Tuesday, August 19, 2014


So, MIFF 2014. A mild winter presaged less than rugged up strides to the venues for my three week holiday (two for movies and one for recovery) but the day of my first screening was the coldest of the year. One and a half colds kept me indoors but they were only passing affairs. Microbes aside, although nothing out of the program on first look leaped out but I managed to glean the necessary very little about those that looked enticing and left the rest to risk. See below. Not too shabby.

The first year we had the Android app I had to stay home and nurse a broken leg. Using it last year was ease itself and this year was even slicker. There was a serious glitch at one point whereby the My Tickets link led to the entire program with the wishlist hearts confounding things even further. This made for a few fumbling moments approaching the scannervolk. That was sorted though and I had no trouble selecting and booking my initial minipass thirteen (those daytime sessions). When it's up and running which is usually the case it is a complete improvement on both paper ticketing and the credit card passes (lost by the admin one year and arrived in the very nick of time for the start day another). The effect this has on queueing is a profound pleasure. Hurrah for the app!

Only had to queue once due to first day gremlins with the scanners. I'm a front sitter. I got to the Forum last Sunday at 4pm for Hard to be a God. The line went around the block. I moseyed down to the club for ten minutes until it had gone in and happily took a favourite spot. There was even a friend of mine in the next seat. Doesn't get better and I'll just rub in that knowing this negates the only advantage I'd use from being a MIFF member.

Apart form the grossly overpriced wine from a sponsor the ambiance of the Forum downstairs is one of the atmospheric points of magnetism for the festival each year. That combination of classical Rome and Danger Diabolik lighting is irresistable. Didn't go to much in the way of events there this time (nothing can top the Romero interview and Q&A in the terrible winter of '08.

Clint Cure and I leaving the Festival Club after the
final session at the Forum, Hard to Be a God.
My old luminous nose problem is back.

There was no MIFF trailer this year. These fatiguing jokes over the last few years have proved excellent at draining the blood from the faces of the hardiest of cinephiles. Even if the joke were a good one it would wither to the quality of a bachelor uncle at Christmas telling the same joke every year. This year this was replaced by the number plate ad which was funny the first time (but I kept forgetting what it was advertising). Well done, thou good and faitful fest. You can keep making trailers but perhaps just consider stringing some clips of plain beauty together and setting that to music. The jokes don't just wear off, they wear.

Capitol Cinema and Treasury Theatre, so fondly recalled from festivals o' yore. The Treasury, once the State Film Theatre, served as an arthouse, giving space to the Melbourne Cinemateque after it's move from the Glasshouse at RMIT. It really did feel good to take the brief stroll from my place to the Treasury and reminded me of years of great gems on offer just down the road. It's where I saw the supposedly lost Ghost Ship (on film!) with a Val Lewton afficianado, Tarkovsky's Sacrifice, the then Spoleto Festival's free literary documentaries about Gertrude Stein and William Burroughs among others. And it was also where I would go to see MIFF films in the late 90s/early 00s.

At the much missed Treasury for
Breadcrumb Trail.
And the Capitol? Saw so much there and would choose screenings there just for the ceiling. Among many the great Primer and the fandom cooling Doppelganger. Just one there this year: Sion Sono's insanely fun Why Don't You Play in Hell?

That fab ceiling


First impression is that while none of the titles I saw leaped out and tweaked my nose with breathless anticipation I did manage to be impressed by more than I'd usually settle for. I went to a few more but even so. Normally, I'd be happy with four out of my mini pass thirteen if those four really got me. At this count five great moments out of seventeen and most of the rest good to really good is doing pretty well. Here's a quick run down:

Sorcerer's old school white knuckle action and sheer force of the narrative of its fable made me forget it was a remake (although reimagining really does apply to this one. It makes Friedkin's glamour run from French Connection to Cruising flawless. Astounding!

Why Don't You Play in Hell? showed Sion Sono in top tight form as he smashed amateur filmmaking and Yakuzas together with a eulogy for the grandeur of 35 mm. Mad as a milliner and percussively funny.

Song from the Forest kept its anger cool as a good man who chose the daily difficult reality of village life in Central Africa over affluence in New York because of music relates the story of his decision and his reception of the world he thought he left behind.

Breadcrumb Trail showed that all you really need to do to piece together the story of a seminal album is to ask nicely and be patient when the answer is long and wordy. A great documentary feels like it is part of the fabric of its subject. This one even talks like it.

Hard to be a God which I was expecting to be a mix of Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr proved to be neither but offered so much in its message and delivery method that it proved to be very much of its own kind. It lingers and acquires more sense than its viewing, like the experience of something that happened in your own life.

Honeymoon might have benefitted from pivoting on a less absurd coincidence if it was going to get all grim and Scandinavian (I know it was Czech, that's not what I mean). Good performances, though.

Particle Fever might have given us more of its science and less of the human face of quirk.

Life Itself celebrated a great cineaste with a constantly apparent memento mori. I warmed to it far less than I do to Ebert's writing.

Rigor Mortis served up some fine Hong Kong horror playing mercifully little for laughs. Wasn't particularly scary either, though.

Come Worry With Us presented a cool indy band as people who have to put up with the same kind of life events as the rest of us but was probably too long for its material.

I Origins betrayed its own character's conviction with more of a Hollywood ending than I was expecting from the maker of Another Earth. That said, very fine dialogue and performances and a superb conceit of taking a highly unscientific notion and describing it scientifically. This team needs work but boy are they making headway.

Trap Street surprised with the subtlety of its fable about trust in the surveillance age but perhaps it could have taken one more pace into its own darkness.

Our Sunhi a fine deadpan comedy more Preston Sturges than Jacques Tati about the identity one professes and that bestowed by others. A gentle but firm hand on the helm kept it from cuteness and delivered a beautifully loopy (in more than one sense) final act.

Exhibition gave us an absurdist take on domestic space so dry it could been by Samuel Beckett's ghost which also means it got pretty funny when it needed to. Joanna Hogg's on the watch list.

When Animals Dream began so promisingly as a kitchen sink realist take on a risky horror sub-genre, persisted with that strongly but lost it to conventionality in the final act which played out like a non-scary copy of an 80s teen horror. Pity.

The Search for Weng Weng was rendered unbelievable to me by something it meant to sell: the filmmaker's sincerity. What can you say when a documentary that claims to be a celebration of a life through that of the documentarian and you still know nothing of the subject beyond a few clips you're meant to ridicule?

So a good un this year with a decent swag of transforming moments, a big happy middle section and only a brace of disappointments. Caught a cold. Slept in. Socialised and drank a lot of champagne. Had a lot of hangovers and plugged in once again to the great circuit of cinema major. Yes, it's still worth getting up in the morning on my holidays to grimace through some freezing air currents on the tightening walk to the venues. I still love treading the carpet of the Forum's mezzanine for a choctop or a coffee before going in. And I love sitting in any of the venues surrounded by other cinephiles who are almost always filling the seating to witness things they might never see again.

