Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review: TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT

Sandra is woken by the phone. She rises, rifles through her bag and answers. As soon as she says hello the oven starts nagging and then as she hears what we don't she struggles with the pastry she's been cooking and is getting increasingly upset. Hanging up, she rushes to the bathroom and snaps two tablets from a foil and washes them down. Her face in the mirror is panic. We don't quite know why but she seems to be taking things a little too hard.

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

Review: WHIPLASH

This pas de deux of power is about the gestation and the labour; we already know our guy will be born from the first scene: he's asked by a master to show off and is shunned when he fails. Notice I use imagery of birth rather than manhood? This powerful and angry film is not Iron John - the kid already has a father who is rounded and supportive - it's much better.

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

Review: INTERSTELLAR

Failed NASA testpilot turned failing farmer stumbles into an active role in a plan to save humanity from its self destructive urge through a mission to the stars. The good part is that this calls upon a dizzying array of ideas that render this epic into genuine science fiction and not just a sicence fiction setting. The bad part is that these are frequently undercut by great lunking cliches and dimmer sparks. Once again, Christopher Nolan has given us a great popcorn movie but held us down until we slap the playground dirt and call it an epic.

RIGHT, SO...

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.

BUT...

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

Thirteen for Halloween



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...

Contemporary Mainstream
Wahhahahahahahahahahahahahaha! which
is the kind of dialogue I hear when I see
something like this.
Insidious and anything else by James Wan or anything like them. These scary-skull party decorations wear me out with their quiet quiet LOUD formula but for all their identikit nature they are at least reliable and you can talk over them as you won't be missing any suspense. Serve with the free-chicken-wing-and-family-size-softdrink deals from the nearest franchise pizza place. No concentration required and you won't retain a second of screen time to haunt you later. Examples, The Conjuring, Sinister and the godawful "Harry Potter and the Woman in Black".

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



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.

Mainstream gothic
All the scares of the Ghost Train ride
Blade, Underworld, Mama, etc. All serviceable narrative pieces with a few scares and suspense but I find so much backstory really wetblankets a horror movie. It give its audience too much control over the events. The reason we wake up gasping from nightmares is precisely because we can't control them. But these usually have some fine art direction.






Horror Comedy
This is a good one. It's almost the only one.
The best one is Shaun of the Dead because it remembers to be scary as well as funny. The rest usually just give up and try to be funny but the best of them are good at that. Scream (keep it to the first one) Bad Taste, Beetlejuice are all fine examples. Word of advice: don't start with one of these if you are going down the party atmosphere path as it will make everyone take the piss out of everything else. That might sound great but it really gets fatiguing quickly and any return to appropriate mood will feel like someone turned the lights on. Try it last or after something that does have an effect. That works.

Well, that should do you. Or ....

For horror fans and the curious of heart...

Apocalypse
Kairo/Pulse begins with social erosion as the online realm vacuums its users' lives which allows ghosts to spill over from existential intertia into a steadily scarier real world. The ghosts here aren't just scary, they're disturbing. If the dialogue is in English you are watching the wrong version: the real one is in Japanese. Tasssuketeeeeee....



See also Pontypool, Canadian slowburner is huge on atmosphere, character and cleverness. What's in a word?






Body Horror
Shivers gave David Cronenberg to the world. A science experiment gone wrong begets a sexually transmitted parasite in an isolated luxury highrise apartment complex. Genuinely disturbing ideas rise above the often hokey action and acting.




See also Audition, Takeshi Miike's nightmare of emotional distortion and ugly morality/body confusion will stay with you.







Found Footage
The Blair Witch Project is still the champ of this and deserves a look by anyone who has only heard of it and a new look for those who have seen it. If we follow we descend. The human imagination can be a bad place at the best of times but with only a little frustration turns into a constant nightmare.








See also .REC, best descendant of Blair Witch takes us from a rookie tv reporter's slow news night into a terryifiying enclosed hell. Brilliant ending you won't expect. If the ending of the first Paranormal Activity hadn't ruined the entire film with its bubblegum hokiness that would have been .REC's rival. But no.



Ghosts
Too many. It's a favourite sub genre. Hmmmm. Ok, Dark Water. Atmosphere and genuine tragedy provide solid support for a ghost story that will stay with you. If you think the coda scene is sweet give it a few minutes and feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up. If Jennifer Connelly is in it you are watching the wrong version. This is a Japanese film.





See also Lake Mungo: local and vocal masterpiece. You will NOT expect the climactic scene. Did you see it? What did you see?






Infestation
Quatermass and the Pit. One of the finest sci-fi minds of the mid twentieth century, Nigel Kneale, came up with this intriguer that like other greats of his takes narrative and thematic swerves you will not expect. Here it goes from possible unexploded German bombs in the London tube to human evolution. The locally released blu-ray is the same as the BFI, sensational.




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.




