Thursday, December 28, 2017


Two kids against a purple wall. A scream off. They respond. This keeps up until the third gets there and tells them to follow him. They do, running past huge cartoon heads, balloons, fruit and great splats of colour, all shops, to a landing of the purple place they live in, the project of the title, where they spit on the car below. The owner comes out and yells at them and they return fire with adult turns of phrase that aren't so much cute as worrying. They disperse. The girl runs back to her motel room where her mother Halley, almost entirely tattooed and green haired, is on the bed gazing at the tv. When the manager knocks because of the spitting a few minutes later, Halley shouts at her daughter to get the door. She has reasons for not answering it herself.

Halley manages the day to day hanging by a thread as she scams, does tricks or just begs her way through the days. The rent is always due and it's always too much. Meanwhile her daughter Moonee runs amok, leading any other kid she can find to cause mischief. But this film makes it clear that children with their nuclear level energy are pushing their own knowledge with each new experience more potent a lesson than anything in the classrooms they will soon be entering. They hangout at the swamps or the abandoned housing projects, all with names of dashed hopes like Magic Castle or Future World. It's Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World. But Disney World is over the road which is lethally busy, the cars speed thickly, their roofs like the fins of sharks. From a pad nearby a helicopter seems constantly taking off, carrying those who can afford it into the sky like a rapture for the one percent. Halley and Moonee give it the finger at one point. The July 4th fireworks from Disney World are spectacular, even seen from the damp grass of the swamp.

This day to day plotlessness is made compulsive movie going through the sheer boldness of its presentation. We don't have to work too hard to know the irony of all the candy coloured poverty but neither are we beaten about the head by it, that's simply what life looks like here. The persistent aural reminders are the same with kiddy pop and cartoon soundtracks on televisions that stay on when everyone's asleep. And the tension between the ugly acts of grown-ups and the gormless disasters of the children's play commands us: it's a system but it's always on the edge of snapping.

And it's the performers. Bria Vinaite as Halley goes from sweetness to cozening to outright horrifying as she swings between survival and an unrestrained sense of injustice that hasn't developed past her childhood. Brooklyn Prince as Moonee is only anything but natural when she's trying to be a grown up and then she seems heart-rendingly aware of its futility. Her dialogue and that of the other kids, especially when together never drops from natural, never sounds scripted. The film's thread of the elastic boundary between life and its violations is dependent on the direct identification we are forced to make between the wildness of the children and the only partially guarded chaos of their parents. Each moment feels precarious, each happy laugh a second away from a scream.

Presiding over this or what little he can control is Bobby the manager. Willem Dafoe whose intensity has taken him from roles as Jesus, to the chaotically violent Bobby Peru, to a recreation of Max Schreck as Nosferatu and beyond, seems to bring all that experience and the rest of the hemisphere on his shoulders as he keeps as much of the chaos on his watch from exploding beyond its bounds. Is he a little too good? Maybe, but if so it's the character rather than the performance which fills the gaps of any under-drafting with what feels like a very muscular concern for those around him. His scene with a freezingly banal paedophile demonstrates this: he knows he can't stop the man from invading anywhere else but uses a telltale detail found on the predator's driver's licence to buy a little time because that's really all that can be believably done about anything on that side of the road.

Taking in the sustained power of this film I was reminded as I might have been of John Cassavetes' often brutal naturalistic style, adopted from Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave. The unflinching and knowing eye coupled with the confident direction of the actors to keep themselves grounded in documentary realism is there for anyone to compare. But I was also taken by the direction of the children and the realisation of their secret world and how it reminded me of a favourite from years ago, Beasts of the Southern Wild. While never attempting the magical realism of that piece, The Florida Project's joy in examining the seriousness of children's play is as rich as it is in Beasts which is a tribute I'll happily part with.

And then, as the worst of the threads wind tight and the inevitable teeters to its crash in these lives we find a moment of magnanimity and even love that lifts us like children to its warmth. It's the sole moment with scored music and feels as manipulative as you might imagine but it is so perfect for what you need after the rest of the film that you simply don't care about that. Strong candidate for best of the year.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


Tommy and Greg meet at a theatrical audition in San Fransisco. Greg fenceposts his way through a scene from Beckett. Tommy storms through the iconic "Stella!" moment from Streetcar. They pair up as potential acting buddies. Moving to L.A. they fail steadily until the inspiration strikes and Tommy decides that the only way out of the vicious circle is for them to make their own movie. Using Tommy's apparently bottomless pit of money they buy equipment, hire crew and cast actors and off they go to make a film that has become the world's current champion of cinematic rubbish. Through this we get Tommy's erratic mood swings and exhausting delusional behaviour and a premier that would crush the thickest-boned film director in history. This is a true story. Or is it?

Writer/director/star James Franco doesn't seem to mind. He fashions a polished account of the psychological maelstrom that created a film as a vanity project, beginning with a series of recognisable Hollywood figures attesting to the phenomenon of the film, The Room, before plunging into an imagined origins issue. Sometimes going for the laugh, sometimes starkly mocking, sometimes appreciative of the effort, Franco never gets close enough to his subject to find any single anchor point from which to float any comedy, drama or any substantial development. What we get is very little more than the late night screening audience's responses of the original film.

This is the problem. My reservations about the film were from a worry that the young and confident Franco, a contemporary Hollywood winner, would spend his screen time punching down. But who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? Well, he does. Beyond the merest smudge of recognition that Wiseau might have serious problems Franco goes for the jugular in the hope that it's close enough to the funny bone to grab some collateral laughs so this can be both a pisstake and an earnest tribute to force of personality.

Comparison's with Tim Burton's Ed Wood are impossible to ignore. Burton took pains to tell us how, for all his risible missteps and gormless optimism, Ed Wood at least wanted to make good films and had ideas about how to do that. Cast above reality as a kind of bright lesser god we had no problem seeing the admiration at the heart of the laughter. If you watch Plan 9 or Glen or Glenda without expecting a laugh fest you will see real movies in there, ineptly executed but made for real. Burton also gives as perspective with a fictitious meeting between Wood and the genuine film god Orson Welles who, drinking in defeat, lets Ed know that the problems in cinema Olympus can be as niggling and infuriating as they are down there on Skid Row. James Franco gives as a Saturday Night Live sketch stretched wincingly over an hour and three quarters, ignoring the opportunities already in the screenplay (e.g. that Tommy would make a better villain than romantic lead) that might have led him to create something more powerful and profound with the forces of avowed fiction.

I went to a screening of The Room with a friend who had been to several. It began at midnight and we took our seats after arming ourselves with a bag of plastic spoons handed to us by the ushers. Lights down and the session started, the titters starting with the name of Tommy Wiseau on almost every credit. And then from the first scene on the heckles stormed from the audience. Every time a set of decorative spoons appeared on screen there was a rain of plastic spoons aimed at it. At first resistant I joined in, really finding it funny, throwing spoons, the lot. I laughed till it hurt.

But what did I find funny? The Room is a poorly made movie with a serious error in judgement every few minutes. Poor acting, bizarre action blocking, a narrative that lifts and falls like an autumn leaf in winter and an overall dreariness that saps the lifeforce of any of its audience members. In the crowd I succumbed willingly, joining the tidal response the way that Winston Smith is caught up in the shouting during a Hate Week screening in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Everyone would. If you didn't you would suffer the worst spite alienation since that time at primary school. If you watched it alone you wouldn't laugh; you would turn it off after a few scenes from annoyance or boredom something similarly oppressive. The midnight screenings of The Room are neither film appreciation nor interactive like Rocky Horror sessions, they are the Bear Pit and the Orwell Hate Week of today. To be in that crowd is to join the purgative good taste that Picasso correctly warned us was the chief enemy of creativity, a philistinism that shouts as deafeningly and laughs as woodenly as only norm-seeking cutlural explosions can: it brings us back the great middling void and from there we get to guffaw openly at this lame little misstep. When I checked Youtube for phonecam clips of midnight screenings I heard every single taunt I'd heard at the screening, each last one learned by rote and uttered as though fresh, night after night.

