Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review: HAPPY DEATH DAY

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

Review: INGRID GOES WEST


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

HALLOWEEN MOVIE NIGHT: CHOP SUI GENERIS

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.

DARK WATER (2002)

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.

UNDER THE SHADOW (2016)
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.

FEBRUARY/THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER (2015)
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.

THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (1919)
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.



RESOLUTION (2012)
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).

KILL BABY KILL/OPERAZIONE PAURA (1966)
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.


LAKE MUNGO (2008)
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.







THE BABADOOK (2014)
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.

Review: SUBURBICON

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

Review: BEATRIZ AT DINNER

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

Review: THE GO-BETWEENS: RIGHT HERE

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 MOVIES



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

Radiance
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.

Afterimage
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.

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

Hoyts
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.

Kino
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.


Missed
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
Wonderstruck
Something Quite Peculiar
Los Perros
Sleeping Beauty
Japanese Girls Never Die
Marjorie Prime
I Dream in Another Language
The Belko Experiment
Right Here
Rumble
A Life in Waves
Loveless

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

MIFF Session #13: A GENTLE CREATURE

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.

MIFF Session #12: THE PUBLIC IMAGE IS ROTTEN

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.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

MIFF Session #11: THE GRADUATION

La Femis is a French cinema school. The French take their cinema as seriously as they take their wine, having started on the ground floor and added the art to the commerce in the movies' Ur phase. This is the process of how thousands of applicants are wrung down to about thirty students. In a moment so polished by decades of delivery that it sounds scripted, one of the selectors at the start tells the mass before him that there will be no teachers or classes in the course.

The first round sees the great mass of initial aspirants shown a movie scene and given about half an hour to describe what they have seen. Those called back must present a narrative from a phrase or sample of dialogue. Further tests involve supervised scene shoots, written statements and personal stories. Eventually, all this will turn into numbers and the few will enter while the many walk away.

This documentary runs from a different angle from similar contest-based pieces , focusing on the selectors and their discussions of the people they have been speaking to. There are no freeeze-framed triumphs possible with this approach but there are many moments of revelation. The judgements of the panelists can be brutal but as the film progresses and you get a sense of the turnover you feel the benefit. In job interviews you are thrown a couple of pysche questions after the qualifications and experience grills and they are there to get the mettle out. This process emphasises that over the formal skills to find the commitment and the passion.

This is a procedural documentary. We get a strong feeling of cramped rooms, silent corridors, rustling paper forms and tension too early in the morning. They're French so all the selectors smoke in their breaks. Out on the fire escapes the talk is even rougher, coloured by thick plumes of Gitane fumes. It's tough stuff protecting your nation's cinema legacy. From the country that established an academy for the protection of its own language you wouldn't expect less.

Despite some frequent old-line fever as successive candidates seem to tell the same prepared stories of inspiration The Graduation sustains its engagement to the end and we are gratified with the group photo shoot at the end showing who got in. An end-credit sequence shows young people at the gate we started with. It's night now, many nights later, and we see the last of the unsuccessful quietly make their way out and down the street. Did we lose a Claire Denis, a Godard? We only know that we might never know.

Friday, August 18, 2017

MIFF Session #10: BIG BIG WORLD

Ali seems happy enough fixing cars and bikes for a living in an Istanbul garage, keeping to himself and his faith until he hears that his pubescent sister Zuhal has been effectively sold to a middle aged man as a second wife. Outraged he abducts her and they flee to a rural village and go further into the wilderness, finding a old shed frame to use as a home. It's rougher than either is used to but it isn't back there.

Ali commutes to the village and finds work in the garage there. Zuhal spends her days exploring the rivberbank, meeting the crazy old woman who is looking for her father, a white goat, a black bull. Infrequent shopping trips done with scant funds keep the balance between modern usage and slithering nature. It is a shaky balance, though, and as the influences of civilisation and lure of unfeeling nature tug at each end things go wrong.

