Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Everybody wants something. The young and restless Arash wants something better than looking after his difficult junky of a father. Saeed is a dealer who wants anything that interests him. His hooker/business partner wants her life to improve. The street urchin is happy with his board but wants Arash's muscle car. And the girl of the title who walks the dusty streets of the oil town alone at night, she wants blood. She and Arash don't know it yet but they also want each other. That's pretty much it as far as plot and motivation go for this one. But this film is less concerned with those beyond their narrative power to bring these characters together.

The rest is cinema. If this sounds like it's on the side of the angels of indulgence then it should but there is merit here. First, performances are pitch perfect throughout: Sheila Vand as the Girl manages to skate between sullen adolescence and alien monstrosity on call without showing her working; she is magnetic. Arash Marandi plays his hotboy malcontent with volatility so that we know the wounded seeker of love is there in the shadow of the roaring rocker with the American car. And everyone else on screen from the street boy to the rich girl to the father (who could have come from a Bela Tarr epic) to the pimpy dealer to the hooker, all placed within the darkened game board of Bad City.

The Iran of the story is partly remembered (it was shot in California) and partly fantasised. Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour an Iranian ex-pat knows she could never have made this film in her native land (not Iran but read up on what Haifaa Al-Mansour had to go through to make Wadjda) and there is a strong sense of spirit breaking through in the deliberate feel of these scenes. It's not vengeful or spiteful but more relieved.

The other side is a kind of glee at mixing Iran with vampires and westerns. Bad City is a clump of blocks pasted around oil fields. At night the town keeps within its own walls. Fatally illegal raves thump quietly and the drug and sex trades around them spread out like a spill of analgesia. Arash and others walk cross a bridge, thinking nothing of the corpses piled high in the gully below. If someone is walking out at night they are in danger or dangerous.  And the drillers swing back and forth like huge infernal pistons. This is all rendered not in the indulgent shallowness of 80s indy cinema but the room deep greyscale of Eraserhead. There is a creaminess to the image, a sheen that never entirely looks like the video it was shot on but never quite film either.

Amirpour uses the scope screen purposefully giving us linear motion (often with a warm humour) and some starkness to the isolation of the figures. This allows for a balletic action in many scenes with the narrow horizontal field serving as a stage. The Girl's black chador is used ingeniously, allowing her to appear alien and threatening here like a shadow without a figure or orderly and controlled there like the beast behind the mask that she is.

These are the kinds of things that Amirpour is sharing with us here. It's true, if you were expecting some development and depth from the well constructed elements of the first third you will be disappointed. After a certain amount of background has been established we are only given a situation as it is and might find the final dilemma a little too light. It is, nevertheless, there on screen and constitutes a genuine resolution.

I've seen some reviews and commentary online comparing this to a Jarmusch film. If you want that on the same level, go back to 1994 and Michael Almereyda's Nadja. At one point Nadja's brother describes Nadja's telepathic communication with him as a psychic fax. It's a funny line. Later she says that she's just received a psychic fax. Another funny line but like so much in this dated piece it seems too cool to commit to the genre it has chosen and ends up wayward and lost. Jim Jarmusch did make his own vampire film. It was better than Nadja but only through the maturity that two decades must demand. The difference is that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night likes being what it is and is happy to seriously blend its genres without a wink of irony. It is so much better for it.

So, while this doesn't break my best of 2014 list it is a good one to round off the year or begin the next one as its values return us to the best of the indy cinema of the 80s which sought to explore and discover rather than impress with scholarship and request no further reward than our attention. In that way it makes me recall She's Gotta Have It, The Quiet Earth, Parting Glances, The Draughtsman's Contract or The Element of Crime. And the really nice thing is, it's not trying to be like them at all, it's just someone else making some discoveries of her own. More!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

High 2014


The simplicity of something like Italian neo-realism allows the power in and it surges.

Under the Skin
All the hallmarks of an up-its-own-arse production defeated by use of real issues, strong design and note perfect acting.

Maps to the Stars
Cronenberg demonstrates that he's been less off-form than just needing to work with the right girl. This is strong, brainy, funny, stylish and sobering.

Pleased to say that the year's best horror was not only a sustained psychological essay but local.

Why Don't You Play in Hell?
Sion Sonno bids 35 mm film making sayonara in this dizzying non-stop festival of crazy. Everything works. And boy is he good when he stops being too serious. My favourite of 2014!

