Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Not the 2014 Autumn Pt 1 Program

But if it were I'd title it "Absorption"

So it's the end of summer and as I ventured out to get some nosh for later tonight when I sign off on the project work for the evening and settle in to something on screen I again was plagued by the sense memory of making my way through the dusk of Collingwood to the ABC Gallery with a backpack stuffed with bread, dips and cinema. My weekend is going to be pretty active and social so this Friday in will be just for me (and probably self-mercifully gentle). So, instead of the salmon 'n' salad  I decided to get a bake at home turkish loaf and dips and a bottle of something red and South Australian. On the way home, thinking of what I might watch after drawing and editing I thought I might concoct another hypothetical Shadows year starter program. So here it is. Sorry it's not for real (only place I'll be screening these is at home) but you can have some fun hunting these 'uns down for yerselves.

Berberian Sound Studio
Brilliant, closeted English sound artist Gilderoy whose best work has been in his shed plummets into the intimidating vortex of Italian filmmaking. He's used to modest but rich nature documentaries but finds himself creating the sounds of extreme torture and constant violence. Will he get out alive? The answer might just surprise you in the third act.

Le Beau Serge
Francois, struck with TB, returns to his native village for the better weather and also, who knows, to say adieu at the place he began. He reconnects gratingly with his old friend Serge who, feeling robbed of his potential as a youth by a cul de sac marriage has become the town drunk. As Francois gives in to the teenage siren, Marie, it dawns on him that he might be creating a point of last ditch competition in his old friend. Chabrol keeps the atmosphere in a strange corridor between verite and mystery as this tale of hobbled promise and fleeing youth slithers to its end.

A Field in England. A rag tag crew of deserters from the English Civil War find themselves in a field planning on escaping not just the war but the death penalty for desertion. The Sudden appearence of the magisterial stranger makes it seem as though there has been no chance involved in their assembly as they set to locating a treasure buried in the field. This odd psychedelic western out of water has much to say on concepts like loyalty and faith and then, when we least expect it, about survival and ambition.

Umberto D
A classic for perfectly good reasons. It's a genuine classic. Umberto D is a retiree sinking into debt and dependence, unable to run ahead of the forces that the younger life around him press. Is it just pride that keeps him hanging on to an increasingly futile thread or is there another trick that this old dog will need to learn? Extraordinary film from the rich and influential Italian neo realism.

In a World
The guy who owned that phrase in the Hollywood trailers has passed on to the great coming soon in the sky and everyone back on earth wants his job. Carol works as a voice coach, teaching Hollywood stars how to do accents. Her father has passive aggressively kept her down all her life. He does voiceover work as well. The rising stud of the voice over is growling sonorously around as well. Barry, the sound guy has always liked Carol. This mumblecore fantasia works in ways that it shouldn't. Gina Davis' verbal slap towards the end is both funny and sobering.

The Devils
Ken Russell let loose on a gross miscarriage from the marriage of church and state. Russell's at his peak here stretching the bounds but also observing the virtue of them as 17th century nuns go demon wild for the good of the realm. Puzzled? Actually, it makes perfect sense when you see it. Great cast and music score rounded off by the big screen debut of Derek Jarman as art director (boy did he earn his keep with this one!). Russell could do with a fresh look after his critics all but buried him at the end of the 70s. He really did a lot of good as a cinevisionary. Here's his masterpiece.

Review: Dallas Buyers Club

In one of those shots you can feel and smell as well as see Ron Woodroof has farmyard quality sex with a rodeo groupie while keeping an eye on the bullriders he runs a book on. They leap and buck through the bars under the bleachers while he does his own out of sight. Then, fleeing the wrath of the rodeo betters he's just hustled he finds his cop brother and punches him to get arrested into the safety of the squad car and drives out of trouble. When he gets through the door he collapses as a shrill tinnitus ring erases all other sound.

