Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016: THE HIGH


2016 was a year worth wiping away for many reasons but the quality of the good cinema was higher than usual. It was also more varied. Harrowing tales of desperation at the concentration camp gas chamber door to strong comedies with fragile surfaces, weird but effective sci-fi, les Dardennes extending themselves and Ken Loach digging in, a surprise Anglo/Iranian entry that acted as a kind of signal booster to the great Dark Water and on and on. At worst they are good films but at best they are of the unforgettable quality of the best of the long gone arthouse scene. Yes, there is still compelling cinema. And it's still in the cinema ... as well.

Son of Saul
Extraordinary cinema of the kind my nostalgic daydreams are crammed with when I think of the great days of Arthouse back in the 80s. Strangely staged, strongly maintained, harrowing and bizarrely beautiful. Geza Rohrig as Saul lets only the tiniest sign of emotion out from his persona of survivalist automaton until a vision of life affirmation compels a smile that feels like sunlight. Welling up as I remember it now.

My favourite of the year.





Evolution
Crazy science fiction with the strength of conviction to fiercely pursue a crazy premise. The sense of the imagined world never tears and there are so many moments where you think "they aren't going to do that" and then watch it happen.





Goodnight Mommy/Ich sehe ich sehe
Stark, nerve eating tale of a broken mother/children bond plays like a classic fairy tale as told by Michael Hanneke. Takes a second viewing to sink in but boy does it sink in.






Fear Itself
Outstanding essay delivered over expertly chosen moments from horror cinema. The argument is couched in a fictional personal story of someone recovering from the true life horror of a car accident who has taken refuge in horror fiction. Everything works.





Kedi
It's about cats in Istanbul. It's about CATS in ISTANBUL.









Right Now, Wrong Then
Sang-soo Hong's latest deceptively gentle comedy of manners hits the breaks halfway through and does it all over with a significant revelation timed and delivered very differently with diametrically different results. The work of a contemporary master.





The Unknown Girl
The Dardennes take their continental Loach-like tales of the dispossessed into something like a murder mystery yet keep to their own initial commitment to tell these stories. I've seldom been able to fault any of their films and can't fault this one.





High Rise
Ben Wheatley's take on the Ballard dystopia spreads the grime and sweat of the lower orders on the walls of the higher-ups with great humour and anger. The 1970s setting accentuates the vintage arthouse feel of the movie leaking an unsettling kind of nostalgia.





Under the Shadow
This year's It Follows as far as lean, mean and socially aware horror stories go. Like Dark Water with the constraints of a thuggish theocracy instead of the earlier film's traditional gender roles, Under the Shadow punches well above its weight, keeping the scares relevant, scarce and all the scarier for that.






I, Daniel Blake
Ken Loach proves again that he does far more than point cameras at people at the desperate end of the street. He is a master filmmaker and this declaration of compassion honours his oeuvre.

2016: THE MIDDLE

Cosmos
A maestro's swansong, Cosmos plays like a milder outing than Zulawski's more famous efforts like Possession or Third Part of the Night. Very enjoyable, nonetheless.






Arrival
High hopes for DenisVilleneuve's excursion into sci-fi but these gently deflated as the central concept became obvious well before time, a kind of Christopher Nolan twist that, like almost everything by Nolan, felt less impressive than intended. I'll still see what Villeneuve makes of Blade Runner.






La La Land
Some good songs, committed performances and sensational choreography almost got me in a sleight of hand. Just not quick enough to mask the shallowness of the overall exercise with its welcome stretching length.












Room
Enjoyed for its strength of conviction in sticking with the less glamorous aftermath of atrocity, following the healing process rather than glory in the sordidness of the crime. Still, felt short of the mark I wanted it to hit.






A Month of Sundays
Good effort from Matthew Saville about grief and mid-life ennui with characters and dialogue that reminded me of Paul Cox's best. Too long, though, and too often indulged in setting up humour that would have been better served by brevity.






Whiskey Foxtrot Tango
Compelling dramedy with Tina Fey in the lead (followed closely by Margot Robbie) in a tale of the costs of adventure and finding one's best fit. Wanted more of the grit outside of the Kabubble, though.