One that might easily have fallen to either other list but through its persistent pursuit of big truth in the everyday detail it came out triumphant.

Blue is the Warmest Colour
A tale of epic intimacy earns its outsize screen time. About and feels like love and its resonance.

For being as brutal as its central process yet as musical as its goal. A toughly virtuoso pas de deux.

Le Weekend
For trusting its leads to travel a subtly difficult path and for refusing to resort to cuteness as too many similarly themed films about ageing have. This one sticks to its theme about the tests of intimacy and doesn't get distracted.

Thoroughly enjoyable play of the Robert Heinlein mindbender sticks so faithfully to the source that it feels a misguided need to explain too much towards the end. It resurfaces undamaged by this.

Breadcrumb Trail
Like the best albums this documentary about an album absorbs and surrounds, allowing us to walk through the nervous systems that made the sound. A great music movie.

Two Days One Night
Never was grim realism so elegant as here. Light on the outside, heavy on the inside.

Fable of culture so hungry that it doesn't care where its news comes from as long as it tastes good, delivered with a virtuoso performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. Lean and mean and walloping.

Still Life
Spare and aching tale of the frayed ends of humanity borne on the shoulders of a performance that seems light but contains extraordinary anger from the great Eddie Marsan. As English as Loach and as Russian as Chekov. Beautiful.

Finding Vivan Maier
Not just compelling photography but a true life mystery. Told with intrigue and pathos and only just enough self-awareness to keep it fresh and moving.

Middling 2014

This is not a roll call of meh, it's a list that either didn't have quite the push to get into the top but felt too complete to be put into the low list. All that makes it sound like mediocrity but I enjoyed everything on this list when I saw it and still feel the resonance of that pleasure.

I Origins
Full points for the approach of looking at a wishful belief through science. Diminishing score for subverting that as soon as the ideas ran out. Perhaps its a meta fable about confirmation bias.

The Double
Even if it didn't go quite as far as its Dostoyevsky source (which is a very nasty and very funny piece) Richard Ayode's adaptation captured the Russianness and added some Britishness which almost worked up to the wire. The ending felt like it belonged to something much smaller scale.

Gone Girl
Extended essay on our acceptance of our own roles is never boring through some fine dialogue and strong performances but still feels too long.

Hard to be a God
This is the kind of film that normally would go straight into the top list purely from the audacity of the commitment to its singular path. It's definitely difficult but it also definitely resonates and gathers depth in recollection as remembered sequences take on the sensation of one's own experience. So why love Werckmeister Harmonies and not this? Because this is more like Satantango which I admire rather than love.

Some very nice ideas and is well performed but so repetitive that the power of its notions are swamped by overstatement.

Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coens make a film that doesn't have to be a Coens film to be good. Too much else was better, this year, though.

In a World
Funny idea well conceived and performed by writer/director Lake Bell but kept feeling a little shy of sharp enough.

Computer Chess
Andrew Bujalski's retro by setting and medium micro epic of technology and the ancient game delighted but showed the way for future development rather than celebrated an arrival. He's moved on from self-cuting mumblecore, what's next?

12 Years a Slave
Strong Kubrickian effort from the persistently interesting Steve McQueen wandered beyond the empathy it had with apparently effortless grace established.

Dallas Buyers Club
Two fine central performances that began to outgrow the film's purpose and leave its otherwise functional remainder wan and waiting.

Terrific 70s style family buddy movie works a treat and doesn't aim higher than it needs. Perhaps it should have.

Zero Theorem
Flavoursome Gilliam piece about private and public life and their dangerous connection feels like an in-between project rather than a full statement.

In the first third of this film the original name of the monster, Gojira, is anglicised into Godzilla within one line and so the progress of this film from 80s style epic to popcorn actioner may be summarised. Why couldn't we have some of the brand name stars in the female roles get more screen time, particularly as their roles' expansion might have enhanced this cover version. Otherwise thoroughly entertaining.

An improvement on the already impressive The Guard was still not quite enough to lift it beyond good for me.

Venus in Fur
A very worthy and strong two-hander from the master of violent character/suspense mixes still couldn't get to the best. But what a good Saturday eve this was, in large part because of this movie.

Hell of a ride with a good sci-fi arc. Almost chokes on its cheese. Needed IMAX to work fully.