James Franco does not convince me that he's doing anything more than repackaging the mediocrity of these screenings, getting a chance to double the fun by playing the delusional narcissist at the phenomenon's centre with an accent as perfect as the wig. He can find none of the meaning Tim Burton found in Ed Wood and is left with another syllable correct heckle refined from a Youtube moment. And, really, when the warmest and most satisfying moment of your feature length film happens after the credit sequence it's time to reassess the expense of your time and effort.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


Stephen is a middle aged surgeon who meets teenaged Martin in secret. Their relationship feels parent and child and extends to Stephen giving Martin an expensive watch as a present. Their conversation is stilted, as though they've only recently met, but also hints at a deeper intimacy. Martin begins to encroach on Stephen's work and then home life, drawing invitations from Stephen that have the ring of extortion.

Home life feels bourgeois, the couple, both doctors keep their tobacco habits from each other while the teenage daughter and tween boy appear to behave as we might expect, with both age appropriate sensitivity and difference clearly on show. Not an idyll by any means but vulnerable. This is where Martin enters as plot driver as he reveals the plan we have been waiting for from the first scene.

I won't spoil this but will say that this is the point where the film shifts from a kind of stylised realism to a gritty kind of magical realism. Whatever we are to make of Martin's power we can clearly see the effects and are compelled to follow the desperation of the characters to its ghastly end.

Lanthimos builds his world carefully, allowing us only enough empathy with the central characters to keep up but releasing enough when it matters to have us on the edge of our seats. The sense of threat and potentially explosive violence is constant. But the sinews of seduction within this horrifying tale serve to inject a vein of nauseous upset. The perfectly cast Barry Keoghan has a Max Cady's expertise with a smooth turn from gormless simpleton to unsettling manipulator. His steel blue calculation forces the conversations his own way. Sometimes that's the conquest of the daughter of the house and sometimes that's a perfectly turned threat to the parents.

Colin Farrell has a difficult task under a massive bush of beard and his deadpan Dublin lilt. His personal fortress is only that deeply walled and his surprise at Martin's success results in a palpable struggle with his own ethical sense. Nicole Kidman plays an older version of her role in Eyes Wide Shut, an American royal with a keen eye on the preservation of her realm. Sunny Suljic plays the kind of boy on the verge of bursting adolescence that we saw in Todd Solondz's best early efforts and Raffey Cassidy brings a hear rending vulnerability to her teenage girl longing for life beyond the home beautiful. However, the one I'll mention in dispatches here is the one I took a few ticks to identify. Martin's mother, in an excruciating scene of arranged seduction, pushes herself toward Stephen with the wiles of a mature woman but the compulsion of a teenager. I couldn't work out hwo it was until she grinned. It was a nervous grin but it flashed like a photo ID. Alicia Silverstone, still golden and energetic has reached from Clueless to this grinding horror with a commitment that leaves her pathetic as a character but brave and prepared as an actor.

This film is oddly more difficult than it's more fanciful predecessors as it keeps the alien force at its heart pumping solidly, making the already strained realism of the first act unnerving. That is why I will keep buying a ticket with his byline and it was the same in the eighties and nineties with David Lynch: I just had no control over what I might see and it scared me and I would much rather be scared by a risk taker than watch a logically perfect genre piece. I like popcorn movies but I love ones that make me think about what I'm buying a ticket to. The weird and the wonderful, the terrifying and the bleak, at their best lure me with the same kind of heart we see naked and pulsing in the opening shot of this film.

Friday, November 24, 2017


Teenage boy Fin spends his days deep in nature, stealing to the forest surrounding his town, collecting butterflies and imagining himself being lifted to the clean rustic light by hordes of them. He also daydreams lying with his inert mother on a picnic blanket as pixelated leaves cover their bodies. Today his departed mother would have been a year older and Fin creates a shrine of candles and pictures at an altar carved from a tree. Back home, his father Al beds one of his students.

One day Fin stops on his ride home from school at the sight of a display case left for the taking outside a house. He makes a mental note to come back for it but is cut short when he looks up at the window of the house to see a beautiful woman swathed in a stylised butterfly costume. We've already seen her in the opening credits, an ageless Melissa George gliding through a burlesque routine in slow motion. Now she's here. Fin tears himself away and rides home. Cut to the upstairs room. The woman is performing for a camera. Reverse shot; it's an autoshutter. This is not the glamour of a photo shoot. It's a lone woman in a costume taking selfies.

The next day, having discovered that Al and Fin maintain an arm's-length worth of ice between them, we see Al stop at the same house and note the display case. Al's thinking of his son but is surprised by our butterfly dancer Evelyn. A lightly flirtatious conversation later, she helps him put the case in the boot of his car and they make a platonic-sounding date for cake the next morning (she has already refused his impulsive invitation for a ride in his convertible). So, guess who else is in love.

Fin meets her face to face, is shown a flame red rare blossom which resembles an idealised vulva which he is told to get close to (Evelyn had traded burlesque for a florist business). She empowers him with a film camera (as opposed to a digital one) and he delightedly uses it on her. He also swipes a few cartridges which he correctly guesses are from her topless self portraiture before. Al, struggles to wrest himself from his dodgy affair (his student racks him in class with an embarrassingly candid poem about "fifty plus lust"). He realises his mistake with the affair but has not counted on his student's ardour. He takes up the offer of a morning tea date. Fin goes to Evelyn's as well. Evelyn's violent ex pays a visit. Things are getting mixy.

Ok, that's far more plot than I'd usually put in a review but there's a reason for that. What have you imagined from those details? A quirky love triangle with a father and son rivalry? A poignant comedy about growing up? A fable about grief and healing? Well, it's all and less. This frequently sumptuous film piles its buffet plate so high that the lime jelly with cream is being crushed by a square of lasagna, itself flattened by some cucumber salad.

The nature boy thread works as long as Fin remains naive but his worldliness appears as smoothly as a lounge singer during a sequence which only barely makes it into fantasy territory. Also, we don't see him at school. Fine, he's solitary and in tune with the trees but a little, just a little of how he handles the difference between the severe judgement of fellow teenagers might give us more to support him with. The one exception is the girl at the chemist. She provides some real adolescent warmth which he is blind to (as he believes he's in with a chance with Evelyn).

Al is either aware of the dodginess of his affair or just wants to escape the threat of peer judgement. He is given scenes that might have lent him some explanatory pain but instead have him rejecting the student clumsily. If you don't find yourself wanting her to slap him senseless and storm off screen for a real life then you shouldn't be going to movies. This renders him into a precious moper that not even his soft edged son becomes. At a twisted point in the plot Fin performs a punishing act against his father which is given an energetic treatment and funny music but is followed up by a disproportionately grave retaliation (I wondered, as I watched, if what happened wasn't in some way cleverly staged and would earn a disclaimer in the credits). So, is it a comedy, a dark coming of age or ... or what?

We're left with Evelyn herself, a  role given the best performance of the film by a seasoned actor clearly enjoying a decent role in a local film. It is a treat to hear her flint-glass voice shaped by its native accent (kudos here, also, to some confident dialogue which sounds genuinely Australian with nary a cliche in a line). Her fall from the glamour of the stage to a point below her new life in a house blooming with life and colour is told with real emotive power. Yet we are being asked to care about a pair of increasingly narcissistic monsters more.

The reason that Harold and Maude works on everyone and Wes Andersons shallow copies of it don't is because Ashby put into his masterpiece a pedal note of mortality audible beneath the heartiest of the laughter. We never get too much of Maude's hippy pontification because we suspect she has escaped from darkness. Her refulgent affirmation of life collides with the decades younger man's churlish ennui and, always, under every line or move, the big black grind of death and concentration camps. Nothing is too sudden. If grief there be it shall be without needing to beg our indlugence.

