Thursday, 17 July 2014

Postcard from Perth 29

Perth Revelation Film Festival 2

Joe/Willow Creek/Cold in July/The Congress

I continued my own personal Perth Rev mini-fest last weekend. On Friday after rehearsals I headed to the Luna in Leederville and had a quick Vietnamese spicy beef stew up the road in Oxford St before joining the small crowd of film aficionados for the new Nicholas Cage Southern rural poverty flick Joe, followed by Bobcat Goldthwait’s latest essay in low-budget found-footage mockumentary horror, Willow Creek.


Nicholas Cage is one of those actors who divides people, which always makes him interesting. For me, he’s always been a great art-house clown in alternative and cult films like Vampire Moon, Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart and Adaptation. I use the word ‘clown’ in the sense of a performer who’s not constrained by the rules of naturalism or afraid of being larger than life, looking stupid or making himself an object of ridicule. I’m less convinced by his more earnest or ‘serious’ acting efforts, for example in ‘issue’ films like Leaving Las Vegas, which may have won him more plaudits with critics and Academy Award judges; and his ventures into the Hollywood mainstream have mostly left me cold (although I’m a big fan of his work in John Woo’s masterful action-satire Face/Off). To be fair, this unevenness reflects the quality of the films themselves (and he’s been in a lot of them, almost indiscriminately, it would seem). It’s a rare actor indeed whose craft insulates them from a weak script or inept direction; on screen to an even greater extent than in theatre, an actor’s performance is largely constructed in the editing room.

Directed by David Gordon Green and based on the novel by Mississippi author Larry Brown, Joe belongs to the great American tradition of ‘outsider’ literature and cinema which found iconic mainstream popularity in the national-mythical genres of frontier literature and the Western, from the novels of Fennimore Cooper to the films of John Ford. The character of Joe belongs squarely to this tradition, which was revamped in the fifties (and extended beyond its original rural settings) with the arrival of young ‘rebel’ actors like Brando and Dean, and given a counter-cultural makeover in the seventies by the new wave of Hollywood ‘independent’ filmmakers and actors like Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. Cage himself is a late addition to this ‘wildman’ club (indeed he cites Dean as an inspiration, and shares something of Dean’s onscreen vulnerability). It’s very much a male tradition, and masculinity forms the crux of its subject-matter. In fact Cage (like Dean or Montgomery Clift) is one of the great performers of failed or hysterical masculinity. This makes him perfect casting as Joe: an ex-con who’s basically a decent guy but is subject to uncontrollable bursts of rage whenever he feels he’s being played or pushed around. Here he’s well-matched by Tye Sheridan as Gary, a fifteen-year-old boy who adopts Joe as his mentor, in a role not dissimilar to the one he played opposite Matthew McConaughey in the similarly excellent Southern rural coming-of-age drama Mud.

However both Cage and Sheridan are completely overshadowed in Joe by a mesmerizing turn from Gary Poulter as Sheridan’s devious and violent alcoholic father Wade, alternately pitiable and repellent as he deceives, manipulates, threatens or assaults everyone else in the film. It turns out that Poulter was a homeless alcoholic himself, who was picked up off the street and cast in the film but drowned in a puddle of water before it was released. One might question the ethics of the director and producers exploiting Poulter’s illness in this regard; and indeed the use of other non-actors as working-class characters sits uncomfortably with the casting of Cage and Sheridan. Nevertheless, there’s no question that Poulter gives a great performance, even if he’s playing himself. Without him, Joe would be a minor work with major pretensions; with him, it achieves Dostoyevskian dimensions as a spiritual drama of salvation or damnation.


After Joe it was time for Willow Creek. Low-budget horror found a new lease of life with the advent of hand-held digital video and the conceit of found-footage and the mockumentary form. The Blair Witch Project led the way, followed by Cloverfield, REC and Paranormal Activity. Among other things, it facilitated a new nihilism (perhaps as a counterpart to the new narcissism of the digital era) with the possibility of a totally subjective (or perhaps even a-subjective) cinema whose protagonists died at the end, leaving only the footage (and the monster) behind. It also marked a (somewhat contrived) return to the aesthetics of cinéma verité – and (more promisingly) to a more suggestive cinema of terror (as opposed to overt horror) relying on the use of off-screen menace (which had been a specialty of the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur RKO B-movies of the 40s) rather than the overreliance on special effects that had become mandatory in the big-budget splatterfests of the 80s. Plot and character however had largely gone AWOL in the meantime; and with the use of deliberately shaky hand-held footage, so did any remaining vestige of visual poetry. So most of the found-footage or mockumetary horror films mentioned barely rose about the level of gimmickry, unless like Romero’s Diary of the Dead or Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 they also had something to say about contemporary society. While not on the same level as these last two, Willow Creek is a refreshing addition to the genre, not least because the acting and characterization are so strong, and the script is blessed with genuine wit and a sophisticated self-consciousness that owes a lot to the Wes Craven Scream movies and the ubiquitous influence of Joss Whedon.

