Sunday, May 29, 2016

Review: WHISKY TANGO FOXTROT

Kim, a copy writer for a New York based news service is deemed worthy of a frontline post as she is among the few available staff still unattached. She takes the opportunity to change her life and heads to Afghanistan in the wake of the Coalition incursion where she is rapdily inducted into the toughness of military reporting and the emotional steam-valving of the media back in Kabul.

She becomes part of the Kabubble, the live-fast-die-whenever fellowship. When she is asked for her motivation to come to this violent realm she tells a story of how she felt she was stagnating. Her anecdote is smirkingly described as white lady and she admits it. Whatever the cause, however came the first sharp taste she soon uses the phrase "I need a hit" to mean both a high profile story and a dose of adrenaline. The Kabubble is all about supply and demand.

This is a well told story that shares some cousinship with Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker though with understandably less white-knuckling. What fills the gaps here is not the looser tension of that film expressed in macho bouting but with wit and a kind of comedy of manners under fire. While this makes for a perfectly credible approach and a decent movie it also forms the chief point of resistance for any viewer even slightly versed in the career of its star Tina Fey.

The scene in the news room establishing the reason for Kim's deployment turns on a joke about attachment, corporate culture and a threat to life and limb. It's a funny joke but it feels like a diluted joke from 30 Rock or Kimmy Schmidt. It takes a few scenes for this to clear but any fan of those shows will have to do some quick negotiating with this movie to avoid disappointment.

It would be a shame if that happened too often as the seriousness underlying this tale is weighty and well played. Fey's performance is nuanced and serious and triumphs against her movie's early attempts to sell an Altmanesque satire on the Afghanistan conflict and its reportage (nice exchange over that word in the dialogue).

Alfred Molina's Afghan minster might be brushed a little broadly. Martin Freeman's Scottish veteran reporter might remind us of an earlier Oliver Stone caricature. Margot Robbie's ambitious hot Brit might recall any number of tokenistic characters. Have we not seen Billy Bob Thornton's gruff field officer a little too often in the last few decades? All of these, though, bring enough lift to let the aisle jaffas roll under them without taint.

But that's the thing. Watch the performance. Follow the character. She develops and the trek is not an easy one. Allow the satirical, arch, cynical tones that fly around like ricochets their due but keep your eye on the centre and keep your head. Fey is funny, frequently, but she's good at that and always has been. Don't get fixed on it, though, it's not Fey, it's her character. This is not Liz Lemon does the War on Terror, it's much better.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Review: GOODNIGHT MOMMY (original title Ich Seh, Ich Seh)

A widescreen frame within a frame of a vintage clip of a von Trapp like family singing Brahms Cradle Song in angelic harmony. The mother directs them and while she might only be concentrating on their performance her face is cold with concern.

Two young boys, twins by the looks, gambol about in a rustic setting, running through corn fields or exploring forests. Two moments cool the joy down, one at a cave entrance and the other on a lake. They amble back to their designer house in a field and wait around the house.

An SUV drives up. Their mother is back. We don't get a maternal embrace. The boys have to find her by following a scraping sound at the other end of the  house. The mother is in her room, opening and closing blinds. She is back from surgery. Her face is bound in a mask of surgical dressings. She greets the boys sternly, chiding them for their dirty appearance and orders them to clean up and dress properly.

At this point  we are given what I think is the first token in a slow revelation. I won't spoil this but will note that it is quite clear if unstated. I believe this is deliberate. We are to follow this film with the notion in mind, wondering if we're right and when, if we're right, the big reveal will come and with what impact. It will be just one more fuse of tension.

Another is how the boys begin to doubt that she is their mother or a kind of reversed changeling. The evidence mounts and the boys must take action. They do. But it's not so simple.

There are fevered dreams, real and imagined atrocities, extraordinary events but mostly there is a tension that stands above the others in the tug of war between a dreamy fairytale logic and a cold European realism. Mostly, this plays fair (the head-rattling scene in the woods) by being certified either way but much is left vague. Were these boys really left to themselves while their mother was in hospital? Are we just seeing what felt like the case? The original German title is Ich seh. Ich Seh or "I see. I see." We know it in English as "I spy with my little eye."

If we keep up with this film we are rewarded with some definite statements in answer to our questions and then take delivery of a final question and here, if we know our classic weird tale tv history, we are sent, like the strange creatures Billy Mumy conjures in his Twilight Zone episode ,  to the cornfield.

