Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

The makings of this one suggest it might be a gangland drama by Scorsese or even a camped up copy by Tarrantino or a camped up Tarrantino by one of his copyists. Self-made immigrant businessman tries to expand without resorting to crime but his rivals make that very difficult by hijacking his trucks. He stands alone against the black hats, ready to crash or crash through. Bring on the juke box soundtrack from the 1981 setting and let's make a MOVIE!

But this is a slow, deliberate piece that asks you to examine rather than thrill. There is a constant tension on a slow phasing pulse. Abel Morales is not just troubled by the piratical hijackers but is on a clock to fulfil a property deal which would set him up for life or ruin him if it fails. And then there's the DA who is bringing bad business charges to his door which might well hold water if his beloved but suspect spouse did what she kind of hinted she did. There is no way out. Will a Cain explode out of this Abel?

That looming question is rendered resonant by the sparseness of the score, the darkness of the interiors and their period brown-led pallet; if ever mise-en-scene were put in the service of such studied melancholy it were never as profoundly done as here. And yet this quality was the thing I resisted all through the first act, expecting it to escalate into action. Only when I understood that I was to follow this flawed and vulnerable man through the valley of temptation and that it would not be an easy trek did I relax and allow myself to be fascinated. This is a film of fascination.

Moments of violence and action don't relieve the tension as much as thicken it. They also serve to show that the director is well able to stage them convincingly and his refusal to give into them is like his protagonist's determination to maintain his integrity. A chase by car and then foot lifts us with it (some expert steadicam work here expressing some wondrous moments of inertia) and concludes with a poignant demonstration of this restraint. The lack of relief that we crave adds more weight with each passing and passed opportunity for it. J C Chandor, whose All is Lost compelled me last year by allowing its linear and burdensome narrative to play out in full, here applies the same deliberation to what is essentially a western in New York. It's not a neo-Leone campfest nor an overly observed homage to John Ford but more of a new Western from the late 60s like McCabe and Mrs Miller or True Grit. A moment with the hijackers reveals the same point about them being workers as cattle rustlers or hired guns were in the eyes of a Robert Altman or Arthur Penn.

Oscar Isaac as Abel keeps his fire under the permafrost of his manly bearing which wears the elegance of his wardrobe as an earned thing. The more vulgar Anna (a glowing and dangerous Jessica Chastain in Armani) is among the few who can draw that fire but even she observes Abel's stance, not slavishly but seriously. Abert Brooks is unrecognisable as Abel's lawyer/deputy by his combover, wire specs and downplaying. This is a story with a single protagonist but is entirely dependent on the solidity of the world of others it creates around him.

I have given little plot in this review and seem to have been affected by the sobriety of the film which might suggest indifference. It isn't. Here is a film that dares to play against expectations to offer a contemplation of the difficulty of goals; a kind of humanist prayer in the din of the feast around it.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Review: FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

When I was twenty-four I sat around thinking up the great Australian novel while waiting to be discovered. I was still new enough to Melbourne to be affected by the force of its winters and concocted a fantasy wherein I would read every Mills and Boon I could find at the op shop and throw each one I finished into the blazing fireplace. I wanted to be stirred to greatness by tormenting myself with mediocrity. Neither happened. The winter was mild. I got a job which ruled out the idle afternoons.

Oh, and Mills and Boons aren't that bad.

So it was that I paid for a ticket to see this at the ol' Kino on my day off, almost hoping for something that bent over and cried: "ridicule me! I need it!" Well...

We open with the cloudy skies of the Pacific Northwest. A fit young man on his morning jog. Back home he goes into the walk-in wardrobe that Stanley Kubrick designed for him and picks out the pieces of the suit he will wear that day. Meanwhile, a young woman leaves her apartment to interview the man we've just seen. She is cowed to clumsiness by the opulence of Grey House with its dangerous metal and glass edges and the sculpted Hitchcock blondes at every reception desk.

"Mr Grey will see you now," purrs one of them before Ana passes through the office portal and tumbles to her humiliation on the carpet in front of her subject. Christian Grey helps her up and the interview proceeds before thinning to vapour around the solid attraction the two feel for each other.