Right, that's done. And I'll do the lot again next year.

Monday, August 18, 2014


Organic. Brutal. Deliberate. With my post closing night hangover this near three hour film would want to be any one of those. Ticking all three allowed it not only to be durable but magnetic, if often viewer-resistant. I'm not going to go into the production back story or the life and method of its ruggedly individualist director because if the film doesn't work all that is as odorous as all that slimy stuff in the art direction of this one.

Hard to Be a God is a strong film that can list among its virtues one of my favourites in unconventional cinema: it doesn't care how strange it is, it just is. And it's not a film uncaring of its audience either as there are very few seconds of its epic screen time which don't feature someone in the cast looking straight out at us. Whether we stick it out or leave after the 17th faecal reference we are on its terms.

The very spare plot is more of developments within a setting than an action heavy arc. In the future among the inhabited planets discovered this one, Arkanar, has been medieval for a tad too long. Rennaisance style has been detected but the life and politics are still mired in the dark. That's because they keep hanging their nerds. An Earth team is sent to give it a gentle push. There are limits to this and chief among them is that they are not allowed to kill. We follow one of them, Rumata, whose knowledge and confidence have given him a godlike status among the locals. While he fails to save the intellectuals and cannot persuade any of the major warring sides (called Blacks and Whites) to conciliate. He must take drastic action that might be disastrous whether it succeeds or not.

Most of what you get is Rumata moving around the villages and towns having exchanges with the locals that range from brief unreferenced lines to longer dialogues. None of these do much to suggest the necessary hazards that conventional narrative needs but this doesn't claim to be that. Everyone at least seems to be speaking in earnest. We are not listening for exposition (that comes in infrequent slices of narration and is clear) but picking up moods and sources of conflict. After a very short time the viewer understands that the camera following Rumata around in its string of long takes is in the scene itself. Characters are looking into it, addressing it, offering it goblets of alcohol: and whether it is a floating sphere or one of Rumata's teammates it is part of the world we are in.

The world we are in is one of claustrophobically close quarters, mud and any other form of biological waste that the great age of the Churches gave us here on earth. The sense that these creatures have been living like this for hundreds of years longer is at no time in the slightest dispute. If Pieter Breughel had been a photographer influenced by Diane Arbus this is what his work would look like. Make that Hieronymous Bosch, actually, as the constantly crowed screen of the interiors creaks with inscrutable devices and thuds with people. There must be more shoving and face hitting in this film than in the entire Three Stooges back catalogue. Rumata is often seen to throw something like a white handkerchief into the slime at his feet as though he's had little trouble going native and is only barely holding on to the tenets of his mission.

And so we go, walking around this world, trying not to slip or have our faces sliced open for no apparent reason. But it works. The aesthetic repetition from scene to scene can deaden the senses and offer fatigue but if we groan a little past the second hour at a fade into yet another scene there is usually something compelling waiting around that corner. And in a way, this makes a film like this a lot easier that a blockbust of a comparable length.

If we were to be presented with a series of tightly plotted scenes containing only relevant dialogue for two hours and fifty minutes it would feel like an avalanche: so much snow and so little to know. We would forget details, grow impatient with uneven or too even character development, be wearied by what would always, however frenetic the scenes, end up feeling like bland repetition. The near four hours of Lawrence of Arabia, for all its wit and great setpieces, feels like torture by comparison with this one that allows its depth to develop, granting relief through dialogue so abstruse we cannot even pretend to get it. Instead we walk around an unfamiliar world and begin to feel the fear that that engenders through our survivalism alone..

Sunday, August 17, 2014


Weng Weng was born with dwarfism into a poor family. Virtually sold to a Fillipino film industry couple, he rose to fame in the movies in the 70s and 80s as a kind of toy James Bond. The roles dried up. He died in poverty.

All of those facts are on screen in The Search for Weng Weng. So are a lot of other things. Those things build up so solidly that the life that this documentary celebrates becomes obscured on a regular basis. We are treated to a good amount of images and recollections from the man's life and when the film faces the task of telling that life it does so with sincerity. But this piece suffers too greatly from a lack of discipline.

The problem is that it doesn't quite know how to resolve the footage from Weng Weng's screen career with this. We are openly invited to laugh at the conceit and the lo-fi filmmaking with its awkward dubbing and cut rate effects. There is no apparent appreciation of either the triumph of this man against his own odds nor much affection for the schlocky films he made. There is no celebration. We hear the interviewees softly remember how uncomfortable this chapter of Fillipino film history is but the next minute we're snorting at the next naff action sequence.

So, is there another angle, here? Am I witnessing the changes in the director, a notable figure in the cult video scene, as he gets to understand more of Weng Weng's life and the issues it brings out? Does his obvious enthusiasm for this cinema pick up some depth along the way? I believe it does but there is still too much left unresolved for me. And there are too many irrelevant digressions. The Imelda Marcos sequence is almost extraordinarily pointless, considering the paucity of her memory of Weng Weng, and would make a great DVD extra. Really? Imelda Marcos? Surely there's some intriguing sociopolitcal angle there? There is, and we see it, it just has no direct connection to the subject and serves only to make the film feel like it's wandering. This is a pity as there are some excellent interviews here that are getting swamped. While we indulge Imelda and her unhinged rituals and pronouncements we have forgotten all about Weng Weng.

I have heard others who saw this at the festival defend this approach by claiming it is a more personal one, an attempt to create closeness between subject and chronicler. Maybe, but between the exploitation of presenting the clips, the obscured interviews, and the genuineness somewhere in the cracks of what's left I felt mostly that I was being asked to indulge the filmmakers. Look at us! We've made something worthy AND entertaining! Maybe it's just me and I should relax a little. It's their film and they can make anything they damn well please. Is it personal? Sure, but what if you don't like the person (and I don't mean Weng Weng)?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

MIFF Session 15: I ORIGINS

Should I be worried that projects associated with Britt Marling have been showing a kind of new age vs science wishfulness? Are films like Sound of My Voice, Another Earth and this indications of an agenda beyond a flair for the everyday fantastic or are they more like interesting what ifs? One thing I can say is that whatever the motivation behind the scenarios her co-scripted projects feature some of the best dialogue of indy level films coming out of the US for years and the tightest narratives of anything on screens for that period. If there were to be a sincere resurrection of a Twilight Zone format I'd no one more than Cahill, Batmanglij and Marling to helm it.

Ian Grey is a molecular biologist whose subfield is eyes. We first meet him catching some rooftop air during a Halloween party. He is captivated by the luminous stare of a woman in a kind of bondage costume. A dialogue creates sparks. He photographs her eyes and they make it in the toilet. And then she's gone.

