Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012 top ten and more

The old curse of living in interesting times befell me this year with a leg injury making me miss out MIFF MUFF and a few other smaller scale festivals. I managed to catch up with most of my MIFF choices through subsequent cinema and blu-ray releases and really grimace at having to miss it at the time as it would have been outstanding. Otherwise it was the year of not cult cinema but the cinema of cults with no less than three movies focussing on the effect of cult membership. In the era of CGI-heavy action, constantly enhanced 3D screening and ever soaring budgets a black and white, mostly silent comedy in 4X3 won the Oscar and the best superhero film was a found footage piece. The auteur stakes were spare with Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master competing (from what I was able to see) only with Sion Sonno's Himizu. Left this late as I need to see a few late release titles before making this list.

My top cinematic moment of the year, though, included one of the worst projected images I've seen for many a year (and at ACMI!) but I was happy going along with it as it was Goblin playing their score to Suspiria live. Sublime! Now they need to come back and do the same for Deep Red. And John Carpenter needs to come and play to Halloween and Prince of Darkness (I know I'm meant to say The Thing but I don't like that music as much  as those two. Sorry, I know it's Morricone...)

My top ten for this year is, I think, stronger than it has been for a fair whack of years. Here it is:

The Artist: Because it's clever, knows it but also knows it's meant to be fun. Not a history of silent cinema as much as a reminder of why it worked. Best seen with a full cinema.

Martha Marcy May Marlene: For starting as a severe indy piece and developing into a new kind of horror film. Like a current Eurohorror without the extreme violence.

Safety Not Guaranteed: Because it mashed a quirky indy with a buddy and a sci-fi and made them all work together. More non-schtick Aubrey Plaza, please.

Planet of Snail: A love story, an against-odds epic, a poetic film that works as poetry and it's also a documentary. Brilliant work. Still haunts me.

Chronicle: I forgave the tired found footage approach because this is the best superhero film outside of the best that embrace the comic aesthetic. Well played and well told.

The Master: New P.T. Anderson almost guaranteed to make the cut but this one shows why he's still going and going against the grain. He's an original who doesn't mind showing where he's come from. I like this one the more I think about it.

The Hunger Games: Suprised me completely. Thought it would be a soft centred copy of Battle Royale but it transcended its derivations to claim itself. Very good work.

Sound of My Voice: A cold and creepy indie that looks a million bucks but plays down where Cronenberg started. As with Martha Marcy May Marlene, this is a team to watch. There are three movies about cults and dark charisma in this list. Strange year for that....

Sightseers: Delicate balance between funny and humourlessly bleak. The teetering is a plus. Almost thinking of this as a savage parody of the Mike Leighs of the world.

Beberian Sound Studio: For being original about the power of cinema, choosing a fascinating era of it to do so and having the courage to plummet into territory usually only walked by David Lynch without once giving in to obvious Lynchian influence. Haunting.

Honourable mentions:

Beasts of the Southern Wild, Robot and Frank, Himizu, Shadow Dancer, Shame, Cosmopolis, A Separation, The Island President, Beer is Cheaper than Therapy, No, Searching for Sugar Man.


A tale of resistance to absorption told ingeniously through the process of adding post-synch sound to a film.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is an English film sound expert whose main work has been in nature documentaries. His first sizeable job internationally, as he is to find out to his surprise, is an ultra violent horror movie in Italy. It's the 1970s, home to the gut wrenching giallo genre of crime thrillers and the surgical candour of ghastly tales with medieval settings. It's Deep Red, Suspiria and The Devil's Nightmare, and everyone in the cinema is on the edge of their seat. 

Gilderoy has not expected this. He is also unprepared for the getting on with the pugnacious world of Italian film production. He is feted as a rare find by the production team who also know he has no idea of larger scale movie making and its world of hype, dodge and sleaze. If this is the ocean he's a guppy washed down from the drain of a nice place in the Home Counties.

The world of Italian horror is still a rich garden to work in and I'd have happily just watch it evoked for the running time but there's a lot more here than nostalgia. In the setting of this film the production is made in two major passes: the visual and the aural; separate entities (and no question of a third pass with the contemporary process of CGI effects). Here, the timid Gilderoy is in command and as scene after sordid or alarmingly visceral scene is announced before playback and he sets to work, recording dialogue, bashing into vegetables by the cartload, screams by the abandoned-convent-load. We have to imagine the images he's enhancing this way as we never see them. We are treated to a fetishistic motion gallery of the details of the mechanisms bulky and tiny as they spin, flash to light or grind into movement. The emotional content of the images they carry are being blended with sound that will double their power.

The other reason for not showing any of the footage Gilderoy must add sound to is that through descriptions and the audio that consolidates them give us far worse pictures than Peter Strickland (director of the meta-film) could ever have supplied to universal satisfaction. Mind you, we do get a joyously authentic title sequence for the digetic film complete with the kind compelling prog rock score that has won this type of movie a lot of fans

But this isn't just economy. We are watching the effect of the production, the range of interpersonal atrocities necessitated by it and the flow of mental unease flowing from the screen to Gilderoy as he increasingly feels culpable by his involvement in it. I'll stop here from saying too much.

Berberian Sound Studio is a masterful weave of the joys and cruelties of cinema at its conception and execution. There is a little of both contained in the effect cinema has on its viewers and their self image. However temporary, the profundity of the identification between image and viewer can be transforming. Gilderoy isn't just watching, he's moving through its ether. After one incident where he takes some advice on handling the Kafaesque admin changing from his native politeness to something more rude and Italianate he is left worse off than before. His mother's letters from home take a genuinely disturbing turn. He is left more vulnerable than the eventual audience of the film he's completing.

This is where this movie comes into its own and offers an originality that climbs troublingly from the comfort of a familiar genre of cinema. While it isn't quite like Mulholland Drive or INLAND EMPIRE it becomes cousin to those films' unflinching drive into personal transformation, the shock of self-knowledge and its potential for severe irrevocable self perdition. This film is haunting me.

Friday, December 28, 2012


Tina lives with a mother who keeps her subdued with guilt. "You're not a friend," she says to Tina, "you're a relative." Tina at thirty-five is bound to this (made extra guilty by facilitating the accidental death of their terrier, Poppy) and her life looks as numbingly drab as a British kitchen sink  film. Into this stagnation rides Chris, not a knight in shining armour but a ginger with interests in pencils and trams. He is about to whisk Tina away on the holiday of a lifetime.

This goes well until they accidentally kill a fatheaded arrogant fellow tourist with their caravan. It's manslaughter not murder but it sends them into a sexual frenzy, incidentally enjoyed by the gang of roadworkers they've parked beside. One by one as opportunities emerge from England's green and pleasant mire the pair learn love and the art of spontaneous murder.

The central pair are played by Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, UK tv comedy veterans who also co-wrote the screenplay. The director's chair was filled by Ben Wheatley whose arresting genre-jumping Kill List has to be seen twice to get right.

This is film has been marketed, however subhorizontally, as Mike Leigh doing Natural Born Killers. That's not a bad start but something happens in this piece that Mike Leigh would never do in the face of temptation and Oliver Stone would never even think of: the couple's violence is driven entirely by the fury of their punishing inferiority. These are people who find the personal power to act beyond the supermarket clothes hues of their smothering lives but when they do it is in futile acts of rage. But this is not the rage of drunken yobbos or soccer hooligans but the infernal seething resentment of the middling.

