Tuesday, August 22, 2017

MY MIFF 2017

So, MIFF 2017.



This speedy year brought MIFF at a rate that felt like it happened weeks after New Year's Eve. Nevertheless I was prepared, building my leave at work and getting my minipass well in time. Then in July a very nasty cold started speeding around the town. One inhale while passing the wrong conversation and I was crushed under it for weeks (taking an unprecedented full week off at work). The timing served me with a restraint that normally abandons me when the program is published. A combination of that cold and a growing reluctance to go to things that might get mainstream releases slowed it all down. Instead of taking a day off to fill up my pass with bookings over a long breakfast I waded through my illness, finishing my lineup over the next week. Also, I began to check the selling fast lists that were already getting populated by the first week of the program being out. I ended up getting hit with a few standby sessions but started exchanging anything that went on standby for lower profile screenings. This worked a treat but had the effect of diminishing the sense of overall event. Then again ...

This was the first year I didn't even look at the print program, sifting through the titles on mobiles or the website was a lot faster than the grid, the guide and a pencil. My approach these days starts with time and venue. My minipass gets me thirteen sessions if I book three weekday screenings before 6pm. As soon as I find those the remaining ten can be anything. I try to get the first and last screenings at The Forum as to me it feels like the heart of the whole event (short story with that one but my first session at The Forum - an 11 am show - was so atmospheric it had me committing to minipasses rather than a few tickets each year). Assuming there are no favourite directors in the program I'll then start looking at daytime screenings for anything intriguing. My wishlist will be about thirty to forty films long and I'll book the best looking thirteen and add any extras as they turn up.

Because I was preoccupied with various projects this time the fortnight ended up being more like time off than the wonders o' the Festival.  This meant that, apart from sending out my selections to close confederates I didn't pursue companionship at any of the screenings. Those few that happened did so accidentally. Normally, I'll eagerly get into a full house screening to be in the vibe of Cinema the Great but, if anything, I felt detached. The screenings felt like diversions to the other things I had on. This was good in itself but meant that I didn't really get into the festival mood. That said, I saw some good 'uns. On that and more ...


THE MOVIES



The Good

Hong Sang Soo
A trio of new things from the Korean master of modern manners blessed this year's fest. Hong has been a MIFF darling for a few years now and his screenings can fill a weekday afternoon session. No sign of a release outside of the festival context, though. I know we're past the glory days of real arthouse cinemas like the Lumiere or the Trak but couldn't someone fit these in? The audience keeps turning up.

Tragedy Girls
A Scream from Trump's America, both packing the history of high school horror references and branching out into a kind of psycho-buddy tale, this one wins every fight it tries. Hope it gets a major release.

The Endless
If the Benson and Moorhead team that made this development of mumblecore and Lovecraftian horror keep lifting their game like this we'll have a new wave of horror on our hands and it will be crafty effective and disarming.

A Gentle Creature
Kafkaesque satire from the dark heart of post-Soviet Russia saved from counterproductive severity by a steady hand on the leash of anger. Almost skipped it as it was the last one and had a long running time. Didn't notice the length, though, too busy taking it in.





The Middling

Radiance
Intriguing story and good delivery in acting and some great visual flair but I don't recall it as much.

The Public Image is Rotten
A decent interview documentary attempting the contentious history of seminal post punk band PiL hits all the right notes but might've examined the disparity of accounts a little further towards the end.

Big Big World
Reha Erdem gets soggy and serious in this perfectly balanced scale in a story of an escape to nature and the nature escaping into the escapees. Powerful but hard to love. Still, in a recently departed era of true arthouse in Melbourne Erdem's films would get a local audience.

Afterimage
Great respect for telling it straight and the auteur director's restraint in letting the artist's tale tell his own but perhaps a touch too straight in the end. Still worth it for avoiding artist vs society and biopic cliches.

The Idea of a Lake
Strong story told in evocative imagery blending nostalgia with the dark matter beneath it but perhaps on the slight side.




The Bad

Jupiter's Moon
Modern fable of the alien begins with a powerful allegory of statelessness and flattens down into a half-baked religious homily. Self subversion.


The Venues



The Forum
The Forum is, as always, the star. Even at sold out sessions where a great hubbub of winceable conversation or feet on seats cannot diminish the presence of an old friend. I try to make the first and last of every Festival a Forum screening.

ACMI
That dentist chair charm softens into comfort when the lights go down and the good sound and image begin. Always a good seat there.

Hoyts
Modern, well appointed cinemas are still the best places to go to see any cinema. The atmosphere is low if comfortable and the sound and picture are top notch. There are some great seats in the front including a row just in front of an aisle so no seat kickers.

Kino
My marginal mainstream cinema of choice outside MIFF, Kino is dependable but get your seat early as the ones on the sides can warp an anamorphic image back to its camera state (happened to me at Duke of Burgundy a few years back, still think of it in academy ratio).

The Comedy Theatre
The seats at the Comedy are the least comfortable of any of the venues past or present. That includes the hovercraft cushions at the Forum. I pick my sessions at this venue very carefully: short running times lower attendance.

Venues in Memoriam

The Russell - Gone forever, an old style plex that suited the music related movies at MIFF.

The Treasury - A lovely continuation of the old Cinemateque. Some problems with sound at some of
the screenings when recently used for MIFF but much missed.

The Capitol - The sheer beauty of the place with that nutso ceiling made even the cruddy old seats endurable.

The Regent - the very best of the vintage theatres used for MIFF in the past with updated seating, opulent surrounds and good projection.

The Lounge
I went only twice and really only to take some photos. It was renovated to be lighter and had I think two of the rows of booths removed for a slight photographic exhibition. Miss the darker earlier state. But as this one was the least sociable MIFF for me in many a year I didn't have the chance to stop for a coffee. Also, I think it was opening later than usual on weekdays. Hmph.

The Staff
Almost universally pleasant. The sole quirk came at the last screening when one young woman volunteer asked me to change seats from my chosen one in the first two rows, claiming they had all been reserved. That was news to me. While there are always a smattering of reserved cards there it's never been the case that those whole rows were taken. I assume she didn't ask if I were a member as I'd come in through the pleb tickets door. When I asked if the session was sold out she didn't know. I went to the row immediately behind and a woman close by said that the same thing had happened to her and her friend. The usher just hadn't understood her instructions. It was annoying but as soon as I could I changed to a front seat and all was gas and gaiters.


The App
The App appeared earlier than usual and worked right off the bat. My one gripe is the sudden acceleration of the downward scrolling of the program. A few slight vertical swipes and it goes through hyperspace to the end of the list. That's two weeks and a bit of many entries per day. The reverse motion doesn't do this. I had to use the tiny blue control on the side to correct this. Apart from that this was the first fest in which I did almost all my organising on the phone (Android app). The Selling Fast/Standby section was invaluable as it helped me with exchange decisions and queue avoidance. The design and utility make this a feature of the festival itself, being not only essential but dependable.

The Trailer and ads
I saw it once and it was lovely. Just a montage of clips to music and the 2017 livery at the end; no lame jokes that ran like cheese graters over our nerves this year, just a sense of excitement and a lot of beauty. It wasn't played before a single screening that I attended. On other ads, I still like the Wander Victoria one with the two women and still still still love the vodka ad with the zeppelin projecting a movie on to the clouds; that's a party I want to go to.


Missed
Too many titles to count but of those I had put on my pass I began to exchange every session that went on standby. It means I have to queue if I want even the unpopular front rows I prefer and I just don't want to do that when it's raining icicles (there was a brief warm spell this year in the second week but it plummeted quickly) and it just feels like a waste of time.

I will eagerly wait for a commercial release of:

My Friend Dahmer
The Untamed
Wonderstruck
Something Quite Peculiar
Los Perros
Sleeping Beauty
Japanese Girls Never Die
Marjorie Prime
I Dream in Another Language
The Belko Experiment
Right Here
Rumble
A Life in Waves
Loveless

The Crowds and the Queuing
I never get worried by people chatting even loudly during the ads as they almost always settle as soon as they see the feature starting. In A Gentle Creature a guy behind me who was deeply in love with the sound of his voice was being what he thought was terrifically witty to his female companion. Having already been ousted from my preferred seat I was perhaps more sensitive than usual. The ads stopped and the production badges showed and then the feature's title card and everyone could still hear his scratchy self-entitled drone. As politely as I could I turned and said in my best uncomfortably loud RP tones: EXCUSE ME! SSSHHHH! It shut him up for half an hour after which I didn't care as I'd already defied the clueless vollie who'd ousted me by going back to the front. And then there was a pair of women who thought their whispers were inaudible, two rows away. I wasn't physically placed to hush them and got annoyed that no one closer thought to. But I had a good run in thirteen screenings of people understanding they were in a crowd and the golden rule brought benefits.

