Friday, December 27, 2013

Top Ten 2013

Blancanieves - Snow White just sounds better in Spanish. Well it would if this weren't a silent movie. Not only a highly refreshing new take on an old story but one that used an antique form to do so. That's winning against the odds. That's before you get to the sheer bloody charm and effectiveness of it. Best film of MIFF and the year.

Tabu - Did the only thing that I wished Blancanieves had done and been less reverent to its period. Some aspects of silent cinema were genuinely updated as the second half, a personal memoir, is told with only image, ambient sound and narration but not a word of dialogue. Extraordinary!

Gravity - Ineptly criticised for not being science fiction when it was set in space, this white knuckle survival tale gave us an IMAX 3D extravaganza whose substance only ever had to be a B movie. And who could care about that once the  dizzy action started. Very pure cinema.

The Act of Killing - The buzz title of MIFF, Act was shown in its endurance-test cut which was so easy to resist that when its mounting substance threw the curtain aside and revealed the horror that had been visible all along it became a juggernaut. More like Matthew Barney than Werner Herzog, this film was not interested in letting its audiences get too cosy. Why should they with any subject matter, after all, let alone this true life horror?

Zero Dark Thirty - Like a documentary into the psyche of the empire this piece rises with quiet sobriety into deadly action. The torture scenes are an admission rather than advocacy. When their leader publicly denies what we've seen them do, the sight of their blank faces watching him on the tv sends a chill. More strong and edgy stuff from action-champion Kathryn Bigelow.

Spring Breakers - Harmony Korine arrives at genuine cinematic accomplishment despite the film's clear links to his bad boy beginnings. Spring Breakers is symphonic and refreshingly modern (and not post bloody modern).

The Bling Ring - Sofia Coppola arrives with a tale both public and unavoidably personal and makes a film as accomplished as her first but with none of the shortfalls of those in between.

A Hijacking - I dislike reviews that bemoan what films aren't rather than judge what they are. I don't need to do this in the case of Captain Phillips as this Danish outing made for a fraction of the blockbuster's cost goes far further into the complexities of the situation and lingers longer. As strong an action film as Captain Phillips is it just can't compete with this.

American Hustle - For surprising me by presenting a tale of perception and its costs in the guise of a caper movie. Very clever but good in spite of that.

Rhino Season - 90 minutes of mostly dialogue free imagery manages to compel like few other things I saw this year. If you can do that you get on this list.

Middle Ten 2013

No one seems to do these but the middle is the largest part of the year's curve for most regular moviegoers. Once I tried to go to a new film at the cinema once a week. It worked for a few years in a row until I looked back and realised that most of what I'd seen was at worst maginificently OK. Here they are now, those that held wonderful things in small packages. I should say that I'd rather see all of these again in a row than any of the Bottom Ten. It's not about mediocrity but rather that which verges on greatness.

A Field in England - Ben Wheatley's fourth feature goes further into its own territory than Kill List did. I like the lack of compromise (and then there's that roped slomo walk from the tent!) I just don't know that I love it.

The Hunt - Thomas Vinterberg co-ignited Dogme 95 and influenced a generation of filmmaking for the better in the 90s and 00s. His Festen (Dogme #1) remains an extraordinary feat. Here he is more conventional but with no loss of power.

Antiviral - Cronenberg Junior makes a Cronenberg Senior story and almost gets away with it. After an exciting first act stuffed with wow ideas the development sags and grows samey. A sprint to the sobering final image cleans that up, though. More please.

The East - Here rather than in the main list for not going as far as it should. Still, if Britt Marling and co can keep these scenaric punches coming they might rescue an idea-starved Hollywood.

Magic Magic - A lot of mild daring going on here with some really strong results but do I love it?

How I Live Now - Clean lines and good performances but was there enough of everything after the midpoint? Potentially an effective answer to the beautiful but botched The Road but couldn't quite break through.

Elles - Middle class and middle aged Parisian journalist allows the surprise of the young prostitutes she interviews for a story have a kind of grass is greener appeal which leads her to question her own life's order. Terrific acting and some fine setpieces but doesn't quite reach all the way for me.

Upstream Color - Maker of one of the best ever time travel movies ups his game in production values but also obscurity as we must connect a lot of information that doesn't appear to lock. It's in this list because it does eventually make sense .... afterwards. I'd rather say that of a film than leave with an easy answer. I Just wish I'd enjoyed it more.

The Place Beyond the Pines - Strong performances and some very fine passages cannot lift a fable that is too mechanically ironic.

The Spectactular Now - A good tale of the difficult breach birth of responsibility given substance by some very good performances is allowed to get too warm 'n' fuzzy when it might have gone a little harsher to better effect. I missed the substance of the first two acts in the third.

Bottom Ten 2013

Frances Ha - Indulgent and charmless portrait of youthful free spirit who learns to curb her life fantasies because she bloody has to. Not for me.

Compliance - Intriguing tale of response to perceived authority quickly derails itself when it leaves the viewer with no option but to side with the baddie and view his victims with contempt. Sleazy for the wrong reasons. Unclean.

