Thursday, December 18, 2014
Take all this and handle it normally and you might have a passable melodrama or, more likely, a stinging satire pushing boundaries set by Entourage or perhaps a more humane contrapuntal narrative fugue by a Robert Altman or a Paul Thomas Anderson. But, no, David Cronenberg is at the helm and we are not going to get out of it so easily.
Don't get me wrong, the narrative machine is well oiled and works with a Swiss movement. DC even rolls back the visual style to a muted high-placed Californian good taste. The Terror of Toronto is at his least when he allows the action and linear pull enough sway to make you forget it's him. At his best, whether elbow deep in bizarre prosthetics like Videodrome or shiveringly rareified like Crash, he serves up a muscular narrative and throws the essay booklet in. At his best, he is all about the notion.
This is not an attack on Hollywood or even much of a comment on it. The setting, however, is essential. In what better milieu could we trial such a tale of scarifying incest and the passage of sin
between generations than in the central hive of meme production that is the Dream Factory?
Havana knows to air kiss the rival she would sooner eviscerate. Her sessions with Stafford the massaging shrink give us the most Cronenbergian visuals as Julianne Moore (Havana) distorts herself under his (John Cusack's) professional intimacy to the border of recognisability. The star (a particularly honestly freckled Moore) must touch real ugliness for her redemption. The always impressive Moore went to a similar realm in the undersung Safe. Like Keira Knightley in Dangerous Method, she is pushing the envelope with the odd effect that we both sympathise with and recoil from her.
That's the other thing about a good Cronenberg film: performances that go places. Moore's is the most external but the others are no less impressive. The ubiquitous Mia Wasikovska (I should tally how many times I've seen her on screen this year alone) warms us with pathos, terrifies us with madness and somehow also charms us. Olivia Williams steps into frame hard and unflatteringly almost monkish in appearance and turns our frown at her hardness into real pity. Newcomer Evan Bird as Benjie bravely plays a waxwork detachment up to the end, his pubescent forehead pimples giving us a grasping handle on his fragility as he tests our patience with his constantly self-abused power. I also found John Cusack's grown up teen star (a casting decision rather than a plot point) poignant. Current young adult idol Robert Pattinson surely finds a kind of satisfaction as one aspirant actor/writer among a million working a day job.
I've left the plot out of this review because it doesn't need any help from me. This piece that allows its sobering proposition to slowly swell up through the easily conventional narrative has more on its mind than giving us logic dots to join. For it's here on the cinema screen that we are shown our own affection for ideals wrenched earthward as we perhaps maybe might and kinda should aspire not to the stars made of flesh and anxiety but to fabulously refulgent light in the distance of the night whose outnumbering lightlessness taunts us toward the sparks.
Saturday, December 6, 2014
We meet Lou Bloom from behind as he cuts through an industrial fence. As we're soon to learn, he's not on a graffiti mission or up for sabotage, he's cutting the fence wire to resell it. A sudden act of violence later and we see that not only will he act extremely for gain the disconnection between him and his conscience is unsettling. In the next scene he loses a bargain to sell his obviously stolen goods and doesn't baulk when called out on his crime. Baulk? He salutes his accuser with a grin. There is something wrong with the grin; it's falseness seems to vacuum up all the charm it might have shared. In fact, whenever Lou rounds off a platitude with a laugh the void that opens gapes with a vertiginous horror.
Chancing on a car crash he watches in fascination as a news stringer rolls up in a van and lunges into the action. His wide headlight eyes absorbing a kind of salvage that will be in endless supply. It excites him. Not in the way that an opportunity for advancement through violence excites an Iago or MacBeth but in the way any living thing is excited by food. Step by step, Lou sets about equipping himself for this hunting and gathering until his content wins ratings on the morning news and the stringer from before considers him a rival. How far will he go? You can guess. You'll be right when you guess but you won't be moaning about predictability. This film is not about the plot (though it is pacey and waste free with its narrative muscle) it's about Lou and the world that absorbs him like nutrients.
