Sunday, July 9, 2017

Review: IT COMES AT NIGHT

An wizened old man in close up, his eyes are in shadow but seem off. He stares intently at us. We notice the strange chancre on his shoulder. Reverse shot of a woman in an oxygen mask. She tearfully apologises to the man and says goodbye. He is her father. They are standing in a room coated with plastic sheeting. Two other men in safety masks lower the older man on to a wheelbarrow, roll him to a place in the forest outside, shoot him in the head through a pillow, douse him in petrol and cremate him in his grave. This is all you will get of the back story of this film. It is all you will need.

The family have no appetite at dinner that night. They go to bed early but are woken by an intruder at the house's sole point of access, a red door with a massive latch. Paul tells his wife Sarah to stay behind the corner as his son Travis hovers behind, both armed as they wait silently for the next move of the presence on the other side. The door bursts and a man crashes in. He is quickly subdued by Paul, disarmed and bound. The next day Paul talks to the man Will who is tied to a tree and explains that he thought the house was abandoned. He was looking for food and water for his family. Their dialogue broadens the situation and a truce is struck but the situation has changed beyond the control Paul's family had established. It was inevitable and there will be more changes. They too will feel inevitable.

This strange intense film plays things as straight as it can. To some it might feel too plain. The linear rolling of of its three acts can feel very lean but there is much at work with the themes it establishes and examines. There is a kind of Maslow pyramid being constructed, starting with survival and progressing through family, home, community, trust and breach of trust and something approaching warfare, a concentrated drop of human history in a cabin in the woods.

This film is being sold as the wrong kind of horror movie. The trailer makes it look gothic and thick with sudden scares but that completely misrepresents what is one of the most effectively chilling situational horror tales I've seen in years. Between the outbreaks of violence there is life, day to day, shrouded by the woods but always open to sudden attack and the unease of the compromise of concealment where they might not see you but you can't see them. The people here describe each other as good and we are relieved to hear it but know that anyone can only be as good as the situation allows. When that tears the good just becomes survival again.

A solid cast brings this home in tightly framed scenes where danger lies around corners of walls or phrases in a constantly delicate balance. A largely electronic score works coldly under the images, intensifying action or thickening the darkness. The warmth of the firelight colour pallet and the lushness of the surrounds tell us what nature knows or cares of the lives inside the walls.

A framed print of Breughel's Triumph of Death hanging on Travis' wall and examined in an early scene is recalled throughout the remainder increasingly a map of the world around the house. And it is a haunted house. This haunting is not one of a passed spirit, though, but of a decision to cut all ties with the former life, civilisation, and to accept a new reality. We see the possibility and all that threaten it. It could be a shaded evasion or a stolen glance across a table but as the mood in the house grows warmer the sense of the resulting vulnerability swells like the draught blown in though an opened door.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Review: A QUIET PASSION

 A group of intense young women standing in lines. Sunlight fills the room but there is no warmth. The reverse shot is of a severe middle aged woman in the black of widows or public executioners. She barks commands that physically divide the group into two according to religious commitment, to the left and right of her. Alone in the centre, the young Emily Dickinson looks fraught. She is grilled briefly by the headmistress but her answers resist the force with boldness, wit and conviction. Her family saves her in the next scene, robbing us of a first act filled with personal rebellion but promising much. Most of the rescue scene is a single shot and is conducted with dialogue. The characters, father, sister, brother and Emily, are lined up like a portrait in oils and there is a tension between the senses that it also feels like a school play. It isn't. It's a Terrence Davies film.

That's not a slight. Biopics are difficult. Most of them end up make a quilt of great moments in history to be draped over any attempt to examine the questions a life story should present. Pollock fails because it presumes our reverence and begs our indulgence. Amadeus works because it keeps the theme front and centre and plays as fiction (and was weakened buy the director's cut which put all the "moments" back in). The recent Trumbo begins with the compelling notion of a writer surviving public ostracism by stealth but very quickly changes down to cruise control by rolling out the desk calendar quotes and history bites. So, what do you do when your subject's chief action scenes are conversations or someone scratching away at paper by lamplight? You get someone who can fill a still scene with deep substance. You get a Terrence Davies.

Since the mesmerising Distant Voices Still Lives Davies has shown a heavy talent for drawing his audiences into what are often long held tableaux, people looking out at us from the screen, shifting on their feet, uncomfortable in the formal clothes of portraiture as their voices tell us what they are thinking, giving us the weight of the moment. In one of these the mother of the group wishes her husband was there for the picture. When we later see his terrifying violence against her we will remember this.

A Quiet Passion doesn't change this pattern much where the dense stillness alternates with scenes of interaction and dialogue that feel like opened windows. There are a few extras this time, though, and they have the odd effect of flaunting the artificiality of some of the wittier dialogue. Some of this plays so tweely you'd think it was an offcut of an old BBC Austen adaptation. That said, I enjoyed the unease of these moments as they worked to add texture to a film that might have collapsed under its own gravity. Also, they are contrasted with comparable later scenes where wit is served as the mark of maturity and experience where a much darker, more severe tone is given.

But what Davies does well is done here. A gentle pan across a parlour reveals a pre-electric family at its leisure who are happy enough until the camera stops on the face of the mother by the fire which glistens with tears that fall from a gaze of deep depression. A family portrait session at a local photography studio serves as a time lapse of years as each of the siblings and their parents grow into their age. Emily and her sharp witted friend Vryling trade epigrams in the garden providing supplemental commentary on what they are seeing with snapping fans or umbrellas. The mother at the end of her life is bathed by her daughters as her stroke ravaged face is beyond expression. Emily's own violent seizures at the end of her life remind us of this and the powerlessness of we who watch to help and so we are horrorstruck.

Between these moments, none of more note than similar ones in the surrounding houses at the time, we find the poet. Cynthia Nixon recites apt passages from Dickinson's verses throughout the film and there we hear what she's been doing as we've seen her at the table with quill, paper and lamp all that time. The readings are expressive without affectation. Their ease might make a more literal or begging film boring but this is where A Quiet Passion differs from most filmed life stories. But Nixon's readings are like her performance throughout, nuanced and elegant with a placid mask that her life has taught her will stand guard against the vulnerability of constant disappointment or even the terror of mortality. In her thrashing agonies, punishing wit, or the crushing sadness of her imagining of the midnight world of sexuality (where her conjured suitor climbs the steps like the grim reaper) Cynthia Nixon brings shining life to Emily Dickinson, one that we could only guess at from the sole photographic portrait we have of a freckled country girl with haunted eyes in a scratched Daguerreotype.