Mama - None other than the great Guillermo Del Toro is to blame for encouraging the maker of this to contaminate it with a Hollywood backstory bloated with a routine orchestral score and everything else that makes good ideas into rubbish blockbusters.

Kill Your Darlings - Almost good, it's here for being disappointing. Good cast let down by writing and filmmaking annoyingly more conventional than its subjects.

Nothing Can Hurt Me: The Big Star Story - Snatches wincing boredom from the jaws of potential greatness as the afterband careers are given equal time without mind paid to their unequal results which makes it plod and lose direction. This is a documentary about a band rescued from obscurity by a now durable posthumous adoration and it still manages to turn into time wasting glug.

The Complex - In which the inventor of the most effective genre wave in the last two decades (J-horror) returns to his roots and looks like one of his imitators.

Aim High In Creation - Good ideas and some intriguing results cannot mask the cracks from being pulled in too many directions. In the end it doesn't really feel like anything has been done and you have to remember that parts of it were completely fascinating.

The Bay - Barry Levinson should know better. He led the way on tv in the moving camera and changing film/video stock with the gorundbreaker Homicide: Life on the Streets. But here he seems to have lost touch with the point of that and that a generation on from Blair Witch you really need to do more with the found footage form than rest on its apparent veracity. The Bay just ends up being corny and fake.

Mud - Tale of dreams and responsibility as seen through a convincingly well drawn teenage boy's mind almost touches the far shore but gets too convenient in the final act and feels a tad pat. Some splendid moments ruined by unwelcome subplotting.

Hitchcock - I don't know what I was expecting but it wasn't serious biographical fiction. What I got was a pleasant diversion on a favourite cinematic subject with some fine performances and arch writing. Potential takes a pratfall.


Everyone who reviews this starts with the combover so I'll extend that and go to the line delivered very early in the piece: people believe what they want to believe. We already know that it's about a long con from the title. Some folk reviewing this have stopped there and, while bowing to the quality of the performances, have struggled with the pulse and declared it flatline shallow. I think otherwise. We are told about the power of perception wrapped in the con game so we know that minutes in. Did no one else think that that was just the start (the literal one as well as the thematic one)?

For me all the sexy P.T. Anderson/Scorsese movement and cutting and the hits 'n' memories jukebox score are props for the perception and trickery we have bought our tickets for. And those things themselves provide flooring for what is at stake throughout this entire film.

David O. Russell's career start came between Marty's twilight and Anderson's dawn. He has his own style which has done well enough by him so far and is pretty evident in the recent superb Sliver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, not too long ago. He doesn't need to cover Scorsese, he wants to and he wants us along for the ride. And we're happy to groove along to the slick sights and sounds. So much so that it just gets easier to miss sight of the pink elephant over there in the corner: ATTRACTION.

The reason for the combover and the hustle itself, for the horny pursuit by the Fed of his own glory, of Pete the gangster for Rosalyn, of Rosalyn for Irving, of Irving for Sydney and Sydney of her alter ego Edith. Low stakes or high in this undiagnosed rom com, everyone's getting hard for someone or something. And in one of the most interesting ways I've seen in a mainstream movie, this is centred around the women.

I don't mean only libidinally. The two female frontrunners here are such powerhouses that a few less notches of conviction in the performances or a miscasting would have rendered this film as shallow as its critics would have it. But the performances and casting are compelling.

For me this starts with Amy Adams' accent. We notice it slip from posh to American so slightly that it seems accidental and we start worrying that Adams has been miscast. This, by the way, is after we have already heard her half of the narration in American. Now that's a con. It is every bit as impressive an acting trope as Christian Bale's method paunch as it's chiefly there to unnerve us about Adams' character: is she self deluded about her ability to deceive or, more creepily, does she know that even a wobbly accent like her British one only ever need be wobbly when she turns on the seduction which she does with anyone who needs it. Throughout all of this, her intensity is every bit as daunting as it was in Anderson's The Master (where it could freeze its audience). Beside this, the comb-overture feels mechanical, a director's conceit rather than loot from the material.

Then there's the already well proven Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from explosive craziness in Silver Linings Playbook, landing deep in white trash central. She is chaos, violence, greed but not even slightly insane. Her narcissism constantly sparks against her restless alertness for something better can result in something as dizzyingly funny as the "science oven" scene or as edgy as the attraction at the casino bar. The nagging sense of disappointment lurking beneath and probably fuelling her volatility is never too far from the surface. When Roslyn and Sydney meet and recognise each other we hold our breath.

Otherwise there is the hair in Sydney's big rollers or Richie's infestation of bacteria-sized ones, Irving's ceremonial combover vs the alpha gangster's defiant wild near-baldness. Bale meeting De Niro on screen with both of them physically transformed is reminiscent of Martin Sheen meeting method emperor Brando in Apocalypse Now. And the refs and balances go on and the kingdom of clever reigns. But without those two women this is an empty caper movie with a little lesson about ambition tacked on.