Chris cannot create a humorous shell around the sniffiness of the middle class campers, even after he aggressively raced them for the better camping spot and spitefully broke a plate in their vintage minimalist caravan. He can only plan vengeance. Tina, similarly, cannot let the fun of a bridal party slide as good fun. These are people impossible to identify with and the sin of this lies in the fact of the film's nationality: a UK film that dares to hate its proletarian central figures. This is pretty much the reverse of the carboard middle class villains that mar whatever is salvageable from Mike Leigh's world of the blameless dispossessed. And there is none of the dodgy glamour of Natural Born Killers, either. When Chris and Tina kill they just kill and it is extremely ugly. This film hates its central characters and doesn't mind if you hate them, too.

So what's the point? A pair of leads you can't join in with doing things that a little comedy might cleanse. I don't know beyond the simple desire to shine a torch into the face of subjugated inferiority and look upon the mania of its constant resentment. Basil Fawlty works because his anger always backfires. But Fawlty Towers is a comedy, self-avowed and fulfilled. Sightseers has erroneously been depicted as a knockabout black laugh but there is too much hatred from the creative team even to claim the kind of offputting humour that Chris Morris or Julia Davis trade in.

At the same time I felt there was nothing try-hard about it and given the elements listed above there probably should have been. So why is this going in my top ten for the year? Because I loved it and I don't know why.

PS - this was a MIFF pick from this year's missed festival. I was picking pretty danged well.


Peter and Lorna are would be investigative documentarians who have infiltrated a cult headed by a woman who claims to be from the future. We first see the couple undergoing the strident security measures that take them from the controllable world into the controlled environment of Maggie and her followers, a journey that takes them from the familiar colour palette of the cityscape at night to a golden germ-free intimacy.

The first point of establishment here is that of the pair's skepticism. The good thing here is that it is shown to be shaky from the word go. Not shaken yet, but sufficiently touched by Maggie's charisma to have enjoyed the experience. From there it's a question of who will break. We are given sudden psychological histories of both Peter and Lorna in what looks like old super 8 and narrated by a voice we can't quite identify. Both people are candidates for cracking under the weight of personal force and Maggie proves to be a powerful one. Is she faking it or is this how someone from the future would act? In a series of very strong moments where Maggie's claim might become indelible or disintegrate in a breath. Is she a very good manipulator who can ad lib with genius or are her frequent pauses in the face of difficulty just a natural personal regrouping?

There is a moment in the climax that might answer your questions either way.

That's all the plot I'm going to give because there isn't much more than that. But then it doesn't need heavy plotting. The situation is so intriguing that just being there in it is compelling enough. This is supported by two things which raise it above its indie origins: performance and mise en scene.

The performances in this piece are set like gems in metal. There is nothing acting school or awkward about them. At the centre Britt Marling (co-writer of the screenplay and destined for greatness in indieville and probably in a higher profile realm as well) has an intimidating confidence which when challenged, though it betrays strain, returns fire. She is a golden idol with a voice that would probably feel amplified in person. She makes Maggie a quietly terrifying figure, using her natural beauty as a kind of carrier wave.

The elements of the frame, particularly in Maggie's house are put to curious effect being (by tight framing on characters) almost breathlessly intimate but also warm and parental. This is not claustrophobic but comforting. I mean to the viewer; bugger the cult members. It is very easy to imagine the opioid fall into trust and surrender here.

My ideas for independent cinema were informed by the force that guided my generation's culture: punk. Under that aesthetic the more ragged the better as long as sincerity was maintained. This made for over a decade of tatty good intentions among which were small handfuls of treasure. But with video technology that looks richer than the celluloid that felt the light of Liquid Sky or Down by Law the game has both changed (because of the quality it reaches) and developed on its own line (like the French New Wave and the affordable Arriflex cameras and gleeful use of non standard film formats). And with an 85 minute running time and others like Martha Marcy May Marlene's 102 minutes, could we be seeing a return to a Goldilocks era of just right films from an indie scene that now provides a sheen as marketable as its multimillion dollar big business cousin? Hope so.

I missed Sound of My Voice at the cinema because I only heard about it after its run had finished. Like Martha .. I wish I had seen it in the dark with an audience. As good as was the blu-ray that I watched it on this is another that would feel best seen with the minds of nearby strangers. See also Beasts of the Southern Wild, Safety Not Guaranteed and Robot and Frank. Things are looking up again and they're happening at a cinema near you. At least that's what it feels like. And for the moment that might well be good enough.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Catchup Review: COSMOPOLIS

A fable of the 1%. Eric Packer, citizen of the oxygenated bubble of the billionaires club, wants a haircut. His security man reasonably suggests he spend some of his unimaginable wealth calling a hairdresser into the office. Eric wants the mirrors and smell of pomades, soap and the sound of clippers. It's a rootsy thing. So he gets in the limo and heads across town. Traffic's slow. The president's in town and creating traffic jams. Eric's favourite rapper whose beats supply the sound of one of his elevators is also going across town but in an open casket, slowly, mourned by thousands. There are anarchist riots. There are sexual opportunities and places to lunch and dine. It takes a long time to get across town. Eric, in the capsule of the limo with his data screens in the armrests, vodka and ablutionary facilities, is about to watch his life change from the root upwards. Oh, there's also a threat on his life.

This might be thriller territory except that the interest is far more in the examination of the pieces of his lifestyle, his power, health and business methods. If you thought the description in my crammed opening par made for action be warned that this is one of the coldest, most inert, most talkative examinations of a character you are likely to see outside of experimental cinema (and by experimental I mean lab conditions).

But it does play fair with this. Once in the limousine we see the impeccably groomed and smooth faced Robert Pattinson in the car and the back projection of the city behind him and for the first few shots it looks fake. If your tv has a high frequency setting like 100 Hz try it and see how that organic look of film with its grain and colour richness suddenly looks like cheap home video. That's what this looks like.

It's not a mistake. If you don't much about David Cronenberg then wiki or imdb are your friends but for now you do need to know that he is an extremely deliberate filmmaker. After Videodrome when his budgets started improving and his skill grew ever finer there is nothing that happens on screen or comes through the speakers that he hasn't intended. No awkwardly stumbled line or inappropriate facial expression is chance or lack of skill. In any way at all. So when we see our protagonist looking like the groom in a wedding video we are being clued in to the idea that we are going to see a lot of surface, a lot of skin and no heart, and it will be our job to find whatever's beneath. If we don't want to do that work we shouldn't be watching this movie.

This movie is talk. It's so much talk that it can be easy to miss the action and the visual feast going on. The talk is often abstruse but it's not hard to get the gist without feeling left out (indeed, if you were to try and follow it all the first time around you will be left behind very quickly). Keep your focus on how Packer's character changes throughout and you'll be ok. This is not an easy thing though. The verbal delivery is so dry to create distance between these people and the rest of humanity that you might want to pack a jogger's bottle before you sit down in front of it.

Since The Dead Zone (a Cronenberg film that even fans forget to count because it is so early and conventional)  David Cronenberg has split his jobs into increasingly mainstream fare like The Fly, Eastern Promises or A Dangerous Method and the products of his own personal laboratory like Spider, Crash or this one. While all of them look like his work and he's never softened into unrecognisable normality like Scorsese did, the gap between these approaches is wider than that of Guillermo Del Toro who jobs in action sequels in English to fund his singular masterpieces in Spanish. Maybe Cronenberg has just been doing that, playing the game here and reinventing it there on smaller budgets with the idea that his peaks will appear to history from among the innovative pieces. Well, history will take its pick.

Meantime we have Samuel Beckett in New York. People delivering lines rich in information but low on emotion. The great Samantha Morton's near monologue is like something out of a Matthew Barney video it is so poised and creepily monotonous. Juliet Binoche's turn is unsettlingly sexy. Sarah Gadon as Packer's wife is so sexlessly groomed and prepped she might be from the cast of Mad Men. Paul Giamatti is a real treat. His is the final line. It makes sense of a lot of the preceeding and it kills.

