Wednesday, July 31, 2013

MIFF Session 5: Blackbird: Suffer the little Goths....

There are a few scenes in the middle of this film which show its protagonist, Sean, reading Franz Kafka's The Trial. I normally dislike obvious references like this but this time it works well by being poignant rather than merely clever. Sean, 16 year old schoolboy in provincial Canada, wakes one morning like Joseph K to find himself arrested.

He was bullied at school by the hockey team alphas and worked out his vengeance by posting it on his blog, the whole scenario. Scenario means plan to the cops and the legals who shine atomically in their community for preventing another Columbine. Faced with copping a  plea and a slap on the wrist or going to trial and clearing himself, Sean goes hard with the latter. In juvenile detention where he reads Kafka he is bullied with greater force and less hope of protection. When the trail date is postponed and he looks at months more of this he follows his hotshot lawyer's advice and cops a plea. Slapped on the wrist and given a restraining order for twenty-seven people, he is freed. That's when his trouble starts.

Out in the free world he must navigate his legitimate path carefully or risk either more prison or less official and less limited retribution. He only wrote a blog post. There was an arsenal of weapons in his house but they belonged to his father. Out hunting in an early flashback he aims a rifle at a deer who suddenly looks like an unkillable pet. He has no trouble iphone-ing the gutting and the resulting viral video is everywhere. He's a goth, self-described, spiked leather jacket with an inverted red pentagram painted on to look like it was drawn with blood. No one is going to believe he would leave it at a blog post.

I say the trouble starts after prison because something happened early on that lifted this film from a paranoia fest or a copy of Gus Van Sant's Elephant. In the midst of this grim naturalism comes a Romeo and Juliet story that defies belief and its suspension, making us shut up until we see it working. Sean, social leper, is the infatuation of Deanna, GF to the hockey team captain. Through the roll call of extreme differences between them is an effortless intelligence that they are not seeing anywhere else. As I say, this takes a bit of doing but that it does comes down to this film's primary strength: performance.

Alexia Fast makes Deanna and her attraction to Sean believable by showing how difficult it is for her to express it. She easily snubs him in front of friends after they have communed in private, knowing the agony it will cause him. Her arc is a very subtle quest for her own strength. She really does have to give up her popularity if she pursues him and the pain of that is there in her playing. It's a fragile but impressive turn.

Connor Jessup (who could be Scarlet Johansen's twin brother) is the centre of gravity here. This is a film about suffering. Jessup takes his victim from its awkward imbalance of anger and fear into the coldest corners of isolation, never more than a teenager, never less than intelligent. You know that Sean is not going to reverse his fortunes in a single explosive act like an American hero, he's going to have to work it. It's telling that the climax of this film involves him delivering a single short line into a courtroom microphone. There is a quaver in his voice but it is the surrender of fear rather than an expression of it. There is no sudden uproar in the court. He's made his decision and the rest is process and data entry but the moment is a proof.

Blackbird is a quiet piece but that is possibly the most efficient way of showing suffering as a first world phenomenon. It's not without it mainstream concessions but that it can transcend them with such restraint while keeping a firm hand on solid narrative and compelling action is testament to its worth. If you look up Connor Jessup at the imdb you'll find a dizzying rap sheet of achievement for an under twenty. Are we looking at another Brit Marling? Maybe. By the time he utters Sean's (and the film's) final line we know he's earned something.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

MIFF Session 4: Rhino Season.

Missed it. Ill.

MIFF Session 3: THE EAST: Infiltration

The voice of a confident young woman recites a litany of balance to the 1%'s muscle, the corporations. "If you pollute our lives we'll pollute yours. If you spy on us we'll spy on you," and so on. A unit of balaclava-ed activists scale the walls of a modern mansion and pour sludgy oil retrieved from a dumping site in the ocean into the ducts of the house. CCTV footage shows it oozing through the vents of the luxurious rooms. This is the work of The East, an anti-corporate terrorist group.

In a decidedly clean and corporate office complex, Jane Owen heads through security barriers and clouds of coffee-clutching office lifers to her interview with the boss, the woman who plucked her from her nascent career in the FBI to work for this private corporate black ops company. Jane's got the job. Bye bye, hubby, it's off to live as a wandering freegan and infiltrate. Her moment comes up and she allows circumstance to work for her and by hook and crook she's in.

From this point on the film splits between its mainstream duties as a genre piece and the deeper themes this filmmaking team have already proved ready for in previous work. Infiltration movies like Donnie Brasco or The Departed depend on the lead's ability to render their acceptance by a sub-society hostile to them. We've seen so many of these on screens great and small that it takes a lot for a character to do this. They have to get past us before any crypto group has their turn. If this isn't dealt with then there has to be something else on the film's mind that can allow too easy an entrance. So how does The East do?

Not bad, as it happens but keeps some cards close to its chest until the end. While there is real work put into the infiltration scenes we move on to the realm of acceptance a little too swiftly. And then there is the issue of Jane (undercover name Sarah) reappearing at the right time to take part in each new action (called jams) and being absorbed without question. There is extra work applied to the sustenance of this trust but no one seems to twig. This is twisted in the final act and makes sense but creates a distracting tension before that moment.