The Butterfly Tree is more like Wes Anderson in that it doesn't commit to its own themes until it has to. We don't quite know why we are expected to offer Al any empathy. Fin seems to get treasures without working for them. In the midst of this is a woman who struggles against her own narrative's capsule to give us something to care about and when she confronts her worst we are swept away to the thing we should have been far more curious about from the first scenes. It's poignant but it's sudden. It's grave but it's not surprising. It has precedent but it feels like it's come from out of nowhere. The revelation is well staged but we know we won't be caring as much as we should about it when the next scene starts. And we don't. After a feature length running time we watch the construction of the harmonious end the way we might watch an origami master fold a sheet of A4 into a swan.

This is a shame as The Butterfly Tree is one of the most gloriously beautiful new films I've seen for a long time. But the most glowing magical realism must be balanced by mortality. Mortality is at the centre of these themes. The task of meeting grief on the field and surmounting its challenge is a universal one. Could we have seen, instead, the colour and the gleam in service of the colourless dark? Maybe next time.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017


Time loop stories are redemption stories. The protagonists are forced to understand themselves through repetition, allowing them a luxurious self-reflection that no one gets in real life. In this one a female uni student is murdered at the end of the repeated day. She has to solve her own murder to stop it and get to the next day. This can't go on forever; each time she wakes some of the effects of the previous murder remain with her, giving her two clocks to beat.

This is told with the big colour palette of a teen movie and is led by the bright and electric Jessica Rothe who reveals her core bitchiness in the first scene of the film by doing no more than opening her eyes. She brings a speed, physicality and lightness to the role which does a lot to fend off the fatigue of the repetition, developing from bewilderment through opportunism, terror and some light but genuine poignancy. Tone her performance down a hair and it will plod, tone it up and it will exhaust; a Goldilocks performance.

There might be a laboured moment here or there from the supporting cast but the pace is sustained and the running time kept to a civilised ninety-six minutes. What else can be said? The director does comedy and suspense with equal confidence, blending the two and serving some fun twists using both. More than just the resemblance between Rothe and a young Sarah Michelle Gellar and the smartarse dialogue this has the same feel as a good Buffy episode before the series started getting weighty.

Earlier this year there was Before I Fall with a similar premise where an alpha chick rolled around the same day avoiding her own death and coming to understand the worst of what she was. The sombreness of that piece make it seem compared to this like a remake of Groundhog Day by Paul Thomas Anderson. Really, though, the tales are basically the same it's just that the treatment of it in the earlier film comes from sober experience (though its narrator is younger) and the latter has a bitchy energy that doesn't stop to trample the roses. Be an interesting double bill.

So why should you see something that implicates you in its Groundhog Day premise yet again? (That film and its star are namechecked with very funny results, btw.) No reason except that it keeps to its plan with enough style and vigour and lets you just sit back and take it. Sometimes a choctop is just a choctop and I looooove choctops.

Monday, November 6, 2017


There is no like on Instagram. Facebook has long added the sophistication of grades or reasons for liking a status. You can be sad or angry or add flavour to your like with a big red heart. On instagram there's just the heart or nothing. The prologue of this satirical fable takes us on a whirlwind course a woman runs from a few hearts to a violent wedding invasion. Cut to a few months later, Ingrid, the invader, gets out of psychiatric care and finds that her mother, whom she nursed to the end before her meltdown, left her a small fortune. That's why it's a fable, big barrier out of the way. So, when she reads in a paper magazine about the newest Instagram star, Taylor, and her fixation engine revs like a top fuel car she does what it says in the title, renting an impressive apartment in L.A. and going on full stalk until she makes contact. This is on the strength of a couple of return hearts from Taylor.

If you know her work and I tell you that Ingrid is played by Aubrey Plaza you might get a good idea of how this will play out. Hold that thought. As fortune (really, sheer creepy guile) has it Ingrid finds a way to throw herself into Taylor's inner circle and gets enough of a chance to show her real life heartability that the pair are soon friends for real, Ingrid folding herself into Taylor's marriage and realm. Ingrid's nurture of the connection, a blend of invention and petty criminality, tells reassuringly that achieving this goal seems to be giving her shaky self-esteem a promising boost. Then comes the fly in the ointment: Taylor's brother, a kind of drug monster from the one percent, provides the kind of combustible threat that Ingrid feels all too keenly and from that point things start getting a tad noir.

Rather than the upward mobility aspired by a Mildred Pierce Ingrid easily prefers something more like outward mobility, a mini cosmos of smartphone applause, hearts and followers. This is why the theme of this one doesn't stop at identity hunger of something like Single White Female (namechecked for completeness in the dialogue) and shows us through the riches of what might as well be the approval of the population of the Milky Way, and what lies beneath such a claim when the flesh and blood behind the #nofilter beauty of the life on screen has to account for itself for real. The horror of this is played under the comedy but seethes beneath the air kissing, smiles and California cool.

Given the skills of the two leads, what might have struggled as satire gathers strength through confident character study. Plaza minus her deadly deadpan schtick and Olsen light years away from the traumatised or innocent she has played make this work and work the way it needs to. Social media is both young enough but worn enough to still be prey to a starker satire than this but the aspirations that motivate it are on display here. Plaza's Ingrid is constantly struggling to achieve a point where this is normal for her and finding the means to keep her persona and her real anxiety-ridden self at least fluid is a feat. Her near constant selfie taking is from both of these points and can be as pitiable as it can funny. Elizabeth Olsen as Taylor lets us see the fragility of Taylor's ascended self that seems a forced pealing laugh away from a course of Xanax. We will see something of her real face and the moment is quiet and dark.

The laughs keep coming and most of the them are recognition humour (Ingrid redrafting the closing of an Instagram post until forced to something remote but easy has a warm familiarity) but the performances of a smart and well directed screenplay allow for a lot of subtlety we might not expect from a film that plays the satire hand from the word go. There is a very funny take on Chekov's loaded gun rule, and some well turned parallels between fan fiction and social media fandom (and the perceived hierarchy in the difference) that attest to the ideas on show here but nowhere does this tale get more gutpunching than the second-thought demanding final shot. Is it a happy ending? Is it the first image of a nightmare? Turn your phone back on when you leave the cinema (you DID turn it off, didn't you?) and notice where you go first.

Friday, October 27, 2017


The cast of Raw share a joke on set.

This year my Halloween list is going special. Instead of imagining different scenarios from popcorn flinging giggle fests to rituals of the rare, or offering the best of different subgenres etc this time I'm suggesting you slyly insert something unlike any of the others in the lineup, something of its own tribe (that's what sui generis means) and see what happens. I can't imagine running all or even a few of these back to back but inserted between a James Wan cattle-prod fest and an '80s slasher would only enrich the evening. These are not all obscure (some are on VOD) but all are in significant ways their own films. These are the movies that go to parties to stand in the corner and watch everyone else all night.

KAIRO (PULSE) (2001)
An apocalypse of loneliness spreads quietly, bleeding out from dark web ghost rooms, rendering its victims into stains on walls or swirling clouds of ash. Kyoshi Kurosawa was to continue beyond generic bounds to using horror tropes for more philosophical ends. I miss the one of this film and its time; it's effective bleakness (and others like Cure or Seance) put him firmly in his own tribe (they weren't even generically J-horror). His going nice left a gap in Japanese cinema. Once available on local DVD.


A mother fighting a messy divorce settlement struggles to normalise her life with her daughter and does ok until a terrifying ghost has other ideas. One of my favourite ghost stories of all time. Do not mistake this for the English language remake. This is a Japanese film. Once available on DVD locally but now, who knows? I've still got my old Hong Kong Region 3 DVD which is outstanding quality but trumped by the Arrow Blu-Ray which came out last year.

Set in Tehran in the years immediately following the Iranian revolution of 1979. Does to state religion what Dark Water did to gender oppression and, like that masterpiece, doesn't forget to be a horror movie. The shock scene is one of the best I've seen and it's worked for ... hard. Available on Netflix.

