Saturday, July 30, 2016


The surface of the sea from below. The sun is out and the water has a golden tint. We linger on it but don't mind as it's so restful. Then we follow Nicholas in red togs, swimming under water. He passes coral and marine vegetation of great beauty before happening on the corpse of a young boy like himself who has been decomposing on the rocks for what looks like months. In horror, Nicholas swims back to shore to tell his mother what he has seen. His mother has been cooking up a kind of blue mud with worms that might be noodles at the stove. She diverts Nicholas' claim of seeing the body and suggests he has imagined it.

The island where they live is peopled entirely by adult women and boys around ten years old. The women all have unnervingly smooth features with Scandinavian-style invisible eyebrows. We soon learn two other things about life on the island: the boys are all taking medication and there is a hospital with a single doctor and a platoon of nurses. Nicholas, like all the other boys, is subjected to medical treatment and tests. His curiosity also drives him to follow the women in their nightly rituals, forming a slow parade by lantern light out to the seashore. The dead boy from the opening scene is brought in from the waves. The boys get nosebleeds often. Some of them vanish never to return. There is a kind of ritualistic solemnity to the medical procedures. The lights of the operating table reflect in Nicholas' eyes like star fish.  This is the kind of life that needs not Twisties to compare itself to the straightness of the greater world.

Lucile Hadzihalilovic's second feature as director has both the same tightly reined weirdness and dogged pursuit of its initial promise as her first. Blending an extraordinary eye for cinema with an uncompromising commitment to tell her strange stories. Just as 2004's Innocence never surrendered to the dark fairy tale a more conventional treatment would have demanded, Evolution does not fall into a body horror plot. There is none of the young Cronenberg's fetishism here. It's more reminiscent of Kubrick with its even pacing and the functionality of scenes and tableaux. 

If anyone, though, I was most reminded of Matthew Barney. The sheer force of Barney's vision in the Cremaster films and their joyous completion of ideas that make you wonder if you saw of dreamed them is here, in more muted form. What you think is going to happen happens and keeps happening. The point is not the resolution of conflict but the carriage of certainty and its reporting in detached fashion that does not permit detachment from the viewer. This is a demanding film. Seldom has a running time less than ninety minutes felt so full and compelling. Please don't let another twelve years pass before this woman gets to make another film.


Renaissance Italy. A soldier returns to Bobbio after his twin brother, a priest, has died. If his brother committed suicide his remains must stay where they are in unconsecrated ground. If the monks of the local convent prison can prove that the nun they have jailed led the deceased to death through a pact with Satan then the bones can rest in the shadow of the church. What happens to the woman in question? Usual deal, she dies or she dies in varying extents of pain.

At first the soldier threatens the woman with his dagger. Then, having failed to emulate his brother's ascetic piety by virtue of his worldliness showing him how futile it was, he begins to identify with the prisoner. The case continues to its end and it is ugly.

Present day same location. The convent in disrepair is the object of a Russian billionaire's interest for development. The old aristocrat in residence who keeps himself in a Schrodinger-like state of non/existence and who might well be a vampire, opposes this move and tracks down the local official who is brokering the deal. We have seen the old Count before, in the convent, sage and senior but inactive. Here, he seems to be the same but, if immortal, just older. We have also seen the official, the soldier of the previous tale. Nothing is quite what it seems and we are led to a climax of strange and haunting imagery in which both stories are concluded.

I have to mention the use of digital video here because it's impressive. The antique story is shown with none of the usual filmy processing. The effect of the scenes with their strong painterly composition is that of what a Raphael or Titian saw while painting rather than the end result. The present day section is pointedly conventional in looks. Interesting.

There is a clear logic to each of these stories. No one will have trouble with the course of events. The trouble comes from trying to reconcile the two. At initial viewing, they seem to sit awkwardly beside each other as though introduced by a host who knows or cares little about the art of social blending. It's only with a few breaths on the stroll away from the cinema, that correlations appear and a kind of sense emerges. I still don't know what that leads to beyond a sense of retribution against entitlement but it's still with me. So, that's a good start to the ol' Fest, then.

Friday, July 8, 2016

MIFF 2016: New Fest New Approach

Yo, kinderoons. Sat time o' year again when I rug up in the ol' o'er coat, throw a woolly scarf 'roun' my neck and strut into the blast for two weeks o' cinema the great in August. Can't wait.

The fare this year is really on the up. I don't get a sense of any particular region or industry dominating or even forming a profile bump. You could pretty much throw a few darts at the program and pick your tickets that way.

That's almost how I'm going to do it, too. Instead of making 13 choices good and true for my mini pass I'm leaving it to the time to decide finally and make it more spontaneous. I'll probably end up adding a few but I'm also thinking I want this to be much more an infiltration rather than a big social charabang holiday. I want it close and reclusive.