Waking up in hospital the red blooded Texan is told he is less red blooded than whatever colour blood goes when the t-cell count drains. He is HIV positive. He has thirty days to live. His resistance to the idea of having the "gay plague" outpunches the one about him only having a month of life left. That goes for all of his friends as well. Ron is a man's man. Women are functional before they're human. His friends are entirely male, resemble overweight Steve Zahns with moustaches, and their rejection of him matches his own priorities: his imminent death is obscured.

The first part of this film is given to acceptance. He has to admit his condition and treat it and somewhere along the line admit his identification with people he lately reviled. In true Hollywood form this is amped up by a confronting example in the form of the transexual Rayon whom he meets in hospital. After a number of screenwriting seminar moments (Rayon beats the shirt off Ron at poker and massages Ron's severe leg cramp etc) the two begin a truce that we know will turn into a friendship before too long.

The second part of the film is given to the campaign for effective treatments available elsewhere in the world to be made available in the U.S. This is made necessary by the opposition from the bureacracy to Ron's quasi smuggling of treatments from Mexico and then overseas into the U.S. Having started the loophole club of the title he finds himself plagued by officialdom and is soon grandstanding at meetings and in courtrooms for the cure.

If I sound dismissive here it's only to get the obvious points out of the way and concentrate on the central drawcard of this movie which is the combined performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto as Ron and Rayon respectively.

McConaughey has spent the last swag of screen roles shedding the skin of a career of featherlight rom coms. I haven't yet seen Killer Joe but Mud and the HBO series True Detective provide very strong evidence that this shirtless wonder from the 90s and 00s has stepped into his craft. While any actor would happily sign up for the obnoxious monster that Ron is at the start knowing that his redemption is close at hand. McConaughey does this but restrains himself from the big reveal in the same way that we are trusted as an audience to observe the changes in his relationship with his circumstances. The theme in chief in getting this done is Ron's anger which goes from the initial explosions with collateral damage to delivery as streams of ice through a well-turned charm. Frail unto death, sick and pale, marred by crimson scabs, the Ron who stands up to the oafish departmental zealots is a weapon designed and developed in a personal laboratory. He is his defiance.

By contrast Jared Leto is all surrender. The cosmetic display his Rayon affects in his own (longer term) defiance fades before we are aware of it until his venous complexion covers him like a dark blue vine. From the flamboyant strut at the onset to his stark death on a hospital trolley his life's battle was never enough. Leto's weightloss is confronting but the pain of the attack on his resolve is clear as he eventually fades and falls into silence. The failure of the tough gravity beneath all that camp hurts more than the already painful moment of vulnerability in the scene with his father when he presents himself in the garb of the world that has rejected him (wearing it like a hairshirt) but it's the toughness that we keep. Considering this and the undersung Chapter 27 for which he larded up to play John Lennon's killer Mark David Chapman and gave us real torment behind the dead eyes and crippled voice, Jared Leto might well be written off as the pretty boy that could .... but he's worth a lot more attention.

The third in the principal triangle of performances here is Jennifer Garner who is written a lot less than the other two but warms the role up with enough genuineness to make it real but she is just too overshadowed. It's important to have her character there as a medical voice that is clearly not of the corporate-backed orthodoxy but she is written for this more than a person in the life of. That Garner raises this to a performance rather than a forgivable deliverer of lines is to her credit.

One issue that made me wince also had to do with casting. The FDA is represented by the same beefy Texan throughout and each time Ron comes up agin the lah Mr Clipboard appears as though he's Satan in a Christmas pantomime. And why is Ron's cop brother there every single time Ron tuggles with the boys in blue? This is Dallas, not Mayberry, there is more than one police station in the town. Now, both of these cases might have been forced by the budgetary bugbears plaguing this production and/or a perceived need for continuity representing the powers that be but set against the might of the central performances they look filled in rather than crafted. The scene in which it is important that Ron and brother meet in line of duty begins with a cop unknown to Ron. This begins very poignantly and leads to an equally affecting moment but those are pivoted on the miraculous appearence of Ron's brother in the squad car.