The attraction that binds each character and every scene, in all these forms, is what makes American Hustle so satisfying a ticket. This extends to the best trailer of the year which has the line about belief and perception and then ditches the dialogue as a deft edit of Led Zeppelin's Good Times Bad Times explodes from the speakers. The first track on the first album, this was how Led Zep announced itself to a world that would be in its thrall for a decade. The visual edit matches the song but doesn't have to. We get the idea. We also get the surprise: looks like a slick caper is really a romance.

Hey, I've done an entire review without anything substantial about the plot of a fiction film. You want plot? Cinema's over there.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Review: SPRING BREAKERS: Wagner Does Schoolies

An overture of bright bikinis and surf shorts stuffed with bronzed and fatless teens in the dazzling sun of Florida. A mass strut and grind in slow motion. Everyone is hot and splashing in the crystal water, drinking beer through funnels and gyrating to the sound of a laboratory-conditions techno number, all samples and pitch mangling. Welcome to Spring Break.

A brief and very quiet interlude in a hotel room. The heat and light is kept out by orange curtains as some girls either sleep or take hits on a bong. Recharge.

Then we get to meet them in their habitat: a clean-air USA campus where the architecture is tasteful if squat and ordered. The lecture theatres are filled with students listening and typing in the dark. Two girls exchange note pad dirty drawings and laugh. Cut to a third girl sighing her way through a prayer meetin led by a tattooed ex Angel. A fourth girl in a kitchen plays with a water pistol, squirting on to her tongue. Practice. And that is almost all we get to know of this quartet. That's not a criticism. You'll see why.

Spring Break, a kind of scoolies week for toolies, is up and the girls need to raise the money to get there, book a room and go nuts. After various legit approaches fail to draw enough cash the girls try something else. The resulting track around a diner (as one of the girls moves the getaway car into position and we see the balaclava-ed girls inside raging through the kind of violent anmd vindictive armed robbery that only teenagers could enact) will inform the rest of the film's cinematic substance.

And that's what we see. And that's the point where we should be starting to notice the musicality of the structure of this film. Motif, a pointed repetition of theme or figure is the means and the weave of several themes made from seductive imagery is the method. Slowmo pans and tracks of the young buff and beautiful in the water like aquatic primates on the road to humanity. Seamy nocturnal vingettes feel like sleaze and smell like perspiration and petrol. And on and on. The click of guns being cocked comes up like punctuation. There is so much of this that without Harmony Korine's uncharacteristically delicate guidance it would explode like a beer in the freezer.

That it glides and and plays together in counterpoint is impressive. This is not to say that it never errs. There are moments of saturation which can feel exhausting but at each of these points there is something that lifts the pace and progress back to working level and we go on, enjoying the mesmerism.

Sorry, forgot the plot. Really, it's this: the girls get to spring break and have the kind of time they would expect. During a police raid on one of the holiday apartment blocks (balconies stuffed with surfeits of candy coloured bikinis) the girls are arrested. They are bailed by the dangerous looking Alien (metal teeth, tatts and deardlocks) who takes them from the hyper but still quite innocent student miasma to a demi monde entirely more sleazy and worrying. That's when the crew starts dropping off. The girls resist at first but then see the advantage of ganging and join the loose canon Alien. He has a territorial problem with the reigning thug and the scene is set for showdown. This happens in one of the film's most extraordinary setpieces that involves an eerie use of dayglo colour against the night's darkness and some chunky violence.

If you saw a synopsis of this film or one of its trailers and dismissed it as a kind of Schoolies Week Sharknado spit that out and get yourself in front of a copy. The girls might seem to plane out into functionality but their performances reward the eye for nuance. What do you really need to know about these characters off screen, anyway? It is, as others have justly celebrated elsewhere, James Franco who really delivers as Alien. His take on Gary Oldman's Drexl (True Romance) has the detail of scholarship but the innovation of craft; the performance is tribute rather than ripoff.

And above it all and blending from all other sides, a festival of colour, sound and form creates an effect as thrilling as attraction and as troubling as repulsion. This might have been a poor later cover version of Natural Born Killers if it weren't for touches that lift it out of reach of such a charge. Take the fresh-breathed  and mercifully irony-free performance of Britney Spears' Everytime as the girls in pink balaclavas join Alien at his white baby grand piano poolside. Their artless voices blend with the fade up of the original and the effect is one of the most weirdly moving musical numbers I've seen on film. Now that's how Harmony Korine's reputation should've been made. See.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Review: THE BLING RING: The Gold Glows Bright in New Constantinople

They gather from their exile in the high school for the rejects of the 1% in Los Angeles and one of them realises that the celebrities they all lust after leave their houses for big photo opportunities at a time. Paris Hilton even leaves her keys under the mat. The superfriends jump the fences of the pillars of the new Byzantium and plunder their wares but not before marvelling (which is half the point) at the opulence, the skin-honeying riches of the light inside the coffers. Then they sell it at roadside stalls. It's the proximity not the price tag.