I queued twice. Once because Tragedy Girls went on standby and I needed to get one of those front and centre island seats (and not only got it but had a free seat either side:) and for Public Image is Rotten as we had to wait for the closing night film audience to shamble out. Otherwise I showed up just before the lights went down, found a seat front and centre and enjoyed the movie. Coming to this decision (it only works if you prefer unpopular seats like the front rows) a few years back changed the festival experience for me, reducing most of the annoyance I had come to associate with organising myself.

So, MIFF 2018
Now that Team Carey have for years shown how well they can run a great film festival from selection down to the ticketing and staffing I'm just going to assume the same for next year.

I think I'll balance times of day better than I have in the past two years where I've stacked almost everything in the morning or afternoon. The reason I do this is partially crowd avoidance (then there's Hong Sang Soo movies which sell out at 1:30 pm) but also as I like going to the cinema during the day, especially on holidays, it's like stolen time. But a more sociable festival means flexibility there which means more night screenings.

With Netflix etc the probability of getting to see a MIFF title on the soonish side as part of your subscription has added to the need to cull high profile titles out of the selection. I didn't want to put up with the standy crowd or queue for My Friend Dahmer so I exchanged it confident I'll get to it later in the year. Hong Sang Soo doesn't get released in Australia at the marginal cinemas or VOD (even SBS on Demand) so that's a must. See also Reha Erdem or pretty much anything from Russia or Japan. More effort spent on seeking out the low-profile interesting is needed here. It always served me well at times when the fest got absurdly mainstream back in the early noughties. This kind of film no longer has a dependable outlet and has become the prisoner of the festival circuit. It's great to see in a dark room surrounded by strangers and moment but I really do miss that longer term buzz of word of mouth from the arthouse circuit that wrapped unseen movies in fragrant seduction. WEll, it's gone and won't come back so we need more than ever the curation of a strong festival.

What else? I've done well in the past few years of keeping away from anything more than the bare details of festival pics. Synopses, concept, maybe director or other participant but no more. I've turned myself off too many only to find them well worth it later. Screen time is really the last obstacle. Then again, I was on the verge of skipping A Gentle creature for exceeding two hours of what I assumed was a lot of Dardennes grimness with a Russian accent but it proved a perfectly balanced final course to the festival.

It has become a little harder than it was but the only reason I've missed one since I started buying mini passes is the broken leg I had in 2012. Unless MIFF regresses to the mainstream lows of previous fests I'll be there, shivering in the rain outside the Forum, waking slowly up in front of the ads, craving a choctop and feeling the warm flow of images, sounds and notions rising.


Sunday, August 20, 2017

MIFF Session #13: A GENTLE CREATURE

Alyonka lives a quiet life in her country cottage with a beautiful black and white dog. We first see her coming home from work in a creaky old bus in a quite beautiful Russian country setting. At home she finds a card from the post office that explains that the care package she sent to her husband has been rejected by the prison where he is serving a sentence for murder. Organising shift exchanges at work, she sets out to deliver the package personally.

This time the same bus she took before is packed with people whinging each other or talking about a gruesome murder case. At the train station she goes through a humiliating routine body search and interrogation in a kind of wood panelled version of airport security. Her fellow passengers on the train (it's Russia, it will be a long train journey) are on the acceptable side of obnoxious but their noise and bluster is constant, contrasting with the incessant groan of woe from the greying woman who recounts the worst that has happened to her.

The unliveried taxi driver (definitely not an Uber) tells her how beneficial the prison is to village life in a series of mild paradoxes that Orwell might have rejected from Nineteen Eighty-Four but still bear a kind of sleazy respect for oppression. The prison is a Soviet scaled monster edifice of brutal architecture without the fashion sense suggested by that. The processing room where applicants like herself make it through with a package or a visit is a chaos of bureaucratic negativity. Her package is rejected once again. A few people in the crowded, sweaty room give her encouragement to come back and try again as the bitch at reception is cranky today. She leaves with that in mind.

Numb, she rests outside to gather her thoughts and is adopted by a local woman who promises her a cheap room. She accepts and finds out the sharing part of it involves a rowdy whorehouse atmosphere where drunkards of both sexes play spin the bottle and piss when and where they wish. Getting through the night and being rejected even more bluntly at the prison the next day she encounters a black marketeer who might help.

With nowhere else to turn she accepts his help though it might lead to favours she doesn't want to bestow. And she finds that the village has been created for the prison staff and a parasitic underclass who prey on the likes of her. As she is an unknown female she is called a whore by all who don't recognise her, even when visiting the human rights campaigners whose office has been violated by either a disgruntled applicant or the secret service.

Ok, you get the idea. I've put in this much plot because I was impressed with how this Russian film (made outside of Russia the way that films like Under The Shadow had to be made outside of Iran) expresses its rage with a culture that has only known one brutal autocracy after another. It's important that the lead figure is female as we can see her vulnerability stretch beyond that of Kafka's male protagonists in ways that are more universal.

Writer/director Sergey Loznitsa keeps a firmly held balance between post Soviet Russia and a stark absurdism such that neither challenges the other for dominance. The tone is kept naturalistic through a determinedly cinema verite aesthetic (that contrasts in a later set piece with refulgent magical realism). (A clever reference to Kafka's short horror story In the Penal Colony snares Brexit.) A pallet that goes from rooms that stink of the sweat of frustrated  humans to the air-filled vistas of endless fields tells us a lot about the approach. Unlike a great many post Soviet digs at the recent past and the grim present, A Gentle Creature shows us both the ineluctability of the trickle down power of tyranny and the possibility of breaking it at a very personal level. And always the personal, as provided with solidly restrained expression by the lead Vasilina Makovsteva, grinning and bearing on the outside can be a learning tempest within.

I baulked at realising this film had a running time of nearly two and a half hours. Once I settled into it, it felt precise, exactly as long as it needed to be. I compare it to my favourite of the undeclared genre of post Soviet fables, Werckmeister Harmonies. My praise doesn't come a lot higher than that.

MIFF Session #12: THE PUBLIC IMAGE IS ROTTEN

Losing count of the PiL lineups is mandatory. For a while also mandatory was the notion that the sole survivor of all of them, John Lydon, was the one with the problem. As more tales emerged about Jah Wobble's light fingered ways and Keith Levene's near disintegration by opiates and on and on the story returns that the problems were the same as the triumphs: it was all a band effort. Whatever their mugshot collections were at any time, PiL went through the same line graph sag that most bands suffer as they attempt longevity. Going from the stellar highs and forgettable lows of the debut album through the jewel of post punk of the second album to the spooky greatness of Flowers of Romance PiL's place in the pantheon was secure. Give it the squabbles, sackings and contrariness you get by the early nineties, when the name was retired, a pop charts outfit that served as its own tribute band in concert. See also the Rolling Stones. Or is that true. Is there something still strong and vital about the entity that simply changed its outward shape? If that's true it points to one figure.

This documentary tries to clarify the story. Mostly, this is done with a lengthy interview with Lydon today but also, carefully, with the testimony of other figures like Wobble, Levene, and the many other members. Does this make it balanced? Well, Lydon is firmly in the centre and everyone else appears near the wings. Not everyone testifies to their best advantage (Wobble is either disarmingly candid or unaware of how self-damning he is being).

Lydon charms effortlessly, the way he has charmed since being spiky and young, he remains a good yarn spinner and delivers his candour with a wink. If you know this about him as a public figure you'll have no trouble questioning any of the statements he makes about the history of PiL, particularly when they cross those made by former bandmates. Besides which, if you expect recent history to be objective and made only of indisputable truths you should check your naivete levels. Accounts are going to vary according to self-image and viewing position. The best account is not the one given by the participants but constructed by the reader, weighing the variations for likelihood. This film does not force an official line, it gives you Johnny and asks you to give the rest.

