Saturday, December 31, 2011

My 2011



What kind of year was 2011 at the cinema for me? A slightly more active one than the previous five. Some Picks:

Disappointed that:

We Need to Talk About Kevin ventured no further than its virtuoso character and issue construction.

Sion Sonno moved back into conventional three-act territory after offering such bold and thrilling rides in pieces like Suicide Circle and Strange Circus. Cold Fish and Guilty of Romance played far more conventionally than they needed to and rest on lower rungs in the Sonno's ladder o' greatness as a result.

I Love You Phillip Morris could not survive the best attempts by its star to provide as true a portrayal of a rotter/cad/etc as he could muster. Love did not mitigate interpersonal atrocity for this bum on a seat.

Jane Eyre wasn't very interesting even though it succeeded in importing some freshness into the much filmed story.

Burning Man, having introduced a finely crafted time-shattering method of examining a serious situation too soon lost control of it.

Gratified that:

The Woman not only excelled at everything it attempted, provided real horror and provoked thought but broke its director out from a string of self-defeating "good ideas".

Black Swan declared its hand early but kept to its purpose so stubbornly that it transcended the tributary slide show it was initially and soared into high nutso greatness. Thank you Darren Arranofsky for not doing a Gus Van Sant on us and going all mainstream. Black Swan is a mainstream film by distribution and mood but retains the individuality of an auteur. Good job.

End of Animal kept to its odd brief, demonstrating again the need for a steady hand at the helm when daunting weather is ahead. Also, very good to see the continuation of South Korean cinema gem production.


A big thank you to:

Pedro Almodovar for surprising me with a film that chose against expected directions. The Skin I Live In is a treat. Don't be fooled by the spolier-avoiding trailer.

Nicholas Winding-Refn for giving us an action movie that was both old fashioned and new. The constantly effective Drive thrilled me despite a saggy final act.

Justin Kerzel for a crime thriller that examined the roots of atrocity, unflinchingly staring at the family values at the heart of this monstrosity. Snowtown was a triumph. Animal Kingdom team, this is how it's done.

Richard Lowenstein and Lynn-Maree Milburn for Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard which showed that a tribute to an artist can be sincere without being sucky. Martin Scorsese, you tried with the film about George but you couldn't get close (to either your subject or the Howard film).

Apichatpong Weerasethakul for showing us in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives that a theme like death can be celebratory and that a whimsical touch can also carry great weight.


Film o' the year?

The Woman

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review: The Skin I Live In: Almodovar lives well

There is something very strange going on at the Ledgard place. Roberto, a plastic surgeon is nurturing the care and recovery of a woman in a skin suit who possibly has crippling burns to most of her body. She lives from day to day being served food and reading material via a dumb waiter while she makes bizarre sculptures out of clay and torn clothes. The servants obey her but she is a prisoner.

Roberto comes home from a lecture in which he strongly hints that he has crossed the line in an experimental procedure involving synthesised skin. He turns on the giant screen in his den and luxuriates over the sight of his patient, an unwrinkled beauty turned away with all the glory of her posterior view on show. Noticing something, he rushes to her room and finds that she has slashed her wrists. Having an impeccably well equipped operating theatre at home he is able to stitch her up and lecture her, advising that the jugular is a better choice for those serious about their suicide.

Who is she? If not his dead wife is she someone he has saved from a similar fate (she burned to death in a car accident) and fashioned in the image of his beloved? Why? And why does all this just seem to coast?

Whoopsie! Six years earlier ...

No, this film is still in cinemas and it is so fragile against spoilers that I'm stopping here. I can say that the plot involves the most troubling act of revenge I have ever seen depicted on screen. Also, that if you go to this film expecting one of Almodovar's slightly off kilter melodramas keep thinking that and enjoy the ride. He has never gone so far into the realm of fable as he does here but this is no fairy tale. Also, if you feel that you've given it forty-five minutes of your time and it really isn't moving anywhere, sit tight, it moves.

If possible scenes of surgical violence turn you off be advised that you'll find NONE here. Aldmodovar has exercised great grace in removing any distracting gore from a tale that might be red with it in lesser hands. No, he is not concerned with violence. There's plenty of anger here, anger at the human race sinking into its own hell, anger at the anger and counter anger at that. And there is grief, grief that strains toward a naive kind of perfection which rewards its witnesses with a show of futility. (I'm reaaaaaally trying to avoid spoilers here.)

So what can I say about it? I can say that loss, a long standing theme for Almodovar, is here given the gravest treatment he's yet mustered. But, typically, it is given a setting both recognisable and fantastic. This helps any who approach to concentrate on the carefully constructed emotional maelstrom on screen.

Banderas, who came to the world through Almodovar's powerful but unglamorous roles, continues here with a performance that respects its author's care. He is pitiable and menacing by turns and, somehow, always caring. Beside him is the always wonderful Elena Anaya (see here for notes on the superb Hierro -- scroll down). There's one objection I have to her performance but it necessitates a spoiler but there is one scene, as old as folk tales, where she cannot reveal who she is to loved ones without a cataclysm: her decision grinds behind her  eyes as her love and her pain fight to the death.

I'm on and off with this director. Sometimes his comedies wear (I think I'm the only person who has seen it who finds Women on the Verge a drag). And sometimes his melodramas bore. Mostly I find his great Rabelasian humanity a joy. But now and then, he'll leap from the shadows with something tough and beautiful at once, a new thing. That's what he's got here.

Bugger the new Mission Impossible in IMAX. Go for a thrill for your inner core. Go see this one.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Why Spider Baby is a better film than Schindler's List: a Xmas reflection



Before going any further, please read this: I am not writing about the Holocaust. This blog post is concerned with a film that includes a representation of it. The event is rightly recalled with strong emotion ... but it's not what I'm talking about.

Anyway ...

Think about it:

A man responsible for a group of outsiders tries to keep the threat of the world away from them until he is forced to grave action.

A con artist exploits a group of outsiders until he is forced to feel for them and delivers a sickeningly self-serving speech about not doing enough.

Which one would you rather watch?

Spider Baby (the first description above) presents itself as an exploitation film. Family servant, Max is caretaker to a doomed family. The Merryes have a disease named after them. It's a form of galloping dementia which begins eroding their intellect in childhood. Enter city slicker cousins, unaffected by the condition who, with their shyster lawyer want to sell the property and live off the proceeds. The kids, with their ethical capacity disappearing but with young physiques, are dangerous (from the first scene on). Max tries to please everybody but understands that this is impossible. What he does is brutal but guided by nothing but despair at morality offering a better way.

Oskar Schindler is a spieler, going from table to table at nighclubs, making a big splash, putting himself about until he's noticed by the local movers and shakers and talks his way into manufacturing contracts. It's 1940s Europe and the movers and shakers wear swastikas and can offer free labour. Oskar has no problem with this and happily sets up his factory. Also setting up shop is Amon Goeth, another one of those darned Nazis who rolls into town and sets up the labour supply for Oskar's franchise. Amon has further orders than just keeping order and when Oskar witnesses one of Amon's massacres he begins to grow a conscience. After that he protects his workforce with ever cleverer schemes until they are effectively retarding the German war effort. So far this could be Hogan's Heroes.

