Thursday 31 December 2015

The Film Institutions in 2016 – (1) AFTRS

During the course of 2015, this blog published a number of widely read pieces about the current state of things at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School. You can find the key piece here. Other pieces can be located via the links at the side of this blog. The thinking behind them was to question AFTRS about the philosophy (hope that’s not being too grand) behind its current teaching and admissions policies. Lurking behind that matter was a judgement that AFTRS had abandoned its former goal of providing an elite education with a view to enhancing major film-making talent and had instead embarked upon a practice whereby it concentrated on greater student throughput . This was epitomised by its offering of dozens of short courses which earn students paper qualifications across a myriad of specialist activities.

By one view, this educational practice was similar to that now provided by state-based TAFE institutions across a range of trades. (Except of course those trades provide qualifications that allow for virtually instant entry into the workplace due to significant and continuing labour market shortages.)  Such a practice brought into consideration whether a national Federally funded tertiary institution school should in effect reduce itself to a place whereby young students mostly from Sydney and its environs have access to a massively well-resourced body providing only rudimentary learning. In such circumstances whether AFTRS should exist at all as that Federally funded  elite educational institution is also brought into serious question.

Further concerns about AFTRS activities in 2015 arose because of the way it handled the transition from its retiring CEO to a new appointee. Without re-iterating all of the problems that were caused by the delay in this appointment, which the AFTRS Council claims was almost entirely the fault of dysfunction in former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s personal office, the fact is that in late 2014, a senior staff member, appointed from overseas, arrived to set new directions for the elite students yet was banished within a bare six months. A former staff member, working at a film school at Ealing Studios, but without CEO experience, has now been appointed the new CEO. He only took up that appointment some four months after his predecessor had departed.

Meanwhile, the Board of AFTRS is in what some would call disarray. It lacks a Chair and does not have sufficient numbers to make serious decisions about the school’s future activities. The fault for this lies with the Turnbull Government which has refused thus far to appoint a new Chair and fill the statutorily required nine positions. The former Chair Julianne Schultz served only one term and it is assumed will not be re-appointed. She is possibly a victim of the Abbott/Credlin/Turnbull policy of not renewing statutory appointments made by the previous Labor Government. An enquiry to Professor Schultz asking whether she was available for re-appointment brought the following response “Unfortunately (Professor Schultz) is currently overseas and will be unable to answer your query immediately but she should be able to get in touch upon her return at the end of December.” However, we’ve reached that time and no news is forthcoming.

At its final meeting for the year Cabinet did not fix up the vacancies on the AFTRS Council before its members headed either for the beach or for study tours and ministerial consultations in northern climes including apparently in Hong Kong, though I may have got the timing of unseemly matters out of whack. Notwithstanding any excuses, the capacity of the Council to make decisions thus remains in near limbo until February.

For an extended analysis of AFTRS history and current activities check back to the Film Alert 101 blog over the next couple of days when a further insightful forensic analysis will be posted.

Wednesday 30 December 2015

The Best of 2015

In Alphabetical order   (I didn't get this list to Senses of Cinema in time)             

A selection of relatively new films thus leaving out a number of masterpieces, seen for the first time, by Duvivier, Shimizu and others made up to eight decades ago. The Best also ignores the best of TV drama some new, much old. More about that later.

99 Homes (Rahmin Bahrani, USA, 2015)
The most interesting ‘young’ director in the USA today and one slowly assembling a remarkably gentle, affecting but incisive critique of American capitalism and the people on the bottom who keep the balls in the air for the wealthy.

Alice in Earnestland (Ahn Goocjin, South Korea, 2015)
Ferocious Korean satire from first time director. Buried away in a local vanity event/ Korean film festival where nobody saw it. Why do they bother.

Chappie (Neill Blomkamp, USA, 2015)
The best director of quirky sci-fi going round. Blomkamp outshines the laborious Peter Jackson et al with films that have a quality lacking elsewhere – humour and street smarts.

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014)
The most interesting of modern American directors and the most cinephiliac as well.

Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2014)
As I said in an incredibly widely read post about the film and the director  “(it’s about) two galleries of crooks, thieves, corrupt officials, layabouts and opportunists. The amount of vodka they consume is prodigious and everybody smokes incessantly. You can understand why Russian average life expectancy has fallen into the sixties. These galleries are presented with a quietude that belies the stupendous sense of close to the surface violence that infects virtually every scene, even those involving what otherwise might seem to be simple family pleasures.

Love the Coopers (Jessie Nelson, USA, 2015)
The ghost of Preston Sturges hovers over the best comedy of the year.

Man on High Heels (Jiang Jin, South Korea, 2014)
Gender transition meets police procedural in yet another fine movie by Korea’s man of all genres, an unsung craftsman who turns out comedies and dramas with thee alacrity of a Curtiz.

A Most Violent Year (J C Fandor, USA, 2014)
There has to be a place for the best American crime movie of the year. Oscar Isaac’s performance the first of several this year by the actor (Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) that foreshadow a star being born. Now to somehow see the actor in the new David Simon/HBO series Show Me a Hero.

Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, USA, 2012)
Better late than never for a compelling comedy about the art world.

Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2015)
The greatest of the cinema’s modern day humanists, the Renoir for our age. Packs more living sentiment into a single movie than others of similar attempted disposition do in a dozen.

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2015)
An unnerving story of rampant bad behaviour by those supposedly devoted to protecting the community. Told from a feminine viewpoint wherein the observer is alternately appalled and thrilled at the baseness of law enforcement at the criminal edge.

Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, UK, 2015)
Brit reserve and good manners once again collide with violent behaviour in a comedy of unerringly hilarious bad taste.