Low 2014

Similarly with the middling list, this is not offered as a condemnation of the films as a sigh of disappointment that they seemed to miss their own potential. I'm just a guy with a blog and pay for my own tickets. I don't see movies that I think I'll hate. Here are some I wished had been better.

When Animals Dream
Great idea of grim Scandi verite as vehicle for genre movie derails as soon as the pieces connect and it turns into an inferior Hollywood-style genre movie.

Jodorowsky's Dune
Tantalising it-might-have-been documentary gets bogged down in uncritically allowing its central figure to bluster and a mass of back patting without much of an eye to the legacy of the failed project that actually did ensue. Nice slideshow but I wonder if this might not have been better as a book. I'd buy that.

Paolo Alto
The new Coppola on the block serves up some real promise but it gets lost in the swell of reverence for the source material.

The Search for Weng Weng
I was less disturbed by Weng Weng's treatment in life than the willingness of his chronicler to dip into ridicule. It's perfectly legitimate for a documentarian to turn the focus on themselves when information on their subject runs out or is blocked (Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, anyone?) but here, for me, it turned nasty-tasting.

Fading Gigolo
John Tuturro writes himself a dream role and directs himself playing the hell out of it but it just drifts into nowheresville.

I first read this story in the National Geographic in the 70s. The cinematic treatment had the same look but packed the purpose and any theme beyond the endurance itself into a series of vague flashbacks.

Only Lovers Left Alive

More fun than most later Jarmusch films but still too cute and self-hip to create much lasting impact. Points for the Detroit ghost town images.

The Rover
Beautiful wide screen Namatjira landscapes and a smoothly evocative score. Pity the rest of it is like a string of acting workshops. Well, it's about how men deal with things and sometimes it's not pretty. Right, I didn't know that and needed two hours of insubstantial bullshit to inform me. My worst of the year.

As poorly served a John Ronson adaptation as The Men Who Stare at Goats replacing military esoterica with avant-garde music in a film that shows no affinity with music or artistic radicalism. Where the scenes of wild invention might have been permissibly baffling in a film so determined to be liked we got ordinary jamming, field recording and the kind of spontaneous arrangements of impromptu songs that used to happen on the tv show version of Fame. If you want to show imaginative music show imagination with it. This just looks like faking.

In the first third of this film the original name of the monster, Gojira, is anglicised into Godzilla within one line and so the progress of this film from 80s style epic to popcorn actioner may be summarised. Why couldn't we have some of the brand name stars in the female roles get more screen time, particularly as their roles' expansion might have enhanced this cover version.

Grand Budapest Hotel
The only Wes Anderson movie I don't despise. I still like it but more for how I added a cinema habit than the movie itself. I went into work to make a little extra flex then fled to the Kino to see this. Got there just in time. The more I remember of it the more typically twee it becomes but Fiennes's central performance remains stellar. My best praise? At the time it charmed me rather than begged my indulgence. I barely remember it, now.

The Dirties
Clever self-reflexivity to the extent where the found footage look is part of the joke. Not terrible by any means but nowhere near as fresh or smart as it presents. Are the pastiche end credits a nod to the assumed cinephilia of its audience or a cynical recognition shooting gallery? Couldn't care less.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 6, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Sandra is woken by the phone. She rises, rifles through her bag and answers. As soon as she says hello the oven starts nagging and then as she hears what we don't she struggles with the pastry she's been cooking and is getting increasingly upset. Hanging up, she rushes to the bathroom and snaps two tablets from a foil and washes them down. Her face in the mirror is panic. We don't quite know why but she seems to be taking things a little too hard.

A conversation with her husband and further dialogue throughout reveal that she has been voted out of her job because the boss said it was a big bonus or her. She's been away from work for a while and it's been found that 16 can do the work without her seventeenth. Why her? That's the pills. She is recovering from a deep depression and on the eve of her return to work she is being rejected by co-workers who value a short term gain more than her. Tough times.

Her husband recognises the teetering his wife is suffering and gently stirs her to action. If she can convince the boss to run another ballot and then nine of her workmates to vote for her she'll have a job. And so she does, one by one, approaching each with an increasingly fragile confidence to plead her case.

This is my first Dardenne brothers film. I've known about them from about Rosetta onwards but haven't pursued any of their work until now. I have nothing against their choice of stories from the poor and downtrodden of the world it's just that given the choice of the kitchen sink or some zappy concept-rich sci-fi ... Well, I'll eat that sentiment. Far from being the grimly worthy Belgian Ken Loach this film shows a plainer and lighter hand with none of the affectations I find irksome about Loach.

