Saturday, May 24, 2014


Ever stayed up for so long that you hallucinated? Amelia's been doing that for seven years. Her husband died in a car crash the same night she gave birth to their son. People keep reminding her of it. They are often the same people who tell her to get over it. Her hyperactive seven year old Samuel makes weapons and freaks the other kids out by talking to invisible monsters. At one point early on there is a bullseye depiction of her exhaustion as a kind of time lapse effect (frame removal?) takes her sleeping face from midnight to daytime in about two seconds. Hours of sleep can't dent her fatigue. Then there's the Babadook.

Her son has night terrors and can take some assuaging at bedtime. Reading to him works (even if he sometimes presses replay). But one night when Samuel is given his choice of book he takes a big red popup number from the shelf called Mr. Babadook. A kind of Maurice Sendak by way of Francis Bacon, it is a starkly nightmarish threat with ghastly active illustrations on every page. From that night Samuel lives in even more fear. He wakes her at night with tales of the Babadook until she starts wondering about it herself.

Outside she works as a nurse in geriatric but the stress of the fatigue is bearing down on her. Samuel's school want to put a monitor on the already socially outcast boy and she withdraws him from there. He has a seizure which compells her to keep him at home. When the social workers turn up she's unkempt, her house is a mess, Samuel wakes from a groggy sleep and complains about the drugs and she tells them what appears to be a fantasy about a cockroach infestation. Not looking good. Gets worse. Since she has started seeing the Babadook in the house she takes the book from the inaccessibly high wardrobe and barbeques it in the yard but there it is again, this time reassembled to contain more violence and this time it's personal. Looking worse.

If you saw the trailer for this film you could be forgiven for expecting one of James Wan's cattle-prod sessions (normal life BOO normal life BOO normal life, possible threat, false alarm BOO!) with a supernatural baddie that creates a chasm between parent and child to be bridged by common struggle. This is not that film. We're not in this one for the jumps and jolts (though there are a few) nor a string of naff self-aware jokes about the horror genre. We are being invited to go somewhere hard but our guide has both compassion and understanding. That might count for little in some scenes of confronting emotional wrench (for both characters and audience) but even they feel drawn with assurance. This is a horror movie it's just not a cliched one. That's why you should see it.

It is a sustained study in grief and stress which, while it might seem to tread its own water at points or overstate at others, is being guided firmly. I was reminded less of Sinister or Insidious here than of Hideo Nakata's sublime Dark Water and its crescendo of threatened motherhood and whose hundred minutes contain only two jolts but a wealth of atmosphere and worry) with its sombre pallette (the colour scheme on show here is strong but not self congratulatory) and central humanity. We are witness to troubling things but they add rather than draw from the genre. I can't say that I've seen the paralysing terror of a parent's anger more forcefully loosed on screen than here. Amelia's episodes of rage which can lift her over the floor or give her the climbing skills of a jaguar are hard to watch. That's after you get past the near constant tension and sense of mounting dread.

But this is not a three-act thing. The trailer and the opening do suggest that it will be but after awhile that force loses power as we are immersed in the depths of the situation. And then when that errs toward repetition and irresolution we are finally given the point. It's daringly late but, moving with the energy of the final hour it feels not cathartic but certain. And there I'm also reminded less of conventional horror than the films of Andrej Zuwlawski (particularly Possession) that can frustrate for most of their running time before putting the final pieces on screen which offer the complete picture, thematically rather than narratively. This is what makes The Babadook the strongest Australian film since Snowtown.

Continually impressive cinematography, committed performances, the guts to allow us to (however temporarily) hate an innocent child character, the bottle to avoid the proven way of cheese and popcorn and join the contemporary praxis and stick to its guns and (something that for me is as relieving in concept as it is tense in sound) a strong electronic score. I heard Paul Harris' interview with the writer/director Jennifer Kent who hinted that she isn't married to the idea of being a horror director. Bloody hell, I wish she'd reconsider. I'd be the celebrant.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Qohen Leth hates life. He believes he is dying, anyway. While he gets some satisfaction out of the high level software engineering he does for a living his infuriating workplace (a kind of logical extension of the open plan office to the point where it looks like a game centre) makes it almost impossible to concentrate. He would rather work at home. He thinks he once got a call from the Universe itself but was cut off and thinks it might be the Universe trying again. But every time it rings it's just another voicemail reminding him of his deadlines. He formally requests a physical exam and takes another shot at getting assigned to work from home. The big boss, the one on all the banners who's just called Management, listens and pretty soon "it's Q-without-a-U O-H-E-N" (a shaven headed Christoph Waltz) is working from home (a cavernous ex-church) with a dream system on the zero theorem.