Lou reveals things to people that might normally engender winces or the reclamation of personal space. He says he learns a lot from the internet and that he spends a lot of time on his computer. He repeats hokey self-help MBA wisdom in a voice out of a youtube promo so devoid of irony that you are certain that he gets away with it because everyone assumes he is being ironic. He also mixes it in with bits that sound more spontaneous which serves to muddle the mix. One rung above the Hollywood version of autism, he gets through the barriers of the media organisation he infiltrates by being like one of its products.
One short scene is telling. He is at some mundane household task as Danny Kaye's Court Jester plays on tv. Danny seems to get his head cut off but seconds later it emerges cartoonishly from the armour. Lou takes a moment then grins widely and laughs his big vacuous guffaw. Instantly, we know that he has studied this reaction. Whatever real mirth he feels is supplemented by how the successful people he has witnessed behave. All those grins and ironic giggles are perfomance and the flat naivete rolling out below them is the real Lou. He just knows how he's meant to come across. There are moments when this training fails him and he can't quite connect (the restaurant scene in extraordinary here) and, recognising this, he falls into plainer aggression. It's as though he's the kind of goofy alien or robot that used to figure in 60s tv comedies like Get Smart dropped into contemporary Los Angeles but with real bloody organs inside.
This is astute writing but would not work for a moment without right casting. Jake Gyllenhaal, who came into our collective consciousness as the extremely and believably troubled Donnie Darko has found another role worthy of his strange subtlety. He allowed the crazy dialogue he had as Donnie to sound exactly like a teenager who thought too much and whose diagnosis made sense (a psychiatrist friend told me that that movie was one of the most accurate depictions of schizophrenia he'd ever seen in fiction). Gyllenhaal has gone through many roles in the near one and half decades since but here it feels as though he has touched base with the good stuff and pulled out something that allows us access to this otherwise impossible character.
A late scene with his rival stringer involves Lou calmly detailing the violence he feels like doing to the other man but that he has better things to do. The moment is both funny for its deadpan rage and chilling for its sincerity. Oddly, I was often wondering what his stark dialogue felt like to read on the page. Because of the character's constant and severe calculation this thought never felt like it was taking me out of the movie. Gyllenhaal owns Lou the same way Dennis Hopper owned Frank in Blue Velvet and the result steals our breath.
You could call this a satire on the media but you don't have to; the surface plays with such constant assault that none of the cards need concealment. It's not so much Network as Under the Skin, less Othello than The Selfish Gene. It's the better for all that.
Sunday, November 16, 2014
A conversation with her husband and further dialogue throughout reveal that she has been voted out of her job because the boss said it was a big bonus or her. She's been away from work for a while and it's been found that 16 can do the work without her seventeenth. Why her? That's the pills. She is recovering from a deep depression and on the eve of her return to work she is being rejected by co-workers who value a short term gain more than her. Tough times.
Her husband recognises the teetering his wife is suffering and gently stirs her to action. If she can convince the boss to run another ballot and then nine of her workmates to vote for her she'll have a job. And so she does, one by one, approaching each with an increasingly fragile confidence to plead her case.
This is my first Dardenne brothers film. I've known about them from about Rosetta onwards but haven't pursued any of their work until now. I have nothing against their choice of stories from the poor and downtrodden of the world it's just that given the choice of the kitchen sink or some zappy concept-rich sci-fi ... Well, I'll eat that sentiment. Far from being the grimly worthy Belgian Ken Loach this film shows a plainer and lighter hand with none of the affectations I find irksome about Loach.
First thing I notice is that there is no score. The only music we hear is from the scenes where there are music players. Only once does this line blur and then only very subtly at a rare moment of joy. Apart from that it's all atmos tracks and library sound. Marion Cotillard must carry the burden of this film alone. She does. Seldom has such disassembling vulnerability felt so intimidating from a cinema screen.
There is no time play of flash backwards or forwards; we begin at the start of the string and end where it runs out. We are going to follow her for the time in the title. The rest is up to us.