I'm going cut this movie some slack, though, as it did great battle against spare means to find a very natural voice for its crucial tale. Can't afford a long shoot? Do it inside a month. Cranes and tracks too costly? Get handheld down to an art so it isn't self-congratulatory. Can't pay a composer? Source a few minutes of deftly chosen (non-period) retro and use that ... now and then ... instead of some smothering Hans Zimmer overwrought string section to tell you what you should be feeling. Get it?  This film was forced to be lean 'n' mean and in doing so found plenty of room for appropriate emotion. If someone dies crushed at the end of a life of struggle just bloody show it and we'll do the emoting. That's why I prefer this to the similarly themed Philadelphia from the 90s despite that film's merits: we know it's sad and angering, show us why we should also feel kinship. Don't manipulate us with orchestras, leave us no room for anything but empathy. Then we're there. And so I was, welling up more than once and, oddly enough, happy to do so ... a proud witness to a callous diers blub.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: 12 YEARS A SLAVE

A well-to-do New York musician is tempted by a lucrative touring gig, dined, and wined and wined more before waking up in chains and transported to the south and sold to a plantation owner as a slave. Oh, the musician is black and it antebellum USA. Not nice. As the title gives it away, he lives for a long time this way and is either freed by paperwork or death in the end. Apart from a slight blend of tenses at the start to allow us a view on his citizenship's ownership we get a representation of a time line for a long time. Linear, is the word.

I remember coming out of Casino with a frown. The reason I loved Goodfellas and was unmoved by the later film was this patchwork linearity which all but prevented sufficient motion between the screen and the audience to allow for some empathy. I saw the artistry but couldn't care less. 12 Years a Slave doesn't have this effect and it took me until after the credits rolled to work out why. It has to do with the work of another great director whose influence is signalled in the first minutes of screen time.

First, a little about why I like this director. I am yet to see his debut feature Hunger but what I've heard of it is borne well through his second, Shame. In the latter film a slight premise is examined as much through mise en scene as it is through dialogue and performances. This works to such an extent that it allows for a greater reliance on the blend of look, performance and speech than in even the more edgy of mainstream fare. As a cinema experience it lies somewhere between a series of tableaux and a conventional narrative film. Director Steve McQueen began as much of an installation artist as a filmmaker. This might remind the cinestorians among ye of David Lynch but for once in comparing one director to a favourite of mine I'm not thinking of him.

After we fade in from the various corporate badges we are in a field of tall green cane. A middleaged man dressed for warm weather is demonstrating how to use a cane knife. His accent obscures his words so much that he sounds like he's imitating bird life. Reverse shot reveals a group of twenty or so young black men and women in plain sack like clothing. There is fear in their eyes. The overseer is hard to understand yet they will face pain if they don't do as he says. A young affluent white couple observe. Slavery.

Six unsubmerssible units later (with a few necessary joins) we are sitting through the credits. With me? We are Kubrick's film about slavery.

This is not a tribute by McQueen. If there were quotes from Full Metal Jacket I didn't notice them. This is even more than influence; it is applied Kubrick. At each stage of Solomon/Platt's mental double life as an educated observer and humanity-stripped victim we are led through scenes that filter mainstream convention through an alien eye, recreated history that is less realistic than it is interesting. There is a frightening undercurrent to the opening scene described above and we share the fear by feeling the starkness of the situation: there is no sentimentality to cloud or comfort.

The thing is that McQueen has come to this through hard work rather than film school. He has arrived here rather than aspired to a share of glory and this is the difference between understanding and plagiarism: a Tarrantino likes showing off; McQueen has a job to do. The practicality of applying Kubrick to a long linear narrative is that the force of the artifice allows a more objective involvement than with more regular fare.

Spielberg failed in the comparable Schindler's List by insisting on character polarity which he took to counterproductive lengths: Schindler was so reprobate that his newfound humanitarianism seems engineered and Amon Goeth is so charming, boyish and violent he becomes far more attractive as a screen presence. The "one more" speech of the former is thus rendered as believable as an oscar speech against totalitarianism and Goeth's unceremonious dispatch is warmly funny.

