Friday, October 13, 2017

Review: BLADERUNNER 2049

You shouldn't want the same thing again. I know you do. I do. But we shouldn't. So when a film that did so much to determine what grownup sci-fi should look and feel like and (beyond its original commercial failure) engenders such devotion as Bladerunner gets a sequel the under-commentariat explodes with anticipation. So should it give us more of what we already had or go somewhere else with a concept rich enough to take a completely new path? If you've been as disappointed as I have with the series Electric Dreams which attempts a closer reading of Phillip K Dick (who wrote Bladerunner's source novel) then you might sigh a little to see trailers that just seem to soup up the now cliched sci-noir ambience but feel some pleasant curiosity to see what looks like bright new realms. Director Denis Villeneuve whose Sicario and Enemy I love but whose Prisoners and The Arrival I don't care about. Even odds. So, I went.

After a title that restates what replicants are, their legal status and action is found back on Earth (retired = executed). We a daytime shot of a snowbound California in the year of the title. Massive circular structures of indeterminate purpose roll below us as in the (Peugeot!) hovercar driven by LAPD bladerunning replicant K (Ryan Gosling). He lands at a farm and does his job but detects a strange box concealed under the soil near a tree.

The contents of this will drive the plot so that's all the detail you get beyond saying that it is human remains. K is ordered to pursue the case and retire with extreme prejudice those who live at its heart. Meanwhile we are introduced to the Wallace Corporation and its attempts at improving on the replicant manufacture inherited from the failed Tyrell originators (the big business of the first film). Hearing of the find that K has made they are on the case themselves. Intrigue ensues and when it gets too chatty action replaces it.

Villeneuve has realised some superb moments here with imagined technology. The baseline test in which K's responses are examined is a combination of fine acting and the simplest of sets. It has the elegance of something from 2001 or THX-1138. The hi-cal improvements on the holographic ambient advertising are impressive (the giant girl from the trailer features in a poignant scene). K's virtual wife is handled with a solid understanding of uncanny valley. The best of these moments remind us that we never resent retread ideas when they are delivered with such strong style.

But the performances are uneven between players. Jared Leto is an underrated actor, often dismissed as pretty (regardless of how many Chapter 27's or Requiem for a Dream's he does) but here he villains it with stage whispers and Shakespeare in the Gardens moves. Ryan Gosling is best left subtle and does that throughout and so is easily followed. Robin Wright seems to have said "look, I'll just keep doing Claire from House of Cards. It's almost the same costume." Silvia Hoeks as the corporate baddie goes from administrative ice to comicbook supervillan without a lot between but brings such a strong physicality to her part that she must be mentioned in this dispatch. Surprisingly, it is Harrison Ford who brings the most to the table as the aged Deckard, giving us some refreshing naturalism to warm his decades of screen gravitas.

But my problem with the film came early. K is ordered to kill people who might well be human (forbidden to him as a replicant) and he says he has a problem with killing anything that was born rather than manufactured. Asked what the difference is he says it's because the natural born people have souls. There is a rejoinder form his boss but it didn't seal it for me. Why? Well, K's statement suggests that his programming includes religious concepts like that one. To better accommodate humans who do? Maybe, but why is it so important to him, couldn't he just say that respecting human life is primary to him or does that just make him too robotic for us? So, he believes it to be true. So, the suggestion is that religious thinking is programming rather than nature so having the soul as a barrier to his killing humans in the line of duty is malarky to begin with and he's just replaying his programming, never to be a real boy. His boss cracks wise about his notion and he seems taken aback by it. So, wait, did he think he had a soul or not? This distinct question is never returned to by name but feeds the rest of the plot. And what might have made a compelling theme if the assumption were taken to task never happens (not even that dark ages concepts should be important in a post-industrial wasteland).

That's my problem. Ridley Scott has been infusing the reboots of his two big genre movies with unquestioning pop theology. It has rendered what began as strong ideas  well executed into the bloaty piffle of Prometheus and Covenant. I'm not complaining about him being theistic nor even using his nominally science fiction tales as a platform (any fiction thinker can use anything they want) but I am complaining about it creating paradoxes that are left unresolved on the apparent assumption that the audience will not question them. In Bladerunner these notions of identity and what "human" means were played more honestly. I miss that.

(I know Scott didn't write Bladerunner 2049 but this stuff is being committed in his work's name for which he apparently has nothing but encouragement.)

While my problem with this film stems from that one it also bleeds into the problems that the later revisits have. While Villeneuve builds his world expertly from the one we recognise from the 1982 classic he gives us so little to fill it. This is three quarters of an hour longer than the original film but feels slighter with less at stake and only slight engagement with the characters. The excessive screen time only exacerbates this impression. I remembered, sitting in the 10.30 session at Hoyts and almost nodding off that three years ago I sat in the less than comfy Forum, hungover as hell from the MIFF closing night party, and sat through all three hours of the low narrative Hard to be a God. I wasn't hungover today I was just failing to care.