I don't know more about Don De Lillo who wrote the novel pon which this is based than my failing to enjoy an earlier book his lent me by a friend. I considered that to be a kind of lo-cal Anthony Burgess meets John Irving, all quirk and scholarship but no substance. Remembering that made me wonder what Cosmopolis could be like on the page as one thing Cronenberg has shown a genuinely astouding talent for in the past in his knack at imaginative literary adaptation. Crash and Naked Lunch, for example, play like companion pieces to their novels rather than rote visualisations of them, they extend the source material into cinema; you can enjoy both without one experience threatening the other. Now it looks like I'll be breaking my vow of non readership of De Lillo just to find out.

Even if I hate the book it will have been worth it.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

My bottom five for 2012

As I tend to accurately pick what I think I will like my worst list for any year will always fall short of the best list. MIFF also throws this off considerably even though I'm far more haphazard in my choices from that program. Then again, a broken leg will knock a great swathe of cinemagoing out of the schedule. Anyway...

The Rum Diary: Johnny Depp aided and abetted by Bruce Robinson make the thoughts of the pre-Gonzo Hunter S. Thompson into Animal House. No thanks. It's rubbish.

The Woman in Black: Renders a good solid novel and chilling sparse tv adaptation (by the late great Nigel Kneale) into a fun park ride with a lot of boo moments that wouldn't stop a ten year old. Also, if you're going to add elements that aren't in any previous versions (including the source novel) try and give them something new. Every original-version-warping addition made to this travesty was straight out of the cliche chest. When Kneale wrote his adaptation for the small screen he knew it would have a tiny budget and so scrapped any special effect that would jeopardise the gloom, dread and sadness that the story needs. His additions involved very clever use of contemporary technology and poignant mementos of the story-recent First World War. The 2012 version just adds cheese. Complete bullshit.

Prometheus: The good thing about Alien was the near total lack of back story. The characters talk shop, union regulations and salvage rates before getting torn apart by the alien. This is all backstory and one of the most hamfisted attempts at creating depth by adding religion. If you're not remotely religious (and I'm not) it comes across as a massive waste.

Damsels in Distress: Whit Stillman considers himself arch and sophisticated but if he weren't so intent on letting us know he thinks this we might enjoy his films more. But he continually demolishes all chance of that happening. It ends up looking like the most contrived garbage outside of the blast radius of a Wes Anderson stinker. Argh!

Dark Knight Rises: EEEEHHH? Dark Knight Rises? Worst? Don't you know it's Christopher Nolan, the man who gave brains to blockbusters? Yes, I know and there they are splattered all over the screen. Look, it is better than most of the others and superior to any of the Tim Burton attempts by going deep into the central conflict and imbuing every main thread with colour and depth. That's the problem, though, because in the end it is really just a big action movie as it should be but bloated out by increasingly lunking pointers to just how clever and deep it is. The effect is to make the conflicts and subtleties and darkness that are part of every major big action piece blaring and obvious. Take those out or allow them to appear to the audience who then can choose to get them (they probably will) or let them slide so the explosions can be enjoyed. Nolans brainy blockbusters remind me of prog rock. Nice playing lads but rock needs to have something primal and joyfully cretinous dominating and driving it. Slamming some Tchaikovsky into Get Off Of My Cloud makes utter faeces of both. Stop it!


First we see the subject. Not just the topic but the character about to be subjugated. Freddie Quell is all deconstructed animal, bleeding the alcohol from torpedoes  humping the prone sandwoman on the beach and then finishing himself off in the shallows, giving only sexual answers to a Rorschach test, fashioning booze in the cleaning closet of the department store where he works as a photographer and sharing it with the store model he's just picked up, provoking and then fighting with a customer before storming out and dragging the model with him like a coat he's just remembered. He could be a caveman with a club from a fifties Playboy cartoon, dragging a woman by the hair.

He is not alone in this. He's just been demobilised from the US Navy at the end of WWII and has, along with his fellow servicemen been lectured about the struggle they will face in getting back to civilian life after what they've been through. He's the same as them but perhaps pushed a little further in certain areas. He's not Everyman but Damagedman.

So when he flees the scene of a possible manslaughter he jumps dock on to a lavish looking yacht party and stows away. He's discovered and taken to the commander of the ship, the self possessed Lancaster Dodd who effortlessly takes control over Freddie, recognising him as the perfect guinea pig for his ideas on human existence and its cure, a body of supposition he calls The Cause.

Freddie is taken into the well-funded looking cult but I wouldn't say absorbed. He is subject to some experimental processing by Dodd which involves answering some penetrating questions, many repeated until the answer changes. The processing is a means of identifying vulnerability in the subject and is the only thing short of physical violence that has got through to Freddie and his violent narcissism. This scene shows a clear case of alter ego between the two men: one controlled and controlling and the other wildly rapacious. This, folks is not how you start a cult but how you perpetuate one; a market of human parasitic commensalism.

PT Anderson has played down the similarities between his Cause and Scientology and rightly so. His brief here has more to do with the motion of a fabricated alternate reality than a particular instance of it. Dodd does come across like an L Ron Hubbard but also like an a-religious David Koresh or Jim Jones.

A beautifully eerie scene plays this out as Dodd sings a bawdy Irish folk song to one of  his gatherings. We see Freddie gazing at it with pleasure and then in the next shot and for the duration of the number all the women in the room are naked. At first this seems like more of Freddie's galloping libido but soon enough it's clear that he is recognising how Dodd is experiencing the occasion; the adoration of available women and docile men. Roll on, ye Joneses, Koreshes and Mansons, here is the bounty of your pluck.

Also absent is any concreteness to the details of The Cause. Beside notions of humans being not of this earth there is little to attach this fabrication to those of Scientology. The scenes of physical and mental processing carry the same kind of hypnotic/entrancing/brainwashing manner as any indoctrination. The scene of Freddie's enforced pacing and continual redefinition of what he is touching is interminable and exhausting. The physically gentler intercuts of Peggy Dodd and her exercises in doublethink are chilling but seem all too brief.

The question of whether Freddies evil ways can be fully subjugated to the Master's plan is the question of whether Freddie and Dodd can fuse together. What at first might seem a good proposition for a bit of Jack Sprat compliments of the reason eventually develops to reveal conflicts. A telling moment when Dodd bursts into puerile fury at the persistent questioning of a journalist about the claims of The Cause strikes him off the roll call of the self-controlled. Dodd's violence is altogether more disturbing than Freddie's ready fists.

But there's a clear limit to how profoundly the master can penetrate Freddie's being when Freddie's self interest is so essential. The sequential question is then how much need has he or any of us for a master of any kind? What does that make any member of the cults that have existed and those countless that shall? Weak-willed? Maybe. But maybe, just maybe, a touch too civilised or socialised ... or processed.

I find an interesting comparison between this and Martha Marcy May Marlene rather than PT Anderson's other films. In Martha ... there is no need to inject obvious religion into a cult that clearly already has a charismatic leader. The offer of a kind of alternative life consolidation seems key to both the fantasy history of The Cause and the unnamed family of Martha ... and in both cases it can only mean subjection. The scary part is the apparent will towards subjection, the guilty victims that cults create.

I'm a critical fan of PT Anderson but I will say this of his work: I seldom feel the need to revisit it because it stays with me. It's very hard to forget Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love or There Will Be Blood. And though I find this one harder to connect with than any of the others I'm left haunted by it.

Anderson's visual strength remains intact. He is like Kubrick in the deliberateness of his images but not as winceable as Wes Anderson. His use of music has been improving steadily since he gave up on the jukebox approach. And his casting is again central to his films' integrity.