Here, Ford, the first plantation owner, is shown as benign but only within his system, he is a kinder slave owner who seems never to have doubted his right to forced labour. Epps, who might have been Speilberg's villain, is here a man whose enjoyment of his own power and near unrestrained surrender to his own biology make him a spoiled brat with a cattle whip. The fact that his vulnerability shows in the ingested tenderness when drunk or poignantly when he lifts his illegitimate daughter to his side with the pleasure of a parent are enough to tell us, more importantly than a scene staging his good side, that he does not perceive any fault in himself. That is instructive. It doesn't take a grandstanding scene to show that Tibeats' bullying is borne of his knowledge of his mediocrity as a tradesman, it's folded into the flow and we have no trouble seeing it.

These are people whose historical circumstances do not compel them to be essentially good or bad but to expect them to act against their personal architecture would be our fault. This would change if the film were more conventional and we'd expect more of a psyche test for each player but here we witness nature plus culture and it is for us to understand rather than condemn. Drill Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket is not a bad guy, he's a drill sergeant, he has to be like that: Epps is a living nightmare but you can see why.

Chiwetel Ejiofor at the centre shows us Solomon's acceptance of the contradiction forced upon him. His early heroic declaration that he doesn't want to survive but live undergoes a rapid expansion of definition as soon as his captivity becomes slavery. His struggle is to keep Solomon alive within the shell of Platt (the identity assigned him by his captors) despite not knowing if he will ever be able to free the man within. The various failures and successes he observes around him in the press of the coercive life that victimises them are atomised and incommunicative. Solomon must stay as still as a mouse playing dead while Platt functions. Which one is life and which mere survival? Not always easy to tell when the suppressed one might never be wanted by the world again. His moments of action have consequences (including an excruciating sequence which feels like forever and made more unnerving for all the life that surrounds it) that allow us to withhold our judgement on him for hiding his true self. Finally, because of this, we feel for him with our minds before our hearts; we feel for him more profoundly than we would in something more mainstream.

Like Schindler's List, 12 Years a Slave is offered knowing its audience agrees with it. The test for any such work is how extensive is its reach beyond its setting. Nazis are bad, can you be a good person under their rule? Slavery is bad, how do you keep your humanity? Etc etc. Solomon lives as Platt the same as dissidents in Stalin's Russia or Pran in The Killing Fields. Because of this 12 Years a Slave is curiously closer to John Frankenheimer's Seconds or Roman Polanski's The Pianist than Schindler's List as it does not flinch from the effect of its historical moment upon its characters (all of its characters) even to flirt with sentimentality. There's no point in declaring McQueen a new Kubrick. I think he's a cleverer artist than that. But, boy, if you wanted to know how Stanley saw slavery ...

Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: IN A WORLD...

When the movie trailer starts with the big boom voice tolling "IN A WORRRRLD of ..." it tolls for thee, moviegoer. In a world of war; in a world where uncertainty is law; in a world of experimental potato cultivation etc... That parental authority that pronounces such control over the potted conflict you're watching is meant to comfort you only long enough for you to be trapped by the tension of the tale. Problem: the man who owned the phrase in the voiceover industry has gone to the great imax trailer in the sky. Problem: everyone in the industry is barking sonorously for his job.

Meet Carol. She's on the way to becoming a very not bad vocal coach and wants the big voiceover job which has just gone vacant (vinyl record scratch effect) but her dad is too. Meet Sam. He's a trailer voiceover guy and as first in line to the "In a world" throne he's about to  - ok, this isn't working and it isn't representative. But a film as frequently clever as this one was gagging for a review to match it. So, straight.

Carol is a voice coach. She goes into post production voice recording sessions and tells people like Eva Longoria how to speak Cockney or Armenian etc. She's good at it but has had it. She wants to progress to the cushy trailer voiceover level but tabling this wish in front of her father, a veteran voiceover guy, ends in the usual father/daughter talk down. There's also a voiceover stud on the rise to threaten father Sam. The trailer for the upcoming action movie hasn't yet been cast for voiceover. The race is on.