The Silences (Margot Nash, Australia, 2015)
Appreciated by myself and Stephen Gaunson, perhaps the best Australian movie of the year notwithstanding Mad Max Fury Road.

Irrfan Khan in Talvar
Talvar (Meghna Gulzar, India, 2015)
The police procedural of the year turns out to be made by a relatively inexperienced young woman director who dissects an Indian travesty of justice with forensic skill. Immeasurably aided by another magnificent performance by Irrfan Khan as the cop who has to deal with both idiocy and corruption.

Taxi ( aka Tehran Taxi), Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2015)
Adversity produces its rewards as Panahi again works his way through the system of state repression to bring us another cheery tale of life where street smarts triumph over dogma and a lumberingly incompetent state security apparatus.Fear the worst however.

Ugly (Anurag Kashyup, India, 2014)

While I base this on very limited viewing Kashyup may well be the best director working in India, a master of all genres and a grand hand with enigma as well as with action. His new film this year,  Bombay Velvet had some superb moments as well as it recreated a colour saturated past ina manner reminiscent of early Wong Kar Wai.

For the statisticians. Three of the above were directed by women.
Margot Nash
Meghna Gulzar
Jessie Nelson

Tuesday 29 December 2015

On Free to Air TV - Elite Squads - Barrie Pattison unearths two Brazilian specials late night on SBS

Tropa de Elite/ Elite Squad  & Tropa de Elite 2: O Inimigo Agora é Outro/ Elite
Squad 2: The Enemy Within

So I skimmed through the SBS program for the week and they had something Brazilian called Elite Squad as the late, late film. Well, being a curious insomniac movie completist I am the target audience for such presentations. I tuned in and it wasn’t long before my jaw was hanging open. In contrasty colour José Padilha (previously director of the festival hit documentary Bus 174, Brazil 2002) offers grim faced star Wagner Moura narrating as commander of the elite Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE, the Special Police Operations Battalion of the Rio de Janeiro Military Police). He wants to spend time with his wife and new baby and is searching for his replacement as the Pope’s nearing visit dictates a clean-up of the hill top favelas made no go areas by murderous drug gangs.

We’ve seen this juxtaposition of the prosperous ground level privileged and the desperate slums in South American film before, as early as Bruno Barreto’s 1978 Amor Bandido or in City of God. Here the film flash backs contrast police recruits hard head Caio Junqueira and glasses wearing law student André Ramiro. The fact that Ramiro is black is never an issue. They find law enforcement seething with corruption bankrolled by kick backs from the drug dealers.

Ramiro’s law degree studies compromise him when his fellow students are smoking the dealers’ pot and the privileged class white girl from the charity NGO he made it with turns out to be a dope runner’s mistress. The breaking point comes for Junqueira when a distraught mother can’t bury her dead drug look-out son because the body can’t be located while the cops shift cadavers out of their jurisdictions to stop the murders appearing on their unit statistics.

The two room mate cops have been put to work in the police garage, which is near inoperable because corrupt officers sell the motors out of new cars and replace them with old clapped-out ones. Junqueira hits on the plan to buy the spare parts they need by putting the commander’s car out of action, so that his usual pay off collection is delayed and the duo send in their own vehicle to get the cash. What’s the commander going to do - call the police?

This ends up with the pair transferred to canteen duties and their master mechanic peeling potatoes. Part time brothel owner police lieutenant Wilhelm Cortaz is sure the cops, who want him to go with them on the next pay off pick up, plan on doing him in over taking the bribe money, so the pair set off to cover him with sniper fire from the opposite hill, only to find themselves out gunned.

At this point - flash back to the opening - the  Elite Squad arrive and save them with their own merciless attack. The boys are hooked and sign up for the BOPE selection process which makes marine training in An Officer and A Gentleman or Vietnam boot camp in Tigerland seem genteel. The brutal recruitment procedure usually eliminates all but eight of the hundred applicants. This time it goes down to three. The instructors deliberately target corrupt trainees, crushing Cortaz. Their preparation includes abseiling the cliff face and live fire exercises in the real favela alley ways, where Junqueira proves too gung ho.

They move on the slums and the retaliation takes out Junqueira when he delivers the glasses Ramiro had promised a local kid. Finding  the BOPE skull  tattoo on Junqueira’s body, the gang bangers realize they are doomed - securing the danger area  for the Pope now forgotten.

The dope gangs are equally appalled to find the NGO had a cop among them. They shoot and burning tyre necklace a NGO couple, causing a protest march. The girl friend tries to help, getting their promise that they won’t injure the fugitive killer’s girl - cut and the squad have a blood filled plastic bag over her face to get his whereabouts. The unit raids the favela and takes down the dealer, who lies on the ground pleading not to be shot in the face so that his body can be shown in an open casket.

Twisted time structure, high contrast greenish colour, maximum violence and cynicism. This is rivetting.

I’m still digesting it when next week SBS slap on the sequel in the same small hours time slot. We pick up seven (?) years later with hero Moura again narrating as the BOPE methods (“a police force with a skull for its symbol”) are the subject of a condemnatory lecture theater session by liberal reformer Irandhir Santos. The situation is even worse now that armed raids have all but cleared the slum areas of the drug gangs, leaving the corrupt police militia to take over the rackets. There’s now an  alliance of the populist media, the governor going for re-election and the bent coppers. Maura’s ex-wife Maria Ribeiro has married Santos and they are raising Moura’s son.

