Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mooted Autumn: false shadows

This is not the line up of a new Shadows season. It's all pretend. Now read on...

Almost every Friday evening, whether going out or staying in, something feels a little wrong and then I remember that I don't have a film night to host anymore. I really miss this but rather than moan about it or just tap out a light nostalgia piece about what I would be preparing I've taken a leaf out o' my own blog and gone with my own suggestions as to what might form a season of Shadows. Two of the three years I ran the Shadows began in Autumn which starts on Friday. 

Going on what I've noted in the year and a bit since the last screening the following might well serve as the program I'd present. Got some sci fi, kabuki, indy, politics, comedy, mysticism and folky vengeance. Your chair!

Part 1
TIMECRIMES (Spain 2006)
A man sees what looks like an attack on a woman in the nearby woods and runs to help but instead finds himself in the middle of a very weird situation. Time travel has seldom played so lean and mean. Never has a head scratch felt like this much fun.

 Showed it before but it's out of print and probably will never make it to blu-ray. The first Shadows film proves a hit with everyone who sees it. Rock Hudson's role as the renovated old white collar who rebels against the fakery of his new life is a poignant reminder of Hudson's own duality as a hetero hunk on screen and a gay man behind doors. The real Twilight Zone the Movie.

Fable from the middle ages in which a remote mountain village sacrifices one of its own annually to cope with food shortages. Everyone loves grandma Orin until her time, at sixty-nine, comes up and then it's all gossip and snidery. The problem is that Orin has no problem. She is willing to go. It means a death by exposure at the fozen mountain peak. Hard life lessons ensue for everyone though many don't heed them. And then, as can only happen in a Japanese movie, the climax is both heartrending and unsentimental.

Easter film.

A young couple eager to find some direction in freelance investigative journalism infiltrate a cult based around a charismatic young woman who claims to be from the future. Intriguing tale of committment and trust backed by solid performances. A golden hue to the scenes in the cult stronghold seems to provide its own physical warmth.

QUEIMADA (Italy 1969)
A gripping tale of empire, slavery and revolution from the master of The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo, Queimada (aka Burn). A powerful mid-career Marlon Brando is William Walker, aristocratic shitstirrer for hire who destabilises the Portugese colonial admin by picking out Jose, a slave, who shows some potential to lead a revolt. Years later Walker is back, this time to erase Jose. Marxist history shouldn't be as gripping and fun as it is here. But there it is. Oh, and Morricone's most gloriously rich score ever.

Part 2

SAUNA (Finland 2008)

At the unmapped waste left alone even by decades of war there is a swamp and in the swamp there is a sauna house which might cleanse sinners of their sins or bring the world to an end. John Carpenter meets Andrei Tarkovsky. Absorbing.

RASHOMON (Japan 1950)
Four retellings of one incident contradict each other. Even the spirit of the dead hasn't seen everything. This itself is the subject of a number of tales told between a small group of men taking shelter from a rainstorm. Timeless fable of human nature runs the gamut of emotion and sobers the intellect. Genius from a master, Akira Kurosawa.

Before Kubrick ruled the earth he made this student piece which stands between his professional photography and his film career. It's an intriguing piece. A group of soldiers wander the woods behind enemy lines and confront the difficulties of being soldiers without the backing of the military machine. Fevered voice over streams of consciousness and exquisite open air lighting work and the Kubrick framing that was there when he tabled his photos at the Look magazine editor's desk. He hasn't yet developed any real skill with action sequences and some of the character motivation is too forced. This is a young filmmaker's piece, all big statement and attempted virtuosity, but its strengths shine through the overstated characterisation and wobbly narrative joints to serve up a war movie with a conscience. The debate over the point where he emerged as an auteur rages still but whether you call it Paths of Glory or The Killing Fear and Desire, finally released, can now stand as a very real first glimpse into greatness.

Sion Sonno has shifted toward conventionality in the narrative cohesion and timeline departments but still going through the outer rings of the human heart and psyche. Izumi, married to a romance novelist, lives a life of ritualistic perfection knowing neither eros nor amor. Getting a job to get out of the house she discovers both but, a quick learner, moves well beyond them. Sonno uses the more grounded narrative approach to fill the screen with candy coloured Tokyo that goes from bubblegum pink to the black of a blood spatter on a seedy hotelroom wall. Neither purient nor stilted and scholarly, Guilty of Romance entertains and challenges.
Extraordinary tale of redemption set in the Carpathian mountains. Katalin is rejected by her husband and spurned by her village for admitting that her son is the result of a rape. She hits the road in a horse and cart with her son in search of the perpetrator. When she locates him her infiltration of his household and path to his confrontation is sobering but also, oddly uplifting. The picturesque but forbidding Transylvanian landscape and forests provide a reminder of the coversion of the crime and the life surrounding it. Seldom has revenge been so quiet and deeply effective.  Director went on to make the extraordinary Berberian Sound Studio.

Before John Carpenter made his game-changing action and horror pieces he expanded his student graduation piece into one of the funniest and most authentically existential sci-fi films ever. The crew of a planet disposal ship go about their routine of stumping duty for future inter-galatic trade routes and go steadily insane. Worth it for the beach ball alien and the magnificent phenomenology lesson delivered to a bomb, Dark Star's riches go well beyond its gimmickry. Trumped the following year by the megabudgeted hollow vessel Star Wars, this was long the victim of cultural perdition but its reputation as a sleeping pioneer has grown steadily.

There you are. Just pretend you can head down to Collingwood curl up beside the fire with something good in a glass and watch some fine things on the screen. Nostalgia over and out ....