Hoffman brings his industrial strength presence to Lancaster Dodd. He is intimidatingly present in his scenes and his few sudden flashes of anger reveal a terrifying narcissism.

Phoenix takes a rather strange path in creating Freddie but it's worth it as it allows for both the vulnerability and visceral force elemental to his character. We know more about him than any of the others but he keeps a lot of himself in shade to the end.

Last and best, IMHO, Amy Adams. Peggy Dodd is the cold and deadly brains behind the man. Whether falcon-eyed in a crowd, servicing her husband with such matter of factness that it is both disturbing and arousing, or staring straight into Freddie's point of view and persuading him and us that her eyes are changing colour, or reciting pornography in a voice as cold as a catheter, her performance is like watching a cyclone without a soundtrack; her violence will always look like beauty but will also look like death.

I saw this at the Astor in its 70 mm presentation and was glad of it. The sound cut out about a third of the way through and we missed a little dialogue but quite pleasantly I don't think we missed a single point made in those few minutes, even though there was clearly dialogue being spoken. There's Hitch's requirement seen to and not even intentionally ;)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Catchup review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Marcy May flees the weird cultish commune where she's been living and the pursuit of her by the others ends with a brief ineffectual confrontation in a diner. Free, she's on the payphone outside reversing the charges to her sister who turns up and collects her, carrying her back to a splendid huge lakeside house in the country. Marcy May is really Martha. She's in good hands now.

Martha doesn't tell her sister Lucy anything of the cult she was in, being persistently vague about where she has spent the previous two years. But we see and as we do we quickly get a sense of the structure of this film as it phases between the present life in Lucy's house and the previous one at the cult's farmhouse.

Her life there included constant degradation as the women were subject to the leader Patrick's charismatic divide and rule policy, an initiation involving rape which the women facilitate, some cruel mind games and finally home invasions and worse. They refer to themselves as a family to which anyone with a passing knowledge of the 60s will mentally add the name Manson.

So, good thing she's out. Well, although she began well by appearing chatty and involved in the life of her sister's house and marriage. Soon enough it becomes clear that whatever social skills she had before the cult she now has nothing but a series of guesses and they are all wrong. Her damage is profound, beyond the scope of the care of her increasingly alienated sister. Through a moment of weakness Martha betrays her new position to the cult.

That's as far as I'll go with the plot as, even though it's a slow boiler, there are no go areas for a reviewer beyond this point. But as well drawn as the plot is the worth of this film lies more in the constant psychological commerce taking place between characters in the new life and the past. Martha was so soured by her life in the cult and events they have engineered that she must flee but the normal world beyond the woods has become alien to her, a world of threats and filled shadows.

This is the creepiest film I've seen since Last year's Kill List but without need of the genre jumping virtuosity. Martha... presents one thing only but with such cold deliberation and a surprising grip on the elements of cinema and how they will serve that deliberation that it is unthinkable that, once accepting the premise and its initial development the viewer will not be shaken by the closing moments. This is a horror film, an undeclared horror film as it looks like it's going to be another severe indy piece like Winter's Bone. It starts there but then turns to its own course, going somewhere old by a completely new route. I have seldom witnessed such a sustained exercise of sheer unease, such constant dread as here. The house invasion scene and Marcy May's preparation of the new girl are lighted like Rembrandt paintings but play like real nightmares.

Elizabeth Olsen shows in this piece the sheer power and control that would make her complex turn in Liberal Arts so compelling. Here, her gentle beauty is a curtain of hell. As such she will continue to bear close watching.

PS - I saw this on dvd even though I'd wanted to see it at the cinema on release earlier this year. It came out before my injury but I just didn't get there. Now I wish I had seen it with an audience. I'm definitely getting my own copy.


What Americans like the ones in this movie call high school is different from what we call it here. Here it starts after primary and the average kid is thirteen, going from being what feels like world monarch in grade seven to untouchable leper in grade eight. The temporal distance between your first day at high and finishing senior appears to the kid on the first day as an interminable Sysiphusian penal code.

Here the ignorable dickheads of primary school are goon squads of blinkered conformity. There are genetic monsters who take P.E. and grown up gamma minuses who take Tech Drawing. Embittered harridans of History and Economics whose talons and villanous laughter press home the grinding truth that there is no fair combat. But worst of all there are the popular teachers. These bearded or beaded (this was the seventies) narcissists were experts in using the social weight at the top of the pyramid to press down on the lower orders until everyone is word perfect in the pledges of local allegiance and pecking order. In the midst of this are teachers who carry their vocation like an old valise, comfortingly outmoded and dependable, and seem as easy dealing with sociopathy as perceived talent in their charges. I treasure their memory today, even though it can be obscured by the maelstrom of hatred and special pleading of most of the other memories.

I shouldn't complain. Things really improved for me after the first two years (which weren't that bad anyway, to tell you the truth) and I didn't mind the flack when I felt it as I was the offcentre type to begin with, only feeling the need to belong when ... well, that's kind of what this story is so I'll get back to it.

Charlie writes a letter to himself, saying that he will begin dealing what high school will be like by imagining his last day. He walks in slow motion through the corridor scale ticker tape parade. You, I and Charlie already know that his first day will be a flop. No spoilers possible there. But there's something that feels very wrong for the first good while of this film and it was making me uneasy in my seat.

After his first day when he makes no friends beyond the benign attention of his new English teacher (a pleasantly subdued Paul Rudd) in a few believable circumstances he is in with the quirky crowd, completely and utterly accepted with no faux pas nor overplayed hands. When the moment comes when he is toasted by the effusive Patrick (a post-Kevin Ezra Miller) his response:"I didn't think anyone noticed me." Comes after a lot of shared experiences including what will be this movie's iconic moment, a ride through a tunnel to the strains of David Bowie's Heroes. After all that he whispers something so self-effacing it sounds disingenuous. But it's meant to sound modest and poignant. Everything feels floppy here and doesn't feel like it's going to gel and take wing but will slop down to a Wes Anderson-like cute fest.

It doesn't, though. Charlie's personal issues with his family develop (yes develop, not turn into narrative ambushes) and take root, giving even the timidity of his personality more cause than it began with. This material also allows some real gravitas to the rest of it and soon enough the whole cutsey avalanche of novelist phrases - "Welcome to the island of misfit toys" - is placed within the naivete of adolesence. When the twist arrives (and we have indeed been expecting it, thanks be for decent writing and pacing: novelist adapted and directed) its effect is profound and flows understandably from the preceeding mood. And Charlie (Logan Lerman) gets a chance to do more than emote as a wisp o' the will. His performance at this point is impressive and informs the rest of the film.

So, while there aren't the kind of storms and occasional cornucopiae o' bliss that I remember, this is a gentle tale of big dark things that, once it hits its stride eradicates the indulgent cuteness that many lesser films focussing on the same area too easily give in to. Also, one particularly big moment involving a fight concludes in a way that I, curiously, imagined as a written scene from a novel. Odd thing is that it works a treat.

Something for summer about a time of personal change that everyone has lived through or soon will? It's not The Tin Drum but it's better than it promises to be.

PS - While I don't have the same problem some others have about these kids who can name songs by the Smiths and Cocteau Twins but don't recognise Heroes when they hear it, I still say humph and happily show my age by declaring that Heroes was one of the big anthemic songs when I was at high school. Like Pretty Vacant it managed to be quite culty and erase the sounds of Hotel California with a terrible might.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


When you're young ridiculing older people isn't just fun it's necessary. Youth has nothing but itself for its own defence. The Rimbauds and twenty-something Orson Welles's are statistical anomalies. Mostly it's bravado and a bubble of self advertising, the louder and further fetched the better. So when oldies with their threatening experience, judgement and culture appear at the gates it's time to render all that into shiftless bigoted conservatism, goofy music and culture that wouldn't shock a rabbit and senility. From the other side (where I now am) there's no comeback; if you lampoon the young as a senior you just look like a dick.

