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, 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.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2015: THE HIGH

Yo! Ragers o' the Flickering Field!

Not as busy a year at the cinema for me as last year but a good one(any year with a new Guy Maddin film is a good one). Work and other projects just took the time away but some solid sci-fi, some future classic horror, experimental quirk that worked and more gave the year a lot of spice. The Festival was one of the most consistent of recent memory. I do regret missing out on the Japanese Film Festival in particular but everything just got the better of me and it slipped by. I'll have to investigate it by other means. Meantime, there was new Peter Strickland and a .... well, it's all there below. Enjoy!


A dizzying Russian doll of a film in celebration of narrative by which the very best (and some of the worst) traits of favourite contemporary auteur Guy Maddin come charging to the fore. Collaborating here with another writer/director (but it looks like nothing but a Maddin movie) and adding about half an hour to his usual ninety minutes, Maddin interrupts story with story with story until after being introduced to about thirty of them each gets resolved. No mean feat in an era when even the blockbusters are called post-narrative. I miss cinema like this. My favourite of the year.

Boy did I get sick of reviewers reviewing the hype rather than the film. I just saw a tour through the mind of a man struggling against a comatose career, his own failings as a husband, lover and father and a funny collision of refined and popular culture. Standout performances from Keaton and Stone seal the deal.  I couldn't care less who thought it was overrated. It was a good movie.

Another one that reviewers annoyed me over. If you watch all of this movie and still think it's about a revival of the sex/death equation it's because you want to. That template stops fitting the film early on as it charges into a fable about knowledge and responsibility. A great horror trope and some genuinely white knuckle scenes, a fantastic electro score and energetic performances later and you have a new horror movie that doesn't need sudden shocks to carry its dread. Old fashioned in the best way.

Teen horror's second victory this year showed a familiar age-based pecking order used as the breeding ground of interpersonal atrocity and went beyond just using current communication media as a gimmick by showing its compulsive attraction. These kids can't just turn off. It's just not an option. A little clumsiness in the denouement is forgiven because of the strengths.

Great old-style sci-fi with superb acting turns from everyone, a committed pursuit of the issues and the narrative and an eye to leanness in execution overall.

A patchwork made from a chaos of selfies, phone video and memories in which we see a pop star soar to stardom and hurtle back through the earth's crust to the hell beneath. Heartrending but just as importantly, angering. The social media, personal content creation remind us that we are part of this, too. A great documentary.

A complex and developing negotiation involving trust and intensity. This looked like a Eurosploitation film from the 70s but, as with the director's previous effort, brought new tricks to an old genre. The ending appears ambiguous until you really weigh up what has happened. Peter Strickland has become a new director to watch closely. The more of them the better.

A wrenching trek through the murky margins at the edge of the law. Ace cast and superb balance in the writing and the filmmaking render this one a haunter. Villeneuve is not always to my taste but this is him at his best.

Despite some history tourism (the Good Vibrations moment) this biopic earned its attention by concentrating on the journey from creative greatness to gibbering dependency and boldly used two different actors to play the central character. It was attacked for the last feature but I liked how it kept the film from being dully linear. Swinging between decades and mental states we could see the picture. The score was a feat of editing raw beauty and using it both to express the wonders of Wilson's mind as well as its pain. Also, I loved the recreated studio scenes. They got a little touristy but I forgave them as the totality of the piece rolled on.

The New Greek Weirdcore is really just imaginative cinema. It's just that we haven't seen much of that for decades. Yorgos Lanthimos' satirical fable of normative totalitarianism, an even worse resistance and a hopeless quest to live outside both turns into some hard work in the second half but what lingers afterwards makes that worth it.

2015: The MIDDLE

Interesting idea sabotaged by its own quirks. I kept wanting it to shed the cute self-aware dialogue and exhausting attempts at showing stuffy old characters' loosening up.

A smooth but solid package of crime and business that made me think very positively of Sidney Lumet's best work. Director Chandor has been producing very good things. This is his third and I will be watching his fourth in a cinema.

Verite blended with magic realism with mixed results. Gomes can handle the everyday but, boy, do I prefer him when he flies into imaginative skies. If you get the chance to see all six hours of it but don't want to go for the middle one with the trial, it's bloody wonderful. All worth seeing but I miss the maker of Tabu.

Russian retrospective on the revolution reminds me of Hollywood's second take on the Vietnam War in the 80s. Being Russian, there is an attendant need to diverge from nostalgia and present this new take through stylised eyes. It worked but I was left hungry.

Once you relax that this is not a hard horror fable and much more a gothic melodrama it's easy to fold yourself into its charms. Once it's over you might have difficulty recalling it. Not so Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone.

