Monday, April 24, 2017

Review: COLOSSAL

A prologue. Seoul. A young girl has lost her doll and is looking for it on a lawn at night. Her mother calls her to come back home but she persists and finds it. As she does the sky explodes with electricity and a giant monster appears stamping through the city. Mother and daughter scream.

Cut to twenty-five years later and across the world to Manhattan. Gloria gets evicted from her apartment and relationship as her boyfriend can't take her spiralling drunkenness. She goes back to her small town and moves into the vacant house where she grew up. She hooks back up with a childhood friend who gives her a job in his bar. The next day she wakes from a drunken revel to the news that Seoul has been terrorised by a giant monster. A Youtube clip confirms it as the one we saw at the beginning. The town, like the rest of the world, is marvelling at the sight as the monster returns and wreaks damage on the Korean capital. But Gloria has noticed something.

Not only does the monster have the same head scratch she does when she's nervous but the gestures, reported as mysterious by the media, seem oddly familiar. Details of the early morning end of the previous night's abandon, a sluggish ramble through a children's playground, and a map of Seoul lead her to test a theory. It proves to be true. She is the monster, the one bashing the city.

This fable of growing up and accepting responsibility is steadily enjoyable but suffers from a lack of tension in the second act. The central group of characters gathered around Gloria have tension points that get exposed on tap rather than from work that might both add depth along the way so they would feel inevitable when revealed. And then when they are revealed the film can feel quilted as some scenes only serve mechanics while others play quite naturally and the pleasure of the story's conceit is sweetened. The unevenness causes drag and makes us feel that even at its reasonable hundred and ten minutes it can feel too long.

This is not the fault of the casting. Jason Sudekis brings nuance and depth to his small town boy grown up that allows his character magnetism but also space for disaster. The wonderful Tim Blake Nelson is achingly underwritten but his every scene is a delight. Mostly, at the centre, it's Anne Hathaway who summons every trick and trope of her art to go with and against her doe-eyed vulnerability, forcing intelligence and anger into a role that might have stopped at the vulnerability. She's a joy to watch.

The problem is in the writing and direction. Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo who gives us both a kind of mid point between Michel Gondry's hard-edged whimsy and his compadre Guillermo Del Toro's expertise with dark fable. The problem is that the mix of whimsy and horror never quite blends where a stricter focus on Gloria's overcoming her resistance against her own responsibility might have made a leaner but harder (and better) film.

It was Vigalondo's name that sent me to the cinema. His lean and mean Timecrimes wowed me and the later Open Windows added some solidly disturbing implications to the real time thriller format. But, perhaps intentionally, there was no time for characterisation in the tight loop of the first and little need for it in the rush of the second. It might sound strange to say but Colossal could have done with a little less warmth, a little less writerly depth, and more of a reckless cavalry charge to the conclusion.

The scene in which we are given the kind of reason we were denied in Timecrimes for the bizarre events of the story and the smart and affecting conclusion by their ingenuity and emotional power do make up for a lot of the loose dragging of the journey. And the eloquence of the facial expression of the final shot shows us how much Viglondo relished working with his cast. I'll still be in the queue for the next Nacho Viglondo film. Perhaps a little more cautious but still there.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: PERSONAL SHOPPER

Maureen Cartwright, a young American in Paris, walks cautiously through a darkened house, seeking a sign from her dead brother. His widow and the couple who want to buy the place are waiting on her report. The scene is thick with dread. At one point we see a vague shape that could be a trick of the light or a spirit form behind her. When asked she admits that she doesn't know if there is anything in the house. She returns to the job that allows her to afford time in Paris while she waits for the posthumous sign that brother Lewis promised to give. In Paris she picks out her employers clothes and jewellery.

Though she identifies, as her brother had, as a medium she remains skeptical and cannot commit to belief in the phenomena even as she witnesses it. Her second attempt to contact Lewis in the house is traumatic and drives her back into her life as the personal shopper, a series of routines she dislikes for their triviality but performs expertly. Her difficulties in talking about this beyond some sketchy and irritated impressions leads to a second act dominated by a dialogue entirely in a series of texts as a thrilling but dangerous situation develops. Between this and the blank competence of travel and detached shopping we start to get a better view of the person in the elipse between the two Venn circles of spiritual and material. It involves temptation and dark adventure and ends in bloodshed. But then the mysteries continue.