First thing I notice is that there is no score. The only music we hear is from the scenes where there are music players. Only once does this line blur and then only very subtly at a rare moment of joy. Apart from that it's all atmos tracks and library sound. Marion Cotillard must carry the burden of this film alone. She does. Seldom has such disassembling vulnerability felt so intimidating from a cinema screen.

There is no time play of flash backwards or forwards; we begin at the start of the string and end where it runs out. We are going to follow her for the time in the title. The rest is up to us.

The visual style is deceptively plain. The streets and buildings Sandra walks through form a kind of geometric monkey puzzle which seems to keep her at a distance even before she encounters each coworker who might as easily refuse as agree to her plea. She is keeping herself aloof through medication but there is something in the shapes of the backgrounds that constrain her. One of the dingy apartments she must visit is accessed through a dirty green and claustrophobic stairwell. The car she travels in to her appointments with either triumph or disappointment is forced to become her home, however temporarily; its confines are a comfort rather than a constraint and she seems to wear it like a doona.

Each meeting with one of the people she hopes to convince contains a physical line between the two. Whether it's a crack in a wall, a fence or a door jamb it's there every single time. Even when the two move a few paces another line will be established to separate them. This does not feel like clever auteurism but plain function, letting us know that the filmmakers are keeping the visual side unambiguous, providing a sturdy setting for dialogue that carries a lot of weight, however unaffected it sounds.

I'm surprised to be compelled to call this film about the cold reality faced by the lower percentile of society elegant but there really is no better word for a piece that lays its issues so simply and delivers its punch with such effortless skill: this is an elegant film about suffering. The old saw about amateurs bringing attention to the difficulty of their work and professionals making it look easy applies here. If you can see the broken juggling plate in a Ken Loach film (I think he's a great filmmaker but at his worst he's a barking P.E. teacher) the Dardennes here at least will not let you spy the slightest falter.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


This pas de deux of power is about the gestation and the labour; we already know our guy will be born from the first scene: he's asked by a master to show off and is shunned when he fails. Notice I use imagery of birth rather than manhood? This powerful and angry film is not Iron John - the kid already has a father who is rounded and supportive - it's much better.

Andrew is a young drumming student at an elite NYC music school. The teacher who shuns him in the opening scene is Fletcher, the fiercest instructive monster on screen since Sgt Hartman in Full Metal jacket, is given a career second-act performance by JK Simmons, a kind of Vladimir Putin with New York smarts. Andrew who must endure the bruising nurture for his emergence into life is given life by Miles Teller whose compelling plainness lifted The Spectacular Now from indy okayness to something strong and dark.

Fletcher's approach is to weaken bravado by removing self-confidence, switching drummers after a very few bars at a time to kill the idea that the kit belongs to any of them. We can see the strategy and also that its subjects cannot and why. When we see Andrew taking his newly-built cockiness into his family and romantic life we witness gross mistakes made through the intoxication of hard narcissism and we wince. But we also project on to the downcast eyes of Andrew, as he is leaving a brutal marathon rehearsal, the exhaustion, anger and perfectionism of a student who has just experienced the rewards of belonging to commitment. And later when one of his narcissistic flubs returns to bite him we are allowed to linger on his sadness and deflation, feeling them acutely.

Acting sorted, how's the travel? Well, if you thought watching someone tap a drum kit for minutes of precious screen time on end spelled death of attention know now that the frenetic MTV style editing of someone playing complicated jazz drumming feels like the heavily taxed alertness of a drummer. Drumming is hard. I can play an ok guitar or keyboard and even stay in tune on a theremin but I can never get past the first bar at a drum kit; it's like swimming for two with one; the sheer coordination of it kills me long long long before I could think of anything creative to do and that's just servile rock common time. When, as one of the lightning cuts of one of these sequences shows, the time signature of a piece includes the numeral 14 it's like the second you understand a maths problem before it slips away and your brain clanks back to normal gearing. We see the parts of the drum kit as details of central control as the loose syncopation rustles and thunders around them. The bandaging of bleeding finger joints and ice buckets remind us of the boxing ring rather than the cross and the jaw slapping lesson in keeping exact time hurts but feels necessary. The sheer intensity of musical performance has not to my knowledge be so intimately captured in fiction cinema as here. Don't compare it to Shine but Jimi at Monterey.