Where a lesser biographical film tries to cram years into hours on screen Terrence Davies gives us the days, long and almost uniform, enhanced by sculpted thoughts and home baked bread. There being so little to report by way of moment we are given something more like moments spent. For an Emily Dickinson there can be no better tribute.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: 20th CENTURY WOMEN

Middle aged Dorothea watches as her son Jamie grows into his adolescence and feels increasingly out of touch with him. It's 1979, California, and she lives in the kind of mixed generational share house I can recall from that era in Queensland. Does it take a share house to raise a child or should Dorothea seek the help of people closer to Jamie's age? She tries with Abbie (in her mid-20s already an ageing punk, yes that's meant to be funny in the film as well) and teenaged Julie who flees her single-mother therapist's house nightly to sleep platonically with Jamie. The girl and young woman say yes to helping out but admit they probably won't be able to do much. Conspicuous by his absence in the discussion is ageing hippie William, renovator and handyman but too uncommitted for the task. There's always the idea of let Jamie get through it himself which might just happen anyway.

You get the idea, this is a screen version of the roman fleuve or river novel in which life rolls out before us with here and there a rip, snag or rapid but mostly just there for the pleasure of the flow. We see relationships develop through trial and others bruised by neglect. We see life. Not having the gimmick of Boyhood where we were as engaged by the real ageing of the cast in time as we were by some fine filmmaking and running on a much smaller timeline (outside of narration we go through less than one year) we must at least warm up to these characters in the course of two screen hours.

The good news is that this pretty much happens. Annette Benning delivers a character who invites us despite her resistance to change. Is her performance a touch studied with its measured facial expressions and actor-workshop voice control? Maybe, but those things are done with charm enough for us to follow. Greta Gerwig breaks a little free of the cage of quirk she made for herself with the execrable Frances Ha, allowing for some real pathos to open her up to us. Elle Fanning has the toughest job of the three women of the title in building a tightly fraught teenager out of her barely veiled pain towards us. She is the most intentionally frustrating character and we need to see that this is protection as much as youth and in some touching moments of vulnerability we do. The women, past, present and future, in their way, give us a century of western life.

For his part, Lucas Jade Zumann who has to compete with all this for his time on screen can occasionally fade into the scenery as everything else happens, even when he is at its centre. It's not the actor's fault (though by comparison his is the least forceful performance); he is the stand-in for the writer director who is recalling himself as more observer than actor. Perhaps the most helpful thing to say of him is that he fits. Billy Crudup, who I remember most immediately as a rock star in Almost Famous and then more recently with tense restraint as the journalist/confessor in Jackie, is a quiet delight as William with his "far out" party pickup lines and formless life advice. These are the men of 20th Century Women, essential but to one side which is the purpose this time.

While the flow of life idea works for most of the running time there are a few too many false endings which drew winces. Even if the subsequent scenes assuaged by providing fresh interest or at least charm the trend began to feel like undisciplined writing even with the low-plot scheme taken into account.

Something I did enjoy, though, was that the period nostalgia was kept at a low setting. The late 70s punk scene just feels here like a band scene, the records and the gigs the way they always have. Handy, of course, to set the story at a time when the active younger generation determinedly didn't have its own patois so that instant self-embarrassment doesn't appear. The setting is also important as a kind of farewell to the youth of the pre-internet world where the consultation, the guidance and the wisdom came more tightly filtered from parents and peers and so much had to rely on trial and a lot of error. For me, a major pleasure of this film was not nostalgic for a cultural period so much as the sense of promise, of self-regulation and social progress that we felt was achievable against the shadow of the creaking end of the cold war and its daily promise of global annihilation. If we could just get through high school and get out there and make things better. Didn't happen, of course, and never quite does, but the warmth of it and the dangers of the warmth were palpable.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

WHY I LIKE THE NEW TWIN PEAKS AND WHY I DON'T THINK DAVID LYNCH IS WEIRD

Music fan or lyrics fan? We humans are a nasty bunch and like seeing people join lines. One of them is saying something like: music is the pure expression of the emotions. The other: the music wouldn't be there if the words weren't, they guide the music. I'm in the first line. I love religious music from the Renaissance. It's often only vocal but the words can never mean much to me because they are (a) religious and (b) usually in Latin. But the music can lift my heart with every play.

The recent hefty four episode beginning of the Twin Peaks reboot has seen the sides drawn up along similar lines. Some want more of the quirky dark of the original series and others, like me, could not be more pleased at the intensity of the new vision. I think there's a way between and I think that it will only come to those who wait.

The common wisdom of the first run of Twin Peaks is that it was a compelling mystery until the killer was outed and then just turned whacky, lost its way and tried, like fruit trees at the end of their lives, to give as much as possible at the last moment. The suits at the network forced the big answer out of Lynch and Frost and the vacuum left in the wake was all quirk and cuteness. Windom Earle wasn't scary enough to darken the froth. There was a lot of plot, more than the first season, but the music had gone soft.

And then came the finale in the red room, both white and black lodges depending on how courageous you felt. The red curtains, zigzag floor pattern were lit a little too high but the events and dialogue gave out a lot of lovely slippery unreality that ended with the worst that could happen. Come back, Dave, all is forgiven. But that was it and the David Lynch, whose name was known after Blue Velvet and had become an adjective after Twin Peaks was, to the best reckoning of the mainstream, as much a one-hit wonder as Men Without Hats.

Now he's back, they're back, it is hap-en-ning ag-gain. A call back from the finale between Cooper and Laura repeats the promise of the return in twenty-five years. A sombre version of the opening credits sequence plays out with the familiar twang of the theme and we're in. Well, we're somewhere. Black and white. The giant gives an aged Cooper a few cryptic pointers. There's a little bit of the old Twin Peaks world but everything has changed. No one comes into the diner yodelling about pie and coffee. Mostly, the Coop, still bad from the finale but gnarled by age and evil, is loose in the land. He enters in a car the way his good self did at the very beginning but it's in a nightscape with an ugly rock remix blasting. The good self is back in the lodge getting schooled in the situation. There's a murder case somewhere else and a dismal room in Manhattan with a glass box surrounded by electronics. We're in deep.

Which is the problem for a fair few on the social media commentariat. We get four hours of this bleakness, these strange settings (even in an infinite starfield in one scene), scary looking beings appearing and disappearing and some industrial strength ugliness. So where are the cute teens, snappy one-liner dialogue between the worldly and corrupt adults and the cosy unease? Where, also, is the story that we are might cling to? Who is the protagonist? Have we waited this long for such a mess of hints of greatest hits and stale whimsy served as fresh?