Blood of My Blood
Impressive tale of long reaching vengeance against the misogyny of the church told across centuries in a small Italian town. Keep wanting to put it in the high list but it doesn't quite make it there for me.






Chevalier
Greek weirdwave in the tradition of Dog Tooth and Attenburg about male competition subverted by its own cleverness and a confusing play of the competition itself to the effect that it was easy to forget about as the character quirks were aloud to prevail. A scene of competitive Ikea shelf assembly should have been sidesplitting but bled out its own energy.




A Dragon Arrives
Some fun and epic sized mystery storytelling realised that it had to get all serious towards the end or disrespect the whole premise. This worked but felt separated from the first two act









Gary Numan: Android in La La Land
A mostly informative and endearing character portrait on an interesting pop star who engineered a major shift in music at the start of his career. Numan suffers from Aspergers syndrome which highly focused but cold appearance actually aided his robotic persona into fame. His is a good story but the documentary's purpose was to concentrate a little too much on his most recent album, suggesting that much of the fame years' stories are still to be told.

The Beatles: The Touring Years: Eight Days a Week
A loss of focus on the declared purpose of the piece (went beyond the touring story into the recording which has been told very fully elsewhere) but also suffered from too sharp a focus on the US tours. Always nice to see the Fabs on screen but this felt like a feature length introduction to the Shea Stadium footage (which had more than a little flown in from other audio sources). There is a much fuller and truer film to be made about this.



2016: THE LOW

Kate Plays Christine
Great concept hijacked by its own author and continually flattened into inconsequence. There was a fictionalised feature at the time about the same case. Should have gone to that instead.







Looking for Grace
A potentially compelling story rendered indigestibly cute by over cooking design, performance (Richard Roxburgh managed to overact just by standing still at one point) and concept.






Album
Whimsy and ugliness blended until it was clear they wouldn't mix without more ugliness. Try-hard satire better managed by Roy Andersson or Elaine May than here.







The Demons
A kind of Michael Hanneke cover band which, despite some impressive choreography in the early scenes, flattened into a kind of hate-me-if-you-dare void.





The Lure
Great concept but aborted development. Felt like a short stretched into a feature length musical (what a good idea!) and just looked stretched out of shape as some themes were warped beyond purpose and others shrunken beyond recognition.






Nocturnal Animals
Lots of love for this one but I found myself unable to care about anyone on screen and sat back to look at all the lovely design. A waste of some of my favourite screen stars.


Monday, December 26, 2016

Review: LA LA LAND

Funny thing about musicals is that if you put them in a different format no one thinks of them as musicals. Frozen or Aladdin are thought of as animations or kids movies but they are stuffed with songs. When it's live action like Grease or Chicago everyone wants it to be innovative or subversive, never just a musical. Lars von Trier made a near Dogme one with Dancer in the Dark (the genre alone would have disqualified it but the look and dialogue were on the money). Chicago played Broadway for the MTV generation cutting all the fluidity out of the dancing with more edits than the human eye could register. And anyway, apart from a few rogue entries, musicals seemed to have died off after the big 60s bubble, recalled for their kitsch value and then their irony value and then the kitsch of their irony or the other way around. Why do one now?

La La Land doesn't promise much beyond genre and keeps to that lack of promise. Sounds like faint praise but read on. We open (after some cute jokes about technicolor and cinemascope) on a jammed L.A. freeway, closing in on a beautiful young woman in a car who's dubba dubba-ing a tune which turns into a big opening song and dance about the eternal sunshine of Los Angeles. The song itself is generic to the point that it needs nothing memorable in the melody or much or the lyric. It's big and loud and colourful and kinetic. It's an opening number which ends on a genuinely amusing note of bathos and the rom com element's meet cute.

Emma Stone is distracted from the traffic by the lines she will be reading in the audition she is driving to. Ryan Gosling can't get the cassette (yep, cassette) in his dashboard to cue at the right spot but when the traffic starts to move again he baaaaaarmps the horn in Emma's ear, overtaking her with a contemptuous sneer. In 1936 when we saw Fred and then Ginger we started following them from the get go. In 2016 this musical also gives us two movie stars and we do the same for them. We're soon to see some developmental dialogue, visual quotes from earlier eras of the genre and so on and the songs will get more character and narrative based. Bring the two together, prise them apart and then bring them back together stronger than ever. End.