RINGU (1998)
Perhaps less obscure than some in this list due to its more famous U.S. remake. The remake adds about twenty minutes of time wasting exposition and clods the ending with a lot of cliched pop video editing and dated-before-it's-finished CGI. Still can't decide? Do you know how you can test the strength of a pop song by singing it with a single instrument and hearing if it still works? Consider that every single effect, including the unnerving finale, of Ringu could have been done in the silent era. Only on DVD anywhere. The local release is ok (assuming you can find a copy) but the best one is the Region 1.

The twist in this one is heralded early and obviously. That it courses toward that moment obscures what lies beyond that which is a yearning that should send serious chills. It dispenses with its own generic traits like stages of a Saturn rocket and, like all the best horror, grips a core of petrifying sadness. You'll have to do a little deduction or it really will look like a failed genre piece. On Stan.

Sideshow exhibit, the somnambulist Cesare, is let loose upon a village. Mayhem ensues but are we getting the full story? Can't hack silent movies? Well, not only does this clock out at only an hour and a quarter and was made with a visual style that still wows everyone who sees it (do an image search on the title) it would remind its native Germany of what she went through soon after. So many releases available locally and all pretty good. As this is an ancient silent feature it's almost better to watch it low quality but try and find the best available.

Debut feature of a team who are getting more confident and interesting about their peculiar path through the Lovecraftian shadow world. Here, meagre means are used sparely to allow a big idea to sprout, grow and bloom. You will not see the ending in advance even though it was in front of you for most of the screen time. Hail Benson and Moorehead. If you can't find this you might like the same team's Spring (SBS on Demand).

Mario Bava could make hard left turns from his atmospheric crime thrillers (look up Giallo) and explore some strange places but never more strange than this oddity about a man investigating murder in a small village haunted by a luminous girl on a swing. Atmosphere you could serve as its own soup course and some moments so tastily weird they look like the red room sequences from Twin Peaks decades later. Was available on local DVD in the '00s. Now a region B Blu-ray.

RAW (2016)
A tale of corrupted purity that doesn't just delight in the virtuous vegan heroine becoming ravenously carnivorous but plunges into uncharted waters and keeps its nastiest trick to the final shot. Intense and compelling it clocks in at under ninety minutes and wastes nary a one. While never really explicitly gorey there are scenes that this ol' horror fan could only stare at. The eye popping is happening in front of the screen, here, not on it. Chuck this into a mainstream mix and see if anyone wants to giggle. Currently available on demand at SBS.

AMER (2009)
A very strange piece which begins as a kind of cover band for European horror or giallo but plays its own game as a girl grows from a childhood in a Suspiria like mansion, through some Jess Franco style interplay to an all out Fulci slice and dice finish. Near plotless but utterly compelling. Place it after a something popular and worn (but fun). Can be talked over but that won't last too long if anyone's paying any attention at all. Brief but bursting. On Stan.

ONIBABA (1964)
Always a little iffy including this in horror lists as it's much more of a folk tale with grim elements. However, the central story of predation and morbid jealousy in the low visibility world of the riverside rushes gives it an irresistible atmosphere. One of my favourite films ever. Not released locally. Find if you can.

MARTYRS (2008)
Different phases with their own styles make this one a tough recommendation but all of the shifts are warranted as we find out more and more of the central situation. Curiously, as the on screen violence decreases in the second half the sense of something far more horrible at work grows. The control is the fearsome thing and the very end is a gut punch. Mark Kermode called this film "a very rough ride". He wasn't kidding. Be warned. Local DVD and Blu-Ray.

Like a feature length Australian Story but with its initial chills questioned only to reveal worse things beneath them. The interviews feel natural (they were lightly controlled ad libs) and a great deal of creativity went into the stock of evidence presented. The eeriness builds as we feel we know less and less about the story the more we are presented with. A great Australian film. Local DVD and some streaming services (do a search)

COLIN (2008)
Colin is a zombie like all the other ones shuffling along the streets of London. His family want him back, back at home but also back the way he was. Well, they do their best. The rainy day video realism is the trump card here as we get a sense of what it really might look like if we started degrading into shuffling consumers of brains. Oh wait.... Loach does Romero and it works. Local DVD release but can't vouch for the availability.

From survivor guilt to the sleep deprived world of the single parent with a child who worries other children and a book that turns from romper room gothic to living nightmare, The Babadook runs a gamut. Essie Davies carries centuries of care wear on her shoulders as her lines of communication with her son erode. Restlessly creative and durable. Don't go by the point-missing trailer, just watch the movie. Streaming on Netflix.


A beautiful animated intro tells us that Suburbicon is a housing estate that offers the best of white '50s America, bringing young families with shining smiles from all over the map which, if the title didn't already, tells us that this is satire. The jolly postman of the opening scene stops dead at the spectre of a black family moving in and a town meeting turns Klannish. Meanwhile a young family led by Matt Damon as a solid white-collar and twin Julianne Moores is held under the thumb of two gangster types who have some sadistic fun before tying everyone up at the kitchen table and knocking them out with chloroform. Next thing, the mother's dead, there's a steadily mounting race riot brewing and Matt and the surviving Julianne are up to something that's starting to look bad.

The fifties shot to look like today, a noir with lawns, and a host of squeezy situations designed to stress the nicest people into crime: is anyone else thinking Coen brothers? You should as they wrote it with director George Clooney who shot it like one of their genre-bending zingers. Well, that's true only to a point as this film squanders each of its well-turned parts by failing to manage them beyond simple assembly. This makes it nothing like Clooney's earlier helmings like Goodnight and Good Luck or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind which, for their flaws, delivered on their claims.

The opening promises a pleasantly heavy handed ironic tone but this is abandoned. The boiling racial conflict promises a massive action setpiece tightly entwined with the central thriller but the two narrative forces might as well be in different movies. Some strongly telescoped devices (including one of Chekov's loaded guns) are anti-climactic to the point of deflating whole scenes. By the time we get to a neatly staged Hitchcockian irony we are beyond caring. And that's the problem.

We get to spend a lot of time with Damon and Moore, together and apart but never get close or warm to them. The hand played about their characters is spent too early and is afforded no development. Clooney has fun subverting this convention or that but, like the depressurised loaded-gun moments, too much feels like late night writing sessions. We should find the sight of Matt Damon fleeing a scene on his son's tiny bike funny. It's annoying, pleading so hard for its laugh that we easily refuse.

But it's not just tiresome it's tiring. When the Coens take a Billy Bob Thornton and keep us with him through some terrible deeds they do so by giving us an antihero we can project upon in a tightly fashioned frame. The timing here is loose but in a studied self-conscious way. And Noah Jupe as the wide eyed Nicky who is forced to work some tough things out for himself, the sole consistent source of empathy we have, cannot save this film by himself and as we find ourselves looking to him to do just that we are just given more letdowns from a film that snipes every last feature at its disposal.

So, we have an established actor/director giving us a flabby Coen cover version that feels both overthought and underdeveloped. Is the apparent refusal to link the racial conflict with the noir plot meant to tell us something? White folks drowning in their own pools while black lives matter? No idea. I do know how very difficult it is to recover from poisoning your central characters with unlovable features but if you can't let us in on what formed those features then a stocky man on a kid's bike is just not going to cut it.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Review: BLADERUNNER 2049

You shouldn't want the same thing again. I know you do. I do. But we shouldn't. So when a film that did so much to determine what grownup sci-fi should look and feel like and (beyond its original commercial failure) engenders such devotion as Bladerunner gets a sequel the under-commentariat explodes with anticipation. So should it give us more of what we already had or go somewhere else with a concept rich enough to take a completely new path? If you've been as disappointed as I have with the series Electric Dreams which attempts a closer reading of Phillip K Dick (who wrote Bladerunner's source novel) then you might sigh a little to see trailers that just seem to soup up the now cliched sci-noir ambience but feel some pleasant curiosity to see what looks like bright new realms. Director Denis Villeneuve whose Sicario and Enemy I love but whose Prisoners and The Arrival I don't care about. Even odds. So, I went.