Satan
I'd normally put the ol' Exorcist here but this time I'll go subtler and nominate Rosemary's Baby. Before Friedkin drained the last gothic drop from movies about cults and the Divil Polanski had a red hot go substituting naturalistic acting for histrionics and worrying ideas instead of shocks. Expert casting of Mia Farrow and John Cassavettes bring this one home as a believable couple and Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as the old couple across the hall whose urbanity and comedy are equally sinister. "What have you done to it's eyes?" What did they do? Well, good horror requires you to use your imagination which ought to be more powerful than anything on a screen.

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.





Short Form

It's a really good idea to ease the burden of the parade of features with shorter pieces and they don't come much more curious than this series of twelve found footage ambushes collectively known as The Forbidden Files (also, Les Documents Interdits, in case you're braving the waves, sleets and torrents to find them). SBS showed these in the 90s as part of their Saturday night shorts showcase Eat Carpet. They were originally shown unannounced on French cable tv. From true life ghost stories, alien incursion, witchcraft and much more these ingeniously use the short running time (mostly only a few minutes) to maximum effect, playing on our trust at the sight of what looks like raw footage. Also, try some of the shorter form fiction that used to appear on TV like Twilight Zone (particularly the hour long Thirty Fathom Grave) or the shorter BBC Mr James adaptations like Whistle and I'll Come to You or Lost Hearts.

Slasher
Black Christmas is Bob Porky's Clark's jump start to the genre that would be planted in the 70s and take firm root in the 80s. Those phone calls!








See also Halloween (if it doesn't say 1978 somewhere in the details you are watching the wrong one).








Sui Generis
Lovely Molly sees half of the Blair Witch directorial team venture only a comfortable pace from the scene of his fame. Nevertheless, by concentrating on the internal crisis storming inside the central character rather than sudden scares adds depth and eeriness.





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.




Vampires
Martin: Is he a vampire or a very naughty boy? Either way, Martin is as confused and pissed off as any other teenager. How many of them ever wished they had the powers of mythical monsters? The generation gap doesn't get more poignant .... or bloody.







See also Lips of Blood:Jean Rollin's mix of perve and unnerve with a genuinely poignant ending to surprise.







Werewolf
Ginger Snaps. Lighten up the marathon with this still fresh take on lycanthropy. Whedonesque smarts mix with a welling real tragedy which emerges in a climax worthy of Cronenberg.








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.







Witches
Suspiria. The phrase style over substance is so pejorative that even as I put it here in order to twist it into a positive I hesitate. But with a palette determined by aggressive lighting and intentional use of old film stock, a massively powerful music score and enough tension and stark violence to fill several genre pieces, Suspiria's style IS its substance. Its relentless genuine nightmare logic is in force from the word go and is only weakened by a scene which attempts to explain the events and plant a telescope. Not for talking over but its 92 minutes don't allow that kinda malarky.

See also Black Sunday, Bava bravura in black and white with a mad eyed Barbara on the roam.







Zombies
Romero's Night is one of my favourites but for freshness I'll go with Lucio Fulci's Zombie. Very pervy and very gory but also strongly atmospheric. Aka Zombie Flesh Eaters and Zombi(e) 2.





See also Colin for a very British take that intrigues.











So, happy happy Halloween.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Review: GONE GIRL

Nick Dunne is still young but already jaded about marriage and the one he is part of. He goes to while away a few hours with his twin sister  at the bar they run and to bitch about things like anniversary presents. After a few too many whiskeys and board games he gets back home to signs of a struggle and an absence of his wife. He calls the cops. They suspect him. As the evidence piles up and his overbearing inlaws impose upon his small town community the finger is pointed his way. Intercut with this are flashbacks and diary entries by the missing person/deceased that also get dark 'n' nasty. Does he have a name left to clear?

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.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: BOYHOOD

This film was shot over 12 years. Everyone ages on screen as they did in life and no more dramatically than the characters who go from children to young adulthood. I could go on but you could look up the trivia section of the film's IMDB entry. There are screens worth of stats form this film's production that will make your jaw drop. The good news is that you can watch this movie without caring about any of that.

What you get is a journey through a family album. So what? Well, a family album can tell you a lot. I had a great job a few years back digitising collections of glass negatives from the early twentieth century. Among them was a series of family photos taken in the back yeard of a Melbourne house and spanned decades. They were not rich people but could dress for church which is what they did for their annual group photo. When World War One comes up the oldest brother is suddenly in a slouch hat and puttees. And then he is absent forever. Sometime after the flu year of 1919 the mother vanishes never to return. The garden, a mix of food and flowers goes to seed and eventually disappears. At some point in the early twenties the father, too, vanishes and in his place is a slightly younger man who can hold a grin for the camera and doesn't mind if it catches the glint of his pocket watch. The photo is black and white but that watch is gold plated. Uncle made good? Someone. No one else is happy. I took extra care on that set. They were glass negatives and delicate to begin with but the extra care was from being so moved by what I was witnessing.

Richard Linklater at his best is painstaking. Whether it's deceptively meandering like Slacker or the Before series or disciplined and tight like Me and Orson Welles, he's one to sweat the small stuff so the big stuff shines. And so it does here as we turn page after page of family history, smiling knowingly, laughing at sibling competition, wincing uncomfortably at the leavings of dysfunction and pain. 