Now I'm going to do something I loathe when others do it and question consistency of character. The dinner scene at the The East's headquarters involves a test. We have already seen Jane praying with her crucifix necklace in her hand and listening to Christian radio in the car. I knew the story that the test is based on, it's a common modern parable used by holy rolling preachers and muffin-fattened Roman bishops alike. There is no way she wouldn't have known it. Is her puzzlement at the setup good acting on the character's part or are we really meant to accept that her response is ingenuous? She does use her reaction creatively in the following scene which leads to think the filmmakers just liked the test scene's reveal and the opportunity for Jane's further ingratiation. Anyway...

So, Jane as Sarah infiltrates the East and we meet the gang and hear their ideas and travel with them on a jam. There's a lot of plot covered in that but the more I think about this film its thematic work over its narrative. The latter is clear and constant, this is not a slow film and it keeps the political thriller aspects visible but what it does more seriously is examine the thinking of one of the oppressor's agents and how it changes and develops and to what extent (that's for the third act so no details here). And this is where I have to talk about these mysterious "filmmakers" I've been mentioning. First, Brit Marling.

Brit Marling's story is a good one. She emerged from acting school with the notion of creating good roles for herself through writing and selling the scripts along with herself. Armed with an aristocratic beauty that would grace any Hollywood screen and a clear intelligence that seems unmaskable and would prevent her taking the lead in any rom com, she already had assets. But her scripts had ideas and, working closely with the directors she interested in the projects, managed to weave those in with a kind of cinema that looked indy but had plot and characterisation that wouldn't threaten the hardest lined mainstream adherent.

Another Earth takes an old sci-fi proposition and wraps it around a strong story of redemption. The Sound of My Voice took time travel and used it for an elaborate trust tale (it's also an infiltration movie). There's a spookiness to those pieces that is carried into The East quite effortlessly and it's also subject to its own premise: this entire film is an act of infiltration. With a cast that includes James Franco (here with big specs and beard that makes him look like a young Coppola), Alexander Skarsgard as a quietly tortured founder, and a firey Ellen Page whose extra zeal is explained in a few scenes both angering and heartrending. Patricia Clarkson is a terrifying iceberg as the private enterprise spy queen. Dig? Marling and director Zac Batmangli are getting high proilfe casts now.

The mainstream is accepting their perfomance in tests. There is little if anything new about the aesthetics of their films or anything to challenge Hollywood the way Blair Witch did. But with a 70s movie brat's confidence with narrative and the warm swelling anger of a young Jane Fonda, they are making their way into the big room. Jane (or is she Sarah) stares out at us in the final frame of the film as though she has emerged from a freshly landed independent pod. She has more to offer. Are we ready?

I am

Sunday, July 28, 2013

MIFF Session 2: JIN: Babe in the Cradle of Civilisation

The most beautiful vision you have seen of a vast cloud bank pouring over a mountain range in a cascade slow enough and so easy on the eye that it feels like a dose of codeine when you need one. A stag in a field, the camera recording the glorious complexity of its coat. A forest. A lizard on a bough. A snake winding about its life. A turtle grinding through another day. Through the rich green leaves of a bush we see a red bandana and a human eye peering through the foliage. An explosion. Tearing blasts of automatic weaponry batter the trees. The story of Earth in about ten minutes. We are witnessing nature, even the bullets.

In one of the many caves you'l  see on screen beautiful 17 year old Jin listens to a fellow Kurdish guerilla sing a haiunting song about a mother wanting her daughter to come home. Jin hugs her colleague and desserts the camp.

Out of this needle edge of civilisation Jin plunges into nature. The life on the mountain runs the gamut and adds mineral to the vegetable and animal with sloping fields hazardous with shin shattering rocks. In her little red riding bandana she negotiates wildlife both lo and hi tech: a silent deal with an eagle wins her an egg for lunch, a shepherd recognises her military status and easily parts with half his bread, she crosses a field targeted by snipers and takes shelter against a bombing run with a bear with whom she shares an apple, chancing on a farm house she steals provisions and money but tends to the  sick old woman of the house.

But if she is a Red Riding Hood she is a seasoned veteran version, not needing no lines about what big eyes or teeth possessed of the predators ursine, reptilian or human and sexual she meets. She has no trouble recognising the need for compassion when it arises and applies her skills of healing and nurture as easily as she handles the Kalashnikov she toted before burying it in a cave.

So, she is young and schooled in the world. So what? Well that's for us to discover as we go, observing her simple but certain quest to escape the war and return to her mother. To do this she must consolidate her departure from the endless hours of war. Her first transformation is made after she visits the farmhouse and steals clothes as well as food. Burying her camouflaging drabs and weapon, changes and in her new rich colour she stands out from the landscape like a civilian. From here she looks like an innocent and knows it which works haere and fails there.

What I'm describing will seem quite ho hum but for all the broadness of the brush but there is such depth of feeling and seriousness in the telling here. Deniz Hasguler's effortless charisma is the chief delivery but the often breathtaking nature photography is presented as an equal in this film of extremely spare dialogue but constant communication. There is simply no easy way to look away from the plain but solid plea to consider the continuum of nature from earth to explosive. No better setting for this tale than here in the cradle of civilisation. From earth to Ur to Byzantium to here...