This story taken from the TMZ headlines forms the basis of the first consummate film from the gal who might have been one of its characters or their victims. Sofia Coppola debuted pleasantly with The Virgin Suicides, moved to a place of approval with Lost in Translation and tried for a kind of cover version of Ken Russell in Marie Antoinette. Haven't seen Somewhere. But here, she is reporting from the front. As LA royalty she is prime real estate for such targeting. This is the time where she stops being whimsically competent or higher and starts getting good.

That's why when you get the expected mix of CCTV video, filmy sheen and Facebook strafing it's not attempting to be new or brash but simply evoking the language. Sofia Coppola knows where she lives. She lives in the dream factory of Hollywood but she also lives in trash central, the big rhinestone dazzle of the new Byzantium where the unbelievably famous live like the inheritors of Rome in houses made like Cornell boxes of brand names and all other things that shine. These teenagers have already grown post-school. The nightclubs they charm their way into are peopled by the cake-icing-pink famous faces that stare from magazine cover layouts at the entrance to the common feeder lines of supermarkets. They are cells in the same arteries. Parasites? Only if the celebrities are.

A trim pace and energetic performances keep this one going from credits to credits without viewer-effort. That's not sarcasm it's recognition. Coppola has made a narrative film in response to her subject matter and, with the steely precision of the veteran status she has earned now, makes it fun. The great grey canyons between these teens and everything around them are sped through in stolen Porches with baggies fat with White Lady coke in the glove boxes and designer label purses fallen between the seats.

The house invasions are like extreme sport Hollywood bus tours (one in brilliant long shot shows them running through a supermodel's house that is so neon lighted and open to the world's view that it beats scenes of Paris Hilton's house (which, by permission, was her real house) stuffed with cushions bearing her famous vacantly perfect face. In this case the kids look like aquarium exotica, darting in and out of view while the great golden veins of the LA lights burn bright behind.

Meanwhile the kids are celebrities themselves on the hush hush. News reports and TMZ pieces, almost indistinguishable, these lepers of the high school system taking a similar detour into enterprise that Tom Cruise took in Risky Business. Once discovered and arrested, they are surrounded by reps and minders who guide them through media interviews more admiring than investigative and are, finally the kind of micro industries that their victims were. It's the new Byzantium and everyone's a star.

I liked Coppola's films before but now I'm sitting up and taking notice because with this she has gone beyond her father's shadow and any further need to impress to be noticed. If she didn't have the talent she'd be making ever more fey repeats of Virgin Suicides. This is the "great learning lesson" one of her characters claims. If she wanted to dazzle before (not just Francis Ford's girl but Spike Jonez's wife - that's a lot of shadow to shake) she no longer needs to. Here she hurls an expertly judged paintbomb at the screen not to wow us but, much much better, for us to witness and judge for ourselves.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: THE SPECTACULAR NOW: Fable of Waste

When I was seventeen I was progressing into my second year of funversity and only now and then could be haunted by the spectre of my neglect of schoolwork whose inevitable consequences were looming darkly between every sip of rum I'd take at parties that were getting increasingly more hedonistic. The thought of the responsibility that might enable my enjoyment of the life beyond entering adulthood was like thought of a fatal infection. Fun was too important. Really, it felt like real life and everything else was done by the life administrators that posed as parents. I was good at drinking and being liked. What could go wrong?

Sutter Keely is also good at being liked and drinking but where I would never drink between parties he tipples in the school canteen. He has a problem but he's seventeen and won't admit it.When we open he's sitting in front of a blinking cursor. He's applying for a place at a university and has come to a question about the hardest thing he's ever done. He begins by talking about the girlfriend who has just dumped him. He writes that they were the life of the party, of every party. A flashback plays under his voiceover. He lets himself fall into a swimming pool. His ex does the same. The rest of the party moves forward like a herd of buffalo and fall in fully clothed. It is a superb and oddly understated moment and won't be the last.

When Sutter is dumped in humiliating fashion at a party he tanks himself up and hits the road, literally, waking up in the middle of someone's front lawn with his car nowhere in sight. Through the morning's white glare he discerns a girl looking at him. The shy and bookish Aimee takes form from the light and enters Sutter's world with all the angelic innocence and goodness he needs. But that doesn't happen.

At first he charms her into use as a jealousy factory when he takes her to a party so he can introduce her to fellow nerds and let his ex know that he's still desirable. This fails. He snaps into a love-the-one-you're-with moment with Aimee and before he notices it he is charmed by her unaffected shyness and intelligence. Waking up after sleeping this alcohol off he remembers asking her to the prom. His continued obsession with his ex makes this a dilemma.

In other news his marks at school are plummeting, he's getting tanked at work (hiding it in a jumbo takeaway juice cup) and he keeps denying to everyone who's still listening that he won't get anything out of tertiary education. He begins to depend on Aimee for a way out of this and coaches her in standing up to her constraining mother and break through into doing what she wants (university). Aimee strikes a bargain with him to the same effect. He's also increasingly curious about the father who has been absent since his childhood and is determined to find him.

