Saturday, January 6, 2018

New Year, New Ambivalence

If You Are the One begins and ends - as all romcoms must - with a broad satire of investor capitalism. OK honestly it's a little odd but not because of the content - any number of Chinese films express anxiety about a changing society in much this way - but because the scene is also about a bright future secured for tricksters like Qin Fen (Ge You) through the shortsightedness of others.

The rest of the film meanwhile is infatuated with honesty. At first because Qin and Xiaoxiao Liang (Shu Qi) are attracted to each other on account of being brutally frank about their shortcomings and later because honesty with themselves allows them to push past said flaws. Well, sort of. Qin's obviously eternally a huckster. And they use each other mercilessly along the way without always being upfront about it.

It is refreshing in a way that the film itself is honest. This isn't the sort of romcom that wraps up poor behaviour in sentimental trappings and expects you buy it as romance, although it alternates between showing the emotional impact of their acting out and playing it for laughs.

When it does the former it is achingly true to its characters' feelings. In one scene Xiaoxiao is having it out with her previous lover. They're sitting at a table, across from each other and their earlier conversation has been captured in close-ups. But in the moment when Xiaoxiao expresses her anger she gets up to pour a drink and the camera cuts to a wider shot of her arm and the drink before it cuts again to an even wider shot of Liang with her back to the camera and her lover looking back at her while she rages. It's like something out of a Mizoguchi film. Her anger and sadness is perfectly captured but her desire for distance is also conveyed and respected.

In some way I can't help but feel like I've been conned. Qin's dating classified is awful! He's awful! Xiaoxiao's almost equally awful! And the film may buy into some of their dubious povs but it doesn't expect me to think of them as good people per se. It just expects empathy and its bookends can't help but make me wonder if I'm too eager to buy into it.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Wonder Woman's Stars and Stripes

Here's a fair warning: What follows is another dude writing a critical piece about Wonder Woman. There's no getting around that I'm on inherently shaky ground although I can promise you that the worst this is going to be is limited in its perspective.

Alright here we go. 

Wonder Woman is at its best when it's creating a series of stirring portraits. Here is a woman bearing arms, taking no shit and fighting for peace in a outfit that - even after its 100th redesign - still recalls the American flag. She's determined and possessed of agency. If only she wasn't standing on bullshit ideology. 

See Wonder Woman fights for peace. It's the same story Australians are told about ANZAC soldiers in World War 1: they fought so that we can enjoy our freedoms and be at peace. Except that anyone with even a smattering of historical knowledge knows that this is a transparent, patriotic lie. They fought so that several European Empires could sort out their differences which primarily stemmed from arguments over which nations they were entitled to exploit. There were no bad guys or good guys. Just a lot of young men fed the lie that it was honourable and glorious to die for the fatherland. 

On one level Wonder Woman endorses this precise anti-war viewpoint: the war is bad, it destroys the lives of civilians and - plot twist - the being orchestrating it is undercover as a British official. Hell, there's even a blunt message about the evils of colonialism provided by a Native American black market trader. 

But that message is fatally undercut by that fact that most of the movie follows a squad of misfit heroes from the Allied Nations carving up anonymous soldiers from the Central Powers in order to stop two unambiguously evil employees of the German state from developing a new and deadly form of poison gas,* or in Diana's case, bring peace by offing Ares. Yeah that's right, they're killing folks because how else can you make peace except by waging war? 

Of course this is the premise of any number of superhero comics and movies in general: That one good person can combat evil by um, literally combating it and inspiring others to do so too. And it has inspired its share of reflexive critiques: all the way from Watchmen to (ugh) Kick Ass.  

What's frustrating about Wonder Woman is that it clumsily maps the conflict of good versus evil onto a war which - even by the standards of wars - was desperately lacking in such a thing and makes only the most hamfisted of attempts to complicate it. What's doubly frustrating is that placing a woman at the center of such a bankrupt ideology has somehow rehabilitated it. Yes, we're being sold the same old poison but now that feminism has been co-opted to support it we should get behind it. 

Representation matters. Images of powerful women are important. But what's the point of powerful women if they're ultimately cogs in the same old machine? At the risk of co-opting feminism myself the whole thing stinks of what Bikini Kill sung about in Tony Randell, "False history, spit out another picture of a girl with a gun to bore me."