Obsessed, he hardly notices that he's been a assigned a beautiful young lab assistant until she asks a question that surprises him about his study. That thread may be termed the anti-god theme. The other one takes turns we don't expect which I won't spoil but involves the scientist being confronted with evidence of something that would turn his world upside down.

Throughout, the filmmaking is top notch. Performance centred direction of actors, more thematic eye references that you would ever need in a lifetime, dialogue whose wit is set effortlessly in naturalism, and a narrative-serving visual style and edit that breaks out when it needs to to take our breath away with an expertly physical camera movement. This is a movie you would only welcome once you're before it.

The problems are similar to those in Cahill's earlier film Another Earth except that here they suffer from increased ambition. Rhoda's story in Another Earth is given so much weight over the improbability of the scenario that we are happy to accept it. The issue at hand in I Origins while its conclusion is tempered by some neatly expressed confirmation bias, has more to struggle with. We are being asked to believe a lot more this time. Should we speculate that Marling's absence from the writing credits has resulted in this? I think there's no need as it feels like a large pace beyond the cheek of the earlier feature. But the notion that a scientist changing his mind when faced with compelling evidence loses note when he has already answered that question in dialogue. The false dichotomy that if it isn't science it must be god hangs too nakedly in the light after such a robust what if.

But then this is a what if and a strong drama beautifully played. I'll state my objections and sit back. It's only a movie, only a movie only a movie....

Friday, August 15, 2014

MIFF Session 14: OUR SUNHI

Sunhi, a young film student returns to the campus of her university in Seoul only to fall victim to a flat prank by an acquaintance. She goes to see her old professor and asks him for a reference. She wants to study in America. He tried to talk her out of it using a massive projection of his own listlessness but agrees to write her a reference.

Generally annoyed, she goes into a cafe to get drunk and spies her ex on the street. She calls him up. They get drunk together and in the first of a series of profile two shot dialogues we start realising that we are going to see a lot of other people attempting to define her. She will reject all of them but provide no real evidence to the contrary. The ex leaves the table drunk and confused, filled with such wine-fuelled longing that he stirs an old mentor out of his own listlessness and has a lot more wine with him in a local cafe. Second lengthy one-take two-shot dialogue spent mostly discussing Sunhi and pingponging plattitudes about her back and forth. There is a very funny moment where the ex struggles drunkenly to form a metaphor to explain his need to fully understand Sunhi. It's about digging but he can't quite make it. Between the two of them and the cafe owner they kind of nut it out.

Sunhi gets the reference but it is so devastatingly damning with faint praise that she demands it be rewritten. The Professor agrees to meet with her to discuss this and the pair get drunk together and have another one-take two-shot tete-a-tete during which she is defined slightly differently. Swinging on his shoulder at the end of the night she goes home with him. The next day he rouses the mentor from his torpor and they have a dialogue about her without mentioning her name.

Sunhi gets the new .... You get the idea. While there is an awkwardness to the start of this that is really only a means of getting its audience used to the deadpan style. Once you are with it, assuming you get with it, this film offers some great delights. We eavesdrop rather than witness the characters and the wayward nature of conversation and its myriad micro management possibilities are laid bare with an increasingly apparent frown. But the frown is a comedian's, delivering back to us the situation of needing to get around the niceties of communication and go straight to the goal, regardless of whether it's on offer or not. The dialogue is increasingly peppered with the detritus of previous conversations which only gets funnier. The finale which is a comedy of errors of a brilliantly staged and vengeful manipulation by Sunhi manages to be both deadpan and dizzy.

I'm still smiling as I recall scenes from this heavily understated comedy which plays its hand so cleverly it can feel like a chilling con trick. If trick it is it's one we are happy to admit.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

MIFF Session 13: COME WORRY WITH US/Amanda F**king Palmer On The Rocks

Ok, so, a short with a shorter feature. In 17 minutes I learned that Amanda Palmer has used social media to free herself from the tithe taking music industry, has run into criticism because she doesn't pay people who volunteer to help her through twitter etc., is at ease playing to large or small audiences, allows a potentially frightening level of access to fans, copes with a distance marriage to comics god and novelist Neil Gaiman, and has understandable optimism about her future. In 82 mins I learned that two members of Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra have had a baby and it's altered the way they work.

That sounds damning but it really only bears witness to the differing approaches each film makes to its subject. In the short we get a breathless and thrilling explosion of sound and video bites about and from a frenetic extrovert indy star. By its credits we feel that we've been holding our breath. Come Worry With Us wants us to look and think about how something as timeless as a new child can alter all the lives around it permanently. Mount Zion are a typical post rock outfit in that they operate on a kind of modified hippy ethos of equal internal wealth distribution, a tolerance of fans getting their music for free, a determination to keep their ticket prices affordable etc. They care and want to continue to care despite that becoming increasingly difficult with the addition.

Three members of Mt Zion are also members of the much loved post-rock Godspeed You Black Emperor who reform for a tour which nets some much needed funds and then Mount Zion go on their own tour which. with the child accommodated, involves a massive upscaling for a band used to touring in their own cars. At each stage along this thread we are introduced to a lot of the same themes in the conversations between members (particularly the central couple of Efrim and Jessica) and to-cameras but that is the nature of this account: everyday life facing everyday obstacles with the exception that the people are in a touring indy band with strong anti-maintream principles.

On the way out of this screening (at the wonderful and resurrected Treasury Theatre) I heard people who were pretty obviously fans of the band laughing about how boring they had thought it was. What a pity. What I saw was a really important issue that never gets more than an over shoulder glance in this kind of cultural milieu laid out in reverse relief to what it might have been had a more conventional music documentary path been taken. The music and live performance were there in sufficient measure but mostly we saw these people who we'd more typically experience in the euphoria of a gig having to deal not only with the nappies and nannying of an everyday complication in their lives but openly discussing, not without a wince, how their principles might not make them rich but will keep them convinced that they are living well.

It has been said more than once that there is no such place as outside the system and that living well, honestly and doing what you can to help others is the closest you can get to subverting it. One way the film illustrated this was in the mix of stock between feeble video and very lush DV. Sometimes the mix happened while covering a single event like the neighbourhood wide protests in the band's native Montreal following the GFC. This is as much editing as it is shooting. Like the band whose recording is as principled as their live performance, living well has become the sole option. The rest is surrender.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


We know from the opening scene that this film will be something of a purgatorial journey like Sorcerer was. Here we begin at the end. A character will work to purge his spiritual illness and attain grace. Unlike Sorcerer we will be travelling beyond the real into the high fantastical. Like Sorcerer we are in for some very strong style. A man covered in grey mud at the bottom of a pit created by the crumbling high rise towers around it stares lifelessly into us as his voice says that he got out of movie acting because it was so ridiculous. Nearby, an older man, also covered in mud sits against a column and lights a cigarette.