Reha Erdem's previous MIFF film, Kosmos, was a complicated fable of morality and faith. It's power was undercut by the uneasy blend of hard edge and whimsy. Here, he has honed an appreciation for an elegantly spare canvas.

Jin's final transformation will not be revealed here but it is both a gut punch and unsurprising. It results in her most powerful acts of compassion and leads to a tableau so shiveringly confronting it will either drive you to derisive rejection or riddle you with emotion. I kept myself one shudder short of tears.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

MIFF Session 1: THE DAUGHTER: A date with the new business model.

A sunny afternoon in Athens. A teenage girl waits at the school gates to pick up her brother. In the back of the car he asks where they're going and she sighs and tells him they have to go and do something first and then he can do what he likes. The pair climb into a lumber storehouse the back way, familiar with it, aware of a need to be sneaky.

Time shifts: the girl finds father's flat with new locks on the door and a carpet of unpaid bills on the welcome mat: she tries her father's accountant who hasn't seen the man for days: at the flat she shares with her mother and mother's boyfriend she picks up a few things and flees: she settles the little boy back at the lumber yard and tells him he should never leave and that he is safe there: she heads through the streets which ring deafeningly with the shouting of protest rallies: she visits her father's business partner who asks if she has seen their son.  She tells them no. The boy is not her brother. He is her captive. In a line of dialogue The Daughter has gone from a De Sica style neo-realist film to a thriller.

Except that it does something strange. We have begun so compellingly that it would seem natural for the girl, Myrto, to play a taut and frightening mind game with the boy's, Angelos', parents. Oh, we get a look at the loaded gun rule prop early: a massive power saw. And we see that Myrto means business. But what we get instead of an assembly-line thriller is a study in sustained intensity and a fable for the Greek collapse that does not let up. If you look at Salvina Alimani in the titular role and think of a young olive Sandra Bullock you should know that she not only doesn't smile once throughout the entire running time but only gets more fierce.

The backstory to Myrto's mortal anger is kept lean and presented in easily digested further time shifts. Her relationship to the boy is the sole point of genuine character development in the film. While the mis en scene makes such skilful use of the many prison-bar like lines in the lumber store, frequent isolation of light to a small area of the 2.35:1 screen, and some contextually odd extreme high and low shots, it holds its realism tightly.

But it also keeps its eye on fable. Myrto reads Angelos dictionary definitions of words like debt and responsibility while he draws monsters. The nest she has made of the lumber store with it Dr Caligari angles and combustibility is spider like and maternal at once. Her response to their parents' betrayal of both of them is adolescent - enough personal power to act but not enough experience to know if she can - can be seen without a big stretch as a creepy portent of the new world business model: do-or-die, vengeful and self-preserving. The world has changed and the betrayed want the kind of redress that teenagers don't think twice about before turning to action. At one point the storeroom is invaded by theives who make off with a ute full of saleable timber and we remind ourselves that all this stock must now be owned by the bank.

Alimani's hard performance might strike us as monotonous but the consciousness she allows through her stern visage eventually show us that we are witnessing control, not limitation. Her expression in the film's final image takes this to another level.

I can imagine many sniffing at the mechanics of the climactic scene and the heavy handedness of its symbolism but while those things registered with me I also felt the anger in the imagery. The Daughter takes this anger and packs a lot of it into a laudable 87 minutes of screen time, letting us know just how it feels. And we who are or have been teenagers ourselves, have no trouble feeling the same.

PS - I added this on top of my annual mini pass as I realised I wanted to commemorate something: at the time of the screening last year I was being wheeled from the operating theatre with a plate newly drilled into my left fibula. I wouldn't walk again for months and had to skip last year's festival. The stroll into town this afternoon and the return walk were the sweetest I have known.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Catchup review: RED ROAD

A woman locks herself in a toilet, unzips, takes a used condom out of her bag and squeezes the semen out of it on to her fingers which she then inserts into her vagina. This is suggested rather than graphic but the stark white light of the scene. There is a clumsy rush to the action. She has planned this but is surprised by the mechanics of it. This substance she is more than familiar with doesn't play nice. Soon it's over her jeans and the bathroom towels. Then she does something that I won't spoil that seals her actions. She has just come from a scene of strongly consensual sex (which a moment's exception which she has planted).

This is Jackie. She earns a living monitoring the mass of CCTV camera feeds around a huge Glasgow housing estate. Her job uses this safe distance to adjudge appropriate action over the great dispossessed mass that she mostly knows only as a chequerboard of gluggy video tones.Her home is much nicer, a bungalow in the middle class neighbourhoods with a garden she has elected to ruin naturally.We learn that she is in conflict with her in laws but not why. Otherwise her leisure is divided between publicly served pleasures and privately stolen thumping trysts with a married coworker in the back of his SUV.

One pleasure she finds in her job but keeps to herself is the opportunity to follow the patchworked narratives of the people on the estate. One middle aged man is going through the slow decline of his obviously well loved dog. At one point she ventures between the screened veneer and the third dimension, following the man to a point where she stands beside him in a minor frenzy, deciding on action. She retreats from the potential point of touch and walks off, tingling.