*Incidentally this plot point obscures the fact that virtually every "Great Power" involved in World War 1 developed and deployed some kind of poisonous gas as a weapon during the war. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

I'm Too Miffty

I saw seventeen films at MIFF and I liked a lot of them but I'm lazy and so I only managed to write up four of them. On the Beach at Night Alone, A Man of Integrity, The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson and High Tide come highly recommended. The Idea of a Lake, A Skin So Soft, The Wound, Lover for a Day and Sami Blood are all worth a look.

Axolotl Overkill: Its detractors are right insofar as we probably didn't need another trawl through the Berlin drug/club scene but seeing as we got one anyway I'm happy to have Axolotl Overkill. It cuts from scene to scene with little regard for connecting tissue yet somehow this produces a hazy rhythm rather than an abrupt one. Also setting it apart from its peers is an eye for the absurd (where did that penguin come from?) and a willingness to pause all forward momentum for flights of fancy like an out of nowhere contemporary dance performance set to Me and the Devil.

Bright Sunshine In/Let the Sunshine In: Claire Denis is the greatest living director so calling this a major disappointment for me is something of an understatement. All the pieces are in place save for a script with approaches romance as an intellectual pursuit apart from the rest of life and a collection of characters (very deliberately) designed as caricatures of masculinity complete with unbearable tics. It is very much what it intends to be so if that description appeals to your sensibilities by all means have at it. I'll be over here exchanging sad high fives with the disappointed. (That is an actual thing that happened. Film festivals are strange.)

Floating Life: The sad truth of films is that for every widely hailed masterpiece that enters the canon and is forever available on a million different formats there are at least three other worthy films condemned to obscurity. The nice thing about film festivals is that such gems are occasionally dug up. Floating Life is definitely a gem. It starts out as a broad fish-out-of-water comedy set in the overexposed Australian sun but before it's done it cycles through a dozen different tones (lowkey realist drama, heartrending tragedy, sexy romance...) at least three different continents and all manner of compositions (flat with loads of negative space, deep focus, striking bird's eyes...) and yet all of it feels of a piece and contributes to its kaleidoscopic take on the immigrant experience.

Nocturama: Ostensibly this film is about terrorism and consumerism but it methodically, deliberately strips away almost all of the familiar context and rhetoric used to explain such things. Even physical space is violated in its finale as the action is viewed through banks of security screens which make it difficult - if not impossible - to know where people are in relation to one another. The cumulative effect of these choices is disconcerting, almost terrifying. There are no explanations to be found for its protagonists' deeds, no potential cures suggested for the sickness at its heart; just a headlong fall into a (richly aestheticized) void.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Band Baaja Baaraat

Band Baaja Baaraat contains all of the usual romcom cliches including a last minute run to win a lover's affection. That said all of them are played with ridiculous energy and fervor; as if they were being invented for the first time. Anushka Sharma's hilarious mugging in the first performance of Ainvayi Ainvayi is emblematic but performances aside there's also a riot of dutch angles, jump cuts and zooms. Some of its style is rigorously consistent (like the film's bright colour palate) but some of it comes and goes as needed: there's just one scene involving characters speaking directly into the camera. All of it feels every bit as delightfully kitschy as the heroes' wedding designs. Also whether serendipitous or not the film's through-line of first timers breaking through aligns nicely with its previously unknown male lead and debut director.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Brief History of Gay Zombie Porn and Australian Film Criticism

In 2010 the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) attempted to screen L.A. Zombie, the latest work by avant garde filmmaker/art pornographer Bruce LaBruce.* It didn't work out. The Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) (now the Australian Classification Board) stepped in and refused it classification, effectively banning it from being screened in Australia.**

Predictably enough the Melbourne Underground Film Festival (MUFF) (no really, that's its acronym) rode to the rescue of sickos everywhere and scheduled an illegal screening. Despite being widely advertised (with the location omitted, presumably the details were e-mailed to ticket buyers) the screening went ahead without interference.**** However the organiser's house was later raided by police and charges were laid.***

For me it's in the immediate aftermath of the screening that the real story lies. Luke Buckmaster - quite possibly Australia's most middlebrow film critic - attended and was unsurprisingly outraged. Somewhat disingenuously he supported the OLFC's decision to "...ban the film from screening in general cinemas."**** Strictly speaking that is indeed what the OFLC had done. Of course in practice the film was never going to screen outside of MIFF (with the possible exception of the Sydney Underground Film Festival) and was always going to be shown as an unrated film for 18+ attendees. However Buckmaster is not one to probe technicalities.

