Friday, July 29, 2016

A Punter's View of MIFF 2016

MIFF is back for 2016, with many venues, many films, many events, and possibly their best ever poster. And, once again, I am ready to take a good chunk of it on, armed with a tattered program, a tattered hoodie, a tattered (or, at least, malfunctioning) phone, and a large supply of mints.

I don't like queues so I invariably arrive one minute before curtain, and end up down the front. So if you hear a rattling lolly tin from the cheap seats, we could be in the same session. Reviews to follow, ratings out of five.

Viva MIFF 2016!








Rates: * * * *


Rates: * * *

Slack Bay is an odd place. At the head of an estuary in windswept, provincial France, the location serves as a meeting point for the different strata of society; there are the impoverished locals, the wealthy tourists, and the stolid middle class, represented by a couple of inept policemen. 

There are also cannibals, an androgynous cross dressing youth, a series of murders, and repeated strange incidents, where people are lifted into the air and hang in the sky, like balloons. 

The events and characters are a puzzle, most of which is never explained. The movie is a comedy, with some fairly heavy handed satire, but is only fitfully amusing. While it is hard to categorise, it most closely resembles an old fashioned farce, jazzed up with graphic violence.

But with a two hour plus running time, the leisurely pace counts against the frenzied atmosphere that the film strains for. The minimal plot develops slowly, and the longer this goes the less engaging the characters become. 


Rates: * * * * 1/2

In late middle age Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) has reached a summit of sorts; she is an esteemed professor of philosophy, married to an equally distinguished academic, with two well adjusted kids and a successful second career editing a series of acclaimed reference books. Her life is busy but comfortable, prosperous and orderly. 

But change is on the way.

In short order her husband leaves her for a younger woman, her publisher cancels her contract, and her kids leave home for university. Even her elderly mother, with whom she has a fractious relationship, has a nasty fall and passes away. In a half hour of run time, all of the key planks of Nathalie's life have fallen away.

But instead of despair, or much angst, what Nathalie finds after these turbulent events is a kind of peace; a quiet time to reset and reconsider her assumptions. 

Isabelle Huppert is a masterful actor, and here she delivers a masterful performance, effortlessly commanding the screen and turning Nathalie into a three dimensional figure. She is backed by luminous locations in Paris and the French countryside, gorgeously shot and framed by cinematographer Denis Lenoir and director Mia Hansen-Love. This is not a complicated movie, its themes are simple and well worn, but it is so expertly made, and the acting so effortless, that it approaches a kind of perfection.


Rates: * * * *

The people of Istanbul have an unusual relationship with cats. Or, is it that the cats of Istanbul have an unusual relationship with people?  

The cats roam the streets, and live independent, full lives; they explore, they sleep, they raise their kittens. As presented here, they belong to no one, but willingly share their lives with people, often several of them simultaneously. 

In many cases they simply appear in people's lives, almost by magic; 

'He walked up the street and just came in here one day,' says a cafe owner, who adopted the tubby arrival, and now feeds it smoked turkey and manchego cheese.

'I call her the pyschopath!' says another with glee, reveling in his cat's reputation as a toughie, who even bullies her 'husband.'

The cats come, they bestow their presence and, you assume, on another day, they move on again. This seems in keeping with the atmosphere of Istanbul itself, which is presented as a timeless place, where life has its own rhythm. Using cats to highlight this trait is a clever idea, which is executed with disarming grace. If you love cats, and even if you do not, you will most likely leave this with a massive grin, plastered across your face. Kedi!


Rates: * * * * *

Winfried Conradi is an elderly German music teacher who goes his own way. Overweight, rumpled, and highly eccentric, he navigates his modest life according to a tune only he can hear.

On a whim, he decides to visit his high flying corporate daughter, Ines, at her latest posting in Bucharest. The two are estranged, and share an awkward weekend together, with Ines largely distracted with work. But rather than simply return to Germany, Winfried hatches a bizarre scheme to get more of his daughter's attention. He dons a pair of novelty teeth, reinvents himself as life coach 'Toni Erdmann', and begins ingratiating himself with Ines' colleagues and clients.

Somewhat misleadingly billed as an uproarious comedy, while 'Toni Erdman' has some inspired comic moments (including a much talked about nude scene), this is a film that offers a lot more than just laughs. Punctuating the humour are some honest, sad, melancholy scenes as the characters size each other other up, and come to see themselves each reflected in the other. These ring true, and struck


Rates: * * * *

It's December 14, 2012, and the citizens of Newtown, Connecticut are going about their comfortable, middle class lives.

At around 9am Adam Lanza, an insular 20 year old with a history of mental health problems, shoots and kills his mother in her bedroom at the house they share. He then drives her car to one of Newtown's elementary schools, Sandy Hook, and proceeds to murder 20 students and six members of staff. When police arrive and surround the school, he shoots himself.