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Ok, I really should have seen this a long time ago. I mean in 1999. Why? Because I continue to declare The Blair Witch Project to be one of the most important horror movies since the 70s and worthy of the same shelf as the game-warping Asian horror from the late 90s. So what? Well The Last Broadcast was made a year before the BWP and attempts the same thing. I knew that at the time. I allowed the very pleasurable hype engine of the later film take me with it and celebrated that instead.

Two public access tv hosts try to save the sinking ratings of their paranormal show, Fact or Fiction, by taking up a suggestion sent in by a viewer to investigate the legendary Jersey Devil. The Jersey Devil is a cryptid like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot and has been part of the folklore of the Pine Barrens area for centuries. Perfect. So the guys pack a paranormal sound recordist and a psychic and head off to the woods to look for the monster. Hang on ...

This film begins with a number of talking heads including the director relating how what we are about to see is a murder case. Four men went into the woods and one came out. Two mauled bodies were found and one disappeared. The survivor, the psychic, has been charged, tried and convicted for the murder of the others but has died in prison.

What we get from this point on is a slowly tightening weave of interviews, video from the excursion and the director's own narration as he investigates the case, being convinced that James the psychic was innocent of murder.

This is not a found footage film in the sense that it has come to be applied (an edit of raw footage assembled and presented as a finished fiction feature) but a more of a mockumentary. There is a music score throughout and the sole source of raw footage is from the incident. The difference creates the sense of reportage which in turn supports the veracity of the whole. Regardless of genre see also This is Spinal Tap or more recently (and closer in intent) Lake Mungo.

And then in the third act we are given a twist which necessitates a third party which blows pretty much everything we've already seen out of its closed circuit and into ... well, where? I'm not going to spoil anything but it is easy to find a warning about this anywhere with a Google search without jepoardising a fresh first screening. While I an fond of fourth wall renovation whether used comically or not I cannot explain this one: while the change to it happens in swift muscular fashion there is nothing further offered as to why it has happened. We are left to conclude that it was just easier to complete the picture if a literally new angle was introduced. And then the final shot introduces something else again and bids us ask further questions about the purpose of the entire exercise. This is the mystery of The Last Broadcast but rather than leave us haunted by mystery it just makes us shake our heads and ask what the point was.

The Blair Witch Project appeared at the end of the year after The Last Broadcast was released. If you were a moviegoer back in the terrible summer o' '99 you will remember its internet marketing, one of the first viral campaigns. It was enjoyable buying into it. The website (not even blockbusters had their own sites at the time) offered such delicious teases in video snippets and a forum all cloaked in gloomy backgrounds and creepy audio. The meme of its actuality was propagated but it was needless. The movie worked regardless. And how.

What they got right was to brush the verifiers (tv-style interviews) away and dive straight down among the shoulders of the players, the people we already know have gone missing never to be found. What we saw once this was established was the steady breakdown of the team's internal relations in a setting that increasingly seemed inescapable. A mounting dread was worsened by some genuinely terrifying incidents and then by the end we descend with them into a hopeless darkness.

The BWP's approach was old decades before its release and more recently Jean Teddy Filippe's extraordinary series of very short films The Forbidden Files showed the same thing could be achieved in miniature. But BWP still works as a feature film. Not the first found footage feature it became the one to cover in the following decade  and with very little popular or critical success until Paranormal Activity and Chronicle. Too many cover versions missed the point.

While Blair Witch has not been diminished by its descendants The Last Broadcast has. Not just right out of the gate with BWP but in later examples of the faux documentary like Lake Mungo which used the veracity of improv interviews to very clever and unsettling effect and managed its found footage into real drama.

But while The Last Broadcast might sit crushed beneath an avalanche of the greater success of its followers it remains a curio rather than a pioneer though pioneer it is. It was apart from anything else deemed the first desktop feature (made entirely on digital video and assembled at home). But it has more than its share of merits in its effectively designed dread and use of the interviews to pose more questions than they answered (the interview or testimony in a mystery scenario must frustrate by the incompleteness of its information). But I can't help feeling that if the ending had been better conceived, its potential for the extraordinary realised, it would have been a game-changer. Even then, I wonder, would Blair Witch still eclipse it as a superior imitator? The answer is lost to us.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Fallen 4: Fall Harder With a Plangance

Bruno Dumont: I can still say that along with Gaspar Noe and David Lynch, this French filmmaker/academic philospher makes films that originate only in his head. But unlike those two he manages to clod hop all over the esoterica he carefully prepares, like a kid kicking his own sandcastle in case anyone else wants to play with it. He has his own approach but it could do with the discipline of someone else's framing ideas as he always gets lost in his own self-indulgence. Now I like self-indulgence in a filmmaker but where Noe and Lynch welcome you aboard theirs with a high likelihood of you finding something rich and strange along the way. Dumont shows little awareness of how trite a lot of his stuff is. Clear talent clearly wasted. I was absorbed by Life of Jesus and Humanity but stopped at Twentynine Palms. Everything I've read about subsequent outings does nothing to alter this.

 Terry Gilliam: Always an iffy one with me but for a long time I would see anything with his name on it at the cinema. I began writing a holiday post about him a few years ago that burst out of its single article into a trilogy of career appraisal. Thinking of this grand visionary engenders grandeur by itself. I'll be briefer here. I probably don't entirely love any single film of Gilliam's but admire most of them, some as intriguing failures and others as disappointing near hits. I am aware with every one that appears that it has probably had a difficult labour and its screen life has been hard won. A great shame that one of the richest visions in contemporary cinema must assume such a Sysiphusian role (he was several features into his career before he could shake the Python association in his audience's mind). More's the pity, then that what does appear on screen is all too often greatness sabotaged into mediocrity. I guess I'll still see a new one at the cinema. I've just long surrendered the expectation of the highest among equals.