But then she sees a face that freezes her. We don't know why but we do know that the man she has been spooked by is out of prison before time. This time the reach of the screen takes on the gravity of a mission. Her technological and official privilege arm her with his living circumstances and she infiltrates his nest, having already watched him with friends rowdily drunk and venal. By the time she tricks her way past security to get to a party at his flat we know no better than she does how much of this is a revenge we are not fully informed of and how much sheer fascination. She encourages his eye across the room  and they dance close. She begs off and vomits in the lift down.

Her dangerous game begins to spin out of control until, oddly, she is saved from crashing by her quarry whose threatening presence is dependent on a sexual charm too strong to ignore. This leads us to one of the strangest sex scenes I have seen on screen. It is both genuinely erotic and unnervingly brutal yet contains neither soft light nor violence. This brings us to where I began.

Finding out what she has against him is a narrative bloodknot and at the final meeting of the central pair where we witness both redemption and the exposure of unhealable emotional scars is a gut punch.

So why does this film feel so light? I still can't answer that question but I can say that any film that finds such awesome beauty in the normally monstrous architecture of British housing towerblocks has my vote for its sheer powers of observation. This should play like Loach or some old Play for Today but uses its danger and melodrama to create an enviable balance. Goldilocks would like this film. But then that's a Goldilocks I would very much like to talk to.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Rock On Film 16: Oil City Confidential

For a while I'd hear a new TISM song and wonder when they were going to twig that sending up disco didn't even have a retro effect. At some point prompted by a friend's suggestion, I started realising that that had just become their style and I should just live with it. Similarly, when a new Julien Temple music documentary appears and the a/v mashups start I no longer think, "oh, again?" but, "oh, new Julien Temple movie". The other trait he's been using is to weave a setting in throughout the story to give it place or mood.

In Filth and the Fury that was the gluggy 70s tv ads and youth shows as well as the backlit interview subjects whose visible aging would not distract from their testimony. In The Future is Unwritten Joe Strummer's friends and colleagues traded tales around the kind of campfires Stummer was promoting as a kind of cultural folk remedy. In this film about pub rockers Dr Feelgood we follow a guided stroll around Canvey Island where the band grew up and met. And weaving through that is a series of AV bites from British post-war noir, including some newly created by Temple. Julien loves his music and his friends and when his friends make music loved by millions he builds a richly textured record of it to stand against the weather of time.

Time and its erosion bothered him so much in Filth that he presented his main players in silhouette. Not so here where the surviving players seem so happy to continue living decades past the fade of their fame. Chief among them is guitarist Wilco Johnson whose current baldness provides a helpful temporal ruler against the many images of the luxuriant dark mop of his youth. There is no Vegas plastic surgery nor Hollywood hairpiece in this unashamed ex rock star. His glottal stop speech sounds as vital quoting Wordsworth as it does recounting infamies from a U.S. tour. He speaks to us directly from his home or a pub or sings outside the local pokie joint with his Fender Tele plugged straight into what looks like an old tweed Bassman. Not a moment of this drags and his live to camera al fresco renditions of standards like John Hardy feel as comfortable as they would played in the Delta by an old bluesman. Temple and his subjects avoid self-embarrassment.

Is this damning with faint praise? Almost. I remember Dr. Feelgood from the 70s but only slightly. For me they were completely eclipsed by punk which emerged soon after they did and for me they were one of the acts that never quite convinced when they were put into the same sentence as The Clash or The Damned. What Dr. Feelgood played was what used to be called R&B. Their's was a freshly aggressive guitar and growled vocals approach but it was also being called pub rock which term I had no trouble imagining as the pubs around Townsville rang with ginger-froed hippies playing flavourless versions of Mustang Sally. By comparision Dr. Feelgood rebooted the genre and sounded leaner and meaner and looked a lot better.

Wilco on stage had the weirdest look I've ever seen in a rock guitarist. Under a mop that seems too big for him he stares out like a psyche patient and glides back and forth. One witness of the early shows describes him as being on rails and that's exactly what it looks like. The fluidity of the motion and the magnetism of his stare provide a kind of sleight of hand that keeps our eyes away from how he's moving like that. Lee Brilleaux (Frenched up spelling of Brillo, as in the cleaning pads) hulks centre, unmoving growling out to Roxette in the dark. There's a Riot in Cell Block Number Nine? Wilco plays his machine gun riff holding his Tele like an Armalite. No light show and only the vaguest concession to costumes. This was music played as hard as its English winter garden bed and crawled up out of the concreted earth among the refinery silos like worms and oil.

That's what makes this a good music documentary. That's what brings it to the same high shelf as the London of Filth and the Fury and the spare Texan spaces of The Real Buddy Holly Story or the Melbourne of Autoluminescent: PLACE! We're as weary as the wanderers in the walking tour of Canvey Island at the end when they finally get to their pub but happy to sip and watch Wilco's last few words from in front of the silos. By that stage I don't care if I don't like the music. I've been somewhere. I've met someone.

Friday, July 19, 2013

TOP TEN 19/07/2013

UMBERTO D.:  Only saw this very recently. Spare and elegant story of life lessons and how much harder they get when we think we're too old for them. The central performances of Carlo Battisti and Maria Pia Casilio burn into the light from the screen, people in distress with the clocks ticking loudly. And I won't forget mention of Umberto's pooch whose presence assumes such enormous importance. A film of often unbearable pity this never cheapens into sentimentality. The dark before the dawn was never so haunting nor so warm.