The carnival comes to town, bringing corruption to Ali who is quickly enthralled by the delights of a golden haired siren who reads palms and lifts banknotes but pours a mean beer and offers a warm bed in the process. We've already seen Ali being fleshly but it was naive, detached from his unfinished notions of sin. Here it's boots and all and he knows shame.

And there's something else. Zuhal is increasingly troubled by nausea and dizziness. She claims the man she was sold to did nothing bad but talks in her sleep as though warding him off. Ali's protective force is losing power as both of them seem to join a folie a deux between themselves and the forest. We see them slide themselves along boughs like the snakes we frequently spy in the rushes and the water, or just lie upon them like outgrowths of moss. The freedom promised by the freshness and vibrancy of the new green world peels away, leaving only a kind of youthful dementia waterlogged by the rain and the river.

Having delighted in Reha Erdem's Kosmos and been stunned by the later Jin, I was ready for something different again and got it. While the former titles showed a confident hand at the helm of whimsy that could steer us towards depths and away from shallow indulgence, this one takes into territory between grim realism and wonder, a kind of early Terrence Malik meeting Tarkovsky somewhere dark and drippy. The animals here are not the healing natural presence as they are in Jin (that final tableau still pricks at my tear ducts) but more like observers or even judges as Zuhal and then Ali too addresses them as though they were reincarnations of humans. The gleeful play and dances of Kosmos here swerve uncomfortably between innocence and madness.

The score is solidly unsentimental building on an arpeggio on a glockenspiel and supported by a deep and rich small reed ensemble, adding a piano in passages. It serves the beauty of the imagery at the same time as feeling made from the sogging wood of the riverbank. It's another point in favour of Erdem's approach: it would be depressing if it weren't so enlivening, it it weren't so god damned beautiful.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: DUNKIRK

On spec Dunkirk reads like a defeat. The Germans blitzkrieged to the beaches of France, ready to pick off a great mass of allied troops and keep going across the channel. A little deeper and the evacuation, a success against massive odds, left the British standing army largely intact and served to halt that threat. It's a compelling event in the history of the war. So, when I learned that Christopher Nolan was driving it I jumped to attention and exclaimed: hmmm.

Nolan has stretched my affection beyond breaking with the great bloated epics made of okay ideas like his Batman movies, Inception and Interstellar. All of these would have been the kind of pop cinema saviours they were touted if Nolan had just remembered that the film that shot him to their director's chair was a lean and clever thriller that surpassed rather than deflated the promise of its trailer. Then it was welcome to Bombast World with Chris Nolan (though I'll give him The Prestige). So what were we in for with this one? A two fortnight epic with four hour digressions into spiritual hurdles and conundra of physics? Actually, that was what sold the ticket (along with IMAX and film projection): 116 mins. Not 3 1/2 hours. That's Memento territory. If he gets an epic in that time he might consider it a rude but well-meant memo to himself.

So what's it like?

We open with some history lesson title cards but get right down to the action as a small group of British soldiers walk through a deserted French town trying to get to the beach without being killed. This isn't easy but one makes it through and sees lines, queues of soldiers who tell him to go to the right queue. Ah, the ol' spirit o' the Blitz. Trying a second time at a secluded bowel movement. He makes a friend in a fellow soldier by dint of the two of them being in the same hopeless predicament.

And then it's off to the officers who give us some exposition. Before that sounds like a smart arsed comment I should point out that this is kept to a minimum and never sounds like anything less than military conversation. Kenneth Brannagh, a naval captain provides one of the gravity points amid the the strange intense blend of survivalist urgency and good old mustn't grumble waiting.