If we are easily distracted we might dismiss Goodnight Mommy as yet another EuroHorror in the mold of a Funny Games crossed with a Martyrs. The traits are there and if that's all there is to it, you could go for your life flinging mud. But that its delivery of its guessing game is done with so much else should seize all of those charges before they make it out of your breath.

Here's my real bone to pick, though. This film was given a generous publicity tease with a trailer that was reputed to be the scariest ever. It wasn't. It looked tense and weird but most of its audience have seen scarier. Regardless, the process was aborted locally by the film's cinema-bypassing appearance on one of the video on demand services (Stan, in this case). As I had already paid for the ticket, as it were, I put it on one night and then showed it to friends as I needed a second viewing. What I didn't have was a cinema screening. I wasn't discouraged from interruption or wandering attention. I wasn't its captive. If I had been then once would have been enough. It would have filled my consciousness and once would have been enough.

There's a smile in the credits with the words: Shot in glorious 35 mm. I know it still would have been projected digitally (no complaints about that but it does dampen the claim). But even that would have had the tang of the cinema as home rather than the reverse.

Just sayin'.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review: A MONTH OF SUNDAYS

Frank is numb. He functions through his job and marriage aftermath but little more. One day he comes home and takes a call from his mother. She complains about her hip and chides him for smoking. After a fairly lengthy chat both realise that this is a wrong number and sign off awkwardly. Frank is disturbed. The conversation made him feel something. He'd call his real mother but she's been dead for months.

Haunted he calls the lady again. They begin a self-avowedly weird relationship which she, Sarah, recognises as a kind of mother surrogacy. Frank is so hooked on the contact that he has no idea of the potential nervous cataclysm it might bring him. But he has improved. His ex, from deep in her narcissistic profession as a successful actor, thinks he's got a new girlfriend.

I began this film with resistance. There are some overplayed scenes. Frank and his boss being intimidated by a lawn sprinkler is annoying rather than funny. The score is a jarring brass-heavy jazz which misdirects us into expecting an offbeat comedy. A few colourful character sketches later and my heart went looking for icebergs in preference to a couple of hours of Aussie-movie quirk.

But all of this eased as this quite beautiful film found its stride. Matthew Saville's return to the big screen after his continued tv work is welcome. I've been aware of him since Noise and watching this latest one bloom into cinema.

He is a filmmaker who puts his chops on the table but only ever just enough. A long track from behind two characters as they converse takes us into the bustle of a tv studio and the expense of the personal time that one of them pays. It's not just Scorsesean flash. If we note the train of girls in pink going past in the background holding helium balloons like escapees from a Wes Anderson shoot we also see in the same take the released balloons drift back across the sky behind the focussed characters. There's a point to them being children and letting go of things that fly. It's a broad brush but the stroke is gentle (which is more than I can say for anything by Wes Anderson. But what about -? No, none of them).

This is a tale of grief and the responsibility of survivors to do more living. The levity that this demands is expressed throughout as a kind of day-to-day wit that, while it does on occasion feel written, is delivered by this film's dream cast with a natural finish.

I've taken too long to write this review, time spent mostly in editing gushes, so I'll finish here by paying it two well-earned compliments. The first is that it is the best Australian cinema experience I've had since The Babadook: it is a film made of cinema (in case you were concerned that Saville was smuggling his tv work into the dark); it's scope and execution form a capsule for its audience.

The second compliment is that I was struck more than once in the atmosphere and quality of observation of the writing of Peter Carey. The sense of place (Adelaidean Saville composes a rich portrait of his native town) is exquisite and a lot of the dialogue is allowed to be absorbed between characters who mentally finish thoughts the way we do in real life. Finally, there is a spring garden on a day a degree or two too hot to comfortably wear a suit. Like the houses up for sale throughout and Frank's voiceover real estate summaries of them there is a sense of home and transition in the heat and the greenery of the back yard. This leads to the final image in which Frank wordlessly understands something he has previously failed to grasp. I left the cinema imagining how Carey might have put that for an Oscar Hopkins or a Harry Joy.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Review: SON OF SAUL

As Saul emerges from the coloured blur of the opening shot into sharp focus, we are already troubled. The unfocussed landscape has been held for a little too long. There was a pair of figures in a huddle under a tree who seemed to be making sexual cooing sounds. They run off at Saul's appearence. And then when we see Saul's chiselled from wood face with its serious blankness we don't know if we want to know where he is going.