Well, that's what I've been reading, not seeing on the screen. I enjoyed seeing the brothers Horne again as well as the life at the station. But I LOVED the new lodge sequences, the unnerving new places and soundscapes. Yes, a lot of it seems disjointed and chaotic but I won't have try-hard or cheap surrealism flung at it. Why? Because a very clear arc is forming with two opposing forces in places as dark and nasty as where the original series left off. Did anyone really expect Cooper to get over the state he was in as though it were a head cold? There's a lot of climbing back to do and it has to start in some ugly places. That is actually as true to the original series as we could have hoped, at least initially.

Also, Lynch has done a fair few films since the early nineties and with one exception they have been getting increasingly intense with a lightless Twin Peaks prequel and three tilts at extreme fugue states, ending in his toughest since Eraserhead with Inland Empire. If anything, the pleasanter, familiar moments in the new series seem like the anomalies.

Another aspect I'm enjoying is the sense of the swansong happening here. There are aesthetic nods to everything Lynch has done from his student films to his painting and sculpture. There are even things taken from unproduced projects: the identity confusion in one thread owes a lot to the goofy One Saliva Bubble and there are plenty of glints and ideas from Ronnie Rocket. Lynch has declared that he and cinema are done and that this would be it forever. Like the scenes in the original finale that repeated moments from the pilot we are seeing Lynch stroll around his works and recall moments that are then mixed into the business at hand.

If you want energetic plotting you should remind yourself of the restless narrative threads of the second season of the original series which became all plot without point. Or you could revisit the alien conspiracy arc of the X-Files which stoushed any slight answer with louder questions. Or the entire run of Lost. You might want to remind yourself that one season of Breaking Bad kept inserting images of stuffed toys in a swimming pool which went unexplained until the final episode. You might recall that the great Mad Men more than once ended its seasons on notes so down they felt like second-last scenes. Remember the finale of the Sopranos? I mean the very very last minute or so. The golden age of television which followed Twin Peaks (and contributed to its birth and character) changed the game to include a lot of variety of approach. Still want fun quirk and stories? Take a look at Fargo or Mozart in the Jungle. They do both as a matter of course and are really, really good at them. This Twin Peaks isn't like that because it can't be ... yet.

But what about all that weird imagery, all that cod surrealism? Isn't that just a big wanky time waste? Not to me but I don't think of it that way. I also don't think of David Lynch movies as weird. First, when I see the eyeless woman in the purple room who tries with pathetic grunts to prevent Cooper from opening a door I see someone who is frightened. The scene is arrestingly strange but has a clear internal logic. As with all the more intense Lynch stuff, if you think it's alienating or baffling, clock the emotion and follow that (there is always clear emotion in a Lynch scene, overblown or not but always); it will pretty much always take you somewhere. A viewing of Inland Empire might be too big an ask but try a few scenes of it with this in mind and leave off trying to interpret symbolism and see how you get on with it that way (it might well still seem like crap but nothing's for everyone).

Second, I see scenes like that and want to walk around in them. Lynch's style is, for me at least, powerfully imaginative. When I saw the red room sequence in the advanced pilot for the original series (released on VHS rental here in 1990), as much as I enjoyed the loopy dialogue or noirish atmosphere of the main body I wanted as much of the series to come to be set in that curtained place where people say things backwards and origami birds fly past as shadows through the curtains. When the show turned out to be as conventional as it was I got into it but felt let down. And then when it went goofy it lost me. The music faded and the words bred like insects. Then the finale happened and things got back to where I wanted. And then it ended. Now it's back and where I wanted it to be, heavy on imagination with some pleasant call backs.

You want plot and the spirit of the old show? I think you'll get both. We have a tale that has drawn battle lines in the first few scenes and developed them already. The character interaction in the perceptibly real world is plausible and the look and feel of the world beyond life and death (as the finale was later titled for broadcast) plays by rules we can follow if we note how events affect their inhabitants. I believe that it's clear that these forces (the manifestations of Cooper and whatever else is in there) will converge and will most probably face off in the town of Twin Peaks. We have only seen the stirring in the murk where we had left off and there is still most of the series to come. Meantime, I have all the music I can eat.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review: NERUDA

1948 and the government of Chile is cracking down on a very active left. Prominent communist senator and renowned poet Pablo Neruda is targeted as a high profile threat. He flees the city with his wife, detective Oscar Peluchonneau in pursuit. This reads like a decent enough thriller with some added spice from the historical basis. But this is a film by Pablo Larrain and we've been here before.

His No, an account of the Chilean referendum that brought Pinochet's regime to an end was a fraught blend of menace and the day to day. The more recent Jackie used a familiar historical story to pose questions about the public face with a clever literalism. Neruda gives us a popular figure, showing both his heroic persona and private hedonism, a bourgeois communist who revels in his stardom while hoping that his vanity doesn't obscure his political commitment. This tension is admired by his pursuer (an intense Gael Garcia Bernal) who uses his fascination with Neruda as a spur in the chase.

I say chase but the action is very deliberately kept at a low priority. We are not following a hunt but examining both hunter and hunted as players. Oscar is self conscious. While we see much of Neruda in his various roles from public orator to private sensualist it is the policeman's voice that guides us. Oscar's narration is the first voice we hear in the film and his voiceover is the constant in a constantly shifting visual field. He describes his actions as a novelist might (a good detective does this or a clever detective thinks this) and we think of him as having the same vanity as his quarry until the possibility that he is only quoting the Neruda paperback that he carries constantly. The pursuit itself is a fiction no more intended to serve as biography than Jackie. We're here to watch the game and think about what it is to play a starring role in public life and if we as its pursuers might not aspire to something more impressive than a supporting character.

Larrain makes a lot of use of a strange technique whereby a single dialogue is given a number of settings uninterrupted. One moment Oscar is talking to Neruda's mistress on the terrace of her mountain villa but an answering line is delivered across a dining table. The next might be back on the terrace or in the street. While Larrain offers this blatantly he suggests little as to why. I had the feeling that it was akin to how individually art-directed our recollections of encounters and conversations can be, where we stand within them (momentously silhouetted by a window or warmly lit by oil lamps in an Andean tent) as leads, supports, or just extras. It is given gently and perhaps it or something like it is necessitated by the suppression of the chase narrative. If nothing else we are confronted with its reminder of the fiction of what we are seeing.

