a cruel prank later) is abducted, raped and murdered by a local paedophile and is haunted by the boy's gaze in the dark of his room at night. The demons of the title are made of this.

And so on. Woven through this are scenes of genuine warmth and others of astutely observed behaviour with the sense of a continuum between childhood and adulthood increasingly evident. There is real energy at work to this. One scene involves Felix and his two siblings physically coming between their parents during a severe shouting match which travels from room to room until collapsing in a believable group hug of regret and exhaustion. It's not just the impressive choreography involved and the expert lensing but the question that arises in the viewer about what he or she would have done as a child in that situation. The paedophile's seduction of the boy is appropriately nauseating as it begins to take and the predator's power engorges.

But that's what this film cannot transcend, a group of serious and impressively managed scenes that hit their targets before flatly moving on to the next. There is an overall arc which ends in a poignant moment of affirmation but it left me shrugging. Why? Because this is cover version of early Michael Haneke. One take scenes, often with ostensibly neutral setups, sudden and puzzling use of sourced music, and the overall sense that the chief motivation for every action is pain. I'm not a fan of Haneke but I appreciate the effort he puts into adding real weight to his pieces, building dread with great competence. Here we have dread-shaped Lego blocks arranged in an appealing diorama. But it's still just Lego and we indulge it, perhaps even admire the skill involved. The problem is that where once it was just blocks, Lego developed into a vastly enabling library of figures and movable parts so that we expect the slickness. And the hobby kit arms race just promises greater authenticity while really only delivering more plastic lookalikes. Like this.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

MIFF Session #11: THE LURE

A group of friends are having an evening of song and drinking at a river bank. The heads of two beautiful girls pop up out of the water and deliver a song in shimmering harmony begging to be allowed on shore. One of the friends watches something offscreen and screams.

A high class club where the singer on stage is taking the band through a thudding rock version of I Feel Love. The wizened manager is brought back stage to see the two girls of the opening sequence in a dressing room. About to throw them out for being underage a sidekick bids him wait. He tells the  girls to disrobe and we see their strange genitaless bodies. The sidekick pours a glass of water over their legs which turn into huge fish tails. The club has a new act.

At first the mermaid sisters, Gold and Silver, take to their new lives with relish, enjoying the attention, the effects of their singing on stage and seem to have found their niche. But Gold cannot shake her carnivorous nature and goes hunting by night. Meanwhile, Silver has fallen in love and longs to be human. This can't end well.

A kind of Splash imagined by Andrej Zulawski or perhaps Little Mermaid directed by Jean Rollin, The Lure tells this story with a ready visual flare and a fine sense of sound. The musical numbers outside of the digetically staged ones rise from their scenes naturally enough and never jar. The performances seem fine throughout. And now I'm grabbing around trying to find what it is that left me unmoved.

And all I am left with is how repetitive it is with the club numbers and violence happening without a lot of development and some key loaded gun information placed too late in the narrative to be effective. This (I think this is the point I'm trying to get to) is because it feels like a short film padded into a feature with more of the kills and songs that made the first attempt at it so appealing. I don't know that this is true but it does feel like it.

That said, there is enough promise here in the imagination and delivery for me to want to see more from Agnieszka Smoczynska. Perhaps with a firmer hand on the bond between idea and its vehicle.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

MIFF Session #10: ALBUM

A prologue takes us through the insemination procedure at cattle farm and then the assisted birth of a calf. By the time we get to the humans after the titles we have an idea of what we need to know. Two middle aged couples of Istanbul, one very pregnant, take photos at local sights. At one point the pregnant woman confesses that the pillow she has under her dress is tickling her. Meet Cuneyt (he) and Bahar (she) a middle class infertile couple who need the installation of a family to take their place in society. The pictures they are taking will form an album that will testify to their efforts.

They travel to country orphanages to shop for a child, preferably a boy. They inspect a girl but, on examination, find her too unlike them in looks and thus too hard to pass off as their own. A second institution has the right one and so they are off. More photographic evidence and soon they are married with a child for all the world.

When a close encounter with crime puts them at the local police station they find the long arms of the information age reaching far too close for comfort.

This angry satire leans much closer to the violent minded tracts of Jonathon Swift than a Baby Mama or even a Happiness. Cuneyt and Baha are repellent. If we didn't already know that we would get it from the dinner scene, the one with the friends' visit and the one where the baby crawls to his delighted new mother's laughter which is actually being caused by the crass midday show she is watching. A scene where the baby, lodged between her adoptive parents in bed as they snore with their faces buried in pillows is not played for laughs, either. By the time we get to the final tableau and its immediate consequence we understand we weren't in this for the mirth.