It is the worst mass shooting at a high school in US History.

This film focuses on the aftermath, as parents, policeman, students and witnesses try to comprehend what has happened. Many admit that this is a fruitless task, a hopeless objective. One grieving mother says her life is divided in two; 'Everything that came before 12.14, and everything that came after.' A father who lost a son says, 'I am resigned to the fact that I will never get over this. I will never put it behind me.' 

It's emotionally raw stuff, and the first part of the film (featuring cc footage of the attack, and 911 call recordings) is brutally intense. Later, the movie shifts to a rumination on grief and mourning, as the survivors find different ways to cope.


Rates: * * * *

Lampedusa is a small island situated about halfway between Sicily and Tunisia. Its location makes it an accidental destination for tens of thousands of refugees each year; Africans who are fleeing poverty and strife in rickety boats. This clear eyed documentary juxtaposes the nightmarish experiences of several boatloads of arrivals, against the placid, everyday life of the island's permanent inhabitants. 

The comparison could hardly be more stark.

Director Gianfranco Rosi deftly catches the languid rhythms of island life, his camera unobtrusively following several locals as they work, talk and play. This is placed alongside frantic images of refugees being digested by the system, scenes which range from anarchic, to sad, to utterly horrifying (there are a few truly shocking moments, where you could hear the whole cinema go silent). The combination is potent, and serves to underline the tragedy at the heart of the European migrant crisis; where two groups of people inhabit the same geographic location, but only one set is treated as human. 


Rates: * * * * 1/2

Susan and Anne are best friends, and wannabe artists (one a photographer, the other a writer) sharing an apartment in 70s New York. They lean on each other as they navigate the currents of daily life - boyfriends, university, service industry jobs - while they try and make it in the city's cut throat arts scene. But Anne disrupts this dynamic when she falls in love and gets married, moving out to the suburbs to start a family. The friends stay in touch, still feel close, but struggle as their new lives pull them in different directions,

If the above synopsis sounds familiar - think 'Girls', or 'Frances Ha', or countless others - it may be because this low budget indy from 1978 has been a key influence for many subsequent writers and directors. Claudia Weill's film crafts a lovely, low key portrait of young people grappling with life's slippery challenges, that is funny, an timeless. As the independent Susan, Melanie Mayron anchors the film with an entirely unaffected performance, and the supporting cast - featuring Bob Balaban, Eli Wallach and a very young Christopher Guest - strike all the right notes, as the other players in her life.

Warm and charming, with the occasional slice of everyday heartbreak, this film is an absolute winner, in every respect. Screening as part of the 'Gaining Ground' program, highlighting pioneering works from female film makers in what remains a very blokey industry. Highly recommended.


Rates: * * * *

In a remote seaside village, young Nicholas lives in quiet seclusion with his mother. But something, or many things, are not right here; there are no adult men, for one thing, and Nicholas' mother sustains him with a diet of green sludge and ink water, for another. She is also up to something kinky on the beach every night. Most ominous of all, there is an unidentified facility nearby, where all of the village mothers take their sons for regular... treatment.

Deliberately paced, this brooding film is equal parts horror, sci fi and mediation. Do the events depicted take place on an Earth of the future? An alien world? Or a parallel dimension? There are clues, but no answers, and part of the fun is trying to determine what all of the puzzle pieces actually mean (for me, the title is probably the most relevant clue). 

Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic (wife of Gasper Noe) has invested loving care in the visual design; the shots are beautifully assembled, with particular attention paid to framing (there are also repeated, stunning, visual references to a starfish, another clue). And the ragged production design and stark location add further to the film's impact. Darkly cerebral and quietly wild.



Rates: * * *

In the late 60's, nerdy CIA agents Matt and Owen have the unlikeliest jobs in the agency; they run the AV department, and make films about completed cases. Bored with this marginal assignment. they talk their way onto 'Operation Zipper', the search for a Russian spy embedded at NASA. But rather than an enemy agent, their investigation uncovers shortcomings in the American space program. And so Operation Zipper becomes Operation Avalanche, as our goofy heroes help fake the Apollo moon landings. With a home made capsule, and a lot of imported sand ('a rich brown sand, like molasses'), the space fakery is delivered successfully... leaving the boys somewhat expendable.

Writer, director and star Matt Johnson delivered in a big way with his first film 'The Dirties', in 2014; a jet black comedy that took aim at America's culture of violence. This, his follow up, fails to hit those heights, although it still delivers some dorky laughs, and its ramshackle, DIY ethic is hard to dislike. But the boys are simply not believable as CIA agents, and the whole thing falls a bit flat.