The visual style is deceptively plain. The streets and buildings Sandra walks through form a kind of geometric monkey puzzle which seems to keep her at a distance even before she encounters each coworker who might as easily refuse as agree to her plea. She is keeping herself aloof through medication but there is something in the shapes of the backgrounds that constrain her. One of the dingy apartments she must visit is accessed through a dirty green and claustrophobic stairwell. The car she travels in to her appointments with either triumph or disappointment is forced to become her home, however temporarily; its confines are a comfort rather than a constraint and she seems to wear it like a doona.
Each meeting with one of the people she hopes to convince contains a physical line between the two. Whether it's a crack in a wall, a fence or a door jamb it's there every single time. Even when the two move a few paces another line will be established to separate them. This does not feel like clever auteurism but plain function, letting us know that the filmmakers are keeping the visual side unambiguous, providing a sturdy setting for dialogue that carries a lot of weight, however unaffected it sounds.
I'm surprised to be compelled to call this film about the cold reality faced by the lower percentile of society elegant but there really is no better word for a piece that lays its issues so simply and delivers its punch with such effortless skill: this is an elegant film about suffering. The old saw about amateurs bringing attention to the difficulty of their work and professionals making it look easy applies here. If you can see the broken juggling plate in a Ken Loach film (I think he's a great filmmaker but at his worst he's a barking P.E. teacher) the Dardennes here at least will not let you spy the slightest falter.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Andrew is a young drumming student at an elite NYC music school. The teacher who shuns him in the opening scene is Fletcher, the fiercest instructive monster on screen since Sgt Hartman in Full Metal jacket, is given a career second-act performance by JK Simmons, a kind of Vladimir Putin with New York smarts. Andrew who must endure the bruising nurture for his emergence into life is given life by Miles Teller whose compelling plainness lifted The Spectacular Now from indy okayness to something strong and dark.
Fletcher's approach is to weaken bravado by removing self-confidence, switching drummers after a very few bars at a time to kill the idea that the kit belongs to any of them. We can see the strategy and also that its subjects cannot and why. When we see Andrew taking his newly-built cockiness into his family and romantic life we witness gross mistakes made through the intoxication of hard narcissism and we wince. But we also project on to the downcast eyes of Andrew, as he is leaving a brutal marathon rehearsal, the exhaustion, anger and perfectionism of a student who has just experienced the rewards of belonging to commitment. And later when one of his narcissistic flubs returns to bite him we are allowed to linger on his sadness and deflation, feeling them acutely.
Acting sorted, how's the travel? Well, if you thought watching someone tap a drum kit for minutes of precious screen time on end spelled death of attention know now that the frenetic MTV style editing of someone playing complicated jazz drumming feels like the heavily taxed alertness of a drummer. Drumming is hard. I can play an ok guitar or keyboard and even stay in tune on a theremin but I can never get past the first bar at a drum kit; it's like swimming for two with one; the sheer coordination of it kills me long long long before I could think of anything creative to do and that's just servile rock common time. When, as one of the lightning cuts of one of these sequences shows, the time signature of a piece includes the numeral 14 it's like the second you understand a maths problem before it slips away and your brain clanks back to normal gearing. We see the parts of the drum kit as details of central control as the loose syncopation rustles and thunders around them. The bandaging of bleeding finger joints and ice buckets remind us of the boxing ring rather than the cross and the jaw slapping lesson in keeping exact time hurts but feels necessary. The sheer intensity of musical performance has not to my knowledge be so intimately captured in fiction cinema as here. Don't compare it to Shine but Jimi at Monterey.
Music runs through this film well outside of the moments when it is played digetically. A scene in the rehearsal room involves a kind of choir of buzzes and clicks as the players set up but it isn't some campy sampler sonata it sounds natural but pushed so that you know it's intended; a kind of movie score concrete. The editing itself has a jazziness that belies the cold-seeming re-enactment of the school performance of jazz and that tension keeps up until the end which presses and delights if it is not meant to surprise. This story is made of music.