Yau climbs the steps of a beautifully forbidding Hong Kong apartment megacomplex, preceded by a small boy with a peroxide bowl haircut. Uncle Yin, the caretaker with the knowledge of all the history of the building and its people lets Yau into his new flat. Once alone, Yau, floating on memories of the loss of his son through divorce, strings himself up with enough rope and kicks off the stool. Suddenly an older man rushes in and in a martial arts flypast severs the rope with a knife. Yau is alive and ashamed. His neighbours crowd around with a sadness that seems habitual. Only his saviour has noticed that just before the rope was cut, the tarpaulin on the floor assumed a vaguely human shape that leaves bloodstains on each part of the fabric it touched as it headed hungrily toward the dying man.

Back among the living Yau settles into life among the poor and destitute of the big grey world he has moved to. The endearingly gruff old timer who cooks glutinous rice for the people of his section reveals to the newcomer that he was a vampire hunter and that Yau narrowly escaped possession. But the twin sister spirits are on the rise and hungry again and will need to be dealt with. Can Yau, washed up actor with sin on his shoulders offer any help?

This thrilling ricochet from the 80s Hong Kong hopping vampire movies is less innovative than expert. Founded on reinforced art direction and great swathes of atmosphere, its action feels less of a relief when it waxes climactic than a natural explosion. We are in a tradition remote from the James Wan cattle prod scares of the Insidious movies and are resting more uneasily on older traditions. This even more so than the Pang brothers' masterpiece The Eye which, while it exuded its own style, borrowed heavily from contemporary Western horror. The extensive CGI used for the creatures and ghosts is about as Hollywood as it gets but even there the apparition of the myriad tentacled vampire girls and monstrous golem like host body bear little resemblance to their US equivalent.

If the CGI of the vampires can feel a little fake at times with figures appearing to have no contact with their surfaces there are moments of great craft using the technology. My favourite of these was a stitched-together crane shot that went impossibly from the ground floor up several storeys to a character's face. David Fincher started using this in Fight Club to dizzying effect and it's all through Irreversible to give that film the appearance of being a single take. Here it has enough narrative weight for us to notice nothing more than the pleasure of such an easy transition between an event and a character's sight of it. It feels right rather than looks flashy.

The overall palette of the film is desaturated colour bringing the base grey out and is a shift away from the aquarium green of the previous decade (The Eye, Horror Hotline etc). Lest this should be misconstrued as a Western influence I'll just quickly point out the importance of grey in the overall visual scheme. This is a tale of limbo or purgatory, a place where the black and the white must blend until purity can separate them.

The music score is a robust blend of electronic and orchestral, fitting the murk of the colour palette perfectly. At one point the sound mix included a creaking that came from the host vampire's movement which had an euqivalent in the synthesiser of the music. When the two coincided there was a delicious concordance.

Finally, I will congratulate this film on leaving the comedy to brief moments in the dialogue and not wussing out by undercutting its own work. This film does work and work hard; there is no need for it to be self conscious or even as embarrassed at itself as the worst of the genre are. Do you like your horror rich and atmospheric? Do you like being taken seriously as a viewer? Try this, then.


A 4X3 frame within the widescreen opens on a gaudy toothpaste ad with a cute little girl in white singing a toxically catchy jingle. Not too much later she skips into her palatial home, removing her shoes at the door and springs into the living room which has the deepest red carpet you have ever seen. Except it's shiny. Except she's ankle deep in it and her frilly white lace socks are now the same red. She slips and skids through the saloon doors to the next room which is filled with the bodies of hacked up Yakuzas. The only one alive tells the girl that her mother kicks arse. The girl takes it in her stride. Her father is the boss of her neighbourhood's Yakuza gang. She's seen this kind of thing before.

Snaking through this is her father overseeing not only his gang but the changing of the madam ceremony at one of his brothels as a pair of tradies change the neon sign outside reflecting this. A gang of teen would-filmmakers calling themselves the Fuck Bombers roam the streets looking for true life action, finding the bloodied Yakuza form my first par staggering away from the scene. After he, flattered, agrees to be filmed  the movie gang go to a local shrine and pray to the Movie God that they will break through. The mother of the little girl chases another Yakuza who got away with the kitchen knife she used on the others, dispatches him on an overhead walkway and turns herself in, intimidating the cop in the mini station to get some back up to make a proper arrest. A title tells us that this happened "about ten years ago." We are in a Sion Sono movie and we are not going to escape until the end credits.

But we won't want to. Its two hours, nine minutes on screen feel like about forty-five minutes.

About ten years later the Yakuza mother is about to be released from prison and is expecting the feature film that her husband has promised to make about their daughter who has run away following a bloody raid from a rival gang and has collared Koji who had (age appropriately) lusted after her as the kid in the commercial. The Fuck Bombers sit around in the now closed cinema where they used to hang and repeatedly watch the impressive trailer for the feature film they never made. Their action hero who wanted to be a Yakuza is so disenchanted that he pines to go full time on his waiting job in a restaurant. The gang who were so solidly dispatched all that time ago are now led by a man who has insisted on a traditional approach to gangsterism involving swords and kimonos. He is also smitten with the girl from the ad whom he met about ten years back. He is now ready to annihilate the rival gang led by the girl's father. Oh, the girl is now twenty, bratty and beautiful and only kind of wants to be a movie star. Her Roman Holiday flight from the fold will bring everyone together in a series of plot twists so bonkers that they create an immunity to plot hole pickers. And we're only about an hour in.

Sion Sono, whose career defies categorisation, has crafted a kind of wrap party for 35 mm film production and provides a pageant of Japanese cinema history and its ready use of extreme violence (always well in advance of the West) as Yakuza and Samurai battle both cartoonishly and confrontingly. But while that is  the case it is mercifully free of the puppyish eagerness of a Tarantino. QT would never do something like the broken glass farewell kiss that Mitsuko gives halfway through; it takes a very special mind to invent that. Sono has intentionally subverted and even jettisoned narrative structure when he's got interested in other elements but when he's on as a storyteller every frame is pressed into service. Almost all the performances here are a notch below the hysteria that would implode them. Now and then a cute moment, sure, but it's always set among scenes with shark teeth.

Sono again weaves wonders with a highly eclectic mix of music (mostly sourced) and stocks with various quality levels of video happily trading screen time with the gorgeous 35 mm images, going from highschool noise to Kubrickian splendour. He is a modern master and all I wish for him is that he keeps doing whatever the hell he wants to.

Fuck Bombers forever! Yataaaaai!


Qiuming is going crazy over Lifen ever since she got in his way and then vanished down a street that doesn't exist on any map of his large Chinese city. He works as a surveyor for a digital map company by day and by night works in surveillance, installing hidden cameras in some places and clearing others of the same stuff. He knows where a street should be and he's smitten with Lifen. He finds one opportunity and engineers another to throw himself in her way. It works. They go to the zoo. They go walking. They go to a club. He gets arrested for stealing state secrets.