ROMA: I love Fellini and I love even more the Fellini of the 70s like Amarcord or this big gloriously jammed canvas of a city portrait. From the Romans to the Fascists, from the loud life of families to moments of shivering stillness, Roma is a celebration of joy and wonder. The closing sequence of the motorbikes gliding through the city carries a real thrill.

ERASERHEAD: Because it is what it is and ever more shall be so.

THE TIN DRUM: Best literal adaptation of a novel ever. Gunther Grass's earthy epic of Oscar the monster who didn't want to grow as the world of grownups went psycho around him plays like the reader of the book's imagination as the pages turn. Didn't hurt having a perfect casting choice in David Bennent as young Mr Mazarath, either. Greatness!

APOCALYPSE NOW: Been playing The End on my SG lately and every time I do I think of the opening sequence of this film which blends a mesmerising piece of music with absorbing visuals that make us wonder at our awe at the sight of terrible destruction. That's only the beginning.

VIVRE SA VIE: By this one, Godard had retained all the lessons of neo-realism but could filter it through his own method and sentiment without drawing attention to it. He moved on from this and made sure no one missed his attention grabbing approaches but by then his politics was his muse. While I tend to prefer the mid to later 60s work for that very thing, Vivre Sa Vie shows him in full control of his style and substance which can still put the lie to any detractor's claim of flash for its own sake. Anna Karina outdoes her love-me turn in Une Femme to give us something aching and sublime. She is flesh. She is spirit (and I don't even have a concept of spirit!). Masterpiece!

GROUNDHOG DAY: One of the best rom coms ever: great fairy tale of repeat until you get it. Runs the gamut and even the heartwarming moments are saved by Bill Murray's top-of-game performance. And it's still funny as fuck.

THE TURIN HORSE: Because one of a kind is sometimes the same thing as greatness. Bela Tarr's swansong gives us an apocalypse of waiting in a very few long takes, using perceived screen time as a means of absorbing his audience into something rich and strange. Big and eerie and beautiful.


SUSPIRIA: Because it understands that nightmares are scary because we have no control over them. Only falters when it tries to explain itself.

SECONDS: The real Twilight Zone movie, this wish story in a Kafkaesque world only millimetres beneath the normal one features one of the most haunting performances you'll ever see. Rock Hudson's Hollywood double life bleeds through the nightmare he embodies. The ending manages to be both terrifying and heart rending.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Rock on Film Part 15: Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll: Looks juss like 'im!

What do you want in a rock biopic? If not the facts then an exaggeration of them that points toward whatever it is this life might teach us all wrapped up in enough visual flare to keep us grounded in the whizzbang world of pop. Ok, maybe not Control but a movie about agitator and cheeky wordsmith Ian Dury? Yes. So we start just like that. A dusty empty theatre. A figure with a walking stick struggling through the curtain takes a stage that is suddenly filled with musicians playing before a loudly vocal full house. The staggering figure is at the mic set inside a jaunty Cockney knees up vamp. His face is hidden by his bowler hat but then he lifts it and my jaw drops. Holy eel pies if he darn't look just like 'im.

Andy Serkis, the shape changer who was Gollum and Ceasar the chimp now gives us the dark pearly king of the late 70s UK music scene. With his baby-eyed block head and withered limbs Dury's roughneck wit neither apologised for nor confronted with his disability. His entire career was a clear fuck you lot let's party that preceded punk and outlived post punk and all the frail simper of the synth-mincing 80s. When I was at school I'd do the entirety of Hit Me Wih Your Rhythm Stick and Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll to the delight and resentment of all in earshot. It's nice to be a lun-a-tic. Part music hall jokester, part William Hogarth and all himself, Dury burst from a childhood of physical constraint and institutional cruelty with such a force that it was decades before he took a breath.

Well, that's the public story. And it's a good one. This ought to give us something of the clown without the greasepaint. Well, it does. Starting with a Brechtian frame of the live show that wasn't we fall into another level which describes Dury as a day to day husband, father, career entertainer and all around impulsive narcissist. So, we're in good hands, aren't we? After the impossible theatre show (during the first song we are pointed to the suddenly appearing diving platform with the young Ian on the plank among other cinematically possible constructions) we get a big lolly shop of animated backgrounds, cheery band forming and changing montages and a lot of scenes of Dury as a father trying and often failing to bring up his son and keep his marriage, however fractured, from a formal divorce. Stir in a lot of scenes from key points in his career and troubled childhood torn between a loving father and sadistic institutional carer and that's the movie.

Isn't that enough? It should be but this is a case of parts not summing up. The frame of the live show seems to fall into neglect and a series of Dury being difficult scenes gets repetitive. The hey-guys-I've-got-it scenes of famous song inspirations seem self-consciously underplayed to the point where they become flavourless and routine. A thread of his son coping with bullying and witnessing the rockstar lifestyle have promise but are lost among a lot of other threads that feel much the same. Ultimately this ends up with a weave with less of a patten than a transition from clear lines to the purple mud sludge that all plasticine sets become after about an hour's playing. This despite the great clarity resulting from the establishment of each major thread: disability, marriage, career, egos etc. Nothing delivers. It can't: there are too many delivery boys vying for attention.

