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.

Monday, August 1, 2016


In 1974 Florida television reporter Christine Chubbuck committed suicide on air during a news broadcast with a few words about TV news being ruled by blood and guts. Don't Youtube this; you won't find it. There is thought to be one copy in existence and that is kept under lock and combination. Whether true or not the notion that Paddy Chayefsky based his screenplay for the monumental Network on this incident has persisted. Why did she do it?

Kate Lyn Sheil, an intense New Yorker, travels to Sarasota Florida to find that out and prepare for her role as Christine in a film. She undergoes a slow and often pained metamorphosis, transforming herself into a figure whose witnesses are few and whose story is mostly a mystery. Before she gets to the brunette wig and brown contact lenses she digs into the locale and everything she can find that might give her an insight into the elusive ghost she is to make flesh. When the wig, brown eyes and spray tan go on and we get the intended finished film in glimpses, we set in for what feels like it is going to be a compelling ride. So why isn't it?

Because it never makes up its mind about what it wants to say or how to say it. I don't doubt Sheil's sincerity for a moment but her efforts are given such an evasive setting that even if we wanted to just follow her progress through the construction of this role we simply aren't allowed to. If the persistent fakeness of the wig never lets us accept Kate as Christine with a sense of conventional cinema we are never given an avenue to consider it anything but poor wardrobe. If it's meant to be a fourth wall breaker it's one that neither uses metaphor nor battering ram. The cold video look to the movie scenes and their frequent interruption by the cast as to the veracity of a line or its reading feel contrived rather than assured. Any intended comment on the blurred line between fictive presentation and history is smothered by what always just looks like soap opera outtakes.

Throughout this, Sheil's efforts to earnestly forge ahead and embody her character are repeatedly subverted by the sense that the big idea will be revealed and all will be well. A moment when she reads a Howard Beale rant from Network and delivers it with a studied weariness feels quite pure and poignant under the assumption that that film profited on the act examined here, that Chubbuck finally gets to read the eloquent lines that real life could not write for her. And then in the finale Sheil's intervention in the scene lets her deliver a freshly minted monologue of genuine power. It's scripted but compelling and fulfils the promise we've seen in the better moments of the previous hundred minutes that her intense conviction was nourishing a real performance.

Then we cut from this moment of power to an anticlimactic line which stretches into a needless end title sequence featuring the physical deconstruction of the role around the actor. We are no wiser than we were about Chubbuck's self-destruction. We have seen an actor's struggle with playing a historical figure with no history. Even the question that might have been central as to why bother making the film at all has not been substantially addressed. We are left nowhere.

Director Robert Greene fronted up for a Q and A session and managed to render all his answers to central questions into a rambling vagueness. At one point he dismissed the question of what was real or not as bullshit. Well, sorry, but if you're going to ask us to sit through one and a half hours of an essay (this is, despite all claims, not a documentary) which depends on its audience posing that very question, you'd better be prepared to front up and answer it yourself when your film doesn't.

I'll at least be on the lookout for the future roles of Kate Lyn Sheil.