Shift to Bangui prison, controlled by the murderous street gangs who continue their feuds inside. One lot revolts, finds an opposing leader and sets on fire the cell full of bedding where they have him. The prisoners demand Santos as negotiator and he goes in without a Kevlar vest and manages to stabilize the situation but the Skulls have been called (“BOPA doesn’t give a shit”) with Ramiro in charge and the CCTV shows them waiting guns leveled behind the door the prisoners tried to smash to get more weapons - very Fritz Lang.
When the door is opened there is a massacre leaving the armed prisoners dead and Santos with blood spatter all over his Human Rights shirt.

Outraged Santos is on about social cleansing but the public love the TV coverage of the jail shoot-out, stoked by the fat rabble rousing news commentator who does dance steps on his show, so the governor promotes Moura (“I fell upwards”) to sub-commander of intelligence, where he is given control of ‘phone intercepts. Meanwhile he is growing away from his son, who accepts the outlook of Santos, Moura’s biggest critic. However Moura is called in to retrieve the boy and his girl friend from jail for a marijuana offense for which the kid takes the blame to spare the girl. Father and son get to bond in a judo work out.

The police station in the uncontrolled area of Tanque is held up and their weapons taken. The Tanque station commander has spotted the fact that the raiders’ knowledge of procedure - and their boots - indicated rogue police rather than drug gangs. In retaliation Ramiro and his men secretly replace the bought police at a station in an area where the heavies expect no resistance and gun them down. The captured gang leader reveals the truth to Ramiro who vows vengeance, so he is shot in the back by the crooked cop, in front of Commander Cortaz, who considered him the friend who had saved his life - surprise twist disposes of the central character of the first film. Think of him as a Brazilian Han Solo.

The poor’s most valuable asset is not the protection money they pay out for police monopoly cable TV and bottle water but their vote in the coming election. The girl journalist on the case tracks down the house where they heavies have stored the stolen weapons and election material together. She is ‘phoning Santos when the bad hats come back and rape and murder her - grim scene of an impatient heavy pulling the teeth out of her charred skull.

Moura gets the copy of her last ‘phone call off the illegal intercept he has placed on Santos’ phone and takes the recording away before his superiors come for it. He realizes that they will try to off Santos, who is with Moura’s ex wife and his son, and he waits for them
taking out the hit man’s car with his pistol, though the boy is shot in the exchange of fire. The scene of reduced-to-a-Suit Moura picking up the machine gun brought by the skulls and blasting rounds into the nasties is cheer worthy.

The resulting publicity returns Santos to parliament and he gives the rostrum in the House of
Representatives to Moura, who declares two third of the members he is speaking to be corrupt. Same gritty hi-con look with even better production values. Imposing visuals - the chopper over flying the kids playground or the final airials of Brazilia as still corrupt survivor whore monger Cortaz flies in.

I’ve gone into surprise killing detail on these because they are unlikely to get any real distribution. I can’t find them on SBS on Demand but, for the determined, they are on You Tube in good English sub-titled copies. We can see that José Padilha’s admiration goes out to the skulls, glimpsed drilling impeccably in their black uniforms and advancing under fire, leaving the regular police to cower behind them. Pot smoking do gooders are going to be burned alive by the impoverished mob they believe they are helping. Ramirez  notes
contemptuously when the population turns out in the street over their deaths. “There are no demonstrations when policemen are killed.” The free press is a clown TV newsman and and an editor who refuses to follow up when one of his own is killed. Padilha’s solution is a not all that plausible parliamentary alliance between the shoot ‘em up lot and the reformers.

I was feeling superior about discovering these outstanding, gritty, obscure action pieces. Not indicated as a repeat, this must be presumed to be the local premier. Then I found they were the most successful Brazilian films of all time, the monster hit in the Spanish language market and Berlin Grand Prix winner. Here they just sink into the void as most of the outside the festival net material does. It’s disturbing but not surprising that the pair reached us without promotion, turning up as small hours movies on SBS the week that our
multi cultural broadcaster was busy trailering it’s series on Walt Disney. The Herald TV Guide for the day featured Will Ferrel in Elf

In the real world the Elite Squad films were reviewed widely, usually by people who called them fascist & cited The Godfather. The movie characters themselves dismiss the comparison with Mafia, the hoods saying the Italians eat lasagna while their lot chow down on rice and beans. This one is very ethno specific, complete with samba street carnivals. By contrast to the dismissive official coverage, bloggers - usually English speaking South Americans - frequently nominated them as the best films ever made

Place the films instead in a sequence where the answer to disorder is to send in the troops. Think President Walter Huston having the army stand gangsters against the wall in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and shoot them in the 1933 MGM Gabriel Over the White House. Phil Karlson’s 1955 Phenix City Story ends in martial law but it introduces the caution against vigilante-ism. Elio Petri’s 1970 Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto / Investigation of  Citizen Above Suspicion  is a caution against the excesses of state control and the military, as is Daniele Vicari’s splendid 2012 Diaz - Non pulire questo sangue /Diaz - Don’t Clean Up This Blood.

I have no way of knowing how accurate the two Padhilha films are. Brazilians I asked endorse them but, whether it is sensationalized fiction or documentary actuality, the sure crafted savage indignation of the production gives them plausibility. Tropa de Elite 1 & 2 make the movie product we are offered here insipid by comparison. This was the week Star Wars 7 opened in the multiplexes and The Bélier Family was in the art cinemas. What kind of film is going to be made in an environment where this is the frame of reference? Answer - the kind that gets made here. 