I can clearly recall reading a copy of Lennon Remembers from my local library and considering that a true account of The Beatles. The later MacCartney in His Own Words contradicted a lot of it. Later books and doccos spread the story out. Lennon not only didn't remember as much as the title suggested but seem to forget everything he said in the book (a long interview with RollingStone's Jan Wenner). Closer to where this movie lives, can't we now see The Great Rock and Roll Swindle as Malcolm McLaren's after dinner tale, The Filth and the Fury as a controlled reversal of that, the Classic Albums ep on Bollocks as a mediation of both? We just don't get full accounts from single sources.

Back on screen, a series of clips flesh the tales and provide some rich relief form the talking heads. There is the annoying continued tradition of playing studio versions of songs under matched up live footage but then there is also a wealth of live excerpts with good sound in the later half. The touted film of the infamous screen gig in New York is very very brief and serves no greater purpose than to prove it was taken but that aids the accounts from the likes of Thurston Moore.

The Public Image is Rotten is a step above the average music history docco and this is largely due to its subject's compelling story. PiL were, however fleetingly, the apex of the accessible post punk endeavours, bridging difficult flows and washing many of the big loud failure of commercialised punk. Shallow coolsters will snigger at Moore's description of Metal Box as its time's White Album but all he means is that it was solid and inspiring against expectations and stands today as a crucial set. If all this film can achieve is to get a few more people giving the early PiL a listen then it will have done much. Sometimes the newest sounds are the old ones and that also goes for attitudes.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

MIFF Session #11: THE GRADUATION

La Femis is a French cinema school. The French take their cinema as seriously as they take their wine, having started on the ground floor and added the art to the commerce in the movies' Ur phase. This is the process of how thousands of applicants are wrung down to about thirty students. In a moment so polished by decades of delivery that it sounds scripted, one of the selectors at the start tells the mass before him that there will be no teachers or classes in the course.

The first round sees the great mass of initial aspirants shown a movie scene and given about half an hour to describe what they have seen. Those called back must present a narrative from a phrase or sample of dialogue. Further tests involve supervised scene shoots, written statements and personal stories. Eventually, all this will turn into numbers and the few will enter while the many walk away.

This documentary runs from a different angle from similar contest-based pieces , focusing on the selectors and their discussions of the people they have been speaking to. There are no freeeze-framed triumphs possible with this approach but there are many moments of revelation. The judgements of the panelists can be brutal but as the film progresses and you get a sense of the turnover you feel the benefit. In job interviews you are thrown a couple of pysche questions after the qualifications and experience grills and they are there to get the mettle out. This process emphasises that over the formal skills to find the commitment and the passion.

This is a procedural documentary. We get a strong feeling of cramped rooms, silent corridors, rustling paper forms and tension too early in the morning. They're French so all the selectors smoke in their breaks. Out on the fire escapes the talk is even rougher, coloured by thick plumes of Gitane fumes. It's tough stuff protecting your nation's cinema legacy. From the country that established an academy for the protection of its own language you wouldn't expect less.

Despite some frequent old-line fever as successive candidates seem to tell the same prepared stories of inspiration The Graduation sustains its engagement to the end and we are gratified with the group photo shoot at the end showing who got in. An end-credit sequence shows young people at the gate we started with. It's night now, many nights later, and we see the last of the unsuccessful quietly make their way out and down the street. Did we lose a Claire Denis, a Godard? We only know that we might never know.

Friday, August 18, 2017

MIFF Session #10: BIG BIG WORLD

Ali seems happy enough fixing cars and bikes for a living in an Istanbul garage, keeping to himself and his faith until he hears that his pubescent sister Zuhal has been effectively sold to a middle aged man as a second wife. Outraged he abducts her and they flee to a rural village and go further into the wilderness, finding a old shed frame to use as a home. It's rougher than either is used to but it isn't back there.

Ali commutes to the village and finds work in the garage there. Zuhal spends her days exploring the rivberbank, meeting the crazy old woman who is looking for her father, a white goat, a black bull. Infrequent shopping trips done with scant funds keep the balance between modern usage and slithering nature. It is a shaky balance, though, and as the influences of civilisation and lure of unfeeling nature tug at each end things go wrong.

The carnival comes to town, bringing corruption to Ali who is quickly enthralled by the delights of a golden haired siren who reads palms and lifts banknotes but pours a mean beer and offers a warm bed in the process. We've already seen Ali being fleshly but it was naive, detached from his unfinished notions of sin. Here it's boots and all and he knows shame.

And there's something else. Zuhal is increasingly troubled by nausea and dizziness. She claims the man she was sold to did nothing bad but talks in her sleep as though warding him off. Ali's protective force is losing power as both of them seem to join a folie a deux between themselves and the forest. We see them slide themselves along boughs like the snakes we frequently spy in the rushes and the water, or just lie upon them like outgrowths of moss. The freedom promised by the freshness and vibrancy of the new green world peels away, leaving only a kind of youthful dementia waterlogged by the rain and the river.

Having delighted in Reha Erdem's Kosmos and been stunned by the later Jin, I was ready for something different again and got it. While the former titles showed a confident hand at the helm of whimsy that could steer us towards depths and away from shallow indulgence, this one takes into territory between grim realism and wonder, a kind of early Terrence Malik meeting Tarkovsky somewhere dark and drippy. The animals here are not the healing natural presence as they are in Jin (that final tableau still pricks at my tear ducts) but more like observers or even judges as Zuhal and then Ali too addresses them as though they were reincarnations of humans. The gleeful play and dances of Kosmos here swerve uncomfortably between innocence and madness.

The score is solidly unsentimental building on an arpeggio on a glockenspiel and supported by a deep and rich small reed ensemble, adding a piano in passages. It serves the beauty of the imagery at the same time as feeling made from the sogging wood of the riverbank. It's another point in favour of Erdem's approach: it would be depressing if it weren't so enlivening, it it weren't so god damned beautiful.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: DUNKIRK

On spec Dunkirk reads like a defeat. The Germans blitzkrieged to the beaches of France, ready to pick off a great mass of allied troops and keep going across the channel. A little deeper and the evacuation, a success against massive odds, left the British standing army largely intact and served to halt that threat. It's a compelling event in the history of the war. So, when I learned that Christopher Nolan was driving it I jumped to attention and exclaimed: hmmm.

Nolan has stretched my affection beyond breaking with the great bloated epics made of okay ideas like his Batman movies, Inception and Interstellar. All of these would have been the kind of pop cinema saviours they were touted if Nolan had just remembered that the film that shot him to their director's chair was a lean and clever thriller that surpassed rather than deflated the promise of its trailer. Then it was welcome to Bombast World with Chris Nolan (though I'll give him The Prestige). So what were we in for with this one? A two fortnight epic with four hour digressions into spiritual hurdles and conundra of physics? Actually, that was what sold the ticket (along with IMAX and film projection): 116 mins. Not 3 1/2 hours. That's Memento territory. If he gets an epic in that time he might consider it a rude but well-meant memo to himself.

So what's it like?

We open with some history lesson title cards but get right down to the action as a small group of British soldiers walk through a deserted French town trying to get to the beach without being killed. This isn't easy but one makes it through and sees lines, queues of soldiers who tell him to go to the right queue. Ah, the ol' spirit o' the Blitz. Trying a second time at a secluded bowel movement. He makes a friend in a fellow soldier by dint of the two of them being in the same hopeless predicament.

And then it's off to the officers who give us some exposition. Before that sounds like a smart arsed comment I should point out that this is kept to a minimum and never sounds like anything less than military conversation. Kenneth Brannagh, a naval captain provides one of the gravity points amid the the strange intense blend of survivalist urgency and good old mustn't grumble waiting.

Meanwhile there is a thread to represent some of the genuinely heroic work done by the fishing boats and small craft. The salt of earth Mark Rylance helms a boat over the chop and picks up casualties along the way in a thread that involves the greatest concentration of time slipping. At the beginning we are given locations like The Mole (pier), The Air etc and a time frame like One Day or One Hour. The centre of this involves a military vessel meeting the path of Rylance's boat as well as a German bomber with a pair of fighter escorts and a trio of Spitfires to stop them. This is where Nolan comes into his own with a skillful weave of timelines to show us the fullness of an incident from different perspectives and get us used to thinking of represented time as incident-based rather than a linear flow. This is pretty neat. It gets a lot of action in and adds a great deal of depth while never once feeling anything but urgent.