Performances are stellar, moments are impressive, the era is effectively evoked and all I can think at the rolling of the credits is hmmmm. I put 24 Hour Party People in after watching this and skipped to Andy Serkis playing producer Martin Hannet. Again I learned a more about Hannet in a relatively small onscreen role tghan I did about Dury in his biopic. No, I have to go one better here: I will never be able to forget the vision of the coolly beautiful Gina S. at a North Ward party in 1979 dancing simply but mesmerisingly, fixing her eyes on the guy she was with and mouthing the words to the song joggling from the speakers: "Wake up and make love with me. Wake up and make love ..." That still tells me more about Ian Dury's appeal than anything in this beautiful broken jigsaw puzzle of a film. What a bloody pity.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: A FIELD IN ENGLAND: 1648 A Place Oddity

England, an England so distantly archaic that it must be shown in deep monochrome. A ragtag group of deserters from the Civil War find each other and head to a promised alehouse across a field and through the trees over there. Once in cups they will decide on how to proceed. Desertion carries the death penalty. Deserters must have a story. But before they can cross the field to find the alehouse they stop for a free stew up of the local mushrooms.

As this happens we hear their talk, learn a little of them, where they're from and how they've come to be there. The loyalty of each, roundhead or cavalier, has long been abandoned but there is a disparity among them about personal belief. The journeyman astrologer/alchemist Whitehead still clings (in a protest-too-much manner) to his Christianity. There are two rugged soldiers, one driven by the war to a kind of earthy nihilism and the other whose military bearing makes his desertion less explicable. And there is a clownish soldier who might have only deserted because he thought he was dead (you have to see it to get that one).

In reading up on the local responses to this film I was introduced to the term am-dram, amateur dramatics, which was used by the frostier reviews to describe the opening scenes of this film. I can't see it myself. The stilted dialogue and mix of accents which vary from geezer Cockney to Norn Irn might feel a tad stagey but the dialogue itself and its pepper of anachronisms served to uproot the historical drama pageant of the piece and declare its own terms. This film has a setting rather than a period. It is an ancien regime falling bloodily apart, belief and class structure are being splattered on the green and pleasant land and draining into the soil below. The setting is Chaos and there are few times more symbolic of chaos than civil war.

Into this destabilised scene enters the necromancer O'Neill. He is a rougue fellow black arts journeyman bound to the same master as Whitehead but escaped the master's influence earlier. Whitehead was charged with his pursuit and capture. O'Neill, however, enters with magisterial presence, aided immediately by the more servile soldier as though it was preplanned. From this point A Field in England takes its series of shapes.

O'Neill explains to Whitehead that they are there to uncover a treasure the location of which will require Whitehead's skills of divination. The divination begins with one of the film's tableaus which shows the group gathered outside O'Neill's tent variously in what looks like worship or phallic military authority (I'm really not being that figurative here, it's pretty hard edged) as Whitehead's agonised, terrified screams tear out from the tent. It's a mix of religious revelation and birth pain. He emerges from the tent in slow motion trailing a thick umbilical rope, walking like a marionette with his arms lifted but hanging loose, a demonic grin stretching his face. The music swells with an aching majesty. Because of the slow motion the others seem to remain in the tableau poses in worshipful awe of this vision they are powerless to explain.

If by this stage you are still searching for plot and dissatisfied with the idea that the structure of the treasure hunt is there as a frame for the expression and exploration of a deal of other things then this film is not for you. I've mentioned the tableaus a few times now without saying anything about them so I'll do that now as it supports what I've just stated. There are sequences in this film in which the characters are posed against their background. They are not freezframes, the actors are moving as little as they would if posing for a group photograph but their gestures and postures are deliberate.

Why is this so? There is neither time travelling photographer nor wood cut artist present. These displays (there are several) are for the audience and mark a point at which the film itself steps out of its flow to forge a statement. Contrast this with the use of tableau in a Peter Greenaway film wherein a gathering like a dinner scene will be so presented (many even clearly framed by the set's architecture). No one in a Greenaway tableau is aware that they are in one. The ones in A Field in England are carefully placed over the film, illustrations of its business rather than active parts of it. (Can you tell I'm really avoiding use of the prefix "meta" here?) As with the mix 'n' match dialogue we are being invited to ponder what we are seeing. While we might struggle with some of this, by the time we are assaulted with the sequence of hallucination (strobing, mirroring, warping and pretty much anything else Wheatley could throw at the screen) we should have some idea of where we have come from in the film.

There are moments in the dialogue towards the end that would sound trite in other settings but it would be a mistake to dismiss them as the apocalyptic, rank and stinky context in which they appear supports them with a solid foundation. It might defy the principles of good building but it does form a building.

I like going to a multiplex and diving into a big high tech actioner where everything falls into place as expected and tastes as reliable as the ice cream in a choc top. I love, however, sitting in front of something that I might only understand well after I have seen it, that I can neither predict nor control. This can be upsetting, haunting, or meaningless or boring but I still prefer not knowing. The removal of control from the audience is the essence of great horror but while A Field in England alludes to some genre pieces (there are a swathe of films it might evoke for you like Dead Man or Witchfinder General) it's business is to creep us rather than confront us into thinking. There is a lot here to think about.