But it isn't and for the very good reason that helming this venture is a director whose taste for bad guys is like a junkie's for junk. Scenes of Ralph Fiennes doing the kind of things that every bullied boy in the world daydreams about are the most magnetic in this film. At one point Goeth rises from his sexual bed to enjoyh a cigarette on the balcony and some idle target practice with a hunting rifle. He bends to the ledge and leaves his cigarette there, aims, fires, kills, swings around for another target and as he does, picks up the cigarette with his lower lip and aims again. The woman he's spent the night with complains about the noise of the rifle. He tells her to shut up.

When I saw this scene in the cinema when the film was new it trumped everything that had preceeded it and all that was to follow. It was a perfectly realised expression of male id, a man was doing what he felt like with no one to stop him. This is after the lower key but still remarkable entrance of the character whose first line is one of selfish profanity. However laddish and arch Schindler has been painted he has just been trumped. Thereafter something curious happens...

To give this weight I'll need to inform or remind my reader that Stephen Speilberg declared that he got in touch with his ancestral tradition in the making of this film. Where he had been raised outside of Judaism he now craved to identify with the victims of this atrocity. He declared that after this film he could no longer depict Nazis getting comically dispatched as they were in the Indiana Jones films. I'm not going to doubt his sincerity here.

But why, then, in a film that attempts to be the definitive mass for the victims of genocide, does the audience crave the screen presence of the perpetrators? Goeth is all charisma and depth. Schindler is a cardboard cutout who goes from cynical lines to idealistic ones and still seems like an unfolded mailing box. Liam Neeson does what he can with the role but ends up being playdough for Ben Kingsley's moral centre (admittedly given some interesting twists). But Fiennes' powerhouse performance as Goeth is something Stephen Spielberg cannot prevent himself from presenting: a really tasty villain.

In Jaws we watch a distant beach crawling with insect like humans as the awesome elegance of the shark glides through the water of the foreground. The good guys in that film have to be put through really really gruelling peril for us to identify with them when the great white terror is close by. Same with Amon Goeth.

So what? Doesn't that make him a talented filmmaker with the same quirk as Hitchcock? Yeah, it does. While I don't like his films very much I have to dips my lid to his sheer skill with light and sound. He is a cinemaster. The problem is not that he does it well but that he does it at the expense of his purpose.

Personally, I don't think that this has anything to do with his fealty to his ancestry. I think he just digs bad guys, understands them (deeply) and has a near compulsive need to fill his screens with them. In this case, as in Jaws, he finds a big threatening presence to scare his audience with and runs with it until he has to appease  them with a happy ending. Meantime, we get to walk around the skull of a real live Nazi. Now, if you accept this, doesn't it smack of the kind of movie this was meant not to be? Doesn't this remind you of a cinema aestheic that never gets close to Oscar ceremonies? Isn't this an exploitation film?

Try it. Get your mental machete and bash your way through the big names on the marquee and the state-of-art production values and look at what you are left with: a spayed chiper and a centre of moral gravity (Itzhak Stern) whose film this really deserves to be and above them both a fetishised tyrant whose personal power is as thrilling as it is terrifying. This film should be beside Russ Meyer.

But Russ Meyer might not feel so honoured. What, by the way has happened to Spider Baby in all this? Well, nothing much needs to happen. It is a film whose fantastical introduction (delivered with all the solemnity of an Ed Wood epic) comes right out and tells you it's an exploitation film. It's happy at the drive in or the grindhouse. But there's more: it's also good.

Lon Chaney Jr, having begun his career freed from the shadow of his tyrannical father, coasted through roles in Hollywood until chosen to play the Wolfman in Universal's famous monster movie. He brought a sadness to the role of the man trapped by his destiny which still gives the factory genre film its distinction. Much of his subsequent career until the 60s when Spider Baby was made did little more than reprise this performance. But when Chaney plays Bruno it's as though he has seized the essence of the character and only adds weight throughout the film. That essence is a similar sadness that his job has brought him, to care for and love those who are unable to return either and the sadness in knowing that his charges are doomed. Doomed if left alone and doomed if brought into the light of the world.

Bruno needs neither cruelty nor force to assert his authority but is left bewildered when faced with the venal cynicism of the worldly cousins. As primitive and wanton as his wards are, their violence seems like play to them. The cousins' lack of concern for the pathos of this situation renders them monstrous by comparison. Yes, it's a campy overstated monstrosity but everything finds its balance in this film. If there were Nazis in this movie we probably wouldn't need reminding that they were bad guys.

Those who dislike Spider Baby in my experience dislike the difficulty they have in classifying it. Is it a campy romp, a straight exploitation shocker, a Meyer-like outrage, a satirical comedy, a deceptive horror film, a horror parody...? What? All and none. Whether intentional or not Spider Baby is a remarkable piece that can welcome derisive laughter and provoke thought alike. It should be next to Val Lewton.


So, why even write this post? Well, I can't think of anything more pointless than to provoke Spielberg fans. They walk the earth in armour. And it's not just to be contrary (pointless, again). It's that in three years of sharing treasures from the shadows of the great unbeatable mainstream with whomever would see them, championing the subtle and the small in preference to celebrating the box office triumph, of experiencing the idea beneath the signs of a low budget, of becoming familiar with alternatives to classical narrative (or even just narrative), I still get people who cannot accept alternatives.

There can be no perceptible fault to not knowing the marginal pieces when they are so effectively smothered by the mainstream. Previous posts here have lamented the loss of an active and self-promoting arthouse scene, one that is a visible part of the cultural and social scene. What I and a few others have tried to do recently in this burg is get people back in touch with why cinema is such a valuable art and how variable the approach to completing a film can be. Because the narrative element in mainstream cinema makes it feel native to the form alternatives or even acts of defiance against it are often met with outrage. No, I mean it. Outrage. I've seen regulars to Shadows fit to be tied over this film's anti-narrative or that one's innovative use  of narrative. I've witnessed genuine offence.

I ask such folk if they are equally offended by Jackson Pollock paintings to be met with incredulity yet it's the same proposition that alternative cinema brings. If the Blue Poles is not trying to be Christina's World, aren't you left with dealing with the Blue Poles on its own terms? Put it in context, certainly, but in the end it's the picture before you that you should be responding to. And if you're going to rail against the symptoms of low budgets, or even just snicker at them, be fair and see what's left when you remove the big budgets from the blockbusters. Throw a few million at Spider Baby and you'd have Blue Velvet. Take the fortune away from the budget of Schindler's List and you have Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S.


'Cept I'd probably rather watch Ilsa.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

2012?

I made this trailer for the last SHADOWS of 2011.



I wanted to do two things with it: to suggest what might happen if I did come back and to remind my audience of what they might be missing if I can't.

Milos has parental concerns which outrank my film nights on Friday nights. He's happy to let me continue on another night. When Milos bumped me for a play in 2009 I went to Sunday for three weeks and it was terrible. I and the majority of the audience I draw work for a living and cannot commit to any night of the week but Friday. Saturday would be harder still. It's Friday or nowt for me.