Back home, Ana, still buzzing from the encounter, is greeted by the flatmate whose flu seems to have just been one of those twenty-four minute things. Mr Grey has, in the time it's taken Ana to drive back to Vancouver from Seattle, emailed all the interview questions answered in full. The next day Ana's at work at the hardware shop when who should turn up? From there it's fate until the breach of trust in the second act and the reconciliation in the finale. Just like a Mills and Boon ... with piss gags.

Except not really.

The courtship of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele has the requisite mix of erotic charm and danger. As Christian closes in on Ana he lets strange things slip into the conversation about written consent and punishment. He doesn't make love, he fucks. He doesn't do romance. This is a kind of steroidal remake of the dashing hunk who breaks into the scene on horseback, as handsome as the devil himself and a laugh to weaken the resolve of the primest ladies of the district. When she created Christian Grey, E.L. James wasn't drawing from de Sade or Sacher Masoch but the common bodice-ripper. She added the notion of a fractured form of love to keep the thread alive and left the tale open to charges of celebrating abusive relationships. Also, mix in some of Samuel Richardson's captive heroine novels (Pamela and Clarissa) and you've got it. The question of consent and its violation is as central to this piece as it is to those.

How does this play out on film? Is it Dominance for Dummies or Cronenberg for Commoners? Actually, pleasantly, more the latter. Sam Taylor Johnson is at the helm. Her Nowhere Boy impressed me greatly by taking the flashfoward fame of its subject diminishing it with the story of a damaged childhood using some expertly judged aesthetics and fine performances. The most ardent fan finds that they not missing mention of the word Beatles through the entire piece.

In Fifty Shades we again get some strong performances (crucial in a film so dominated by close ups) and a winsome painter's palette. And a strong sense of cinema doesn't hurt. The glider flight feels as thrilling to us watching as it is to the pair on screen. The contract meeting between Ana and Christian is almost laughably extreme in its burnt gold light. We don't fail to notice the crosses refracted in the wine glasses that neither party look at let alone drink from. If there be porn here it is the now well established conversational sense of fetishised interest (food porn, car racing porn, geology porn etc) and it is the porn of riches and opulence. Christian's helicopter flight through the magic hour heavens of the Pacific Northwest has a loving drool to it. This is another throwback to Samuel Richardson, particularly in Pamela when Mr B. boastfully shows himself in his finery before a society engagement, like the callow over-coffered country bumpkin he is. Christian Grey's use of the word incentivise is similarly from the middle management meeting rather than the corridors of power.

Talyor Johnson slows the movement from the speed of the attraction and courtship to a far more stately and considered pace as the middle act decision to sign the contract plays out. This is where it gets interesting and, while we are diverted by the shift from student apartment life and the stink of the street to the rarefied confines of Grey's labyrinthine apartment, we witness the effect each player has on each other and how that is muddling the deal. (Oh, if you pays yer money for a lot of shackles and whips you won't get any for a long while and then only a bit. You should know that going in.)

Performances are strong but in various ways. Jamie Dornan, a kind of young Matthew Barney with Aspergers syndrome, is cold and unbroken until the effects of Ana assail him. But it is Dakota Johnson who impresses most immediately. Her lightning eye rolls, lip bites, helpless giggles, fascination and stern frowns of sudden knowledge and her balance of clumsy self-consciousness and near balletic grace add the blood flow and nervous system to this film that might otherwise have flattened to politeness.

While I have some inkling into why some people might identify sexual pleasure with pain I have never shared it. So, I might have hoped for some insights more profound than Grey's dodgy upbringing and seduction while young, delivered in dialogue. A scene of consensual S&M played against a scarlet palette as a Renaissance mass is sung is beautiful to look at and moves the story ahead but I needed to do some struggling to care about it. If it were more restrained it would lack power. If it were bloodier it would court resistance by all except those who had paid for titilation. The religious music it is set to might well be the moment of  reconciliation of two odd forces, Grey's sense of worship or even a nod to what we're finding out about the Catholic church these days. Whatever, a scene closer to the end, which is more violent and starker, features a far deeper and more disturbing performance from Dornan as Grey. More of that might have taken us closer to the shadows of Videodrome or Blue Velvet. Here, we are reminded of romance fiction.