Kudos to Hans Zimmer the composer, here, who provides a constantly tense mix of orchestral scope with electronic violence to provide a score that never settles, ensuring that we never do.

And hardware? Heinkels, Spitfires, ME 109s, ships, intimate and epic in context, the terrifying sight of an approaching torpedo. In a film that must promote humanity itself as the lead character the conflict between this and the exhilaration of watching the five second bursts of fighters snatched from the effort of lining up excruciating shots must find a middle. That comes with some characterisation that while scant and left mostly flat is just enough to suggest universality. Right down to the very final shot which is brief, funny and humbling all at once.

Nolan's done it, folks, after all this time. Now let's see him do it again.

MIFF Session #9: CLAIRE'S CAMERA

Min Hee is in Cannes for the film festival with her film distributor boss who fires her over a vague charge of dishonesty (no details are given). Min Hee reconstitutes herself after the shock and takes a passive aggressive selfie with her boss who reddens with confusion. A brief dialogue about mistakes at the beach between the boss, Nam, and the guest director So who admits that most of his errors have been made while drunk. So, at a cafe is engaged in conversation by a Parisian, Claire. They speak in halting English but establish that he is a director and she a teacher. Soon Claire Nam and So are having fun at lunch chatting about the pictures Claire is taking and how an image might change the photographer's perception of the subject. So notices a photo of Min Hee among the small stack that Claire hands out. You know that the reverse is going to happen and that links are going to be tightened and conversations are going to be gaining a lot of weight.

This festival's third Hong Sang Soo film is a delight, a showcase of awkwardness vs crucial realisation that happens through conversations in plain settings. The Korean characters talk to each other in their native tongue but all conversations between them and Claire are in English so careful that it sounds like they've learned it in a coma. The communication, however, is the same blend of jolting candour and coyness. Hong has used multi-lingual dialogue before and luxuriates in the extra comedic tension it brings to the table (and there are always lots of tables in these films). And when words fail against the stiffness of a first meeting the facial acting and body language take over (the dizzyingly funny first conversation between So and Claire which collapses into embarrassed smiles and eye-avoidance).

And it is always about the communication. And the communication always reveals the true wish and it always blurts out like an old saying or a platitude. We are left to piece the fragments we have received this way ourselves and the resulting sense that we have arrived at the starting point of a long elliptical course is both pleasant and strange. Radiant Jang Mi Hee as Min Hee and the industrially magnetic Isabelle Huppert as Claire hold the centre of a gang of actors familiar to any who have seen a few Hong films. They are welcome on the screen the way that players in rep are. And Hong is always welcome on any screen I watch.

Monday, August 14, 2017

MIFF Session #8: YOURSELF AND YOURS

A young man is chatting to a friend and learns that his partner has been going out, drinking too much and causing scenes. He finds it hard to credit but it sticks with him.

In the next scene a middle aged man stops by a cafe to get a iced Americano and is locked by the sight of a woman he knows at the shady end of the cafe. He approaches her familiarly but she claims not to recognise him, eventually conceding that he must have mistaken her for her twin sister. Persisting through the awkwardness the man suggests a drink and is not turned down.

Then we see the woman getting into bed. Her partner wakes up and we see that he is the man from the first scene. The gossip about her is borne out but she denies it. Angered, he breaches their relationship by accusing her of lying. She leaves. He implodes.

Hong Sang Soo's mastery of conversation as battle takes a leaf out of Bunuel territory here as shades of That Obscure Object of Desire wafts in like a breeze. It's not a direct lift but if you persist in working out if the female lead is lying, amnesiac or really either one of a pair of twins you will get no joy from this piece. It's a film you just need to flow with. If it were a neo-noir and she its femme fatale that advice would sound like wank supreme but this is Hong Sang Soo and he is taking us again into the realm of the contemporary comedy of manners. Come to think of it, another reference point here is The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind done to similar effect but none of the effects.

I was also about to write that this is a departure for the writer/director but really he has done little but depart from starting position with each new entry, particularly with last year's self-rebooting Right Now, Wrong Then and this year's On a Beach Alone at Night. It makes me think that with such a lean style this filmmaker achieves something that those in similar territories like Whit Stillman have not, extended their range and remained themselves. It failed the likes of Hal Hartley but I think we're looking at sterner stuff.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

MIFF Session #7: THE IDEA OF A LAKE

Ines' imminent motherhood has brought memories of her own parents to the surface. When one of those parents disappeared in the Peron years while the family was on holiday the nostalgia has a sting to it. She is preparing a photographic memoir of the years, particularly the holidays they had by the lake in the south of Argentina.

Meanwhile more concrete memories are being called through forensic archaeologists who are seeking to identify the remains of people killed during the Dirty War. Ines' brother complies with the request for a blood sample but their mother feels only the pain beneath her anger. Ines' estranged husband worries about the stress' effect on their unborn child.

Woven through this are beautifully drawn scenes of summer holidays including a disarming fantasy in which the young Ines performs a water ballet with the animate and now amphibious family Renault to the sounds of Neil Diamond's Songs Sung Blue. But this is nostalgia, art directed memory, the real thing, the facts and their sensory impressions begin to bleed in as she recalls the kids playing hide and seek in the woods which for all its cuteness leaves the young Ines unsmiling and the poignant sight of her father leaving the candlelit table of partying family friends and walking into the darkness. Here, the memory is too painful but can't be trusted to nostalgia. She can only go as far as the spectre of him softly crooning a lullaby to her infant self. All further investigation is unbearable.

The water of this lake is still and deep. Writer/director Milagros Mumenthaler exercises great restraint, trusting her cast to convey much with minimal dialogue but big colourful canvasses that make up for it. Mumenthaler also trusts her audience to understand that she is saying only what she needs to say and they will share the load.

Friday, August 11, 2017

MIFF Session #6: ON A BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE

Young Hee is a beautiful young Korean film star whose recent affair with a married man has sent her into voluntary exile to Europe. She discusses this with her dowdy companion while they stroll the parks and mise en scene of Hamburg. While enjoying the beach one evening she is carried away by what appears to be a stalker.

Later, she appears in a provincial Korean cafe talking to the man she'd loved but it is distant. She appears in another small scale cafe and engages with another man who unsuccessfully conceals his own marital status. Later she, he and the other guy and two female partners share dinner and Korean wine and Young Hee goes postal with the manners

A quartet of the above spends time at a seaside resort as a very dodgy window cleaner videobombs their chitchat. This is a very very funny scene,

Later, she is woken while sleeping on the beach by a member of a film scouting crew who takes her into his company for another edge-burning dinner chat.

This is a Hong San Soo film. It is mostly made of conversation (not dialogue, mind you, this is a studiously careful distinction) and interpersonal dynamics. I know I seem to have taken the piss here but what I am describing is a purely lovely moment of cinema. Stanley Kubrick characterised successful films as being constructed of six insubmersible units, blocks of human interaction that defied further breakdown. Hong Sang Soo makes Kubrickian comedies of manners. He doesn't care who notices. He doesn't care who cares. He just does it and he does it repeatedly and teaches any who will look that good films can come of little more than knowing and loving the material.

I love Hong Sang Soo's films despite the festival darling status he has attained. I love them because they are themselves. I haven't been able to say the same of any filmmaker's work since INLAND EMPIRE and that, my friends, makes me happy.

MIFF Session #5: JUPITER'S MOON

Pre-title cards tell us that Jupiter has many moons, one of which is thought to have conditions that might allow life. Its name is Europa. Fade in to a freight train carriage hauling live chickens as well as a crammed in number of Syrian refugees on their way to find life in the Europa we have down here. They reach the drop point, get on boats and buzz into a surprise reception from border control who fire on them. One young man, Aryan, who has lost contact with his father in the confusion gets to the European side and runs until stopped by an immigration officer who fires three shots into the boy's vital organs and leaves him dead for later retrieval.

We linger on the corpse sadly but then notice that drops of his blood are forming bubbles and rising to the air. Then Aryan's body itself rises slowly over the forest canopy as he sluggishly copes with being alive in the first place and that he is flying. Few of the fleeing refugees witness this, having their own survival a little further centre stage.