After a title that restates what replicants are, their legal status and action is found back on Earth (retired = executed). We a daytime shot of a snowbound California in the year of the title. Massive circular structures of indeterminate purpose roll below us as in the (Peugeot!) hovercar driven by LAPD bladerunning replicant K (Ryan Gosling). He lands at a farm and does his job but detects a strange box concealed under the soil near a tree.

The contents of this will drive the plot so that's all the detail you get beyond saying that it is human remains. K is ordered to pursue the case and retire with extreme prejudice those who live at its heart. Meanwhile we are introduced to the Wallace Corporation and its attempts at improving on the replicant manufacture inherited from the failed Tyrell originators (the big business of the first film). Hearing of the find that K has made they are on the case themselves. Intrigue ensues and when it gets too chatty action replaces it.

Villeneuve has realised some superb moments here with imagined technology. The baseline test in which K's responses are examined is a combination of fine acting and the simplest of sets. It has the elegance of something from 2001 or THX-1138. The hi-cal improvements on the holographic ambient advertising are impressive (the giant girl from the trailer features in a poignant scene). K's virtual wife is handled with a solid understanding of uncanny valley. The best of these moments remind us that we never resent retread ideas when they are delivered with such strong style.

But the performances are uneven between players. Jared Leto is an underrated actor, often dismissed as pretty (regardless of how many Chapter 27's or Requiem for a Dream's he does) but here he villains it with stage whispers and Shakespeare in the Gardens moves. Ryan Gosling is best left subtle and does that throughout and so is easily followed. Robin Wright seems to have said "look, I'll just keep doing Claire from House of Cards. It's almost the same costume." Silvia Hoeks as the corporate baddie goes from administrative ice to comicbook supervillan without a lot between but brings such a strong physicality to her part that she must be mentioned in this dispatch. Surprisingly, it is Harrison Ford who brings the most to the table as the aged Deckard, giving us some refreshing naturalism to warm his decades of screen gravitas.

But my problem with the film came early. K is ordered to kill people who might well be human (forbidden to him as a replicant) and he says he has a problem with killing anything that was born rather than manufactured. Asked what the difference is he says it's because the natural born people have souls. There is a rejoinder form his boss but it didn't seal it for me. Why? Well, K's statement suggests that his programming includes religious concepts like that one. To better accommodate humans who do? Maybe, but why is it so important to him, couldn't he just say that respecting human life is primary to him or does that just make him too robotic for us? So, he believes it to be true. So, the suggestion is that religious thinking is programming rather than nature so having the soul as a barrier to his killing humans in the line of duty is malarky to begin with and he's just replaying his programming, never to be a real boy. His boss cracks wise about his notion and he seems taken aback by it. So, wait, did he think he had a soul or not? This distinct question is never returned to by name but feeds the rest of the plot. And what might have made a compelling theme if the assumption were taken to task never happens (not even that dark ages concepts should be important in a post-industrial wasteland).

That's my problem. Ridley Scott has been infusing the reboots of his two big genre movies with unquestioning pop theology. It has rendered what began as strong ideas  well executed into the bloaty piffle of Prometheus and Covenant. I'm not complaining about him being theistic nor even using his nominally science fiction tales as a platform (any fiction thinker can use anything they want) but I am complaining about it creating paradoxes that are left unresolved on the apparent assumption that the audience will not question them. In Bladerunner these notions of identity and what "human" means were played more honestly. I miss that.

(I know Scott didn't write Bladerunner 2049 but this stuff is being committed in his work's name for which he apparently has nothing but encouragement.)

While my problem with this film stems from that one it also bleeds into the problems that the later revisits have. While Villeneuve builds his world expertly from the one we recognise from the 1982 classic he gives us so little to fill it. This is three quarters of an hour longer than the original film but feels slighter with less at stake and only slight engagement with the characters. The excessive screen time only exacerbates this impression. I remembered, sitting in the 10.30 session at Hoyts and almost nodding off that three years ago I sat in the less than comfy Forum, hungover as hell from the MIFF closing night party, and sat through all three hours of the low narrative Hard to be a God. I wasn't hungover today I was just failing to care.

Saturday, September 30, 2017


A dreamy opening shot of a raw mangrove tangled river gives way to a closeup of Beatriz' (Salma Hayek's) sleeping face. She is woken by the goat who bleats from a pen a metre from her bed. Los Angeles, the present. She rises and goes to her job at a Cancer clinic, treating patients with massage but also a series of new age pursuits which look enough like occupational therapy to seem palliative at best. At lunch she looks over the room to a young man well advanced in chemo therapy, hairless and glacially imploding and understands that she can do nothing for him.

Her next appointment is a house call to a woman in the rich part of town. As she massages the Angelene matron Kathy (Connie Britton) we learn that her treatmentment and care of the daughter of the house has made her a household saint so that when her car won't start Kathy without a second thought invites her to the dinner party on at the house that evening. At first this works as she meets the first couple to arrive and slides through the initial awkwardness (Beatriz is very tactile and they aren't quite prepared) to pass agreeably. The next level is the monster capitalist Doug Strutt and spouse. Beatriz has the strangest feeling that she already knows him. Whether this is from a previous personal experience or something more psychic.

From this point what might legitimately progress to a kind of Abigail's Party with 1-percenters vs Mexicans or capitalists vs new agers takes a turn for the subtler. The OC Angelinos are comfortable with each other and seldom edge toward caricature, more typically betraying themselves unselfconsciously. This leaves a significant amount of screen time filled with Hayek's intense observation. Her face occupies the entire screen for long minutes on end as the heady blend of cynicism and privilege babbles around her. Things break not once but several times and what emerges is a lot darker than any lighter treatment would have allowed. If you sit down to this one expecting a sassy comedy in which a big daddy business mogul gets his come uppance you will be disappointed. As the stakes of the themes the characters introduce expand we get to some dark places.

The ensemble cast is superb with the mounting discomfort sustained throughout without having to break into cheaper comedy. If there is a sense of archetypes pushing the bounds of their characters it might well be a symptom of having to observe the highly digestible running time (short of ninety minutes) but given the quality of performances and some artful dialogue and a few unexpected but fitting eleventh hour surprises I can go along with it. Imagine an understated Get Out, perhaps.

A strange film but one worth your attention, especially if you want a cleanser between more generic fare. Generic this ain't and it and you will be the better for it. Oh, and the mangroves and goat come back into it.

Friday, September 29, 2017


The life stories of bands of my generation don't really have much in the way of rags or riches. The triumphs are creative rather than popular. Joy Division's story has one ending. Get there and it's over forever. See also The Sex Pistols and ... well almost all of them. There's an early mention made in this film of Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel and The Angels, all acts who began earlier with a previous generation's values. There's none of the was it Yoko or Paul who broke them up or did Vegas destroy him? It's more the small explosions of daydreamers getting king hit by the realities of the industry. And instead of steadily rising curves it's a series of tiny undulations. This is the case of The Saints who remain influential without primary success. And it is the case of The Go-Betweens.

Put this in the hands of a jobber and you'll get a shoehorned three act documentary pretending to be Anthology. Give it to a filmmaker equally drawn to cinema and where the sustainable stories lie in the mess of real life and you get this film. Stenders keeps the early mix rich and heady, blending blurred re-enactments with present day to-cameras, allowing for a series of statements to build into a strange pattern of motions small on the world's stage but huge at face level. This is pretty much exactly like being in a band that exists before it has all its members, of the notions that swell with the popping of the afternoon's second flagon and then only kind of sort of happen the way they were dreamt.

While there are tales o' excess 'n' roll aplenty here they are given their place among all the others. A band starts from a duo and they add a member here and there, change tack as their fortunes promise and again as those same fortunes deflate. Having experienced it I can assure you that this is exactly what being in the Brisbane band scene felt like: sudden inspirations and do-it-yourself legend manufacture that hits its last snare beat without reverb. Even when the band appears to ride a high profile with clips on Countdown, MTV and a studio gig on Rockarena it still feels, appropriately, local and nicely tried.