In this case, a young urban couple are on a half-serious, half-sceptical documentary trip through the rural Northwest on the tourist trail of Bigfoot. The first forty minutes or so are smart and engaging, and crucially we get to know and like them and care about their future. This is essential for the payoff in the final half hour, when things get decidedly scary. There’s an almost motionless, single-shot, torch-lit scene inside a tent which goes for about ten minutes – and relies entirely on mysterious sounds and movements coming from outside the tent – that had one male audience member repeatedly shrieking and me peering through my fingers. By all narrative and emotional logic this should really have been the last scene of the film, and the final ten minutes that follow (unnecessarily extending the plot for another day and night) drag things out, take us back to Blair Witch territory and reveal more than they need to. In the cinema of terror, less is always more.


The following night (after another long day of rehearsals which left me with a twisted knee) I made my way gingerly to Luna Paradiso in Northbridge for more Southern discomfort with Cold in July, followed by Ari Folman’s satirical psychedelic sci-fi animation epic The Congress.

Like Joe, Jim Mickle’s Cold in July is based on a novel and set in the rural South, but both film and novel (by cult author Joe Landsdale) sit much more comfortably in the genre of postmodern pulp fiction. The Coen Brothers spring to mind, especially their earlier (and arguably less pretentious) neo-noir gangster films like Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and Fargo; behind them loom the original hard-boiled thrillers of 40s and 50s Hollywood, with their ruthless killers, hapless innocents, looming camera angles and expressionist lighting.

In a way, Cold in July is an ironic argument for gun control laws: the accidental shooting of a housebreaker leads to a chain of violence and corruption, and ultimately to a dizzying body-count with just about every major character (and innumerable extras) being shot (with more or less serious consequences). In the central roles, three rock-solid performances serve to anchor the mayhem. Michael C Hall (6 Feet Under, Dexter) has tongue firmly in cheek as the innocent picture-framer who sets the ball rolling when his home is invaded; Sam Shepard plays it straight as the dead burglar’s vengeful hardened-crim father; and Don Johson enters half-way through in a white cowboy suit as a private investigator and Shephard’s former GI buddy, and steals every scene thereafter. 

There’s really not much more to say about Cold in July. It’s a perfectly pitched ride from start to finish, for those who like their Texan steak served dark-blue and bloody. It even has a moral code, when our three heroes finally get together to bust a misogynist snuff-movie porn-ring (which of course they do in classic frontier vigilante style); and it delivers a pleasing twist on the usual Oedipal scenario when a father sets out to avenge – and finally ends up hunting down – his own son.


Ari Folman’s The Congress is the ambitious follow-up to his much-lauded anti-war animation-feature Waltz with Bashir, which dealt with his own traumatic memory-loss following military service in Lebanon. The Congress eschews such personal politics in the name of a much more sweeping satirical broadside against capitalism, the culture industry and what Adorno called ‘the administered world’ (a concept which his colleague Marcuse later expanded in his critique of ‘one-dimensional society’). It’s based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem (who also wrote the twice-filmed Solaris), the Polish fabulist who used science fiction as a vehicle for subversive allegories about the totalitarian state he was trapped inside. In contrast, Folman (whose parents perhaps not coincidentally emigrated to Israel from Poland after World War Two) trains his sights squarely on Hollywood and the media-saturated world of today – and an imagined tomorrow.

In the first non-animated hour of the film, Robin Wright impersonates ‘Robin Wright’, an ostensibly washed-up actor whose agent (sympathetically played by Harvey Keitel) persuades her to sign a contract with ‘Miramount’ Studios that will allow them to digitally scan her and have exclusive use of her digital ‘essence’ for eternity, while she retires to live off the royalties and never work again. Despite its somewhat sombre tone I found this part of the film by far the most entertaining and indeed thought-provoking– not just as an actor myself, but as anyone who has reflected on the global impact of digital technology on the nature of work, culture and the self.