While there be off-ness hereabouts it's nowhere near the paean to pain that it suggests. This is stripped back from the source material (which might have tipped into pure risibility if filmed literally) and the result is neither a bold middle finger at the honest world nor an examination through fable of one of its troubling corners. There are three books and will probably be another two films. At least Taylor Johnson and Johnson should get some better work outside of the context from it.

Anyway I can't hang around here all afternoon. I have guests over soon and a documentary about the role education played in forming one of the greatest revolutionaries of the twentieth century. That's right, it's Fifty Grades of Che.

Those of you who know me might suspect that I read the book and paid to sit through this film to make that joke. I sing with Anastasia Steele of the novel: Double crap! You know me too well.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Review: BIRDMAN

Something soaring through the sky. Is it a meteorite? Space junk? It courses through the clouds and the gravity from some point where it sparkled for our delight and now briefly burning out in the air before landing as a scatter of rock and dust. Then we meet its human counterpart. We see him from behind wearing only his white jocks, levitating in front of the window of his dressing room as a huge manly voice asks: How did we get here?

Well, Riggan Thomas, whose own shooting star landed when he opted out of the movie persona of the title, is trying to regather his pieces and fly again. He is doing this through Michael Keaton whom the world has known for frenetic comedy and superheroism but not for some decades and the match could not be better. We are reminded, frame by frame, of his fall from fortune and that his means of self-rescue is in his ballsy attempt to resurrect through live theatre. It's not the the tight fit between actor and character nor even that of character and the role he plays on stage as much as it is the sheer constant recognition on Keaton's face that he has lived this and might well survive it.

We see him struggling through the teetering obstacles of the cast he has assembled, the backstage of his theatre and the stage itself, rendered very tightly scary here, the way we might struggle to the door of a tram crowded with the more volatile end of the public transport user spectrum. One lead actor acts too much and doesn't get direction. His strange dispatch is bizarrely owned by Riggan. His replacement is a boon to the publicity and promotion side of things but takes the method to breaking point. Riggan's post-marital girlfriend is pregnant the daughter/PA from his marriage might be sliding back into drugs and personal miasma again. Through all of this we get a robust and nuanced performance keeping it all together from Keaton even as Riggan fails to do that for himself.

The knocking blend I described in that last paragraph might have made a passable comedy and even served an ok backdrop for a more conventional tale of a man's breakdown after his failure to achieve the love of the world he so craved. The good news here is that none of this ever takes that sidewards step; all the objects are thrown, caught and passed between hands the way a good juggler does it while we happily get absorbed by the motion and the skill.

This film plays as a single take. We are not meant to believe it was all done in one pass the way we are with Russian Ark or Rope, though: skies turn from morning to midnight in seconds, pans reveal characters who weren't there seconds before engaged in conversations that have been going for minutes. Here and there we ride on the lens through iron lace or window frames just to remind us of the virtuosity of this but that's more cheek than wow. It might still be demanding to plan and execute such constant motion but it takes a lot less than the passage through a neon sign that happens in Citizen Kane from the 1940s. To my mind, while flamboyant here and there, the seamless edit does more to help us bear the constant burden of Riggan Thomas. It cleverly also allows us a warm smile when the moments of psychokinetic wish fulfilment we have been seeing from Riggan consolidate into their glorious apotheosis in the third act. There is great skill on screen but we are allowed to forget that. Any film that can so deliberately remove an opportunity to save itself by its audience's indulgence will win me every time.

But, in fact, there is so much more to enjoy here like the note perfect casting. Keaton can still convince us he's thinking faster and deeper than anyone else in the room AND use his whole body to make us laugh while running through a crowd, clad in only his underpants. Same kind of chops he showed in Beetlejuice but, boy, are they good chops. I'll welcome Naomi Watts back to the cinema after Diana and Movie 43; here clearly relishing playing a actor wanting to be a "real" actor. Edward Norton, as funny as he was in Fight Club, gives us someone barely capable of truth off stage. His scenes with Emma Stone have a touching baton passing to them. Stone takes her Sam from fucked-up millennial to let her bug eyed youthful perfection show anger and real ache. Zach Galifianakis and Andrea Riseborough assume more thankless roles and keep them supporting the structure, making us notice them even more.