He moves along to help herd the new arrivals from their train to an antechamber where they strip as they are promised a life of hot soup and fulfilled labour after their shower. As the last of them are in Saul takes his place holding the door to the showers firm as the people on the other side clamour to escape the poison filling their lungs, his face a serious blank.

He is one of the Sonderkommando units formed by the Nazis from the camp inmates to control the rest at the ground level and he has done this long enough to know that if he shows anything readable on his face he might well join the ones on the other side of the door. We wonder if he is about to explode or if he has successfully smothered his emotions and we wonder at a life lived this way.

As he is scrubbing the floor of the range of waste left by people who knew they were being murdered he hears a wheezing form the pile of dead naked bodies and seeks it out. A boy in his early teens convulsively coughing. Saul carries him out, magnetised as though he recognises the child, only to watch a Nazi doctor casually finish the boy off and order an autopsy. Saul thinks he has recognised his son. Behind his hard mask his eyes burn as he resolves to save the boy from mass cremation and bury him according to Jewish ritual.

As a Sonderkommando member Saul is able to move more freely about the camp than most of the other inmates and his quest to find a rabbi who will say kaddish over his son's corpse during burial brings him into the circle of a group of militants planning a breakout. This sounds plotty and every scene contributes to both strands But this is not a conventional action movie nor a typical Holocaust film. And, though, it might well seem like it, it isn't really a story about a father and son triumphing into focus against a blur of inhumanity. More troublingly, this is a story of the value of life itself and the quality we expect of our time on earth to identify it as life.

Saul's quest feels futile, as futile as the planned resistance, and it can be a struggle to empathise with his determination. But that is the brief, here, we meet or reject the challenge thrown us to follow and support his quest. The reason we do lies in two things that, if only slightly mishandled, might have created a massive failure of a film.

The first is Gez Rohrig's performance. From his place at the gas chamber door, holding people like himself in and pushing his reaction back down where it can't hurt him to flopping like a rag doll when toyed with by a German officer we know very swiftly that there is a small cosmos of pity and anger beneath his flat functional mask. We know that he believes he has found a means to touch a humanity he can remember having. It is pointed out to him, among others' doubts that it is actually his son, that in Jewish ritual there is no requirement that a rabbi say the kaddish. Saul's insistence is less strict observance than a childlike overstatement: he's not getting religion, he's resuming his humanity.

The second reason this works is the filmmaking itself. Keeping to the near square academy ratio (the shape of all those old tvs you remember evicted on to nature strips at the end of the noughties) and a short lens, director Lazlo Nemes, keeps the focus deftly on Saul's head (front or rear) which often fills the frame, leaving all around it to remain a disturbing blur. The painstakingly intricate weave between camera, Saul and the mise en scene in these long takes (it often feels breathlessly like a huge single take) prevent us from thinking of anything or anyone but Saul and his quest. We are allowed to tire of it or be annoyed by it but its sincerity is never out of frame. The sound design of this film often fills in what we can't see with a weave so masterful it could stand as a musique concrete installation piece. One scene in particular, back in the antechamber, in the heart of the genocide-by-factory, the brown and sweaty light is bashed by barked orders and the drone of lists being read out. We are being invited in, as new arrivals but also guided by experienced inmates.

The Holocaust setting is important for this story as it gives us a constricting context that is instantly recognisable as history and suggestive of more recent events. It also renders credible the central thread of the quest to honour or save a corpse from a contemptuous disposal, to swerve away from the machinery at least that once. I've since learned that Nemes's primary inspiration for the look and feel was Ellem Klimov's harrowing and masterful Come and See, another film set against a historical backdrop that both benefitted from and transcended it. That film's retributive finale gives us a gun shot that can't be taken. Son of Saul offers a kind of redemption we might have given up on seeing but like Klimov's epic whether we cry at sight of it or triumph in it is for us, each in our seats in the dark.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Review: LOOKING FOR GRACE: Too lazy, dear Susan, too lazy

Right, there's a Grace who is a character who goes missing and there is grace which is a character trait which all of these characters are missing. If you're still with me, this is a tale told as a kind of lazy Susan whereby you are offered pieces of the greater meal which can come around again and mean a little more each time. There is a scene with a lazy Susan in a restaurant.