The film then leaps twenty years into the future, and enters a drug-induced, hallucinatory and totally animated world populated by avatars of various film-stars (including a hilariously rendered version of Tom Cruise). In this world ‘Miramount’ has now become a corporate pharmaceutical giant launching and marketing film-star essences to be literally ingested by the general population. An animated and now ageing ‘Robyn’ wanders this world like a superannuated Alice in Wonderland, struggling to retain her sense of reality and autonomy, until she gets swept up in an insurrection that seeks to depose the power of the new corporate state. I found this section of the film visually dazzling – with a delirious proliferation of animation styles recalling everything from Betty Boop to Yellow Submarine – but a narrative and thematic mess from which I soon disengaged emotionally and intellectually.

Perhaps if the entire film had been animated – or conversely, had followed the ‘real’ Robyn into a ‘real’ sci-fi future – I would have found it more satisfyingly consistent; as it is, I lost the thread of the argument, and any sense of its logic. Perhaps this was precisely Folman’s intention: to have the film’s form reflect ‘Robyn’s’ induced pharmacological delirium, and the broader sociological and ontological madness of celebrity-culture and hyper-reality. Yet in the end I couldn’t help feeling that The Congress is really two different films – or perhaps just one very long film that couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to say.


I would have stayed for the ultimate exercise in Southern Gothic – a one-off screening of Tobe Hooper’s original (and fully restored) Texas Chainsaw Massacre – but after two consecutive films in four-and-a-half hours the pain in my knee was so excruciating I thought it best to go home and get some rest before production week. Readers can rest assured that after two visits to the physio I’ve now got through three days of tech rehearsals and am feeling fit enough to stagger through opening night. In the meantime, from the safety of my dressing room, that concludes my Perth Rev roundup and wrap for this year.


Humphrey opens in Jasper Jones with Barking Gecko Theatre Company tonight and will be performing (and mostly living) in the Studio Underground for the next three weeks, day and night, playing multiple roles, including Mad Jack Lionel, who is fortuitously lame in one leg.  Postcards may be few and far between during this time. See you on the other side.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Postcard from Perth 28

Teens and Monsters

Perth Revelation Film Festival [1]

The Perth Revelation Film Festival is a small but perfectly formed rival to its bigger Melbourne and Sydney cousins, this year screening about 120 films over 10 days – including 17 features, 20 docos, a 6-feature Iranian Film Festival sidebar, 6 locally funded WA shorts, 10 local student shorts, a quartet of longer shorts, a international animation showcase, an experimental showcase, and a host of one-off multimedia, talk-show, 8-track, 16mm, Super 8 and other analogue and lo-fi events like the Vladmaster Viewmaster Experience (which involved the audience watching a 3D stereoscopic slide-show through hand-held viewers and clicking through hand-made reels in time to a synchronised soundtrack), plus a series of informal workshops and panels – all culminating in the 26th Annual WA Screen Awards.

In comparison with the behemoths over east, Perth Rev has its own local brand of small-town indie-geek street-cred. Screenings are concentrated in a trio of Luna Palace arthouse cinemas in Leederville, Northbridge and Fremantle. Audiences weren’t huge at the sessions I attended in Leederville and Northbridge; Fremantle was (as usual) a little more packed, but that could have reflected the more fashionable films I saw there: Gia Coppola’s debut screen adaptation of James Franco’s short stories Palo Alto, and Jonathan Glazer’s new Scarlett Johanssen vehicle Under the Skin, both of which drew a substantial hipster crowd.

Highlights for me last year included seeing Italian band Goblin playing their original score to Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria; Josh Oppenheimer’s epic psycho-drama-documentary The Act of Killing; Sophie Huber’s exquisite black-and-white interview-doco Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction; and Interior. Leather Bar, James Franco’s bizarre documentary-reconstruction of the missing 40-minute gay orgy sequence from William Friedkin’s Cruising. This year I bought a 6-movie mini-pass and for one reason or another (schedule, impulse) ended up choosing 6 new-release features, most of them from the US or anglophone, and likely to gain at least limited arthouse distribution (which isn’t my usual festive habit, as I generally prefer to catch rarities that are unlikely to show up again elsewhere).


I kicked off last Sunday in Fremantle with Palo Alto and Under the Skin. I haven’t read the Franco stories, but I’m guessing they deal with material drawn from or inspired by his own teenage years in his eponymous home town. Coppola’s film takes a few of these stories and fuses them into a loosely constructed single narrative. Two principal protagonists each have their own stories but are also in love with each other and struggle to hook up throughout the film. There are also two supporting characters who each play an antagonistic role in relation to the two principals but also have their own story (and failed connection) as a kind of comic-ironic counterpoint.