Music runs through this film well outside of the moments when it is played digetically. A scene in the rehearsal room involves a kind of choir of buzzes and clicks as the players set up but it isn't some campy sampler sonata it sounds natural but pushed so that you know it's intended; a kind of movie score concrete. The editing itself has a jazziness that belies the cold-seeming re-enactment of the school performance of jazz and that tension keeps up until the end which presses and delights if it is not meant to surprise. This story is made of music.

On that, if the idea that this is a pursuit of excellence tale about not just a jazz drummer but an academic jazz drummer puts you off then think of this: the struggle to deliver individuality shed of its placental egocentricity, a struggle mounted between a promising neophyte and a violent teacher, is more usually told in a sporting context but here it is expressed through one of our greatest pleasures. We are discomforted to know this but are as glad of our own effort as that which we witness. And this is all done with cinema.

Monday, November 10, 2014


Failed NASA testpilot turned failing farmer stumbles into an active role in a plan to save humanity from its self destructive urge through a mission to the stars. The good part is that this calls upon a dizzying array of ideas that render this epic into genuine science fiction and not just a sicence fiction setting. The bad part is that these are frequently undercut by great lunking cliches and dimmer sparks. Once again, Christopher Nolan has given us a great popcorn movie but held us down until we slap the playground dirt and call it an epic.


This is a real cinematic feast. Nolan knows his movies and trusts you to follow him without the need to wink at this reference to Kubrick or that subversion of convention. He creates a layer that is constantly plain and compelling. Motivation, location, information are all administered at the optimum doses. This frees him up to do some fancy footwork with his concepts and serve all that with some muscular imagery. When we arrive at Saturn in full IMAX we feel the heft of how we got there as we marvel at the scale and majesty without the faintest whiff of cheese. When we sit in the middle of a discussion of the drastic time shift involved in being on a planet with strong gravity we are rivetted. When we drive through the whipping chaos of a cornfield or leave the Earth's atmosphere we feel privileged to be in a cinema. Christopher Nolan, champion of celluloid shooting and projection and the IMAX format, adds that pleasurable solemnity to the thrill as much as a Kubrick or John Ford did.

The central tale of a parent and child reconciling their separation over time and distance, an arc older than Noah's, weaves so beautifully into the outer layer of breathtaking concept that its delivery almost masks the fact that you pretty much got it half way through. This is not just a sci-fi setting, it's real sci-fi. The substance of this film contains real awe and joy.

It's godless. Apart from the curlywurly preponderances 'pon love which could (but don't) plummet into the porridge of the concept of spirituality, this story does not suggest a sentient cosmic force. What we do get is something you'll work for yourself about halfway through but something so beautifully delivered that it will leave you smiling. That's one less globe of Gouda to deal with in an epic so stuffed with them. Unlike in Prometheus there is none of the "choose to believe" nonsense.

The casting is sensational (for an exception see below). Matthew McConaughey again shows us why he's been appearing in such gift roles for the past few years as he stands as tall as a Gary Cooper, comments as wryly as a Roland Coleman and is as chiseled and present as a Gregory Peck. His performance actually transcends the cheese he is frequently asked to munch on. The scene of parting between him and his young daughter is genuinely heartrending. This is is large part due to her casting by the young un Mackenzie Foy who if she can stick with it and get into a YA lit adaptation around nineteen will wow us all again.


Why is Michael Caine in this film? He loiters near the teleprompter, his old man slacks stapled to his ribcage, delivering trailer soundbites and pages of exposition with a kind of wall-eyed somnambulism. He exhibits no affinity with his lines at all except for the Dylan Thomas quote about raging against the dying of the light which, on reflection might have been appropriated by Nolan as Caine was caught on mic murmuring something that did mean something to him. Chris, next time cast someone who cares.

There's a moment in James Cameron's hokey but fun The Abyss where Ed Harris is getting kitted up for a possible suicide mission and is asked by a character "why him?" It's a good question: he's the captain of the sub and has so far done a bang up job at the helm, fending off the openly loony military maven and taken the crew through some very nasty straits. So, why should he be the one to deprive his vessel and crew of his highly capable leadership? "Someone's got to do it," he says. And we are meant to think," oh, ok, it's just a movie, let's go with that."