There are plot points here I'm leaving out as if you do get to see this film you will want to them delivered to you first hand. Not that this strange piece is all that plotty but there are arcs that require you to do some thinking from presented evidence.

What starts as a comfortably clever romance quickly transforms into a gently chilling fable of trust. The onscreen chemistry of the two leads is so perfectly handled, creating tension here and warmth there, that by the time it is crucial to invest in, when Quiming is in the sweaty interrogation room our thoughts are dominated by the need to let Lifen know. That the film is so patient about letting us know that such anxiety was unecessary and how cruel the reason, bears witness to its subtle power.

The title is a term from modern cartography. It refers to a false detail placed intentionally on a map to detect copyright infringement. One scene shows a cartographer instructing a trainee on how to do this, to make the street blend in. The literally shady Forest Lane, where Lifen's laboratory is situated, is the opposite of this, a real street that is left off the map. The trap street in this film is not there but in an object slowly revealed to be a kind of MacGuffin. By the time of the quiet and saddening final image in which we see Lifen watching Qiuming in a mirror at such an angle that she is also looking at us we understand.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


Marie is a withdrawn young woman who lives in a small fishing village in Jutland. She starts a job at the local fish processing plant where all the other locals work, gets through her first day with an ugly but brief initiation and continues on with her life, picking out the better looking boys in the plant, taking her wheelchair bound mother for walks in what always looks like frozen air, and learning more and more about her mother's condition which she has inherited: lycanthropy.

Yep, Marie is a werewolf to be, just like her mum who is not catatonic from a car accident but industrial strength sedation. As Marie notices fur growing on her torso she comes to understand the inevitability of her condition and resents her father's attempts to contain it. Meanwhile she shows up at the plant and goes out dancing and life is normal. One day she investigates a small ship in dry dock in the harbour and finds signs of a struggle including the inside surface of a trap door scratched as though by a wolf. But then the days go on with more filleting and processing. And more bullying.

There's the other thing. Everyone in the village seems to know about Marie's curse. As Marie herself finds out about it she begins to enjoy the power that the suspicion bestows and plays up to it, in the process discovering a kind of pleasurable liberty in it. This only scares the locals more and they begin to mobilse against her and her mother.

Through most of the social realism of the presentation I started to enjoy the approach immensely. Here was a story about a classic monster from the horror genre as a kind of soft and picturesque slice-of-life documentary. Marie and her mother might just as easily have cystic fibrosis. Just add contagion to it and you're there. What a wonderful allegory to make it physically monstrous. How strong an opportunity to show the suppression of women by making the curse matrilineal. For most of the screen time we seem to be going that way and staying there, subversion of the promised genre and in convinced pursuit of those possibilities. Meantime we get some fine naturalistic performances and a gallery of Scandinavian natural beauty to look at. Roll credits. Nuh uh!

In the final act someone remembered they were making a werewolf movie and started doing that with a wincingly predictable bloody finale. The problem even there is that the carnage itself is free of tension or even much blood. It all just happens but not in deadpan slice-of-life like the rest of the film but flat and unskilled as the rest of the film hasn't been. It reminded me of how when the mighty Ginger Snaps needs to do its horror duty it strengthens the entire piece by taking that seriously (and still manages a lot of brilliant dialogue about adolescence and femininity). It adapted. This film was made by people who were either unprepared to adapt or could only deliver a half arsed adaptation. Well, what a bloody pity!


Lots of local colour in a kind of motion picture National Geographic story. Except it isn't local colour, it's the movie. In the 1980s Louis Sarno followed music that compelled him from his comfortable American setting to the rainforests of the Central African Republic. Over the years he made thousands of recordings of the local music and found himself assimilating to the community he stayed in. He married locally and is raising a son. Having promised to take Samedi to see America, the subsistence-incomed Louis does so, also making a journey to resample his birthplace. On his return to the village he sees through freshly worldly eyes how the way of the world beyond the forest has infiltrated leaving questions that feature the word when rather than how.

This quietly angry film presents its tableaux of hand to mouth life ancient style without comment. Sarno's narration and to-camera interviews provide the texture. When this strongly gentle man recalls a musical flourish signature to a particular musician we know without him telling us that but for any recordings it is an extinct sound. That is part of the cycle.

What isn't part of it is the edge of the globalised one visiting pit and pendulum-like into this place and its life. Sarno might have seemed a diverting but soft subject if it were not his decision as part of his pursuit of this music to adopt its lifestyle and sacrifice the comforts and potential advancement of middle class American life. Each new scene from his village milieu reminds us of that and allows us a sliver of understanding as to why Sarno came to prefer this life.

But this film is about travel between two worlds and the scenes from America are very telling. Sarno clocks back into Western life naturally if a little hestitantly. His young son Samedi proves far less awed by the experience than Sarno feared, liking the tall buildings and the toys, but he voices thoughts both practical and observant. He is concerned that the light sabres and wind up cars he will take back to the Village are of less value there than things that would last longer. There is no regret following this brief tour to Babylon on their return to the village but Sarno is given opportunity to recognise the encroachment into his village of the globalisation he thought he had evaded.

Unlike many two-worlds documentaries that take the differences between means of living as opportunities to extol the primal and the primitive over the sophisticated and wasteful, Song from the Forest allows its audience scope to come to its own conclusions. It helps that the magnetic figure of Sarno has a worldly serenity to marvel at from the comfort of a cinema. But the determination of the filmmakers to bring the weight of his decision to adopt an alien lifestyle and reject an easy one like a bronze age mystic pays off in easy but serious doses. The opening pans of light through columns of smoke in the trees (campfires not bushfires) set to Rennaisance era choral music are as beautiful as informative and presage the final moments of a spoken legend mixed with the sounds of urban traffic. There's no lecture here but there is, perhaps more scarily, an opportunity to think for ourselves.

Saturday, August 9, 2014


Two artists at the thin end of their marriage live in a house designed by an artist. They work with great concentration at their various projects which largely involve ideas about space and communicate via an intercom and fail to communicate when they are in the same room.

Of the two it is the woman who seems the most restless. She drapes herself in window casements or wrapped around corners, posing on and playing with her desk chair have the feel of experiment rather than idle play. She plays dead when he wants to have sex with her or subverts the marital bed, using things like lubricant or stilettos as though unfamiliar with their significance. She seems to be searching for ways to escape within the confines of the house. He takes this with the ease of familiarity and seems happy enough to retreat to his work room and potter at his projects.

The house is the place. They begin to understand how much importance it has to them when they decide to sell it. When they socialise with their professional class couple friends the talk is all of living space. At one point when the man decides to go for a late night walk speaking in a distant voice of how impressed she will be if she follows him she is fearful and reminds of "what happened last time" without further detail. There is a kind of indoor portal that must be opened to access the street door. A street incident involving unspecified violence and an ambulance and the police has her fear so much for the man that she runs into the street in her underwear. The bonds are clear but conflicted.