I will approach Milos in the new year to see if circumstances have changed and try for either the same or a lesser frequency. The last time I did the latter I put the words LAST FRIDAY OF THE MONTH on every single notification I made public and still got people claiming they didn't know which Friday it was. This was not due to stupidity but the plain fact that an independent screening ranks very low on the attention of anyone with a life to lead, even a staid and uncomplicated life. Those who made that claim unanimously said that they preferred the idea of knowing that there would be something good on at the place every Friday. So, when I went back to weekly screenings the numbers dropped off. They liked the idea, just not enough to turn up.

Make it special and you lose, make it routine and you lose.

I feel no diminishment of my enthusiasm for holding these screenings. Without a working art house scene there is more need now than ever to offer an alternative to a mainstream that is growing increasingly homogeneous.

I just haven't worked out a way of making it work so that ... it works.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Curator's Report 2011: Thank Youse!

The final shadow sermon blares
So ends another year @ SHADOWS, and we have plunged the Shadow edge deeper into the ankle of the year than ever before, garnered out highest attendances and brought great cinema from the murk to the shining dark of night for the delectation of friend and stranger.


Early birds






Last night I screened one of my favourite films, The Producers (yes, the 1968 one) to a good sized crowd who loved it. I have seen it at a cinema twice before and it was a thrill to feel the waves of laughter build in the dark again. I didn't bring a support short but after first smelling it in the air we found we had this:


I'd come to screen a film and ended up making one as well. The car was cremated but no one was injured. With all the plastic and rubber (ie. inadvertant napalm) burning away it looked hopeless without a fire engine.  But two garden hoses did it and pretty quickly. Watch for the Firies asking for directions towards the end (swift response, though, they really were there in minutes).

After that ...

We saw the Producers, dug it, and I showed every trailer I'd made for Shadows. People were requesting replays. Nice.

The bar after the screening
2011 turned out to be the best year of the three and if it's the one I have to finish on then que sera sera. A lot of the screenings, particularly at the beginning were so well attended that when the inevitable winter slump set in I was getting cranky with numbers well above the previous years' average. But how can I complain about this? I shared a wealth of cinema with a range of persons known and unknown. That was the plan. Mission accomplished.












So, the year....

As usual, I'd like to start with what didn't work and offer some thoughts on why.

Will Shadows return? A matter for judgement
FAILURES

To crown my program of female protagonists I offered Juliet of the Spirits, Fellini's psychedelic valentine to his wife, Giullietta Massina. This is a difficult film that takes a lot of getting used to but does give riches. It was this year's Noriko's Dinner Table in that those who could not adapt to its plunges into surreality gave up trying and found it an interminable chore. The screening was disrupted by a mass late arrival which became a mass walkout ten minutes later. Not a film to come in at any time after the anchor points at the beginning have been established.

It's detractors after the screening attacked it from a mainstream sensibility which strategy I always find lazy-minded and said as much. But the wall was up, propped by both sides. It miffed me and I wrote a piece about the eccentric results of having a visible art house scene and the return of mainstream thinking of not having one. But that turned into this more pleasant piece. Once again, the question of whether I was wasting my and others' time with Shadows or just overreacting to what was, after all, a difference of perception.

I could not for the life of me sell the following: The Tin Drum, El Norte and Uncle Boonmee. All good examples of how magical realism can blend with edgy film making and emerge confidently owning itself. I don't know what turned people off about them but they were all screened during programs that were otherwise my most successful yet. After a lot of requests to screen Billy Liar after it was bumped last year, it drew less than ten folk.

See also The Spirit of the Beehive, a beautiful and eerie anti-nostalgic look at childhood subject of some particularly energetic requests by some folk who entirely failed to turn up for the screening. There are all sorts of reasons why people can't turn up for a film screening and I'm cool with all of them. But when people make a big thing of wanting to see something and then ignore it (not just staying away but saying nothing about that) it annoys the holy living fuck out of me. If you want to request something, honour its delivery. I keep getting signs that keeping this night free is keeping it devalued by its potential audience.

And then, almost at the end of the whole journey the biggest ever turnout was for Jacques Tati's highly experimental comedy Playtime. An almost standing room only audience met this comic genius' self-proclaimed masterpiece in almost perfect silence. This was a curious experience for me. This disappointing response originated in something that had never occurred to me about this film despite being a significant part of my pitch to audiences.

Tati shot it in the gigantic scene-stretching vistas of 70mm so he could break on through to the other side of comedy and let the audience decide what they wanted to laugh at. This results in an audience that can never quite settle due the anxious idea that no one is sharing their reaction. Comedies aimed at individuals rather than the whole audience are doomed. Tati, whose career up to that point had been one of resolute success, delighting his public with his signature character and an effortless talent at visual humour supported by an ear for soundtrack that David Lynch would envy.

And then his shot at a career-capping comedy revolution garnered him the least laughs he'd known from a piece; it almost destroyed his career. It took seeing it with a crowd for the centime to drop. That drop was heard by everyone in attendance.

Oh well....

Chris and Sonia Chringle


PUZZLES

I had no idea why The Ninth Configuration was not only well attended but well, well loved. This curio, a theological comedy thriller, which was really intended as a vehicle of writer Peter Blatty after his lingering dissatisfaction following the Exorcist. But there it was, delighting and thrilling by turns with its odd, uncontrolled exploration and typically sharp Blatty dialogue.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Jamoril Jirez' extraordinary surrealistica not only attracted a full house (and more reads for a single screening blogpost before or since) but, for all its oddness and difficulty, virtually unanimous joyous praise. Gratifying, that.

The strange, severe fable from Greece Dogtooth, drew a small crowd but one that was left stunned in the best way possible.

Reg or semi-reg all equal in the eye of the Shadows


The most surprising one, though, was Diary. A recent entry from the innovative and always watchable Pang brothers from Hong Kong, this title has been allowed to fade in the shade after their internationally triumphant The Eye. I'd failed to be touched by their follow up, the stylish but harsh Abnormal Beauty, but seeing this compells me to give that one a second look. I watched this in hope that it would make a good bridge between the earnestness of Matador and the lightness of The Unbelievable Truth. Neither horror nor thriller, it's more a psychological study of morbid grief. When I screened it I saw it only for the second time. It was a revelation. I seemed to have seen a completely different film when I auditioned it. It had initially left me so flat that I had mentally struck it off the list while its credits were rolling. When I saw it with the Shadows audience I was moved almost to tears by its emotional compulsion and psychological depth. If uncertain, repeat.

David P, newbie, Miriam and Renn


One final note about failure and puzzling things. This year, even more than last, I consciously endeavoured to vary the tone of the programs so that an emotive range was not only present but clearly obvious. After polling what I claim as a public I was STILL getting people who thought I was showing too much horror or heavy mood pieces. A few real world conversations later revealed that this impression had more to do with time poverty than illiteracy; folk have to make increasingly superficial decisions on things distant from their immediate concerns. and an indy film night rightly ranks lower than a friend's birthday or other life event. But I was getting this from people who'd already supported me in spreading the tone of the line-ups, people who knew I was trying (ie not just the wearisome types who will work like Trojans to insert their dislike of a type of film into a conversation, however irrelevant the point).