The zero theorem is a means to prove that everything is nothing ("zero must equal one hundred percent" nags the voicemail). This is done by playing a massive Mandlebrot-Rubics cube simulation which partially collapses when the wrong cube gets inserted into a space. The other installations are the boss's son, a computer whiz, and a call girl who is sometimes real and sometimes simulated. This is frequently interrupted by psyche sessions (with an onscreen dizzily psycho-babbling Tilda Swinton) which were the origin of Qohen referring to himself third person plural. Moments of reflection that suggest escapes into privileged pleasure are delivered through the VR sessions with Bainsley (call girl).

But Qohen's cosmic loneliness seems tougher to solve than the theorem itself, if indeed the two aren't the same thing. It is suggested that he is in this position (the misery of awareness) because he has faith or a soul but his insistence on the call-back from the Universe always comes across as naivete. If that is the point it places this in a strange place on the Terry Gilliam shelf. The individual against the world and his (usually his) means of escape have been central to Gilliam's films. Whether it's massive yarn spinners like Baron von Munchausen, inner party cogs like Sam Lowry, melancholic time traveller James Cole or Tideland's Jeliza, most Terry Gilliam's pieces throw us into this loneliest of conflicts and make the most intimate aspects of the universe intolerably mechanical, loud and abrasive. Escape can be fugal (Tideland or Brazil) or physical (12 Monkeys) but escape is the goal.

Qohen, as hairless as Cole and as machine smart as Sam, is drawn from his languid resignation by teenaged Bob's intellectual stimulation coupled with his even more undeveloped sexuality and by Bainsley and the life affirming intimacy she offers. Whether real or virtual, she is aware of her part in his mental life unlike Brazil's Jill who is unaware of Sam's fantasy version of her. this time, perhaps, the stakes are cosmic and require the extra conceptual metre. Qohen's decisions toward achieving what might as well be oneness with the ever expanding dust and dark matter as much as godhead will involve dealing with these other factors/interruptions/diversions/people.

The Zero Theorem looks like a Terry Gilliam film the same way that Inland Empire looked like a David Lynch film: perhaps a little too much. There is the clash of digital technology with the scale of high-industrial, the Rube Goldberg overcomplication as a joke, the unsafe-for-diabetics colour palette, the exaggerated but intricately constructed soundtrack, the golden oldies on the score, and the delight in the absurdity of the formal which reminds us of how important he was to Monty Python (David Thewlis' role is easily imagined played by a younger Eric Idle) and more. Is this like relaxing into the notion that TISM's disco sound was not an obsolete parody but ... their sound. Gilliam has subverted this on occasion (Tideland doesn't scream his name and a lot of 12 Monkeys looks like any feature film of its time). Can we really complain that he is working from a script that was designed for his trademark? And what of the trademark, anyway; I did eventually like one Wes Anderson film and that wasn't remotely out of characteristic style (except for the bits he lifted from Guy Maddin but that's not why I liked it).

The only danger is that while it looks and feels like a Terry Gilliam film it plays a little closer to the emotional core of Tideland, the one that even hardline fans turn from. This makes it feel a lot flatter than Dr Parnassus or Fear and Loathing and that combined with the art direction give off the feel of a failed attempt, however deliberate it all is (and it all is). There is humour (even Tideland has that) but this is easily eclipsed by the sombreness of the theme and its mounting presence on screen.

A lesser Gilliam or a veiled masterpiece? Who cares, there's a lot in it and if it's a choice between the next three hour Michael Bay fx porn or this 1 1/2 hour meditation on connectivity that goes down like dessert choose this. It will be better for cinema and better for you because those two are eventually the same thing.

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Dinosaurs emerge from the sea and fight.