Next we meet a jaded doctor fallen from professional favour, waking up in his small, boxy Budapest flat. He gets up with his second cigarette, heads off to give some ill-gotten banknotes to his girlfriend, a nurse at a local hospital and then to the refugee camps to do some rounds with the new arrivals. Here he meets Aryan on a trolley, dead but for the vital signs and then the levitation. Dr Stern is astounded beyond words just long enough to know a good thing when he sees it and whisks the lad away from the confusion of the camp and into the city of lights, possibilities and sheer exploitation as the atheist doctor is already planning on squeezing the religious out of their hard-earned.

But the spectre of a wonder has power and that might just include a touch of redemption. "we live horizontal," says Dr Stern and, "at some point we stopped looking up." We have just seen him take a moment to look on the star filled night sky. He sees stars, including a shooting one, but they are just stars. We have also seen him reach for a sincerity beyond his attempt at redemption through money (no spoilers) and it is through his encounter with Aryan. 

For Aryan's part the picture is a little confused. He says at one point that he has his own purpose like everybody else but doesn't name it. He has powers to go with the levitation but we only see them in a strange scene involving a neo-nazi. And it is strange in that apart from the cinematic virtuosity of it the scene seems to serve little purpose beyond demonstrating Aryan's ability to control his power. It goes on for much longer than it should, seems to have come from nowhere, involves no redemption of the bigot and the powers are not seen again. Otherwise Aryan is short of superheroism. He doesn't soar through the skies like Superman, he wades in the air or controls his falls, seemingly doing so for the purposes of creating awe.

That's the bit that had me frowning. Dr Stern's development seems increasingly to be influenced by Aryan's power and the suggestion of his immortality and this is allowed by the film to suggest that we buy into the notion of the miracle. While the magical realist premise of the dispossessed alien having superpowers impressed me the maturation back into the desiccated realm of faith alienated me. The film doesn't quite leave things open enough to keep them interesting.

That's a shame as the piece really does have a lot of charm in its characterisation and evocation of a kind of contemporary earthly hell. The sheer skill of the many winsome Steadicam shooting and one of the best car chases I've ever seen (one shot from the point of view of the pursuit vehicle's bumper bar!) and the levitation is always purely beautiful. But at a time when so much of cinema works such visual miracles as a matter of course I cannot take this leap of faith.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

MIFF Session #4: THE ENDLESS

Brothers Justin and Aaron escaped from a cult ten years ago but the younger, Aaron, who does not remember the oppression that Justin does, wants some closure and decides to return to the commune to seal his farewells. Justin reluctantly agrees to drive him there but only for a day. They drive through the dry western U.S. landscape past a number of strange mini volcanic plugs and arrive at the old site.

It's still going but there are none of the uniforms or void-eyed indoctrinees wandering about. If anything, everyone seems pretty normal. They self-finance through craft beer and artisanal goods like clothes and folky art. A little loopiness here and there but what else would you expect. There is a decidedly un-culty feel to it all. But everyone they remember doesn't seem to have aged in the intervening decade; people who should look forty look freshly twenty. And then there are the strange phenomena around the settlement like apparent force fields and some truly sanity-doubting atmospheric effects. Through this push and pull of alienness and seductive warmth the brothers give their characteristic responses, Justin's cynicism and Aaron's wonder. A lot of good deadpan joking later between them and the settlers later the mysteries only seem to deepen.

Big ideas don't need big budgets. Like anything they are subverted by low production confidence like insufficient attention to acting or missteps in attempted visual effects but most of all there must be the writing. On the higher level of the characterisation and dialogue we're in good hands as the very able cast render their extraordinary dialogue natural. On the lower level there is a middle-heavy drag as the development is hampered by too much labour on key issues and repetitiveness (I don't mean the obvious repetition here but the restatement of information we already have) where action should be taking the foreground. However, the wise decision to reveal the concepts through some astute dialogue that seldom falls into exposition (as it must at points) serve this film well. The effects are modest to the point of elegance and it is good to see this handled well instead of recent grating attempts to reintroduce in camera effects beyond production means (and then attempts to pass their failure off as campiness). Mostly, the central conflict between the brothers is allowed space to develop and take its rightful place.

I enjoyed the scene that harked back to the clever and rougher-shod Resolution and find on checking that not only did this team (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead) make that one (and included cast members in reversed roles) but also the intriguing Spring from last year's MIFF. Now that that's established the pattern is emerging: these guys are creating their own fiction realm. It's derived heavily from the name-checked H.P. Lovecraft but where earlier Lovecraftians (e.g. Stuart Gordon or Brian Yuzna) concentrated on the Cthulhu mythos with tentacles and prehistoric birthrights, this team seem more interested in the weirder everyday strange of the Color Out of Space. As with the always watchable works of Britt Marling and crews we could be seeing a new approach to the fantastical on the rise. If I'm right it could be as genre-shaking as J-horror in the 1990s or found footage in the 2000s. Let's hope.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

MIFF Session #3: AFTERIMAGE

Wladyslaw Strzeminski, an artist of great cultural stature in his adopted post war Poland, is staring down the afterimage of the radicalism he had fought for in his youth. He talks about afterimage, in the very first scene where he shows how able he can be despite the loss of an arm and a leg (during WWI so I can't make the joke I want to). The afterimage, the ghost of the thing seen remains on the surface of the eye, in reversed colour and upside down but persistent. So, who wins, the Stalinist thugs who want to erase him from history or the artist who should only need to be?

Well first, this doesn't play like a biopic despite its subject being a historical figure and including events that took place in his lifetime. The point is afterimage, Strzeminski's and the regime that oppressed him. Also, that of writer director Andrzej Wajda himself who presented this as his swansong work. Tellingly, this film about an artist whose stunning colour compositions meant to break their viewers from the constraints of their days is delivered in the drab brownish blue palette of the severest rooms of the Warsaw Pakt. We see his youthful works incidentally, as exhibits and witness his mature painting but all of it lives in draughty wooden apartments and icy streets. If there are the kind of Eureka moments that plague even the best intended biopics they are given with so slight a signal that they feel like part of a fiction.

Boguslaw Linda playing craftily disabled (Strzeminski lost both a leg and an arm but not once do we question how the actor is concealing this) a character who has become craftily able. The regime's officers might well admire him for his art, his work and even his politics but totalitarianism (even very localised in arts administration) can never tolerate unbridled expression. His Marxist fervour even seems to stand against him as in his maturity and the experience of two cataclysmic wars he has broadened his knowledge of the world. But that stops short of feeding the trolls who are successfully seeking to starve him. With decreasing control and importance he is finally rendered beyond life, on display as the young citizens of the New Poland rush by without looking.

This sober and sobering piece is played with astute skill by Wajda, never collapsing into maudlin indulgence nor so severe as to alienate. His last statement, though bound by period, is a timeless and timely. The irony and symbolism are big but the tale is linear. On the one hand this plugs it back into the very regime that oppressed Strzeminski with its oafish demand of socialist realism but then the triumph of his memory contrasts so violently with the long nameless suits and rubber stamps that crushed him. What a way to go.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

MIFF Session #2: TRAGEDY GIRLS

A creepy introduction with a necking couple in a car in an isolated spot at night tells us that we are in the hands of someone who knows their genre. It develops into a twist (that, fortunately, I don't have to reveal) that tells us that knowledge of genre must also include awareness of its subversions. And then it's on as high school BFFs Sadie and McKayla begin their career as serial killers.  From that shift in viewpoint we get a massive game of spot the genre reference. Halloween, Friday the 13th, Carrie, Ginger Snaps, Heathers, Heavenly Creatures, Scream and many, many more: the gang's all here.

Like most of those titles Tragedy Girls plays less as horror than something from the darker corners of high school comedy. It deviates by omitting the struggle against the hierarchy fuelling those films. These girls are already popular and depend on the status quo to advance themselves even further. We never see their macabre blog that casts the local murders to an adolescent detail but we don't need to. In scenes like the obligatory triumphal strut down the school hall to a pop song we see them check their phones which loose flurries of animated love hearts rising in the light like soap bubbles. If the recent Unfriended depended on the compulsion of the Skype screen this one has gone beyond that to the minimal read of the mobile. So have the times. And that's the point.