We come to know how Lynne (Patricia Arquette) makes such hasty and poor judgements in her choice of partner but we don't judge because we see how hard she works to keep everything afloat. One of those poor judgements is, of course, Mason Snr (Ethan Hawke) whose dad-of-convenience learns to accept his responsibilities not through a sudden trauma but over time. The other two big mistakes we meet are believably magnetic. We see, too, the saddening ease by which a parent or parental figure can fall in a child's eye from natural authority and trust to disappointing weakness. And we understand the weakness, the shift to self-medication in the face of unbearable self-dissapointment.

Ellar Coltrane, who goes from seven to eighteen in the running time, develops as we would expect him to: quietly confident and increasingly capable of concealing profound anger at the unfairness around him. We come to know his flaws and the plaguing doubts that nurture them. When he is brought up for these by two authority figures their chiding at first feels annoying but soon proves accurate. Mason Jnr is slow to take direction, self-sabotaging the way that every teenager can be. When he is compelled by his teacher to go and photograph a local football match even his friends tell him to turn around and shoot the game. He's been perversely taking pictures of the crowd. He's a kid and resents authority more because it inconveniences him than from any nascent revolutionary fervour.

It is Lorelei Linklater (yes, director's daughter) who diverts us throughout as the mischevious Samantha, Mason Jnr's sister. She sneaks torment of her younger brother, throwing pillows at him while yelling a version of Opps I Did It Again. She serves him at the dinner table in a made up language and protests after he does that she only speaks perfect English. There might not be a single scene that includes her that doesn't involve some infruiating and genuinely funny smart-arsery. As with Ellar Coltrane, her personality arc feels natural. You will not be surprised at her response when the moment comes to make good for all those years and give her brother a proper sororal hug.

While what I said at the start of this review is true. You don't have to care about the epic-scale feat of this movie's production. However, if you do care, you will experience the same pleasant alienation at moments as you might have at the sight of the rescaled actors in Lord of the Rings. You really are seeing people grow up in front of you AND it looks and feels like one film. A girl from one scene is visibly older in a later one. Her only line is, "I'm thirteen," answering a question put to her by Samantha whom we remember first seeing as an eight year old. That alone, feeling as big as life and small as fiction at once, is an epic moment.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review: PREDESTINATION

A guy walks into a bar and says to the bartender' "I've got the best story you've ever heard". The bartender bets the guy a bottle of decent scotch that it won't be . The guy begins: "Well, when I was a little girl..."

We already know that the bartender is a time travelling agent on the trail of the infamous Fizzle Bomber whose 911-like atrocity is (in the guy-walks-into-a-bar time) soon to take place. Could he have his man here? Is he recruiting from the down and out who have no ties and nothing to lose? Well, it's complicated.

I already knew this new piece from the Spierig brothers was based on a mind bending short story I'd already read. It's an easy read by virtue of its length but it does make your head spin and, despite all the author's influential novels, I'd call it his masterpiece? Author? Title? Even that much would spoil this film. See it and check the credits for the story. But then read the story.

So what is there to say if I can't spoil this extremely spoilable movie?

It's two central performances by Ethan Hawke and Sara Snook give good gravity to this tale which, if played a hair below seriousness, might easily collapse in the first act. Snook brings a cold loneliness to her character, sustained through some sizeable changes. Hawke's isolation has more padded assurance but his thousand kilometre stare when alone shows inescapable pain. Without these neural fields buzzing this film would be just a cool idea. The short story, similarly remembers to go beyond the brain-tearing central conceit and deliver a big boomy sadness. It's the weakness that makes it strong.

The various time periods are expressed by pallette as well as decor and costume; brown 70s bar, Kodak-bright 60s colour etc. This is good show-not-tell and the dialogue extraneous to the pretty strictly adhered bar-room exchanges of the short story is kept light so that much is expressed without spoken exposition. I appreciate this feather touch with the necessary expansive material as it allows some weighty thinking in through what always feels quite breezy. The only time this is compromised is in the closing scenes where too much is explained. The notion at the heart of this story is a fragile one, for all its power, and would be better served by the trust in the audience we began with. It doesn't ruin the film, by any means (the Spierigs are going from strength to strength: may they work long and prosper) but a few lessons in restraint from the oft recalled 70s might have gone a long way.

A vote for Peter Spierig's score should be recorded here: a fine mix of orchestral and electronic is kept to supporting the energy rather than overwhelming it. Always a pleasure.

This film about balancing what can change you with what you can change is a sustained howl we all have loosed at some time. It's fitting that this time an approach that involves an educated retrograde approach recollects the special feeling of sci-fi's great eras (late 60s, early 70s, early 80s). Hang the over-explained ending, this movie feels like something.Yeah, that'll do. It feels like something the way that Blade Runner, Liquid Sky and The Quiet Earth felt like something: seamlessly produced or gaffer taped together, you've just seen a movie. That's more than I can say for most of what I've seen this year.

See it. And read the story. In that order.