On that, if the idea that this is a pursuit of excellence tale about not just a jazz drummer but an academic jazz drummer puts you off then think of this: the struggle to deliver individuality shed of its placental egocentricity, a struggle mounted between a promising neophyte and a violent teacher, is more usually told in a sporting context but here it is expressed through one of our greatest pleasures. We are discomforted to know this but are as glad of our own effort as that which we witness. And this is all done with cinema.
Monday, November 10, 2014
This is a real cinematic feast. Nolan knows his movies and trusts you to follow him without the need to wink at this reference to Kubrick or that subversion of convention. He creates a layer that is constantly plain and compelling. Motivation, location, information are all administered at the optimum doses. This frees him up to do some fancy footwork with his concepts and serve all that with some muscular imagery. When we arrive at Saturn in full IMAX we feel the heft of how we got there as we marvel at the scale and majesty without the faintest whiff of cheese. When we sit in the middle of a discussion of the drastic time shift involved in being on a planet with strong gravity we are rivetted. When we drive through the whipping chaos of a cornfield or leave the Earth's atmosphere we feel privileged to be in a cinema. Christopher Nolan, champion of celluloid shooting and projection and the IMAX format, adds that pleasurable solemnity to the thrill as much as a Kubrick or John Ford did.
The central tale of a parent and child reconciling their separation over time and distance, an arc older than Noah's, weaves so beautifully into the outer layer of breathtaking concept that its delivery almost masks the fact that you pretty much got it half way through. This is not just a sci-fi setting, it's real sci-fi. The substance of this film contains real awe and joy.
It's godless. Apart from the curlywurly preponderances 'pon love which could (but don't) plummet into the porridge of the concept of spirituality, this story does not suggest a sentient cosmic force. What we do get is something you'll work for yourself about halfway through but something so beautifully delivered that it will leave you smiling. That's one less globe of Gouda to deal with in an epic so stuffed with them. Unlike in Prometheus there is none of the "choose to believe" nonsense.
The casting is sensational (for an exception see below). Matthew McConaughey again shows us why he's been appearing in such gift roles for the past few years as he stands as tall as a Gary Cooper, comments as wryly as a Roland Coleman and is as chiseled and present as a Gregory Peck. His performance actually transcends the cheese he is frequently asked to munch on. The scene of parting between him and his young daughter is genuinely heartrending. This is is large part due to her casting by the young un Mackenzie Foy who if she can stick with it and get into a YA lit adaptation around nineteen will wow us all again.
Why is Michael Caine in this film? He loiters near the teleprompter, his old man slacks stapled to his ribcage, delivering trailer soundbites and pages of exposition with a kind of wall-eyed somnambulism. He exhibits no affinity with his lines at all except for the Dylan Thomas quote about raging against the dying of the light which, on reflection might have been appropriated by Nolan as Caine was caught on mic murmuring something that did mean something to him. Chris, next time cast someone who cares.
There's a moment in James Cameron's hokey but fun The Abyss where Ed Harris is getting kitted up for a possible suicide mission and is asked by a character "why him?" It's a good question: he's the captain of the sub and has so far done a bang up job at the helm, fending off the openly loony military maven and taken the crew through some very nasty straits. So, why should he be the one to deprive his vessel and crew of his highly capable leadership? "Someone's got to do it," he says. And we are meant to think," oh, ok, it's just a movie, let's go with that."
In Interstellar these big goofy cheese sandwiches are down to Matthew McConaughey and feel so clumsy that they bring all the fast thinking to the big grinding halt that happens when the picnic whinger finds out the wrong kind of tomato sauce was packed. During a pretty fascinating dialogue about the strategy to approach a planet with a big time shift issue (an hour spent there is seven years everywhere else) Cooper (M Mc) flips a digital display of the planet to find a white board which he draws a stick figure version of exactly the same picture and suggests a viable plan to minimise the time damage. The hard core sci-bods around him light up with recognition and approval. One smiles: "that could work." Really? It could work? Even I understood the plan. They knew everything else about the problem on earth and yet not one of these family-sized brains thought of it back on Earth. Really? Really?