This film is a lot more effective and a lot less twee than that might suggest. It prefers the careful construction to the cheap shot and knows the value of placing a warm area here and there as narrative foundation rather than padding. So, if we have a high strung contest between voiceover divas at the centre we also have a real concern for the sexy baby voice pandemic that allows women affected by it to devalue themselves with the first word. If there is a very funny neanderthal man in cro magnon's clothing seduction scene there is also an increasingly poignant side tale of a strained marriage. And there is a central performance that embodies the film's core theme of women's confidence in a male dominated industry. Also, it's funny. The mumblecore romance between Carol and sound engineer Louis (dependably understated comedy from Demetry Martin) plays like an alto ground through the pomposity at the top and the poignancy at the bottom. If nothing else, this is even handed orchestration.

There is a coda that is a touch too earnest and develops a point that has already been made. It does extend that point but deflates the emotive flow of the central plot's conclusion. I could argue for it but the handling gives it the feel of the kind of thing Albert Brooks used to overdo in his directorial efforts. In a movie where subtlety pushes to the front this feels like the triumph of MESSAGE. Otherwise, the tale of women's voices in a world of men delivers its goods, going so easily from acerbic to amiable and back again.

Writer, director and star, Lake Bell has done something good here. A bullseye shot with mimicry she has limited her shows of skill on screen to a single line which ties in with the coda. The staging and content of the take-home as Gina Davis' verbal bitchslap does much at once and is expertly judged as a serious stab set in the comedy. It's the voice of frustration speaking and holds the entire movie on its beautifully modulated tone. Bell has so far primarily been an actor but this foray into writing and directing holds promise for the world of quasi indy cuteness ruled by overcatered mediocrities like Wes Anderson. Watch the following youtube promo for the movie where Bell is thinking like a writer. You'll see.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Review: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS: When Coens Attack

Things like responsibility can be packed up into all sorts of McGuffins in the flickers. In this film it's a ginger cat. We see him trotting along the hallway with skyward tail to wake in a screen annihilating close up our hero who, on getting up and leaving the apartment and his borrowed couch space, fails to prevent the puss from escaping through the front door which then locks behind him. The lift operator won't mind the animal so Llewyn has to lug him across town to deal with a roll of unpromising chores involving people he's offended, impregnated, and annoyed with outstayed welcomes.

It's Greenwich Village winter 1961 and Llewyn like so many other bearded young men around him has been zapped into life by a few listens to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, taken up his acoustic guitar and invaded the Manhattan outpost's smoky folk clubs. He needs to break through if his wandering is ever going to turn from couch bumming to touring and career but to get gigs he needs to either be nicer to people or some indefinable essential particle better than he is at what he does. Yes, it's ironic that he is in charge of the welfare of a cat, an animal that basically does whatever the hell it feels like whenever the mood takes as it frequently infuriates its human carers. It is the sole indication Llewyn gives us that he might have a priority beyond self fulfillment. So, is he worth it? That's the question of the entire film.

It's important that the Coens have elected to place entire performances in the film rather than snippets. The setting is crucial to this story's ponderance upon career choices and their effect on the lives of the careerist and those around him. Llewyn doesn't think of himself as a careerist (he uses the term as a sneer at one point). Like a lot of the Euomericans to answered the Harry Smith/Pete Seeger call to alms he thought he would Woody Guthrie his way to stardom without the sellout that grey old grownups go on about. If that were put into a rock and roll context his success or failure would be too loaded by a history far more visible and audible than the tale requires. If it were the jazz scene of the time you've got the problem of performance.

What I mean by that is that young hopefuls were sorted out by a jazz scene grown academic and virtuous. If you weren't a Miles or a 'Trane you were out or working on radio jingles. The early folkies were all hampered by a kind of Folk for Dummies idea of delivering songs utterly alien to their own experience and hitting the right notes, maybe with a trill here or embellishment there but always as tidily as their turtlenecks fit them. Well, that's Llewyn, and everyone else we see and hear on stage (bar one) perfecting an increasingly limited range of skills. Very hard to shine, given all that, and Llewyn doesn't. He's good but so is everyone else.