But it's not all extremes. There's a whole tribe of folk who, while ageing, still live young and charge the silver backs of others only a handful of years older as generationally distant and of quaint living archaeology. It is easily forgotten that three years equals a chasm when it's 18 and 15. But 47 and 50 .... Sorry.

The cruelty of all of this, of course, is that the only group to whom age becomes a sheddable skin is that which, having passed the big zeros has relaxed about it. The rest is hysteria.

Liberal Arts is a delicate essay on this. If at times it shows its didacticism too easily the sheer continuous appeal of its cast and their performances do much to soothe. In fact, walking away from the cinema it struck me that every single cast member, even the ones playing cranky seemed to have come fresh from the best sauna and massage of their lives. There is conflict in this story but it's played so smoothly there's never a chance of the slightest furrow. That's not faint praise as I'll get to.

Jesse has found himself nowhere at 35. Having enjoyed his uni years, he took his unmarketable degree on a drift that led him to working in admissions, facilitating increasingly younger people's passage to the salad days of campus life. He gets a call from a much loved professor from his old uni inviting him to the older man's retirement dinner. What else is he going to do? He accepts and jumps in a rental and gets there. In the course of the multi-car logistics of setting up a lunch date with colleagues he is struck dumb by the radiance of their daughter Zibby. Over lunch and the digestive afterglow he fills to the brim with love for her. She's pretty keen on him. She's 19. He makes his excuses and leaves. A sullen evening walk later Jesse is accosted by a harlequin-like stranger (a deliriously funny Zac Efron) who persuades him to crash a nearby campus party. Guess who's there. So, should they start something up? If so, what? Etc.

What ensues is a far more credible cultivation of a relationship than I was expecting from a writer/director/star driven film. Woody Allen didn't have to be that advanced in years before his on screen romances started to look high fantastical. Here, it is kept to a credible early spring/mid summer pairing who are close enough in vintage to work but distant enough to allow conflict. Meantime, there's Jesse's old Professor who panics over his retirement and near debases himself trying to get his job back, Jesse's old romantic poets tutor whose ageing has left her insolubly embittered, and Zibby is coursing toward a decision that will bring her relationship with Jesse to an ethical brink.

All of this is handled so smoothly it should just drip from the screen and evaporate on the cinema carpet but it doesn't. The central pair of Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Olsen work and the tension between them due to the age gap is constantly on screen despite the warming harmony we mostly see. Radnor is constant self-doubt. Olsen is a 19 year old reaching beyond her years but still constrained by the vulnerability her inexperience gives her. The more I think of it the more extraordinary her performance appears. The reconciliation of this situation happens not just from its confronting moment of truth but through a separate thread you can discover for yourself which, while it feels a little too tidy, provides a glimpse of Jesse as a self accepting thirty something. Zibby has more to go through.

But if it weren't for the seriousness and import of the issues of letting go of false ideals and grasping the realities of ageing and that seriousness given such generous air to speak, this film might just be a rehash of the  jaded square rejuvenated by a sparking young thing so enamoured of the late 60s that it might well form its own genre. Harold and Maude reversed the casting and kept the memento mori centre screen and created something new. Liberal Arts doesn't but doesn't have to. It's like morning tea with a friend who has stumbled upon a revelation about themselves that is potentially life changing but so well articulated and good natured that it's a pleasure to hear rather than a grating indulgence. One and a half hours of a conversation you'll be glad you overheard.

Monday, December 17, 2012


In the late seventies I remember seeing ads in the local music press (Juke and RAM) for what I took to be promotions of current singer songwriter types. I clearly remember a series of display ads for Nick Drake's albums. I never heard them then so they never took with me. Rodriguez was given the same treatment. Quite big ads for his two albums issue after issue. I thought no more of them at the time until the name started filtering through in the community out under the smoking trees at lunch and then, which gave it real heft, the university parties I started going to when I was sixteen. But there was something in the way of all this.

By the late seventies the singer songwriter type of artist was in the panelling. What I heard of Rodriguez' albums was acoustic guitar and whining voice. Right, I thought, it's 1978 and someone's cashing in on Bob Dylan. That's timely.

Also, when I was swept up by punk from 1976 onwards everything had to be as good as that. Well, everything had to be that. So in the year I decamped for Brisbane and kept up a lot of letter writing with some of the ol' crew from Townsville, Fiona, fellow travelling punque, told me about how good she thought this new stuff by Rodriguez was, quoting the lyric to I Wonder. I didn't give up on her but I did feel like it.

Searching for Sugar Man does this kind of thing. The first scene and narration are that of a shop owner from Cape Town talking about himself and then edging toward the subject of this film. And then you get a lot of other people from the same town doing the same. In the midst of this are some talking head interviews with people in America recollecting seeing Rodriguez in the bars he played, signing him up and recording the two albums. And one thing comes through like a big blue wave: Rodriguez' story is that of his fans. 

See also Nick Drake. There is a poignant and delicate film about Drake called A Skin Too Few. So very little is known about him intimately that the screentime seems held together with a system of spider webs. In this realm of fame or near fame the testimony of a Paul Weller feels as weighty as that of a Joe Boyd who knew and nurtured Drake's work. The overall effect of this is respectful but barely contained commemoration, its brevity seeming to emphasise the fragility of the emotional response to such a heart rending tale as Drake's. 

That's what I thought I was in for when I saw Searching for Sugar Man and indeed that's how it begins. Rodriguez through the same kind of social currency as I experienced put the hook in the Afrikaner youth who were culturally malnourished but ready to rumble. It was these two sets of whining singer songwriter strumming that fuelled a generation into something anthemic and mighty. The cultural and social movement that led to the southern Perestroika in the hated Republic of South Africa rioted to the thump twang and wheedle of a singer unknown in his own land and in his own town known only as a demolition worker.

Rodriguez' two LPs sank without a trace on their release in the early seventies. After that so little is known of him that the arguments were not over what might have been but if he'd killed himself by gun or petrol at his final live performance. This is where this film gets interesting, knows it and starts luxuriating. 

With no effective biographical material there is nothing to talk about but the effect the music had on its listeners. They don't just talk, they bear witness to social upheaval and healing. There isn't a musician alive who wouldn't find this and this alone to be a kind of neurological miracle drug. Such works as I have given, shall cleanse nations..... Especially if he flopped and settled down to his old job and did like everyone else. Or ... if he'd lit a match to his petrol-doused body and farewelled the nerveless cruelty of the world forever.

Anyone with Google can end the story told here and I'll keep the heart-gladdening twist of it for the viewer but there is something this film brings out that has intrigued me for a while and it has to do with an error of perception on my part that I can scarcely forgive in myself.

Where grief is concerned I'm mostly an ice cube. It takes a lot to affect me simply with the news of a death. I'm just not very good at it. But when Syd Barrett's death came through I wept. I could think of nothing more than that beauteous creature with the fiery imagination walking away from his fame into decades of shuddering lonely insanity. Then I read an interview with David Gilmour who said that the rest of Pink Floyd made sure that Syd's contributions were kept in good profile and that he received every penny of his royalties. His death came at the end of decades of pottering creative restlessness, creating weird furniture, painting, naming the pebbles on the path between his house and the chemist and somewhere way back there a little music as well. Everything I'd thought about him was guided by the shallow assumption that he had wanted the kind of fame he had early on but just couldn't connect with it. We assume this about our rockstars as the supporting evidence is so cringingly strong. But sometimes....