This tale of the unknown, external and internal, is helmed by Olivier Assayas with a not altogether steady hand. In horror mode the sense of dread is genuine and there are white knuckle thriller moments and while these can easily overlap with the passages that more nakedly examine Maureen's character (which approach Dardennes brothers bleakness) at other junctures the sudden fades to black can feel like a last resort solution. Otherwise, the lighting and lensing are expressive and infrequent plays with focus all add to a pleasurable watch however intense this film can get.

None of this would work without a lead capable of giving us Maureen's different modes with such distinctly different tone and create a credible wholeness from it. Racked by doubt she can find spoken expression frustratingly inadequate. As the eyes and taste of her employer her selections of couture at various boutiques are made with an intimidating precision. When tested by the approach of threat her fear seems to transform into survival adrenaline. Through these three modes alone we are reminded that she is one character rather than an actor proving her range by the solid pedal note of solemnity she carries at all times, visible at the clothes rack, in the haunted house and wheeling around Paris on her scooter, she is always serious. The brief and jagged relief delivered through her Skype calls with what might be a friend or lover offer the slightest glimmer of escape from this intensity but for almost the entire running time which almost entirely features her in sharp focus we are aware of this dark pedal note droning at her core. If you still dismissed Stewart because she rose through Twilight it's time to reassess. Her restraint in this role is her power and there is a lot of it on show.

After the thunder and paranoia of the thriller second act we change again to something like calm, though it, too, involves tension and threat and the sense that we are not necessarily going to end well here is strong. The film's final statement, making the heaviest use of its focal point in a powerful use of noise vs whispers, leaves us in ambiguity and a fade to black. That doesn't qualify as a spoiler as it could be about a number of threads. The ambiguity is not the troubling kind as it is in Assayas' earlier Irma Vep but it offers a weight, if we'll bear it, that feels like our own deal with things unknown.

There's still MIFF to come, Raw, Get Out and who knows what else but I could easily peg this among the best of the imaginable year.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: T2 Trainspotting

All through this one I kept thinking: why was this made? Then I'd think: Oh, that's good. It was like that for most of the movie until a few scenes in a row sharpened it up and I got it. I think. Trainspotting was a product of its time, it brought a knowing punk punch to the multiplex world of '90s cinema when it was needed. It did have help. Riding on the slacker vibe of Linklater and the retro-is-now mash of Tarrantino (and not a little of Oliver Stone's recently developed scrapbook approach) Trainspotting added both a junkie's nihilism and a view of the void at its centre and felt like a great read in a few hours at the cinema.

That was then. This is now. Renton is running in the opening scene but it's on a machine and he collapses mid-session. Sobered, he picks himself up and returns to 'Brrrrrruh to offer retribution by paying back the money he stole for his own escape those decades past. No one's really having it except for Spud but with the aid of a few bruisey encounters he levels up in a way while his old pal Sick Boy (now a budding extortionist and aspirant brothel owner) keeps him close for his own retribution. Meanwhile the dark terror of the first tale, Begbie, breaks out of prison and won't take yes for an answer.

The plot will only give you a little here, though, as this film has more on its mind than the cogs and wheels of the three acts. The opposing forces are in place and will get to a showdown but while we're getting there we've got some time to reflect on the last twenty years. Everyone's older and a little defeated but striving on. Spud finds telling his tale offers a way out of the constant grinding pendulum between addiction and twelve-step meetings. Sick Boy and his young Bulgarian girlfriend think of getting the best knocking shop in Edinburgh as a kind of grant-funded start-up. Begbie takes his young adult son under his wing and into the mire of petty crime.

At one point Renton and Simon (Sick Boy) explain to Veronika how amazing everything was back then ("and no one was fat!") in front of a massive LED tv as their soundbites roll on to the screen like running tweets. At another Simon and Renton are watching the video for the Rubberbandits' dark and funny Dad's Best Friend (shown almost uninterrupted) and Renton, gazing as the middle aged actor in the clip miming the lyric transforms into a black eyed alien, asks, "what's this?" What is it? Cruelly, it's the bad boy that none of them were able to become because they kept all that choose-life stuff they were ridiculing at bay while the hard won gratification nullified their lives. The song is a kind of confession by an incorrigible reprobate whose violence and chaotic will yet make him a valuable asset to daily life. He's a bastard but impossible to hate as he is armed with charm. But this is no Renton nor even a Begbie. The dad's best friend is middle class and able to "choose the hookers he likes the best" because he's privileged. It takes a breath or two to sink in but as the pair of old friends watch the video and laugh at the clever cheek of the visuals we know they also understand that every second of the years that have brought them to this point have been a waste.