Involving baton-passing narrative but the social comedy possibly doesn't travel out of its topical zone. Couldn't hate it but didn't love it.

More nose thumbing from this forbidden filmmaker and it's consistently good but there is a undercurrent of contrivance which teeters on the edge of cuteness which undercuts the whole. The final shot and its gravity almost makes up for it.

A post GFC broadside at the continuance of ravenous capitalism with a dependably mighty performance from Michael Shannon and a committed one from Andrew Garfield. It impressed on first look but hasn't lingered. It has, however, interested me in Ramin Bahrani and his future.

2015: THE LOW

I like to keep my worst lists short as that suggests (to me, at any rate) that I'm getting better at vetting the bad stuff. Having gone against the grain by resisting the execrable Frances Ha I saved myself the trouble of sitting through two new Noah Baumbach monstrosities. The new Mad Max tempted me not and I feel no pain at its continued absence in my memory. An early bailing on the Entourage tv show saved me the grating pleasure of paying for a cinema ticket for it. The following are, as usual, more like disappointments than outright turkeys. Oh, the exception is The Nightmare, a thing so irresponsible in its purpose I would have to call it shameful.

A poorly written novel got much better treatment than it deserved by a director who deserved a better screenplay. There will be sequels but I won't be there to see them.

A disastrous screening at MIFF (a film about the managers of a rock band with bad audio!) I was willing to give it some slack. While there is a lot of promise on the screen there is too little focus on the title characters than on their charges which makes it another Who documentary.

If you're going to make a film about an intriguing neurological phenomenon and put so much work into supporting its sufferers' anecdotes with cinematic imagery you really ought to seal it with some neurology as well. Instead, the doctors get dismissed and the loonies who get religion and new ageism are given centre stage. Like giving a tram stop ranter the last word in a political history documentary.

If you're going to reassemble the Python team and deny that you're making a Python movie you might want to consider making a Python movie anyway rather than this tired old thing. They might have gone out on Meaning of Life...

Compelling until it committed to a particular reading which turned an enticing realist fable into a flat and literal-minded copout. Damnably OK.

Friday, December 18, 2015


A woman drives on a country road, stops in a paddock where two mules graze. She shoots one with a rifle and drives off. We are never to discover the exact meaning behind this and will never meet the woman again but by the end of this film we have a pretty good idea of what has happened in this prologue.

After the credits we meet David (Colin Farrell) who is fronting up at his society's regulation partner-finding process. He is to stay in a hotel for forty-five days, mingle with the guests and, find a new life partner. It's not just illegal to be single it's socially intolerable. If he fails within the time he will be turned into the animal of his choice. The dog he brings with him used to be his brother. He chooses, if a failure, to become a lobster. He gives very practical reasons for the choice and is praised.

The life at the hotel begins with a mass breakfast each day (sometimes with an imposed handicap) and continues through the day with hunting parties in the local woods to cull the loners, those who have exited the society and its coupling rule, with the kind of dart rifles that large animal vets use. There are also dances, induction ceremonies, public torture for masturbators (a forbidden solo pursuit), strange virility-testing contacts with the staff in the rooms and rewards for every coupling that happens.

At this point The Lobster resembles the kind of brutal social satire more commonly found in the cinema of the 60s and the 70s. The kind of films like Valerie and her Week of Wonders, The Holy Mountain, Salo or Immoral Tales that asked violent questions about the way we live and mixed irresistable comedy with gut-wrenching imagery. I caught up with these decades after their release so any nostalgia I feel about them is a delayed one. Nevertheless, watching The Lobster felt comfortable for its resemblance to those films and discomfiting for the dread just below the surface which pulses constantly.

As we watch the richly crafted dystopia and laugh along with it (there are many dizzily absurdist moments) we suspect there is more to come and that it will probably be less pleasing. The loners who are hunted by the hotel guests have their own society, eking out a bandit life in the woods. But here, where David flees (after a funny and difficult failure to couple) is the counter regime. The loners are paradoxically collectivist but anti-copular. Their punishments for affection between members are horrific. As cold and severe as the mainstream's regulated partnering is the savagery of the alternative leaves so little room for warmth or hope that the option of surgical metamorphosis back in straightsville (not shown but described repellently) seems a viable one. When David falls in love with the Short Sighted Woman (a committed performance from Rachel Weisz) we know their problems are going to dominate the film.