There are laughs, quite a few but if stark absurdism leaves you cold you won't find them. The office workers sleeping at their desks, the contrasting unruly westernised classroom and later tightly disciplined one which is more traditional, the long and digressive interviews with authority figures are set up as social realism but are always too brittle to get there.

This tension between cinematic reality and convincing dreamscape is heavily reminiscent of Roy Andersson's films (e.g. Songs from the Second Floor). Mehmet Can Mertoglu's debut feature, however, drives further into the grimness of the path he started on. While Andersson will deftly retain hold of each thread for a stunning conclusion both humourous and terrifying. Mertoglu uses fewer threads and tightens them beyond movement. We are not afforded a relieving setpiece but a couple of photo poses (not stills) before an offscreen horror leads us to the credits.

I'm going to let this unsmiling comedy rest in my memory and see if it picks up a few points of forgiveness in time. For the moment I recall great power offered with an uncertain hand. I'll think on....

Monday, August 8, 2016


A disorientated young man is trying to recount a strange and violent time he has been through. He is an agent for the Iranian secret service and is being interrogated by a senior officer. We establish that we are still on the island he was sent to and will not leave until he has given a full account of what happened to him. He was sent to investigate the suicide of an exiled political malcontent (this is the Shah's westernised Iran of the 1960s) but quickly establishes that the scene is a covered-up murder.

The local secret service agent begs ignorance and urges him to take the body back to the village for burial before sunset. Why not bury him in the cemetery outside? Oh, sorry, they have gone to a huge valley which features a large cemetery built around an ancient wrecked ship. There is the matter of causing an earthquake by burying anyone there but whatever.... That night, the young officer staying in the ship where the deceased was living, tries to read the handwriting on the walls and soak in the vibe of the scene to start work on solving the murder. There's an earthquake.

Back in Tehran we're also back in the 21st century and listening to a series of talking heads discuss the case, including the director of this film whose real life father was a major figure in the Iranian New Wave back in the time of the opening scenes.

Confused? You won't be. This is on one hand, a highly enjoyable mystery somewhere in X-Files territory that evokes a localised Iranian lore and history and increasingly suggests the presence in the beautifully spooky valley setting of the great adversary Satan in the form of a subterranean dragon. It's the story of the dig to examine the possibility but it's also the story of a government determined to contain its secrets.

So much of Iranian cinema in the last few decades has come to the rest of the world as a series of statements about oppression and has developed its own genre as a tough kitchen sink realist school. While there is a presentation of documentary style here it is part of the greater style of the whole film, offered in contrast to the filmy epic look and sound of the recreated events in the Valley. In the end this, too is about political pressure but the secret is kept abstract. Is it an allusion to nuclear aspirations from the old regime, a primordial secret too awful to expose, or just a MacGuffin so we can talk about suppression? In the end it matters little and not because the film is slight - it is highly and constantly entertaining and atmospheric - but that the force of the narrative and performance stand so confidently by themselves. But then there is the final image which might address a more universal suppression. That won't be silenced, silent as it is.

Saturday, August 6, 2016


After a comic book prologue with two detectives discussing a murder case we open on a future Barcelona being evacuated due to nuclear threat. An academic who casually lets his wife leave without him, listens to a tape of his lecture about killers and victims being drawn to each other. Meanwhile a beautiful model, Gim, roams the streets through the cat calls of men to meet a friend. Here we see another woman inspect a steel object d'art in the shape of a fish. Pressing a button on it she finds it is also a switchblade. A group of young men but out Gim's image from a billboard and take it to their flat where they put it on the wall and dance to a looted jukebox. The academic delivers his lecture to a group of dozing or dead middle aged people and outside the murders continue.

I had kept myself from finding out too much about this one. Partly because I prefer to start as fresh as possible with a film but partly, also, as I had a sense it was a thriller in the school of 60s European exploitation cinema like the movies of Jess Franco or Mario Bava. Not so. By the time Gim's street suitors had increased in personal power from a young try hard to an older wolf to a sealed van broadcasting safety warnings which it abandons to proposition her (even trying to follow her up a set of steps) I began to understand that we were in for something very different.

If there seems to be too loose a weave with the different threads and the certainty that there will be no suspense and that there might be more thinking about thrillers than thriller substance. This is not to say that its aloofness from the genre makes it snootily academic. The near constant reversal of the male gaze alone as Gim moves through the near empty city is enough to make this 1965 outing compelling. From the predatory blind street beggar to the gang of fans gathered at the zoo and indistinguishable from the animal exhibits, we are given a tale of sexualised murder in which the perpetrators are more hunted than the victim. Bava's nastier films, and all of Argento's and Fulci's were not privy to the challenges of this one.