The nostalgia in the reminiscence scene, soured by the contemporary pop song, can only ever be a lie, not just a futile grasp at an art-directed past but an out and out fib. The good old days are for the winners only and there's just nothing left to win here. When the force of Begbie discovers Spud's retelling of their shared past he responds to the account of one of his own atrocities like a viking hearing his own saga sung back to him. His fury abates only to let the vanity that fuels it refuel. And nostalgia chews its own tail.

Director Danny Boyle takes all this further into poignancy by giving us a lot of footage of what will pass for the characters as boys. They are larking about at school, goofing for the camera and then we see where they've gone. It's like a deep gravity version of Seven Up a few minutes at a time. More, all the references to the 1995 film like Renton's update on the "choose life" monologue or the laughter on the bonnet of the breaking car give us all pause who were fans of the first film and bid us turn the camera around, selfie-style, and look before we judge. Boyle's return to his chief triumph, then, does have a point and was clearly worth making but I wonder if it is not too precise, too comfy then confronting for its guaranteed fans to deal with and perhaps too embarrassingly sour for those younger who might too easily triumph in its candour.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

FILM BUFFS FORECAST : a personal ramblection

Three things came true about Melbourne. It was cold. There were trams. People cared about the life they led and those around them. That last one was important. I'd come from the Brisbane of the SEQEB dispute (Google it) and whatever sense of city there had been was pressed into gutter mud. We lived in our houses in a place. Melbourne was a city and felt like a community: hangover-bloating barkers at the Vic Market, genuinely funny tram conductors, pubs that roared with the living, bafflingly tribal sport fandom, and radio stations that made you feel part of everything. That was immediately noticeable: the talk.

I sampled all of them, the community-based stations, because they all felt like open windows. There had been an exciting tension to 4ZZZ's hot politics and exploratory pursuit of the life in the shadows of culture but the Melbourne stations, unburdened of the near totalitarian conditions of the deep north, could talk about so much more and did. Support of the constantly spiky and compelling local music scene was unquestioned and expected but the hours of comics, zines, theatre, literature and contemporary life not so much. There was even sport! (In the Brisbane of the early '80s you could be alternative or care about sport: binary. So it was never on 4ZZZ and to this day I can't tell you a damned thing about football.) And then there was film.

I was a recently graduated BA in a degree heavy with movies. I was a snob about it but that was draining from me the more I saw of film outside of a range of directors (which included Jean Luc Godard and .... well, just him, really). I learned to recall how much I loved the cinema outside of its intense political uses. Melbourne had a lot of cinemas. The arthouses alone seemed to number as many as indy rock venues and were as crowded. In my first month I saw Ray Lawrence's Bliss at the then new (now vanished) Russell and Orson Welles's version of The Trial at the old Valhalla. I was a Welles fan and knew the Kafka film from a few stills and a chapter of commentary at uni and considered it effectively lost. With both old and new so accessible the city seemed genuinely fabulous, paradisical.

Saturdays began late as we were always hungover. We'd make it to the markets after eleven, come back laden with goodness and bash together a big fried breakfast with a lot of coffee and the papers. The radio went on and Film Buffs Forecast came out. At that time the team was John Flaus and Paul Harris and they did something I hadn't heard before on any media show about cinema: they talked. I mean they talked like they were in the kitchen with us. It might have been something contemporary like Kiss of the Spider Woman or vintage like Night and Fog but the talk was gapless, often so enthusiastic that it felt like eavesdropping on the awkward conflict that only happens between friends.

Their interviews were similarly conversational, a literal exchange of views, and could draw out any guest (except director Ian Pringle whose responses were as sparse as his films' dialogue and allowed me to notice him audibly lighting a cigarette with a match and who was described while still in the room as not so much an expressionist interviewee as an impressionistic one). The conversation went for two hours on a Saturday afternoon and I left it with my head buzzing with references and notes to myself. Bugger the forging of prose fiction that day. I'd usually just go for a walk around Royal Park and digest everything.