You might be getting a tone from that beginning but I did like the motion of the narrative in this film and how we are invited to judge characters until we see their motives more clearly as the lazy Susan of the story turns again. And we revolve and revolve, revisiting moments that gain weight just as we might in a restaurant with a wheel in the middle of the table.

So, why am I resisting this film so much when I have no trouble appreciating what amounts to an effective approach to an ensemble story? Well, because almost all of it drags under its own contrivance, the performances are annoyingly uneven and hampered by doughy dialogue that no one outside of this screenplay has ever uttered (and not in the Beckett/Pinter good way), and a detachment that seems unaware rather than assured of itself and a slow and creaky pendulum that doesn't quite make it to the drama or the comedy end of its trajectory.

If Rhada Mitchell, Terry Norris and Odessa Young could take the unbaked dialogue seriously enough to give measured performances that at least mean something in their scenes and they all worked together, why could no one rein in Richard Roxburg's hammy theatrical turn? He ruins every one of the many many scenes he is in with his mugging and overblown emoting, rendering his dialogue bizarrely alien to his dramatic surrounds. The others might be in a quirky light comedy and he's stiff and serious. If the scene veers toward the darker side of things he gets all perky. Is he telling us something about his character's alienation from the world that binds him? No, he's just overacting.

Maybe he didn't have much of a chance as the film itself tries to navigate between the different moods suggested by the complexities of the structure and its piecemeal information feed but I don't think so. After some well directed scenes in the coach and hotel rooms which really kick things off with promise we too soon enter into a series of vignettes that feel workshopped by actors rather than written by an author with a plan. With the kind of Altman/P.T. Anderson puzzle attempted here surely the worst thing to do is to allow too loose a fit between the pieces. They need to intrigue us but here they render us indifferent. The wheel keeps moving but it's grinding down and nothing looks tempting anymore.

And then we are given the cataclysmic event whose suddenness and violence should jolt us into feeling the void of grace and the dramatic importance of being ready for our fate with a soul in a clean state. The moment is delivered with effective ugliness and it is fitting that it jolts with the mood now long established. It falls flat, though, unless you've engaged with these warm props and the sounds of dialogue that they provide.

Which brings me to the score. I was really enjoying the delicate orchestration of the opening sequences with its solid strings and tremolo flute descant. It paid a subtle homage to Picnic at Hanging Rock but was resolutely its own music. We're not going to hear its like again until the wheel turns that last time and we're back in serious land. Meantime we get a charming clarinet theme and a quirky --

I just wanted the movie to return to the original mood, to keep to it and find all the same things it looks for in this manifestation but with a pleasing empathy to let us in. Oh, one thing I still like aobut it a lot is the opening credit sequence which I've never seen in a film before. We are led over some aerial views of landscapes which we soon start questioning as they don't look quite right. Are they landscapes from a great height or tiny stretches of beach or dirt up so close that they look epic: are they mountains or molehills? The pity of it is that we only get to see the molehills.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Review: ROOM

A child tells the story of his birth. His name is Jack. The account has the weird sound of a child piecing together something a parent has said so that by the time it is spoken again, it is as solid as mythology. We descend from a skylight filled with a night sky to a room whose wear and tear make it look exhausted. We are in extreme poverty and as we see the boy go around the room saying good morning to everything in it, each appliance and stick of furniture, we are asking serious questions. The conversations between him and his mother feel very natural but it isn't long before the turns of phrase and missing pieces give them a bizarre flavour. So, will Old Nick bring some supplies from the magic on the TV when he comes next? No, it's not poverty and the boy is not autistic: the mother is an abductee and her son was born in captivity. Everything he understands of the world has come from her reality-softening imagination. The quite moving opening scenes sour to curds in an instant. We recall cases from the news of recent years of abduction and home incarceration. The bright world of the little boy (who does not believe there is anything outside their prison which he knows only as Room) is a dungeon.

When Jack turns five his mother decides it's time to act. First, she reverses his entire world view. There is an outside. There are other people and animals and trees there. Not everything on television is make believe. Room is a prison and now it's time to leave. His response is violent and resistant but every point of skill she has gained in his education so far is used to bargain and reason the real world into existence and she persuades him to help her get at least him to freedom.

While this story has been spoiled by its own publicity (with the purpose of diverting attention from the atrocity at its centre) I'll do little to describe the plot from this point. There is a lot left but that in itself is worth the discovery at the cinema. But it's no spoiler to state that most of this film keeps its eye unwaveringly on the thread between mother and son, the threats that move around it and the fragile strength of its own fabric.