So, this time I won't be posting any picks I've already made nor any I make on the day. Sorry to anyone who might have expected the big list but it just won't work with the approach I've taken and am looking forward to. The holiday has become a little routine o'er the last few years and I'd like to surprise myself. So, no offence to any who might take it but I'm doing as much of this as I can solo. Roll on, winds o' August.

PS - I'll be reviewing everything I see and doing the round up at the end, as usual. Just this time I won't know exactly what will be on it ;)  Strangely excited by that.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Do We Really Want Vinyl Anymore?

It's 1973 and Richie Finestra is about to sell his minor record label to German acquirers on the promise of it bringing the weight of Led Zeppelin. He's cleaned up his act, having dragged his young family through alcohol and cocaine excess and now is settling in to what looks like a comfortable middle age. Things go wrong almost straight away. Soon enough he's back on the bad stuff and rediscovering his wild beast as he sees a New York Dolls show so explosive it seems to bring the house down, literally. We get glimpses of where he's come from, the mafia connections, the blues guy he tried to popularise but had to sell to the mob. Now, with all this guilt and rapacious nihilism beckoning, we join him in the decade of decadance. so why isn't Vinyl any good?

First, the time travel tourism it falls into with a mix of composites (there's a Sly Stone alike who's actually pretty intriguing), anachronisms of convenience (hip hop style sampling shown at its birth) and actors playing historical figures like Robert Plant. This could work well but so much of it is laboured and indulgence-begging. The intended thrill of "hey, that's Lou Reed" does not progress further than the appearance of historical figures in music bios like The Doors or Walk the Line as namechecking.  The cockney-led band that look and sound like late '70s punks feel less like what is to be than a grab at a kind of retrospective prescience (hey, we knew about this stuff  back in '73). The era would be more compelling if we saw what we had to do without.

Second, Richie Finestra stands at the end of a long line of bad guy heroes who bellow with machismo and lumber into plot-thickening disasters of judgement. Like the mafia scenes his characterisation feels tired, like a nineteen year old whizz bang rocker churning out powerchords like Pete Townshend never happened. His identikit features, brutally handsome, sensitive but oafish, honorable but sneaky, with a ton of hooky vices to bring him down when the going gets a little too good. The extra here is a sense of vision he is supposed to harbour despite all the crassness of the music industry around him pressing in. But this vision all too frequently gets articulated as the kind of cliches that would make a fanzine blush. He's not a maverick of the record industry, he's a cover version, note perfect but not the real thing.

See, Tony Soprano had the chaos of a whole crime empire to contain while dealing with his own instability. Same with Nucky Edwards but the constant outbreaks of all out war and terrifying decisions wore him thin. Don Draper ground against his times that were a-changin' until, at rock bottom, he found a way of absorbing and exploiting them, learning very little in the process. But by the time we get to Richie Finestra the thing that sets in for me is exhaustion. He's a loser who, by all appearances, fully deserves to keep losing. It's very hard to watch this and not just because of the constant parade of failure. We've reached peak male psycho from US cable series. There's no turning back.

Third, if you look around Richie's thundering bulk you will see a whole cast of incompletely drawn but enticing characters whose stories, if awarded some lasting focus, could really get something done. The tiny but wonderful Juno Temple does so much with her upstart character Jamie that you want to drag her back into the room with every exit. She uses her frail physicality to emphasis her force. The story from her perspective, of lack of power striving to consolidate and triumph, is instantly more watchable than Richie's. Richie's wife played by the impressive Oliva Wilde, does enough with the trouble the story gives her, also to give more to viewers than the Finestral centre. Ray Romano proves there is life after mediocrity as the hapless Zak, colleague of Richie. Even Jack Quaid's Clark Morelle, a young Ivy Leaguer fallen on hard times in the mail room who explores the newly forming world of disco would give us a hotter centre. But what we get is more of the same. Bobby Carnavale who tries to inject Finestra with charm and charisma but is hampered by writing that keeps him snowed in, is an alumnus of Boardwalk Empire. He was the super bad guy of one of the seasons. It feels like he's just changed costumes.

Vinyl is the creation of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger, two figures I'd normally trust to tell the tale of the record industry in the '70s. But the problem is not that these two lack any insights into the setting and era, both lived there and did some of their very best work in that environment. The problem is that we're getting the perspectives of the present day versions of them. Scorsese has long abandoned the energy that kept his films so electric (why does Taxi Driver still feel new but The Aviator seem dated?) Jagger has seemed happy enough for decades to float on a reef of laurels, distant in every way from the greatness that his younger self so fiercely created. Vinyl feels old fashioned the way that Oliver Stone's The Doors or Sid and Nancy did when they were new, plugged full of cliche and indulgence. There's still an interesting story to tell here but it isn't that of Richie Finestra, the very lumbering relic that the punks on the distant horizon would name dinosaur. Look around him. Write there. Shoot there. And we'll be there.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Thoughts on the Scorsese exhibition

I knew the name before I saw a frame. Being a kid awed by movies in the '70s meant that you couldn't get in to see the good stuff. My mental image of The Exorcist was pieced together by what other kids were able to glean from individual scenes: it was a room full of chaotic shocks that didn't hold a story but were just there to terrify. That's almost a better movie. By the time Taxi Driver came out I had another one I had to make up myself.