This fable of responsibility might well feature a lot of overly familiar tropes but the doggedness with which it pursues both the difficulties of surrendering the comfort of dependency and assuming the tougher way of taking charge and the sheer glorious allure of fun when young. Aimee isn't an immediate guardian angel. She is so eager to please him and overcome her shyness that she readily joins him in his alcohol even though she's hopelessly ill equipped to match him. Her own reach toward progress has the feel of a slowly fading hangover. Sutter's is a harder trot and the film is better for allowing this to play out rather than fixing it with a narrative pill (there is something like this but it is not played as a cure all).

Performances are what really lift this from the summer-that-changed-me routine to something both funnier and creditably serious. Miles Teller, a kind of toned Mark Zuckerberg rises above his character's rasping darkness to show us charm that would work in the real world. Shailene Woodley dowds down for Aimee and keeps us aching for her fragility to be kept unshattered. Rising indie diva Brie Larson gets and uses well some surprising room to move as the conflicted ex, Cassidy. And for the second time in two weeks at the cinema Jennifer Jason Leigh proves that she can rise above the indulgence of her early career and play straight and command her screen time.

If the closing monologue cloys the final shot allows that to pale as it takes command and leaves us with its brightly coloured ghost walking beside us on our way to the light of the foyeur. Light but liked.

Review: FRANCES HA: Caution as Byproduct

You know one or knew one, depending on your age, the one from your scene who is a complete catastrophe but keeps touch with a certain amount of appeal by not minding being the butt of all jokes and offering an astounding array of loopy but solidly delivered opinions. It never takes long to realise that each "abortion threatens free speech" or "fasting prevents ageing" is only held for the moment it is meant to dominate. Such ambulant miasma tend not to care too much if what they say doesn't hold water then or later when considered in depth. The moment is good enough. The other thing about them is that they are always riding some big ambition ("I'm designing a UFO engine" "I'm going to write the last Australian novel") that will never be reached. But they don't have to get there. It's all in the moment. If this bipedal slice of chaos is under thirty their flamboyant living fiction can be a constant entertainment. After that it starts to look bipolar.

Frances believes she is a dancer. She and her plain Jane flatmate share all sorts of bullshit opinions and cry injustice in their apartment at the centre of the known universe. They are childhood friends and their camaraderie feels genuine. Frances is liked at the dance company where she is an apprentice but is continually being passed over for stage roles. She breaks up with her prissy boyfriend because he wants to buy her a pair of cats but that's really all about whether they should move in together or not. Her flatmate moves out to a part of town that the perpetually broke Frances can't afford. She can't keep the flat they are in by herself so moves in with someone she recently met at a party and then dined with and then subjected to an infuriating attempt at cashing a cheque and ....

Well, look, the thing about this film is that if you can stand Frances you might well love it. I found her exhausting and full of shit. I know that I'm meant to watch in horror as she wrong foots or makes disastrous decisions (sorry, why did she just decide to go to Paris again?) and I know I'm meant to feel sympathy with her when things catch up and she is brought to humility but I can't. Even when she finally does something sensible she comes across as medicated rather than educated. If you've ever had to stop your heart from bursting at spending time with a friend who has suffered psychiatric torment but is now chemically becalmed you will fight back tears at each of their smiles, believing it (however wrongly) to be a byproduct of medication. That's how I see Frances at the end of this story, minus the friendship; Elwood P. Dowd who has taken the treatment and said goodbye to Harvey.

The problem is that I hate Frances. I hate her from the first scene. She reminds me of Max Fischer in Rushmore and how I hated that film and how that hatred has never found relief in any subsequent outing by that director, ever. I hate Frances like I hated Violet in the execrable Damsels in Distress. I possibly even hate Greta Gerwig who played both Violet and Frances in almost identical performances. However nuanced and complex she plays these roles (and there is real talent there) I just seem to hate her more.

I also noted while watching that the black and white look reminded me not so much of Manhattan or Bande a Part but the quirky 80s black and white arthouse pieces like She's Gotta Have It or Stranger than Paradise. At one point Sophie jibes that an apartment she's visiting is "very aware of itself". Well, yes, we get it. To be fair, it's subtle but it's also cute and the fact that the title's meaning, delivered in the final shot, is also cute can only lose my vote.

If this is a cautionary tale the caution comes not from the decision about her future that Frances must face and how she deals with it but in how we ourselves might better meet the storming quirkiness of our friends with tenderness and understanding rather than indulgence. I remember people from my youth who were like her and the memory is usually an unpleasant one, mixing sadness with renewed irritation which creates a sour taste. The worst of this film and its central character, though, can be summed up in a single exchange from an old Simpsons episode. Bart tries to lip read a distant conversation through binoculars (like Charles Bronson in The Mechanic) but fails. "I thought you said you could lip read," says Millhouse. "I assumed I could," replies Bart, quickly forgetting that he even tried.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: MAGIC MAGIC: Vacation - The Tarkovsky Cut

Alicia, Californian, about seventeen, goes on holiday to Chile to meet up with her bestie cousin Sarah for some adventures in the Latin paradise. And -

Hang on, before that, we have a vision of crystal sea water and high rocks. Then we have a boy's torso wearing a white jumper, its owner singing along to The Knife's Pass It Around on his ipod. His voice is tuneless but he sounds like he's smiling. I says sounds like as we don't get more than his torso while this is happening. He's at the open door of an SUV, waiting. In minutes, the others arrive, also young, also seen as torsos. Before this gets too experimental the shot lifts to show us the faces of a group of happy young people speaking a mix of English and Spanish, packing the car for a holiday. And THEN we see Alicia.