Fata Morgana is offered as part of the 60s Spanish new wave, films under General Franco's radar. The industry is an intriguing one giving us the bizarre Blind Dead series as well as Jess Franco's tough and bloody excursions. That this antidote to those was off the ground so early in the development is nothing short of faith creating.

Friday, August 5, 2016


Six men of what remains of the one percent in Greece spend time on a yachting holiday. As it draws to a close there is an administrative power outage. The friends play guessing games by candlelight which collapses into a petty dispute. Other games are suggested and rejected until one of them comes up with a high stakes contest that attracts everyone's attention. Why don't they compete for who's the best in general, whose teeth are cleanest, whose breakfast choices are the wisest, who is the best sleeper, who speaks the best and so on. The winner will be awarded a chevalier ring to be worn until the next contest. The lights come back on and they are served notebooks and pens. The game is on.

The next few days are mostly spent in conversation with one or another participants making notes openly. The expected penis length comparision takes place but so does a blood test and its results. There is a constant weave rather than an escalation which builds to a strange team approach to the constant competition that is both believable and pushed into absurdity. We are observing maleness but it's a maleness confined by a sense of civilisation and the old Cold War governor of Mutually Assured Destruction: any one of the players who broke into too much of a protest or an open attack would surely disqualify himself immediately. So the play is tense and subtle.

A Hollywood treatment of this would turn into a personal arms race ending with Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifiniakis aiming nuclear warheads at each other. But this is a movie by one of the people usually tagged with Greek Weird Wave in the tradition of Dogtooth or The Lobster. Labels are fun but really what we're seeing here is depth and observation. To understand that this behaviour would proceed without the context of the game is only part of our delight in watching it; the sense that the participants know this and use it as much as possible to their own advantage only adds spice.

Finally, these leaders of the community, formalising their natural competitiveness into the basis of what will surely be tighter and more serious contests in the future as the ring is contested each year, will only harden their sense of privilege. This time it was done with humour (constant, genuine, laugh-out-loud humour) soon enough even the humour will be part of the form and the game impossible to escape. It's this thought that stretches beyond the credits that this film has been forging from the titles. That's robust work.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

MIFF Session #6: COSMOS

Two young Parisians flee recent failure for a seaside retreat for some restorative time licking wounds, studying or playing with the local rough trade. The chosen hotel failing them they arrive at a guest house whose highly accommodating reception draws them in immediately. But appearances ....

Young straight aesthete Witold tries to study law but is constantly diverted by his own literary experience, seeing the essence of the books he's loved at every turn. The first lines of the film are him quoting Dante and the other event that changes him is meeting his Beatrice at dinner. The host family's daughter Lena is married to the beautiful but bland Lucien but the shuddering handshake between  Lena and Witold foretells a new direction for her.

At the dinner table we also meet the Mme Woytis who gets so excited that she freezes into a kind of narcolepsy. Her husband Leon whose bizarre mispronunciations can create wildly off topic discussions of their own. Catherette, the maid with a unnerving harelip which is actually an injury from a car accident. And, following on from the opening sequence in which Witold comes across a hanged sparrow in the woods, a series of strange atrocities appear in and around the house leading to a kind of clue trail for an off planet whodunnit. Where will they lead? This question will be answered and it will make a kind of sense but if it is narrative regulation you are after you have walked into the wrong screening.

Andrzej Zulawski, emigre from a Soviet era Poland, has always been his own filmmaker. When Tarkovsky declared that the two types of director were those who showed us the world we know and those like himself and Robert Bresson who invented their own. Zulawski has always been of the latter school showing us stories of human error and deep moral debt by means of a form of reality that only makes sense within itself but works for the adventurous viewer who will enter. You might not be able to describe confidently what you have seen after Possession, The Third Part of the Night or The Devil, but you will have been affected by them and will remain so long after the thunder of the last action movie you saw.

This, as it happens, has become Zulawski's swansong. He died earlier this year but saw this, his first feature in fifteen years win the direction award at the 2015 Locarno Festival. Big deal? Well, it's not that his films weren't good enough for Cannes or the Oscars it's that they stood well outside of their bounds. By choice. For all the wilful obscurity and sudden absurdist turns throughout its one and three quarter hour screen time I wasn't bored for a second. More, I was almost constantly diverted by a film that I was not going to fully comprehend. That is the power of someone for whom the good taste of his peers might be fun at lunch but vanishes as it must when he calls, "action!"