I watch Larrain's political biographies and I think of how much I prefer them to the Oliver Stone approach of locker-room home truths and pushed reconstructions. Stone slaps us with his verity, giving us no time to question it (well, we did ask him to do that when we bought the ticket). Larrain assumes we know something of the story he tells (or at least its nature as in the detective story in Neruda) and asks us in to chat about the things he has found while telling it. Watching this film I thought of The Conformist and from before it Alphaville and how much I have missed such a blend of art and politics. Don't be fooled by the trailer that wants you to think of it as a high cal thriller. It's much better than that.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Review: GET OUT

A young couple prepare to spend the weekend at her parents' house in the country. He, Chris, is troubled as he suspects she, Rose, has not told them that he's black. She assures him that they will be fine and, reluctantly, he goes along with it. They head off in her car and hit a deer along the way. After an uncomfortable encounter with a local cop who pays more attention that he should to Chris they arrive at the family seat and experience a series of awkward dad-meets-boyfriend moments blended with the kind of soft-faced patronising racism that only the one percent can perform in the belief that its undetectable.

Where we started as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner but we are very swiftly transported to the soil from which grew Rosemary's Baby or the Stepford Wives as the local gentry gather to prod, condescend to and frankly evaluate the newcomer. If his encounters with the African American domestic staff have come off as unnerving his meeting with the sole black guest at a garden party is solidly eerie. The mounting alienation and measured discomfort are not about to abate at any time soon. What has he got himself into?

This sci-horror fable of race relations is candid about its ancestry, eschewing contemporary irony in favour of a direct linear ride through a grim moral landscape. While I at first baulked at the literal orchestral music cues with their menacing strings and brass it soon became apparent that they were fitting very snugly in with the scheme and I was able to relax and let it take me where it would. While there are no Shyamalanian twists or thunderous revelations in the third act Get Out uses its relatively simple path to immerse us in its concentrated abstraction of the experience of the outsider and the disturbing lack of social progress it witnesses.

As the film is so doggedly single-tracked and big-themed the care in the casting must rate more highly than the writing. Londoner Daniel Kaluuya brings a brooding malcontent restrained by social skill. When he breaks it is in tight step with the narrative and avoids clunky foreshadowing. The rapport between him and Allison Williams as the central couple has a breezy and intimidating fleetness. When she must change her demeanour towards the final act its ice is weighty for the contrast. Caleb Landry Jones brings the same baby Brad Dourif tenterhooked edge he brought to Antiviral. Bradley Whitford maintains a suave but barely veiled hostility throughout as Rose's father. And then there's Catherine Keener, genuinely scary as she presents a maternal face that contains a pair of contemptuous eyes. So, good cast, good idea with a firm helm: does it work?

Because of the intentional one-note execution the mood of this film can take a little acclimatisation. I can easily imagine some folk judging it to be hollow, wanting more of a balance after the onslaught of genteel hostility that envelopes Chris, more of a turn to the tables. But I don't think that's on the agenda here. If we want our experience of this failed acculturation is it not better to take that imbalance from the experience? If the big music scoring and obvious genre tropes leave us in no doubt as to the purpose of the film might that not also work to give us pause to consider its motivation? This is an angry film. How wonderful, then, to find that anger served with such effortless skill. Sometimes we just need to feel the discomfort and if this film tells us repeatedly that we're allowed to .....

Monday, April 24, 2017

Review: COLOSSAL

A prologue. Seoul. A young girl has lost her doll and is looking for it on a lawn at night. Her mother calls her to come back home but she persists and finds it. As she does the sky explodes with electricity and a giant monster appears stamping through the city. Mother and daughter scream.

Cut to twenty-five years later and across the world to Manhattan. Gloria gets evicted from her apartment and relationship as her boyfriend can't take her spiralling drunkenness. She goes back to her small town and moves into the vacant house where she grew up. She hooks back up with a childhood friend who gives her a job in his bar. The next day she wakes from a drunken revel to the news that Seoul has been terrorised by a giant monster. A Youtube clip confirms it as the one we saw at the beginning. The town, like the rest of the world, is marvelling at the sight as the monster returns and wreaks damage on the Korean capital. But Gloria has noticed something.

Not only does the monster have the same head scratch she does when she's nervous but the gestures, reported as mysterious by the media, seem oddly familiar. Details of the early morning end of the previous night's abandon, a sluggish ramble through a children's playground, and a map of Seoul lead her to test a theory. It proves to be true. She is the monster, the one bashing the city.

This fable of growing up and accepting responsibility is steadily enjoyable but suffers from a lack of tension in the second act. The central group of characters gathered around Gloria have tension points that get exposed on tap rather than from work that might both add depth along the way so they would feel inevitable when revealed. And then when they are revealed the film can feel quilted as some scenes only serve mechanics while others play quite naturally and the pleasure of the story's conceit is sweetened. The unevenness causes drag and makes us feel that even at its reasonable hundred and ten minutes it can feel too long.

This is not the fault of the casting. Jason Sudekis brings nuance and depth to his small town boy grown up that allows his character magnetism but also space for disaster. The wonderful Tim Blake Nelson is achingly underwritten but his every scene is a delight. Mostly, at the centre, it's Anne Hathaway who summons every trick and trope of her art to go with and against her doe-eyed vulnerability, forcing intelligence and anger into a role that might have stopped at the vulnerability. She's a joy to watch.

The problem is in the writing and direction. Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo who gives us both a kind of mid point between Michel Gondry's hard-edged whimsy and his compadre Guillermo Del Toro's expertise with dark fable. The problem is that the mix of whimsy and horror never quite blends where a stricter focus on Gloria's overcoming her resistance against her own responsibility might have made a leaner but harder (and better) film.

It was Vigalondo's name that sent me to the cinema. His lean and mean Timecrimes wowed me and the later Open Windows added some solidly disturbing implications to the real time thriller format. But, perhaps intentionally, there was no time for characterisation in the tight loop of the first and little need for it in the rush of the second. It might sound strange to say but Colossal could have done with a little less warmth, a little less writerly depth, and more of a reckless cavalry charge to the conclusion.

The scene in which we are given the kind of reason we were denied in Timecrimes for the bizarre events of the story and the smart and affecting conclusion by their ingenuity and emotional power do make up for a lot of the loose dragging of the journey. And the eloquence of the facial expression of the final shot shows us how much Viglondo relished working with his cast. I'll still be in the queue for the next Nacho Viglondo film. Perhaps a little more cautious but still there.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: PERSONAL SHOPPER

Maureen Cartwright, a young American in Paris, walks cautiously through a darkened house, seeking a sign from her dead brother. His widow and the couple who want to buy the place are waiting on her report. The scene is thick with dread. At one point we see a vague shape that could be a trick of the light or a spirit form behind her. When asked she admits that she doesn't know if there is anything in the house. She returns to the job that allows her to afford time in Paris while she waits for the posthumous sign that brother Lewis promised to give. In Paris she picks out her employers clothes and jewellery.