So why is this film so compelling? It might easily have collapsed in on itself with that kind of material. But there is so much obvious force behind the central ideas and the leading duo perform with such deadpan conviction that the thing just holds on to you. Its Beckett-like absurdism is careful to include the humour that no Beckett piece did without. Also, there is a real warmth between the central pair despite indications that they are separating. Even if this feels a little grasping it nevertheless works to give the film a strong and recognisable grounding.

On the same city block as Matthew Barney at his most inspired, Exhibition works. It just works.

Friday, August 8, 2014


One of the physicists featured in this film tells his lecture audience that there are two answers to the question of what he is doing: the easy answer and the right answer. The first is true but the second requires the working to be shown. This constantly diverting and pleasurable documentary is big on the first but lets the second slide. A good science documentary needs to make the second feel like the first.

The basic concepts are easy: it has taken decades for this gigantically proportioned machine and team to assemble and test a series of ideas about some very tiny things that concern the fabric of the universe (assuming there's one ... actually, no need to assume). The footage of the plant and diagramatic animations of the scale and operation are supberb and serve to keep us riding along.

These scientists are good communicators. That's why they were chosen to tell their parts of the tale on screen. What they have to say is fascinating but delivered with a toothsome serve of intimidation to amp up the excitement. This is a tale of breakthrough and discovery. The excitement felt by the scientists as the crucial moments is infectious and we enjoy the empathy as much as if we were watching effective fiction. In fiction, though, we would know why the excitement was so intense, why the various possibilities will either vindicate or disappoint according to the outcome. We need more of the first kind of answer.

That said, the narrative flow is firmly helmed with a good eye to the identification and release of tension. And when it remembers it's a documentary and can't push this too far (the taunting between theoretical and expermiental physicists is funny once) it can legitimately fall back on showing the epic-sized machinery for our wonder. While I never felt condescension I too often felt underattended.

There are a handful of concepts this film made new to me which I will now pursue out of interest. My problem with writing this review now is that those things that I wondered to see and smiled at hearing are memories rather than lingering moments. This is some of the most significant scientific endeavour in centuries but I still quite know why.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Here's the plot: two bullied school friends make a fiction film in which they, as a pair of Guy Ritchie geezer hitmen, move into town and knock off the bullies (the Dirties of the title). The video angers the bullies even more and the bullying gets stepped up. One of the pair, Owen, eventually follows one of Matt's incessant plans to get the attention of a girl at school. It works. As Owen and Chrissy get closer Owen drifts from the frenetic Matt whose plans to actually carry out a Columbine style shooting, taking only the bullies come closer to realisation. The rest is spoilers.

Then again, the plot is not this film's purpose. That there is debate over whether to call it a found footage film or a documentary-style piece or a fiction film that uses the found footage genre as a gimmick is telling. For starters the camera operator is not a character with more presence than his function. He is named (Jared) and we see his hand take some proffered popcorn at one point and Matt is constantly consulting him without waiting for the responses. But he is not Heather from Blair Witch or Andrew from Chronicle, he's just the guy behind the camera.

Fine, so ... Well, we see things that he couldn't have taken if he's the only camera there. There is a scene where Matt is placing extra cameras around the setting but the scene they're meant to cover includes vision that they couldn't have recorded. Is the entire thing a blend of the footage that Jared took for them (which we see on the boys' computers and at school) and further footage he took to fulfil the found footage genre? Is there a point at which the increasingly solo Matt is just imagining the camera there and a non digetic one has taken over? Without these questions we have a passable teen social drama with some interesting character work and dialogue along the way.

With the questions in mind (and there are many more possible) there is a remaining one of the extent of the purpose of the entity called The Dirties is. There is genuine cleverness but so much of it (depending on how much you think there is) that the danger that your tolerance will shut down and write the entire exercise off as a great vat of toss suitable only for the festival circuit and better luck next time, guys.

For me the clue is the cinephilia of the two boys that peppers the dialogue and actions throughout. Titles like Irreversible and Royal Tenenbaums are namechecked. Matt's room is papered with movie posters. References to their own quoting in the video footage are nearly constant. The makers of The Dirties, whose names are similar or identical to the makers of the video called The Dirties within the film called The Dirties, know that you know the refs. So, is that it, future Columbines and Sandy Hooks will be so indistinguishable from the notion of them as self-aware irony told in gigabytes on Youtube? Is all this just a snub at the choose-your-own-adventure generation that became these guys' parents?

For me the presaged end credits (given as instructions to someone behind or beyond the camera) do a lot to draw a line. The sequence begins with a series of by lines done in the formats of famous films like Dr Strangelove, Psycho, Anatomy of a Murder, Star Wars and Back to the Future etc. This has a pleasing look and allows a spot the title/director game but it also poignantly serves to state the obvious: this filmmaker is aware of monumental cinema but can only emulate it. The originality on screen is a handful of crumbs rather than any newly baked goodness and the credit sequence reminds me of Salieri (in his Amadeus incarnation) who could see the genius in Mozart's music but not reproduce it. So is it like Kubrick does Elephant? Too many notes, my dear Mozart, too many notes.


A wedding party is infiltrated by a young man who, though apparently only fragilely acquainted with the families, is allowed to move among the celebrations, play happily with the kids and collar the bride and groom with strange sour notes of sin and retribution, of monsters in life who were monsters in the womb. His wedding gift is an urn of human ashes that bears the name he has used to introduce himself. He has come to tell the bride something important about her new husband.

The themes are sin and retribution as well as the perception of violence variously as horror and strength. There's not a false note among the cast. I could have done with less of the groom's brother's retreat into weakness but, especially as described by his wife, it has its place. The central exchange involves the intruder Ales telling his tale to the new bride. Long speeches in cinema are generally considered stagey but when given the camera's advantage of extreme intimacy the sole remaining factor is performance. Ales's tale is lengthy but expertly paced, carrying no fatigue. It's details are of repugnant acts of the woman's new husband and the pitiable effect on his victim (the ashes in the urn) who failed at outrunning his past until it pushed him out of a window. The woman listens with an increasing intensity but won't let this intruder draw tears. She reminded me of a prime Liv Ullman.

Later, as the pair are trying to reconcile we wonder where the memories have gone for the husband and what her forgiveness is made of as they play what looks like a folky game of spinning wedding rings. As this happens, a coda takes us into the dormitory and showerblock where the atrocities found place. We don't know whose memories they are but we can see where they have been put. What might have been a needless literalisation of the central abomination now serves to reframe the couple and allow us a shiver at any harmony that might ensue.

Von Trier-like melodrama from the Czech Republic, Honeymoon plays out its movements with a classical precision; allegro adagio menuet rondo, a minor key counter to every phrase in the relative major. The piano-led score does a lot of work, using the same chromatic theme to effect serenity and disturbance. While this film didn't slap my face it nevertheless compelled me enough to enjoy its frank dialogue and disciplined balance.