So what you're left with is the music and the people in the band and what you get is a wall to wall testimony of why The Go-Betweens are loved beyond their age group and a series of often uncomfortably candid witnesses in black and white and close up who will not let you fantasise your way into any notion that this was the great pop music force that just might have happened. Like almost every band worthy of memory from the time The GoBs have left a legacy of good music and the marking of it here is personable, engaging and never less than cinematic.

I recall seeing Autoluminescent at the Nova and looking around me at the audience in one of the smaller cinemas. Like me they were post-punques getting on, a little more black than even a general Melbourne audience might sport and sitting in silence before the lights went down for the trailers and the ads. It felt, for all the world, like the viewing of a body. Everyone there would have known Rowland Howard if only by virtue of being in one of his audiences. Well, here they were again, always going to the same funeral. Well, what did I think I was doing? The lights dimmed, the film began and we joined as one.

For this it was a little stranger. One of the smaller rooms at the Kino and near full. Everyone respectful and well behaved as cinema goers ... go. We watched and took it in, fully hushed by the last shot and the white on black credits, realising perhaps better late than never, that we really did have this band in common.

By the the time I got to Brisbane from an even smaller Townsville, The Go-Betweens had flown. Some singles came through and whenever there was a new record 4ZZZ (nicely represented here) would get them in front of a mic. By the time I was playing in bands they were a revered name along with Melbourne's Birthday Party (Mick Harvey's comments in the film are priceless) and all the more for seeming to have become international. Not James Bond international but an international against the odds. They left an unspoken commandment on the scene that followed about sparseness. No guitar solos. No lurex or safety pins. Just play your songs. This, itself, is as much fancy as anything else but I remember it in the parlance.

Later, from Melbourne, they seemed to get bigger and poppier. I saw them more here than ever I had in Brisbane and felt a thrill to be in their crowd. At Festival Hall they opened for REM who had only just attained critical mass and who thanked them with what sounded like sincerity. Months before I'd seen them at the Showgrounds along with the Bad Seeds and easily preferred them to the Cave monster. We joked about Right Here being about Vincent Van Gogh (well, it was funny at 3 a.m. watching Rage) but, for all the whingeing good-old-days blather about them blanding out I heard the motion of the vocal harmony in the chorus of Bye Bye Pride and felt real chills. This film doesn't build that up or explain it, it tells the rest.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Review: MOTHER!

A quick shot of the face of a woman against a wall of flame. Blackout. A man carefully places a jagged crystal into a stand which fits it perfectly. The stone has a strange quality to it and the shape of a heart, not a love heart or an emoji heart but an anatomically approximate human heart. The reverse shot of his smile tells us how much he values this extraordinary rock. A swift timelapse around an old mansion shows its dust vanishing. A woman in a sunlit bed wakes and stirs. Jennifer Lawrence (known only as her or she) opens her eyes and calls out: "Baby?" We are being told that we will need to remember this sequence. So begins one of the darkest fables of love I have ever experienced.

At first we happily follow her around the house as she chooses differently coloured plasters for unfinished walls and carefully avoiding irritating her husband's writing process as he struggles with a block. By "follow" I mean follow. While only partially point of view shooting (if you've got Jennifer
Lawrence on the poster you are going to want to see Jennifer Lawrence) the widescreen frame is right on her shoulder or centimetres from her face. We have a good idea of the interior expanses of the house but what we feel is claustrophobia. We also notice that, while she might venture to the porch she goes no further. Then in one scene where her curiosity about her husband's work is held in check by her patience there is a knock at the door.

He answers it to find a wintry faced Ed Harris (Man) who evasively tells them he thought the house was a bed and breakfast. He (Javier Bardem) invites the Man in due to the lateness of the hour and soon they are chatting, He giving away details that Her expressive silence wonders at. The Man stays the night and the next morning his wife is at the door. The expanded conversation even takes in why the couple in the house are childless. She (Lawrence - patience, I'll soon dispense with this but if you aren't going to name your characters you're going to give your reviewers a few headaches) takes her strained puzzlement to the bathroom where she doses herself with more of the orange powder she keeps in an antique jar near the basin.

If we haven't already started getting the creeps out of this strange situation then we are forced to deal with its malaise. The visitors are joined by their children who fight violently over the father's will and this leads to a situation so grotesquely overblown you'll have trouble threading back to how it got so big. From this point a well-crafted uneasy tale of home invasion by politeness  escalates into a nightmare of increasing horror and we have the closest mainstream film will get this year to the claim unique.

Darren Aranofsky has seasoned his audiences to bold strokes and bonkers climaxes as well as keeping his themes accessible and grounded. No change here but the difference comes with the intensity of the performances and a determination to force us through this absurdist fantasy as though it were our own world with a veil removed. The cast numbers explode but the initial central quartet are solid. If you don't know by now how easy Lawrence moves between shoestring indies and blockbusters you just haven't been paying attention. Here, she constantly strains to accomodate her new reality and work with the possibility that it might or not be chemically self-administered. The we wonder the same thing bears witness. Bardem uses his unctuous masculinity to provide gravitas but also allow a kind of sleazy compliance. Ed Harris removes the moral centre from decades of playing authority figures to reveal something crumbling and urbane at once. But it is Michelle Pfeiffer who owns her scenes with a sour anger lightened only by the kind of politeness that the day's first vodka can furnish.

I was reminded of Polanski's tales of chaos and invasion, of Rosemary's Baby or the Tennant or Repulsion. I was reminded of Zulawski's stranger excursions. I say reminded as this film is like none of those beyond its will to charge to its own course. Aranofsky might remind you of many other filmmakers but I'll bet it's more the similarity of how their films make you feel rather than plots or aesthetics. You almost have to remind yourself he's American the way you used to with Lynch. With so spare a field in the current mainstream committing to such singular vision I tend to take what I can get these days. Happily, along with the likes of A Ghost Story, The Endless and Tragedy Girls and this I am far from despair, as despairing as they get (and boy do they get).

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

MY MIFF 2017

So, MIFF 2017.

This speedy year brought MIFF at a rate that felt like it happened weeks after New Year's Eve. Nevertheless I was prepared, building my leave at work and getting my minipass well in time. Then in July a very nasty cold started speeding around the town. One inhale while passing the wrong conversation and I was crushed under it for weeks (taking an unprecedented full week off at work). The timing served me with a restraint that normally abandons me when the program is published. A combination of that cold and a growing reluctance to go to things that might get mainstream releases slowed it all down. Instead of taking a day off to fill up my pass with bookings over a long breakfast I waded through my illness, finishing my lineup over the next week. Also, I began to check the selling fast lists that were already getting populated by the first week of the program being out. I ended up getting hit with a few standby sessions but started exchanging anything that went on standby for lower profile screenings. This worked a treat but had the effect of diminishing the sense of overall event. Then again ...

Oh, and that cold I had. This was the first MIFF where I didn't get a cold that got worse but emerged stronger and healthier with every day. All that fine work by the ol' antibodies. Must try an organise something viral for the prelude to next year's fest.

This was the first year I didn't even look at the print program, sifting through the titles on mobiles or the website was a lot faster than the grid, the guide and a pencil. My approach these days starts with time and venue. My minipass gets me thirteen sessions if I book three weekday screenings before 6pm. As soon as I find those the remaining ten can be anything. I try to get the first and last screenings at The Forum as to me it feels like the heart of the whole event (short story with that one but my first session at The Forum - an 11 am show - was so atmospheric it had me committing to minipasses rather than a few tickets each year). Assuming there are no favourite directors in the program I'll then start looking at daytime screenings for anything intriguing. My wishlist will be about thirty to forty films long and I'll book the best looking thirteen and add any extras as they turn up.

Because I was preoccupied with various projects this time the fortnight ended up being more like time off than the wonders o' the Festival.  This meant that, apart from sending out my selections to close confederates I didn't pursue companionship at any of the screenings. Those few that happened did so accidentally. Normally, I'll eagerly get into a full house screening to be in the vibe of Cinema the Great but, if anything, I felt detached. The screenings felt like diversions to the other things I had on. This was good in itself but meant that I didn't really get into the festival mood. That said, I saw some good 'uns. On that and more ...