The reason I bought a ticket (and to the 3D screening) was the name Gareth Edwards. The young UK writer/director came to the world's notice through his 2010 film Monsters. Shot on a Canon 5D with effects done on a bedsit computer, Monsters moved well beyond its romance-with-added-aliens to give us an allegory about difference ... and be thoroughly entertaining all the way through ... and betraying none of its zero cost origins. It is a compelling romance but it is still very much sci fi. Gareth Edwards equalled resourcefulness as much as Shane Carruth had a few years earlier for Primer. I needed to see what Edwards would make of so familiar and often ridiculed fare.

So, dinosaurs emerge from the sea and fight.

Well yes and no.  All sci fi comes with a warning. The 1954 Gojira was a means to address the effect of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 and the notion of scientific advancement for its own sake. Its eye-patched central scientist has created a weapon more devastating than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He has been cast into a deep melancholy by his own invention and the knowledge that its discovery alone will guarantee its development and proliferation in the arms race. Even then, the first time out, this story was not just about a man in a rubber lizard suit.

Edwards not only knows this but wants you to know it as well. Toho, the studio that made the original, is given credit in the impressive history show of the title sequence. Ken Watanabe commands the scenes he's in with an unshakeable sadness. Through him (he's even addressed as Sensei or master/teacher) we are given the link between Hiroshima and Fukushima. Between the monsters and the planet's environment are the humans whose mess this is to clean.

As in all monster movies (especially ones with giant monsters) we don't get to see the title role until a fair way in. We do get to see the adversary early on (a kind of bat beast) and its effects and then the first fight begins the action that will focus the remainder of the film as appropriate. So, if this Edwards voter is so good at being all charactery and indy how does he handle all this?

The critics who thought they were being clever in calling Monsters a romance plus aliens missed both its sci fi and action elements. There's plenty in Monsters to tell you how destructive the aliens can be and, while done within a tiny budget, feels big and scary. That is the difference between directing by checklists and making cinema. Edwards simply knows his creature features and takes them seriously. Now that he has the budget to match his ambitions he has applied his fandom, his clear understanding and his respect and the result feels big but also nourishing. When we see a bridge torn by violence its two ends hang like exhausted bodies: we are being invited to linger over the destruction and feel something beyond wow.

Now to scale. The monsters are impressive even by Michael Bay clodfest standards. The bat like thing that first emerges from the nuclear mess in Japan is all claws and aerodynamics, tearing planes from the air and crawling through jungle like a monstrous overgrown insect. Godzilla's entrance happens in crisis as his mountain-rang back surfaces from the waves and he breaks land and then a lot of infrastructure. But the difference can be found in one moment on screen. As MUTO (the bat creature) moves through the waves of San Fransisco Bay jet fighters fall through the smoke and dust around it. Michael Bay would have made this a scene made of a million nansecond edits and massive cataclysmic noise. There is a lot of noise in this Godzilla but the fighters fall in silence like flocks of birds poisoned by smog. Edwards knows this could be more pyrotechnics and volume but knows the value of contrast and chooses instead to turn it down for this image so that instead of thrilling or jolting it haunts.

Ok, if the monsters are good how are the humans. I bet it's all mumblecore in sensurround. Well, yes and no. David Strathairn plays Admiral Horatio Exposition, delivering descriptions of action and its consequences in catch up dialogue. It's not a turnoff but it's noticeable. It is in one of his scenes that the name Gojira, spoken by Watanabe, gets assimilated into Standard American as Godzilla faster than Ringu became The Ring. Elizabeth Olsen is as solidly emotive as in her best performances but there's so little of her beyond giving Aaron Taylor Johnson a motivational arc. Aaron Taylor Johnson impressed me in Nowhere Boy, owning the role of a much loved universal figure, the startup superhero in Kickass and the creepy bully in Chatroom. Here he carries action with the same sense of active thought visible through his sculpted youthfulness. Bryan Cranston is fun and moving in his short role as ATJ's father. Why cast Juliette Binoche in a role that requires so little of what she can do? Edwards, for all his touches of innovation and insistence on adding depth, is making a big monster movie. Can you do that without obvious dialogue and cute animal moments? Yes, but if you want your second feature film to blast out on screens worldwide all at once rather than drip through the festivals over a couple of years then you do need a few familiar touches to get past the door bitch at the local plex.