I've come to the conclusion that if one (and I mean one) film of a particular genre displeases, then it colours the entire impression. So out of thirty-seven films screened this year, three could be called horror (and with each one of those that's still a stretch) and I had more than one speak of the night as a horror festival. Eleven were comedies and I had to put up with someone repeating to me (admittedly second hand) that the night needed to have "light and shade". What kind of maths is this? What the hell is up with it and why the hell should I tolerate it? Well, I don't always but I need to. Again, it's not stupidity, it's time and attention budgeting. The problem is not simply that these few have a warped impression which they won't reconsider but they convey this falsehood to others. Arrrgh!

Anyway...

Miriam and Renn


TRIUMPHS

From the word go!

The Fall had been my virtual callling card last summer as I did everything I could to spread the word about it. It was a risk to start the year of this obscure film night with something that was itself an obscurity but it drew my biggest crowd to that date and the most adoration. This magnificent unmarketable piece (then again, I managed to do it) is the sole example of audience members approaching me long afterwards to tell me they'd bought their own copies of the film. Satisfaction!

The first time I showed Dellamorte Dellamore was not at Shadows but as part of a series of screenings intended to fill the gap that Dean Mc left one year as he made travel plans. It was well attended but marred by an audience member who had an almost psychopathic disregard for her fellow audience and gossiped loudly through the entire film. No one could shut her up. I almost feared the same thing happening when I showed it this year, like a record with a jump, but it went down a storm.

6ixtynin9, an accelerating gangster tale from Thailand won its day, vindicating the choice to put more comedy in this year. It delighted and surprised its audience.

One of my all time favourites, Little Murders delighted in my second screening of it with a big appreciative audience. It was so good to be part of the constant shared laughter from Donald Sutherland's wedding speech. It would not have had many chances at a non tv audience since its initial flopping back in 1971 but it did the bizz here and made we wonder how many other late night gems would shine in the dark like it did. Then I showed The Offence, a tough, unlovable film from the same year which did more to divide audiences than anything else I've screened. It's tough but stagey, alienating but intelligent. It was loved and hated.

David B who took most of these photos


SO...

Despite the winter slump and slow return of audiences in spring I continued my own discovery by sharing these films. I take the responses of the punters seriously. I'll argue a point gruffly at times but I'll also shut up and listen when I'm genuinely surprised by an insight not before encountered. This, for me is the margin of reward for doing all this; to slap it up there on the wall and see how it works for those assembled in the dark before it. Best response was for The Fall for inspiring people to investigate it for themselves and also spread the word. Most weirdly gratifying was Pauline M's token appreciative slap to the cheek for Dogtooth.

Milos M. continued to show great tolerance and patience with my efforts. We were only bumped twice (and once with more than enough time to adjust the program). He continued to offer his studio for my cinema evangelism without complaint and with genuine support.

Thanks be to my lovely regulars who continued to encourage me to continue despite some crushing setbacks and temporary drain of general interest. You are valuable to the world.

Thanks in great gratitude also, to all who attended who were not of my acquaintance and swelled the numbers of this year's triumphs. I didn't get around to meeting nearly enough of you and wish I'd taken more trouble. If you read this, please keep reading.

Even if I don't return to ABC next year or just find the odds too much against I've had three years whose wins have thrilled and whose losses have instructed. That by itself has made me happy. Mean it. Happy.

So, thanks.

PJ


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Two Faces of Love Part A: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lynne Ramsay knows cinema. She is expert in the use of sound and image to save pages of words.

Here's an example. We've already seen and heard how infant Kevin seems capable only of constant short screams. Tilda Swinton uses all her skill to convey a grinding restraint as she remembers she is holding a baby rather than a faulty ipod that she can throw to the floor and crush under her heel. At an early point in Kevin we see her standing outside as a jackhammer's din clogs the speakers. A passer by, just a blur in the glare behind her, gives her a look and moves on. Cut to a wide shot. She has paused with the pram that holds the constantly screaming baby at a place where he cannot be heard. The sound is monstrous but it's better than what she'd hear if it were silent. Swinton's eyes are closed and her expression is one of stolen bliss. This is beyond morality, it is animal, pure.

Here's another moment. It's the post atrocity world in which she is punished by her community for the mass sin of her son. She's driving trhough the streets of her smalltown part of the city. It's Halloween and the neighbourhood is out in costume. Ordinary citizens in monster masks taunt her at every crossing. Change the context and this would be charming. But Kevin, as he says so memorably in the trailer, IS the context. The interior of the car is soaked in the film's colour in chief: blood red.  Buddy Holly's fragile, tinkling love chirp Every Day governs the soundtrack. Everyday, she gets this. She gets it in the sense that she receives it and that she understands it. Every bloody day.

Both of these moments are from the virtuoso first 30 minutes of this film. It would be counterproductive to list all the remarkably strong and strongly cinematic pieces of this jigsaw puzzle film: the first half hour contains nothing but virtuosity and you should go and see it for yourself anyway. There is no moment of tokenistic levity or warmth in this developing picture of the chasmic lack of love between mother and son. Kevin does need talking about. He's not right. But that's exactly what never happens to any useful extent. That's the central irony. Kevin is falling through the cracks of family, medicine, society, and what have you got? My Melbourne resident readers might be reminded of multiple murderer Peter Dupas.

But here's the problem. After that first half hour this film becomes a repeating slide show of the start with no significant development until crucial pieces of the jigsaw are provided. There is no surprise to them nor any further depth in Swinton's response and by the time the final line should be delivered to crush it's just more of the same. The hour and a half following that dazzling introduction is comprised of repetition with measured doses of unsurprising extra detail. Yet it doesn't have the momentum of a non narrative essay like Jean Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her. This overall flatness of exposititon cannot add up to any character study. there are the trappings of drama but this is not a three act story.

Perhaps this is a symptom of the always difficult translation from page to screen. There are two comparatively minor acts of violence that the film covers with ellipses. Even the pivotal action falls short of visible action. A novelist would not scruple to provide detail. I haven't read the novel but tried to last year when I was lent a copy. I found its style indigestibly affected and couldn't get past the first unrealistically proportioned monolith of a letter (the novel is a series of letters) before my friend let me off the hook by taking it back and offering something readable. Kevin is a prize-winning, bestselling novel. The bad bits must really be good. They aren't in the film. They are perfunctory, never quite rising above placeholder status.

We never fear Kevin. He grows up and continues to be what he started being. If we are meant to be finding a place either side of the nature/nurture debate then it fails again. I found it too difficult to care either way. I remember thinking: get to the big bad bit and have done with it. It cruises over the big bad bit in the hope that you'll agree that the real one lies in the final line of dialogue. Of that, I thought, oh ok.

The early peaking of this film prevents any of its constituent parts from forming anything better than reiteration. When one of those constituents is an expert performance from Tilda Swinton, I have to ask: couldn't we have just sampled Kevin? Talking about him gets us nowhere.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Two Faces of Love Part B: I Love You Phillip Morris

Steven Russell is a small town cop and happy with his job, wife, daughter and lifestyle until a series of life changing events assail him and he becomes flamboyantly gay. There's a problem: being outwardly out is costly. It's not a choice of the heart or central nervous system but one of personal taste, credit-card bloating personal taste. Falling back on his knowledge of policing, he becomes a pretty good conman. But, as the persistent other lesson of this film goes, if you do the crime....