Though she identifies, as her brother had, as a medium she remains skeptical and cannot commit to belief in the phenomena even as she witnesses it. Her second attempt to contact Lewis in the house is traumatic and drives her back into her life as the personal shopper, a series of routines she dislikes for their triviality but performs expertly. Her difficulties in talking about this beyond some sketchy and irritated impressions leads to a second act dominated by a dialogue entirely in a series of texts as a thrilling but dangerous situation develops. Between this and the blank competence of travel and detached shopping we start to get a better view of the person in the elipse between the two Venn circles of spiritual and material. It involves temptation and dark adventure and ends in bloodshed. But then the mysteries continue.

This tale of the unknown, external and internal, is helmed by Olivier Assayas with a not altogether steady hand. In horror mode the sense of dread is genuine and there are white knuckle thriller moments and while these can easily overlap with the passages that more nakedly examine Maureen's character (which approach Dardennes brothers bleakness) at other junctures the sudden fades to black can feel like a last resort solution. Otherwise, the lighting and lensing are expressive and infrequent plays with focus all add to a pleasurable watch however intense this film can get.

None of this would work without a lead capable of giving us Maureen's different modes with such distinctly different tone and create a credible wholeness from it. Racked by doubt she can find spoken expression frustratingly inadequate. As the eyes and taste of her employer her selections of couture at various boutiques are made with an intimidating precision. When tested by the approach of threat her fear seems to transform into survival adrenaline. Through these three modes alone we are reminded that she is one character rather than an actor proving her range by the solid pedal note of solemnity she carries at all times, visible at the clothes rack, in the haunted house and wheeling around Paris on her scooter, she is always serious. The brief and jagged relief delivered through her Skype calls with what might be a friend or lover offer the slightest glimmer of escape from this intensity but for almost the entire running time which almost entirely features her in sharp focus we are aware of this dark pedal note droning at her core. If you still dismissed Stewart because she rose through Twilight it's time to reassess. Her restraint in this role is her power and there is a lot of it on show.

After the thunder and paranoia of the thriller second act we change again to something like calm, though it, too, involves tension and threat and the sense that we are not necessarily going to end well here is strong. The film's final statement, making the heaviest use of its focal point in a powerful use of noise vs whispers, leaves us in ambiguity and a fade to black. That doesn't qualify as a spoiler as it could be about a number of threads. The ambiguity is not the troubling kind as it is in Assayas' earlier Irma Vep but it offers a weight, if we'll bear it, that feels like our own deal with things unknown.

There's still MIFF to come, Raw, Get Out and who knows what else but I could easily peg this among the best of the imaginable year.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: T2 Trainspotting

All through this one I kept thinking: why was this made? Then I'd think: Oh, that's good. It was like that for most of the movie until a few scenes in a row sharpened it up and I got it. I think. Trainspotting was a product of its time, it brought a knowing punk punch to the multiplex world of '90s cinema when it was needed. It did have help. Riding on the slacker vibe of Linklater and the retro-is-now mash of Tarrantino (and not a little of Oliver Stone's recently developed scrapbook approach) Trainspotting added both a junkie's nihilism and a view of the void at its centre and felt like a great read in a few hours at the cinema.

That was then. This is now. Renton is running in the opening scene but it's on a machine and he collapses mid-session. Sobered, he picks himself up and returns to 'Brrrrrruh to offer retribution by paying back the money he stole for his own escape those decades past. No one's really having it except for Spud but with the aid of a few bruisey encounters he levels up in a way while his old pal Sick Boy (now a budding extortionist and aspirant brothel owner) keeps him close for his own retribution. Meanwhile the dark terror of the first tale, Begbie, breaks out of prison and won't take yes for an answer.

The plot will only give you a little here, though, as this film has more on its mind than the cogs and wheels of the three acts. The opposing forces are in place and will get to a showdown but while we're getting there we've got some time to reflect on the last twenty years. Everyone's older and a little defeated but striving on. Spud finds telling his tale offers a way out of the constant grinding pendulum between addiction and twelve-step meetings. Sick Boy and his young Bulgarian girlfriend think of getting the best knocking shop in Edinburgh as a kind of grant-funded start-up. Begbie takes his young adult son under his wing and into the mire of petty crime.

At one point Renton and Simon (Sick Boy) explain to Veronika how amazing everything was back then ("and no one was fat!") in front of a massive LED tv as their soundbites roll on to the screen like running tweets. At another Simon and Renton are watching the video for the Rubberbandits' dark and funny Dad's Best Friend (shown almost uninterrupted) and Renton, gazing as the middle aged actor in the clip miming the lyric transforms into a black eyed alien, asks, "what's this?" What is it? Cruelly, it's the bad boy that none of them were able to become because they kept all that choose-life stuff they were ridiculing at bay while the hard won gratification nullified their lives. The song is a kind of confession by an incorrigible reprobate whose violence and chaotic will yet make him a valuable asset to daily life. He's a bastard but impossible to hate as he is armed with charm. But this is no Renton nor even a Begbie. The dad's best friend is middle class and able to "choose the hookers he likes the best" because he's privileged. It takes a breath or two to sink in but as the pair of old friends watch the video and laugh at the clever cheek of the visuals we know they also understand that every second of the years that have brought them to this point have been a waste.

The nostalgia in the reminiscence scene, soured by the contemporary pop song, can only ever be a lie, not just a futile grasp at an art-directed past but an out and out fib. The good old days are for the winners only and there's just nothing left to win here. When the force of Begbie discovers Spud's retelling of their shared past he responds to the account of one of his own atrocities like a viking hearing his own saga sung back to him. His fury abates only to let the vanity that fuels it refuel. And nostalgia chews its own tail.

Director Danny Boyle takes all this further into poignancy by giving us a lot of footage of what will pass for the characters as boys. They are larking about at school, goofing for the camera and then we see where they've gone. It's like a deep gravity version of Seven Up a few minutes at a time. More, all the references to the 1995 film like Renton's update on the "choose life" monologue or the laughter on the bonnet of the breaking car give us all pause who were fans of the first film and bid us turn the camera around, selfie-style, and look before we judge. Boyle's return to his chief triumph, then, does have a point and was clearly worth making but I wonder if it is not too precise, too comfy then confronting for its guaranteed fans to deal with and perhaps too embarrassingly sour for those younger who might too easily triumph in its candour.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

FILM BUFFS FORECAST : a personal ramblection

Three things came true about Melbourne. It was cold. There were trams. People cared about the life they led and those around them. That last one was important. I'd come from the Brisbane of the SEQEB dispute (Google it) and whatever sense of city there had been was pressed into gutter mud. We lived in our houses in a place. Melbourne was a city and felt like a community: hangover-bloating barkers at the Vic Market, genuinely funny tram conductors, pubs that roared with the living, bafflingly tribal sport fandom, and radio stations that made you feel part of everything. That was immediately noticeable: the talk.