Gareth Edwards has crossed into the mainstream with honour and I wonder if we'll be thinking of him in the same way as Christopher Nolan before too long. This is a good Godzilla. Oh yeah, no need to see it in 3D, it's just not shot with that in mind. Enjoy and maybe try some pepper or saffron on your popcorn just for the new.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


My test with this one was to see if the critics have been right and that this film suffers from its influences. If I was annoyed at all the heavy lifting the film would fail. I can report that in this case it's the critics taking the fall. While The Double is not a complete success one thing it does very, very well is evoke its source material without any obsequies: writer/director Richard Ayaode has given us a kind of waking nightmare memory of something he has read. As any of us might fancy ourselves in a scene from a favourite novel while waiting for a tram.

The reason that this aspect of the film triumphed over any of its stylistic loans is a scene near the beginning where the protagonist is hauled away from sight of his workplace's patriarch and all he can think to say in his panic at the humiliation is: "It's not me. It's not me." That's before the double appears. It's straight out of the source material.

Dostoyevsky's novella Dvoynik (or, in English, The Double) is a stark and nightmarish approximation of what would come to be known (half a century later) as a psychotic episode. Mr Golyadkin, a lowly clerk in one of the many monstrous government bureaucracies of Tsarist Russia, fantasises impossibly above his station. He is so obsessed by his perceived injustice of his place in the rigid order that, after a series of crushing defeats by his own hand, he is confronted with a far more winsome version of himself who lives the life he fantasised for himself. At one point, during one of his crazy shopping sprees, Golyadkin's hire coach passes that of his Department's head, an unassailable military aristocrat who can see that the insect-like clerk is wagging work. Golyadkin presses his face against the carriage window and feebly intones: "It's not me. It's not me. It's someone strikingly like me."

That combination of horror, pathos and screaming comedy is what makes any Dostoyevsky novel worth the long journey from preface to last page. While there was a growing theme of preter-psychology in European literature in the nineteenth century, no culture concentrated on it with a more falconian eye than the Russians. There in the pages of Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Turgeniev, Chekov, Tolstoy and Goncharov among others, the patient reader will find some jawdroppingly accurate descriptions of extreme psychological states. This was helped in no small part by the social effect of westernisation which in Russia's case meant taking it from a feudal agrarian hell into an even more punishingly stratified urban hell, educating just enough of its citizens to give them a sense of privilege but no mobility to go with it. When Dostoyevsky added the subtitle A Poem of St Petersberg to The Double he wasn't evoking place the way Dickens might London or Diderot Paris, he was referring to a psyche.

Wait isn't this a film review? You're so right. I do beg your pardon. I seem to have wandered on to a hobby horse of mine. And er ... Richard Ayaode's film of this story is primarily told from its source. There is a lot of Dostoyevsky in this tale. It happens to be one of my favourites by that name among my favourite authors and I've long wished for a good screen adaptation. I always thought Martin Scorsese would get there first with his extraordinary skill at expressing the horrors of social interaction with an eye to edgy comedy but here it is told without the top hats and frock coats of its original setting, in concentrated form, allowed to spread into flavour.

So, Simon James works in a nameless office as a clerk among a lot of other clerks, wedged into a human battery cubicle. When a faceless commuter demands he give up his seat in an otherwise empty carriage, Simon does so as it's just easier. He's in unrequited love with the pixieish girl who works at the copy centre of his office but can never break through to talk to her. She lives within telescope sight of his flat's window, staying home at night idling away at home made arts and crafts, leaving red ink or blood fingerprints on the window.

Simon can never get straight into work. His electronic ID card is faulty and he has to go through an annoying sign-in routine that a guard who still doesn't recognise him after seven years compels him to do. Work is shapeless and futile. Only the golden Hannah from copying can change this. Simon's opportunity comes up after the two witness a suicide at their building, the aftermath of which establishes that there is an epidemic of them and a chance to have a coffee with Hannah. This goes well and they plan to meet up at the dowdy work ball the next night. The same kind of barrier he is plagued by every work morning prevents him from getting in as she is waiting for him sullenly by a pillar. A chance allows him entry but he is frogmarched out by security. On the way home he is startled to see someone identical to him walking up to an apartment opposite his building. The next day the cobwebby old clerks are called together to welcome a promising young man into the office. Simon sees his doppleganger and faints.