Saturday, September 30, 2017


A dreamy opening shot of a raw mangrove tangled river gives way to a closeup of Beatriz' (Salma Hayek's) sleeping face. She is woken by the goat who bleats from a pen a metre from her bed. Los Angeles, the present. She rises and goes to her job at a Cancer clinic, treating patients with massage but also a series of new age pursuits which look enough like occupational therapy to seem palliative at best. At lunch she looks over the room to a young man well advanced in chemo therapy, hairless and glacially imploding and understands that she can do nothing for him.

Her next appointment is a house call to a woman in the rich part of town. As she massages the Angelene matron Kathy (Connie Britton) we learn that her treatmentment and care of the daughter of the house has made her a household saint so that when her car won't start Kathy without a second thought invites her to the dinner party on at the house that evening. At first this works as she meets the first couple to arrive and slides through the initial awkwardness (Beatriz is very tactile and they aren't quite prepared) to pass agreeably. The next level is the monster capitalist Doug Strutt and spouse. Beatriz has the strangest feeling that she already knows him. Whether this is from a previous personal experience or something more psychic.

From this point what might legitimately progress to a kind of Abigail's Party with 1-percenters vs Mexicans or capitalists vs new agers takes a turn for the subtler. The OC Angelinos are comfortable with each other and seldom edge toward caricature, more typically betraying themselves unselfconsciously. This leaves a significant amount of screen time filled with Hayek's intense observation. Her face occupies the entire screen for long minutes on end as the heady blend of cynicism and privilege babbles around her. Things break not once but several times and what emerges is a lot darker than any lighter treatment would have allowed. If you sit down to this one expecting a sassy comedy in which a big daddy business mogul gets his come uppance you will be disappointed. As the stakes of the themes the characters introduce expand we get to some dark places.

The ensemble cast is superb with the mounting discomfort sustained throughout without having to break into cheaper comedy. If there is a sense of archetypes pushing the bounds of their characters it might well be a symptom of having to observe the highly digestible running time (short of ninety minutes) but given the quality of performances and some artful dialogue and a few unexpected but fitting eleventh hour surprises I can go along with it. Imagine an understated Get Out, perhaps.

A strange film but one worth your attention, especially if you want a cleanser between more generic fare. Generic this ain't and it and you will be the better for it. Oh, and the mangroves and goat come back into it.

Friday, September 29, 2017


The life stories of bands of my generation don't really have much in the way of rags or riches. The triumphs are creative rather than popular. Joy Division's story has one ending. Get there and it's over forever. See also The Sex Pistols and ... well almost all of them. There's an early mention made in this film of Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel and The Angels, all acts who began earlier with a previous generation's values. There's none of the was it Yoko or Paul who broke them up or did Vegas destroy him? It's more the small explosions of daydreamers getting king hit by the realities of the industry. And instead of steadily rising curves it's a series of tiny undulations. This is the case of The Saints who remain influential without primary success. And it is the case of The Go-Betweens.

Put this in the hands of a jobber and you'll get a shoehorned three act documentary pretending to be Anthology. Give it to a filmmaker equally drawn to cinema and where the sustainable stories lie in the mess of real life and you get this film. Stenders keeps the early mix rich and heady, blending blurred re-enactments with present day to-cameras, allowing for a series of statements to build into a strange pattern of motions small on the world's stage but huge at face level. This is pretty much exactly like being in a band that exists before it has all its members, of the notions that swell with the popping of the afternoon's second flagon and then only kind of sort of happen the way they were dreamt.

While there are tales o' excess 'n' roll aplenty here they are given their place among all the others. A band starts from a duo and they add a member here and there, change tack as their fortunes promise and again as those same fortunes deflate. Having experienced it I can assure you that this is exactly what being in the Brisbane band scene felt like: sudden inspirations and do-it-yourself legend manufacture that hits its last snare beat without reverb. Even when the band appears to ride a high profile with clips on Countdown, MTV and a studio gig on Rockarena it still feels, appropriately, local and nicely tried.

So what you're left with is the music and the people in the band and what you get is a wall to wall testimony of why The Go-Betweens are loved beyond their age group and a series of often uncomfortably candid witnesses in black and white and close up who will not let you fantasise your way into any notion that this was the great pop music force that just might have happened. Like almost every band worthy of memory from the time The GoBs have left a legacy of good music and the marking of it here is personable, engaging and never less than cinematic.

I recall seeing Autoluminescent at the Nova and looking around me at the audience in one of the smaller cinemas. Like me they were post-punques getting on, a little more black than even a general Melbourne audience might sport and sitting in silence before the lights went down for the trailers and the ads. It felt, for all the world, like the viewing of a body. Everyone there would have known Rowland Howard if only by virtue of being in one of his audiences. Well, here they were again, always going to the same funeral. Well, what did I think I was doing? The lights dimmed, the film began and we joined as one.

For this it was a little stranger. One of the smaller rooms at the Kino and near full. Everyone respectful and well behaved as cinema goers ... go. We watched and took it in, fully hushed by the last shot and the white on black credits, realising perhaps better late than never, that we really did have this band in common.