I sampled all of them, the community-based stations, because they all felt like open windows. There had been an exciting tension to 4ZZZ's hot politics and exploratory pursuit of the life in the shadows of culture but the Melbourne stations, unburdened of the near totalitarian conditions of the deep north, could talk about so much more and did. Support of the constantly spiky and compelling local music scene was unquestioned and expected but the hours of comics, zines, theatre, literature and contemporary life not so much. There was even sport! (In the Brisbane of the early '80s you could be alternative or care about sport: binary. So it was never on 4ZZZ and to this day I can't tell you a damned thing about football.) And then there was film.

I was a recently graduated BA in a degree heavy with movies. I was a snob about it but that was draining from me the more I saw of film outside of a range of directors (which included Jean Luc Godard and .... well, just him, really). I learned to recall how much I loved the cinema outside of its intense political uses. Melbourne had a lot of cinemas. The arthouses alone seemed to number as many as indy rock venues and were as crowded. In my first month I saw Ray Lawrence's Bliss at the then new (now vanished) Russell and Orson Welles's version of The Trial at the old Valhalla. I was a Welles fan and knew the Kafka film from a few stills and a chapter of commentary at uni and considered it effectively lost. With both old and new so accessible the city seemed genuinely fabulous, paradisical.

Saturdays began late as we were always hungover. We'd make it to the markets after eleven, come back laden with goodness and bash together a big fried breakfast with a lot of coffee and the papers. The radio went on and Film Buffs Forecast came out. At that time the team was John Flaus and Paul Harris and they did something I hadn't heard before on any media show about cinema: they talked. I mean they talked like they were in the kitchen with us. It might have been something contemporary like Kiss of the Spider Woman or vintage like Night and Fog but the talk was gapless, often so enthusiastic that it felt like eavesdropping on the awkward conflict that only happens between friends.

Their interviews were similarly conversational, a literal exchange of views, and could draw out any guest (except director Ian Pringle whose responses were as sparse as his films' dialogue and allowed me to notice him audibly lighting a cigarette with a match and who was described while still in the room as not so much an expressionist interviewee as an impressionistic one). The conversation went for two hours on a Saturday afternoon and I left it with my head buzzing with references and notes to myself. Bugger the forging of prose fiction that day. I'd usually just go for a walk around Royal Park and digest everything.

The other thing was film music. They played music from the movies they were talking about or others they just liked or were somehow related. Flaus and Harris talked about that, too. It was the era of arthouse soundtracks in the record collection. Everyone had a copy of something like the Betty Blue or Paris Texas discs which became the dinner music of the time as we eased into our twenties and started affording things like dinner parties. But to have it on the radio along with talk of the movies themselves was bliss. It formed a kind of 3D cube from the speakers, a construction that included interviews with the filmmakers but also composers, editors, writers, cinematographers, stunt people and so on which constructed the world behind the screen and the scaffolding around the ideas and the practice. And inside, where the pictures rolled past and the music played and the voices spoke was a house with many mansions. That seems a lot to give a couple of hours of chat and tunes but all that's missing from the description is the purpose of the exercise, the source point and continued pursuit of quality. It's not the entertainment value (the show is frequently hilarious with off the cuff quipping) and it isn't the vast command of subject that Paul Harris and his varying cast of co-hosts have provided over the decades. It's not even the unflagging cinephilia. It's something more essential. It's community.

Film Buffs Forecast appears to have had its future pulled. And recent conversations and exchanges on social media have spoken up about this and many of them are quick to point out that thirty-six years of the show constitutes an inviolable tradition. Well, I guess so but I know that it needs only one administrative new broom to remind us that all things come to an end. However unjust it might seem that person will always say that secure that they come off as boldly forward thinking. It's too vulnerable an appeal for me. You can never argue against change. You can, however, argue for something that survives change, slowing like Ol' Man River beneath and beside the most brutalising change. So, to buggery with tradition, I want want I had and should still be able to claim: give me my community. Commitment to community is the thing that makes my annual re-subscription a no brainer. Community is what makes listening to 3RRR so engaging, after all this time I still feel a sense of belonging to something outside of my life of work, social circles and leisure; outside but also within. It's permanent but portable ... well it was permanent. Things must change? Sure, but ditching Film Buffs for a music show is like buying out a Fitzroy bookshop to put another cafe on Brunswick St. Well, I still live in Fitzroy but I make my coffee at home these days.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: LOVING

When it was against the law a white man marries a black woman and they are banished by a court from their home in Virginia. It's 1958 and no one's been looking too hard at how creaky some of the antebellum legislation has grown. The civil rights movement is rising and the couple's case is on its way to Washington. Great courtroom drama stuff, this. Except that doesn't happen. This is a Jeff Nichols film.

Nichols has been earning his auteur stripes all decade long with his strange spare fables like Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. He keeps things day-to-day but knows how intense that can be. And here, at the centre of what becomes a national case the voices in the courts might rage with oratory but on the ground it's bricks wrapped in magazine articles left on a driver's seat or faceless men in utes following closely on darkening country roads. The hatred is in the air, the light and the heatwaves on the bitumen, never quite breaking out of a constantly worrying smoulder.

Mostly, though, there is the life of a growing family. Kids are born, play and run in front of cars. Mum and dad go about their lives. The lawyers and the Life Magazine reporters come and go as we are reminded that these people are living with this outrage among the breakfast cereal mornings and sitcom nights in front of the tv. The space and light of a house has seldom been so palpable on screen as here. This can be measured and studious but it isn't boring for a second. And when he needs it Nichols can bring the action or the tension out without effort. The sense of deliberate helmsmanship is continuous.

And when it's time for the lawyers to front the court and make their epochal speeches it has a pageant quality, the bench of judges blurred as the educated heads appear in close focus. In turn they begin their cases but we hear little more than the very first statements. Spielberg or Stone would forge an extra hour of French polished set dressing and mighty declamation, a faltering line here or there to instil a little doubt at the outcome, perhaps, but moving toward a great motion in history. Here we get Richard Loving working on his car and Mildred doing the ironing. At what might have been a great echoing gavel of a climax in a more conventional film we get a smile, the kind of smile that would have happened anyway but now is eased with conclusion.