Quentin Tarrantino: This needs a qualification. When I first saw the cinema trailer for Reservoir Dogs back in the 90s I was thrilled to see what might have been the inheritor of the quickly waterlogging Scorsese. I didn't get around to it at the cinema and watched it with the flatmates at home. I enjoyed the smart dialogue and cinewise look and feel of the action. I was unimpressed by the whole thing as it seemed a pointless exercise in style. It wasn't long before the meme of post-modernism began to rise like steam from the gutters in Taxi Driver. I understood it but couldn't get over that its derivative motions were effectively what the film was. Scorsese made no bones of his quotes but always poured some substance into everything. There seemed to be none beyond style and a few smarts. I did see Pulp Fiction at the cinema and loved it. I forgot it almost immediately but remembered my enjoyment. Jackie Brown sealed it. It felt warm and well filled. Solid writing and performances with an appreciable restraint on the helm. I saw the first volume of Kill Bill, liked it but never got around to the second volume without feeling the lack. Nothing about Inglourious Basterds interested me. See also Django Unchained. I know I would enjoy these if I saw them but I also suspect I would feel as though I'd ripped myself off. His stuff does what it says on the tin but it's a tin I can walk past without noticing.

Christopher Nolan: Memento remains top shelf for its era. It's crisp, intriguing and moving and runs at a clip. Then, as he rises in the Hollywood swamp and gets more mainstream, doing cover versions of Scandinavian thrillers and reboots there, we are meant to follow his career as the one who gave mainstream multiplex a good name: brains and braun in the ring at the same time. I have found the Batman trilogy to be a steadily more bloated and needlessly wandering mess. One thing I noted on seeing the last one was that all the depth and character development that thieved so much of the running time (or rather added it by the lard-vat full) was not a quality particularly lacking in the average substantial action film with half the running time. Inception is nowhere near as clever as it appears to be and also adds too much needless expansion of points that might be more neatly offered with more invention and less pizazz. I'll give him The Prestige but even that feels too long for the Tale of the Unexpected that it really is. Nevertheless that was the last of his I think I'll ever see at a cinema.

Jim Jarmusch: Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law were delights that formed a sequence that promised to lead to expansion into greater realms or just further into the monochrome netherlands of Jarmusch's imagination. Either would have done me. Mystery Train felt new but hollow. Night on Earth felt like an 80s movie on free to air in the predawn. I thought I liked Dead Man until I remembered how little there was of it and for how ceaselessly long. By Ghost Dog I was still at the cinema but it felt cute and pointless. After Coffee and Cigarettes (also at the cinema) I swore off. It's not even a Hal Hartley thing where I have to face that I just want the early stuff over and over. It's more .... why is there nothing of the humour or the spirit of those first two in anything else? No more for me.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Review: ZERO DARK THIRTY: murmurs from the heart of the empire

Voices from the morning of 911 play from a black screen. The pictures are worn now. They leave no impact. The voices of the dead deliver their own eulogy. This is "Remember the Alamo" and "Remember Pearl Harbour" all over again. One of the rare attacks on the homeland (a term we are to infer is a post-911 one). We are listening to a disbelief so profound we start to bear some of the shock just to cope with it.

Emotional manipulation? Yes, it's masterful.

Location title. Torture of a prisoner. One of the CIA agents in the room stares intently out of a balaclava. They take a break. The mask comes off to reveal a young woman. Her name is Maya and what she wants to do is go back in and get some more answers. When cautioned about going in without her mask she asks if the prisoner will ever be freed. Never. She goes in without the mask.

The brutalising torture is not delivered on an emotive platter. There is no do or die suspense to it. It is routine. It is a day's work. The contrast between this and the stunning terror of the voices of the victims of 911 is extraordinary. Why? I would have expected a kind of Spielbergian white knuckled squeeze ending in the burst of crucial information. This is more like dentistry.

We are not watching a call to arms but the grooming and hardening of a CIA agent on a quest for vengeance. Again, there's something strange about this. Maya does not behave like John Wayne in The Searchers or Charles Bronson in Death Wish, she is calculating and concentrated, dealing with information or its blockage rather than physical peril. Her emotional outbursts are in response to delays or administrative cul de sacs.

Bad action directors like Michael Bay try to create compulsion through saturation: pop video editing, obnoxious orchestral scoring, agressive audio mixing etc. They create colourful but messy canvasses. Good action directors can be perfectly proficient but can miss the opportunity to use the action as a payload for anything thematic or ethical. Howard Hawks, Oliver Stone, Akira Kurosawa are among the greats of action directors. So is Kathryn Bigelow.

Kathryn Bigelow is not a great action director because she shoots a mean explosion. She's a great action director because she makes dialogue feel like action. This is a dialogue filled film but it never seems like it. Even when the players are speaking in tradecraft shorthand the gist and direction are clear. Cuts happen when they need to and there is an effortless rhythm through the entire piece whether we are watching a conversation very pointedly about adminstrative inertia (a significant stretch of screentime) or gripped by the events of the raid on the compound at the climax. All scenes feel necessary and are given due respect.

The slow near silent glide of the stealth copters moving through the mountain ranges as they close in on the Bin Laden fortress has a gloomy beauty to it. There is no question of what their purpose is. Thanks be for the composer's restraint in abjuring a score that starts at eleven and stays there for the entire running time as has become the norm in the last decade. The orchestra pipes up in this film only when a few broad strokes are called for. Otherwise there is a refreshing reliance on the sound of violence to provide an emotional garnish. Michael Bay would have the brass and strings on 11 in the first few seconds of screen time and only fade them after the production badge at the end of the credits. Here, we are allowed to feel the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of fascination as the war machines glide through the night like sharks to a feeding ground.