Meanwhile there is a thread to represent some of the genuinely heroic work done by the fishing boats and small craft. The salt of earth Mark Rylance helms a boat over the chop and picks up casualties along the way in a thread that involves the greatest concentration of time slipping. At the beginning we are given locations like The Mole (pier), The Air etc and a time frame like One Day or One Hour. The centre of this involves a military vessel meeting the path of Rylance's boat as well as a German bomber with a pair of fighter escorts and a trio of Spitfires to stop them. This is where Nolan comes into his own with a skillful weave of timelines to show us the fullness of an incident from different perspectives and get us used to thinking of represented time as incident-based rather than a linear flow. This is pretty neat. It gets a lot of action in and adds a great deal of depth while never once feeling anything but urgent.

Kudos to Hans Zimmer the composer, here, who provides a constantly tense mix of orchestral scope with electronic violence to provide a score that never settles, ensuring that we never do.

And hardware? Heinkels, Spitfires, ME 109s, ships, intimate and epic in context, the terrifying sight of an approaching torpedo. In a film that must promote humanity itself as the lead character the conflict between this and the exhilaration of watching the five second bursts of fighters snatched from the effort of lining up excruciating shots must find a middle. That comes with some characterisation that while scant and left mostly flat is just enough to suggest universality. Right down to the very final shot which is brief, funny and humbling all at once.

Nolan's done it, folks, after all this time. Now let's see him do it again.

MIFF Session #9: CLAIRE'S CAMERA

Min Hee is in Cannes for the film festival with her film distributor boss who fires her over a vague charge of dishonesty (no details are given). Min Hee reconstitutes herself after the shock and takes a passive aggressive selfie with her boss who reddens with confusion. A brief dialogue about mistakes at the beach between the boss, Nam, and the guest director So who admits that most of his errors have been made while drunk. So, at a cafe is engaged in conversation by a Parisian, Claire. They speak in halting English but establish that he is a director and she a teacher. Soon Claire Nam and So are having fun at lunch chatting about the pictures Claire is taking and how an image might change the photographer's perception of the subject. So notices a photo of Min Hee among the small stack that Claire hands out. You know that the reverse is going to happen and that links are going to be tightened and conversations are going to be gaining a lot of weight.

This festival's third Hong Sang Soo film is a delight, a showcase of awkwardness vs crucial realisation that happens through conversations in plain settings. The Korean characters talk to each other in their native tongue but all conversations between them and Claire are in English so careful that it sounds like they've learned it in a coma. The communication, however, is the same blend of jolting candour and coyness. Hong has used multi-lingual dialogue before and luxuriates in the extra comedic tension it brings to the table (and there are always lots of tables in these films). And when words fail against the stiffness of a first meeting the facial acting and body language take over (the dizzyingly funny first conversation between So and Claire which collapses into embarrassed smiles and eye-avoidance).

And it is always about the communication. And the communication always reveals the true wish and it always blurts out like an old saying or a platitude. We are left to piece the fragments we have received this way ourselves and the resulting sense that we have arrived at the starting point of a long elliptical course is both pleasant and strange. Radiant Jang Mi Hee as Min Hee and the industrially magnetic Isabelle Huppert as Claire hold the centre of a gang of actors familiar to any who have seen a few Hong films. They are welcome on the screen the way that players in rep are. And Hong is always welcome on any screen I watch.

Monday, August 14, 2017

MIFF Session #8: YOURSELF AND YOURS

A young man is chatting to a friend and learns that his partner has been going out, drinking too much and causing scenes. He finds it hard to credit but it sticks with him.

In the next scene a middle aged man stops by a cafe to get a iced Americano and is locked by the sight of a woman he knows at the shady end of the cafe. He approaches her familiarly but she claims not to recognise him, eventually conceding that he must have mistaken her for her twin sister. Persisting through the awkwardness the man suggests a drink and is not turned down.

Then we see the woman getting into bed. Her partner wakes up and we see that he is the man from the first scene. The gossip about her is borne out but she denies it. Angered, he breaches their relationship by accusing her of lying. She leaves. He implodes.