Rodriguez makes a couple of albums that fail so rudely he gets the message and picks up his tools and goes back to work. An ocean away the sounds and words are fuelling a revolution. But there's a fridge that has to come down from a second floor apartment and there are only the stairs to get it there. And now, I'm going to go looking for some Rodriguez CDs.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


I've posted the first chapter of the web comic about my leg injury here.

This was the thing that kept me from going to MIFF this year.


Review: NO

Rene is asked to make an ad for the "no" case in the upcoming referendum. He lives in Chile. It's 1988. General Pinochet has bowed to international pressure by calling the referendum that will ask the people if they want more of his brutal dictatorship for another ten years. The right don't trust Rene as his father is an exiled dissident. The left don't like him either as he's an ad man. He's iffy about doing it anyway as no one thinks the referendum is going to do anything more than expose more dissidents for the jails and drains. So he says ok.

At first, this isn't such a bad job. Rene looks at the dogmatic effort the left have put together and sees what must be done, clearly enjoying the hustle of the sell. His Pinochet-supporting boss knows Rene is at least consulting for the NOs and tolerates it, confident that even his star performer won't be able to dent the quo. Rene goes along with all of this, mocking up a more commercial commercial for the NOs who don't get it and think he's a stooge for the bad guys. And the more he coasts around this task the more noticeable become the unmarked cars filled with beefy humourless men and trucks of soldiers never far away.

That's it. No more tip toes. He gets the crew out guerilla style, marshalls a jingle with a hammering refrain and shoots around the military presence, under cover and through the trees. By air time he's got something that makes the YES case look staid, paternal and oppressive.

An advertising arms race later and the mighty groundswell NO rally is broken up by muscle and water canon. What happens? Wiki is your friend.

Pablo Larrain shot this on period-correct news gathering betamax and the look is grainy and takes getting used to. The choice of format is not artsy affectation. First, it allows the audience an intimacy with the events depicted. The 4X3 frame is constantly crammed with information and we are kept close to the images we need, just like news vision. The original ads sit in the frame naturally, part of the weave, not apart from it. It feels uncontrived. It feels like news unfolding like daily life. The daily life just happens here to be lived in a dictatorship that doesn't care who knows about it.

Jean Luc Godard, whose life lessons are as important to cinema as any film he made, famously declared that a film's method should match its sentiment; if you set up for Gone With the Wind you won't be making Tout va BienNO doesn't play like a Godard film, you'll find three Aristotelean acts without eye strain, but it does run on clear conviction and at no point strays from it.

To have run with convention and shown a tortured genius breaking through and ending with the finished triumphant ad would have been acceptable but a lot less fulfilling. The team here keep things resolutely day-to-day. The ad airs about half way through the film and only partially fills the screen. Each side was given fifteen minutes of air time in the week leading to the poll. It wasn't one big band against another but a seven days of mounting conflict. The heroes here aren't centre screen, they live in the houses outside of the tv studio who decided for themselves to vote no. Pinochet's tyranny is incidentally visited in scenes of sanctioned bullying here but most of it rolls out in daily life. That is this film's strength.

That strength is compounded by a powerful cast headed by Gael Garcia Bernal who embodies the film he is part of by allowing us to see what he forbids himself to express. His response to the events of the finale is rightly sobering as he walks through the crowd and understands where they have been and the work that now must be done. He's the only one not partying like it's 1973.

Top marks, too to a political film that resists the easy temptation of self-reference. There are formidable forces at work to maintain the ordinariness of the big things happening on screen and the audience is allowed to contemplate that without the kind of blaring signposts that an Oliver Stone or Mike Leigh would plant everywhere. It's about propaganda, it doesn't play as propaganda. It doesn't need to; it already knows what it is and knows you will, too.

PS - This is another missed MIFF pick that I've caught up with. Man I missed a good festival.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Top 10 26/11/2012

Rashomon: A rape and a murder and four versions (including one from beyond the grave) which agree only about the rape and the death but in all other aspects troublingly different. The realism of cinema given the Hiroshima treatment.

Eraserhead: Truest to the imagination of its author that I know.

Dark Star: Made for a vanishingly small fraction of the budget of the nearly contemporaneous Star Wars but with far more depth, real humour and intellectual content. And when it's cute it remembers that it should also be funny.

Boogie Nights: Multi-threaded compound narrative set in the porn industry but made as a celebration of family values. Everyone's good in it. Not P.T. Anderson's first but his debut on the world's screen. This created his fans-for-life-base.

2001: A Space Odyssey: My favourite Kubrick. From the dawn of humanity to its transformation into star children. Remembered to suggest that space travel, for all its pioneering constant moment, might also be boring. Was celebrated thus: "the next film set in space will have to be shot on location". Didn't happen but we are compelled to understand and to forgive.

The Haunting: When I compile these lists I think of all time favourites but only pick those closest to my memory. This doesn't just mean films I've seen recently but any title that comes up when I think of movies I like. That's why the lists are always substantially different from each other. This one keeps appearing in the lineup. It's just that good.

 Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Still makes me laugh ... a lot.

Suspiria: Horror tale understands essential component of good horror: remove the control from the audience. It only fails when it tries to explain itself. Seen recently with a live soundtrack played by the band that wrote the music. Outstanding!

 In The Company of Men: Inspired by the cads and machinations of Restoration comedy, this severe morality tale was neither bettered by its writer director nor anyone else for understanding male competition. The winner wins without penalty and this will make your heart sink.

Martin: Is he a mixed up kid who thinks he's a vampire or a vampire who will forever be a mixed up kid. Again, George Romero changed the game with a particular genre just because he could. The big budget world could never compete with the pluck and candour of this.

Monday, November 19, 2012


The opening scene in Robot and Frank tells you two things you need to know about the rest of the film: Frank still operates as a burglar and forgets things. Because of the latter his son drives up to Frank's house in the country to deliver him a robot helper. Frank is as irascible and resistant as we already might expect at this and only barely tolerates the newcomer until one crucial moment involving a loophole in the machine's programming makes it valuable.

The gap between the odd couple closes until they are mutually dependent. So far that's a buddy movie. Frank has learned to accept his ageing and the need for trust. All it needs is for him to accidentally name the robot (if he cleaves too cloyingly he could be called Cleaver).

But that's what distinguishes this piece from all those like it in the never-too-old-learn sub-genre of warm comedies. Frank never names the robot. He addresses it directly and uses its functionality as he would a toaster. That doesn't mean that the robot never gets cute - that would have to happen and does - but it does prevent the inevitable sentimentality at the end from fulsomeness. There are other things on the table here and they only start with the buddy story.

Frank is old and grumpy but he has no problem with technology. He's happy to take a wall sized  international video call from his daughter and handles his own spiffy looking mobile phone with ease. His initial objection to the robot is from his pride at being capable not fear of the future. There is no irony when Frank points to his head and describes it as a good piece of hardware. He is rightly contemptuous of the consultant who has turned the local library into a paperless goopy encounter centre and refers to Frank as a link with the past due to Frank's reliance on printed information. That's the point here, though, the younger man's assumption makes him Frank's target, far more than the defilement of the library.

After a brief encounter with some writ-large symbolism involving a rare copy of Don Quixote we are also over the notion that Frank will be tilting at windmills for a moral victory over the superficial consumer purgatory that the modern world is allowing through. So, what are we left with, then?

We're left with a film about programming. We are used to the concept from the robot but soon we're looking at human programming. The humans here are variously stronger (through conquering love) or more vulnerable (through unchanging habits) because of their programming. Yes, that's another way of saying they are psychologically determined the way any fictional character is but the focus is quite clearly on how that psychology was put together and how firmly it fufills its program.