Now for the elephant. Does this film advocate torture? Before I answer this I'm going to state that I do not subscribe to the notion that a lack of condemnation of an ill act equals approval of it in a work of fiction. I've long lost count of the acts of violence I've seen on screen that have compelled me at the time yet left nothing other than a condemnation of such violence offscreen. Depiction, even depiction that can surprise you by making you laugh at violence (with not at the perpetrators) does not make me feel like voting for them after the credits roll.

The agents doing the torturing in Zero Dark Thirty approach it the same way they would any other physical duty. Same as when they discuss it. It's shop talk. When one cautions Maya about it, saying that since Abu Grahib and Gitmo they can't do it anymore it is a line delivered with the same regret as might meet the end of a professional privilege. But the most telling moment happens when a group of agents watch Obama declare that Americans don't use torture. Their faces as they watch this are utterly expressionless. They, not we, are beyond accessing emotion on the issue.

One review I read recently claimed that this movie supports torture because information extracted by torture is revealed to be true, as though the very possibility that someone might tell the truth when forced is unthinkable. Or is the meaning that no fictionalised account should suggest it, as though fiction is our ethical arbiter. Are we so flat-earth minded that we are compelled to accept the dictates of our fiction as though they were moral dogma? Or do we live in skins that hold lifetime's worth of experience that allow us our own judgement? (It's misreported that the information is solely from torture; the film shows it to be quite a complex thread.)

Here's a contrary case. Ordinary Decent Criminal is a German Irish coproduction that fictionalises the lifestory of Dublin gangster Martin Cahill. There are several scenes of violence including one excruciating torture which leaves its victim maimed for life. The scene ends with an emotional reversal as the protagonist (the one doing the torture) rounds it off with a goofy Irish quip. The scene is repugnant but not because it is effectively shot violence. It is repugnant because we are being told it's all ok because the loveable larrikin has done it. The entire film is a misfire, delivering violence and criminality with  lashings of leprechaun charm that goes down like grade 2 sandpaper. One of the reasons we cannot love this figure is because we are being told we must.

The relationship between the agents and their violent interrogations in Zero Dark Thirty is so pragmatic and workaday that it is nothing less than chilling. I didn't need subtitles to feel that. It's there between me and the screen and it makes me look at the "good guys" twice. I was horrified by the images of airliners crashing into buildings in 2001 but I opposed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. This film did not change my mind on those points. I had no worries that it might.

The film focuses on the Maya and her increasingly parasitical concentration on the location and erasure of the figure she blames for ten years of world tension. Just as she has poured the torment and ill of her universe in this elusive figure who might never be caught (the original idea for this film was that it end in an earlier failed attempt on Bin Laden's life) we are invited to pour our own projected anger, distaste, pity etc into the light and shadow that she occupies on the screen. It is beyond tempting to do this, it is virtually all we are left to do, given that we have some knowledge of the events and an opinion on them. More so here than in a more distant scenario like Oliver Stone's JFK or All the President's Men.

At the end of this film Maya is sitting in a military plane. The pilot asks her a question whose directness almost begs for a particular response that I feared was coming. But it doesn't. Instead, we watch her face tighten against a quake of emotion that has rendered her reply impossible. We might well be reminded of another question put to her towards the end of the second act. She is lunching in an office canteen. The head of the CIA sits at her table and makes a little small talk before asking her what, outside of this case she has worked on for the agency. Maya is still young and was only younger when she started. She looks back at him and says, as though the thought has only just occured: "Nothing."

The rest is our projection. What would you put there?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Fallen III: Fall Harder: some directors I no longer follow

Todd Solondz: Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness were among the best films of the nineties. They were blackly funny, satirical and bore an unmistakable rumble of violent disappointment of human life. But then he seemed to disappear into such self-reflection that it was impossible to tell if he was exploring further and deeper or just taking the piss. The third option was that he no longer knew what he was doing. His most recent was at last year's MIFF. It's one I haven't bothered to chase up since.

Neil La Bute: In the Company of  Men remains one of the most sobering examinations of the male psyche I've ever seen in fiction. Your Friends and Neighbours also scored some real points but the edges of the contrivance were pushed a little too far into view for comfort. We knew what he was doing but we had to see it indicated in case we missed it. Nurse Betty had real merit but then what? The dunderheaded remake of The Wicker Man? I thought he was going all David Mamet with his self concsiousness and blindingly ovbious intrigues and twists but he just seems to have flopped down to nowt. What a shame.

Kyoshi Kurosawa: KK's 90s and 00s horrors are so profound in scope and serious in execution that they stand apart from even the durably effective J-horror around them on the timescale. Kairo is one of the scariest and saddest horror movies I've seen. Kourei, his rejig of Seance on a Wet Afternoon, also delved much deeper than its source material had allowed. And then in the mid noughties things started to change. I forgave his Bright Future as it works well as a kind of modern fable. But Doppelganger was an act of self betrayal. Loft, a cinematic suicide attempt. And .... and nothing more that I know of. I'm almost afraid to ask.

Francis Ford Coppola: From The Rain People to The Cotton Club this guy earned his stripes and field marshal's stars as the god of the movie brats. And then in the eighties seemed to lose all inspiration. Still going, still helping other filmmakers get off the ground, just not firing his own broadsides. How can you fall from The Godfather and Apocalypse Now to a pedestrian version of Dracula? Francis, you were one of the architects of the decade that changed American cinema from inside out. Why can't we even hear you now?

