Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2015: THE HIGH

Yo! Ragers o' the Flickering Field!

Not as busy a year at the cinema for me as last year but a good one(any year with a new Guy Maddin film is a good one). Work and other projects just took the time away but some solid sci-fi, some future classic horror, experimental quirk that worked and more gave the year a lot of spice. The Festival was one of the most consistent of recent memory. I do regret missing out on the Japanese Film Festival in particular but everything just got the better of me and it slipped by. I'll have to investigate it by other means. Meantime, there was new Peter Strickland and a .... well, it's all there below. Enjoy!


A dizzying Russian doll of a film in celebration of narrative by which the very best (and some of the worst) traits of favourite contemporary auteur Guy Maddin come charging to the fore. Collaborating here with another writer/director (but it looks like nothing but a Maddin movie) and adding about half an hour to his usual ninety minutes, Maddin interrupts story with story with story until after being introduced to about thirty of them each gets resolved. No mean feat in an era when even the blockbusters are called post-narrative. I miss cinema like this. My favourite of the year.

Boy did I get sick of reviewers reviewing the hype rather than the film. I just saw a tour through the mind of a man struggling against a comatose career, his own failings as a husband, lover and father and a funny collision of refined and popular culture. Standout performances from Keaton and Stone seal the deal.  I couldn't care less who thought it was overrated. It was a good movie.

Another one that reviewers annoyed me over. If you watch all of this movie and still think it's about a revival of the sex/death equation it's because you want to. That template stops fitting the film early on as it charges into a fable about knowledge and responsibility. A great horror trope and some genuinely white knuckle scenes, a fantastic electro score and energetic performances later and you have a new horror movie that doesn't need sudden shocks to carry its dread. Old fashioned in the best way.

Teen horror's second victory this year showed a familiar age-based pecking order used as the breeding ground of interpersonal atrocity and went beyond just using current communication media as a gimmick by showing its compulsive attraction. These kids can't just turn off. It's just not an option. A little clumsiness in the denouement is forgiven because of the strengths.

Great old-style sci-fi with superb acting turns from everyone, a committed pursuit of the issues and the narrative and an eye to leanness in execution overall.

A patchwork made from a chaos of selfies, phone video and memories in which we see a pop star soar to stardom and hurtle back through the earth's crust to the hell beneath. Heartrending but just as importantly, angering. The social media, personal content creation remind us that we are part of this, too. A great documentary.

A complex and developing negotiation involving trust and intensity. This looked like a Eurosploitation film from the 70s but, as with the director's previous effort, brought new tricks to an old genre. The ending appears ambiguous until you really weigh up what has happened. Peter Strickland has become a new director to watch closely. The more of them the better.

A wrenching trek through the murky margins at the edge of the law. Ace cast and superb balance in the writing and the filmmaking render this one a haunter. Villeneuve is not always to my taste but this is him at his best.

Despite some history tourism (the Good Vibrations moment) this biopic earned its attention by concentrating on the journey from creative greatness to gibbering dependency and boldly used two different actors to play the central character. It was attacked for the last feature but I liked how it kept the film from being dully linear. Swinging between decades and mental states we could see the picture. The score was a feat of editing raw beauty and using it both to express the wonders of Wilson's mind as well as its pain. Also, I loved the recreated studio scenes. They got a little touristy but I forgave them as the totality of the piece rolled on.

The New Greek Weirdcore is really just imaginative cinema. It's just that we haven't seen much of that for decades. Yorgos Lanthimos' satirical fable of normative totalitarianism, an even worse resistance and a hopeless quest to live outside both turns into some hard work in the second half but what lingers afterwards makes that worth it.

2015: The MIDDLE

Interesting idea sabotaged by its own quirks. I kept wanting it to shed the cute self-aware dialogue and exhausting attempts at showing stuffy old characters' loosening up.

A smooth but solid package of crime and business that made me think very positively of Sidney Lumet's best work. Director Chandor has been producing very good things. This is his third and I will be watching his fourth in a cinema.

Verite blended with magic realism with mixed results. Gomes can handle the everyday but, boy, do I prefer him when he flies into imaginative skies. If you get the chance to see all six hours of it but don't want to go for the middle one with the trial, it's bloody wonderful. All worth seeing but I miss the maker of Tabu.

Russian retrospective on the revolution reminds me of Hollywood's second take on the Vietnam War in the 80s. Being Russian, there is an attendant need to diverge from nostalgia and present this new take through stylised eyes. It worked but I was left hungry.

Once you relax that this is not a hard horror fable and much more a gothic melodrama it's easy to fold yourself into its charms. Once it's over you might have difficulty recalling it. Not so Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone.

Involving baton-passing narrative but the social comedy possibly doesn't travel out of its topical zone. Couldn't hate it but didn't love it.

More nose thumbing from this forbidden filmmaker and it's consistently good but there is a undercurrent of contrivance which teeters on the edge of cuteness which undercuts the whole. The final shot and its gravity almost makes up for it.

A post GFC broadside at the continuance of ravenous capitalism with a dependably mighty performance from Michael Shannon and a committed one from Andrew Garfield. It impressed on first look but hasn't lingered. It has, however, interested me in Ramin Bahrani and his future.

2015: THE LOW

I like to keep my worst lists short as that suggests (to me, at any rate) that I'm getting better at vetting the bad stuff. Having gone against the grain by resisting the execrable Frances Ha I saved myself the trouble of sitting through two new Noah Baumbach monstrosities. The new Mad Max tempted me not and I feel no pain at its continued absence in my memory. An early bailing on the Entourage tv show saved me the grating pleasure of paying for a cinema ticket for it. The following are, as usual, more like disappointments than outright turkeys. Oh, the exception is The Nightmare, a thing so irresponsible in its purpose I would have to call it shameful.