So, whether psychedelic Western out of water, history pageant for Beckett fans, centuries-early prequels for Wheatley's Kill List or Sightseers, A Field in England ably progresses the work of a filmmaker whose every new work defies the expectations of the previous ones. Mention must be made of the aptness of the cast, particularly Reece Shearsmith (deeper and more complex than any of his creations in League of Gentlemen) and Michael Smiley (with an even more unsettling power than he brought to Gal in Kill List). The film also includes the funniest dying monologue outside of anything in Monty Python.

Terry Gilliam wanted to put on the poster of his troubling Tideland "It's great ... the second time." That could be the logline of Ben Wheatley's entire career. May he so continue.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

DVD Review: DEAR ZACHARY: Documentary as Naive Art

This film does something familiar to an unfamiliar degree. Like many documentaries, when it needs to represent the opinions of a number of people it uses a rapid fire montage of interview bites to create an overall impression before settling down to deliver the depth. Dear Zachary opens this way but so breathlessly and for so long that by the time the last bit freeze frames and the director/narrator says,"wait, you need to know what happened," I'm gasping for breath.

The clippets have gone past so feverishly that in some cases there has been an image of an interviewee with another's audio playing underneath it. This is not a mistake but nor is it Eisenstein 1+1=3 as there is no extra meaning to be found in these first few minutes by the sound/image juxtaposition as we are still waiting to be introduced to most of them. Apart from the central figure, Andrew Bagby, who is repeatedly shown in stills and video from childhood to his early adulthood and a very few other figures we are not invited to acquaint ourselves with these many faces and voices.

There's a solid reason for this. This film was made by a close friend of Andrew Bagby. Those are his scenes from the teenage homemade feature films that star Andrew. This breathless overture is not information, it's memory. Not nostalgic memory with an art directed composition and rhythmic pacing but hard sense memory: face statement question light expression sound quizzical look laugh scout uniform ceremony parents dialogue from film... This is how this movie felt behind the eyes of Kurt Kuenne, writing, camera, direction and "editorial". After it looked like this he started to make a lucid logical documentary, which most of the screen time here is. But then he went into his editing setup and created the opening explosion of sensual return that we start with, it must have taken weeks to assemble. What at first looks like amateurish jumble begins, especially as the approach recurs, to take on the face of deliberation. We are watching a documentary like no other. There are costs to this but rewards to which - Wait, first you need to know what happens.

This is a very easy film to spoil so all I'll do is lay out the premise. Andrew Bagby was shot dead by a woman he jilted. She fled the scene from the US to Newfoundland and evaded justice. Bagby's parents pursued the murderer and sought custody over the grandson she was bearing as the American police attempted extradition. The old couple were warned that the law is slow and indeed were forced not only to witness the killer go free but agree to her terms on visitation rights with the child: they had to be nice to their son's killer. Courts miscarry, government departments fail, the killer dictates terms. Things get worse.

(CAUTION: if this review stirs you to pursue a viewing of this film be very warned that if you are not screaming by the end of it you should consult with a psychiatrist about your empathy deficit.)

While all of this is happening we see an increasing presence of video memory appearing centre screen. Kurt Kuenne drives across the US by way of a trip to the UK, gathering video memory for the letter he is narrating to Bagby's son, Zachary. The barely controlled audiovisual explosion of testimony that began proceedings makes sense. More, it begins to feel natural, as though Kuenne is reviewing his own memory and the new material as he drives toward Newfoundland. The convergence of his journey to deliver his message and the grandparents' efforts to allow this safely by taking legal control over the child's welfare forms a plot that in the midst of the video turbulence, feels effortless.

So far this could be the work of an Errol Morris disciple amping up the personal involvement. But there's something else happening here and, at first it's not obvious. The rough-hewn home video look of the piece and the breathless editing of the memory outbreaks show only bare control over the material. The sheer positivity of sentiment towards Bagby including much in the narration itself (which more than once makes it through to the sound mix choked by emotion) can overwhelm. This is not just one side of the argument it is a howling cry of pain from nothing but love. While facts are presented that would not trouble the most severe courtroom the burden of this film is to support them with an emotional foundation so strong and woven it feels tribal. The documentary here is not so much of the case but of the loss, of the response, of the physically felt chest pain or the dizziness of a suddenly realised futility. At moments it feels how I imagine a panic attack feels, vertiginous, hopeless, bloodless. At one stage when Kuenne inserts a still of a violent splash of colour and beats a loud male scream beneath it we feel like screaming ourselves.

Documentaries have a duty to inform but the best have a tale to tell and position to sell. I find the pranking of a Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore too often self-defeatingly cute. And even Errol Morris can give in to the sensationalism his pieces claim to expose. Dear Zachary makes no concession to balance. To be fair it's really all there in the title: Dear Zachary: a Letter to a Son About His Father. That is what I paid for.

But if this is documentary then I'm a monkey's uncle. This is the news told at the campfire, the ballad recalled for transmission at a single hearing. There are facts in the case, and nothing seems to lie, but the tune and the rhyme are the things here, a family epic on hand made instruments. And there is a real eerieness to the packaging of the dvd (see image at the top of this review). A digipak with multiple gatefolds reveals a naive drawing that runs from the cover, across the inner walls all the way to the rear, family tree, images of crime, family and justice and a figure either sleeping or lying dead near the top. At first I thought that some of the panels of the gatefold held a booklet or some extra printed matter but that's only because the assembly feels a little rough and folky, as if the whole family gathered for a weekend of folding and pressing and then feasted, surrounded by the artefacts of their communion, a naive art masterwork which warms like Christmas cards drawn by children and sounds like a church pew when you knock on it.