Button-cute but tired from air travel, she shyly insists on a shower before they head off and wins the point. Sarah chats to her while Alicia bathes. When the dolly shot moves from Sarah at the sink, past the shower curtain and into the shower itself all we see is the water jetting down. Then we are taken down to the tub and see the golden teenage girl foetally folded into herself at the bottom of the bowl. She converses easily enough but that's what she has made of herself and it's only about five minutes in. If this were the teen horror movie the film's marketing would disappoint you with she would be the final girl, nebbish and withdrawn, ready, after severe testing, to stand and quell the threat. But we are not just travelling to the Chilean wilderness here, we are speeding away from convention.

Even when, just after the crew have cleared the city (which deliberately lacks presence in this piece), Sarah begs off temporarily, having to go back to Santiago to re-sit an exam, leaving the already intimidated Alicia to cope with strangers in strange land, the cliche feels checked off before the defusing squad gets in. Michael Cera's  important but secondary role is also against type, he's as geeky virgin as ever but there is an unloveable brittleness to it here. Even his normal golden curls are dyed charcoal in case you were wanting him to emanate a little warmth. The maternal Barbara couldn't care less about the others, seemingly lumped with them while she heads to the country house for her own studies. Which leaves Augustin, the slightlyolder boyfriend of Sarah who seems to have an interest in his absent partner that transcends love or lust. He alone of the Sarahless remainder offers Alicia any kindness but is quick to declare its boundaries. Unsurprisingly, Alicia is having trouble sleeping.

Daily excursions feature the attempted idle slaughter of the local wildlife and equally idle hijinks like roller tennis or poitnlessly breaking into the neighbours' holiday house in their absence. Alicia warms a little to this, getting used to it and allowing herself a little alcohol-assisted adjustment. When a clumsy response to one of Brink(Cera)'s uncomprehending barrier breaches goes wrong she runs into the thick black night and finally gets signal enough to call Sarah who tells her in a strangely confident voice that she and Alicia both know she din't really go back for an exam and that she probably wouldn't be coming after all. Alicia freaks and flies to her room. The next morning Barbara tells her that Sarah just called to say she's just got in and should be there any minute.When the two catch a moment to talk privately Sarah denies knowledge of the midnight call.

It's here that the scission really sets in. Even with the warmth of Sarah's presence (they are very believably close friends, these are like the rest, good performances) Alicia cannot connect. Her protective inward fold at the beginning might not have been a character hurdle as much as one of Chekov's loaded guns. And there is a trope on offer to draw it out. We have already seen Augustin's interest in hypnotism in a scene which includes screen filling opitcal illusions. The next stage of this follows quite swiftly and is garnished with the notion that hypnotism is really a kind of licence taken by the subject to act without inhibition. If anyone could do with a little loosening ...

This is the point at which we begin ... seeing things. I mean us, the audience. Tiny phantasms appear in scenes and hallucinatory moments swell momentarily before fading swiftly. But even the cues that might ease us about rationalising Alicia's state (is she going insane or is everything really that horrible?) are mostly denied us. What we see is proffered cures, hypnotism itself, deadening pills and ancient folk medicine cast upon the girl whose one moment of potential breakthrough is played with heart rending failure. Soon it seems the entire world is rejecting her, this beautiful young gringa whom the world would normally crowd around in adoration and envy, discarded and erased.

The toughness of this film is not achieved with blood (there's some of that but not where you'd expect) or harsh action; it is made entirely of perceptions, self and alien, that transform this girl as pitiably as Gregor Samsa is turned into a giant cockroach. The nag of the doubt about the effects of hypnotism both ways rins heavily of Tarkovsky and his fearless confrontation with our monsters and his strange naive joy in the possibility that such magic might really work.

I was struggling to find comparisons as I sat there in the cinema, looking at this admirable but unlovable film. Tarkovksy came to mind straight away and the brooding half light that gave us entry into Alicia's unease might have been from Ringu or Dark Water. But only after I'd begun writing about it here did I hit on the closest thing I could think of. Unfortunately, it is equally unloved and if ever in cinemas has long left them: Eduardo Sanchez's creepy and intense Lovely Molly, a piece as steeped in the power of perception that yields as much pained questioning of the fragility of our connections.

Have you ever seen Last Summer, starring the very young Barbara Hershey? Seek it out and imagine Andrei T having a go at it. Or watch this. It's extraordinary. It will sink beneath the red tide of the great fat middle. But it is extraordinary.