Roman Polanski: What happened here? From his confronting student films all the way up to China Town, Polanski delivered some goods. A fine tuner of suspense and dread as well as a Dostoyevskian observer of human behaviour after his flight from justice in the late 70s has only had the strength to turn out a chain of mediocrity. The exception is The Pianist (which shamed Schindler's List for the latter's creepy misanthropy under the guise of championing the underdog). After that there's Ghost Writer which surrenders all its intrigue for a twisty ending. Well, he was great while he lasted.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Top ten 21022013

Ghost World: For offering an almost completely different story to the source material that fitted perfectly into the world of the original with the characters achingly well realised. A great adaptation.

Eraserhead: Recently watched the new blu-ray of this. I doesn't matter that I know every industrial thump or nameless screech on the soundtrack, every one of its small basket of dialogue lines, every shot, this is still my favourite film.

Crumb: Documentary that transcends its character study to embrace the dark psychological swell of its subject's family. Seldom has the gap between a perceived artist and the art been so intimidatingly closed.

Tintin and I: Story of Herge whose chief creation grew and learned with him but who left the most troubling real world demons far from the pages of his comics. Central material is an audio interview which founds an archival treasure house. Might but never feels padded.

My Winnipeg: Guy Maddin's personal history of his hometown contains all the now+then look of his best work but adds his own voice to it telling a tale both factual and absurdist in a mesmerising continual montage. At once familiar and alien. He's made more spectacular fare but this is my favourite.


Johnny Guitar: Never quite worked out my lifelong antipathy to westerns but it still takes a lot to drag me in front of one. There's a gothic element to this that leads me to my seat like an old fashioned usher. I'm meant to revel in the hysteria and gender politics of it but that initial note is what I always remember.

Happiness: The apex of Todd Solondz' output, containing everything he was good at in just the right serves. While he hasn't gone all Neil La Bute on us the conceit of all that's come since seems more important than the themes it serves. But this is magnificence.

In the Company of Men: One of the most confronting explorations of the male psyche I've ever seen in fiction. Good thing he didn't go all Todd Solondz on us but his output since has been suprisingly goofy. But this is magnificence.

King of Comedy: When Marty walked the earth he made this extraordinary piece about the culture of fame. Given some thought, De Niro's unselfconscious central character manages to be more terrifying than both Travis and Jake before him. Some of the behaviour in these scenes is so torturously cringing you'd think Dostoyevsky had penned them.

Kairo: An apocalypse of loneliness that haunts me to this day. Still my favourite Kyoshi Kurosawa film even though everyone else who knows about him always loudly prefers the earlier Cure.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Fallen II: five more directors I no longer follow

Tim Burton: Pee Wee Herman? Yessiree. Beeltejuice? ... ok. Edward Scissorhands? Oh yes. Ed Wood? Bloody hell, yes! Sleepy Hollow? Looks nice. Anything else? Everything else. It took a few outings to take Tim Burton from promise to visually talented hack to directionless style-loop. The rot for me is there in Beetlejuice as soon as it gets cute. No, not the football team at the end doing Banana Boat Song. That is cringey enough. No, the bit in Limbo when Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis have to show how scary they can look and distort their faces into goofy joke shop masks which even in a comedy should have been stronger images. That almost ruined it for me. Casting Michael Keaton as Batman was a good idea because he was a superhero who visibly thought. But to me that was being fifteen all over again and wondering at the rust on the spaceships in Star Wars only to have to live through the rest of it right up until the cute awww bit when Chewbacca roars at the medal ceremony (only fifteen but cringed). I don't think Burton has lost any of the talent he had at the beginning but there's only so much apparent lack of self-awareness on the emperor's part that I can take. You're starkers, Tim. Get inside!

Hal Hartley: Having recently taken delighted delivery of the new blu-ray of Trust and had a good success showing The Unbelievable Truth and Henry Fool at Shadows, I wonder at my own choice here. But Hartley must make this list as the only films of his I've been interested enough to pursue sight of since the noughties have been exceptions in an increasingly meagre field. No Such Thing commits suicide half way through and Fay Grim plays like an apology for Amateur. But there's a problem with Hal Hartley as a stylist. It's the kind of problem I'll usually refer to as one of fairweather cultists who lose their champions as quickly as assume them. Hartley's style of deadpan delivery and brainy one-liners and well orchestrated quirk ran for his early features enough that his fans wanted more and awaited any development of the style they so loved. When Hartley gave them the latter in Amateur and Flirt they kicked him into the oubliette and left him there. They liked his newness but wanted it to stay the same. I'll have to sheepishly put my hand up to doing this very thing with this filmmaker and chide myself for being both fanlike and shallow. But, Mum, every time he tries something new, it's crap!

Peter Greenaway: The Draughtsman's Contract knocked us all for a six by looking like a costume drama and acting like the Glass Bead Game. And it only got tastier with Zed and Two Noughts. After a very few more titles appeared that showed different stories with the exact same obsessive approach we settled in comfortably and put him in the auteur box. Arthouse retrospectives of his earlier works like Revolution and The Falls only cemented this. After falling a little into disuse he was able to come back with succcesses de scandale like The Cook The Thief His Wife and her Lover and The Baby of Macon, all splendid with the same grand canvas tableaux methods he put on all the others. So, what went wrong? It's hard to say beyond simply stating that I got bored with it. I'm one who likes to see a defiantly obsessive artist at work, having championed even Bela Tarr's seven hour epic Satantango which is stylistically identical to everything else he's done or David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE which proved indigestible even for fans. So why single out Greenaway whose skills at doing what he does well seem in no ill health? Dunno. Just doesn't grab me anymore. The point I think this occured was the Pillow Book. I think...