Against my better self I looked up Kurt Kuenne on the imdb and found that his film career seems to be progressing. It's still indy level but you can see an arc still travelling upwards. I wanted to think of his subsequent films just being more of the treehouse Tarrantinos we see in this film. His most recent is a chronology mash in the mould of Memento starring one of he cast of Bones. It looks fine. But I want the old Kurt, taking a seat at the kitchen table with a six pack of Bud and a mic. But that Kurt is lost to us forever now.

Friday, July 5, 2013


Ok Shadowfolk, it's very soon MIFF time again. Below are my picks on my minipass. As usual, I am more than willing to consider screenings outside of this lil' block and should you qualify me in your own way as an apt cine-companion and see nothing at all in this list that tickles your fancy, lemme know and I might well go: "Yeah!"

I've kept the Gialli out of it as I like to keep MIFF to unseen things of current vintage but will probably end up shelling out for extra tix for some of those. If you haven't seen Don't Torture a Duckling by the great Lucio Fulci you ought to, and this way, with a crowd of strangers in the dark. See also Deep Red and ... anything else on the giallo program.

While there are a few things that I have really been waiting for (new Shane Carruth for eg.) I've decided to really take a few chances this year. Program looks good.

Note to MIFF website engineers. Only a few years ago I was able to plot my alloted minipass selections on a calendar and send the lot to the checkout and, presto, it was done. Why can't I do that now?

In other news, I like the Android app. At this teething stage it's a tad sluggish but should pick up closer to the day. Anwyay, looking good for the nonce. Here are my pix!

1022 - JÎN 
11:00 AMForum Theatre
"Visually stunning, vividly emotional." - Variety From award-winning director Reha Erdem (Kosmos, MIFF 2010; Times and Winds, MIFF 2007) comes Jîn, the story of a young Kurdish rebel who breaks...

Monday 29 July 2013

1029 - THE EAST 
11:00 AMForum Theatre
"Fusing the anti-corporate paranoia of ‘70s thrillers like The Parallex View with a more modern, post-Occupy sensibility, [The East is] a triumph: smart, notably uncondescending, utterly gripping...

Tuesday 30 July 2013

11:00 AMForum Theatre
"A tragic love story, a fierce indictment against the Islamist regime in Tehran … a lyrical elegy replete with symbolical visions." - Screen Daily A poet during the reign of the Shah is imprisoned...

Wednesday 31 July 2013

11:00 AMACMI 2
"I was angry, I wrote things down. Stupid, not dangerous." In a culture of fear, the line between victim and aggressor becomes hard to trace. But Sean, a high-school outcast, finds himself on the wrong...

2047 - A TOUCH OF SIN 
9:00 PMGreater Union Cinema 6
"This ultraviolent attack on Chinese consumerism is a stunning slap in the face from previously-sedate director Jia Zhang-ke." - The Guardian The blood hits the floor in this confronting look at modern...

Thursday 1 August 2013

3:45 PMACMI 2
"A brave, challenging picture … perhaps the first film since the declaration of the Islamic Republic to confront so directly the brutality of the feared security apparatus." - Variety Arrested...

Friday 2 August 2013

1:30 PMForum Theatre
"A love letter to 1920s European silent film, liberally mixing humor and melodrama." - Hollywood Reporter The Brothers Grimm get a sumptuous reinvention in Blancanieves, the new silent, black-and-white...

Monday 5 August 2013

6:30 PMForum Theatre
"Original, heady, visually gorgeous, aurally luscious … [a] brilliant, bewildering sci-fi exploration of humanity's mysterious biological connections." - Shane Carruth created great...

Tuesday 6 August 2013

4:00 PMForum Theatre
"Every shot is a tour de force of precision that leans toward pure hallucination." - Cinema Scope At the age of 104, the indefatigable Manoel de Oliveira (The Strange Case of Angelica, MIFF 2010) is...

Wednesday 7 August 2013

6:30 PMForum Theatre
Aim High in Creation! is a revolutionary comedy about the cinematic genius of North Korea's late dear leader, Kim Jong-il, with a groundbreaking experiment at its heart: the making of a film-within-a-film,...

Thursday 8 August 2013

4:00 PMForum Theatre
"A powerful and intensely watchable film." - Screen Daily Tobias Lindholm (co-writer of The Hunt, MIFF 2012) settles into his second stint behind the camera in typically taut style, crafting an intelligent,...

Friday 9 August 2013

6:30 PMForum Theatre
Following the Sunnyboys' enigmatic frontman Jeremy Oxley from the band's origins, breakthrough success and his subsequent 30-year battle with schizophrenia, The Sunnyboy is one man's inspired story of...

Saturday 10 August 2013

4:00 PMGreater Union Cinema 6
When the Troubles divided Belfast, one man discovered the music to unite a generation.Good Vibrations was a record store, a label and the life of Terri Hooley - Ireland's Godfather of Punk. And as war...