It wouldn't take a stretch to imagine that the outside, if achieved, might contain prisons of its own, however benign, however nicer the decor or the food, or even promise to form just a larger prison. There might even be prisons created within the skulls of the people outside, prisons whose builders have wilfully left locked and keyless.

Once I accepted that this would be the movie I easily settled for its examination of these and further questions. Soon the primarily impressive thing about this film is its insistent focus on the effects of the incarceration and their resonance, the lifelong lessons that will be necessary for the captors to extract themselves fully from their grim beginnings. If plunging into a completely contrary reality poses difficulties for the boy he at least is resourceful and has a child's great capacity for learning. But what of the grown woman who was snatched away as a child, the reverse journey?

It's true that if this had just been a story of the developing bond between parent and child, with the same finely observed writing, it might well have met obscurity. Its birth in atrocity allows for the kind of violent adjustment and committed engagement from us in the seats until our compulsion masks that we ask the same questions of this that we might have left dormant without it. This is a film with the word in its beginning and, from a deftly designed mottled language from a boy who has been educated by a child. Emma Donoghue's adaptation of her own novel seems to have left much of the source intact at the same time as writing a screenplay that is never less than cinematic.

Brie Larson as Joy, the mother, keeps it natural but it's an intense natural. Her face falls when stumbling on a phrase whose hurtfulness is indistinguishable from frustration. She carries her character's bizarre burden as though living in it without bathing. She offers truth, including the possibly unending process of taking form in the world outside. Jacob Tremblay's Jack allows us into the unimaginable character by keeping his childhood close. He is playing an alien newly arrived on Earth (he even asks in earnest if they are on the same planet at one point) but one who responds in the emotional kaleidoscope familiar to anyone who has been a child.

I was one of the few of the few who saw director Lenny Abrahamson's Frank and was left unimpressed with its lack of focus and pleas for indulgence. While there are sagging developments here or a score that travels from Eno-like ambience through post-rock droning to a disappointingly mainstream stringsection swelling up over the end credits there, the piece is strong and confident of its mission. Nowt left for me to say but, "accomplished."

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Bluer Than Velvet is the Night


Happy birthday, David Lynch.

This afternoon at teabreak I went through the birthday lists at Wikipedia to find someone to draw for my Daily Tablet blog. Lynch's name popped out of the list. Immediately, I started planning on ways to get home and Lynch.

I wanted to crawl in and walk around the house in Lost Highway where the plumes of smoke ascend the stairs like femmes fatale to a drone that doesn't seem to have come from anywhere. Or I wanted to cling to the shadows in Dorothy Vallens' apartment building which seems to be in downtown 40s Chicago but is only streets away from the hero's Norman Rockwell green lawn home from the 50s. All of that.

But even more, I wanted to enter into scenes from none of those movies but in locations that they had given form. Just as the best horror movies from any era had shaped my childhood longing for houses built of rooms pregnant with threat and bade me open doors and describe wonders David Lynch's movies bestowed on experiences I loved for no apparent reason a home.

The dirt and grease of a farm machine and the smell of sawdust will do it. Or passing a bent cyclone fence around a rained-on lot at night. Add something through a corridor or just in a shadow, a form almost indistinguishable from the dark around it. Nothing happens because it doesn't need to. The atmosphere, the state of flux between shocking horror and an instantly puzzling kitsch beauty is enough. That's a Lynch moment without a frame of film shot. A car's headlights briefly turn the scene into a slow camera flash. The sound of machinery a few blocks away. The overhead wires hum.

Lynch is the only filmmaker known to me whose aesthetic alone can conjure walk-ins, whole scenes that never were nor will be beyond my daydreaming mind. I can imagine Lynch moments in real life the way I can't concoct Peter Strickland, Dario Argento, Maya Deren or Guy Maddin. Those wonderworkers live on screen, beautifully, powerfully, but only there. A walk past a vacant lot can feel like a Lynch movie.

So, this post isn't much more than that. I'll get some stuff done tonight and then turn in (it's Wednesday) but before that I'll put on one of the ones I like less on the hunch that I've never given it a proper chance, float through the colour, the dark and the bright puzzles and raise a glass to one born and still alive in this week of the deaths of imaginative people. Happy birthday, explorer man.