A frequent criticism of this film states that the first act in the hotel with its instant satire and black comedy is dwarfed by the slower and heavier remainder but I disagree. The life among the loners chapters do feel disproportionately long and can drag and, yes, the pace and laughs of the first part are missed. However, for me this section is the film's core; we have seen the workings of conformity distilled into a harsh concentrate in which single shaming has become terminal and we need to then really examine the alternative and if it is less funny then we might want to think about why. Do we force people into couplings or prevent them from intimacy? Do we develop struggling countries or promote population culls toward a more sustainable future? Do we have warfare or leave ourselves open to takeover? These are extremes and there are always more pragmatic compromises in the gaps they leave but these are always harder work. For me this film suggests the slog and the sacrifice might not just be the better, more humane way but forced upon us if we aren't prepared for it.

The luxuriant look of this film, whether in the deep polished wood of the hotel's interiors or the enlivening dewy woods of the world outside and it is created through hard slog as most of it was done with available lighting. Always good to hear the mighty Shostakovich used in a score, undercutting the ersatz joy of the world of the hotel and highlighting its severity. The cast has been picked with an obsessive precision. If we recognise alumni from Dogtooth or Blue is the Warmest Colour we can rest easy knowing they are here for more than the cachet of the cool films they've been in; Angeliki Papoulia's Heartless Woman is terrifying as is Lea Seydoux's Loner Leader: we're not just seeing the pretty faces and feeling cool because we recognise them. Rachel Weisz goes from passionate, to desperate to eerily urbane without a seam visible. Ben Wishaw, Olivia Coleman and John C. Reilly work hard at small roles. And Colin Farrell, especially welcome speaking in his native Dublin, anchors everything with a palpable depression that he makes both pitiable and appealing. This film is made of very good things.

Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos had already wowed me with 2010's Dogtooth, a film so obstinately its own that its viewers were forced to accept its terms or use the door. Because of it and others like Attenberg terms like the new Greek weirdcore were coined to cope. But they don't help, especially when a phrase like imaginative fiction serves perfectly well. This film is made of fears rendered recognisable through great craft. It stands as resolutely outside the mainstream as its loners in the woods but the difference is that it knows better and knows we know.

Sunday, November 29, 2015


So, Simon Pegg's Neil is unwittingly given the power to wish absolutely anything into being. From penile dimensions to climate control he tries this very thing, fulfilling the film's sole joke about the need for care when being absolute. There's more at stake, though. If his wishes are for good rather than evil he might also save the earth from extra terrestrial destruction. The aliens who have staged this test are animations voiced by the surviving members of the Monty Python team. And the dog is voiced by Robin Williams in his final screen role. So, good times?

Here and there. Incidentally. Actually, any watery qualifier you can think of that fuelled many a strong Python sketch in the heyday would apply here. This is not a Python film, even though they are in it and it was directed and co-scripted by Terry Jones. It is not a Python film because apart from some absurdist situations that pop up it is far more like a grimier Richard Curtis film. Acutally, if this were a Richard Curtis film it would be a breakthrough and feel funnier than it is through the sheer relief that it isn't yet another rollout of his big canvas romcoms.

When the darkly reptilian aliens switch to English they call each other names like Sharon and Maureen. This is old rather than classic Python and to hear it here offers more of a wince than a laugh. And, while much of the action and the hijinks with the various wishes and their consequences can delight, it plays so far short of the standard that might bypass delight and speed on to screaming edgy laughter. Jones co-wrote and directed Meaning of Life, after all which is one of the least loved Python outings until individual scenes are recalled and the reconstituted memory elevates it to the highest of their work. Its darkness and violence took the brand much further than the various projects of the individuals and pairings from the team at the time (anyone remember Yellowbeard or Erik the Viking?) So, if I admit that it's not a Python film what am I going on about?

Well, it pretty much announces its intentions to try to be a kind of Brian for today. I don't just mean the spaceship from that film prominent among the junk gathered in the alien craft. Neil is the same kind of nebbish as Brian, feels as defeated by life, falls in love with an apparently unattainable beauty (a glowing but underwritten Kate Beckinsale) and --

And this review is disintegrating in my hands. It's not just my hangover, I just can't find much of any value to say of it beyond its flagrant waste of pedigree. How such a crew of good, highly watchable performers could be left wandering the screen, their responses to situations too lingering rather than overplayed is frustrating.

As a child I saw a British film from the same H.G. Wells short story, The Man Who Could Work Miracles, and remember it as a tightly constructed and enjoyable morality comedy with a typical but permissible Wellsian sermonising climax. This not only serves as a ready comparison with Absolutely Anything but a reminder of all those times I've heard someone herald a recent film, song, novel or tv show, or other cultural artefact as a whateveritis for the twenty-first century. Usually, all they are referring to is that the thing they are lauding so was made since 2001 and not to any cultural, textural or profound updating to bring an old story in through the filter of contemporary life. This film is not a Life of Brian for the twenty-first century, it's a lightly enjoyable shadow of Life of Brian from the twenty-first century. If that's your dig, run don't walk. I staggered ... away.