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.

video


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:

video

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.