In prison he meets the Phillip of the title (lest you should think the movie was about an adoration of big tobacco) and the pair fall hopelessly in love. Well, not so hopelessly. Phillip brings to the amorous table the conscience that Steven has long abandoned as the luxury of the honest. This is the film. Steven's love getting him into worse scrapes and Phillip getting increasingly implicated as Steven's lack of conscience opens to an increasingly wider void until he seemingly is incapable of distinguishing the love that motivated him from the thrill of the con.

This story stands or falls on how much you as a viewer are prepared to forgive Steven his trespasses. You will be asked to do a lot more forgiving than Phillip. Can you? Well, you decide. The light sheen that the movie maintains over the action and its moral crises needs a performance that bridges levity and gravity. Ok, so you get that with Jim Carrey in the kind of effortless performance that always has the public of funny men falling to their knees in tribute. Hey, the wacky guy can play it straight.

Carrey has, of course, already done this a few times (most successfully in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) so no one should be too surprised. But here he really is impressive as he must bear the movie's through some turbulent passages, holding back on the goofiness here, letting the frown spread there. And he does. So why is this film not better than ok?

As I see it, the problem lies in the perfection of the portrayal. We get so truly convinced that Steven Russell is losing himself behind his endless series of ruses that he sacrifices the self that we might love the way Phillip did. In very short time we have lost touch with him but the often elaborate machinations he designs are no substitute.

A mistake is made early on when Steven uses his influence in prison to fulfil a wish uttered by Phillip. The solution is humourlessly violent but is played for laughs anyway. It's not Carrey's fault but the writing and direction. It's a fault that leads to further ill-judged setups that should be either shenanigans or serious moral dilemmas but are always presented as loveable capers.

For once I can't blame an ego-bound movie star for wanting to act like an actor. Robin Williams has ruined how many movies with his apparent insistence on his directors' indulgence? Jennifer Jason Leigh's career stiffed early on when her quest for truth in movie acting fashioned some truly repellent characters whose place at the centre of their narratives killed each film in turn. Adam Sandler did Punch Drunk Love but then went back to being Adam Sandler.

Carrey has shown he can act and his goofy face-pulling days seem dim and distant now. If only he could find the director he needs (as well as Michel Gondry). Love might well find a way but there's none lost here between me and the screen.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

THE PRODUCERS Friday 16th December 8 pm

SHADOWS BREAK UP / XMAS PARTAY!
127 Campbell Street Collingwood
Friday December 16 8.30pm
Come one. Come all

Yup. The time has once more come for us to hang up our projectors and wander the world of the turn of the year with thoughts of presence and centre claws. It's xmas, folks, and what better carol than a rousing chorus of Springtime for Hitler. Be of best cheer and join us one last time.


Max is a fallen man. Once king of Broadway, he's reduced to romancing little old ladies to raise funds for plays that flop.When nebbish accountant Leo interrupts to inspect the books Max comes at him like a typhoon. Then Leo speaks a passing thought that more money could be made from a flop than a hit. Before he knows it he's an accomplice in one of the funniest cases of fraud to hit the big screen.

Max leads Leo through the Broadway machine, finding the worst director and cast to realise the worst play: (guaranteed to close on page four). But the best laid plans of mice and dethroned kings....



Mel Brooks assembled all his pro joke writing skills, experience as an assistant to a Broadway king, timing perfected in his already big hit Get Smart, and a cast made for their roles and delivered one of the most durable comedies in cinema history.

Zero Mostel thunders as Max Bialystock, a kind of Orson Welles on speed. Gene Wilder stepped into the role of Leo from a modest start as a serious stage actor to formulate the hysteria shtick that would serve him the rest of his career.

The opening scene of this film is a sustained personality clash that works almost like an explosive lab experiment and yet also manages to be witty in a literary sense. One notch below its tightness and you'd have an ok stage play. One notch too high on the frenetic nervous energy and it would be alienating. It is acted with precision and shot for the same precision in editing. It is perfectly judged.


Brooks had nursed both the idea of a memoir about his time as a Broadway producer's assistant and the notion of the worst play in the world for some time before it came together as Springtime for Hitler. By the time it went  into production and the depiction of the stage show was getting pushed far beyond cuteness the sole compromise Brooks had to make was that title. The plainer one chosen became the perfect finishing touch.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Review: BURNING MAN

A room lit brightly by indirect sunlight. A man is masturbating while standing up. He's having trouble. Suddenly a woman rises from a supine position and asks if he wants help. He declines. Suddenly,we're in the kitchen of a busy restaurant. The man from the previous scene is the chef. A middle aged woman enters the kitchen and angrily calls him a selfish arsehole. Suddenly, he's in a car, misjudges a turn and another car rams into his sending it into a spin, he revolves before our eyes pummelled by restaurant supplies, fruit, meat etc. All quite beautiful but what means it all?

Well that's the point for the next two or so hours. Incomplete and intentionally illfitting jigsaw puzzle pieces gradually forming a portrait of a man struggling with grief, self-medicating through anger and sex. Eventually, we are introduced to the cause of this grief and can, through a persistently sharded narrative, start following. And forgiving. Early scenes showing him (name of Tom) being arrogant, coldly suave and self serving invite us to dislike him before we know where he has come from but when we do, piece by piece, his inner maelstrom and outer freeze speak volumes and we can forgive him his trespasses. All that is right there on the cinema screen. So why don't I care about it more than sporadically?

It has good things going for it from the get go: a strong Australian cast put performances which, though fragmented by the structure, come through clearly; that fragmentation at first so uncompromising loosens up with an easy hand at the helm and is soon enough quite enjoyable; the theme of love and loss is constant, intimate and supported by a fundamentally cinematic heart. See, it's all good. But it isn't, really.

The good thing about asynchronous narrative is that it can push the theme, the issues, the more existential elements of a situation boldly out front for our examination while still retaining much of what we like in narrative cinema (performances, motivation etc) but the bad thing about it is how it also seems to encourage the nurture of secondary or even irrelevant elements. Burning Man hits its stride quite early on and, after a few surprises and sleight of hand moments, we are happy to take up its invitation. But soon enough after that the sheer weight of repetition, strains that fizzle and continue to fizzle, the feeling that the film will have no clear ending gets stronger. And then, after what feels like hours later we are given a climactic moment and an emotive coda. As that is happening I realise that I don't care at all about this character that I had begun warming to way back in the first shower of shards. I observe him emote. I do not share his emotion.

All I can think of is that I might have cared if I'd had to wade through about thirty less minutes of screen time. The tech is now too old to be universal but it's also irresistable as a figure: imagine taking a square of photo paper from the enlarger plate and sinking it into the developer, watching the image emerge in the dim light but noticing that every few seconds it erases and emerges again and again and again. That's what the last fortnight of this film feels like. An ongoing attempt at showing how gallows humour works seems forced the first time and then by the third or fourth becomes a strain.

I should like this film. I like grim films. I like a lot of unrelentingly grim films. I like films that challenge classical narrative or even dispense with it while remaining fiction (mid 60s Godard is a good place to start for this). I like films as essays that push their themes forward like stage mothers their unluckily talented children. But this grim, intentionally fractured character autopsy snatched my empathy and then even cold interest and left me at the point where those things started to feel like contempt. It is well made with good makings but god I wish it were better.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Rock on Film part 15: Living in the Material World vs Autoluminescent

... OR: THE CORRECT USE OF GRAPHIC EQUALISATION

George vs Rowland

Big themes so let's start with a couple of lists:

Toy copy of George's "Rocky" Strat



Fender Jaguar similar to Rowland's



Similarities:

Both came to initial fame in influential bands.