The constant reference to genre classics is not just for cutes. As with the savvy teens of Scream these ones can cite chapter and verse and do so when the film itself isn't busy with that (and boy does it get busy). But while this was an innovation in Scream its an expectation of Tragedy Girls; we would think less of it if it trod a straighter path; it requires the smarts to focus the deeper field.

So, if it isn't misfits breaking through or dowds getting makeovers what are we doing here watching this? Well, we do get a big kill quota and some expertly constructed black jokes and, despite a slightly saggy middle act, we never feel less than catered to. But we also have to notice the youthful vulnerability, the overconfidence coupled with the fragility: these kids are still kids for all their force and that sends a chill. But the chill doesn't come from the gore or the suspense: it seeps out of the sight of the power of the unformed will to succeed and the readiness to spin it any way possible.

This is a Scream from Trump's America. The final image undoes every triumphal closing blast from John Hughes's high school of the 80s and bodes sequels we should both welcome and fear. BABY USA has woken and is screaming for its dummy. Stops the screaming but leads to more. Do we dare feed it with another ticket?

I honestly can't say I'd resist.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

MIFF Session #1: RADIANCE

Misako writes film narration for the sight impaired. This involves auditioning the narration to groups of the target audience. Responses range from the unhelpfully polite to the confrontingly blunt. The message is that she is being too flowery. By venturing outside of flat descriptions she is curbing their imagination and they lose touch with the conjured image and the experience becomes confusing.

One of the most outspoken of the test group had been a career photographer. He feels an acute pain at the irreversible loss of his connection to his art. Misako happens upon him in a park, cradling a beautiful old Rolliflex camera taking what we see are images from his bleached remaining vision. At first she recoils from him, quietly making her exit but is so haunted by his story that she is compelled toward him. He doesn't make this easy. He describes his camera as his heart and cannot consider the loss of its use without dread. Her job will need a lot of tiny steps. Meanwhile, the draft of the narration continues with Misako gaining an understanding of the balance necessary between practicality and elegance which bids a greater understanding of what the experience is to them.

This is not a tale of walking a mile in someone else's shoes but of plummeting into the cavern of alien values and finding one's own indistinguishable. Poignantly, this film is told in scenes of unerring beauty (not least of which is the aching beauty of Ayame Misaki in the lead role) so that we the sighted are also simultaneously confronted and seduced. And if that ain't what cinema is all about ....


Friday, August 4, 2017

Review: A GHOST STORY

This is a movie about time and futility. In one scene we watch as a character eats a large pie with a fork. Oh sit down, it's good.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara (in the credits as C and M) are a young couple in a country house who seem to be in the process of moving. There is an increasing sense that things are not well between them but in one moment of intimacy she tells him that in her childhood home she would write notes on pieces of paper and hide them around the house. It was a way of recording time and life. She wonders what she'd find if she went looking for them.

C dies (no spoilers here, it's very early on). M identifies his body in a hospital and leaves in shock. The body rises from the trolley, draped in the sheet that covers it and begins to walk through the building unnoticed by anyone it meets. The ghost, a man wearing a sheet with eye holes stops at a dead end in the building. The wall in front of him is cut with a sharp light which expands to a doorway. Either too stunned by his new circumstances or unwilling to proceed he doesn't go through. The light vanishes and the ghost moves back home. He haunts his widow but after a very little development along these lines she moves out (not before depositing a note into a crack in the wall and painting over it). Then we begin to understand that this will not play like a hipster update to the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore movie but something quieter, stranger and more profound.

The poster shot of Affleck in the costume, which makes him look like a ghost form an old cartoon, does justice to what you might expect being a blend of whimsy and unease. This disarming idea allows us distance with its goofiness but draws us in through its sincerity. Affleck has a great deal to do between allowing our projections on to his sheet and emoting though action alone as he has no further dialogue outside of flashbacks (and then very little). The thing is, it works.

After more scenes which might suggest a close narrative built on a parade of tenants interacting with the ghost  - including a wonderful party rant by Wil Oldham about futility and time - we see we are in for a very long haul as progress has its way in scenes that speed up decades and then start travelling in directions we don't expect. The distance created between the aspirations of humans, their lives, their loss, their legacy, and the barely conceivable immensity of time itself allows this film, kept within a 133:1 screen and clocking in a 87 minutes (one minute shorter than Eraserhead), to feel like the kind of epics that Christopher Nolan and Terrence Malik have made with far greater means and in grander presentations. The small square image (with rounded corners) and brief running time are very deliberate. The credits run, leaving the viewer with the feeling that they have just sat for three hours as life itself was told in IMAX. If the film itself wasn't seductive by itself this achievement alone should astound us: like the Tardis it is much bigger inside than out.

So, if you hear someone ridiculing the pie eating scene know that they have missed its solid grief. If someone ridicules the bed sheet costume as being precious or cutesy know how hard it is to tell the difference between what we project on to it and what is the craft of the actor beneath it. Finally, if you have any inclination to see this film please go to a cinema to see it: there is so much to gain from seeing a view of such vastness within such a small window.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Review: IT COMES AT NIGHT

An wizened old man in close up, his eyes are in shadow but seem off. He stares intently at us. We notice the strange chancre on his shoulder. Reverse shot of a woman in an oxygen mask. She tearfully apologises to the man and says goodbye. He is her father. They are standing in a room coated with plastic sheeting. Two other men in safety masks lower the older man on to a wheelbarrow, roll him to a place in the forest outside, shoot him in the head through a pillow, douse him in petrol and cremate him in his grave. This is all you will get of the back story of this film. It is all you will need.

The family have no appetite at dinner that night. They go to bed early but are woken by an intruder at the house's sole point of access, a red door with a massive latch. Paul tells his wife Sarah to stay behind the corner as his son Travis hovers behind, both armed as they wait silently for the next move of the presence on the other side. The door bursts and a man crashes in. He is quickly subdued by Paul, disarmed and bound. The next day Paul talks to the man Will who is tied to a tree and explains that he thought the house was abandoned. He was looking for food and water for his family. Their dialogue broadens the situation and a truce is struck but the situation has changed beyond the control Paul's family had established. It was inevitable and there will be more changes. They too will feel inevitable.

This strange intense film plays things as straight as it can. To some it might feel too plain. The linear rolling of of its three acts can feel very lean but there is much at work with the themes it establishes and examines. There is a kind of Maslow pyramid being constructed, starting with survival and progressing through family, home, community, trust and breach of trust and something approaching warfare, a concentrated drop of human history in a cabin in the woods.

This film is being sold as the wrong kind of horror movie. The trailer makes it look gothic and thick with sudden scares but that completely misrepresents what is one of the most effectively chilling situational horror tales I've seen in years. Between the outbreaks of violence there is life, day to day, shrouded by the woods but always open to sudden attack and the unease of the compromise of concealment where they might not see you but you can't see them. The people here describe each other as good and we are relieved to hear it but know that anyone can only be as good as the situation allows. When that tears the good just becomes survival again.

A solid cast brings this home in tightly framed scenes where danger lies around corners of walls or phrases in a constantly delicate balance. A largely electronic score works coldly under the images, intensifying action or thickening the darkness. The warmth of the firelight colour pallet and the lushness of the surrounds tell us what nature knows or cares of the lives inside the walls.

A framed print of Breughel's Triumph of Death hanging on Travis' wall and examined in an early scene is recalled throughout the remainder increasingly a map of the world around the house. And it is a haunted house. This haunting is not one of a passed spirit, though, but of a decision to cut all ties with the former life, civilisation, and to accept a new reality. We see the possibility and all that threaten it. It could be a shaded evasion or a stolen glance across a table but as the mood in the house grows warmer the sense of the resulting vulnerability swells like the draught blown in though an opened door.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Review: A QUIET PASSION

 A group of intense young women standing in lines. Sunlight fills the room but there is no warmth. The reverse shot is of a severe middle aged woman in the black of widows or public executioners. She barks commands that physically divide the group into two according to religious commitment, to the left and right of her. Alone in the centre, the young Emily Dickinson looks fraught. She is grilled briefly by the headmistress but her answers resist the force with boldness, wit and conviction. Her family saves her in the next scene, robbing us of a first act filled with personal rebellion but promising much. Most of the rescue scene is a single shot and is conducted with dialogue. The characters, father, sister, brother and Emily, are lined up like a portrait in oils and there is a tension between the senses that it also feels like a school play. It isn't. It's a Terrence Davies film.