Hong Sang Soo's mastery of conversation as battle takes a leaf out of Bunuel territory here as shades of That Obscure Object of Desire wafts in like a breeze. It's not a direct lift but if you persist in working out if the female lead is lying, amnesiac or really either one of a pair of twins you will get no joy from this piece. It's a film you just need to flow with. If it were a neo-noir and she its femme fatale that advice would sound like wank supreme but this is Hong Sang Soo and he is taking us again into the realm of the contemporary comedy of manners. Come to think of it, another reference point here is The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind done to similar effect but none of the effects.

I was also about to write that this is a departure for the writer/director but really he has done little but depart from starting position with each new entry, particularly with last year's self-rebooting Right Now, Wrong Then and this year's On a Beach Alone at Night. It makes me think that with such a lean style this filmmaker achieves something that those in similar territories like Whit Stillman have not, extended their range and remained themselves. It failed the likes of Hal Hartley but I think we're looking at sterner stuff.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

MIFF Session #7: THE IDEA OF A LAKE

Ines' imminent motherhood has brought memories of her own parents to the surface. When one of those parents disappeared in the Peron years while the family was on holiday the nostalgia has a sting to it. She is preparing a photographic memoir of the years, particularly the holidays they had by the lake in the south of Argentina.

Meanwhile more concrete memories are being called through forensic archaeologists who are seeking to identify the remains of people killed during the Dirty War. Ines' brother complies with the request for a blood sample but their mother feels only the pain beneath her anger. Ines' estranged husband worries about the stress' effect on their unborn child.

Woven through this are beautifully drawn scenes of summer holidays including a disarming fantasy in which the young Ines performs a water ballet with the animate and now amphibious family Renault to the sounds of Neil Diamond's Songs Sung Blue. But this is nostalgia, art directed memory, the real thing, the facts and their sensory impressions begin to bleed in as she recalls the kids playing hide and seek in the woods which for all its cuteness leaves the young Ines unsmiling and the poignant sight of her father leaving the candlelit table of partying family friends and walking into the darkness. Here, the memory is too painful but can't be trusted to nostalgia. She can only go as far as the spectre of him softly crooning a lullaby to her infant self. All further investigation is unbearable.

The water of this lake is still and deep. Writer/director Milagros Mumenthaler exercises great restraint, trusting her cast to convey much with minimal dialogue but big colourful canvasses that make up for it. Mumenthaler also trusts her audience to understand that she is saying only what she needs to say and they will share the load.

Friday, August 11, 2017

MIFF Session #6: ON A BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE

Young Hee is a beautiful young Korean film star whose recent affair with a married man has sent her into voluntary exile to Europe. She discusses this with her dowdy companion while they stroll the parks and mise en scene of Hamburg. While enjoying the beach one evening she is carried away by what appears to be a stalker.

Later, she appears in a provincial Korean cafe talking to the man she'd loved but it is distant. She appears in another small scale cafe and engages with another man who unsuccessfully conceals his own marital status. Later she, he and the other guy and two female partners share dinner and Korean wine and Young Hee goes postal with the manners

A quartet of the above spends time at a seaside resort as a very dodgy window cleaner videobombs their chitchat. This is a very very funny scene,

Later, she is woken while sleeping on the beach by a member of a film scouting crew who takes her into his company for another edge-burning dinner chat.

This is a Hong San Soo film. It is mostly made of conversation (not dialogue, mind you, this is a studiously careful distinction) and interpersonal dynamics. I know I seem to have taken the piss here but what I am describing is a purely lovely moment of cinema. Stanley Kubrick characterised successful films as being constructed of six insubmersible units, blocks of human interaction that defied further breakdown. Hong Sang Soo makes Kubrickian comedies of manners. He doesn't care who notices. He doesn't care who cares. He just does it and he does it repeatedly and teaches any who will look that good films can come of little more than knowing and loving the material.

I love Hong Sang Soo's films despite the festival darling status he has attained. I love them because they are themselves. I haven't been able to say the same of any filmmaker's work since INLAND EMPIRE and that, my friends, makes me happy.