Both were guitarists to one side of an impressive front package.

Neither was considered a guitar hero in any traditional sense.

Both died before old age of natural causes

Differences:

The ex-Birthday Party members continued to make music equal or superior to their work in the seminal outfit. The ex-Beatles' output continues to be dominated by grinding mediocrity.

The Beatles remain the biggest band in the known Universe. You have to find out about the Birthday Party.

George Harrison left drug experimentation behind for a committment to spirituality. Roland Howard's lifelong pessimism led to a kind of romanticism in which spirituality was never more than a handy notion.

Almost everyone who watches the Harrison documentary will do so across the great chasm of the subject's fame and their capacity to cope with the difference will determine their enjoyment of it. In the small cinema where I saw Autoluminescent I could almost guarantee that everyone in the half filled seating either knew or had met Roland Howard or any combination of the interviewees. That does change as soon as you place the screening outside of Melbourne but consider that the first proposition doesn't change wherever it's shown.

Equalisation:

The Beatles' magnitude demands that any attempt to render them identifiable to the great unwashed needs more than a little push to be believable. Rowland Howard's life story can tolerate a great deal more praise from pit and peer due to his relative obscurity. In both cases that's what happens. If you want to see it not happen that way go and watch the 1989 hagiography Imagine John Lennon.

ok...

GEORGE
As a second or third generation Beatles fan (ie one who turned teen in the 70s) I easily picked out Harrison's contributions for their distinct darkness of tone. His first composition on a fabs disc was the brooding sneer of Don't Bother Me. It's all odd percussion, great guitar tone (a Gretsch through a Vox amp, using its yummy tremolo) and a big putdown vocal. Then there's the lashing Taxman, cheeky Piggies and the big late night spookiness of Long Long Long (how else do you follow Helter Skelter?)

The story goes that against Lennon and McCartney he had to struggle hardest of all to get one of his songs on an album so they really had to shine. Well, for the most part they do. This doesn't make him a great songwriter but it does show his determination and individuality. And it gives him a great reason for quitting to move out by himself and fly free. He did. And then, like all the others whose initial albums had the strength of   triumphant escapees, he settled down to a long determinedly alright graze thereafter.

Living in the Material World doesn't tell it like this. We follow an individual from plucky youth into a maturity of caring and sharing and then an untimely death. Veiled admissions from the likes of Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton provide a womanising side to the quiet one and there are a number of songwriting breaktroughs which are given the status of narrative sign posts by director Martin Scorsese. A clear sense of a teenager from a cheerful working family becoming a benign landed lord emerges but there is a significant amount of shade lost in the telling.

The pioneering Concert for Bangladesh was plunged into controversy as the proceeds were variously held up or mysteriously siphoned off (probably by everyone's favourite depspoiler of rock royalty, Allen Klein). The event is celebrated but its purpose was left ravaged by the greed it attempted to redress. While much is made of George's development as a songwriter and musician the music after the big early albums fades into silence in quiet admission of its decreasing quality. Handmade Films, the company Harrison established because he wanted to see Life of Brian, did some fine work but also would have altered Withnail and I into a goofy forgettable mainstream waste of time.

The reason I can go on about this is that Harrison's factsheet has been posted upon the wall of public memory so gigantically that any attempt to slip one by is doomed. It's why Imagine John Lennon is so winceable. We know Lennon wasn't just some nice bloke that all this happened to. Similarly, Harrison had to be as forcefully competitive to retain his position as any of his fellows. There is some hint of this in Scorsese's film but it's kept nice.

As far as the equalisation alluded to above goes in this film it arrives in the accounts of how Harrison behaved toward the women he loved. Pattie and Oliva Harrison both offer quiet and dignified testimony of a lover and husband. A gesture here and a word there depict someone you'd want to know regardless of how competitive he had to be otherwise. It is these moments (and his son's account of George as father) that have stayed with me. Apart from them, Living in the Material World is a very slight step above Imagine John Lennon.

ROWLAND
Rowland Howard has a lot of music with his name on it but all of it is over shadowed by one song: Shivers. He wrote it when he was 16 in response to the emotional turmoil he saw around him as he and his friends paired off and then split asunder again and again. The lyric is a sneer at the resultant over-emotion, even beginning with the line "I've been contemplating suicide though it really doesn't suit my style." If you made it through your adolescence without having that thought then you probably behaved yourself and I hope the pool extension is all you hoped it would be. The chorus begins with one of my favourite lines out of any song: "My baby's so vain she is almost a mirror". Who, capable of coming up with that at 16 along with perfectly fitting music, could not be destined for greatness?

Well, Rowland Howard, actually. Autoluminescent, though it might try to pull the other way, is a story of mounting defeat, showing a vulnerable individual continually beaten by a life against which his talent offered no protection. His is the story of every bedroom rockstar there ever was with the exception that he acted on his daydreams and pushed himself into a career. And it worked ... kind of.

His lean, high cheek-boned pallor allowed him effortless access into Melbourne's alternative scene which was morphing from punk to its posty form that allowed a greater range of expression. A series of talking head testimonies tell of this but nothing does it more eloquently than footage of Howard, Ollie Olsen 'n' co. slinking catlike down Fitzroy St in the late 70s. They stand out from the crowd through clear visual and personal style, aliens among the mud men.

But then something happened when Howard joined the Boys Next Door halfway through their only album. He brought a wild chaos to the sound that lifted it from good to original and he brought Shivers. The song he'd been performing with such cool sarcasm in his first band was taken by Nick Cave and turned into a straight emotionally wrought ballad. That's how I first heard it and it almost made me cry. I didn't have the Door Door album but I had the Shivers single with the creepy and compelling Dive Position on the B-side.

A lot of interviewees in the film have an opinion on the change in the song's mood. Cave himself who'd done the dirty deed concedes that Howard should have sung it which seems a pointless thing to say now. The fact is that Howard allowed the song to be so used and doing so allowed it in turn to enter history with its name on the door. A montage of alternative versions includes Marie Hoy's from the Dogs in Space movie which restores the sneer (actually more clearly than Howard's original).

The Birthday Party's career takes them from, to paraphrase Howard, massive fish in a tiny pond to frog spawn in a massive ocean. Penury, antipathy and heroin in London to localised celebrity in Berlin where their style and drug of choice changed the scene completely. Wim Wenders (a far better interviewee than a film maker, IMHO) offers some very useful witness here.

It was in Berlin that the Birthday Party ground to an end, with Howard being elbowed out over the widening chasm between his and their direction. Other groups formed from this, most durably Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It's at this point in the film where Howard's decline begins and continues on to his demise. It's also where the account gets both more guarded and more intense with Howards drug and health problems equalised low against the strength of his musical output.