The Young Turks of Screen Machine, then Australia's premier journal of smarty pants film criticism, were incensed at what they saw as shameful wowserism and philistinism. The stage was set and on 13 September 2010 the curtain lifted on what I believe to be simultaneously the greatest and pettiest stoush in the history of Australian film criticism.

Ladies and gentlemen, courtesy of the Internet Wayback Machine I present to you Luke Buckmaster vs Emma Jane and Brad Nguyen. Be sure to read the comments:


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla is pretty good albeit in an odd duck way. It's only peripherally a disaster movie. That's not to say it doesn't utilise Godzilla as a metaphor for nuclear destruction. There's a moment of grand tragedy that is utterly heartbreaking and its ending is quietly chilling. However such moments merely establish stakes; the meat of the film is, of all things, an unabashed celebration of bureaucracy.

Granted it celebrates a particular kind of bureaucracy. Before the heroes can work their magic we churn through a forest of deadwood; old men installed at the top of the hierarchy but too scared of their tentative grasp on power to venture opinions of real substance lest they be shamed. Once they're dealt with the effective bureaucracy can get to work: a mix of Young Turks (including a lone women who is disappointingly token in number but reassuringly not in narrative impact) and old men dismissed as crackpots working together in a comparatively flat organisational structure.

Their teamwork is celebrated in an unusual way. There are no Sorkin-esque walk and talks here and very little striding through hallways in general. Instead <i>Shin Godzilla</i> gets its energy from aggressively edited, oddly framed stills with something subtly off-kilter about the way their subjects are blocked. Adding to the effect are an overwhelming barrage of chyrons (mostly job titles) that are gone as fast as the audience can read them and a musical score that is a hodge podge of original composition and rearranged pieces from previous Godzilla films and, of all things, Neon Genesis Evangalion.

When individuals do emerge from the group it only serves to heighten the film's praise of self-sacrificing teams as they merge their egos with the desire to serve their nation. At one point an ambitious young man explains himself by way of reflecting that, "There needs to be a Japan in ten years if I am to be the Prime Minister of it."

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Compounding My Mifftake

Being 17: Andre Techine makes a respectable return to the material that animated his best known film (Wild Reeds). It's not as complex as that earlier, better work - the tangled knots of love triangles and fluid sexualities are reduced to two boys who learn that fighting is no substitute for fucking - but it does gain the fluid, tracking camera of The Girl on the Train which lends it a measure of anxious energy. It also speaks well of the film that its nods to contemporary hot button topics feel more like parts of characters' daily lives than talking points. Despite this the territory it covers feels over-familiar; perhaps it's time for the coming-of-age genre to grow up.

The Ball at the Anjo House: A part of me suspects that this film's fame in its day and its comparative contemporary obscurity speaks to its now dated now-ness: at every opportunity it hammers home its theme of the aristocracy's fading star. That said it is far from the stodgy work it first appears to be. The Ball slowly ramps up as the evening progresses climaxing in anguished outbursts, suicide attempts and a riot of dutch angles. Unfortunately the actors don't quite sell the melodrama. Setsuko Hara anchors the film in what is apparently a typical dutiful, wise daughter role (I confess I've only seen four films in which she appears) and Masayuki Mori is suitably louche as the dissolute older brother but others over-egg their performances and turn anguish into camp.

Certain Women: A common theme of secure, well-off individuals failing their more needy, precarious acquaintances unites three otherwise disparate stories of small town America. As usual Reichardt achieves sympathetic performances and nuanced interactions. It's a pity then that so much of Certain Women seems to climax in a shrug. This is no more true than of the middle story in which the initial ending of a younger woman's uneasy relationship with an elderly man ending uneasily is in no way complicated by the (already foreshadowed) ultimate success of her material project.

Cosmos: There's a great deal of pleasure to be had at first. I delighted in Genet masticating his dialogue as though every syllable was a piece of gristle, Libereau pulling off a delightful Chaplin impression and the assigning of peculiar ways of speaking to every character. Unfortunately the quirks are repeated ad nauseam until they shred the nerves and the rapid paced verbal gymnastics never let up for a breather. Ultimately the effect is akin to a piece of music played at an unvarying fortissimo for two long hours.