Sunday, February 28, 2016


As Saul emerges from the coloured blur of the opening shot into sharp focus, we are already troubled. The unfocussed landscape has been held for a little too long. There was a pair of figures in a huddle under a tree who seemed to be making sexual cooing sounds. They run off at Saul's appearence. And then when we see Saul's chiselled from wood face with its serious blankness we don't know if we want to know where he is going.

He moves along to help herd the new arrivals from their train to an antechamber where they strip as they are promised a life of hot soup and fulfilled labour after their shower. As the last of them are in Saul takes his place holding the door to the showers firm as the people on the other side clamour to escape the poison filling their lungs, his face a serious blank.

He is one of the Sonderkommando units formed by the Nazis from the camp inmates to control the rest at the ground level and he has done this long enough to know that if he shows anything readable on his face he might well join the ones on the other side of the door. We wonder if he is about to explode or if he has successfully smothered his emotions and we wonder at a life lived this way.

As he is scrubbing the floor of the range of waste left by people who knew they were being murdered he hears a wheezing form the pile of dead naked bodies and seeks it out. A boy in his early teens convulsively coughing. Saul carries him out, magnetised as though he recognises the child, only to watch a Nazi doctor casually finish the boy off and order an autopsy. Saul thinks he has recognised his son. Behind his hard mask his eyes burn as he resolves to save the boy from mass cremation and bury him according to Jewish ritual.

As a Sonderkommando member Saul is able to move more freely about the camp than most of the other inmates and his quest to find a rabbi who will say kaddish over his son's corpse during burial brings him into the circle of a group of militants planning a breakout. This sounds plotty and every scene contributes to both strands But this is not a conventional action movie nor a typical Holocaust film. And, though, it might well seem like it, it isn't really a story about a father and son triumphing into focus against a blur of inhumanity. More troublingly, this is a story of the value of life itself and the quality we expect of our time on earth to identify it as life.

Saul's quest feels futile, as futile as the planned resistance, and it can be a struggle to empathise with his determination. But that is the brief, here, we meet or reject the challenge thrown us to follow and support his quest. The reason we do lies in two things that, if only slightly mishandled, might have created a massive failure of a film.

The first is Gez Rohrig's performance. From his place at the gas chamber door, holding people like himself in and pushing his reaction back down where it can't hurt him to flopping like a rag doll when toyed with by a German officer we know very swiftly that there is a small cosmos of pity and anger beneath his flat functional mask. We know that he believes he has found a means to touch a humanity he can remember having. It is pointed out to him, among others' doubts that it is actually his son, that in Jewish ritual there is no requirement that a rabbi say the kaddish. Saul's insistence is less strict observance than a childlike overstatement: he's not getting religion, he's resuming his humanity.

The second reason this works is the filmmaking itself. Keeping to the near square academy ratio (the shape of all those old tvs you remember evicted on to nature strips at the end of the noughties) and a short lens, director Lazlo Nemes, keeps the focus deftly on Saul's head (front or rear) which often fills the frame, leaving all around it to remain a disturbing blur. The painstakingly intricate weave between camera, Saul and the mise en scene in these long takes (it often feels breathlessly like a huge single take) prevent us from thinking of anything or anyone but Saul and his quest. We are allowed to tire of it or be annoyed by it but its sincerity is never out of frame. The sound design of this film often fills in what we can't see with a weave so masterful it could stand as a musique concrete installation piece. One scene in particular, back in the antechamber, in the heart of the genocide-by-factory, the brown and sweaty light is bashed by barked orders and the drone of lists being read out. We are being invited in, as new arrivals but also guided by experienced inmates.

The Holocaust setting is important for this story as it gives us a constricting context that is instantly recognisable as history and suggestive of more recent events. It also renders credible the central thread of the quest to honour or save a corpse from a contemptuous disposal, to swerve away from the machinery at least that once. I've since learned that Nemes's primary inspiration for the look and feel was Ellem Klimov's harrowing and masterful Come and See, another film set against a historical backdrop that both benefitted from and transcended it. That film's retributive finale gives us a gun shot that can't be taken. Son of Saul offers a kind of redemption we might have given up on seeing but like Klimov's epic whether we cry at sight of it or triumph in it is for us, each in our seats in the dark.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Review: LOOKING FOR GRACE: Too lazy, dear Susan, too lazy

Right, there's a Grace who is a character who goes missing and there is grace which is a character trait which all of these characters are missing. If you're still with me, this is a tale told as a kind of lazy Susan whereby you are offered pieces of the greater meal which can come around again and mean a little more each time. There is a scene with a lazy Susan in a restaurant.

You might be getting a tone from that beginning but I did like the motion of the narrative in this film and how we are invited to judge characters until we see their motives more clearly as the lazy Susan of the story turns again. And we revolve and revolve, revisiting moments that gain weight just as we might in a restaurant with a wheel in the middle of the table.

So, why am I resisting this film so much when I have no trouble appreciating what amounts to an effective approach to an ensemble story? Well, because almost all of it drags under its own contrivance, the performances are annoyingly uneven and hampered by doughy dialogue that no one outside of this screenplay has ever uttered (and not in the Beckett/Pinter good way), and a detachment that seems unaware rather than assured of itself and a slow and creaky pendulum that doesn't quite make it to the drama or the comedy end of its trajectory.

If Rhada Mitchell, Terry Norris and Odessa Young could take the unbaked dialogue seriously enough to give measured performances that at least mean something in their scenes and they all worked together, why could no one rein in Richard Roxburg's hammy theatrical turn? He ruins every one of the many many scenes he is in with his mugging and overblown emoting, rendering his dialogue bizarrely alien to his dramatic surrounds. The others might be in a quirky light comedy and he's stiff and serious. If the scene veers toward the darker side of things he gets all perky. Is he telling us something about his character's alienation from the world that binds him? No, he's just overacting.