In Interstellar these big goofy cheese sandwiches are down to Matthew McConaughey and feel so clumsy that they bring all the fast thinking to the big grinding halt that happens when the picnic whinger finds out the wrong kind of tomato sauce was packed. During a pretty fascinating dialogue about the strategy to approach a planet with a big time shift issue (an hour spent there is seven years everywhere else) Cooper (M Mc) flips a digital display of the planet to find a white board which he draws a stick figure version of exactly the same picture and suggests a viable plan to minimise the time damage. The hard core sci-bods around him light up with recognition and approval. One smiles: "that could work." Really? It could work? Even I understood the plan. They knew everything else about the problem on earth and yet not one of these family-sized brains thought of it back on Earth. Really? Really?

Later Cooper rattles off a perfectly serviceable list of the biological reasons for the existence of love and a scientist overrides them with obfuscation so bullshitty it might have been written by M. Night Shamylan. It's like the "that's what I choose to believe" line that undermined the entirety of Prometheus (well, there were other things but that's the one that killed it for me).

I am usually happy allowing the credibility stretches of a piece of fiction to slide along and let the story take wing but Interstellar contains so many of the "if you knew that thing could do that minutes ago why the hell did it take you so long ....?" moments that it might as well have been as dire as Prometheus. It is saved, to its credit, by being less abjectly idiotic as that one, though, despite these winces.

This really should have been around ninety minutes long. It's not a blockbuster with brains so much as a brainy film with bloat. If you can track it down there's a Spanish film called Time Crimes which deals with time anomalies in a dizzying but complete fashion and contains none of the baggage in the hold of Interstellar to make it feel as big as its ideas. I also think of the bonus disc in David Lynch's Lime Green Set. That disc included a feature length collection of scenes left out of the final cut of Wild At Heart and it's instructive viewing. Each of the scenes not only makes perfect sense but could have come from any conventional film, despite sharing the look and setting of the released version. What Lynch excised from his film was everything ordinary and created something that, while not my favourite of his, is in its every frame and sound signed by him. Nolan has heavy talent as a filmmaker but is too given to quite needless playing to the gallery. Could I suggest the gallery would be better pleased if he eviscerated his films of everything but that core whose intellect invites us in so that we thrill at our own discovery as the gifts meet us from the screen? I'm not asking for Tarkovsky; Nolan, the Nolan of Memento and The Prestige, will do just fine.

So, how do I deal with a movie I have to keep apologising for if I am to publicly admire it? I remember the pleasures of the ride to keep from feeling dirty.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thirteen for Halloween

No, I haven't bought into the bend-over-for-the-empire practice of Americanising my October but I am a fool for any opportunity to make a list of horror films. This time, though, I'm going to do two, one for the horror-curious and another for those who just want the genre for the occasion.

While I as an Australian born and raised didn't experience Halloween as part of the calendar I knew about it from American shows and kind of envied the costumes and rituals. Most of all I liked the mood and always considered horror fiction nourishment for the imagination and I loved how even though I've never believed in ghosts I would be haunted awake in the pre dawn by the stories of M.R. James or Sheridan LeFanu. The Christmas tales from UK television added location and atmosphere. In the end I had to admit that I lived in the tropics which see neither snow nor fog and when there were human atrocities in the air they had the weight of close reality. Otherwise there were the movies and I never tire of the best of them nor discovering new avenues into the self-confrontation that genuine horror demands.

As you'll read, I'm biased toward originality and genre-warping but these qualities are by no means prerequisite for a good horror fiction experience. There's a lot of real cinema to be had with movies that just behave themselves in their margins and deliver what they say. There is, of course, a spectrum of how well this is done.

Hey, there's more than thirteen here! It rhymes with Halloween .. and count the genres in the second section

For non-horror fans...

Contemporary Mainstream
Wahhahahahahahahahahahahahaha! which
is the kind of dialogue I hear when I see
something like this.
Insidious and anything else by James Wan or anything like them. These scary-skull party decorations wear me out with their quiet quiet LOUD formula but for all their identikit nature they are at least reliable and you can talk over them as you won't be missing any suspense. Serve with the free-chicken-wing-and-family-size-softdrink deals from the nearest franchise pizza place. No concentration required and you won't retain a second of screen time to haunt you later. Examples, The Conjuring, Sinister and the godawful "Harry Potter and the Woman in Black".