Atom Egoyan: A friend back in the early 90s handed me a vhs copy of Next of Kin an extraordinary tale of a withdrawn youth who escapes from a small family frozen in therapy and into a world of explosive emotions and open dysfunction in an Armenian family also in Toronto. He has infiltrated them by pretending to be the long lost son and brother they sought through a personal ad. He, Peter, is all Canadian English and doesn't resemble his assumptive parents or sister in the slightest but he is such a calming and appealing presence that they quickly accept him. A lot of this is recorded with his video camera.

Roll on Family Viewing (which did the mix sitcom laugh track with serious dialogue years before Oliver Stone did it in Natural Born Killers), Speaking Parts, The Adjuster and Exotica. All strong, fresh, penetrating and disturbing outings which pointed to what appeared to be an effortlessly auteurist director. Then came The Sweet Hereafter which, despite strong themes of parental guilt, incest and liability for a mass fatality, could not reach a peak nor conclude convincingly. Felicia's Journey similarly let serial murder and an Irish woman's guilt over her decision to abort turn into something soggy and unengaging. All have had great moments but these have been features in a barely textured landscape. By the time of Where the Truth Lies I gave up, defeated by the conventionality that fairly smothered the Egoyanian ethical minefields of the early material. It was plausible where Next of Kin was preposterous but Next of Kin remains the better film. I would have to check the imdb to tell you what he's done since and have no idea if he's still making films.

Woody Allen: Ok, I'll admit this is like pointing at a barn door. Allen has had so many falsely-called returns to form recently that it's a wonder anyone still recognises him in the street (assuming they do). That "recently" by the way covers the lion's share of almost three decades. I may as well admit here that the concept of a return to form is something that has fallen from my sensibility when it comes to film directors. It has gone from being a respectful smile of a phrase to a shrieking Pollyannaish grimace. Woody Allen is a good case for dropping the phrase for everyone else for evermore.

But there's also something strange going on here. While I have winced through the labour or frowned at the slightness of Allen's offerings from the mid 80s onward I have wondered if I am witnessing a fall from grace or if it is I who have changed and now can no more ingest a Woody Allen film than tuck into a teething rusk.

In 2011 while planning the program for what was to be the final spring season of Shadows I sought out Annie Hall on dvd. I couldn't find a copy to save my life so I hired a swag of 70s Allen movies from the local vid shop and tried them out to find a substitute. Big mistake. The one title I had been calling immutably funny, the indestructible gem was Bananas. I put that in and stopped it after twenty minutes due to cringe. I had either cleared my memory of the laboured gags and strained wit or they just no longer appealed to me. See also Manhattan. Nothing. I stopped it before the hour mark. The ABC played Sleeper. I watched to the end but without enthusiasm. A later purchase of Annie Hall on blu-ray turned this around. It's a great piece of work.

I do have a lingering fondness for Stardust Memories as it entered more serious territory to strong effect and the wit when it appeared felt deadly. This is the film where the phrase "earlier, funnier films" comes from which is now used for anyone whose output has altered over time from Spielberg to Cronenberg. I won't look for a copy of Stardust Memories, though, the ones I have will do fine.

PS -- forgot to add before: Stardust Memories was touted at the time by Allen himself as his last film. That was in 1980. When Ellem Klimov said the same after Come and See and Bela Tarr after The Turin Horse they meant it.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Review: SAUNA

Flowing crystal water. It's somewhere cold. Just as that thought is occuring the water turns red. a bundled animal skin bag rides the flow down to a branch sticking out from the water and lodges there. Parchment sheets lift in the wind. One tears free and is lifted by a human hand. It is covered in a mess of scrawl. The letters are blood red. One of the inscriptions reads: Can we be forgiven?

A candlelit cottage. It could be today or five hundred years ago. A bald man in a formless coat is stabbing a man to death on the floor. Another much younger man comes in and watches in horror. Fade to black.

A meeting at a campsite between the two men we've just seen and a group of military looking Russians. The younger man from the previous scene is a cartographer. After decades of warfare Russia and Sweden have called a truce and it's time to draw a new border. Everywhere. Where they are is a huge silvery swamp where it seems that no human has ever lived. The line needs drawing. Off they go.

The swamp seems like a life-free intensification of the wasteland around it and as the party moves through it they seem to be retreating irrevocably from the world beyond it, the one they soldiered in, the one they were born into. And at the centre of the swamp there is a building set into a dirty pond. The construction is almost featureless, a large white concrete box, but for a lightless doorway with a flash of what looks like fire damage extending from one of its corners. And then, really only a few metres from this unsettling thing there is a village peopled but for one member by folk over fifty years old. I said almost: the sole person under middle age is a child of around ten, a boy who is curious to learn about the newcomers. A tour of a kind of hospital area reveals a number of people at such an advanced state of living decay it is a wonder that they still live. And then comes the real creeper: they are afraid to live, a guide explains, and afraid to die.

I'll stop with the plot details here as I'm approaching spoiler territory but I thought it was necessary to include this build up because one of this film's strengths is its atmosphere. As I've said heaps o' times on this blog give me atmosphere and you can keep your plot. Sauna is all Stalker and Satantango, the world it lives in feels like it was grown within it, its colours paid for by the pixel. Once in there we exist there. I'm happy.