Four wrongdoers find themselves in limbo at the punishing labour of a jungle oilfield. An opportunity for redemption arrives in the form pf a hellish fire that will burn and burn until they deliver some crates of highly unstable nitro glycerine to blow it out. That the purgatorial journey in this film is so easily and constantly visible in this white knuckle actioner bears witness to its elegance and mastery.

Yep, elegance and sweaty, heart stopping danger? In a move that must have surprised, William Friedkin remade an action classic to follow his brace of gamechanging genre pieces. He had reversed much of the goodwill won with the French Connection in the wake of the troubled and patience straining The Exorcist: did a cover of Wages of Fear feel like redemption it depicted?

Well, Friedkin worked with the writer of the source novel for this version. The setting was changed from the desert of a French colony and the characters were not prisoners. Important alterations as by removing the formal colonialism the neo-imperial order is emphasised by the very lack of overt subjection. Similarly, the men have done great ill but have yet gone unpunished. The potentially annihilating journey they embark upon, their strength tested to its limit and their nerves stretched to snapping will not just offer punishment enough but measure for measure retribution. There is even a moment worth of a medieval frieze in which doom awaits him who casts his mind back to earthly matters while in purgatory (no spoiling details but I had to mention it). 

In old school style the set up takes half the screen time but this is William Friedkin at his finest so there isn't a moment we don't need. Recall how much time was spent in The Exorcist following Fr Merrin through the Iraqi streets and how little we mind as when the action settles on the main stage in DC we are primed for wrongness and tension. That's what happens here. We see serious crimes enacted or (in the banker's case, assume sin on a grand scale) and then we are introduced to a setting that would look very liveable were it not for the dark satanic mill outside the jungle village (is it Nicaragua? Managua keeps getting mentioned as an ideal/heavenly destination) with its chains of men near drowning to build a pipeline over a river or the wreckage of planes by the landing strip. If this is paradise on earth it's the same one that Coppola was busy filming in the Phillipines at the time. The air does not smell of exotic blooms but petrol and ripening mud. It's not prison but once there it's very hard to leave.

The chance at escape comes with an explosion and a hellish blaze and now is the time to mention how good the pyrotechnics are. This film is from 1977 and has not been tampered with (as the Ex so embarrassingly was). The explosions are real. They are made of debris, dust, smoke and violated air not bits and bytes. And they are extraordinary. Loud, gigantic and angry they burst with a shocking excitement and the ghastly beauty of the oilfield fire takes our breath as surely as it would if we stood beside it. They leave us wide eyed.

This screening is part of the Masters and Restorations stream where new celluloid prints of older films are given light and place again. It was pristine and delivered enough authentic grain in the low light scenes to please a regiment of cine-cork-sniffers. I appreciated this but have no great sentimentality for celluloid as I like the durable clarity of digital but this was pleasant to see so adroitly. Still, you can keep the film if I can have the film making.

Once the redemption trek has begun and we are constantly taking trucks over bridges swinging like vines in the rainstorm, bogged tyres and massive natural roadblocks we are in the land of nail biting and won't be free till the very end. And as each new stretch of strain gives way to more we are compelled to think of the moral furnace these characters are travelling through, how punishing the landscape and how it looks like the kind of National Geographic story you can stare at for hours. The purgatory is within and boy do you get to see it in these actors' faces.

Seeing this film plugs a gap in my understanding of this intriguing film maker who applied opposites to each other to create such powerful things. If French Connection's documentary style could break into its thrilling chase scene or that the similar reportage approach to the horror film could tighten us up so much in The Exorcist and a kind of horror approach to police procedural could compel us in Cruising what was this one like, so long obscured by box office failure and unsung for decades? Well, it's as good as all of those, that's what it's like. If it appeared now it would shame its competitors ... and probably still fail and for similar reasons. By 1977 the great technologically perfect voids of Star Wars and the Speilberg conglomerate had begun to fill cinema's veins with deadening soma which would take a spiky independent industry to shake awake. Contemporary US action films are similarly comatose. Sorcerer might well feel like a trailer to an audience weaned on Michael Bay.

Finally, Tangerine Dream provided a stunning electronic score for this film and Friedkin (who cut to music) honours it through spare employment. God I wish those two examples could find resurrection today. Perhaps the Astor will give us a week of this in its paradisical ambience. As for me, it's the blu-ray and invited initiates.

Superb cinema!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Plot: a failed attempt to stop global warming has left the earth an uninhabitable snowball. What remains of humanity is travelling on a world size loop in the train of the title. The only lesson of the previous wicked world that remains is the danger of the change, the rest is social stratification with no hope for upward mobility. The front of the train is all privilege and idle hedonism. The further back to the tail you go the lower the order you find. At the very back the people sleep in buckets wearing filthy rags. One man - we have him pointed out to us in the first scene as he resists the guards' order to sit down - is about to say no.

There's the plot and it will career locomotively from the abject squalour to the gleaming perfection of the engine. Dystopia, revolt and what it can tell us is a plot that has been intact for time immemorial through its use during the acceleration of technology and populist politcs of the last few centuries. The forumla still works so that's what we get here. The difference between one and the next lie in the personal touch: political or social details added; style. Snowpiercer has a little of the former but a quarry worth of the latter.

If Chris Evans' hero of the people seems a little bland then that should be down to formula as well. The rebels of dystopias are people who are awakened to tyranny from a comatose complacency (like Logan or Neo). Their extra qualities must rise from their ordinariness for credibility and empathy. Until his character, Curtis, tells his long but compelling story of how he was awoken I kept wanting his offsider, the dependable Jamie Bell, to take the action helm. But it works as is.

But this film delivers its still fresh message about the price of privilege and the need to question the inaction it demands and delivers it in great style. John Hurt's character is not called Gilliam for nothing. There is such delight in the kind of stainless steel and Bakelite world of the Snowpiercer from the Dickensianly oilstained poor but a lot of Terry G in the floppy protein bars that look like they're made from aspic and crude oil. The spotless rich in the forward sections and the absurdism of the class (led by a perfectly high pitched Alison Pill) and the throwaway contempt of the rich children are also done in worthy tribute. But the carriage filled with the blade wielding fishmarket ninjas and the extraordinary fight coreography ensuant is all Bong Joon-ho. If we needed it we need look no further to be reminded of his back catalogue than the presence of Bong alumnus Song Kang-Ho whose difficulty as a character (he is the only one with lines who never speaks English, keeping to subtitled Korean, and it feels like perversity rather than lack) makes him impossible to dislike.