Characters are constantly plugging into others for expected functionality in this story. Even when Frank is visited by the local cop with burglary victim in tow, the latter is filled with unwavering accusation and the former extends a request for help from Frank as a burglary expert.

Deeper still are the programs of attraction, loyalty, parenting and family and these run according to their input like everything else in the film. Even Frank's reluctance to alter the robot's growing nature, as it were, despite it being very advantageous to do so originates from the lower levels of his ethical programming. The scene in which this decision is made thus offers more than sentimentality (though that's being trowlled on at that point) by suggesting functional necessity. It's a moving scene intensified by rationalism.

There is a big twist in the tail which I won't spoil but its inventiveness should be sung here for, while it promises even more sentimentality it also depicts a series of human programs interlocking and operating in restored functionality. There is a coda which similarly asks us to acknowledge our programming, joyfully or not.

A terrific cast centred around Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon play a script that is pleasantly content with rolling out its ideas unobtrusively so that the surface interface can function so well as a warm winter years comedy while some quite dark matter works beneath. What might have been Cleaver 'n' Corky is just Robot and Frank (the character designers just used the name already attached to the actor). It's almost Safety Not Guaranteed's complement as unlike that one this uses a humanistic genre to get to some real sci fi.

Robot and Frank was a pick from the MIFF I had to miss this year. With this and the likes of  Safety Not Guaranteed and Beasts of the Southern Wild I'm getting the feeling I missed a hell of a festival.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Top 10 12/11/12

Videodrome: Libetarianism vs the forces of reaction in a biology-altering arena made of pixels and paranoia. Still my favourite Cronenberg.


The Spirit of the Beehive: A film about children rather than a children's film, Spirit remembers Nietzsche's comments about the seriousness of children's play. That and some of the most eye popping landscape photography ever in a movie.

Eraserhead: A tapestry of anxiety made over years from rare grey glass beads.

Nashville: Robert Altman's Boschian canvas of America's other dream factory neither lets up for a second nor outstays its welcome even at two hours and forty minutes. Cast members who got songs wrote at least their own lyrics. This could have been an epic-scaled cheap shot but keeps to the harder path all the way through.

The Exorcist: Faith or reason? Parental love or dysfunctional broken family? Anyway you see it, the kid's the one who suffers. Friedkin reinvented the horror movie with this one, treating the gothic subject with the eye of a documentarian. Worked.

The Producers: Still funny.

Stalker: Could've been called Talker for its all dialogue no action screentime but this ocean-deep wish story absorbs like no other. Also, great example of an adaptation that extends rather than diminishes its source material (English title of novel is Roadside Picnic. It's shorter than this movie and worth your time)

Primer: Time travel as cinema verite, Primer takes us over the shoulder of the garage scientists who crack the code and take the trip. The dialogue of the technicalities is a subdued shorthand between friends; we aren't meant to follow it all the way and by the time we get to the moral conundra we are happy to assume the i's were dotted and the t's crossed as we enter some ethics warping territory. Not a found footage film but has the candour of a good one. Top marks for drying out a soggy sub-genre to just the right amount.

Cube: Writing about Primer reminded me of Cube, a one set movie made for two cents Canadian but comes across as a decently budgeted sci-thriller. Starts like a Twilight Zone story as a group of disparate individuals wake up in prison fatigues in a metal box with no memory of how they got there. Prologue already shows us how deadly the surrounding cubes can be but if they don't try they'll die. Vincenzo Natali has never topped this debut effort even with steadily rising budgets and production values. This one looks like a strong idea pursued with a bloodhound's single mindedness.

Seconds: Writing about Cube reminded me of Seconds, a mid sixties sci-fi wish tale that plays like an extended Twilight Zone ep. Ageing white collar gets offer of lifetime, the chance to live as a young man again with all new opportunities. We already suspect the cost of this will be horrifying but nothing will prepare us for the crushing pathos of the end. Rock Hudson, a gay man posing as a Hollywood he man in real life, must have been intrigued by the opportunity to send this coded signal to his fans and the demi-monde beyond them.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Review: DAMSELS IN DISTRESS: comedy of eras

The Heather-ish trio of college girls who take newcomer Lilly into their fold have are on a mission to prevent campus suicides by offering a place to come and talk about it, enjoy doughnuts and coffee and get into some life-affirming tap dancing. The leader, Violet has a lot of thoughts on the improvement of the human social experience including the pursuit of second-tier boys whose disadvantages provide a project for their girlfriends as well as a course in their own improvement. What emerges quickly in this strategy is the unstated advantage that the dowdy boys will also be less pursued by the girls' competition. Violet's ideas on redemption through dance go as far as her designing a new dance which she refers to as a dance craze before anyone else has taken a step of it.

College life stretches out as a series of frat parties, relationship shuffling and post adolescent soul searching. What's new? Well, what's meant to be new is the infusion of the mood of Fred 'n' Ginger era musical romance as well as a deadpan quirk all blended into a fifties college comedy and set today. How can this work? It doesn't, really.

Whit Stillman's spare rap sheet is a collection of gentle urbanity served with an archness to the concepts and wit of the pieces. He has outlasted filmmakers like Hal Hartley who established themselves around the same early ninties climate of deadpan intellectual ensemble comedies. But unlike the similarly pedigreed Stephen Soderberg, Stillman has ventured no further from his initial origins than the front gate. Whether this is from fear of risk or comfort is unknown to me but I think it strange that he is less known than one of his highest profile inheritors Wes Anderson who does the same thing only with the volume on eleven. Anyway...

So here's another Stillman comedy of manners with roots in Shakespeare's world of dissemblance. At first there seems to be a lot of unacceptable superiority that we're invited to agree with but soon enough this is dispelled. Violet's near autistic dryness of delivery is from something unnamed but symptomatic of autism. The girl who reveals this speaks in a tortured posh accent but gets some crucial things gratingly wrong (the frequently repeated word "operat-or" should be more like "operatuh"). This does get explained toward the end, and well. A lot of people on screen are playing appearance here and the pain that has necessitated it is clear. There is real depth beyond the icing. So why is it so listless and unaffecting?

On the one hand this all feels too tryhard. Violet is only interesting when she gets emotionally affected. This lasts long enough to engage us until her confidence returns and she blands up again. Until we learn the reason for Rose's grating assumed accent it is hard to accept anything she says but she gets so many lines. New girl Lilly, the sole female character begins with the kind of approachability that misleads us to think she will be the central character. When the scene comes up when she explains that she'd rather be normal than extraordinary she is wearing an outfit so exaggeratedly girly she looks like she's on her way to a birthday party for a five year old. Xavier's religious affinity is offered like a line but is clearly meant to be sincere and then his casual recantation of it just looks carelessly written (in spite of however much design is involved in it). The big frat house Roman party that leads to the banning of the frat house from campus is almost studiously tame and yet is referred to jokingly (but not sarcastically) as the end of civilisation. Masculine stupidity is packed into a running gag about boy students not knowing what colour is. Grrrrr!

Now, while according to the Amnesty International report on it, Wes Anderson is still the worst perpetrator of the quirk=depth fallacy, Stillman's sin here is probably that he doesn't go far enough. While Anderson just piles the eccentricity and "adorable" obstinacy etc until something works and the odd moment of gravity is awarded the Congressional Medal of Cinematic Vision. Stillman just keeps it at a simmer. When the sudden tying of threads happens it at least seems to have come from somewhere (which Anderson doesn't seem to care about).

There are two exceptions to this in Damsels in Distress. Charlie's rant about the cultural debasement of gayness killing its appeal for him hits just the right note to avoid it being cringey. The girls en masse have a run that their self-conscious femininity prevents from being more than a frustrated stride is performed so effortlessly that it's genuinely funny.