And here we come to the crossroads of any biographical account: do you show everything? It leads to the question of what you're trying to say by telling someone's life. A friend of mine complained about Tim Burton's film Ed Wood, saying that it left out all the ugly seediness of his final years. Burton's purpose was to celebrate the act of filmmaking and chose an unusual but highly useful starting point: Wood might have produced laughably inept films but he'd had a genuine force of vision. That comes through easily. If the film had gone on to report it all it would have descended into the kind of earnest yawn that Oliver Stone so deteminedly gave us in the '80s and '90s.

So what's the big message of Autoluminescent that buries the bad bits under a few hints? Persistence. Howard kept going, kept finding collaborations and writing and recording and playing, regardless of how low his profile was to remain. His music was crucial to his life and while that could be said of other aspects of his days on earth his music remains. It stands the cool removal test (ie imagine if it had been created by someone you "shouldn't" like) and travels well beyond its makers' life.

SO, IN BALANCE...
Of the home/movie/slideshow/talking head rockumentary format, which is better? Autoluminescent is more of an a/v feast as there is a lot less mainstream reverence to get through before you see the subject in any kind of clarity. On the other hand Living in the Material World doesn't have Nick Cave reading a fairytale version of the story over brooding gothic imagery. George's son reads his fathers letters home which becomes emotionally very efficient.

Autoluminescent begins and ends with a fetishistic tracking shot of Rowland Howard's career-long choice of weapon, an Olympic White CBS era Fender Jaguar which he is seen playing almost exclusively throughout and it's there on the soundtrack, wall to wall. Not a word is said about it but it's there. George Harrison was the Beatle who did care about his guitars and amps and was always happy to discuss them. But the only time we see them is in vintage clips. Where are the close-ups of his beautiful old Gretsches, his iconic fireglo Rickenbacker 12 string, the cherry Les Paul or the rosewood Telecaster? Neither word nor sight up close. But there's the difference right there.

Material World is about a famous person whose music became apparently less and less important to who he was as wealth, fame and comfort took over. If you didn't know how he was and hunted his later music down as a result of this film (and it's lack of representation of it) you would probably experience it once, incompletely and put it quietly back where you found it. Rowland Howard slung his Fender Jag where he went and kept plugging it in right up to his final (and pretty damn good) album.

I am more a Beatle fan than one of the Birthday Party and its descendants. The fact of the Beatles is so impenetrably armored by their fame that I feel no lack in enjoying their music without caring even slightly about who they were as people. I was never likely to have met George Harrison and remain unbothered about it. While I cannot claim to have known him, I did meet Rowland Howard on a few occasions, and outside the musical context (ie not at gigs) and I'm glad I did. I found him witty, intelligent and personable.

Neither film alters those impressions but the one I'm grateful to have seen at a cinema is clear to me. Odd for me to write this but in this case at least, between Richard  Lowenstein and Martin Scorsese, Scorsese loses.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Moustaches of the Silver Screen

Since Movember's almost over and I have a week free from promoting SHADOWS screenings (as there isn't one on this week) I thought I might as well get a post about moustaches going in the very nick of time.So, here it is.

My theme will be ...

Give me a second...

Sublimation levels in the suggestion of testosteronic force as evidenced in the appearance of moustaches on leading men in narrative cinema ... through the ages.

To begin with we ought to bear in mind that cinema's emergence from the late nineteenth century featured moustachioed menfolk as a consequence of a century of intense facial creativity. The renactment below of classic Victorian sideboards is indicative:


Nevetheless, by the time cinema rolled around no one looked like that on screen. In fact the only people who did look like that were stalwarts of the industrious underclass attempting to prolong the industrial revolution through the fearless adoption of its style (evidenced below in this portrait of IK Brunel, which I -- quite seriously -- regard as the first modernist image):

Anyway, apart from melodrama villains the moustache was gone from the pre-war screen of dreams.

Then there was the war and the alphas all looked like this:

Kaiser Whilhelm anticipates his afterlife as a park statue

Not goth enough?

The stylised flying vulva atop the headdress attests to the complexity of this artist: he identifies with both egg and egg dispenser. I realise this caption is at odds with the light-entertainment mood of this piece but I am attempting some innovation here so will you please keep it down? Of course it might just be a golden coffee bean. They had colonised both Kenya and New Guinea at that stage, after all.

Anyway, after the great slaughter, the world-wide reaction followed all avantguardist movements by adopting the name of the previous one and adding the word post. The Post-War moustache was for a time absent in reaction to the wartime. What does this have to do with movies?


Ivor Novello: actor of his age in a VERY early draft of Bowie's Aladin Sane cover art
Even the alphas refrained from worrying their top lips:

Edward VIII after a shave.
Similarly, the alphamost of the top followed suit (and in suits):

Cary Grant who here knows something you don't know
And, by Cary's time in the spotlight, there was also a reaction to another famous moustache:

Re-enactment
Whose style was really only a cover version of a movie star. Gross Weltanschauung imitated art:

Ladies and gentlemen: the king of comedy!

And ...

Chaplin's companion and frequent co-star, Paulette Goddard. Seen here because she's insanely beautiful

Paulette again. Seen here because it's wrong not to include this still (also from Modern Times) when you've already put any other one up

Where was I.....?

Oh! If you can imagine Iggy Pop covering a Jet song you know the great weight in Chaplin's cover version of Hitler's cover version of the iconic lip grub here:

 
Irony? The best film of this icon of silent cinema is his first talkie (or shoutie, or preachie...): The Great Dictator

But then it was time to reconsider the lipgrub by making it distinctly non-Hitlerian:

Security means having your own floating nametag
After the war (Post-War II) the moustache was as popular as it had been after the first. There hadn't been a mo-ed president of the United States of A. since Teddy Roosevelt nor has there been since. Yea, through the great re-release of testosteronic overgrowth that was the 60s:

Robert Redford finds a name for his future film festival
... and the 70s:

"John Holmes And the Bawd of Censors"
... the 80s zipped back up and kept it clean:

Really, really, really clean
unless they were playing nostalgia:

This is from the Cotton Club, a highly entertaining take by Sofia Coppola's father on a lot of enduring social problems as encapsulated in the famous NYC night club. I couldn't just use the caption I wanted without this preface and the fact that the phrase that follows is the title from a real film of an earlier era starring Kirk Douglas: The Young Man With a Horn.
Which brings us pretty much up to date. The 90s revolution in facial hair generally incorporated some means of chin concealment and the lone mo was a thing o' the past. But there was this from 1991:

Two men in love with the same tiny cardboard cutout they call Zandalee.

So there you have it. ...... Look, it's Monday and I have a lot of uploading to do which leaves me a lot of time to tap this out between checks. And did you really expect this to be anything better than an extended plea for donations to my Movember effort? Come on!

Come aaaawwwwn!

It's true, though, you really can donate HERE.

Thank you, thank you for your kind attention.

PJ

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review: DRIVE

An action movie is about order wresting itself from chaos, changed, stronger.


Action heroes don't always know they're good people. By the end they are aware of the cost of being good and how important it is to keep up the effort. A bad action movie will have all this but it will push the stunts and pyrotechnics so far forward that that simple moral discovery gets smothered. A good action movie provides a compelling case for the action before it can take place so that we in the audience must need it to happen. True Lies is a bullshit action movie. Drive is a very good one.