With some variations that's what you get. If you don't like that this won't convert you but the curious cinema goer might well feel rewarded by taking the chance in this case. This is a rom com with the theme of following dreams vs sticking at more realistic drudge jobs. The reason you might care about this has a lot to do with that casting. Apart from an early scene between Sebastian (Gosling) and his sister which can't rise above it's old school dialogue about being a serious artist, the central pair put all their more typical dramatic chops into these roles to warm up what might have legitimately been vessels for song and dance numbers. The dramatic and comedic two-plays work well and both get their moments at breakout performance.

The trouble is that the second act sags without strong numbers as we live through the origins of the conflict and it is here that we might have softened the determination to appear like a legit drama between songs and created something more convincing for confidently joining the rest of the musical. As soon as we accept these young A-listers as musical actors we're happy following them through that. Why have such a lengthy dialogue about conflicting lives when a song would have lifted it into compulsion? We know Gosling and Stone can drama how wonderful to have seen them sing it (as they already, creditably had).

The third act lifts itself ably and when director Chazelle (of the compelling Whiplash) amps up the cinema it feels worth the wait. Here we have Mia (Stone) putting the kitchen sink into her audition number. The final what-if sequence, similarly is masterfully handled as the piece remembers it's a movie and can do what it wants which is best done with depth and the director's own obvious musicality.

The score deserves a plaudit for erring on the side of the jazz at Sebastian's core which even knocks on the door at more orchestrally-appropriate moments. This feels less like a tribute to Michel Legrand's masterful Umbrellas of Cherbourg than an extension of it. And we can't leave without stating that the choreography is not only always welcome when we see it but given as live as it can be without those Chicago split second cuts. Stone and Gosling really dance well and one sequence involving swapping places on a park bench rises above it own cuteness with sheer wow-factor.

While I might not see this again soon, I enjoyed it but would rather see another one with even more confidence and commitment to the genre. Now the twenty-teens homages to Singing in the Rain etc have been played out let's find something else (between this and London Street, perhaps) and forge a way. I liked musicals as a kid. They were played on the ABC on Friday nights before I had a legitimate party life at school. I still like them. This shows they can still work but let's keep going and find out what else they can do.

Review: I, DANIEL BLAKE: Rockin' a Hard Place

Dialogue over a black screen with the credits. An ageing man, Daniel, is struggling to get through a welfare interview about his health and capability. He has a heart condition that keeps him from employment, especially in his trade as a carpenter. The interviewer has to keep hooking him back to the script of the form, warning that a combative attitude will only go badly for him. It does.

But it does not because he is difficult but because the Kafkaesque system of queuing and eligibility and eligibility to queue has left no room to move. He can't get his suspension from benefits appealed until the overloaded system allows it which means that he will have to sign on for the dole but that means that he will be obliged to look for work that he has been declared unfit for. That's all assuming he can make his way through the computer form because all applications must be online. He doesn't know what a mouse is when he gets in front of a public access computer and by the time a helpful fellow beneficiary can get him through the form he has run out of time at the terminal.

Trying again at making it personal (the phone queue torture has led to more absurd frustration) at the welfare office he is again rejected but is stopped when witnessing a woman with two children being ejected before their interview for being late. He stands and cries out for the stranger to be given a chance and it is the first moment of control we have seen him take. It leads to more frustration but also a personal bond and that's when we really know that we are in a Ken Loach film.

Why? Well, like Belgium's Dardenne brothers whose work his precedes, Ken Loach has documented the anger of the dispossessed but is always careful to steer away from nihilist revenge fantasy to serve an fanbase. We understand the constraints and feel the anger but instead of going to bed angry afterwards we will leave the end credits with some perception of the value of retaining humanity in dire circumstances and also of keeping lucid when faced with frustration.