A whole par on the actors for this film about actors and their craft, the accepted falsehood of their craft and how that can place them in a kind of constantly defensive position. Compress that into the flaming meteorite hurtling to atomised invisibility that is Riggan's crisis and you get -- Well, what I was reminded of as I left the cinema was how I recently showed a couple of friends much younger than I the 1976 film Network. That film is a masterpiece that I shall never tire of. Its dialogue is unrealistically literate but includes such refulgent speeches that feel as big as a movie should if it is to say anything worth hearing. Is Birdman as good as Network? Well, it feels as much a film that loves being a film and I can't think of a better start to the moviegoing year in many moons because of that.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Review: A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT

Everybody wants something. The young and restless Arash wants something better than looking after his difficult junky of a father. Saeed is a dealer who wants anything that interests him. His hooker/business partner wants her life to improve. The street urchin is happy with his board but wants Arash's muscle car. And the girl of the title who walks the dusty streets of the oil town alone at night, she wants blood. She and Arash don't know it yet but they also want each other. That's pretty much it as far as plot and motivation go for this one. But this film is less concerned with those beyond their narrative power to bring these characters together.

The rest is cinema. If this sounds like it's on the side of the angels of indulgence then it should but there is merit here. First, performances are pitch perfect throughout: Sheila Vand as the Girl manages to skate between sullen adolescence and alien monstrosity on call without showing her working; she is magnetic. Arash Marandi plays his hotboy malcontent with volatility so that we know the wounded seeker of love is there in the shadow of the roaring rocker with the American car. And everyone else on screen from the street boy to the rich girl to the father (who could have come from a Bela Tarr epic) to the pimpy dealer to the hooker, all placed within the darkened game board of Bad City.

The Iran of the story is partly remembered (it was shot in California) and partly fantasised. Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour an Iranian ex-pat knows she could never have made this film in her native land (not Iran but read up on what Haifaa Al-Mansour had to go through to make Wadjda) and there is a strong sense of spirit breaking through in the deliberate feel of these scenes. It's not vengeful or spiteful but more relieved.

The other side is a kind of glee at mixing Iran with vampires and westerns. Bad City is a clump of blocks pasted around oil fields. At night the town keeps within its own walls. Fatally illegal raves thump quietly and the drug and sex trades around them spread out like a spill of analgesia. Arash and others walk cross a bridge, thinking nothing of the corpses piled high in the gully below. If someone is walking out at night they are in danger or dangerous.  And the drillers swing back and forth like huge infernal pistons. This is all rendered not in the indulgent shallowness of 80s indy cinema but the room deep greyscale of Eraserhead. There is a creaminess to the image, a sheen that never entirely looks like the video it was shot on but never quite film either.

Amirpour uses the scope screen purposefully giving us linear motion (often with a warm humour) and some starkness to the isolation of the figures. This allows for a balletic action in many scenes with the narrow horizontal field serving as a stage. The Girl's black chador is used ingeniously, allowing her to appear alien and threatening here like a shadow without a figure or orderly and controlled there like the beast behind the mask that she is.

These are the kinds of things that Amirpour is sharing with us here. It's true, if you were expecting some development and depth from the well constructed elements of the first third you will be disappointed. After a certain amount of background has been established we are only given a situation as it is and might find the final dilemma a little too light. It is, nevertheless, there on screen and constitutes a genuine resolution.

I've seen some reviews and commentary online comparing this to a Jarmusch film. If you want that on the same level, go back to 1994 and Michael Almereyda's Nadja. At one point Nadja's brother describes Nadja's telepathic communication with him as a psychic fax. It's a funny line. Later she says that she's just received a psychic fax. Another funny line but like so much in this dated piece it seems too cool to commit to the genre it has chosen and ends up wayward and lost. Jim Jarmusch did make his own vampire film. It was better than Nadja but only through the maturity that two decades must demand. The difference is that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night likes being what it is and is happy to seriously blend its genres without a wink of irony. It is so much better for it.

So, while this doesn't break my best of 2014 list it is a good one to round off the year or begin the next one as its values return us to the best of the indy cinema of the 80s which sought to explore and discover rather than impress with scholarship and request no further reward than our attention. In that way it makes me recall She's Gotta Have It, The Quiet Earth, Parting Glances, The Draughtsman's Contract or The Element of Crime. And the really nice thing is, it's not trying to be like them at all, it's just someone else making some discoveries of her own. More!