"So, does that mean there's only atmosphere, that I, Lady Mondegreen of  forty-one Thuglett Avenue Dorchamstogue, must endure style o'er substance?" I hear you ask.  Well, this is where it gets interesting. I invoked the feel of some glacial cinema above, the work of cinemasters whose films do not resemble anything but their own imitators (as in this film, in fact), who build their own worlds. Now add to this a more conventional sense of narrative motive and flow and you have Sauna. Continuing the fun but ultimately unhelpful strain of comparison you could get away with saying that this is the film John Carpenter might have made after seeing Stalker. And in a way wholly distinct from the compacted vehicle Stephen Soderberg made of Solaris. Sauna feels like Andrei Rublev but plays like Prince of Darkness.

This is not a perfect system, though, much as I'd like it to be. Some of the pacing of this already sub-ninety minute feature is not high Tarkovsky but low Carpenter. These slumps are small and very few but they are noticeable and can lessen the power of crucial scenes and that all important atmosphere.

And then there's the score. The music here begins with a kind of icy string section turning the temperature down. This all too soon degenerates into a by-the-numbers strings =  emotion vat of treacle. As I was thinking of Tarkovsky when I saw it I remembered how unsettling, eerie and quietly powerful was his use of Scandinavian folk song appearing in the audio distance. There is an extraordinary scene early on involving a figure in a landscape which carries a great thematic and narrative weight which would have gone through me like x-rays had it not been for those first violins sawing away. In this layered cinema presentation age, couldn't we have an option to ditch the score? Well, we can and should. I'd dislike The Road a lot less and might be among its fans if I could click off that overblown orchestral blag telling me how I should be emoting. Anyway...

Sauna plays out with a satisfying darkness that doesn't let its strong beginnings down in the slightest. It is derivative from the roots upward but uses rather than merely displays its influences, finding its own voice and colour as it weaves. I love films that defy easy categorisation. Suicide Circle, Hierro, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Juliet of the Spirits, Werckmeister Harmonies and so wider and so wider .... All of these (and there are so many more) only need stumble upon some path fresh or antique and overgrown to find something enticing to bring back. Sauna, hampered though it is by the stasis between two contrary traditions, has at least caught sight of such a path.

PS - seen on DVD as no local release outside of MIFF 2009.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Fallen: some musings on directors I no longer follow


Sometime in the last twenty years I phased out fandom and replaced it with a more incidental enthusiasm. This meant that fewer and fewer names appealed to me as essential among the musicians and filmmakers I'd once called heroes. This is not just a list but a series of suggestions as to why and when some of them have fallen off the roll. Here are the first five I thought of. More to follow, over...

Martin Scorsese: I first saw Taxi driver from the halfway mark on a Steenbeck editing desk at Griffith University. The picture was smaller than a tv screen but I forgot all about that as I was abosrbed and joined its biocine nervous system. Saw Raging Bull not long after. Same place but on a larger tv. Same. And on .... The only one in the eighties I didn't see was The Colour of Money. Still haven't. Then came the brilliantly ok Cape Fear and then Age of Innocence. I'm aware of its subtleties but it just looked like a Merchant Ivory cover version. Casino? Goodfellas II What was the point? It was telling when Marty appeared briefly in the pilot episode of The Sopranos and Chris calls out to him: "Hey, I loved Kundun." A mafioso loved Kundun. Yes, an intentional joke.

I persisted until The Aviator and then gave up. Has  Martin Scorsese, once the try-anything whizz-kid with an encyclopedia of cinema in his brain, finally been outrun by the filmmakers o' today? Not that they are too modern or even post-modern (he's already beaten the futurists of nostalgia by decades) he just seems to have taken Babylon's shilling and promised to make inoffensive movies until he lies below what he was grazing on. Purely subjectively, it seems to me that he has opted for comfort o'er individual force. Can't blame him but does he have to keep churning out greatness-corroding mediocrity?

Jean Luc Godard: Was it the cigar like strength and chocolatey flavour of those Gauloise cigarettes I used to smoke after becoming a Godard fan? Or was it poncey affectation? History will decide but I'll nominate both. Godard is great and it's fun to be an affected lattelectual in your late teens (unforgivable in later decades but a hoot at the time). Godard's 60s output still inspires me. I can happily sit in front of anti-narratives like Wind from the East or La Chinoise as readily as I can the "earlier funnier" ones. Whenever I see something more recent it's not hard to find the point in it or just sit back and enjoy what has caught his aesthete's eye. But these almost always leave me flat and unaffected. His lessons and declarations have stayed with me and to this day I do not begin from the assumption that cinema needs to tick all the classic narrative boxes to be engaging or effective. Unlike Marty, Jean Luc has not changed his method much (he certainly hasn't become bland) but maybe what I want from him has.

John Carpenter: The run from Dark Star to They Live is an almost unbroken trail of imaginative power. Then it weakens progressively until his latest (The Ward) seems to lose breath while getting up to move. Although he has had some courtship with the major labels it doesn't seem to have got him into any A-lists. You get the feeling that he still has to struggle to get movies made. So why not  keep making things as sharp and tight as he used to if they are that difficult to get flying? Why not stop altogether? Does he think The Ward has any of the power of Halloween? I don't know what happened here but something did. Now I don't care that much if I hear of a new JC flicker and that bothers me.

Dario Argento: Nothing since Stendahl Syndrome has interested me (but that one really did!) and the latest one (Giallo) was a poor self cover version. Having begun to stridently individual with Bird With the Crystal Plumage he made a chain of horrors and thrillers of such greatness that any one of them could secure him cineimmortality. But then in the 80s it sogs down to routine and what used to be generous running times become interminable drags as the over obvious conclusions approach with great honking fanfares. My take is that he has lost touch with the trust he seems to have begun with which allowed him to go with narrative nonsequiturs the way that people having nightmares do. The worst and most tiresome scene in Suspiria is the one with the explanations. Now whole movies are like those scenes. Dario, we don't need to know.