There is a notion afoot that these are generationally restrictive so if you're too old you'll gurmpily reject them and if you're young enough you'll dig them. If that worked I'd prefer the 1982 Thing over the 1956 one and Friday the 13th over The Exorcist (wrong in both cases). Sorry, it's not me being old, it's these movies being mediocre.

But quite seriously, if you aren't into horror but want to use the occasion, these will work.


Remakes of 70s and 80s genre. It's often observed that it's only bad movies that should get remakes to correct the errors of the past. Instead, we get the errors of the present whose makers have learned nothing from the originals. You can count the as-good or better remakes on one hand. Like the contemporary Hollywood fare mentioned above, these are not taxing and have been declawed so that only the serviceable gore gets through and none of that disturbing concept work to bring things down.

Remakes of films originally in languages other than American. If you can't read subtitles you shouldn't be reading this. Seriously, if getting close to a good arresting idea is blocked for you by a series of titles in the most basic of English (as they have to be for speed alone) then all you can experience is a series of someone else's ideas at a cultural remove. Not it's not Let Me In but Let the Right One In. Not The Ring but Ringu (seriously, this one involves a major failure of interpretation when in English). Not Quarantine but .REC. The American version of Pulse has a line about the use of gaffer tape common to both films: "It just seems to work somehow." Why didn't anyone in Kyoshi Kurosawa's original have to say that? Because they wanted YOU to work it out. I have known no exceptions to this rule that didn't take a lot of indulgence and apology.

Would you really rather hear a note perfect cover band play your favourite songs or the original band? If the latter aren't available wouldn't you at least want some interpretation to be part of it rather than a re-enactment? You wouldn't? Fine, the remakes are over there. Let's just never talk about music.

Mainstream gothic
All the scares of the Ghost Train ride
Blade, Underworld, Mama, etc. All serviceable narrative pieces with a few scares and suspense but I find so much backstory really wetblankets a horror movie. It give its audience too much control over the events. The reason we wake up gasping from nightmares is precisely because we can't control them. But these usually have some fine art direction.

Horror Comedy
This is a good one. It's almost the only one.
The best one is Shaun of the Dead because it remembers to be scary as well as funny. The rest usually just give up and try to be funny but the best of them are good at that. Scream (keep it to the first one) Bad Taste, Beetlejuice are all fine examples. Word of advice: don't start with one of these if you are going down the party atmosphere path as it will make everyone take the piss out of everything else. That might sound great but it really gets fatiguing quickly and any return to appropriate mood will feel like someone turned the lights on. Try it last or after something that does have an effect. That works.

Well, that should do you. Or ....

For horror fans and the curious of heart...

Kairo/Pulse begins with social erosion as the online realm vacuums its users' lives which allows ghosts to spill over from existential intertia into a steadily scarier real world. The ghosts here aren't just scary, they're disturbing. If the dialogue is in English you are watching the wrong version: the real one is in Japanese. Tasssuketeeeeee....

See also Pontypool, Canadian slowburner is huge on atmosphere, character and cleverness. What's in a word?

Body Horror
Shivers gave David Cronenberg to the world. A science experiment gone wrong begets a sexually transmitted parasite in an isolated luxury highrise apartment complex. Genuinely disturbing ideas rise above the often hokey action and acting.

See also Audition, Takeshi Miike's nightmare of emotional distortion and ugly morality/body confusion will stay with you.

Found Footage
The Blair Witch Project is still the champ of this and deserves a look by anyone who has only heard of it and a new look for those who have seen it. If we follow we descend. The human imagination can be a bad place at the best of times but with only a little frustration turns into a constant nightmare.

See also .REC, best descendant of Blair Witch takes us from a rookie tv reporter's slow news night into a terryifiying enclosed hell. Brilliant ending you won't expect. If the ending of the first Paranormal Activity hadn't ruined the entire film with its bubblegum hokiness that would have been .REC's rival. But no.

Too many. It's a favourite sub genre. Hmmmm. Ok, Dark Water. Atmosphere and genuine tragedy provide solid support for a ghost story that will stay with you. If you think the coda scene is sweet give it a few minutes and feel the hair on the back of your neck stand up. If Jennifer Connelly is in it you are watching the wrong version. This is a Japanese film.

See also Lake Mungo: local and vocal masterpiece. You will NOT expect the climactic scene. Did you see it? What did you see?