Less funny is ... the rest of it. But that's me. From the first dialogue exchange in this film I bristled and prepared myself against it. It does include some good performance and real wit. It is clear that much of what appears on screen is placed there with painstaking precision. But that's the problem. It's only interesting when something gets knocked over or smeared with something. Otherwise we get a nineties comedy of a fifties college ensemble piece and a thirties song and dance dressed up as twenty-tens archness.

Oh, and if you put Aubrey Plaza into two scenes with some appropriate dialogue, try taking her out of the shtick a little. Here she looks like Aubrey Plaza for hire. For an alternative see my review of Safety Not Guaranteed below.

Damsels in Distress is not rubbish it's just not for me.


A small gang of newshounds go out of town on a jaunt to find out if a time travel ad is real, a jaunt that will lead to love, adventure and self knowing. Sounds like porridge, doesn't it? Well, read on.

Safety Not Guaranteed has so much going against it that I'd normally let it pass on spec but some hooks emerged from the used but smooth indy surface that first bade me choose it for my MIFF list and then (having missed out on that) compelled me to stroll into the Kino on Cup Day morning to enjoy a deluxe (ie empty auditorium) cinema experience of the piece.

The story quickly splits into two types of film that while disparate are closely related to each other: buddy movies and quirky love stories or, if you will, a Sideways stirred in with a Harold and Maude. This should fall but the reason it holds is that both threads are tightly woven with a firmly handled theme: risk.

Risk in chief, Kenneth's claim of time travel, has all the incredulity of the world around him biting a tit. Kenneth seems a sad loner, holding on to a dangerously unhinged notion of his own capabilities, supported by an equal delusion idea of his own importance (he thinks government agents are after him). Mark Duplass carries his role far from the mad garage professor that it might have been by allowing a profound sadness to show through as though it were impossible to conceal, as though he must by now be used to everyone around him recognising it. His delusions about his abilities and the government's interest in them ricochet off this sadness but not into ridicule but affection. We warm to him quickly and the question on our minds as to whether this self-aware indy is going to go into debunking his claim for comedy (as in Napolean Dynamite, a cousin film to this one) or pathos OR show its fulfillment. We just don't know until the point where we are not allowed not to.

The buddy movie thread neither intrudes nor suffers from tokenism as its performances, too, are strong. Cocky journalist Jeff attempts his own kind of time travel in seeking out his high school sweetheart. He feels his own ageing and must come to grips with it as well as the object of his nostalgia's obssession. The results have an appropriate maturity to them and in turn spur Jeff to take up the case of the nerdy Arnau with humility and digestible warmth. The climactic moment of this thread isn't funny but doesn't try to be, its founding solemnity bears it without effort.

The small central cast might not seem to be ensemble players considering the story keeps them apart for so much of the screen time but this does end up being a team effort. Well, I'd say that and leave it there were it not for Aubrey Plaza. Plaza's stand up and tv work (Parks and Recreation) form a kind of acerbic wit whose delivery borders on autism. A strange mix of gamer girl and shrewd beauty allow her to be both believably nerdy and seductive in the same scene. Her performance clearly takes her schtick way beyond the brand.

A surprise cast member is Kristen Bell who appears in a scene of game-changing revelation which deftly knocks our expectations out. Bell is known to a majority of what I take to be the imagined audience for this film who would know her from Veronica Mars and Heroes. She is not listed in the opening credits but her appearance in her scene stamps it with cruciality, her presence is saying, "pay attention".

The thing that really makes this film work against its own type, though, is that for all the lightness of the comedy present in almost every frame, the seriousness of its theme of regret and the risk needed to overcome it is played with strength. All comedies must have a kind of memento mori, a token of the grimness that they are asking us to face with laughter. Quirky comedies need this more than rom coms or they will simply fall into silliness (even Wes Anderson understands this, he's just crap at it). Harold and Maude's constant whimsy is bounded by the presence of death applied with equal force, making it one of the greatest comedies ever put on to a screen. I can think of no higher compliment to give Safety Not Guaranteed than to say that while it can't compete with Harold and Maude's power it joins a tiny group of films that go to the same place and come back stronger for the experience.

One of my films of the year. Still in cinemas at time of writing.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Top 10 1/1/2012

Come and See: Title is a quote from the Book of Revelation. No accident as we follow young rosy cheeked farm boy Florya go off to join the local militia to fight the Nazi invaders. Without firing his rifle once what he goes through ages him by apparent centuries. Then he fires and fires and fires and fires. At what? Go and see! .... but with friends .... some good friends.


 Eraserhead: Renouncing all other religions I pledge my heart to the greatest movie ever made.

The Seventh Victim: Mark Robson directed Val Lewton genreless piece blends a missing person trail with anti-violent satanists. A lightless room in an office building seems itself to kill one of the characters. Begins and ends with a quote from John Donne. B-movie? Technically, yes, as it was made to go first in a cinema double feature but its quality and the depth of some of its ideas probably outclassed the A feature.


 Harvey: Like Harold and Maude (see below) this great comedy advocates freedom at the cellular level. James Stewart, only just beginning to play into his Autumn years, is Elwood P. Dowd a cushioned eccentric who goes about the town, enjoying martinis in the local bars, one for him and one for his friend Harvey the pooka, a six foot white rabbit who acts as friend and mentor. No one else sees or hears Harvey which is why they all want him shut away in the local EST facility. Heartwarming and whimsical without ever once turning it up to cloying.

Fistful of Dollars: Clint makes his Leone debut in this magnificent cover version of Kurosawa's Yojimbo (itself a cover version, this time of American sources). Clint as The Man With No Name rides into town between two warring crime clans and plays them against each other. Music by Ennio Morricone. You got something not to love about all that?

Harold and Maude: BEST. ROMCOM. EVER.


One Plus One: Rock stars who don't have to get out of bed in the morning get together in a studio to take a song from a fragile folky try hard into a cultural megaton force. Meanwhile a group of urban guerillas with nothing to lose go about a series of interminable and mind numbing political and paramilitary drills and lose all their energy and focus. Godard isn't asking you to sympathise with them he's asking: what is wrong with this picture? This and Gimme Shelter are excellent weapons of disabuse for anyone who gets starry-eyed about the sixties and the Stones were in both and at their prime.

Picnic at Hanging Rock: This film really isn't made from much but it doesn't have to be. Really, it's no more than corsetted Europe meeting the big scary outback and getting swallowed whole by it. This is a quietly spooky film. Only director's cut I know of that is shorter than the original release. I wish Peter Weir still made films like this.

The China Syndrome: Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon put more than contract fulfillment into their performances of this post-Three-Mile-Island scenario that would play out for real and worse in the next bloc when Chernobyl got mad. The mounting information stress of this film keeps it so straight that when it finally does break into its emotional damburst it's too late to feel any difference between the great sadness of the climax and the wrongs of its cause. Something that's easily forgotten about this film if ever noticed is that it has no music score. Play that to John Williamson and Hans Zimmer. Won't make any difference to their next bloat soundtracks but it'd be nice to watch them wonder.

Audition: A widower is encouraged by his son and colleague to look for another wife. He works in TV so sets up auditions for a fake show just so he can see what's out there. He's already looked through the applicants and by the time the ONE shows up he can't stop himself from crossing the line and praising her. What then looks like a dirty old man's pursuit of a young beauty turns .... well, get a copy and watch it. If family-first valued paranoia movies like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle or Fatal Attraction had you white knuckled in frustration this might be a good antidote as it makes it very difficult to blame either party, though both enact atrocities of scale upon each other. It's tough stuff. When I saw it new at the old Lumiere the small, traumatised audience mostly unacquainted with each other shared glances and relieved sighs as the credits rolled.