The Current Cinema - serious young cinephile Shaun Heenan runs through his Christmas viewing

Since my last post I’ve seen seven different films, one of them twice. The double was Star Wars: Episode  VII – The Force Awakens, which I have already reviewed in full on this site (here ). Long story short, I loved it. Apart from that, the past two weeks have included a classic crime film, some Video On Demand catch-up of recent releases, my 9-year-old nephew’s first triple-bill at a cinema and a major Oscar hopeful.

The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, USA, 1953) has the historical value of being the first mainstream film noir directed by a woman. These days we’d have called it a horror film, with its intense focus on the situation of a murderer and the two men unlucky enough to offer him a lift before spending several days held hostage at the end of his gun. The film was based on a then-recent true story, and both the marketing and the film itself play up the idea that this could just as easily have happened to any person sitting in the audience. The film’s single-mindedness is fascinating, as we watch the men being ordered around at gunpoint to the exclusion of almost anything else, but Lupino was wise to keep the film to a tight 71 minutes. There’s not quite enough here to make for a truly satisfying film, but it’s short enough to get away with that.

On VOD I caught up with the documentary Meru (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi,USA,  2015), which is the third film I’ve seen this year about what a bad idea it is to go mountain climbing. While I enjoyed the Hollywood disaster film Everest (Baltasar Kormákur, USA, 2015) more than most, the pick of the crop is the as-yet unreleased Australian documentary Sherpa (Jennifer Peedom & Renan Ozturk, Australia, 2015), which was co-directed by one of the subjects of Meru. Renan Ozturk is a relative newcomer to the extreme form of climbing depicted here, joining veteran Conrad Anker and filmer Jimmy Chin in their multiple attempts to become the first to scale Meru, which is a significantly harder climb than Everest itself. It’s less a mountain and more a sheer cliff face. The scenery on display is incredible, as is the fact that Chin managed to film it while hanging off the side of the mountain. We worry for the safety and the sanity of the participants, who make some seriously reckless decisions, but you can’t argue with the results. All told, this is an above-average extreme sports documentary, but it doesn’t approach the political and human intrigue seen in Sherpa, and so it looks worse by comparison.

Also viewed on demand was the sci-fi thriller Self/less (Tarsem Singh, USA, 2015), which is overlong and visually flat. It’s odd to have to say that, but Tarsem (as he is often credited) is best known for his visual flair, which even managed to elevate his otherwise dreadful Mirror Mirror (2012). In a plot I hear is largely borrowed from Seconds (John Frankenheimer, USA, 1966), Ben Kingsley plays a CEO whose knack for making money is outliving his failing body. He is offered a chance to be reborn into a younger, healthier body (that of Ryan Reynolds). He’s told the body has been grown in a lab, but discovers it may have come from elsewhere. A number of boilerplate action sequences follow. At almost two full hours, this film drags badly. One or two reveals shake things up later on, but it’s too little, too late. I wish I’d watched Seconds instead, and I still probably will.
My nephew and I spent Boxing Day at the wonderfully decorated Plaza Theatre in Laurieton, which I’d visit more often if it wasn’t an 80-minute drive each way. Along with a rewatch of the new Star Wars film, we took in two new animated features of wildly differing quality. He had hoped I’d also take him to the fourth Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, but his grandfather took that bullet for me.

Let’s start with the bomb, which unsurprisingly was the Adam Sandler-starring sequel Hotel Transylvania 2 (Genndy Tartakovsky,USA, 2015). I took the same kid to the original film, and I didn’t hate it, but this one really rubbed me the wrong way. Sandler plays Dracula, who is joined by the rest of the Universal monster canon including the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster and The Invisible Man. Dracula’s daughter has married a human, and it seems like the resultant baby might be more human than vampire. The film pretends for more than an hour to offer a message about acceptance of those who are different from us, teaching Dracula to accept the idea that his grandson isn’t going to grow fangs. Then (spoiler, I guess) the kid sprouts fangs suddenly and fights off a bunch of bad guys. He is then immediately embraced by everybody who had a prior problem with him, the ugly message now being that it’s okay to be different, but it’s really much easier for everybody else if you aren’t. Sandler doesn’t even realise that he’s doing this, which I think makes it worse.

Pixar’s second film for the year is The Good Dinosaur (Peter Sohn, USA, 2015), which is beautifully animated, though the story is more simplistic than that of the studio’s best films. The premise is that dinosaurs avoided their extinction event, and eventually learned to use tools and plant crops. Humans exist, but essentially fill the role that dogs fill for us, howling and running around on all fours. In the great tradition of Disney works, the young dinosaur Arlo, whose father has been killed in a storm, finds himself lost miles from home, with only a human puppy for companionship. He meets a number of odd characters on his journey, the most interesting of which is a cowboy Tyrannosaur voiced by Sam Elliott. As is usual, Pixar manages to draw surprising amounts of emotion out of this story, but it is aimed at a younger audience than the excellent Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carman, USA, 2015), which is easily the better of the two. Special attention must be drawn to the near-photorealistic backgrounds, which are a serious technical achievement.

My final film for the week was Joy (David O. Russell, USA, 2015), which is a good film, if not quite up to the high standards of Jennifer Lawrence’s previous two collaborations with the director, Silver Linings Playbook (USA, 2012) and American Hustle (USA,2013). The film is based (somewhat loosely, I hear) on the true story of Joy Mangano, whose many inventions included the Miracle Mop. The film focuses on the investment she and her family put into this invention, and the struggles she had getting it onto the then-new QVC shopping network. This is more interesting than it sounds on paper, thanks to a strong cast including Robert De Niro, Virginia Madsen and Isabella Rossellini, who factor into Joy’s hectic and complicated home life. Joy herself is a great character, played with fierce determination by Lawrence. She always knows how close she is to a breakthrough, and she’ll fight for it. Some moments work better than others, and the film’s tone switches from serious biopic to full-blown comedy to something approaching self-parody at such a rapid pace that it’s hard to keep up. The chaos can hurt, but it’s also part of the fun. This is well worth seeing.