The other thing was film music. They played music from the movies they were talking about or others they just liked or were somehow related. Flaus and Harris talked about that, too. It was the era of arthouse soundtracks in the record collection. Everyone had a copy of something like the Betty Blue or Paris Texas discs which became the dinner music of the time as we eased into our twenties and started affording things like dinner parties. But to have it on the radio along with talk of the movies themselves was bliss. It formed a kind of 3D cube from the speakers, a construction that included interviews with the filmmakers but also composers, editors, writers, cinematographers, stunt people and so on which constructed the world behind the screen and the scaffolding around the ideas and the practice. And inside, where the pictures rolled past and the music played and the voices spoke was a house with many mansions. That seems a lot to give a couple of hours of chat and tunes but all that's missing from the description is the purpose of the exercise, the source point and continued pursuit of quality. It's not the entertainment value (the show is frequently hilarious with off the cuff quipping) and it isn't the vast command of subject that Paul Harris and his varying cast of co-hosts have provided over the decades. It's not even the unflagging cinephilia. It's something more essential. It's community.

Film Buffs Forecast appears to have had its future pulled. And recent conversations and exchanges on social media have spoken up about this and many of them are quick to point out that thirty-six years of the show constitutes an inviolable tradition. Well, I guess so but I know that it needs only one administrative new broom to remind us that all things come to an end. However unjust it might seem that person will always say that secure that they come off as boldly forward thinking. It's too vulnerable an appeal for me. You can never argue against change. You can, however, argue for something that survives change, slowing like Ol' Man River beneath and beside the most brutalising change. So, to buggery with tradition, I want want I had and should still be able to claim: give me my community. Commitment to community is the thing that makes my annual re-subscription a no brainer. Community is what makes listening to 3RRR so engaging, after all this time I still feel a sense of belonging to something outside of my life of work, social circles and leisure; outside but also within. It's permanent but portable ... well it was permanent. Things must change? Sure, but ditching Film Buffs for a music show is like buying out a Fitzroy bookshop to put another cafe on Brunswick St. Well, I still live in Fitzroy but I make my coffee at home these days.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: LOVING

When it was against the law a white man marries a black woman and they are banished by a court from their home in Virginia. It's 1958 and no one's been looking too hard at how creaky some of the antebellum legislation has grown. The civil rights movement is rising and the couple's case is on its way to Washington. Great courtroom drama stuff, this. Except that doesn't happen. This is a Jeff Nichols film.

Nichols has been earning his auteur stripes all decade long with his strange spare fables like Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. He keeps things day-to-day but knows how intense that can be. And here, at the centre of what becomes a national case the voices in the courts might rage with oratory but on the ground it's bricks wrapped in magazine articles left on a driver's seat or faceless men in utes following closely on darkening country roads. The hatred is in the air, the light and the heatwaves on the bitumen, never quite breaking out of a constantly worrying smoulder.

Mostly, though, there is the life of a growing family. Kids are born, play and run in front of cars. Mum and dad go about their lives. The lawyers and the Life Magazine reporters come and go as we are reminded that these people are living with this outrage among the breakfast cereal mornings and sitcom nights in front of the tv. The space and light of a house has seldom been so palpable on screen as here. This can be measured and studious but it isn't boring for a second. And when he needs it Nichols can bring the action or the tension out without effort. The sense of deliberate helmsmanship is continuous.

And when it's time for the lawyers to front the court and make their epochal speeches it has a pageant quality, the bench of judges blurred as the educated heads appear in close focus. In turn they begin their cases but we hear little more than the very first statements. Spielberg or Stone would forge an extra hour of French polished set dressing and mighty declamation, a faltering line here or there to instil a little doubt at the outcome, perhaps, but moving toward a great motion in history. Here we get Richard Loving working on his car and Mildred doing the ironing. At what might have been a great echoing gavel of a climax in a more conventional film we get a smile, the kind of smile that would have happened anyway but now is eased with conclusion.

So, how do we put up with it, this courtroom epic that isn't? Casting, for starters. The central pair carry a load. Ruth Negger's Mildred runs on anger and intelligence but knows where she comes from and can falter in speaking her mind or asking the life-changing questions. Joel Edgerton is all containment. His near albino presentation and tightly controlled body language speak for most of his screen time which features so few lines you'd swear the ghost of Stanley Kubrick edited them. A grunt can go a long way in this role and frequently must. Together, the couple convince us of the threat of the world outside their door and the strengths that carry them through the hours. Also, Nichols' eye for landscape and space has not failed him. This is a stunning visual feast.