So, how do we put up with it, this courtroom epic that isn't? Casting, for starters. The central pair carry a load. Ruth Negger's Mildred runs on anger and intelligence but knows where she comes from and can falter in speaking her mind or asking the life-changing questions. Joel Edgerton is all containment. His near albino presentation and tightly controlled body language speak for most of his screen time which features so few lines you'd swear the ghost of Stanley Kubrick edited them. A grunt can go a long way in this role and frequently must. Together, the couple convince us of the threat of the world outside their door and the strengths that carry them through the hours. Also, Nichols' eye for landscape and space has not failed him. This is a stunning visual feast.

For a story that had broad brush politics written all over it, Nichols' refusal to submit to studio-style grandstanding is admirable. He gives us the life worth debating rather than the debate as he knows we can do that ourselves, and probably will, after the credits roll out. And one final point of achievement: this story that concerns southern U.S. country folk and the traditions of American oratory, there isn't a syllable of religious pleading in the entire running time. Nichols himself is from the South (his Mud was shot in his native Arkansas) and surely intended this to weigh with his American audiences. He continues to interest me.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Valhalla Regained #3: MAN FACING SOUTHEAST

An Argentinian film that kept popping up on the arthouse schedules and had a persistent word of mouth. I don't know why I didn't see it at the time as the premise sounded intriguing. Saw this with two friends on the Labour Day long weekend. An extra patient, Rantes, turns up in a psychiatric ward claiming that he is an alien studying Earthlings and their reported stupidity. Is he telling the truth or mentally impaired? A series of dialogues between him and his psychiatrist reveal little more than his conviction and, if anything, begin to influence the doctor rather than the reverse. A strong and complex piece that might not resolve neatly for the central characters but has more to say about the Earthlings themselves. The notion of perception and its effect looms large and I wonder if one of Rantes' powers is meant to be shared hallucination or literal reality. I'll happily watch this again to find out.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Valhalla Regained: A Project


Shadows as a film night swells up like a ghost limb on a Friday evening. It's always bad but if I find myself on Smith Street at that time it can weigh a ton. I'll still glance down Perry Street and I'll want to cross the road and get myself to the Campbell Street corner, swing in through the steel door, wave to Milos and set up the projector.

Nostalgia's best use is to fill gaps in the present. So, one day when I tried a search on the Valhalla catalogues that used to be a part of the decor in any inner city shared house I came up with nothing. Asking a cinephile friend was rewarded with a swag of them from the eighties and nineties. I got them home and wrote down the title of everything I'd missed at the time and then worked out how to source it. Lack addressed. Well, a start.

It's not just the old days and ways but the sense of getting in front of the unknown again. We who went to them trusted the arthouses to give us the hidden and the outcast as well as the non-anglophone. They confronted us with Irreversible, terrified us with Ringu and delighted us with ? (and that's just the 2000s). And in between those titles were the ones I couldn't make. Time poverty, poverty from part-time hours, whatever it was I missed them. This is their story and the tale of the thrill of gem hunting. These home screenings will not always be crowd pleasers and I won't be responsible. I'll know only enough about the choices to make me want to see them (really just the premise) so I won't be able to vouch for them.

The first two were:

The Official Story:
Argentina's dirty war has been swept away and school teacher ? enjoys an easy privileged life with her businessman husband and adorable adopted daughter. But history keeps coming at her from the unruly classes of the creative literature teacher before her and the dissent the boys are learning to the increasingly forgetful circle of middle class friends she can scarcely tolerate. And the trail leads all the way back home as her investigations into atrocities suffered by a close friend intrigue her.  A slow burn depending on solid performance and an unfliching eye on the issues.

I only vaguely recall seeing this in the calendar in the mid-eighties but, given the subject matter, I wonder that I didn't get to it at the time. We were sobered by it, even after the champagne and heavy home made pizzas of dinner


Walker:
William Walker, a mercenary employed by uber-capitalist Cornelius Vanderbilt to stabilise central America becomes his conquered territory's dictator and eventual enemy of his boss. Alex Cox's far superior follow up to the execrable Sid and Nancy finds him in fine form, giving us all the cheek of Repo Man but none of the reverence of the biopic. Using anachronism with increasing force to reduce the gap between U.S. incursions south of the border and allowing a dynamic central performance by the still little-known Ed Harris Cox creates a solid fable with a lean eye on the stylising.

I did want to get to this one and was even dating a woman who lived around the corner from the Valhalla when it moved to Northcote. We planned to go but household politics at her place demanded support from me. It got intense. Thinking of it, even though the issue was resolved in time neither of us would have taken to the quirks of the movie. Though ever on the left my politics had started to lighten. I don't think hers ever did.

Good start. Where next?

Friday, March 3, 2017

Review: BEFORE I FALL

The only thing I knew about this film before I bought a ticket is that I was outside its demographic. That became the exercise. Was I growed up enough to give a YA story a fair hearing?  The cinema was sparsely attended (noon on a weekday) but I outranked the twenty or so twenty somethings and felt their judgement of me as some old X-er double dipping in the teen film timeline. "Hey old man, get back to your Blu-Ray of Heathers and leave us alone," each imagined neuron seemed to be hissing. And as the cloying scenes of teenage girls joking like teenage girls in the car to school progressed to a diabetic intensity I felt something very like shame at being here and being too old. But then something happened: the movie got good.

Sam, a beautiful and popular girl, is one of high school's one percent. She wakes on Cupid's Day with a tight fitting arrogance that softens only in the company of her fellow alpha chicks whose spiky banter in the car is expert status maintenance. At school the celebration gently disrupts the classes as Heidi-like flower girls breeze in to deliver roses to the admired. Just when you think you're in for a cloying ninety minutes of life lessons from a teenager the class lesbian says: "I'm in hetero-normative hell!" Then, at lunch the quartet of friends get their Heathers on, barbing each other but uniting in their hatred of the school leper. What felt a little too shiny before starts souring. At the party crowning the day of tributary narcissism the leper is ostracised with barely restrained violence. Party over, the girls drunkenly drive home and die in a head-on. Sam wakes in her bed. It's Cupid's Day. Again.

The prologue has warned us about this. And then the class we see is a lesson on Sisyphus who was condemned by the gods to a torture of constant futility. The sharper girl in the quartet mentions a documentary about the butterfly effect. So, Mean Girls meets Groundhog Day? That's what I thought. But that's wiped off the table quickly as the first repeated day is distinctly different from the previous but for some significant events which repeat like Sisyphus' tasks. The ostracism, for example, remains in every repeated day.