From this point the plot progresses in close approximation to the original with the initial mutually beneficial friendship between the two developing into earnest competition and on toward total breakdown. This can only work if the central dual performance can cut it. An early scene featuring Jesse Eisenberg as both Simon James and James Simon is simply the pair of them walking down a corridor. Their faces are what each might consider a blank expression but it's blank in-character and each is distinct from the other despite being dressed identically. While not necessarily a miracle of acting it is nevertheless an impressive show and indicative of the importances the performances have in this film that has been derided for being too kooky to relate to. While some spots (hello Chris Morris) are overcooked the acting across the board shifts between whimsy and grounded realism so constantly that it is the former that assumes the latter rather than the whackiness threatening the naturalism. The now ubiquitous Mia Wasikowska, who must hold her own against Eisenberg's actor's dream role, and come out an equal, gets a tellingly far greater range of character than Saorise Ronan's recent wasted presence in Grand Budapest Hotel (or, just quietly Dostoyevsky would have given her) and bears it with customary strength and lack of affect.

And this is where I'll mention Brazil. The interrupted electronics of Terry Gilliam's masterpiece are here in abundance. The bureacratic fantasia of the central figure's dusty office might also be invoked but really what Ayaode has done beyond a simple bow to the earlier film and appropriated its look and those things that influenced Gilliam for the pursuit of the tale. The incandescent breathlessness of the interiors, the eastern bloc dowdiness of the cafes and office parties, the battery-like towerblocks are not just Gilliam but an effective visual bridge between page and screen. Ayaode makes it difficult to place the action in a specific locale (the Japanese 60s pop songs, the odd quiltwork of clothing styles and technology) which is much more in line with Dostoyevsky's subtitle evokng the city that was really a state of mind. If you like, he is calling Gilliam to mind in the same way as Dostoyevsky emulated his stylistic forebear Nikolai Gogol, an influence he never shook (nor appeared to aspire to shake).

Ayaode moves the tale at a clip and alters the ending from the source in order to concentrate on the rivalry and self-combat he has already developed in divergence from Dostoyevsky. Some might find the final scenes a little hasty or pat but like the final lines of a good short story, its plain last words contain big echoes. Those echoes (you'll know them when you hear them) carry the reason for making this film at this time. That's more than I can say for most of what I see in a cinema ... at this time.

Monday, May 5, 2014


Adam is a centuries old vampire unliving in a gothic three-storey in the dying American city of Detroit. He's a musician, currently beloved of the hipster under-elite. He takes delighted delivery of various goods from a local music scene gopher. An early scene shows him sighing over a group of decidedly under-label electric guitars like an old Supro or Hagstrom. The biggest name axe of the bunch is a Gretsch. Later, we see him recording with a Fender Jaguar, playing an antique Gibson archtop acoustic, and there is a Tele conspicuously hanging on the wall. This is not just my guitar nerdery. There is a real point to this and it has to do with one's appreciation not of old obscure guitars but of the films of Jim Jarmusch.

I'm beginning there rather than sketch the plot as, more than most of Jarmusch films, this one casts shout-outs to every obscure or non-mainstream culture follower on the planet. The title is from a 1960s novel about a world ruled by teenagers. The Rolling Stones were up for starring in a movie based on the book. Nicholas Ray was mooted as director for a time. That's three whammies in one and we're just at the title. If you watch a Jarmusch movie for the scrapbook or post-midnight cafe rave then this is a feast.

If that annoys you you might miss out on the things that this piece does offer. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is married to Eve (Tilda Swinton) who resides in Tangier (I'm sure there were a few marginal literary geniuses who set up house there ... hmmmm). Tom is depressed by the state of the world and has gone as far as to commission the fashioning of a single 38 bullet with a wooden tip from his gopher in order to end it all. Eve, worried, literally flies by night to save him. When she turns up he pretty much improves straight away. They drive around the once central ex-industrial city by night and talk, partly about Eve's dark and terrifying sister Ava who turns up but is really just a dizzy teenager (a really enjoyably bubbly Mia Wasikowska) who does some bad stuff and compels the couple to leave and return to Tangier to seek comfort and high grade blood from their mentor, Christopher Marlowe (an typically welcome John Hurt) and so on.