With a wandering narrative, some odd musical interludes, and a jarringly serious finale, this is, ultimately, a bit of a mess. But an amiable mess, from a young film maker with a lot of talent.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Real Life Movie Locations: LA and San Fran

A recent trip to Los Angeles and San Fransisco gave me the chance to visit a few locations featured in some of my favourite movies.

I mean, of course I did. I didn't realise it before I left home, but I have always wanted to go; 'Holy shit... It's Doc Brown's House!!'


Doc Brown's House

So we may as well start there: Doc Brown's house!

I thought I might venture out of the central part of LA, and was thinking about spending half a day in Pasadena, which I had heard was like Main Street USA from fifty years ago. And while I was reading about what to have a look at out there, I came across the historic Gamble House.

Built in 1908 for David Gamble, one of the founding partners of the pharmaceutical firm Proctor and Gamble, this place is best known as Doc Brown's 1950's residence in the 'Back to the Future' series. It stands on a busy road a few minutes walk from central Pasadena, and the surrounding neighbourhood is full of other houses built in this unusual style; dark timber, Japanese influence, large and rambling,

The house is open for tours, run by the local historic society, but of course the day I was there was the only day they didn't run them (and I was leaving LA the next day). A middle aged American woman, taking photos next to me on the sidewalk, was in the same boat; 'It's so disappointing! I mean, I still went and knocked on the door and asked the man in there if we could come in, but he said no. They were having a meeting, or something.'


Joe Gillis' Apartment Building

Possibly the greatest, and probably the most depressing, film ever made about Hollywood, Billy Wilder's magnificent 'Sunset Boulevard' is a classic that has aged well. The cynical, world weary tone of the film is, if anything, better suited to contemporary times than it was to the 50's, when it was released.

And while Gloria Swanson memorably fills the screen as faded silent movie star Norma Desmond, sadly the mansion that was used as her house in the film was knocked down some decades ago. But, what you can see, looking almost identical to how it does in the film, is hack screenwriter Joe Gillis' apartment building. Standing at the top of a small hill on North Ivar Street, with a fairly dismal view of one of LA's many freeways, the apartment building is but a short stroll away from the Walk of Fame.

And so I stood in the rain for a few minutes (the one rainy day I had in LA), and looked up at the top floor window, hearing William Holden's bitter voice over: 'I hadn't worked for a studio for some time...'


Echo Park Lake

Chinatown. The ultimate LA film, Jack. Faye. Roman. One of the greatest films of the 70s, and probably my favourite movie of all time. 

In this early scene, private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is on the trail of prominent public servant Hollis Mulwray, trying to catch him two timing at the behest of Mulwray's 'wife.' He hits pay dirt at a local lake, snapping a few pics of his quarry rowing around a young girl he takes to be his girlfriend. 

This scene was filmed at Echo Park Lake, a local leisure spot in the inner northern suburbs of the city. Echo Park Lake nowadays is ringed by busy roads, but the park itself is quiet, and still retains some of the pleasant charm as depicted in the movie. The wooden walk bridge in the background of the shot above is still there, and there are still rowboats for hire at the small boathouse on the east side.

Evelyn Mulwray's Safehouse

Later in the film, as Jack starts to unravel the serpentine plot, he find himself drawn to the real Mrs Mulwray, the enigmatic Evelyn. After they sleep together, Evelyn receives an urgent phone call, and rushes off into the night. Jack tails her to a house in the suburbs, where this femme fatale is keeping all of her secrets...

Theses scenes were shot at the well kept suburban residence above, part of a long stretch of lookalike houses on Canyon Drive, north of Hollywood. As a trivial footnote, the same house was used in the 1999 comedy 'Blast From the Past'; it's the house where Alicia Silverstone lives with her brother.


SanDeE*'s Apartment Building

Harris: What was your name again?

Sandee: It's Sandee.

Harris: It's nice. Everyone seems to have such weird names nowadays. You know, it's Tiffany but with a p-h-i. Or instead of Nancy it's Nanceen.

Sandee: So it's capital s, small a, small n, big d, small e, big e.

Harris: What?

Sandee: Captial s, small a, small n, big d, small e, big e. And there's a little star at the end!

Steve Martin's 'LA Story' is a favourite 90's comedy of mine, and the most distinctive location is probably his sortof girlfriend SanDeE's apartment building. Located half a block from the board walk in Venice Beach, on Windward Avenue, this unmissable visual feast is actually home to a small market; the door and steps you can see above were props, added for the flick.

The mural was created in 1989 by local artist Rip Cronk. It looks a little different to how it appears in the film as the artist retouched it in 2010, to paint over some graffiti. The building itself, known as the Venice Beach Cotel, was also featured in an even more famous movie; Orson Welles' classic 'Touch of Evil' from 1958.