Frustrated with his uninterested agent, he hitches a ride to Chicago to impose an audition on a folk impressario (the always impressive F. Murray Abraham). This makes up a much larger passage of the film than we might expect, turning into a temporary road movie with a goateed beat poet at the wheel and a highly incapacitated but acerbic jazz man in the back (the always impressive Coens alumnus John Goodman). We get a lot of the road here, almost as much as we get of the future freeway traffic in Solaris that suggested the tedium of space travel. We get the feeling of pilgrimage and then the pilgrim's humiliation at learning that he's not the one but just another. Then we hitch back the other way, thinking about that along with Llewyn who decides against one chanced life-resolution and then another. Where a heroic protagonist might learn from this that he can't solve all problems, Llewyn is struck by the notion that he can't solve any and returns to New York determined to throw in the towel.

One last performance brings us back full circle except that on this iteration of his purgatory of self delusion there's a circuit breaker. After he delivers his strongest performance yet, even taking the sensitive high part in the chorus that his deceased former partner used to, he leaves the mic to the next performer who uses the last song's same phrase "fare thee well" to much more poignant effect and lays the groundwork for erasing all the polite fine wine folk and replacing it with personality, politics and pure art. Llewyn doesn't notice. He's too busy reliving what he went through at the beginning.

By then end of this film I started realising why, despite the impossibility of sympathising with the central character, I liked this film so much and, by extension, I liked it more than almost all the Coen films I've seen since O Brother Where Art Thou. And I liked it for the opposite reason that I liked that one: this doesn't feel like a Coens movie. It's as good as they are at their best but there is a complete absence of self-celebration of the authorship that they have made such a trademark in the cinema of the last thirty years. The colour suggests the cover of Bob Dylan's early record covers but this just feels like winter rather than gimmick (nice if you know it, though).

I know people (overwhelmingly males) in their late forties who are still living the life on the open couch, still bumming around, worming around outsize debt and trading on their charm, having never made the decision to wise up and take the shilling. It is the charm, though, that separates those who win at this and those who knuckle under and settle and that is the performance that they must perfect (be they ever exhaustingly mediocre at their arts or crafts). Llewyn doesn't get this. Much as we hate to admit it most of us are just like him.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Vale Philip Seymour Hoffman

Even John C. Reilly's character in Boogie Nights got to be funny but Philip Seymour Hoffmann's Scotty, a self-loathing gay man in the porn industry, walked through a world so constantly hostile he could barely breathe in it. In that film so heavy with strong acting his was the name I looked for in the credits. Mainly, I never thought I'd see it again. Then, a few years later, I saw him again in Todd Solondz' Happiness, as the phone rapist. His performance rivalled that of Dylan Baker as the nice guy/paedophilic predator in a film even heavier with strong acting and more troubling questions. Then before I could sigh, "typecasting" there he was, quietly comforting as the nurse in Magnolia, Wellesian and exuberant as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, pathetic and dependant in Love Liza, sinister and threatening in Punch Drunk Love, the only good thing in the woeful Talented Mr Ripley, and so on.

His name in a cast list became a signifier of the must-see and however disappointing some of the films might have been (I'm not a fan of Synecdoche, New York and Ripley is mostly an embarrassment) he pretty much owned the lot of them. He could use that XXL heft for meekness and defeat or intimidating authority. If nothing else he was resourceful in a profession whose fulfillment demands punishing self-knowledge. I'm not one to eulogise actors but I suppose I'm doing it now as I was witness to his emergence and triumph to an extent that I wasn't for many other fine players.

So, Phil, Master and owner of American screen acting from the late nineties to these early teens and you pissed it away on a shot of heroin. I can't pretend to know why, I'm just sad that you did.