It sounds slight and if left to those points it would be but Jarmusch has the state of the world on his own mind and what the vampires cleverly call zombies are doing to it. The vampires' lives are unsustainable without violence. For all the jaded decadence of their style, they hold civilisation's knowledge from personal experience but cannot communicate it to the rest of us wasteful wasting living dead. That, told through the device of outcast monsters does deliver impact even if it often feels like the before cool/still pre-cool listings of hipsters. The sense of waste or the industrial, consumerist world's borrowed time is well staged in Detroit, once so much identified with the auto industry that it's nickname Motown became a whole pop genre and bands like the MC5 named themselves after it. The Detroit here is an airless ancient ruin. The eternal Tangier retains its lo-tech life in its close alleys that murmur with the drug trade. It's an odd staging of the eco-gospel but a staging of the eco-gospel it is.

If anything, Only Lovers Left Alive reminds me less of True Blood than 1994's Nadja by Michael Almereyda. As hiply grainy and monochrome as Stranger in Paradise, the film told of a group of vampires as an aristocratic dysfunctional family, casting Hal Hartley alumni and featuring MBV tracks specially remixed by Kevin Shields and a cameo by David Lynch as a mortuary clerk. High on style gothic and urban it lost its way early and turned innoffensive rather than bland, having virtually nothing to say. A non vampiric character describes the telepathy they enjoy as psychic faxing. Later when the title character receives such a message she describes it, unsmiling, as a psychic fax. We're the ones who are meant to giggle at that one. It's throwaway, atmosphere tarnishing and never meant to be more than a giggle and that's what we end up with. However...

If you are the type who visits someone whose house groans with bookshelves and rooms filled with vinyl LPs and finds your sense of wonder wane on hearing the seventeenth story about the real, lost culture of the good old days then you will get nothing from this film. What I get is partly a welcome-enough plea for planetary care but delivered with some genuinely curated style. Hipster maybe but Jarmusch has earned his stripes here.


Murray talks his friend Fioravante into becoming a gigolo so they can both work out their troubled finances. It works; Fior's plain but urbane masculinity offers such a comforting mix of charm and effortless eroticism that he is soon the go to stud for the disaffected professional class women of Brooklyn.

Into this come Murray's family friend, the ultra-Jewish widow Avigal stultified by her own grief and devotion to her traditions. She has a problem with a back rub let alone the full body latte so Fior's progress with her is going to go even slower than the pacing down he relaxes his usual clients with. It veers hazardously close to love. Meanwhile, local keystone patrolman Dovi is struggling with the distant love he has felt for Avigal from the days of their childhood.

The makings here are for gentle farce and urban folktale but writer/director/lead actor John Tuturro keeps it more interesting by focusing on the pain. Firoavante's manly elegance and affectless appeal only very thinly conceal a deep wound. The chief benefit from his gigolo work seems to be therapy rather than hedonism and money. His job with the reticent Avigal feels more tutorial than amorous, though it's this thread that brings the story closest to love out of all of them. Their scenes, curtained off from the rest of the neighbourhood life have a stillness to them that feels respectful rather than slow.

What that means, though, is that the more comedic moments are affected by the seriousness of the core scenes so what comedy there is outside of the nice sized bag of one liners falls prey to dramatic gravity. The Hassidic tribunal that Woody Allen's Murray faces promises to get funny with every line but can't break through. When Avigal appears to face them it feels like the scene has been waiting for it rather than transformed by it.

If anything the flaw of this enjoyable film is that it doesn't balance the anger and darkness of some of the characters with the enlivening lightness of the funnier threads. Liev Schreiber's unrequited lifelong love saddens rather than comically frustrates as it should. Sharon Stone's embittered and vengeful rich woman with unloving husband is a compelling character and played pitch perfect but the seriousness of her thread which verges on Cronenberg territory is frayed by the lightness of its conclusion.

With such a stellar cast thriving on the direction of a good actor and a clear delectation in the sense of the city in autumn and the confidence of trusting the sexiness of standards like Sway in the original this piece might have benefited greatly by a stronger grip on its darker themes which are abundant and left the lighter moments to add warmth. While one of the most consistently pleasing films of the year so far this is also one of the slightest because of this.