In the movie, the Venice Beach Cotel (disguised as The Ritz) is the hotel where Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh are staying. To commemorate this, artist Jonas Nevas created the above mural on the other side of the building to SanDeE's, in 2012.


Beverly Hills Police Headquarters

'Hey, this place is nice!'

So says Axel Foley, Detroit Police Detective, when he first sees the Beverly Hills police headquarters. And in comparison to the dirty, noisy and chaotic environment he has left behind back east, you can see why. I mean, I felt the same way myself, wandering around the palm tree lined boulevards of LA's most famous ritzy suburb; everything is clean, and expensive, and you feel like you don't belong.

In trouble for getting thrown through a window ('Are you kidding me?! The guy threw me through a fucking window!!') Axel has been arrested, and is about to meet up with Taggart and the gang for the first time. And the station that the beat cops have taken him to probably qualifies as the most grandiose precinct in movie history.

In reality, this is the Beverly Hills City Hall, a handsome stone building one block off Sunset Boulevard.


Alfalfa Sprouts and Mashed Yeast

Woody Allen in LA.

For fans of his movies, this almost seems unthinkable. But in Woody's hilarious and bittersweet romantic comedy of 1977, 'Annie Hall', he visits La La Land not once, but twice. And amidst all the zingers aimed at Hollywood, these LA trips serve as road signs as his relationship with Annie falls apart; young and carefree, she is drawn to the bright lights and breezy lifestyle on the west coast, while he prefers grim and gritty New York ('If I get too mellow, you know, I ripen and I rot').

In the above scene, Woody has trekked out to LA for the last time, where Annie has moved to pursue a career as a singer, part of a last ditch effort to win her back. They meet at a restaurant, which is when Woody famously orders alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast for lunch.

The restaurant itself has a remarkable backstory. 

The Source in the 1970s.
When 'Annie Hall' was filmed, this was the 'The Source', one of LA's first organic restaurants. Founded in 1969 by former movie stuntman James Edward Baker, AKA Father Yod, The Source was the commercial front of a hippie-ish healthy living commune that Baker had founded called The Source Family. Mixing Eastern philosophy, yoga and vegetarianism, Baker's cult attracted a small following, but his restaurant was a raging success. 

The Source menu.
With a distinctive menu and a prime location at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, The Source attracted the cream of the film industry (notables such as Marlon Brando and Julie Christie were said to be regulars). It was so successful that Father Yod was able to open up two further eateries in the surrounding neighbourhood,

But success was at odds with The Source Family's principals. In 1974, Father Yod sold his businesses, and the remainder of his collective family moved to a new commune in Hawaii. The following year, this most enigmatic of restaurateurs died in a hang gliding accident. 

The Source restaurant changed hands several times subsequently, and was badly damaged in a fire in the 1980s. But it has survived through to the present day, a little worse for wear. Currently it is a cheap Mexican joint, The Cabo Cantina.


Fort Point

Fort Point, at the southern foot of the Golden Gate, where Madeline throws herself into the bay. Sadly the authorities have blocked off the walkway round to the front of the old fort - it looks a bit rickety so I guess it is a safety thing - but in every other respect this was totally spectacular. The burnt rust colour of the bridge towering overhead, the golden brown of Marin County directly opposite, the eerie drone of the fog horns. The best place to see the bridge from, and I am only moderately biased.

The Palace of The Legion of Honour - Entrance

Carlotta's Portrait

The bench is gone, and the room has been painted, but the Palace of the Legion of Honour (a stylish art gallery in the Presidio) marks the room where Hitchcock filmed this scene in their program.

The Elster's Apartment Building

Perched at the very top of the tallest hill in central San Fran, is the appropriately named mini suburb Nob Hill. A perfect place for a wealthy couple like Madeline and Gavin Elster to live. And their building looks absolutely identical to the movie, to the point where you almost feel like you are walking onto a set as you approach.

Mission Dolores

Built by Jesuit missionaries in the 1790s, Mission Dolores is the oldest building in San Fransisco. The original mission building is simple and beautifully crafted, with some wonderful 19th century art adorning the walls. And the adjoining cemetery is quiet, and quietly mysterious, with its shaded, narrowly winding baths and decaying statues. 

It is here that Jimmy Stewart's obsession starts to get the better of him, and it seemed the prime spot for it. There was a timeless quality behind the stucco brick walls of the building, you felt quite disconnected from the busy suburb outside, and I realised that these locations are not chosen by accident.

And that brought me to the end of my movie scene tourism. There were loads more that I didn;t get to; more Chinatown locations, the hotel where they shot that scene in Ghostbusters, the high school where the exteriors for Pretty in Pink were shot, the lobby of the hotel Barton Fink stays at, countless others.

But I know, with an absolute degree of certainty, that I will be back.