Daniel's fatherly relationship with Katie and her kids has the kind of goodness to it that feels like the last vestiges of currency they have. This is not saintliness and it is important to avoid characterising Loach's filmmaking as documentary style. Loach makes fiction cinema and it doesn't pretend to be objective reportage. The good in Daniel Blake (whose name is drawn from the Old Testament and the pantheon of English poetry) is the same that suggests a need for the welfare system that has been so tightly wound that it must reject him. The common good and the commonality of good. While Daniel's efforts to keep the young family's spirits up might give us some unease when we know how others might misconceive it there is plenty we have seen to allow for it. He's not a saint he's just a bloke who, stressed, is yet unbroken.

That Loach is still making films like this after four decades should tell us just as much. These stories don't go away, are not ironed flat by the rhetoric of neo-liberalism nor so bludgeoned by the hard right. That he makes each one with consummate craft and keeps the blocks between us and the characters clear so that we might walk beside them in their trials is testament to his own resolve.

We need Ken Loach, we still need Ken Loach. We need him, his spare but powerful writers, his perfectly chosen casts and the plainness of his eye. We need him as the eighteenth century needed Hogarth and the nineteenth Dickens. And you will need a tissue or two if you want to get through this film. But if you do get through it you will be, however slightly, stronger for it.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Review: ARRIVAL

It took Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters to work out how to communicate with the aliens. Before that they just spoke English and got down to the business of planet acquisition. The tv series V in the early '80s had its reasons for Anglophone E.T.s and they made sense. The goopies from the deep in The Abyss spoke in slideshows that even alpha-oaf Ed Harris could understand. So what happens when you get apparently peaceable aliens hang above the Earth in seamless hollow boulders waiting for someone to say hello? You get Amy Adams whose thousand and one ways of facial control allow her to emote intellect.

Coming from the tragedy of losing her daughter to cancer, Adams' Dr. Louise Banks finds her linguistics class interrupted by news of the aliens landing. Soon enough Forrest Whitaker's Colonel Weber knocks on her office door to give her the job of outreach. The language she is presented with is more like industrial noise and she begs off. A visit to her rival later and she is whisked off at midnight to the American landing site (there are eleven others around the world linked by two things, one intriguing and the other intentionally hilarious). There she meets the team and ascends in a beautifully realised transition to the giant stone craft to have a crack at communication.

Meanwhile the world of international and perhaps even intergalactic politics tenses up as this place heads for conflict with the newcomers and that place falls into chaos. The race is on for the world's good guys to find out what the visitors are doing in the backyard. Louise uses some nifty logic to scratch the surface of the language barrier through the use of an extension of human language.

From this point they will or won't find the answer and the Earth will or won't be either conquered by hostile aliens or plunged into self destruction. And that's where this film's problems begin.

First, just when Louise gets her break and digs into the problem solving we are robbed of a scene or even a montage of her getting further to the point where she can communicate in real time. We do get a montage but it's narrated. From this point, were it not for Adams' screen magnetism, we would be cast off from the film's dock. The narration isn't complex. The points it makes are clear and logical and bring us to the next major point but we feel as we might in those re-released films with reconstructed passages made of meagre newly discovered footage and onscreen notes. Except there's a reason for those to look gaffer taped together. Here it just feels like the other side of the too-hard box. The rest of the film must struggle to regain its sense of wonder and the tension of its moment.

There is a clever idea on the way but by the time we get to it we've already guessed most of it and the lost impact at its revelation weighs heavier than the moment we should be hoisted by. Actually, by that point the film starts feeling like a Christopher Nolan epic (albeit about a month shorter) in which the human story at its heart is shown to be what was important all along and everybody feels nice. The idea is still clever, mind you, it's just buried under a stack of warm pancakes.

Arrival is not so much about the alienness of species or even races but the alienness of language itself, how different translations can mean the difference between war and peace both between and within languages. This premise is given with an effortless compulsion by the film (even the few lines about the strangeness of Portuguese among its neighbouring languages, given as a scene instensifier, are compelling). The road to discovery about the language of the aliens has a dark momentum to it which is given such thrilling weight in the gravity shifting scene of the first interspecial encounter we see (initially announced by a quick shot of a tablet whose screen rotation is lost and starts spinning like a fan). If we thought this was going to be a tough assignment before this moment we now know how tough. It's cinematic greatness. And then it gets vacuum-packed into a montage with a voiceover and we start floating on the Zoloft of the bigger picture.