By the the time I got to Brisbane from an even smaller Townsville, The Go-Betweens had flown. Some singles came through and whenever there was a new record 4ZZZ (nicely represented here) would get them in front of a mic. By the time I was playing in bands they were a revered name along with Melbourne's Birthday Party (Mick Harvey's comments in the film are priceless) and all the more for seeming to have become international. Not James Bond international but an international against the odds. They left an unspoken commandment on the scene that followed about sparseness. No guitar solos. No lurex or safety pins. Just play your songs. This, itself, is as much fancy as anything else but I remember it in the parlance.

Later, from Melbourne, they seemed to get bigger and poppier. I saw them more here than ever I had in Brisbane and felt a thrill to be in their crowd. At Festival Hall they opened for REM who had only just attained critical mass and who thanked them with what sounded like sincerity. Months before I'd seen them at the Showgrounds along with the Bad Seeds and easily preferred them to the Cave monster. We joked about Right Here being about Vincent Van Gogh (well, it was funny at 3 a.m. watching Rage) but, for all the whingeing good-old-days blather about them blanding out I heard the motion of the vocal harmony in the chorus of Bye Bye Pride and felt real chills. This film doesn't build that up or explain it, it tells the rest.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Review: MOTHER!

A quick shot of the face of a woman against a wall of flame. Blackout. A man carefully places a jagged crystal into a stand which fits it perfectly. The stone has a strange quality to it and the shape of a heart, not a love heart or an emoji heart but an anatomically approximate human heart. The reverse shot of his smile tells us how much he values this extraordinary rock. A swift timelapse around an old mansion shows its dust vanishing. A woman in a sunlit bed wakes and stirs. Jennifer Lawrence (known only as her or she) opens her eyes and calls out: "Baby?" We are being told that we will need to remember this sequence. So begins one of the darkest fables of love I have ever experienced.

At first we happily follow her around the house as she chooses differently coloured plasters for unfinished walls and carefully avoiding irritating her husband's writing process as he struggles with a block. By "follow" I mean follow. While only partially point of view shooting (if you've got Jennifer
Lawrence on the poster you are going to want to see Jennifer Lawrence) the widescreen frame is right on her shoulder or centimetres from her face. We have a good idea of the interior expanses of the house but what we feel is claustrophobia. We also notice that, while she might venture to the porch she goes no further. Then in one scene where her curiosity about her husband's work is held in check by her patience there is a knock at the door.

He answers it to find a wintry faced Ed Harris (Man) who evasively tells them he thought the house was a bed and breakfast. He (Javier Bardem) invites the Man in due to the lateness of the hour and soon they are chatting, He giving away details that Her expressive silence wonders at. The Man stays the night and the next morning his wife is at the door. The expanded conversation even takes in why the couple in the house are childless. She (Lawrence - patience, I'll soon dispense with this but if you aren't going to name your characters you're going to give your reviewers a few headaches) takes her strained puzzlement to the bathroom where she doses herself with more of the orange powder she keeps in an antique jar near the basin.

If we haven't already started getting the creeps out of this strange situation then we are forced to deal with its malaise. The visitors are joined by their children who fight violently over the father's will and this leads to a situation so grotesquely overblown you'll have trouble threading back to how it got so big. From this point a well-crafted uneasy tale of home invasion by politeness  escalates into a nightmare of increasing horror and we have the closest mainstream film will get this year to the claim unique.

Darren Aranofsky has seasoned his audiences to bold strokes and bonkers climaxes as well as keeping his themes accessible and grounded. No change here but the difference comes with the intensity of the performances and a determination to force us through this absurdist fantasy as though it were our own world with a veil removed. The cast numbers explode but the initial central quartet are solid. If you don't know by now how easy Lawrence moves between shoestring indies and blockbusters you just haven't been paying attention. Here, she constantly strains to accomodate her new reality and work with the possibility that it might or not be chemically self-administered. The we wonder the same thing bears witness. Bardem uses his unctuous masculinity to provide gravitas but also allow a kind of sleazy compliance. Ed Harris removes the moral centre from decades of playing authority figures to reveal something crumbling and urbane at once. But it is Michelle Pfeiffer who owns her scenes with a sour anger lightened only by the kind of politeness that the day's first vodka can furnish.

I was reminded of Polanski's tales of chaos and invasion, of Rosemary's Baby or the Tennant or Repulsion. I was reminded of Zulawski's stranger excursions. I say reminded as this film is like none of those beyond its will to charge to its own course. Aranofsky might remind you of many other filmmakers but I'll bet it's more the similarity of how their films make you feel rather than plots or aesthetics. You almost have to remind yourself he's American the way you used to with Lynch. With so spare a field in the current mainstream committing to such singular vision I tend to take what I can get these days. Happily, along with the likes of A Ghost Story, The Endless and Tragedy Girls and this I am far from despair, as despairing as they get (and boy do they get).

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 ...

Oh, and that cold I had. This was the first MIFF where I didn't get a cold that got worse but emerged stronger and healthier with every day. All that fine work by the ol' antibodies. Must try an organise something viral for the prelude to next year's fest.

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 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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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
Something Quite Peculiar
Los Perros
Sleeping Beauty
Japanese Girls Never Die
Marjorie Prime
I Dream in Another Language
The Belko Experiment
Right Here
A Life in Waves

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


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.


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.