For a story that had broad brush politics written all over it, Nichols' refusal to submit to studio-style grandstanding is admirable. He gives us the life worth debating rather than the debate as he knows we can do that ourselves, and probably will, after the credits roll out. And one final point of achievement: this story that concerns southern U.S. country folk and the traditions of American oratory, there isn't a syllable of religious pleading in the entire running time. Nichols himself is from the South (his Mud was shot in his native Arkansas) and surely intended this to weigh with his American audiences. He continues to interest me.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Valhalla Regained #3: MAN FACING SOUTHEAST

An Argentinian film that kept popping up on the arthouse schedules and had a persistent word of mouth. I don't know why I didn't see it at the time as the premise sounded intriguing. Saw this with two friends on the Labour Day long weekend. An extra patient, Rantes, turns up in a psychiatric ward claiming that he is an alien studying Earthlings and their reported stupidity. Is he telling the truth or mentally impaired? A series of dialogues between him and his psychiatrist reveal little more than his conviction and, if anything, begin to influence the doctor rather than the reverse. A strong and complex piece that might not resolve neatly for the central characters but has more to say about the Earthlings themselves. The notion of perception and its effect looms large and I wonder if one of Rantes' powers is meant to be shared hallucination or literal reality. I'll happily watch this again to find out.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Valhalla Regained: A Project


Shadows as a film night swells up like a ghost limb on a Friday evening. It's always bad but if I find myself on Smith Street at that time it can weigh a ton. I'll still glance down Perry Street and I'll want to cross the road and get myself to the Campbell Street corner, swing in through the steel door, wave to Milos and set up the projector.

Nostalgia's best use is to fill gaps in the present. So, one day when I tried a search on the Valhalla catalogues that used to be a part of the decor in any inner city shared house I came up with nothing. Asking a cinephile friend was rewarded with a swag of them from the eighties and nineties. I got them home and wrote down the title of everything I'd missed at the time and then worked out how to source it. Lack addressed. Well, a start.

It's not just the old days and ways but the sense of getting in front of the unknown again. We who went to them trusted the arthouses to give us the hidden and the outcast as well as the non-anglophone. They confronted us with Irreversible, terrified us with Ringu and delighted us with ? (and that's just the 2000s). And in between those titles were the ones I couldn't make. Time poverty, poverty from part-time hours, whatever it was I missed them. This is their story and the tale of the thrill of gem hunting. These home screenings will not always be crowd pleasers and I won't be responsible. I'll know only enough about the choices to make me want to see them (really just the premise) so I won't be able to vouch for them.

The first two were:

The Official Story:
Argentina's dirty war has been swept away and school teacher ? enjoys an easy privileged life with her businessman husband and adorable adopted daughter. But history keeps coming at her from the unruly classes of the creative literature teacher before her and the dissent the boys are learning to the increasingly forgetful circle of middle class friends she can scarcely tolerate. And the trail leads all the way back home as her investigations into atrocities suffered by a close friend intrigue her.  A slow burn depending on solid performance and an unfliching eye on the issues.

I only vaguely recall seeing this in the calendar in the mid-eighties but, given the subject matter, I wonder that I didn't get to it at the time. We were sobered by it, even after the champagne and heavy home made pizzas of dinner


Walker:
William Walker, a mercenary employed by uber-capitalist Cornelius Vanderbilt to stabilise central America becomes his conquered territory's dictator and eventual enemy of his boss. Alex Cox's far superior follow up to the execrable Sid and Nancy finds him in fine form, giving us all the cheek of Repo Man but none of the reverence of the biopic. Using anachronism with increasing force to reduce the gap between U.S. incursions south of the border and allowing a dynamic central performance by the still little-known Ed Harris Cox creates a solid fable with a lean eye on the stylising.

I did want to get to this one and was even dating a woman who lived around the corner from the Valhalla when it moved to Northcote. We planned to go but household politics at her place demanded support from me. It got intense. Thinking of it, even though the issue was resolved in time neither of us would have taken to the quirks of the movie. Though ever on the left my politics had started to lighten. I don't think hers ever did.

Good start. Where next?