Later Cooper rattles off a perfectly serviceable list of the biological reasons for the existence of love and a scientist overrides them with obfuscation so bullshitty it might have been written by M. Night Shamylan. It's like the "that's what I choose to believe" line that undermined the entirety of Prometheus (well, there were other things but that's the one that killed it for me).
I am usually happy allowing the credibility stretches of a piece of fiction to slide along and let the story take wing but Interstellar contains so many of the "if you knew that thing could do that minutes ago why the hell did it take you so long ....?" moments that it might as well have been as dire as Prometheus. It is saved, to its credit, by being less abjectly idiotic as that one, though, despite these winces.
This really should have been around ninety minutes long. It's not a blockbuster with brains so much as a brainy film with bloat. If you can track it down there's a Spanish film called Time Crimes which deals with time anomalies in a dizzying but complete fashion and contains none of the baggage in the hold of Interstellar to make it feel as big as its ideas. I also think of the bonus disc in David Lynch's Lime Green Set. That disc included a feature length collection of scenes left out of the final cut of Wild At Heart and it's instructive viewing. Each of the scenes not only makes perfect sense but could have come from any conventional film, despite sharing the look and setting of the released version. What Lynch excised from his film was everything ordinary and created something that, while not my favourite of his, is in its every frame and sound signed by him. Nolan has heavy talent as a filmmaker but is too given to quite needless playing to the gallery. Could I suggest the gallery would be better pleased if he eviscerated his films of everything but that core whose intellect invites us in so that we thrill at our own discovery as the gifts meet us from the screen? I'm not asking for Tarkovsky; Nolan, the Nolan of Memento and The Prestige, will do just fine.
So, how do I deal with a movie I have to keep apologising for if I am to publicly admire it? I remember the pleasures of the ride to keep from feeling dirty.
Thursday, October 23, 2014
No, I haven't bought into the bend-over-for-the-empire practice of Americanising my October but I am a fool for any opportunity to make a list of horror films. This time, though, I'm going to do two, one for the horror-curious and another for those who just want the genre for the occasion.
While I as an Australian born and raised didn't experience Halloween as part of the calendar I knew about it from American shows and kind of envied the costumes and rituals. Most of all I liked the mood and always considered horror fiction nourishment for the imagination and I loved how even though I've never believed in ghosts I would be haunted awake in the pre dawn by the stories of M.R. James or Sheridan LeFanu. The Christmas tales from UK television added location and atmosphere. In the end I had to admit that I lived in the tropics which see neither snow nor fog and when there were human atrocities in the air they had the weight of close reality. Otherwise there were the movies and I never tire of the best of them nor discovering new avenues into the self-confrontation that genuine horror demands.
As you'll read, I'm biased toward originality and genre-warping but these qualities are by no means prerequisite for a good horror fiction experience. There's a lot of real cinema to be had with movies that just behave themselves in their margins and deliver what they say. There is, of course, a spectrum of how well this is done.
Hey, there's more than thirteen here! It rhymes with Halloween .. and count the genres in the second section
For non-horror fans...
is the kind of dialogue I hear when I see
something like this.
There is a notion afoot that these are generationally restrictive so if you're too old you'll gurmpily reject them and if you're young enough you'll dig them. If that worked I'd prefer the 1982 Thing over the 1956 one and Friday the 13th over The Exorcist (wrong in both cases). Sorry, it's not me being old, it's these movies being mediocre.
But quite seriously, if you aren't into horror but want to use the occasion, these will work.
Remakes of 70s and 80s genre. It's often observed that it's only bad movies that should get remakes to correct the errors of the past. Instead, we get the errors of the present whose makers have learned nothing from the originals. You can count the as-good or better remakes on one hand. Like the contemporary Hollywood fare mentioned above, these are not taxing and have been declawed so that only the serviceable gore gets through and none of that disturbing concept work to bring things down.
