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 but 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.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Review: MAPS TO THE STARS

Havana is a star of a certain age and rapidly shooting toward invisibility in the night sky. Benjie is still a child star but is on probation in a sequel after almost self immolating on a drug binge at thirteen. His nail hard mother guards his progress while his Beatle-quoting father relieves the stress of the Beverly Hills A-list as a kind of physiopsychiatrist. Carrie Fisher (the real Carrie Fisher) recommends a "chore whore" to Havana whose last one is in a recovery oubliette. This is Agatha, whom we actually meet first as she alights a bus to Hollywood and magnetises the driver of the limo she has arranged (beyond her means). She is scarred with burns. Getting that story will prove dramatic.

Take all this and handle it normally and you might have a passable melodrama or, more likely, a stinging satire pushing boundaries set by Entourage or perhaps a more humane contrapuntal narrative fugue by a Robert Altman or a Paul Thomas Anderson. But, no, David Cronenberg is at the helm and we are not going to get out of it so easily.

Don't get me wrong, the narrative machine is well oiled and works with a Swiss movement. DC even rolls back the visual style to a muted high-placed Californian good taste. The Terror of Toronto is at his least when he allows the action and linear pull enough sway to make you forget it's him. At his best, whether elbow deep in bizarre prosthetics like Videodrome or shiveringly rareified like Crash, he serves up a muscular narrative and throws the essay booklet in. At his best, he is all about the notion.

This is not an attack on Hollywood or even much of a comment on it. The setting, however, is essential. In what better milieu could we trial such a tale of scarifying incest and the passage of sin
between generations than in the central hive of meme production that is the Dream Factory?

Havana knows to air kiss the rival she would sooner eviscerate. Her sessions with Stafford the massaging shrink give us the most Cronenbergian visuals as Julianne Moore (Havana) distorts herself under his (John Cusack's) professional intimacy to the border of recognisability. The star (a particularly honestly freckled Moore) must touch real ugliness for her redemption. The always impressive Moore went to a similar realm in the undersung Safe. Like Keira Knightley in Dangerous Method, she is pushing the envelope with the odd effect that we both sympathise with and recoil from her.

That's the other thing about a good Cronenberg film: performances that go places. Moore's is the most external but the others are no less impressive. The ubiquitous Mia Wasikovska (I should tally how many times I've seen her on screen this year alone) warms us with pathos, terrifies us with madness and somehow also charms us. Olivia Williams steps into frame hard and unflatteringly almost monkish in appearance and turns our frown at her hardness into real pity. Newcomer Evan Bird as Benjie bravely plays a waxwork detachment up to the end, his pubescent forehead pimples giving us a grasping handle on his fragility as he tests our patience with his constantly self-abused power. I also found John Cusack's grown up teen star (a casting decision rather than a plot point) poignant. Current young adult idol Robert Pattinson surely finds a kind of satisfaction as one aspirant actor/writer among a million working a day job.

I've left the plot out of this review because it doesn't need any help from me. This piece that allows its sobering proposition to slowly swell up through the easily conventional narrative has more on its mind than giving us logic dots to join. For it's here on the cinema screen that we are shown our own affection for ideals wrenched earthward as we perhaps maybe might and kinda should aspire not to the stars made of flesh and anxiety but to fabulously refulgent light in the distance of the night whose outnumbering lightlessness taunts us toward the sparks.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Review: NIGHTCRAWLER

A slideshow of Los Angeles at its magic hours where the sun and moon are making it over. By the second shot you realise there's something odd here. All the iconic areas and the skyline are in the background with construction sites and work yards in centre frame. This is the metropolis as seen by a jobhunter. Not a Hollywood hopeful just someone who needs a living.

We meet Lou Bloom from behind as he cuts through an industrial fence. As we're soon to learn, he's not on a graffiti mission or up for sabotage, he's cutting the fence wire to resell it. A sudden act of violence later and we see that not only will he act extremely for gain the disconnection between him and his conscience is unsettling. In the next scene he loses a bargain to sell his obviously stolen goods and doesn't baulk when called out on his crime. Baulk? He salutes his accuser with a grin. There is something wrong with the grin; it's falseness seems to vacuum up all the charm it might have shared. In fact, whenever Lou rounds off a platitude with a laugh the void that opens gapes with a vertiginous horror.

Chancing on a car crash he watches in fascination as a news stringer rolls up in a van and lunges into the action. His wide headlight eyes absorbing a kind of salvage that will be in endless supply. It excites him. Not in the way that an opportunity for advancement through violence excites an Iago or MacBeth but in the way any living thing is excited by food. Step by step, Lou sets about equipping himself for this hunting and gathering until his content wins ratings on the morning news and the stringer from before considers him a rival. How far will he go? You can guess. You'll be right when you guess but you won't be moaning about predictability. This film is not about the plot (though it is pacey and waste free with its narrative muscle) it's about Lou and the world that absorbs him like nutrients.

Lou reveals things to people that might normally engender winces or the reclamation of personal space. He says he learns a lot from the internet and that he spends a lot of time on his computer. He repeats hokey self-help MBA wisdom in a voice out of a youtube promo so devoid of irony that you are certain that he gets away with it because everyone assumes he is being ironic. He also mixes it in with bits that sound more spontaneous which serves to muddle the mix. One rung above the Hollywood version of autism, he gets through the barriers of the media organisation he infiltrates by being like one of its products.

One short scene is telling. He is at some mundane household task as Danny Kaye's Court Jester plays on tv. Danny seems to get his head cut off but seconds later it emerges cartoonishly from the armour. Lou takes a moment then grins widely and laughs his big vacuous guffaw. Instantly, we know that he has studied this reaction. Whatever real mirth he feels is supplemented by how the successful people he has witnessed behave. All those grins and ironic giggles are perfomance and the flat naivete rolling out below them is the real Lou. He just knows how he's meant to come across. There are moments when this training fails him and he can't quite connect (the restaurant scene in extraordinary here) and, recognising this, he falls into plainer aggression. It's as though he's the kind of goofy alien or robot that used to figure in 60s tv comedies like Get Smart dropped into contemporary Los Angeles but with real bloody organs inside.

This is astute writing but would not work for a moment without right casting. Jake Gyllenhaal, who came into our collective consciousness as the extremely and believably troubled Donnie Darko has found another role worthy of his strange subtlety. He allowed the crazy dialogue he had as Donnie to sound exactly like a teenager who thought too much and whose diagnosis made sense (a psychiatrist friend told me that that movie was one of the most accurate depictions of schizophrenia he'd ever seen in fiction). Gyllenhaal has gone through many roles in the near one and half decades since but here it feels as though he has touched base with the good stuff and pulled out something that allows us access to this otherwise impossible character.

A late scene with his rival stringer involves Lou calmly detailing the violence he feels like doing to the other man but that he has better things to do. The moment is both funny for its deadpan rage and chilling for its sincerity. Oddly, I was often wondering what his stark dialogue felt like to read on the page. Because of the character's constant and severe calculation this thought never felt like it was taking me out of the movie. Gyllenhaal owns Lou the same way Dennis Hopper owned Frank in Blue Velvet and the result steals our breath.

You could call this a satire on the media but you don't have to; the surface plays with such constant assault that none of the cards need concealment. It's not so much Network as Under the Skin, less Othello than The Selfish Gene. It's the better for all that.