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

High 2014


Wadjda

The simplicity of something like Italian neo-realism allows the power in and it surges.






Under the Skin
All the hallmarks of an up-its-own-arse production defeated by use of real issues, strong design and note perfect acting.







Maps to the Stars
Cronenberg demonstrates that he's been less off-form than just needing to work with the right girl. This is strong, brainy, funny, stylish and sobering.







Babadook
Pleased to say that the year's best horror was not only a sustained psychological essay but local.






Why Don't You Play in Hell?
Sion Sonno bids 35 mm film making sayonara in this dizzying non-stop festival of crazy. Everything works. And boy is he good when he stops being too serious. My favourite of 2014!




Boyhood
One that might easily have fallen to either other list but through its persistent pursuit of big truth in the everyday detail it came out triumphant.






Blue is the Warmest Colour
A tale of epic intimacy earns its outsize screen time. About and feels like love and its resonance.



Whiplash
For being as brutal as its central process yet as musical as its goal. A toughly virtuoso pas de deux.






Le Weekend
For trusting its leads to travel a subtly difficult path and for refusing to resort to cuteness as too many similarly themed films about ageing have. This one sticks to its theme about the tests of intimacy and doesn't get distracted.




Predestination
Thoroughly enjoyable play of the Robert Heinlein mindbender sticks so faithfully to the source that it feels a misguided need to explain too much towards the end. It resurfaces undamaged by this.





Breadcrumb Trail
Like the best albums this documentary about an album absorbs and surrounds, allowing us to walk through the nervous systems that made the sound. A great music movie.






Two Days One Night
Never was grim realism so elegant as here. Light on the outside, heavy on the inside.








Nightcrawler
Fable of culture so hungry that it doesn't care where its news comes from as long as it tastes good, delivered with a virtuoso performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. Lean and mean and walloping.






Still Life
Spare and aching tale of the frayed ends of humanity borne on the shoulders of a performance that seems light but contains extraordinary anger from the great Eddie Marsan. As English as Loach and as Russian as Chekov. Beautiful.




Finding Vivan Maier
Not just compelling photography but a true life mystery. Told with intrigue and pathos and only just enough self-awareness to keep it fresh and moving.

Middling 2014

This is not a roll call of meh, it's a list that either didn't have quite the push to get into the top but felt too complete to be put into the low list. All that makes it sound like mediocrity but I enjoyed everything on this list when I saw it and still feel the resonance of that pleasure.


I Origins
Full points for the approach of looking at a wishful belief through science. Diminishing score for subverting that as soon as the ideas ran out. Perhaps its a meta fable about confirmation bias.





The Double
Even if it didn't go quite as far as its Dostoyevsky source (which is a very nasty and very funny piece) Richard Ayode's adaptation captured the Russianness and added some Britishness which almost worked up to the wire. The ending felt like it belonged to something much smaller scale.


Gone Girl
Extended essay on our acceptance of our own roles is never boring through some fine dialogue and strong performances but still feels too long.







Hard to be a God
This is the kind of film that normally would go straight into the top list purely from the audacity of the commitment to its singular path. It's definitely difficult but it also definitely resonates and gathers depth in recollection as remembered sequences take on the sensation of one's own experience. So why love Werckmeister Harmonies and not this? Because this is more like Satantango which I admire rather than love.

Her
Some very nice ideas and is well performed but so repetitive that the power of its notions are swamped by overstatement.







Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coens make a film that doesn't have to be a Coens film to be good. Too much else was better, this year, though.






In a World
Funny idea well conceived and performed by writer/director Lake Bell but kept feeling a little shy of sharp enough.






Computer Chess
Andrew Bujalski's retro by setting and medium micro epic of technology and the ancient game delighted but showed the way for future development rather than celebrated an arrival. He's moved on from self-cuting mumblecore, what's next?




12 Years a Slave
Strong Kubrickian effort from the persistently interesting Steve McQueen wandered beyond the empathy it had with apparently effortless grace established.








Dallas Buyers Club
Two fine central performances that began to outgrow the film's purpose and leave its otherwise functional remainder wan and waiting.