Remakes of films originally in languages other than American. If you can't read subtitles you shouldn't be reading this. Seriously, if getting close to a good arresting idea is blocked for you by a series of titles in the most basic of English (as they have to be for speed alone) then all you can experience is a series of someone else's ideas at a cultural remove. Not it's not Let Me In but Let the Right One In. Not The Ring but Ringu (seriously, this one involves a major failure of interpretation when in English). Not Quarantine but .REC. The American version of Pulse has a line about the use of gaffer tape common to both films: "It just seems to work somehow." Why didn't anyone in Kyoshi Kurosawa's original have to say that? Because they wanted YOU to work it out. I have known no exceptions to this rule that didn't take a lot of indulgence and apology.
Would you really rather hear a note perfect cover band play your favourite songs or the original band? If the latter aren't available wouldn't you at least want some interpretation to be part of it rather than a re-enactment? You wouldn't? Fine, the remakes are over there. Let's just never talk about music.
|All the scares of the Ghost Train ride|
|This is a good one. It's almost the only one.|
Well, that should do you. Or ....
For horror fans and the curious of heart...
See also Lake Mungo: local and vocal masterpiece. You will NOT expect the climactic scene. Did you see it? What did you see?
See also Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) had two remakes on a par but this original still feels like the best with its American dream gone wrong or horribly right.
Also, the only available dvd and blu-ray of the Exorcist are of the long and plodding "version you've never seen" which is the only one anyone after 2000 has seen. You can get the original in a deluxe package from overseas sources so, if you're interested, hold off until you can see the shorter, tighter and scarier one.
The Brotherhood of Satan. Low-budget big concepts as the children of a small town vanish and toys come horrifically to life. Youth and age clash in a kind of Lewis Carrol verite.
See also Halloween (if it doesn't say 1978 somewhere in the details you are watching the wrong one).
See also Martyrs which starts like any Euro revenge piece but takes a terrifying turn halfway through. The violence dissipates into control and the control has a disturbing force. I'll sing with Mark Kermode on this one, though: CAUTION! This is a VERY rough ride.
See also Lips of Blood:Jean Rollin's mix of perve and unnerve with a genuinely poignant ending to surprise.
See also The Wolf Man: uses pathos rather than threat to suggest the pity of heredity but also the anger in response to it. Lon Chaney Jr might have had a few things on his mind about that issue playing this role.
See also Black Sunday, Bava bravura in black and white with a mad eyed Barbara on the roam.
So, happy happy Halloween.
Sunday, October 5, 2014
This story has too many spoilers to go further than that. Something that isn't a spoiler is that this is a David Fincher film so there is a whole lotta filmmakin' goin' on.
At one point in this film a character comments that calling a bar The Bar is very meta. To do that in a David Fincher film is cute enough but Gone Girl is not Fight Club or Social Network so instead of folding itself into the general metafest the line scrubs up as meta as we are aware we are watching a David Fincher film. The line is played throwaway but is key to getting to know this piece about personae public and private and that most strident of personality tests: marriage.
As a probable meta comment on this Fincher has shot big and clean this time. The silver retention shadow detail and grime-on-the-Rolex-band of everything he's done with an urban setting is absent here. And apart from some fancy footwork of the flash back and forth of the present timeline and diary scenes is kept in strict reign with titling and narration. Everything plays up front and fair. So you know there's a lot hiding in the light.
At two hours and twenty minutes Gone Girl never bores but does keep to a leisurely novelistic pace that might make Fight Club fans restless. The pace can be wearyingly even. It can, at times, feel like three episodes of a tv series sewn together. Then again, the evenness is clearly deliberate. It gives us a constant examiner's eye view of the events (and some do demand close inspection).
Also, it allows us time to appreciate some of the strongest film acting we will be seeing all year with everyone on screen going beyond the call. We are led into some finely wrought duplicity and are often compelled to believe accounts that we might otherwise resist and that is good reading of good writing, pure and simple. There is one moment in particular (the only detail I'll give is creme brulee) in which two characters separated by the intimate distance of a tv screen reach a perfect allignment. We don't expect it but unlikely as it would be if played poorly, we don't doubt it for a moment.
So, while my sense memory still complains about unnecessary length the delight I take in re-examining the evidence as laid so patiently out by Fincher and co resonates. We love our fictions, even those thrust upon us, but then we are compelled to.