My grown up sister came back from Babylon (Sydney) one Christmas holidays and reported that the film was so violent she had to walk out. Shaken, she'd sat in the foyeur waiting for it to end when her friends would come out. The usher grinned a sleazy grin and said: "oh, it gets better." Years later I understood that differently. It does get better. It heals. At the time all I could think was that it was a malevolent demon that waited in the gutter to grab your ankles.

I finally saw it as a film student at Griffith University. We had a cinema there but this wasn't being shown there. Someone told me to get up to the editing suite quickly and I did. Well, we did, there were a few of us. I first saw Taxi Driver on a Steenbeck editing desk. The picture was tiny but the Picture became gigantic in minutes. Those near two hours changed everything. At the pub afterwards we pieced together the standout dialogue (Sport and Travis, Travis's monologues, Marty in the backseat) and had routines to last us the rest of our lives. After graduation the well liked Dr. David Saunders approached us but as soon as he heard us doing Scorsese he turned and fled, hoping none of us called him back.

After that Marty didn't disappoint. Until. Everything from Cape Fear to now (apart from Bringing Out the Dead which I still admire but probably because it's old Marty) has left me flat. Sometime after Age of Innocence I stopped seeing new Scorsese films at the cinema and let them appear on free to air tv. I bought into the return-to-form nonsense on a few occasions but each time found myself apologising for someone who had really only done the decent thing by himself and sold out to the money, applying what he could of his art to the high profile.

So, what did I want from an exhibition of Scorsese? Hard to answer without an embarrassing pause. In the end I bought a ticket and took the escalator down to the ACMI underground hoping for nothing but a few artefacts as cruisey as my mood on that pleasantly chilly late autumn Friday off. Well, ok, a few risers of headless mannequins dressed in costumes and a lot of typewriter pages with scribbled pondering and corrections. These are pretty good but feel like they are there to flesh out the absent living subject.

Then here and there things do pop out. De Niro's Taxi driver licence that allowed him to drive a cab around New York for real in preparation for the role stopped me as I imagined him making chit chat with customers or weirding them out with edgy monologues. A wall of congratulatory letters and telegrams for Scorsese's efforts in film preservation is like an index of twentieth century film auteurs (including Leni Reifenstahl!) which feels like a boyhood fantasy that came crashing out of Marty's daydreams.

The commentary comes through your phone's wifi and can take a few stuttering starts to get going. But its works ok once that's done. You see a number on the exhibits and press that on your app and listen. Marty's own clipped and tight tenor takes you through a lot of it but there's also his long time editor Thelma Schoonmaker and actor Rachel Griffith to voice you through. I listened to a few of these but gave up relying on it due to the clunkiness.

What I noticed as I walked through and the family portraits turned into artefacts of a nascent film career (pieces and tales of Boxcar Bertha and Who's That Knocking at My Door?) and they turned into the eventual leap into the mainstream and, for me, the end of Martin Scorsese as an auteur of interest. I know, I sound like an undergraduate snob but really all I'm doing is drawing the line between the movies that grab me and the ones that don't.

Everything has exceptions but there are so few in the post Cape Fear timeline of Scorsese that I always have to struggle to remember what they are. Scorsese, like Woody Allen, has been given the return-to-form award for almost everything from the mid-'90s onwards. This means that from that time even his most loyal critics feel they have to apologise for him. I stopped after Cape Fear and stopped seeing everything by him at the cinema after Casino.

So the exhibition for me took on a kind of special plead after about the halfway mark. Almost everything in it was of some interest it's just that when it was associated with a film I'm indifferent to I concentrated on the point of the detail or the anecdote rather than associating it with the flickering worth of the title. I began to speed up at this point but then I realised I'd missed a section behind a wall and backtracked.

The area that celebrates Scorsese's close relation with music and his masterful use of it in his films. This room is the usual whirl of screenings on one wall and exhibits in cases. But it is here that I smiled at Bernard Hermann's manuscripts for the score of Taxi Driver. And then I saw the thing, the real thing, the thing that more than even the artefacts from some of my favourite films. There in a corner was a small red box with a clasp. In it were two rows of tabbed filing separators marked with numbers and on top of this was a sheaf of typewritten lists of every one of the vinyl 45s in the collection. This was from Marty's childhood. These thin black discs in their original paper sleeves had blasted pictures into the little cosmos behind the eyes he closed in passion as he listened. The doo wop and the jazz, the rock and the warbling arias collected here with the retrievability of anything at the New York Library. It was here that the steel trap recall and the songs and riffs that gave him such vision met. This, for me, was the artist Scorsese. Actually, better than that, this was Marty.

It was a cold day outside. I had the day off and it was still morning. Cold but gleamingly clear. Great walking weather. I went to the Kino and saw a movie.