Maybe he didn't have much of a chance as the film itself tries to navigate between the different moods suggested by the complexities of the structure and its piecemeal information feed but I don't think so. After some well directed scenes in the coach and hotel rooms which really kick things off with promise we too soon enter into a series of vignettes that feel workshopped by actors rather than written by an author with a plan. With the kind of Altman/P.T. Anderson puzzle attempted here surely the worst thing to do is to allow too loose a fit between the pieces. They need to intrigue us but here they render us indifferent. The wheel keeps moving but it's grinding down and nothing looks tempting anymore.

And then we are given the cataclysmic event whose suddenness and violence should jolt us into feeling the void of grace and the dramatic importance of being ready for our fate with a soul in a clean state. The moment is delivered with effective ugliness and it is fitting that it jolts with the mood now long established. It falls flat, though, unless you've engaged with these warm props and the sounds of dialogue that they provide.

Which brings me to the score. I was really enjoying the delicate orchestration of the opening sequences with its solid strings and tremolo flute descant. It paid a subtle homage to Picnic at Hanging Rock but was resolutely its own music. We're not going to hear its like again until the wheel turns that last time and we're back in serious land. Meantime we get a charming clarinet theme and a quirky --

I just wanted the movie to return to the original mood, to keep to it and find all the same things it looks for in this manifestation but with a pleasing empathy to let us in. Oh, one thing I still like aobut it a lot is the opening credit sequence which I've never seen in a film before. We are led over some aerial views of landscapes which we soon start questioning as they don't look quite right. Are they landscapes from a great height or tiny stretches of beach or dirt up so close that they look epic: are they mountains or molehills? The pity of it is that we only get to see the molehills.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Review: ROOM

A child tells the story of his birth. His name is Jack. The account has the weird sound of a child piecing together something a parent has said so that by the time it is spoken again, it is as solid as mythology. We descend from a skylight filled with a night sky to a room whose wear and tear make it look exhausted. We are in extreme poverty and as we see the boy go around the room saying good morning to everything in it, each appliance and stick of furniture, we are asking serious questions. The conversations between him and his mother feel very natural but it isn't long before the turns of phrase and missing pieces give them a bizarre flavour. So, will Old Nick bring some supplies from the magic on the TV when he comes next? No, it's not poverty and the boy is not autistic: the mother is an abductee and her son was born in captivity. Everything he understands of the world has come from her reality-softening imagination. The quite moving opening scenes sour to curds in an instant. We recall cases from the news of recent years of abduction and home incarceration. The bright world of the little boy (who does not believe there is anything outside their prison which he knows only as Room) is a dungeon.

When Jack turns five his mother decides it's time to act. First, she reverses his entire world view. There is an outside. There are other people and animals and trees there. Not everything on television is make believe. Room is a prison and now it's time to leave. His response is violent and resistant but every point of skill she has gained in his education so far is used to bargain and reason the real world into existence and she persuades him to help her get at least him to freedom.

While this story has been spoiled by its own publicity (with the purpose of diverting attention from the atrocity at its centre) I'll do little to describe the plot from this point. There is a lot left but that in itself is worth the discovery at the cinema. But it's no spoiler to state that most of this film keeps its eye unwaveringly on the thread between mother and son, the threats that move around it and the fragile strength of its own fabric.

It wouldn't take a stretch to imagine that the outside, if achieved, might contain prisons of its own, however benign, however nicer the decor or the food, or even promise to form just a larger prison. There might even be prisons created within the skulls of the people outside, prisons whose builders have wilfully left locked and keyless.

Once I accepted that this would be the movie I easily settled for its examination of these and further questions. Soon the primarily impressive thing about this film is its insistent focus on the effects of the incarceration and their resonance, the lifelong lessons that will be necessary for the captors to extract themselves fully from their grim beginnings. If plunging into a completely contrary reality poses difficulties for the boy he at least is resourceful and has a child's great capacity for learning. But what of the grown woman who was snatched away as a child, the reverse journey?

It's true that if this had just been a story of the developing bond between parent and child, with the same finely observed writing, it might well have met obscurity. Its birth in atrocity allows for the kind of violent adjustment and committed engagement from us in the seats until our compulsion masks that we ask the same questions of this that we might have left dormant without it. This is a film with the word in its beginning and, from a deftly designed mottled language from a boy who has been educated by a child. Emma Donoghue's adaptation of her own novel seems to have left much of the source intact at the same time as writing a screenplay that is never less than cinematic.

Brie Larson as Joy, the mother, keeps it natural but it's an intense natural. Her face falls when stumbling on a phrase whose hurtfulness is indistinguishable from frustration. She carries her character's bizarre burden as though living in it without bathing. She offers truth, including the possibly unending process of taking form in the world outside. Jacob Tremblay's Jack allows us into the unimaginable character by keeping his childhood close. He is playing an alien newly arrived on Earth (he even asks in earnest if they are on the same planet at one point) but one who responds in the emotional kaleidoscope familiar to anyone who has been a child.

I was one of the few of the few who saw director Lenny Abrahamson's Frank and was left unimpressed with its lack of focus and pleas for indulgence. While there are sagging developments here or a score that travels from Eno-like ambience through post-rock droning to a disappointingly mainstream stringsection swelling up over the end credits there, the piece is strong and confident of its mission. Nowt left for me to say but, "accomplished."