MIFF Session #5: KEDI

All this film had to do was show some cats. I would have copped that for one and a half hours with nary a complaint. But this is not just a film about cats. It's about an ancient city: Istanbul, once Constantinople. And it is about its people. And its cats. Oh, I said that already. Well, this film couldn't have been aimed more squarely at this worshipper of felinity and I enjoyed meeting the lot of them.

There is a status of cat in Istanbul that lies somewhere between stray and domesticated. These are the moggies we are to spend the most time with. They climb the vines and roofs of the classical city, beg at cafes, hunt in the drains, visit the homes of their many admirers, get picked on by other cats and sometimes perish because life on the street does that, too.

Here, you'll meet the fish thief, Psycho the overprotective spouse of the near identical tuxedo cat whose temptresses are warned off with violence and sonics, the market mouser, the cafe adopted by the local aristocat who claws at the window when he is peckish and gets served meals of an increasing fussiness. But you'll also meet the litters upon litters of kittens who in being saved by kindly humans can also save their benefactors who themselves know the hardship of wild life.

This wonderful documentary is a love letter to a city that stood at the centre of one empire for a millennium and its conqueror's empire for longer still. It's people are traditionally a mix of these forces and live as they can as the constant changes around them deliver challenges.

Between the city and its people are the cats, spurned or indulged, exploring gymnastically or gathering for their children. They are shown through the twinned skills of astute, muscular filmmaking and a deep knowledge of their nature. If you have ever loved a cat for its delightful and infuriating antics you will recognise everything you see here and it will oddly feel like seeing it for the first time. There is no depiction of violence to the animals (one is the victim of an attack not seen) but the sheer volume of the stray litters can only suggest that a sizeable number do not make it through.

But as Talking Heads once observed, cats prefer buildings to people and we see them luxuriating in the architecture of their beautiful city, snoozing, stalking or exploring with what one observer astutely calls their superpowers. The cats with names are listed along with the people interviewed in order of appearance in the end credits as we watch both move around a town so close to the origins of civilisation that it feels like archaeology verite. Pdrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


A young woman's voice over a shot of a gloomy day through an upstairs window tells us that since her accident she has felt numb and has taken to reading, idle browsing on the net and watching horror movies. It's the last activity that's got her thinking of "what they are and how they are made to take advantage of who we are". Having been through a horrifying experience in her life (a car accident which infrequently resurfaces throughout the narration) she begins to understand the processes of creating or nurturing fear in a viewer, the small print of the contract, why we sign the contract, sit back and get scared. Why do we keep going back to this state? What are we agreeing to when in it? Should we feel used even if we have enjoyed it?

The voice keeps to a narrow emotional range as it explores the cinema of fear. This never gets tedious. The visuals, apart from a framing shot at the beginning and the close, are entirely taken from other movies. These are almost exclusively horror and stretch from the generic to the outside margins. There are some non-horror sci-fi quotes (Gravity, Logan's Run) but this only directs us back to the theme of fear rather than genre cinema. The voice is Scottish, mild enough to be mistaken for North American. That's intentional.

The clips are seldom money shots, acts of gore or supernatural cataclysms. Quite often they depict moments of establishment or development detached from the payoff. The voice continues, often drawing out previously established points for rewording rather than development. This is never tedious. This is not a documentary and we are not relying on the voice for information but allowing it to suggest thoughts as a hypnotist might. We don't need to hang on the words. We can surface from the waves of our response as it plays to the screen and listen now and then. Soon enough, we understand that we have made another contract with this film as surely as we had with Suspiria or Ringu.

Are we listening to a first person account of a real traumatic event and its narrator's discovery of the machine inside the horror film? It stops mattering. The voice is less a narrator than a vocalist, commissioned, paid in full. She is an actor but her performance is an essay, describing in metaphor what we are seeing and then sometimes directly describing it. The coldness of the delivery doesn't allow us confidence in her the way we were happy to listen to Mark Cousins or Martin Scorsese talk about cinema. Her tale is lighted by the images of violence, gore, suspense and confrontation. If the extra score (also commissioned) swells louder than her voice we drift below it and wait for the next rise or fall.

The tension between the mesmeric control of the voice with its storm of visuals and your willingness to find a useful spot to digest it will reward you. This is expert editing and mixing. This is adventurous essaying. This is cinema about cinema which feels like cinema. Find it and play it. Play it again. It's your midnight movie and it knows where you live.