Nebraska
Terrific 70s style family buddy movie works a treat and doesn't aim higher than it needs. Perhaps it should have.








Zero Theorem
Flavoursome Gilliam piece about private and public life and their dangerous connection feels like an in-between project rather than a full statement.






Godzilla
In the first third of this film the original name of the monster, Gojira, is anglicised into Godzilla within one line and so the progress of this film from 80s style epic to popcorn actioner may be summarised. Why couldn't we have some of the brand name stars in the female roles get more screen time, particularly as their roles' expansion might have enhanced this cover version. Otherwise thoroughly entertaining.

Calvary
An improvement on the already impressive The Guard was still not quite enough to lift it beyond good for me.







Venus in Fur
A very worthy and strong two-hander from the master of violent character/suspense mixes still couldn't get to the best. But what a good Saturday eve this was, in large part because of this movie.






Interstellar
Hell of a ride with a good sci-fi arc. Almost chokes on its cheese. Needed IMAX to work fully.


Low 2014

Similarly with the middling list, this is not offered as a condemnation of the films as a sigh of disappointment that they seemed to miss their own potential. I'm just a guy with a blog and pay for my own tickets. I don't see movies that I think I'll hate. Here are some I wished had been better.

When Animals Dream
Great idea of grim Scandi verite as vehicle for genre movie derails as soon as the pieces connect and it turns into an inferior Hollywood-style genre movie.






Jodorowsky's Dune
Tantalising it-might-have-been documentary gets bogged down in uncritically allowing its central figure to bluster and a mass of back patting without much of an eye to the legacy of the failed project that actually did ensue. Nice slideshow but I wonder if this might not have been better as a book. I'd buy that.





Paolo Alto
The new Coppola on the block serves up some real promise but it gets lost in the swell of reverence for the source material.






The Search for Weng Weng
I was less disturbed by Weng Weng's treatment in life than the willingness of his chronicler to dip into ridicule. It's perfectly legitimate for a documentarian to turn the focus on themselves when information on their subject runs out or is blocked (Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, anyone?) but here, for me, it turned nasty-tasting.



Fading Gigolo
John Tuturro writes himself a dream role and directs himself playing the hell out of it but it just drifts into nowheresville.






Tracks
I first read this story in the National Geographic in the 70s. The cinematic treatment had the same look but packed the purpose and any theme beyond the endurance itself into a series of vague flashbacks.






Only Lovers Left Alive

More fun than most later Jarmusch films but still too cute and self-hip to create much lasting impact. Points for the Detroit ghost town images.




The Rover
Beautiful wide screen Namatjira landscapes and a smoothly evocative score. Pity the rest of it is like a string of acting workshops. Well, it's about how men deal with things and sometimes it's not pretty. Right, I didn't know that and needed two hours of insubstantial bullshit to inform me. My worst of the year.



Frank
As poorly served a John Ronson adaptation as The Men Who Stare at Goats replacing military esoterica with avant-garde music in a film that shows no affinity with music or artistic radicalism. Where the scenes of wild invention might have been permissibly baffling in a film so determined to be liked we got ordinary jamming, field recording and the kind of spontaneous arrangements of impromptu songs that used to happen on the tv show version of Fame. If you want to show imaginative music show imagination with it. This just looks like faking.


Godzilla
In the first third of this film the original name of the monster, Gojira, is anglicised into Godzilla within one line and so the progress of this film from 80s style epic to popcorn actioner may be summarised. Why couldn't we have some of the brand name stars in the female roles get more screen time, particularly as their roles' expansion might have enhanced this cover version.




Grand Budapest Hotel
The only Wes Anderson movie I don't despise. I still like it but more for how I added a cinema habit than the movie itself. I went into work to make a little extra flex then fled to the Kino to see this. Got there just in time. The more I remember of it the more typically twee it becomes but Fiennes's central performance remains stellar. My best praise? At the time it charmed me rather than begged my indulgence. I barely remember it, now.



The Dirties
Clever self-reflexivity to the extent where the found footage look is part of the joke. Not terrible by any means but nowhere near as fresh or smart as it presents. Are the pastiche end credits a nod to the assumed cinephilia of its audience or a cynical recognition shooting gallery? Couldn't care less.