Friday, December 6, 2013


Bitchface American teenager Daisy (don't call me Elizabeth), head filled with OCD and a cacophony of inspirational bullying in her own voice touches down in the UK to spend some time with her British cousins. Wrongfooting from the first breath she joins them in what seem like near feral conditions. The mother who was meant to meet her is absent. Her own father has pretty much Fed Ex-ed her to somewhere conscience-placating where he isn't. Amid the filthy plates and pets on the kitchen table there is Edmond, the eldest, golden, serene, beautiful. Detail by detail of the English kids' continual welcome in spite of her rudeness, Daisy thaws out long enough to meet the mum who has a short chat to her in between constant phonecalls from people around Europe who seem to want to talk about the bar graph detailing potential mass casualties from the impending mass terrorist action. Oh, Mum's in the government. There's a war on. One more phone call and she's on the plane to Geneva. We already know we are not going to see her again.

Daisy, now almost personable, joins the others at their idyllic stream. Afterwards, as they are enjoying a picnic there is a sudden extreme gust of solid wind that pushes at the trees as though under massive pressure. It is followed by what looks like snow but feels like ash. The war's on.

Back home the lights are out. A prematurely aged staffer from the US consul visits to deliver a ticket home to Daisy who, having committed herself to the golden Eddie, burns it in a kind of ritual. One more night sleeping in the barn and they are woken by soldiers, battered into transport, separated and shipped off to emergency forced labour farms. There is little suspense about the certainty that Daisy will escape from this and take the 10 year old cousin she has finally bonded with. When that happens we are on a journey back to the home we started with because Daisy has seen Eddie back there in a dream. The rest is the journey and its end, most of the remainder of the screen time.

Plots like this, treks through adversity with survival at the goal posts tell of human maturation, of shedding the trivia of consumer life and its off the shelf complexes and compulsions to find responsibility and the strength within are goals enough, the rest is advertising and gravy. That's all they need to be and here the progression is told with the leanness of it YA lit source, not an ounce of narrative fat and very very little expository dialogue or voice over that feels expository. The pace is kept active and there is an impressive balance struck between the light and grave throughout so that if it ever verges on being too easy (and it does) there is always something nearby on the timeline to rough that out. This film is never less than compelling.

The cast are all solid. Of particular note is George MacKay as Eddie who uses his appealing self possessed masculinity to powerful effect. But this piece would not have been quite so compelling without the greatness of Saoirse Ronan at its centre. I first saw this pint sized Irish engine room in the superb Hanna from a few years ago and made a note to see what I could of her subsequent work. Oddly, the comparison I thought of most while watching her performance was not a Noomi Rapace or Sigourney Weaver but Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. The depth behind the callow bitchiness and the fear of her own failure can be heart rending in this film that allows so little sentimentality to take screen. Ronan is simply one of the contemporary screen greats.

Also, thank the gods of composer auditions for finding someone to do such a strong loud and proud ELECTRONIC SCORE that suits this film infinitely better than something like The Road's waterlogged string section conducted with a sledgehammer. This music by turns growling, fearsome, gentle or splendid is how it should be done. I'm going to be hunting down the soundtrack album if it's around.

See this while it's still on a decent sized screen before it just gets thrown into the candyhued mass of new release covers at your local video shop. You'll be glad you did.

You're gushing, PJ. Well, of course I'm gushing. I'm on holiday!

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Allen Ginsberg before he's Allen Ginsberg goes to university and meets Lucien Carr who shows him how to be Allen Ginsberg. Lucien's a ne'er do well whose grasp on his continued studies is fraying to a single strand as he's busy pissing off the gay boffin who writes all his papers for him. Meanwhile we get to meet young Bill Burroughs and Jack Kerouac before they were themselves, as well. The film begins with an image of a murder and will circle around to it while we find out all about the first few sentences of this review. The rest is hysteria. Well, almost.

Allen Ginsberg is the mightymorphinmonstermuse of the beat poets. Howl, his Origin of Species or General Theory of Relativity, is strolled around by whispering pilgrims whose every utterance is lore. Here, he's a bloke with trouble in his family and the highest prospects imaginable as soon as he gets it all going. So when his combustibility meets the spark there should be a great refulgence. Well, would you settle for an overplayed riff on Henry Miller in the uni library that leaves him grinning like an ol' goofball? Actually, that's probably quite realistic but it is at odds with what he's just seen.

Dane Dehaan, so quietly strong in Chronicle, plays Lucien Carr. His library stunt, jumping on a desk and reciting a naughty passage from Tropic of Cancer like a bohemian in a school play might also be true to the moment but it comes across as ill-tuned and fruity. He's like the stunter that every campus has, the guy who loudly proclaims his ambition to father more abortions or grins as he points out some glaringly obvious political point, the guy who is thought a complete dickhead by all the guys, admired by a very few of the girls and whose appearance on the scene is more likely to birth groans than backslaps. And even back in the 40s he wouldn't be both known as this type and still elicit the hmphs and well reallys he gets in this scene. Even if he really did it just rings false now.