That's not a slight. Biopics are difficult. Most of them end up make a quilt of great moments in history to be draped over any attempt to examine the questions a life story should present. Pollock fails because it presumes our reverence and begs our indulgence. Amadeus works because it keeps the theme front and centre and plays as fiction (and was weakened buy the director's cut which put all the "moments" back in). The recent Trumbo begins with the compelling notion of a writer surviving public ostracism by stealth but very quickly changes down to cruise control by rolling out the desk calendar quotes and history bites. So, what do you do when your subject's chief action scenes are conversations or someone scratching away at paper by lamplight? You get someone who can fill a still scene with deep substance. You get a Terrence Davies.

Since the mesmerising Distant Voices Still Lives Davies has shown a heavy talent for drawing his audiences into what are often long held tableaux, people looking out at us from the screen, shifting on their feet, uncomfortable in the formal clothes of portraiture as their voices tell us what they are thinking, giving us the weight of the moment. In one of these the mother of the group wishes her husband was there for the picture. When we later see his terrifying violence against her we will remember this.

A Quiet Passion doesn't change this pattern much where the dense stillness alternates with scenes of interaction and dialogue that feel like opened windows. There are a few extras this time, though, and they have the odd effect of flaunting the artificiality of some of the wittier dialogue. Some of this plays so tweely you'd think it was an offcut of an old BBC Austen adaptation. That said, I enjoyed the unease of these moments as they worked to add texture to a film that might have collapsed under its own gravity. Also, they are contrasted with comparable later scenes where wit is served as the mark of maturity and experience where a much darker, more severe tone is given.

But what Davies does well is done here. A gentle pan across a parlour reveals a pre-electric family at its leisure who are happy enough until the camera stops on the face of the mother by the fire which glistens with tears that fall from a gaze of deep depression. A family portrait session at a local photography studio serves as a time lapse of years as each of the siblings and their parents grow into their age. Emily and her sharp witted friend Vryling trade epigrams in the garden providing supplemental commentary on what they are seeing with snapping fans or umbrellas. The mother at the end of her life is bathed by her daughters as her stroke ravaged face is beyond expression. Emily's own violent seizures at the end of her life remind us of this and the powerlessness of we who watch to help and so we are horrorstruck.

Between these moments, none of more note than similar ones in the surrounding houses at the time, we find the poet. Cynthia Nixon recites apt passages from Dickinson's verses throughout the film and there we hear what she's been doing as we've seen her at the table with quill, paper and lamp all that time. The readings are expressive without affectation. Their ease might make a more literal or begging film boring but this is where A Quiet Passion differs from most filmed life stories. But Nixon's readings are like her performance throughout, nuanced and elegant with a placid mask that her life has taught her will stand guard against the vulnerability of constant disappointment or even the terror of mortality. In her thrashing agonies, punishing wit, or the crushing sadness of her imagining of the midnight world of sexuality (where her conjured suitor climbs the steps like the grim reaper) Cynthia Nixon brings shining life to Emily Dickinson, one that we could only guess at from the sole photographic portrait we have of a freckled country girl with haunted eyes in a scratched Daguerreotype.

Where a lesser biographical film tries to cram years into hours on screen Terrence Davies gives us the days, long and almost uniform, enhanced by sculpted thoughts and home baked bread. There being so little to report by way of moment we are given something more like moments spent. For an Emily Dickinson there can be no better tribute.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: 20th CENTURY WOMEN

Middle aged Dorothea watches as her son Jamie grows into his adolescence and feels increasingly out of touch with him. It's 1979, California, and she lives in the kind of mixed generational share house I can recall from that era in Queensland. Does it take a share house to raise a child or should Dorothea seek the help of people closer to Jamie's age? She tries with Abbie (in her mid-20s already an ageing punk, yes that's meant to be funny in the film as well) and teenaged Julie who flees her single-mother therapist's house nightly to sleep platonically with Jamie. The girl and young woman say yes to helping out but admit they probably won't be able to do much. Conspicuous by his absence in the discussion is ageing hippie William, renovator and handyman but too uncommitted for the task. There's always the idea of let Jamie get through it himself which might just happen anyway.

You get the idea, this is a screen version of the roman fleuve or river novel in which life rolls out before us with here and there a rip, snag or rapid but mostly just there for the pleasure of the flow. We see relationships develop through trial and others bruised by neglect. We see life. Not having the gimmick of Boyhood where we were as engaged by the real ageing of the cast in time as we were by some fine filmmaking and running on a much smaller timeline (outside of narration we go through less than one year) we must at least warm up to these characters in the course of two screen hours.

The good news is that this pretty much happens. Annette Benning delivers a character who invites us despite her resistance to change. Is her performance a touch studied with its measured facial expressions and actor-workshop voice control? Maybe, but those things are done with charm enough for us to follow. Greta Gerwig breaks a little free of the cage of quirk she made for herself with the execrable Frances Ha, allowing for some real pathos to open her up to us. Elle Fanning has the toughest job of the three women of the title in building a tightly fraught teenager out of her barely veiled pain towards us. She is the most intentionally frustrating character and we need to see that this is protection as much as youth and in some touching moments of vulnerability we do. The women, past, present and future, in their way, give us a century of western life.

For his part, Lucas Jade Zumann who has to compete with all this for his time on screen can occasionally fade into the scenery as everything else happens, even when he is at its centre. It's not the actor's fault (though by comparison his is the least forceful performance); he is the stand-in for the writer director who is recalling himself as more observer than actor. Perhaps the most helpful thing to say of him is that he fits. Billy Crudup, who I remember most immediately as a rock star in Almost Famous and then more recently with tense restraint as the journalist/confessor in Jackie, is a quiet delight as William with his "far out" party pickup lines and formless life advice. These are the men of 20th Century Women, essential but to one side which is the purpose this time.

While the flow of life idea works for most of the running time there are a few too many false endings which drew winces. Even if the subsequent scenes assuaged by providing fresh interest or at least charm the trend began to feel like undisciplined writing even with the low-plot scheme taken into account.

Something I did enjoy, though, was that the period nostalgia was kept at a low setting. The late 70s punk scene just feels here like a band scene, the records and the gigs the way they always have. Handy, of course, to set the story at a time when the active younger generation determinedly didn't have its own patois so that instant self-embarrassment doesn't appear. The setting is also important as a kind of farewell to the youth of the pre-internet world where the consultation, the guidance and the wisdom came more tightly filtered from parents and peers and so much had to rely on trial and a lot of error. For me, a major pleasure of this film was not nostalgic for a cultural period so much as the sense of promise, of self-regulation and social progress that we felt was achievable against the shadow of the creaking end of the cold war and its daily promise of global annihilation. If we could just get through high school and get out there and make things better. Didn't happen, of course, and never quite does, but the warmth of it and the dangers of the warmth were palpable.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

WHY I LIKE THE NEW TWIN PEAKS AND WHY I DON'T THINK DAVID LYNCH IS WEIRD

Music fan or lyrics fan? We humans are a nasty bunch and like seeing people join lines. One of them is saying something like: music is the pure expression of the emotions. The other: the music wouldn't be there if the words weren't, they guide the music. I'm in the first line. I love religious music from the Renaissance. It's often only vocal but the words can never mean much to me because they are (a) religious and (b) usually in Latin. But the music can lift my heart with every play.

The recent hefty four episode beginning of the Twin Peaks reboot has seen the sides drawn up along similar lines. Some want more of the quirky dark of the original series and others, like me, could not be more pleased at the intensity of the new vision. I think there's a way between and I think that it will only come to those who wait.

The common wisdom of the first run of Twin Peaks is that it was a compelling mystery until the killer was outed and then just turned whacky, lost its way and tried, like fruit trees at the end of their lives, to give as much as possible at the last moment. The suits at the network forced the big answer out of Lynch and Frost and the vacuum left in the wake was all quirk and cuteness. Windom Earle wasn't scary enough to darken the froth. There was a lot of plot, more than the first season, but the music had gone soft.

And then came the finale in the red room, both white and black lodges depending on how courageous you felt. The red curtains, zigzag floor pattern were lit a little too high but the events and dialogue gave out a lot of lovely slippery unreality that ended with the worst that could happen. Come back, Dave, all is forgiven. But that was it and the David Lynch, whose name was known after Blue Velvet and had become an adjective after Twin Peaks was, to the best reckoning of the mainstream, as much a one-hit wonder as Men Without Hats.