Sunday 27 December 2015

Vale Haskell Wexler - John Conomos remembers the great cinematographer and sometime director

Haskell Wexler
More sad news today with the passing of the iconoclastic and iconic American cinematographer, director and film producer Haskell Wexler ( 1922- 2015). Prolific politically committed documentary filmmaker with Saul Landau and in terms of his Hollywood film features as one of the definitive award wining cinematographers of his era , Wexler's indispensable contribution to Elia Kazan's autobiographical
America America, Elia Kazan, 1963
"America, America" in 1963 was the beginning of his extraordinary defining cin
ematography to such 1960s and 70s classics as Mike Nichols' "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" ( '66), " In the Heat of the Night " ( '67), "Thomas Crown Affair''('68), , "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ('75), " Bound for Glory" ( '76), " Coming Home'( '78), "Days of Heaven" ( '78 additional cinematography), " Matewan" ( '87), etc.
Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler, 1969
Wexler who directed , wrote and filmed the highly influential 1969 fictional film "Medium Cool" in the style of cinema verite essentially contributed to the late 1960s countercultural 'keep it real' aesthetic back then. Wexler, who was born in Chicago,went to the progressive Francis Parker School where he became best friends with the leading American avant-grade publisher Barney Rosset (Grove/Evergreen)

Saturday 26 December 2015

Defending Cinephilia (11) - Neil McGlone sends a message from the Old Country

“Defending cinephilia”, I hear you ask? Defending it against what? Well, it is a term broadly defined by film critic, Robert Koehler, and is intended to be a list of five things that you believe “defended cinephilia” in the current year.

I’m going to start briefly by looking at UK Box Office statistics (I know, yawn yawn) but I believe it is important. Since 1991 UK Box Office figures have consistently been over 100 million admissions annually, with as many as 172.5 million as recent as 2012. This sounds pretty healthy to me when you look back at the slump in the 1980’s when figures dropped as low as 54 million in 1984, but we are hardly in the good old days of 1946 when they reached a record 1.64 billion! The point I am trying to make here though is that in the last 20 or so years cinema attendance has been pretty steady and I see no reason why that will not continue, even with the current climate of people watching more films online or on demand.

The final point I raise regarding “defending cinephilia” was the quality of films themselves. I consider myself to be in the fortunate position of being able to attend a few film festivals a year and have a good group of friends who consistently send me new films throughout the year, thus giving me a good grounding on seeing a varied mix of titles from around the world, some of which may never see the light of day regarding proper distribution. I am saying this with no smugness or that I am better in any way than your average cinema-goer, but I mention it because I believe it gives me a greater opportunity to see films that others may not get the chance to see and thus discover more new films. I grow tired of hearing the same statement each year “Cinema is dying, there’s no new good films being made etc.”. I have always disagreed with these statements as I never fail to be enlightened, moved or touched by some new cinematic discovery each year and thus believe cinephilia is still very much alive, well and kicking!

Anyway, to my own personal highlights of 2015 that I believe defend cinephilia.

In March I travelled to the US with my wife to see her family in Pennsylvania and on the way back we spent five days in New York. Whilst in New York I had a 3 hour conference call with a film producer friend in California who offered me a job. This was unexpected, but very welcome! She said she wanted me to work with her in her production company as co-producer where I would read screenplays, sit in on final edits, visit film sets and look at books that could be turned into films (I am still waiting to take up this post, but am told it will happen in the future once finances are in place). On top of that she had set me up with a breakfast meeting in New York with a Hollywood director to pitch my own film to (I wrote a treatment for a film last year that she is to produce).

Gramercy Park, NY
Two days later my wife and I visit this wonderful little restaurant near Gramercy Park and I pitch my film idea to him. The first time I have ever pitched a film to anyone! He loves it and tells me to spend the next three months writing the screenplay, again something I have never done. I should point out at this point, his last film made over $60m gross at the box office. So for the next three months, my wife and I write our first screenplay and it is now in both his hands and the producer. What happens next, who knows!

Also whilst in New York I had a meeting with The Criterion Collection, for whom I do freelance work, and it was really nice to visit the office and catch up with friends there.

In June I made my annual visit to the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Lapland. This was to be the first year without its director and my dear friend, Peter von Bagh, who sadly passed away in September 2014. The festival was a sombre occasion but as always it was good to meet up with friends I see there each year and catch some movies. This year I was more involved than previous years and I’d also arranged for the US director Whit Stillman to attend as one of the main guests. I got to interview Whit in one of the morning sessions and introduce one of his films, plus introduce a screening of Michael Powell’s A CANTERBURY TALE. Mike Leigh was another of the guests at the festival and I very much enjoyed getting to know him over the few days we were there and I even managed to interview Portuguese director, Miguel Gomes. Film highlights for me were discovering the films of Nils Malmros, seeing Hasse Ekman’s GIRL WITH HYACINTHS on the big screen and a new restoration of Jacques Feyder’s LES NOUVEAUX MESSIEURS with full orchestra.

Later that month saw the annual pilgrimage to Bologna’s IL CINEMA RITROVATO festival where the three F’s are forever in abundance; films, friends and food. Highlights of the festival for me were Manoel de Oliveira’s VISITA OU MEMORIAS E CONFISSOES, WOMAN ON THE RUN (1951), MUNKBROGREVEN (1935), LOVE AFFAIR (1939) and COVER GIRL (1944). The joy of this festival though is meeting up with friends from around the globe that you see here each year and enjoying a good meal with them. For me this is every bit as enjoyable as the films on show.