The Good

Hong Sang Soo
A trio of new things from the Korean master of modern manners blessed this year's fest. Hong has been a MIFF darling for a few years now and his screenings can fill a weekday afternoon session. No sign of a release outside of the festival context, though. I know we're past the glory days of real arthouse cinemas like the Lumiere or the Trak but couldn't someone fit these in? The audience keeps turning up.

Tragedy Girls
A Scream from Trump's America, both packing the history of high school horror references and branching out into a kind of psycho-buddy tale, this one wins every fight it tries. Hope it gets a major release.

The Endless
If the Benson and Moorhead team that made this development of mumblecore and Lovecraftian horror keep lifting their game like this we'll have a new wave of horror on our hands and it will be crafty effective and disarming.

A Gentle Creature
Kafkaesque satire from the dark heart of post-Soviet Russia saved from counterproductive severity by a steady hand on the leash of anger. Almost skipped it as it was the last one and had a long running time. Didn't notice the length, though, too busy taking it in.

The Middling

Intriguing story and good delivery in acting and some great visual flair but I don't recall it as much.

The Public Image is Rotten
A decent interview documentary attempting the contentious history of seminal post punk band PiL hits all the right notes but might've examined the disparity of accounts a little further towards the end.

Big Big World
Reha Erdem gets soggy and serious in this perfectly balanced scale in a story of an escape to nature and the nature escaping into the escapees. Powerful but hard to love. Still, in a recently departed era of true arthouse in Melbourne Erdem's films would get a local audience.

Great respect for telling it straight and the auteur director's restraint in letting the artist's tale tell his own but perhaps a touch too straight in the end. Still worth it for avoiding artist vs society and biopic cliches.

The Idea of a Lake
Strong story told in evocative imagery blending nostalgia with the dark matter beneath it but perhaps on the slight side.

The Bad

Jupiter's Moon
Modern fable of the alien begins with a powerful allegory of statelessness and flattens down into a half-baked religious homily. Self subversion.

The Venues

The Forum
The Forum is, as always, the star. Even at sold out sessions where a great hubbub of winceable conversation or feet on seats cannot diminish the presence of an old friend. I try to make the first and last of every Festival a Forum screening.

That dentist chair charm softens into comfort when the lights go down and the good sound and image begin. Always a good seat there.

Modern, well appointed cinemas are still the best places to go to see any cinema. The atmosphere is low if comfortable and the sound and picture are top notch. There are some great seats in the front including a row just in front of an aisle so no seat kickers.

My marginal mainstream cinema of choice outside MIFF, Kino is dependable but get your seat early as the ones on the sides can warp an anamorphic image back to its camera state (happened to me at Duke of Burgundy a few years back, still think of it in academy ratio).

The Comedy Theatre
The seats at the Comedy are the least comfortable of any of the venues past or present. That includes the hovercraft cushions at the Forum. I pick my sessions at this venue very carefully: short running times lower attendance.

Venues in Memoriam

The Russell - Gone forever, an old style plex that suited the music related movies at MIFF.

The Treasury - A lovely continuation of the old Cinemateque. Some problems with sound at some of
the screenings when recently used for MIFF but much missed.

The Capitol - The sheer beauty of the place with that nutso ceiling made even the cruddy old seats endurable.

The Regent - the very best of the vintage theatres used for MIFF in the past with updated seating, opulent surrounds and good projection.

The Lounge
I went only twice and really only to take some photos. It was renovated to be lighter and had I think two of the rows of booths removed for a slight photographic exhibition. Miss the darker earlier state. But as this one was the least sociable MIFF for me in many a year I didn't have the chance to stop for a coffee. Also, I think it was opening later than usual on weekdays. Hmph.

The Staff
Almost universally pleasant. The sole quirk came at the last screening when one young woman volunteer asked me to change seats from my chosen one in the first two rows, claiming they had all been reserved. That was news to me. While there are always a smattering of reserved cards there it's never been the case that those whole rows were taken. I assume she didn't ask if I were a member as I'd come in through the pleb tickets door. When I asked if the session was sold out she didn't know. I went to the row immediately behind and a woman close by said that the same thing had happened to her and her friend. The usher just hadn't understood her instructions. It was annoying but as soon as I could I changed to a front seat and all was gas and gaiters.

The App
The App appeared earlier than usual and worked right off the bat. My one gripe is the sudden acceleration of the downward scrolling of the program. A few slight vertical swipes and it goes through hyperspace to the end of the list. That's two weeks and a bit of many entries per day. The reverse motion doesn't do this. I had to use the tiny blue control on the side to correct this. Apart from that this was the first fest in which I did almost all my organising on the phone (Android app). The Selling Fast/Standby section was invaluable as it helped me with exchange decisions and queue avoidance. The design and utility make this a feature of the festival itself, being not only essential but dependable.

The Trailer and ads
I saw it once and it was lovely. Just a montage of clips to music and the 2017 livery at the end; no lame jokes that ran like cheese graters over our nerves this year, just a sense of excitement and a lot of beauty. It wasn't played before a single screening that I attended. On other ads, I still like the Wander Victoria one with the two women and still still still love the vodka ad with the zeppelin projecting a movie on to the clouds; that's a party I want to go to.

Too many titles to count but of those I had put on my pass I began to exchange every session that went on standby. It means I have to queue if I want even the unpopular front rows I prefer and I just don't want to do that when it's raining icicles (there was a brief warm spell this year in the second week but it plummeted quickly) and it just feels like a waste of time.

I will eagerly wait for a commercial release of:

My Friend Dahmer
The Untamed
Something Quite Peculiar
Los Perros
Sleeping Beauty
Japanese Girls Never Die
Marjorie Prime
I Dream in Another Language
The Belko Experiment
Right Here
A Life in Waves

The Crowds and the Queuing
I never get worried by people chatting even loudly during the ads as they almost always settle as soon as they see the feature starting. In A Gentle Creature a guy behind me who was deeply in love with the sound of his voice was being what he thought was terrifically witty to his female companion. Having already been ousted from my preferred seat I was perhaps more sensitive than usual. The ads stopped and the production badges showed and then the feature's title card and everyone could still hear his scratchy self-entitled drone. As politely as I could I turned and said in my best uncomfortably loud RP tones: EXCUSE ME! SSSHHHH! It shut him up for half an hour after which I didn't care as I'd already defied the clueless vollie who'd ousted me by going back to the front. And then there was a pair of women who thought their whispers were inaudible, two rows away. I wasn't physically placed to hush them and got annoyed that no one closer thought to. But I had a good run in thirteen screenings of people understanding they were in a crowd and the golden rule brought benefits.

I queued twice. Once because Tragedy Girls went on standby and I needed to get one of those front and centre island seats (and not only got it but had a free seat either side:) and for Public Image is Rotten as we had to wait for the closing night film audience to shamble out. Otherwise I showed up just before the lights went down, found a seat front and centre and enjoyed the movie. Coming to this decision (it only works if you prefer unpopular seats like the front rows) a few years back changed the festival experience for me, reducing most of the annoyance I had come to associate with organising myself.

So, MIFF 2018
Now that Team Carey have for years shown how well they can run a great film festival from selection down to the ticketing and staffing I'm just going to assume the same for next year.

I think I'll balance times of day better than I have in the past two years where I've stacked almost everything in the morning or afternoon. The reason I do this is partially crowd avoidance (then there's Hong Sang Soo movies which sell out at 1:30 pm) but also as I like going to the cinema during the day, especially on holidays, it's like stolen time. But a more sociable festival means flexibility there which means more night screenings.