Ryan Gosling's nameless driver is a creature of great precision, doing stunt work by day and working as a getaway driver for the kicks as well as the money by night. The film opens with the latter kind of job as he picks up a pair of serious looking burglars and, after a very tight wait for their remergance from the job, and gets them out of danger with a series of impressive evasive manoeuvres. He loves his skill. A flat action star just looks good between lines (Keanu Reeves). A full blooded one shows you what he's thinking and his few lines are precious. Gosling is such an one. When he isn't speaking he's observing. I first saw him as a fuckup teacher in Half Nelson and then as the profoundly damaged loner in Lars and the Real Girl and each time his casting has lifted the film he's in. Same here. By the time you see him shyly notice his beautiful young neighbour in their apartment's lift you start looking  forward to seeing how he thaws out for her. And you know it's going to take work.

Much of the attention of the rest of the cast has gone to Christina Hendricks. She does a fine job as an underworld utility but really the attention is related to her high profile role in Mad Men. It's Carey Mulligan who shines brightest here. I know her from the recent Never Let Me Go where she played the dowdy/sobering  lead. Here, outfitted with an American accent and bottle blondness, she owns her every shot. A young mother with a husband in prison she shows clear personal strength but allows a fragility through the closer she gets to Gosling's character. Also, having all those qualities but the face of a fourteen year old and the body of a woman in her twenties she is utterly disconcerting on screen.

When the crunch comes for these two it is literal and silencing. Because of the work of establishing their characters has been so full there is a genuine moment of  suspense following (no details, no spoilers) as to how this extreme shared experience will play out. It's just a moment but it's there. That's attention to detail for you.

I'm skimping on the plot details as there is just too much to potentially spoil and this is a plotty film. Suffice to say that the driver is taken from his accessory role in crime to a self-revalatory maelstrom that is as believable as it is violent. Rising action maestro from Copehagen Nicholas Winding Refn displays an effortless skill in judging when to turn the action tap on and off and how to soothe the impatient nervous system between times: rest and motion, rest and motion, wrestling and emotion. I will say that the third act felt draggy through an evenness of pacing but also that that appeared to be deliberate.

Also, thanks be for depicting gangsters who don't quote The Art of War or waffle through pages of dialogue before getting to the point. These mobsters are hard arse bastards. When points of vulnerability appear they are dealt with as they would be in life, with a swift and sure dismissal. Comedian Albert Brooks is frighteningly against type and his partner Ron Perlman also. Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston crawls back from badass into pathos effectively. And the violence, the lifeblood of the middle and final acts of any action movie is tense and ugly, the worst of it kept offscreen to prevent it from bloating beyond its purpose.

Action movies find their morality in the fatefully unacknowledged monsters of heroes. There is a song throughout the film, used initially for scenes of the driver and Irene falling in love but then entering into more extreme fare. It's a heavily 80s influenced synth pop number with thunking  bass and ethereal female vocal. The chorus goes" have you the strength to be a real human being and a real hero?" That should be as deadly as a choctop to a diabetic but it works and, blessedly, works without irony.

Go and see Drive. Now!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Triumph of Goliath: David Shrugged


Melbourne arthouse is dead. Born of wonder and raised against odds it thrived for decades in this city until the mid 2000s when its organs failed one by one and was left in the gutter to wheeze its last. The art of cinema is now held entirely in the mainstream plexes which tower o'er the cine landscape like Easter Island heads. And down on the level of pure competition - one/zero, presence/absence, win/loss - the right thing has happened.

It angers and saddens me but, try as I might, I cannot argue with it. For starters, however much I might revile the impersonal trough that is the supersize popcorn movies of the cinematic Goliath that is the mainstream, I can't blame it for killing off the little David with his feeble stone-loaded ging. The arthouse cinema took so little of the mainstream's audience that the giant never noticed the piffling stings of the stones even when they got near tender bits. No, the arthouse was allowed to die alone by its own flock. People just stopped going. Goliath won and David shrugged. Why?

It's not as though the content was so very different. For every Irreversible playing in a fleapit held together by love of form there was a crowd pleasing Ringu or goofy Boxing Helena. An autopsy of the most bloat budgeted rubbish made to pay for a Hollywood A-lister's home extension will reveal that art runs through its veins. The difference is not an easy one like civilisation vs brutality, taste vs entertainment or quality vs garbage.

The range alone of cultures and traditions that the arthouses used to supply left an effortless impression of freedom of expression that the mainstream would find suicidal. This diversity of approach, the continuing lesson that cinema is a blank canvas rather than a set of standards is the legacy of arthouses that leaves behind snobbery they might have engendered.

This article offers a range of reasons which I can't argue with. EXCEPT it sneaks in the phrase poor-quality films. Where does that come from? Here's another from the Age, also from the time of the Lumiere closure. One smug proprietor looking down his nose at the low end seating and heating. Really? That's why people who supported it for so long have now abandoned it, a fear of cold buttocks? In exchange for a cultural experience that might well be intellectually, politically, socially or even just aesthetically liberating the price of rugging up against fashion is too high? Really? Rea-fucking-lly?

Well it gets worse. Now that the small cinemas have gone the diversity has been forgotten and a new generation of filmgoers has emerged that neither knows nor cares about cinema beyond its function within the service economy. All we have left of cinema's extended possibilities flickers in the next room like a cupcake candle; individuals with modems and credit cards and a select fewer benefiting from the meagre light.

And that's it. A scattered few. An ageing scattered few.

So is it that? Cinephiles just getting old and ricketty and whose health cannot stand the torments of the fleapit shall nurture all their passion for alternative cinema in safety deposit boxes that are doomed to inaccessible dementia? Will none among their progeny or younger kin stand and demand a few stories from the barricades of when they fought the big one before Michael Bay bombed Pearl Harbour anew and did more damage to it than the Imperial Japanese Air Force ever did? All gone now?

I don't accept that. Alternative cinema has lost its community but the makings of that community or a new one are still out there. Attendances at Shadows are flexible and favour the warmer parts of the year (whaddaya gonna do?) but the people who come remain interested in these tales from under the hood and takes from off the wall. Showing the mighty Harold and Maude to a small number of mainly younger folk last year resulted in a new entry to a few more top ten film lists. No one had a problem with the wonkiness of the production values of It Happened Here as the audacity of its concept towered above that little pile of nuts and bolts. Ok, so Noriko's Dinner Table bored when it didn't baffle but the same director's Suicide Circle delighted. The spirit really is willing (even if the goosebump riddled flesh is weak).

Maybe all that's needed is a shift in the paradigm. Maybe we just need to drop the choc tops and remember Brecht's line about rapidly setting up his theatre. You don't have to give up the mainstream. I didn't. There's no need to. But there's everything to gain by accepting the diversity that shines through the difficulties of alternative cinema.

I am one of the ageing cinephiles  I mentioned above but I'm not a sentimental one. I dinnae care a mere zot if the film I'm seeing is the result of light through celluloid or was born in a hive of ones and zeros. (I'm similarly unromantic about vinyl LPs which experience I'm happy to be rid of). Similarly I find concepts like perfect film or classic cinema to be unhelpful and near meaningless standards. A film is a film. How do you react to it? Don't know? Well, go and find out. Shadows isn't the only one. Go forage among the what's on schedules and see what's buzzing under the radar and start doing some of your own buzzing. Go on!

The late lamented Lumiere