I left Bologna on the Sunday to fly straight to Prague and for the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. I had been invited by the festival director, Karel Och, and am pleased to say that from 2016 I have been appointed as consultant and advisor to the festival. Karlovy Vary is around a 90 minute drive from Prague and is a beautiful picturesque spa town. The festival was celebrating its 50th year and we managed to see a total of 27 films over the 6 days we were there. Highlights for me were BODY (2015), I AM BELFAST (2015), DAVID (2015), MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (2015), 45 YEARS (2015), THOSE WHO FALL HAVE WINGS (2015) and THE LOBSTER (2015).

Ben Wheatley
I have been attending the London Film Festival every year since 1990, but this year I was disappointed by the films on show and only ended up seeing 5 films. The highlights of these were ROOM (2015) and SUNSET SONG (2015). In August last year I visited the set of Ben Wheatley’s new film HIGH-RISE in Bangor, Northern Ireland and got to interview the cast and crew for a forthcoming article in Sight and Sound. The film was screened at the London Film Festival and I was delighted to be asked along to attend both the film and the after-screening party. Ben is a great guy with a very dark sense of humour and was good to catch up with Tom Hiddleston again too, sweet and charming as ever.

The year always ends for me with the Awards Season discs and means I get to catch up on titles that I may have missed throughout the year. This past few weeks have meant I have been able to see some of the critic’s considered highlights; CAROL (2015), MARSHLAND (2015), RAMS (2015), SICARIO (2015), THE REVENANT (2015), A WAR (2015) and we still have to watch the likes of BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015), THE HATEFUL 8 (2015), THE DANISH GIRL (2015), TRUMBO (2015), SPOTLIGHT (2015) and YOUTH (2015).

I can’t close this piece without mentioning two of the biggest box office films of the year, SPECTRE (2015) and STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015). I saw the Bond film on its release date in a packed house and confess to enjoying every minute. Sure it’s entertaining “fluff” and nonsense but Bond films are never likely or expected to win awards for their screenplays or acting! It’s a film that for me entertained and set out to do what it intended, and continued to uphold the Bond tradition. I’m afraid I can’t say the same for the STAR WARS film, which I’d instantly forgotten about the moment I left the cinema. It was a shameless “cash-in” using strong story elements from the original 1977 film (which it almost duplicated at times!) and where the acting at times was laughable and frankly, embarrassing. 

I look forward to 2016 with the usual sense of optimism of what may excite me, what I may discover and new experiences/encounters with folk from the film world. I have curated a programme of film events at my local cinema (The Riverside), which I am very much looking forward to getting involved in. There will also be Il Cinema Ritrovato in June as well as my new role at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in July. 

Wishing all friends and defenders of cinephilia a healthy and prosperous 2016, may it bring you many cinematic delights!Defending cinephilia, I hear you ask? Defending it against what? Well, it is a term broadly defined by film critic, Robert Koehler, and is intended to be a list of five things that you believe “defended cinephilia” in the current year.

On DVD and Blu-ray- David Hare runs through his recent acquisitions

Le Feu Follet (Louis Malle, France, 1963, 110 minutes) Maurice Ronet (left) at the top of Gaumont's new-ish Blu Ray of Le Feu Follet, Malle's best film (in what to me is a career filled with bourgeois smugness.) The transfer is English subbed for the feature and region free. While the new image is highly detailed and well resolved for grain and stability Gaumont has once again failed to to master to true black level or gamma for the image so a number of late scenes with what should be a large contrast range to reflect Ghislain Cloquet's photography are now black crushed. Not nearly as bad as Gaumont's dreadfully mastered new L'Ascenseur pour L'Echafaud from what is supposed to be a fine new 4K master. Buy with caution. And time for Gaumont to find another post house to do more reliable quality mastering work than bloody Lab Eclair if they are indeed the problem (as they have been in the past.) One wishes it wasn't Gaumont doing their own product for Blu Ray. The results are constantly unpredictable from title to title.

Little Buddha (Bernardo Bertolucci, France/Great Britain, 1993, 140 minutes)This is an advance screencap from the latest and the least anticipated French Blu Ray release I've bought this year so far (among many.) Berto's Little Buddha is such a clandestinely beloved film of mine I am loath to let the secret out of the bag but there you go. Having been the sad owner of no less than two DVD versions of this, both of atrocious video quality - one from Miramax which is indescribably bad, and Madman ex TFI both also atrocious which both come from an ORT source of 123 minutes - the new TFI Blu promises a far superior image without the squeezed image pinch of their DVD, and it is given a 127 minute running time which suggests the restoration of some footage BB decided to cut before release, from around Chris Isaak character and the suicide subplot of his work colleague.

This is finally a transfer worthy of the film. Released in fact a couple of years ago but slipped past my radar. And for what I believe is the first time publicly the film runs the original Berto cut of 140m. 37s which is 17 minutes longer than any and all previous theatrical cuts or DVD which all ran 123m 37s (in true 24fps time). TFI did release a simultaneous DVD only of this long cut transfer in France if you can be bothered

La Main du Diable (Maurice Tourneur, France, 1943, 83 minutes) Mind blowing doozy of a new Blu Ray from Gaumont of Maurice Tourneur's terrific (and sneakily allegorical) La Main du Diable, co produced by Tourneur and Gestapo honcho Albert Greven at the Nazi Occupation forces' Continental Films in 1943. One of a hundred or more fascinating and sometimes outstanding pictures from that Continental Studios epoch. French HOH subtitles, but not English friendly. 