Now he's back, they're back, it is hap-en-ning ag-gain. A call back from the finale between Cooper and Laura repeats the promise of the return in twenty-five years. A sombre version of the opening credits sequence plays out with the familiar twang of the theme and we're in. Well, we're somewhere. Black and white. The giant gives an aged Cooper a few cryptic pointers. There's a little bit of the old Twin Peaks world but everything has changed. No one comes into the diner yodelling about pie and coffee. Mostly, the Coop, still bad from the finale but gnarled by age and evil, is loose in the land. He enters in a car the way his good self did at the very beginning but it's in a nightscape with an ugly rock remix blasting. The good self is back in the lodge getting schooled in the situation. There's a murder case somewhere else and a dismal room in Manhattan with a glass box surrounded by electronics. We're in deep.

Which is the problem for a fair few on the social media commentariat. We get four hours of this bleakness, these strange settings (even in an infinite starfield in one scene), scary looking beings appearing and disappearing and some industrial strength ugliness. So where are the cute teens, snappy one-liner dialogue between the worldly and corrupt adults and the cosy unease? Where, also, is the story that we are might cling to? Who is the protagonist? Have we waited this long for such a mess of hints of greatest hits and stale whimsy served as fresh?

Well, that's what I've been reading, not seeing on the screen. I enjoyed seeing the brothers Horne again as well as the life at the station. But I LOVED the new lodge sequences, the unnerving new places and soundscapes. Yes, a lot of it seems disjointed and chaotic but I won't have try-hard or cheap surrealism flung at it. Why? Because a very clear arc is forming with two opposing forces in places as dark and nasty as where the original series left off. Did anyone really expect Cooper to get over the state he was in as though it were a head cold? There's a lot of climbing back to do and it has to start in some ugly places. That is actually as true to the original series as we could have hoped, at least initially.

Also, Lynch has done a fair few films since the early nineties and with one exception they have been getting increasingly intense with a lightless Twin Peaks prequel and three tilts at extreme fugue states, ending in his toughest since Eraserhead with Inland Empire. If anything, the pleasanter, familiar moments in the new series seem like the anomalies.

Another aspect I'm enjoying is the sense of the swansong happening here. There are aesthetic nods to everything Lynch has done from his student films to his painting and sculpture. There are even things taken from unproduced projects: the identity confusion in one thread owes a lot to the goofy One Saliva Bubble and there are plenty of glints and ideas from Ronnie Rocket. Lynch has declared that he and cinema are done and that this would be it forever. Like the scenes in the original finale that repeated moments from the pilot we are seeing Lynch stroll around his works and recall moments that are then mixed into the business at hand.

If you want energetic plotting you should remind yourself of the restless narrative threads of the second season of the original series which became all plot without point. Or you could revisit the alien conspiracy arc of the X-Files which stoushed any slight answer with louder questions. Or the entire run of Lost. You might want to remind yourself that one season of Breaking Bad kept inserting images of stuffed toys in a swimming pool which went unexplained until the final episode. You might recall that the great Mad Men more than once ended its seasons on notes so down they felt like second-last scenes. Remember the finale of the Sopranos? I mean the very very last minute or so. The golden age of television which followed Twin Peaks (and contributed to its birth and character) changed the game to include a lot of variety of approach. Still want fun quirk and stories? Take a look at Fargo or Mozart in the Jungle. They do both as a matter of course and are really, really good at them. This Twin Peaks isn't like that because it can't be ... yet.

But what about all that weird imagery, all that cod surrealism? Isn't that just a big wanky time waste? Not to me but I don't think of it that way. I also don't think of David Lynch movies as weird. First, when I see the eyeless woman in the purple room who tries with pathetic grunts to prevent Cooper from opening a door I see someone who is frightened. The scene is arrestingly strange but has a clear internal logic. As with all the more intense Lynch stuff, if you think it's alienating or baffling, clock the emotion and follow that (there is always clear emotion in a Lynch scene, overblown or not but always); it will pretty much always take you somewhere. A viewing of Inland Empire might be too big an ask but try a few scenes of it with this in mind and leave off trying to interpret symbolism and see how you get on with it that way (it might well still seem like crap but nothing's for everyone).

Second, I see scenes like that and want to walk around in them. Lynch's style is, for me at least, powerfully imaginative. When I saw the red room sequence in the advanced pilot for the original series (released on VHS rental here in 1990), as much as I enjoyed the loopy dialogue or noirish atmosphere of the main body I wanted as much of the series to come to be set in that curtained place where people say things backwards and origami birds fly past as shadows through the curtains. When the show turned out to be as conventional as it was I got into it but felt let down. And then when it went goofy it lost me. The music faded and the words bred like insects. Then the finale happened and things got back to where I wanted. And then it ended. Now it's back and where I wanted it to be, heavy on imagination with some pleasant call backs.

You want plot and the spirit of the old show? I think you'll get both. We have a tale that has drawn battle lines in the first few scenes and developed them already. The character interaction in the perceptibly real world is plausible and the look and feel of the world beyond life and death (as the finale was later titled for broadcast) plays by rules we can follow if we note how events affect their inhabitants. I believe that it's clear that these forces (the manifestations of Cooper and whatever else is in there) will converge and will most probably face off in the town of Twin Peaks. We have only seen the stirring in the murk where we had left off and there is still most of the series to come. Meantime, I have all the music I can eat.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review: NERUDA

1948 and the government of Chile is cracking down on a very active left. Prominent communist senator and renowned poet Pablo Neruda is targeted as a high profile threat. He flees the city with his wife, detective Oscar Peluchonneau in pursuit. This reads like a decent enough thriller with some added spice from the historical basis. But this is a film by Pablo Larrain and we've been here before.

His No, an account of the Chilean referendum that brought Pinochet's regime to an end was a fraught blend of menace and the day to day. The more recent Jackie used a familiar historical story to pose questions about the public face with a clever literalism. Neruda gives us a popular figure, showing both his heroic persona and private hedonism, a bourgeois communist who revels in his stardom while hoping that his vanity doesn't obscure his political commitment. This tension is admired by his pursuer (an intense Gael Garcia Bernal) who uses his fascination with Neruda as a spur in the chase.

I say chase but the action is very deliberately kept at a low priority. We are not following a hunt but examining both hunter and hunted as players. Oscar is self conscious. While we see much of Neruda in his various roles from public orator to private sensualist it is the policeman's voice that guides us. Oscar's narration is the first voice we hear in the film and his voiceover is the constant in a constantly shifting visual field. He describes his actions as a novelist might (a good detective does this or a clever detective thinks this) and we think of him as having the same vanity as his quarry until the possibility that he is only quoting the Neruda paperback that he carries constantly. The pursuit itself is a fiction no more intended to serve as biography than Jackie. We're here to watch the game and think about what it is to play a starring role in public life and if we as its pursuers might not aspire to something more impressive than a supporting character.

Larrain makes a lot of use of a strange technique whereby a single dialogue is given a number of settings uninterrupted. One moment Oscar is talking to Neruda's mistress on the terrace of her mountain villa but an answering line is delivered across a dining table. The next might be back on the terrace or in the street. While Larrain offers this blatantly he suggests little as to why. I had the feeling that it was akin to how individually art-directed our recollections of encounters and conversations can be, where we stand within them (momentously silhouetted by a window or warmly lit by oil lamps in an Andean tent) as leads, supports, or just extras. It is given gently and perhaps it or something like it is necessitated by the suppression of the chase narrative. If nothing else we are confronted with its reminder of the fiction of what we are seeing.

I watch Larrain's political biographies and I think of how much I prefer them to the Oliver Stone approach of locker-room home truths and pushed reconstructions. Stone slaps us with his verity, giving us no time to question it (well, we did ask him to do that when we bought the ticket). Larrain assumes we know something of the story he tells (or at least its nature as in the detective story in Neruda) and asks us in to chat about the things he has found while telling it. Watching this film I thought of The Conformist and from before it Alphaville and how much I have missed such a blend of art and politics. Don't be fooled by the trailer that wants you to think of it as a high cal thriller. It's much better than that.