Bong's back catalogue stretches elastically form the eerie political police procedural Memories of Murder, through the exhilarating monster movie The Host and the gut-punching morality tale Mother. Because of the comfort he has shown with all of that diversity we have no trouble watching this non stop actioner with its happy frequent humour and even more frequent red spurting violence. He is simply a contemporary master who takes a delight in detail, machinery both human and metal and the opportunity to inject satire in every gap that presents itself lest the action or the grimness get laughably intense.

If you like your dystopias fast furious and frequently funny and bathed in edible style and compelling action you should go and see this at a cinema. It'll be great at home but for action like this, fall into the swell of a public screening. You and the film deserve it.

PS - something that occured to me at the screening that I forgot about writing the review:

Snowpiercer reminded me of those great sci fi or mystique movies that came out in the 80s where the sci was as important as the fi and packed a style-wallop in there as well. All those straight to the Valhalla films that the great glug deluge of Star Wars and its lo-nutrient copyists pushed underground like The Quiet Earth, The Navigator, The Keep, The Element of Crime, Lifeforce or The Hidden. There's such commitment to the world it creates in every frame, such belief in where it's going. These were movies you'd go back to on video. You'd miss the energy of the cinema audience around you but something always remained. That's what this movie is like.

Monday, August 4, 2014


I first knew Slint's name years after I heard and liked their music. On a friend's fairly recent advice I got a copy of Spiderland and went through it with the curious sensation of hearing something familiar in a strange context. Same went with My Bloody Valentine's Loveless but with the Slint album the way I found it or it me is a fairly typical path; fans of this album outside of the band's small scene in Kentucky find it like they would find a favourite shirt at an op shop. Because of this the lengthy subhistory of the many bands that featured the core members of the one that made this record is not the completist's annoyance but a fascinating look at threads forming a slow weave, tightening into a strong pattern and then fraying. The sensation of honesty in this mumblecore documentary is its strength, not just its charm.

Every documentary centred on rock music will settle on a single figure as an anchor for the rest of the tale. This time it's Brit Walford, crazy-eyed eccentric whose early band shots have him looking about five along with fellow future Slinter and childhood friend Brian McMahan. The pair started very early in the scene, playing noise sets before crowds that mixed their redneck with mohawks back in the late 80s around Louisville. Hopping the fragile twigs of the band family tree they picked up a number of others, arriving eventually at Slint and gathering a lot of love from folk like producer Steve Albini who produced their first album, to the point where they put down the tracks that became Spiderland which is this documentary's primary business.

By the time we get to the tale of recording we've gone through a lot of interpersonal histories and musical development. Everything leads back to how odd Britt is which is something of which he is well aware. There is a lot of talk of the scene, shared houses and how Britt interacted with it. This would be tiresome if it weren't for the fact that the folk in this scene, even now, are all from the understated side of the street. Their recollections are spoken softly and plainly and together form some of the pleasantest rock music interviews I've heard.

Director Lance Bangs works with his subjects comfortably and combines his own naive cinema approach with signifiers that he is doing this with an aesthetic compass. If many of the interviews and home movies look like consumer video or shot on phones there are several (usually with industry figures of prominence) that have been done much slicker. The blend doesn't just work, it has to. We begin with a confessorial statement from the director that he is a fan and his first encounter with any of the band members was an unremarkable moment where he froze up. He also video-ed it and offers this as an ice breaker. It's a funny scene. Our laugh disarms us from fearing we are about to witness an act or worship. From that point we are happy to walk alongside.

Happily, Bangs doesn't betray the trust he's begged with this and the film works. I knew nothing of the band and their place in history. I tend not to care too much about the makers of the music even if I like it so much I play an album more than once a day. I should amend:: I haven't for many many years cared too much. That said, it was fun getting to know these people and how unsurprising that they made this music. The great swathes of instrumental texture and dynamics, the drama, the pathos and myriad atmospheres that pass by like waves and the voice, almost entirely obscured by them, speaking mysteries. The people and their music are such a fit that perhaps the greatest thing this film achieves is that we are not disappointed to find them so.

Fact-packed, personable, compelling and cinematic, this is one of the best music documentaries I've seen in a long while.

Saturday, August 2, 2014


Globally revered film critic Roger Ebert died in 2013 after a decade of cancer as persistent and strong as his writing. This, in itself, forms the chief life lesson on offer here. The raconteur's illness attacks him voice-first. Ebert's thyroid condition spread so vehemently that his lower jaw was removed and only the skin of the jowls and chin were left. They dangle over his constantly bandaged throat like a surrealist sculpture, immediately making us wonder if he wouldn't be better off without them which is followed by the thought of how bizzarre he would then look. The spectacle of this is at first intensely uncomfortable to look at. The camera does not flinch from it and it remains central to the present tense passages of this life story: a memento mori that its possessor has long passed needing but one guaranteed to make all of its viewers ponder their own eventual deaths.

It's an interesting frame for a biography of a film critic screened at a film festival in this era when the role of the world's Eberts is threatened with the same fate. That's why this documentary cannot settle into the kind of warming eulogy that I was hoping for as my first session of the fest. I would have been happy enough with a string of gaffer-taped golden moments and talking heads saying praise him or ouch after their experiences. According to the narration by the filmmaker Steve James Ebert expressly wished against hagiography (despite some being inevitable considering the recency of his death), preferring some weight delivered by his journey to death. There needs to be little in the way of reminding us that the age of the film reviewer as frowning demi-god is coming to an end when we see it all too graphically throughout.

Ebert's serious and effective embrace of online access and social media has meant that his transition to immortality is in less danger than his cells. Meantime, we get to see how a restless and difficult child grew, through a fiery-mouthed prime to an eventual peaceful equanimity. A forced euqanimity? Sure, why not? If a life threatening cancer doesn't make you question how much of a dick you can be then you shouldn't be surprised if the relieved sighs of your loved ones aren't more profound than your own.

Keith Richards once described Mick Jagger as vain but added that you want someone like that out front. The decades of public bitchiness between Ebert and his professional other half Gene Siskel are shown to a joyful depth going from near operatic duets where they agreed to barking contests so intense they went through their tv show's credit sequences and beyond the audio fade at the production badge. The figure of the critic as social leader gets some pretty thorough exposure here. If the film shies from plumbing those depths it does at least show us enough of them for us to form our own questions.

But then we must return to the hospital bed which whenever we see it might also be a death bed and the voiceless man of opinion typing his own commentary through a laptop's synthesis. The computer's voice is much advanced from that we think of when we think of Stephen Hawking; it even resembles Ebert's own voice (perhaps through design) and however tinted by electronics it is the words it delivers are those of a master conversationalist. His facial mobility is limited to an upper row grin of the type he seemed incapable of in his younger years. His eyes above this have all the intensity of the intellectual furnace that blazed to the last. Between them and the strange, misshapen cartoonish grin we recognise someone who knows he is being judged as rigorously as he took to anything he witnessed. The film's final words are his, delivered in his own voice: "I'll see you at the movies." So he did.