The totally banal English title for this was Carnival of Sinners which goes some way to suggesting the incomparable taste and poetry of French culture and language. But we already knew that. Who else could rename Bunuel's sublime 1953 potboiler Susana to the infinitely more Sadean Susana , La Perverse.

The Quiet Man (John Ford, USA, 1952, 129 minutes)  A quick thumbs up on MoC's new Blu of The Quiet Man. Another double dip here is required for several of us, not only has MoC included a 17 minute video essay by Tag Gallagher which is essential to life (and Ford lovers) but I have it on authority the 1080p master made for and used by the Olive disc which IMO had some issues has been remastered by David McKenzie for MOC and the improvement in color depth, grain management, tonal gradations, black level and balance are palpable. The image now appears to have a supple and refined 50s Technicolor glow. The older image was in comparison relatively coarse and pushed. There goes the Xmas turkey. NO pics yet, I dont have the disc, but Gary's caps say it all.Two new arrivals - easy guessing what this is! David Mackenzie's exemplary mastering from the original 4k for MoC just takes this new transfer to a new level of fine grained, beautifully graded 3 strip Technicolor loveliness.

The Hurricane (John Ford, USA, 1937, 110 minutes) Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall after extremely un-Fordian nookie from the new Kino Lorber Blu of Ford's wacky exotica,The Hurricane. I have no idea where to locate this picture in Ford's universe but it is extremely enjoyable. The new disc is very good, if not quite at stellar WHV or Criterion levels, typically K-L with quality scanning and transfer work from a reasonable vault or dupe 35mm element. Next Ford for Blu Ray Seven Women please!

Passage to Marseille (Michael Curtiz, USA, 1944, 109 minutes) Gorgeous lap dissolve (by Don Siegel in the montage department?) from Michele Morgan in the new Warner Blu of Passage to Marseille. The picture seems to operate in a noticeably different register to Casablanca which it superficially resembles, as though the war and the vile Vichy government really were there to stay, rather than the Kane-esque playfulness that fills every frame of the earlier picture. Maybe it's Morgan this time (not that Bergman is a slouch in the dramatics department) but Michele carries such a lot of weight, she made this straight after Gremillon's crazy and sad Remorques after all. The transfer is yet another right up there-blow'em out of the water 35mbps bitrate stunners. The same stratospheric HD quality alas has not been carried over to the extras, ported from the old DVD which includes Gjon Mili's fabulous Prez short, Jammin' the Blues, which, like the other bonus items is a crappy 480p standard def and even crappier lossy audio. It's like they have two departments handling their Classic deep cataologue Blus, the A team and the bloody Z team.

Pitfall (Andre de Toth, USA, 1948, 86 minutes) New Kino Lorber Blu Ray of Andre de Toth's masterful Pitfall. De Toth was one of several major directors who clearly evaded Sarris' view back when the canon were being composed. Along with Leisen he's the most underrated great American director of the twentieth century. This picture, and Crimewave, and Ramrod and Springfield Rifle just for starters are the overwhelming evidence. Pitfall is one of the two greatest "Domestic" Noirs, along with Ophuls' The Reckless Moment. The new transfer is a nice clean 1080p scan without embellishment from a restored UCLA print and the disc is further enhanced by a commentary from Eddie Muller. As you might be able to see K-L has scanned the image to the edges of the 35mm aperture with the curly corners usually in view. This is a touch I always like, although some purists hate it.

Friday 25 December 2015

In the Mood for Love - A review of the new BFI Film Classics monograph.

Conditions of Production
In general we know little and care less about how particular films are made. Not true in all cases of course. Orson Welles career has provided us with acres of speculation, innuendo and some solid information about how he got do what he did across Europe and in Hollywood. We know a lot about Rita Hayworth from what she did for the great man for The Lady from Shanghai but dare I say next to nothing about what happened when she and Charles Vidor made the estimable Cover Girl and Gilda.

One of those directors who does provoke an endless fascination with his working methods is the Hong Kong based Wong Kar Wai. In his BFI Film Classics monograph on Wong’s In the Mood for Love (Hong Kong, 2000) Tony Rayns refers early on to Wong’s ‘aleatory methods, his habit of allowing his habit of allowing his films to determine their own tone, shape and direction while they are being made.’  It’s a film that stands up to endless scrutiny about how it was made as much as what it means and how that meaning is created.

The inter-connectedness of Wong’s filmography is  filled with parallels, elisions, false starts and dead ends. As Wong’s subtitler for much of this career Rayns has had a close-up knowledge of Wong’s working methods over a substantial part of his career. Wong has a quite unique capacity to keep ever re-writing, re-shooting and re-editing, sometimes over the course of years and occasionally in almost manic defiance of key festival deadlines. Rayns says that Wong told him of his “urgent need to ‘change’, but rationalised it as a need to stay one step ahead of the world’s many Wong Kar Wai imitators.”!

(It may never happen but one book we should all look forward to is the tome mentioned in Rayns acknowledgements of what he calls the sometimes hair-raising tales of his own experiences with Wong’s Jet Tone company.)

Part of the way that Rayns goes about his task is to take over thirty pages to set down each sequence and occasionally each shot in a scene breakdown of extreme detail. When you start reading it you may become frustrated at the minutiae involved but when I then went straight to a viewing of the film on a French-issue double disc “Edition Limitee”, I was surprised at how frequently I paused the disc to check on the information about the scene Rayns has provided. This detail of course unearths layers of meaning that I had simply been unaware of when, the only viewings I’ve undertaken, I watched the film twice back in 2000 (once with Italian subtitles!). In those circumstances, the memories had reduced themselves to vague images of the couple alone in the street, Nat King Cole on the soundtrack and a trace element about unfulfilled passion. Now of course, I’m not even sure about that passion but the book provides much information on that point.