The Coens: The poster for Blood Simple called it: The thriller is alive and well and living in Texas. That excited me at the time as it smacked of a kind of punky cinephilia. The movie didn't disappoint. It was both cheekily noir and resolutely modern. I stuck to them thereafter, seeing pretty much everything at the cinema. Until Hudsucker Proxy. I did see that at the cinema but it left me so flat that I couldn't say a single good thing about it. It made me think of all the ones I'd seen before it and I found a lot of style and energy but more pastiche and homage. From then I decided that I liked roughly every other one but as they appeared not even this limitation fit and I had to admit to myself that I generally didn't care about them as filmmakers. There are exceptions to this. They are exceptions. And it's not as though it's a about a few missteps. I can see the hands that made Blood Simple, Fargo and Barton Fink  clearly in dreck like Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading or The Ladykillers remake. They are as much Coen movies as the good ones. I was left unimpressed by No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski and I actively hated The Hudsucker Proxy. Maybe it's the exceptions that I do like.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Top 10 11/02/2013

Timecrimes: You're caught in a time loop. Can you think fast enough to cope with it (let alone correct mistakes you've probably already made)? Would you have the discipline to calmly wait until everything caught up and you rejoined yourself when the anxiety about that not happening would be so overpowering? This drags you into some brain hurting whirlpools of of the mind and barely a breath's worth of respite to gather your thoughts (there's a reason for that, of course ;)  Being remade in American. As with Rec, see it in the original Spanish first and only and you'll do ok.  This would have been a SHADOWS selection. for sure.

Eraserhead: Best movie ever.

 Shadow of a Doubt: Hitch in Norman Rockwell country. Joseph Cotton's urbane Uncle Charlie grows increasingly sinister as his namesake niece begins to see through the smoothness and finds darkness. I can forgive the abrupt ending for the real gaze at a teenager's rising disenchantment at the centre of the film. But growing up has seldom been so unsettlingly stylish.

Queimada/Burn: Genuinely Marxist film of a slave revolt in the Carribean might have been very wrong but manages to stay focussed, engaging and powerful all the way through. Brando in his second heyday reigns in the method to offer Sir William Walker, a pragmatic hammer for hire with aristocratic reserve and clear intelligence. Against him, Jose Delores (Evaristo Marquez) is fierce but also aware of the lessons Walker's initial tutelage has left him. Fresh from The Battle of Algiers Gillo Pontecorvo once again proves that committed political cinema doesn't have to be dry. No chance of that anyway when you have Morricone's most glorious film score to that point in time.

Seconds: Second-chance fable with a Twilight Zone feel is part of the roll John Frankenheimer found himself on when he jumped ship from tv to the big screen. Contemporary insiders and current audiences will find a spooky harmonic ringing through as Rock Hudson's double life as a public hunky leading man and private gay man is given a veiled airing. Star lensman James Wong Howe throws everything he has at the screen including a stunning fisheye opening sequence and unsettling almost Lynchian pov tracking shot through a train station. Hard to locate a copy of this so jump on it if you see it second hand or auctioned.

Spirit of the Beehive: Painterly look is so gorgeous it's easy to miss the oceanic depth of this tale of growing up and witnessing reality uncloak itself in the warmth of childhood's fancy. The five year old Ana Torrent compels the viewer. Her dialogue is sparse but her physical acting is strong and emotive. She is our centre as we look at a family disturbingly drifting from each other as the unackowledged spectre of Franco floats above every scene. When the effect of the latter manifests is it devastating. Manages to be about childhood without ever being sentimental.

Diary: Screen grief never felt so authentic because it never felt so personal. And yet this story is told as a kind of grimy fantasy. At one point the cripplingly obsessed Winnie seems to shrink as a small black cloud oozes with slow certain threat into her living room. And once we see this gruelling portrait of pain the film starts again with a new title sequence and we learn what appears to be the real story. Made by the wonderful Thai/Hong Kong Pang brothers who have enthralled their audiences with genre bending pieces like The Eye and Ab-Normal Beauty, Diary feels like an Asian horror but progresses to the same territory as Bergman or Kieslowsky without straying from its own aesthetic. Imagine Fatal Attraction as remade by David Cronenberg and without the Hollywood ending.

Matador: Almodovar's melodramas and campy comedies have always diverted me but when I saw this hymn of hate for the Franco legacy I rewrote my impression of him completely. This multi-stranded thriller of guilt and a kind of maniacal necrophilia transcends the tone that those words would suggest and springs into it's own film and further consolidated Almodovar's authorial reputation at this early stage without affecting his comedies or later melodramas. Seldom has the facade of social respectability felt so nauseatingly and contempuously false.

Come and See: With about ten percent of the violence of Saving Private Ryan this film does many times more than the Spielberg film could hope to by keeping the same distance from the action as we might be watching it really happen remotely. Alexsey Kravchenko as Florya is still a teenager at the end of the film but his experiences have aged him to what looks like over a hundred. The final showdown between him and a picture of Hitler is unlike anything you've seen in a war movie before or since. Terrifying and mesmerising. My favourite war film. Ever.

Arsenic and Old Lace: Bloody funny and almost too fast and feverish even for a black comedy this is best enjoyed going in calm as it takes a few steps too many to heat up but when it does it takes the credit sequence to stop it. A great ensemble cast conducted with a hand a little too close to chaos this wartime Halloween comedy from Frank Capra won't let even Cary Grant's attempt to cute it up get in his way as he plunges into a corridor between reality and image and lets every element he can find collide.