Director Denis Villenevue has done so much to impress already. He's good with actors and concepts. And the flair for cinema he has shown with Incendies, Enemy and Sicario has assured him a place among the best of his generation. Whether he's wresting stark allegory into a story of deep existential horror (Enemy) or coolly drawing the slippery connections between pragmatism and corruption (Sicario) he conquers the screen with them. And he does so with an eye to the comfort demanded by a mainstream audience. Here, as in Prisoners, he seems to have dropped a strange looking pebble to pick up a shiny coin. I can only hope he doesn't believe the hype building around him and turn into the next Christopher Nolan ("Your movie took four hours of my time to tell me THAT? You are not Tarkovsky!) Maybe he should try a musical next, something that will make him work. I'm serious.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Review: NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Nude obese women writhe and gyrate against a red background. In slow motion we can see every square centimetre of excessive flesh. Are we being invited to judge them? Once the credits have passed the final directorial byline we roll back and see that this is a backdrop for an exhibition. Young, slim and beautiful Los Angelenes mill around risers bearing either the women from the projections or latex sculptures of them, a kind of Patricia Piccinini confrontation.There are many viewers but this is an exhibition opening and they're not looking at the art they are looking at each other. In their midst sits a detached Amy Adams as Susan using her expertly expressive face to tell us that her mind is elsewhere.

Later, back home she confronts her husband for not turning up to the opening and gets a generic response about work demands. The dinner party they go to mixes talk of genital frankness with anodyne life advice. Husband absconds to New York halfway through and Susan is again left in her world of architect interiors, affectless conversations, like a feature in one of its many artworks. But she is haunted. She has received an envelope containing the manuscript of a novel written by her first husband and dedicated to her. It is a crime thriller, heavy on the violence and a theme of revenge.

From this point we will weave in and out of a cinematic realisation of the novel, the cold emotionless world of Susan's L.A. and a play-through of how she met author and ex Edward and how they parted ways. This weave will progressively tighten until united by the pattern they are part of and the final blow can be administered.

Tom Ford has created a work of impressive design here. Present-day Susan might be lodged into the scarlet of her past with Edward or lost at a work meeting in a white infinity. Crime victims are juxtaposed with the posed bodies of the living in different timelines. From the perfect architecture of the present day to the dust of the novel's Texas setting to the New York winter wonderland of the recalled romance we are given easy cues to orientate us in the complex structure which readies us for the grip and weight of the climax. It is heavily designed but if that term brings images of Peter Greenaway's tableaux vivant it shouldn't. This is cinema by industrial design a seamless mesh of form and function.

And Ford has assembled a cast of some of the most compelling talents of the last fifteen years. Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams can be watched closely in anything and there is even a scene in which these two gorgeously screen-filling heads actually do fill the screen and it is a delight. But there's also the wizened Texas detective by the great new heavy on the block Michael Shannon. Aaron Taylor Johnson, so impressive in Kickass and Nowhere Boy lives in his unwashed redneck chaos. Laura Linney appears as a queen bitch mother and even Armie Hammer as a trophy husband letting go of his marriage impresses. So, why didn't I care about this film?

The design is heavily draped, yes, but it is inventive rather than cloying. The cast is stellar. But the characters are almost all repugnant. The hand of craft that felt it needed the colour of the weave perfectly in line with the place of each thread in the scheme did its job so well that we cannot feel anything for these people more than to admire their expert incorporation into the pattern. Even the potentially humanising failings of Edward as a shapeless lost would be novelist and Susan who recognises art but knows she can never create it just carry them into preciousness rather than despair.

The sense that no one is really losing anything important or lasting is so strong that the heightened stakes of the dramatised novel can do nothing but expose this. We are left with the feeling, which we shouldn't be, that this internal story should have been the movie. Then we would have had another redneck noir like Blood Simple; fine but why now? We need the shell around it as that is where the question has been placed, the philosophy we must engage with. What a pity, then, that the polish that gives that shell its beautiful pink gleam works so dully against its hold.