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.