I've read reviews of this film that complain about the casting, concentrating on Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg. I have no problem with Radcliffe in the role. He's perfectly believable. It's Dehaan that troubles. It might well be the writing but his muse to the Ginz just comes across as a prissy contrarian whose skindeep beauty would strike him off the roll of anyone who knew him for mere minutes.

Not the case with David Kammerer, aforesaid gay mentor played by Michael C. Hall who has been here before but still manages to extend himself. Jack Huston's Kerouac is credible. Ben Foster's Burroughs is in his twenties but speaks like he's in his fifties. Too much 60s and 70s interview footage for research there. I didn't mind that anachronism at all as I'm very fond of the Burrough's persona and Foster does get the voice and intonation pitch-on. Jennifer Jason Leigh provides fruther grounds for not having a more stellar career earlier in life (not a slight: it was her perfection of characterisation at the expense of playing that did her in). The real performance gem though is Elizabeth Olsen who is so grown up and smokey that I stayed through the credits just to make sure it was her. A transformation. More of her on screen, if ye please.

There are moments of strong vision here (the scene of time warping Benzedrine in the night club is very special) but also too much overplayed (cut one shot of the pipes in the faux hanging scene and cut the pretty shared laugh and you have a very edgy laugh instead of a "you guys" moment) but this is a first time director whose better choices impress and whose goofs are permissible.

I was worried about the hollowness of the depiction of the relationship between Car and Kammerer and a late revelatory moment between Carr and Ginsberg but their explanation in the third act, even as voice over, feels like the last piece of a puzzle rather than deus ex machina.

Do go if you just want to see the Beats as protoplasm as this will disappoint you. Its points are gentle, it's just that they're being made by giants that gives the illusion. Not great but well above mediocre.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Review: THE COMPLEX: J-Horror revisited

Asuka and her family move into the apartment complex of the title on a Tokyo so brightly overcast that this must be a Hideo Nakata film. Yup, eleven years after hitting the peak of the genre he pretty much invented the Hid is back in the J-horror neighbourhood. So how is the ol' place?

Well the first impressions are good if you're wanting the hits and memories. The block of flats is a very slight step up from the mouldy and crumbling building in Dark Water and the family life for once seems harmonious. Asuka is starting nursing school and seems grateful for the happy start to the day that even involves a gift from mum, a watch that Asuka thinks is a little below her age but she accepts it happily.

While outside, she says hi to a little boy busy making an odd looking mound in a sandpit. The boy doesn't respond. Asuka walks on.

But there's more. Her parents end their conversation over breakfast the same way every morning. Her alarm clock seems to go off at 5:30 every morning except it always turns out to be one in the next flat. There are sounds of furniture being shifted around at night. She has already gone to the flat to introduce herself as a new neighbour but the door opened and closed. Plagued by the noise at night and her own curiosity following a case study read out in class, she ventures into the flat by herself with a fragile confidence only likely in horror movies and finds a huge mess and the corpse of an old man whose fingernails have been worn down trying to scratch at the wall for attention.

When the police and cleaners arrive one of the latter captures her attention as he seems to be familiar with the logic of ghosts and hauntings. This is actually done quite mundanely and so is saved from falling into self ridicule. From this point Asuka enters into a world of very strange danger starting with her coming home to find that her entire family has vanished from the flat. More than that and we step on spoilers.

Hideo Nakata has done two things here, one good and one bad. The good is that the subtlety he brought to the Japanese reconstruction of the horror genre in the 90s and 00s has led him to more adventurous representations of macabre plots. Asuka's predicament is initially so fascinating that I enjoyed being denied concrete guesses as to what she was going through or if she was on the right side of the dead/living divide, even though the evidence pushed one over the other her established imagination might have been doing some serious voodoo with her perceptions. When this is allowed to flex the film feels as fresh as Ringu on first viewing.

The bad is that so much of the world beyond this setup and its tantalising development is by the numbers j-horror, a kind of self-cover version. There being no arch wink at the audience with this we are left with the assumption that this plummet back into conventionality is there because it was too hard to think through the strong perception warp of the middle act.

I have no time for reviews that complain about what things aren't. I read an utterly pointless piece on Gravity recently that pretty much damned the straightforward action movie for not being more like Solaris. The Complex has a problem of there being too much of something that if trimmed could neaten the tale and heighten its tension. If one character's role had been stripped back to the information conduit it began being the climactic confrontation would not feel so compromised and drained of energy (and would have removed a needless series of ritual scenes that achieve nothing but screen time).

This has been bugging me ever since I saw the film. When I first saw Dark Water I thought for a while that he was just repeating Ringu until the pieces of the third act fell into place and the even more tragic and terrible conclusion stormed into being. There can be no storm here as the pressure is allowed to dissipate to effectively.

The complex is attached to a tv series which Nakata is partly helming. This feels right. The feature film keeps shy of the promise of its frequent masterful unease and the denouement has the feel of an old X-Files episode rather than the wrenching opera of the height of Dark Water. Maybe I'm just looking through the wrong context.