This is quite superb analysis. It makes you instantly want to see not only In the Mood for Love but the director’s early Days of Being Wild  and the later 2046 especially. Just trying to discover the continuities and discontinuities will be rewarding in itself. Much of it as Rayns notes, will be speculation. Wong leaves his films loose. As Rayns sums up: “The film’s evasions, elisions, exclusions, disjunctions andenigmas – even its momentary fixations on decor- are al about the imperfect retrieval of a memory, while its evocative and insistent music is all about smiling or sobbing through the parts that time has heightened or discoloured or erased. The tenor of the ending is clear: time to move on.

Rayns moves on to a final chapter of ‘miscellany’, notes on a variety of things ranging from gossip about a ping pong match of female casting between Wong and Zhang Yimou, casting other parts and the making of some of the multiplicity of side works that accompany the film, some of which can be found on various home video editions of the film. All useful and all contributing to this very rich and robust appreciation of a major film-maker who back in 2000 may have reached his peak with In the Mood for Love.

In the Mood for Love (Huayang Nianhua) by Tony Rayns. BFI Film Classics. A BFI book published by Palgrave, London, 2015

Thursday 24 December 2015

Defending Cinephilia (10) - Stephen Gaunson on the Australian Cinema in 2015

While much has been said about the bonanza year for Australian films at the local box office in 2015, this should not be used as evidence to prove that the films were of a quality greater than those of previous years. (There was nothing this year as good as The Babadook from last year.) Certainly there were some good films with Last Cab to Darwin (Jeremy Sims, 2015) being a real highlight (see this for Ed Kuepper’s great musical miasma and Michael Caton’s performance); however, like most years, local productions gave the good with the bad (and often in the same movie). The Dressmaker delivered some great performances (especially from Judy Davis who proved — yet again — to be the best actor working in Australia). The film though was a delightful mess, which I mean for both positive and negative reasons: the jumping into and outside of various genres (road movie, western, Dad and Dave comedy, family melodrama, mental health, revenge etc.) was a real hoot, but it never allowed for the film to find its own rhythm or be poignant when it needed to be. This may also explain why the film was panned (or misunderstood) so viciously by the British press.

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) was another delightful mess. Some of those action sequences are the best I’ve seen for years, and here Miller demonstrates just how exciting action cinema can be with the right vision (storyboarding) and critical eye behind it. Miller is clearly a director influenced by the early silent directors of action and physical performance (Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Mack Sennett) for this film never falls into the trap of becoming one driven by hokey expositional dialogue. Yet, this isn’t to say that the screenplay is not without faults with the topical issues of global warming and gender roles seemingly tacked on without any real development or insight. Charlize Theron is great as Furiosa, but Tom Hardy’s sleep-walking Max wasn’t fooling anyone. This is also a Max Max film, which isn’t really about Max. More of Furiosa in the next instalment please. (At the time of writing only Hardy has been cast in the following up.)

The Silences, Margot Nash, Australia, 2015
The best Australian film of 2015 is The Silences (Margot Nash) which explored the director’s own troubled relationship with her mother and other family members. Nash delivered a personal and poignant story that never overplays its hand or steers from the difficult issues it raises. I have now seen this film twice and was equally moved both times I saw it. Nash demonstrates how great documentary filmmaking can be — given the right director and subject. The film also works equally well as Nash’s own autobiography as she weaves clips from her past movies and experiences into the narrative she tells.

Movies aside, 2015 saw the publication of many excellent monographs on past films and periods of the industry. First was Jake Wilson’s rollicking return to Mad Dog Morgan (Philippe Mora, 1976), written with the tone and style fitting to the film he essays. In addition to offering a considered and well-researched reading of the film are the many anecdotes of Dennis Hopper’s notorious sojourn in Australia.  This particular monograph stands as one of the best from this series — titled Australian Screen Classics and published by Currency Press — which is now in dire straits as to whether it will continue due to budget cuts and copyright issues with the NFSA. It would be disappointing if this series did stop here, and although the publications have been rather hit-and-miss (depending on who is writing on what film) it has produced some very good writing on some very good Australian gems. (Christos Tsiolkas’s work on The Devil’s Playground (Fred Schepisi, 1976) still remains as the best of the series.)

2015 also saw the publication of two monographs from The Moving Image series published by ATOM. First was the long awaited writing from John Cumming’s on the films of John Hughes. More than working through the roadmap of his subject’s diverse and extensive career, Cumming gives a great history of those working on the fringes of the local independent production industry from the 1970s to the present day (including others like Margot Nash). Published alongside this was Lesley Speed’s excellent monograph on Australian comedies of the 1930s, which details the shifting identities of the Australian character during these times — in addition to the technical adjustment that the industry was undergoing due to significant shifts in technology from silents to the talkies. Speed here doesn’t forget about linking the contribution of key figures of the Australian comedy genre — George Wallace, Bert Bailey and Fred MacDonald — to the broader contemporary comedy landscape.  And certainly the influence of such figures are clearly at work in a variety of comedies produced this year: The Dressmaker, Oddball (Stuart McDonald, 2015), Blinky Bill The Movie (Deane Taylor, 2015).

And now to 2016 with the anticipated release of films by Cate Shortland, Mel Gibson, and Rachel Perkins. 

Stephen Gaunson teaches film at RMIT and was the instigator of the renowned Facebook Page "Australian Cinema"