With Netflix etc the probability of getting to see a MIFF title on the soonish side as part of your subscription has added to the need to cull high profile titles out of the selection. I didn't want to put up with the standy crowd or queue for My Friend Dahmer so I exchanged it confident I'll get to it later in the year. Hong Sang Soo doesn't get released in Australia at the marginal cinemas or VOD (even SBS on Demand) so that's a must. See also Reha Erdem or pretty much anything from Russia or Japan. More effort spent on seeking out the low-profile interesting is needed here. It always served me well at times when the fest got absurdly mainstream back in the early noughties. This kind of film no longer has a dependable outlet and has become the prisoner of the festival circuit. It's great to see in a dark room surrounded by strangers and moment but I really do miss that longer term buzz of word of mouth from the arthouse circuit that wrapped unseen movies in fragrant seduction. WEll, it's gone and won't come back so we need more than ever the curation of a strong festival.

What else? I've done well in the past few years of keeping away from anything more than the bare details of festival pics. Synopses, concept, maybe director or other participant but no more. I've turned myself off too many only to find them well worth it later. Screen time is really the last obstacle. Then again, I was on the verge of skipping A Gentle creature for exceeding two hours of what I assumed was a lot of Dardennes grimness with a Russian accent but it proved a perfectly balanced final course to the festival.

It has become a little harder than it was but the only reason I've missed one since I started buying mini passes is the broken leg I had in 2012. Unless MIFF regresses to the mainstream lows of previous fests I'll be there, shivering in the rain outside the Forum, waking slowly up in front of the ads, craving a choctop and feeling the warm flow of images, sounds and notions rising.

Sunday, August 20, 2017


Alyonka lives a quiet life in her country cottage with a beautiful black and white dog. We first see her coming home from work in a creaky old bus in a quite beautiful Russian country setting. At home she finds a card from the post office that explains that the care package she sent to her husband has been rejected by the prison where he is serving a sentence for murder. Organising shift exchanges at work, she sets out to deliver the package personally.

This time the same bus she took before is packed with people whinging each other or talking about a gruesome murder case. At the train station she goes through a humiliating routine body search and interrogation in a kind of wood panelled version of airport security. Her fellow passengers on the train (it's Russia, it will be a long train journey) are on the acceptable side of obnoxious but their noise and bluster is constant, contrasting with the incessant groan of woe from the greying woman who recounts the worst that has happened to her.

The unliveried taxi driver (definitely not an Uber) tells her how beneficial the prison is to village life in a series of mild paradoxes that Orwell might have rejected from Nineteen Eighty-Four but still bear a kind of sleazy respect for oppression. The prison is a Soviet scaled monster edifice of brutal architecture without the fashion sense suggested by that. The processing room where applicants like herself make it through with a package or a visit is a chaos of bureaucratic negativity. Her package is rejected once again. A few people in the crowded, sweaty room give her encouragement to come back and try again as the bitch at reception is cranky today. She leaves with that in mind.

Numb, she rests outside to gather her thoughts and is adopted by a local woman who promises her a cheap room. She accepts and finds out the sharing part of it involves a rowdy whorehouse atmosphere where drunkards of both sexes play spin the bottle and piss when and where they wish. Getting through the night and being rejected even more bluntly at the prison the next day she encounters a black marketeer who might help.

With nowhere else to turn she accepts his help though it might lead to favours she doesn't want to bestow. And she finds that the village has been created for the prison staff and a parasitic underclass who prey on the likes of her. As she is an unknown female she is called a whore by all who don't recognise her, even when visiting the human rights campaigners whose office has been violated by either a disgruntled applicant or the secret service.

Ok, you get the idea. I've put in this much plot because I was impressed with how this Russian film (made outside of Russia the way that films like Under The Shadow had to be made outside of Iran) expresses its rage with a culture that has only known one brutal autocracy after another. It's important that the lead figure is female as we can see her vulnerability stretch beyond that of Kafka's male protagonists in ways that are more universal.

Writer/director Sergey Loznitsa keeps a firmly held balance between post Soviet Russia and a stark absurdism such that neither challenges the other for dominance. The tone is kept naturalistic through a determinedly cinema verite aesthetic (that contrasts in a later set piece with refulgent magical realism). (A clever reference to Kafka's short horror story In the Penal Colony snares Brexit.) A pallet that goes from rooms that stink of the sweat of frustrated  humans to the air-filled vistas of endless fields tells us a lot about the approach. Unlike a great many post Soviet digs at the recent past and the grim present, A Gentle Creature shows us both the ineluctability of the trickle down power of tyranny and the possibility of breaking it at a very personal level. And always the personal, as provided with solidly restrained expression by the lead Vasilina Makovsteva, grinning and bearing on the outside can be a learning tempest within.

I baulked at realising this film had a running time of nearly two and a half hours. Once I settled into it, it felt precise, exactly as long as it needed to be. I compare it to my favourite of the undeclared genre of post Soviet fables, Werckmeister Harmonies. My praise doesn't come a lot higher than that.


Losing count of the PiL lineups is mandatory. For a while also mandatory was the notion that the sole survivor of all of them, John Lydon, was the one with the problem. As more tales emerged about Jah Wobble's light fingered ways and Keith Levene's near disintegration by opiates and on and on the story returns that the problems were the same as the triumphs: it was all a band effort. Whatever their mugshot collections were at any time, PiL went through the same line graph sag that most bands suffer as they attempt longevity. Going from the stellar highs and forgettable lows of the debut album through the jewel of post punk of the second album to the spooky greatness of Flowers of Romance PiL's place in the pantheon was secure. Give it the squabbles, sackings and contrariness you get by the early nineties, when the name was retired, a pop charts outfit that served as its own tribute band in concert. See also the Rolling Stones. Or is that true. Is there something still strong and vital about the entity that simply changed its outward shape? If that's true it points to one figure.

This documentary tries to clarify the story. Mostly, this is done with a lengthy interview with Lydon today but also, carefully, with the testimony of other figures like Wobble, Levene, and the many other members. Does this make it balanced? Well, Lydon is firmly in the centre and everyone else appears near the wings. Not everyone testifies to their best advantage (Wobble is either disarmingly candid or unaware of how self-damning he is being).

Lydon charms effortlessly, the way he has charmed since being spiky and young, he remains a good yarn spinner and delivers his candour with a wink. If you know this about him as a public figure you'll have no trouble questioning any of the statements he makes about the history of PiL, particularly when they cross those made by former bandmates. Besides which, if you expect recent history to be objective and made only of indisputable truths you should check your naivete levels. Accounts are going to vary according to self-image and viewing position. The best account is not the one given by the participants but constructed by the reader, weighing the variations for likelihood. This film does not force an official line, it gives you Johnny and asks you to give the rest.

I can clearly recall reading a copy of Lennon Remembers from my local library and considering that a true account of The Beatles. The later MacCartney in His Own Words contradicted a lot of it. Later books and doccos spread the story out. Lennon not only didn't remember as much as the title suggested but seem to forget everything he said in the book (a long interview with RollingStone's Jan Wenner). Closer to where this movie lives, can't we now see The Great Rock and Roll Swindle as Malcolm McLaren's after dinner tale, The Filth and the Fury as a controlled reversal of that, the Classic Albums ep on Bollocks as a mediation of both? We just don't get full accounts from single sources.

Back on screen, a series of clips flesh the tales and provide some rich relief form the talking heads. There is the annoying continued tradition of playing studio versions of songs under matched up live footage but then there is also a wealth of live excerpts with good sound in the later half. The touted film of the infamous screen gig in New York is very very brief and serves no greater purpose than to prove it was taken but that aids the accounts from the likes of Thurston Moore.

The Public Image is Rotten is a step above the average music history docco and this is largely due to its subject's compelling story. PiL were, however fleetingly, the apex of the accessible post punk endeavours, bridging difficult flows and washing many of the big loud failure of commercialised punk. Shallow coolsters will snigger at Moore's description of Metal Box as its time's White Album but all he means is that it was solid and inspiring against expectations and stands today as a crucial set. If all this film can achieve is to get a few more people giving the early PiL a listen then it will have done much. Sometimes the newest sounds are the old ones and that also goes for attitudes.