Quatermass and the Pit. One of the finest sci-fi minds of the mid twentieth century, Nigel Kneale, came up with this intriguer that like other greats of his takes narrative and thematic swerves you will not expect. Here it goes from possible unexploded German bombs in the London tube to human evolution. The locally released blu-ray is the same as the BFI, sensational.

See also Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) had two remakes on a par but this original still feels like the best with its American dream gone wrong or horribly right.

I'd normally put the ol' Exorcist here but this time I'll go subtler and nominate Rosemary's Baby. Before Friedkin drained the last gothic drop from movies about cults and the Divil Polanski had a red hot go substituting naturalistic acting for histrionics and worrying ideas instead of shocks. Expert casting of Mia Farrow and John Cassavettes bring this one home as a believable couple and Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as the old couple across the hall whose urbanity and comedy are equally sinister. "What have you done to it's eyes?" What did they do? Well, good horror requires you to use your imagination which ought to be more powerful than anything on a screen.

Also, the only available dvd and blu-ray of the Exorcist are of the long and plodding "version you've never seen" which is the only one anyone after 2000 has seen. You can get the original in a deluxe package from overseas sources so, if you're interested, hold off until you can see the shorter, tighter and scarier one.

The Brotherhood of Satan. Low-budget big concepts as the children of a small town vanish and toys come horrifically to life. Youth and age clash in a kind of Lewis Carrol verite.

Short Form

It's a really good idea to ease the burden of the parade of features with shorter pieces and they don't come much more curious than this series of twelve found footage ambushes collectively known as The Forbidden Files (also, Les Documents Interdits, in case you're braving the waves, sleets and torrents to find them). SBS showed these in the 90s as part of their Saturday night shorts showcase Eat Carpet. They were originally shown unannounced on French cable tv. From true life ghost stories, alien incursion, witchcraft and much more these ingeniously use the short running time (mostly only a few minutes) to maximum effect, playing on our trust at the sight of what looks like raw footage. Also, try some of the shorter form fiction that used to appear on TV like Twilight Zone (particularly the hour long Thirty Fathom Grave) or the shorter BBC Mr James adaptations like Whistle and I'll Come to You or Lost Hearts.

Black Christmas is Bob Porky's Clark's jump start to the genre that would be planted in the 70s and take firm root in the 80s. Those phone calls!

See also Halloween (if it doesn't say 1978 somewhere in the details you are watching the wrong one).

Sui Generis
Lovely Molly sees half of the Blair Witch directorial team venture only a comfortable pace from the scene of his fame. Nevertheless, by concentrating on the internal crisis storming inside the central character rather than sudden scares adds depth and eeriness.

See also Martyrs which starts like any Euro revenge piece but takes a terrifying turn halfway through. The violence dissipates into control and the control has a disturbing force. I'll sing with Mark Kermode on this one, though: CAUTION! This is a VERY rough ride.

Martin: Is he a vampire or a very naughty boy? Either way, Martin is as confused and pissed off as any other teenager. How many of them ever wished they had the powers of mythical monsters? The generation gap doesn't get more poignant .... or bloody.

See also Lips of Blood:Jean Rollin's mix of perve and unnerve with a genuinely poignant ending to surprise.

Ginger Snaps. Lighten up the marathon with this still fresh take on lycanthropy. Whedonesque smarts mix with a welling real tragedy which emerges in a climax worthy of Cronenberg.

See also The Wolf Man: uses pathos rather than threat to suggest the pity of heredity but also the anger in response to it. Lon Chaney Jr might have had a few things on his mind about that issue playing this role.

Suspiria. The phrase style over substance is so pejorative that even as I put it here in order to twist it into a positive I hesitate. But with a palette determined by aggressive lighting and intentional use of old film stock, a massively powerful music score and enough tension and stark violence to fill several genre pieces, Suspiria's style IS its substance. Its relentless genuine nightmare logic is in force from the word go and is only weakened by a scene which attempts to explain the events and plant a telescope. Not for talking over but its 92 minutes don't allow that kinda malarky.

See also Black Sunday, Bava bravura in black and white with a mad eyed Barbara on the roam.

Romero's Night is one of my favourites but for freshness I'll go with Lucio Fulci's Zombie. Very pervy and very gory but also strongly atmospheric. Aka Zombie Flesh Eaters and Zombi(e) 2.

See also Colin for a very British take that intrigues.

So, happy happy Halloween.