The two leads are charmingly played by actor-singer-model Emma Roberts (who just about gets away with looking like a teenager) and newcomer Jack Kilmer (Val Kilmer’s 18-year old son); Nat Wolff and Zoe Levin lend character to the two supporting roles; and Franco himself commendably underplays his guest role as a lascivious high-school netball coach. The film was partially shot in the homes of Gia Coppola’s mother and Val Kilmer (who also has a hilarious cameo as a permanently stoned step-parent). In short: it’s a low-budget family affair, made with love, beautifully shot, and finely crafted by its young writer-director (Francis Ford’s granddaughter and Sophia’s niece) in a neo-realist style that’s distinct from either of her famous relatives.

There’s not a lot of substance or originality to the stories themselves, but they’re convincing and sharply etched vignettes that hint at broader psychological and social observations about growing up in contemporary middle-class America. In comparison with the great teen-movies of the 70’s and 80’s (American Graffiti, The Outsiders, Rumblefish or the more populist but no less significant films of John Hughes), Palo Alto is a lot more modest and a lot less nostalgic or sentimental than its precursors, and in many ways much more realistic and disturbing. Perhaps because I’ve got young adult kids myself now, but also because of the film’s artlessly insouciant style, I was on the edge of my seat with anxiety on behalf of all the characters throughout the film, right up to its not altogether hopeless but still ambiguous ending.


Under the Skin is loosely based on the surreal sci-fi/fantasy/horror novel by Michel Faber which I read when it came out ten years ago and has haunted me ever since. British director Jonathan Glazer spent the best part of ten years making it into a film very much of his own, following his own much-acclaimed debut feature Sexy Beast. His delayed follow-up feature is a cool (some might say cold) and (for most of its length) uncompromising work that calls to mind Kubrick and Nicholas Roeg – in particular the former’s abiding interest in the inhuman in all shapes and forms, and the latter’s fascination with the personal, cultural and philosophical boundaries of the self.

Like Roeg’s supremely strange sci-fi epic The Man to Fell To Earth, Glazer’s film views the world through the eyes of a seductive extraterrestrial stranger. In this case, David Bowie’s 70s alien-rock-star persona makes way for new-millennial screen siren Scarlett Johanssen in black wig, borrowed clothes and English accent. As iconic in her own way as Bowie, Johanssen is the Garbo of contemporary cinema: her luminous face endlessly watchable, her voice alone a veritable metonymy of desire –most recently and notably in Spike Jonze’s Her, which in many ways forms an angelic counterpart to Glazer’s more demonic excursion into the realm of what might be called cinema morbida. Here she barely speaks, spending most of the film driving a van around Scotland, picking up men (played by unwitting extras secretly filmed by Glazer and his hidden crew in the back of the van) and luring them into a sinister, mysterious and literally consuming underworld. As such she functions like a kind of latter-day incarnation of Coleridge’s Christobel or Keats’s Belle Dame Sans Merci; a wandering vampire in all but name, employed in the service of some obscure but unearthly higher power, whose agents have somehow infiltrated our world for their own nefarious purposes. The book is more explicit here, as it describes her victims being fattened and eaten by their alien captors; in the film their fate is more symbolic, though no less visceral in its representation.

There’s a lot of physical and metaphysical darkness in Under the Skin. In fact it recalls the tenebrism of Caravaggio or Bacon. The most memorable sequences are shot inside the van on grainy, light-starved footage, with faces and bodies dimly lit. These are matched by the more abstract, nightmarish underworld scenes, in which Johanssen’s hapless male prey are lured into and devoured by a Stygian lake of inky blackness. Conversely, the film begins and ends in blinding white, from which Johanssen herself emerges and into which she is finally absorbed. It’s as if isolating the human figure from all visual or contextual background and suspending its image in a void renders it a specimen rather than a fellow creature. The cold gaze of the predator, the artist and the viewer here disturbingly coincide.

The last act of the film, which breaks out of this pattern and attempts to lead its protagonist towards some kind of epiphany or redemption by establishing an emotional connection with others and the world, is on the whole less successful. In terms of form, the film works best as pure exposition and hypnotic repetition with minimal variations; once it attempts to develop a conventional character journey or narrative arc, it becomes arbitrary and unmotivated. Johanssen is convincing as a beautiful monster, but the film’s grip falters once she is humanized and all-too predictably becomes a victim herself in a predatory male world. Perhaps ten years in the making was just a bit too long-drawn-out, and the clarity and rigour of Glazer’s vision became clouded or compromised. Nevertheless I found Under the Skin a unique and mostly compelling experience. Apparently it was booed at Cannes; the screening I saw at Perth Rev was received in stunned silence.  


More Perth Revelation Film Festival reviews follow later this week.