A poorly written novel got much better treatment than it deserved by a director who deserved a better screenplay. There will be sequels but I won't be there to see them.

A disastrous screening at MIFF (a film about the managers of a rock band with bad audio!) I was willing to give it some slack. While there is a lot of promise on the screen there is too little focus on the title characters than on their charges which makes it another Who documentary.

If you're going to make a film about an intriguing neurological phenomenon and put so much work into supporting its sufferers' anecdotes with cinematic imagery you really ought to seal it with some neurology as well. Instead, the doctors get dismissed and the loonies who get religion and new ageism are given centre stage. Like giving a tram stop ranter the last word in a political history documentary.

If you're going to reassemble the Python team and deny that you're making a Python movie you might want to consider making a Python movie anyway rather than this tired old thing. They might have gone out on Meaning of Life...

Compelling until it committed to a particular reading which turned an enticing realist fable into a flat and literal-minded copout. Damnably OK.

Friday, December 18, 2015


A woman drives on a country road, stops in a paddock where two mules graze. She shoots one with a rifle and drives off. We are never to discover the exact meaning behind this and will never meet the woman again but by the end of this film we have a pretty good idea of what has happened in this prologue.

After the credits we meet David (Colin Farrell) who is fronting up at his society's regulation partner-finding process. He is to stay in a hotel for forty-five days, mingle with the guests and, find a new life partner. It's not just illegal to be single it's socially intolerable. If he fails within the time he will be turned into the animal of his choice. The dog he brings with him used to be his brother. He chooses, if a failure, to become a lobster. He gives very practical reasons for the choice and is praised.

The life at the hotel begins with a mass breakfast each day (sometimes with an imposed handicap) and continues through the day with hunting parties in the local woods to cull the loners, those who have exited the society and its coupling rule, with the kind of dart rifles that large animal vets use. There are also dances, induction ceremonies, public torture for masturbators (a forbidden solo pursuit), strange virility-testing contacts with the staff in the rooms and rewards for every coupling that happens.

At this point The Lobster resembles the kind of brutal social satire more commonly found in the cinema of the 60s and the 70s. The kind of films like Valerie and her Week of Wonders, The Holy Mountain, Salo or Immoral Tales that asked violent questions about the way we live and mixed irresistable comedy with gut-wrenching imagery. I caught up with these decades after their release so any nostalgia I feel about them is a delayed one. Nevertheless, watching The Lobster felt comfortable for its resemblance to those films and discomfiting for the dread just below the surface which pulses constantly.

As we watch the richly crafted dystopia and laugh along with it (there are many dizzily absurdist moments) we suspect there is more to come and that it will probably be less pleasing. The loners who are hunted by the hotel guests have their own society, eking out a bandit life in the woods. But here, where David flees (after a funny and difficult failure to couple) is the counter regime. The loners are paradoxically collectivist but anti-copular. Their punishments for affection between members are horrific. As cold and severe as the mainstream's regulated partnering is the savagery of the alternative leaves so little room for warmth or hope that the option of surgical metamorphosis back in straightsville (not shown but described repellently) seems a viable one. When David falls in love with the Short Sighted Woman (a committed performance from Rachel Weisz) we know their problems are going to dominate the film.

A frequent criticism of this film states that the first act in the hotel with its instant satire and black comedy is dwarfed by the slower and heavier remainder but I disagree. The life among the loners chapters do feel disproportionately long and can drag and, yes, the pace and laughs of the first part are missed. However, for me this section is the film's core; we have seen the workings of conformity distilled into a harsh concentrate in which single shaming has become terminal and we need to then really examine the alternative and if it is less funny then we might want to think about why. Do we force people into couplings or prevent them from intimacy? Do we develop struggling countries or promote population culls toward a more sustainable future? Do we have warfare or leave ourselves open to takeover? These are extremes and there are always more pragmatic compromises in the gaps they leave but these are always harder work. For me this film suggests the slog and the sacrifice might not just be the better, more humane way but forced upon us if we aren't prepared for it.

The luxuriant look of this film, whether in the deep polished wood of the hotel's interiors or the enlivening dewy woods of the world outside and it is created through hard slog as most of it was done with available lighting. Always good to hear the mighty Shostakovich used in a score, undercutting the ersatz joy of the world of the hotel and highlighting its severity. The cast has been picked with an obsessive precision. If we recognise alumni from Dogtooth or Blue is the Warmest Colour we can rest easy knowing they are here for more than the cachet of the cool films they've been in; Angeliki Papoulia's Heartless Woman is terrifying as is Lea Seydoux's Loner Leader: we're not just seeing the pretty faces and feeling cool because we recognise them. Rachel Weisz goes from passionate, to desperate to eerily urbane without a seam visible. Ben Wishaw, Olivia Coleman and John C. Reilly work hard at small roles. And Colin Farrell, especially welcome speaking in his native Dublin, anchors everything with a palpable depression that he makes both pitiable and appealing. This film is made of very good things.

Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos had already wowed me with 2010's Dogtooth, a film so obstinately its own that its viewers were forced to accept its terms or use the door. Because of it and others like Attenberg terms like the new Greek weirdcore were coined to cope. But they don't help, especially when a phrase like imaginative fiction serves perfectly well. This film is made of fears rendered recognisable through great craft. It stands as resolutely outside the mainstream as its loners in the woods but the difference is that it knows better and knows we know.