High school movies are about growing up through breaking the forbidding social order of adolescence and triumphing in an act of public self actualisation. No straying from that here (well not much) but what is refreshingly absent is a try at black comedy. Sam's predicament is bewildering and frightening and takes this film away from the gleeful satire of Heathers or the darker reaches of Ginger Snaps and brings it closer to recent teen horrors like Unfriended or It Follows. The insistence on the ostracism with its increasingly dire consequences gives Sam need to break the cycle an edge.

Speaking of edge Zoey Deutch brings a lot to Sam. Some close ups are so intense you can hear the synapses arcing. A lot is asked of her in the role including an impressive reversal of the makeover scene which takes her from a fragile teen Rose Byrne to a snarling older-than-her-years Natalie Portman. The worldliness implied by the superficial change just gets her into worse trouble as well as the more generically correct morsels of maturity. The mostly unknown young cast do very well here. One montage scene of the girls spending the party night at a sleepover with its joyful physicality (sometimes seen through glass doors as from a stalker/slasher's perspective) both advances the tale and delights with its celebration.

Groundhog Day is not the only time loop film but it's the highest profiled example and fulfils the brief by describing an arc of redemption through a compelled self-awareness. That, at heart, is what Before I Fall is also all about. Sam's growing sense of her place and its responsibilities is pretty much it without a lot of collateral. But then the need to keep the playing table uncluttered for a ninety-nine minute running time must have pressed. But it works. Add a strong electronic score supplemented by some solid indie pop and hip hop and a little subversion of both through some pretty deft audio looping (in a pivotal scene) and you have something well above another Heathers rehash.

If you see this film, and I'd recommend it, one thing to ponder is what it would be like without the narration. This is not obtrusive for most of it but does bear down in the bookending sequences where the moral of the story gets the billboard font treatment. I'm exaggerating a little but only a little. I wonder if this is a legacy of the source novel being so beloved by its readership and a perceived need to serve that. I also think of the Tin Drum (my vote for the finest literalist film adaptation of a novel ever) and how some very judicious use of Gunther Grass's powerful prose enhanced rather than laboured what you saw. A revision like the one that happened to Blade Runner might reveal a darker and stronger film. But would it still be a teen film?

Friday, February 17, 2017

Review: MOONLIGHT

Juan, the amiable neighbourhood meth merchant befriends a small boy who clearly lives in fear of the local bullies. Juan recognises something kindred in the boy, Chiron, who takes a long time to speak so much as his name to Juan and his wife and then it's to explain that most people, meaning the bullies, call him Little. Juan persists with his gentle mentoring of the boy, teaching him to swim and telling the story of how once in the moonlight he was given a nickname which he then rejects, preferring to define himself. Chiron understands but we know how difficult it will be for him to dream of such independence. It's not just the bullies. His mother is one of Juan's customers and her violent mood swings push the boy further away from a life that does not welcome him.

Adolescence is no kinder to Chiron. The bullies are worse and his mother's addiction runs hotter and colder. His emerging sexuality confuses him into shame and anger, especially that it seems to match the hateful labelling by the bullies. One act of the closest thing he has known to love is followed by a brutal betrayal. His equally brutal response forms his most decisive act of identity yet and leads him into an adulthood of one ineluctable course. Or does it? Is there some way out?

This story of self affirmation is given a muscular treatment by Barry Jenkins on his second feature film. The play with focus and motion at its best (Jenkins can use both excessively) establish solid location and motivation. A 360 pan following the bully in chief as he circles Chiron in the quad, bashing into other people who give way to his violence as though he were a rabid dog creates a freezing dread. The conclusion of the scene with its brutality is almost a relief. The consequent scene that travels from a moment of self-realisation in a mirror to a hardened metaphor of breaking barriers and ends in a retributive act feels finished but, thankfully not satisfying. The violence that repays violence is not celebrated the way it would be in a Stephen King story. The sense that it is the next step of a process is too strong for this to be a gratifying conclusion. That's the thing about this film that pushes it ahead of any comparable outing about forging identity and battling injustice: the absence of sentimentality in a genre characteristically turgid with it keeps things focused and intense but also, strangely, light.

There is a strong choreography of character in Moonlight that also sets it apart. The establishment of space, of characters in their landscape and between each other and what that means for the strength of their identity never lets up. A strong cast (some familiar faces but many unknowns) deliver fine goods. Dialogue is lean and the action is intense, allowing moments of beauty to elevate under their own power and very little assistance from the score or burdensome writing. This is a lean masterpiece and a masterpiece of leanness. In recognition, this review will close here.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Review: JACKIE

Fade in. The exquisite beauty of Natalie Portman's face fills the screen as she walks. The scenery around her is a blur. You know this film is about Jackie and you chose it because of that. But if you were expecting an inspiring celebration of strength in a darkest hour you are already being told that that is not going to happen on this screen. The music is played by a string section but the chord bends, everything at once, violins to basses in a descending portamento. Then does it again with the next chord, delivering a sense of vertigo. Pretty movie star vs the kind of groaning strings of post war doomers like Penderecki. Dig it, you feel worried from the first minute.

This is not a conventional biopic. There's a familiar framing device of the titluar character relating the story to a listener but even there the resemblance is distorted. At its worst this can be a clunking parasite sticking out from the rest of the body but behaving as though it's a part of it. Even the great Amadeus which used a fanciful Salieri to tell a crazy tale of Mozart brought the comfortable story to the table. Jackie stops that in its tracks early when the journalist who is to hear the story is told that his subject must be allowed to edit it so that it tells the story she prefers. That is what this intense film is all about. Jackie doesn't start and end a heroine through adversity, she takes the savaging of her beautiful life from politics and violence to Camelot.

Meantime we follow as she descends the steps of Airforce One, her dress spattered with her husband's blood, as she asks the driver of the limo bearing his coffin if he knows about some of the lesser lights on the Presidential timleline, as she asks about the calibre of the bullet that killed JFK, as she numbly fends off the ascendant Lyndon Johnson from invading her house, as she deals with the complexity of her relationship with Bobbie Kennedy, and so on. The choreography, differing aspect ratios, alternate filmstock choices (public events have an uncomfortable Zapruder vintage Super-8 look) parade before us to the point of fatigue.

You would be forgiven if you started finding this film plotless and little more than a series of living tableaux as Jackie gets her story straight but, as we swerve back into a scene from the time she is relating to the reporter and are again immersed in the last days of her life as the president's wife we notice, more and more, in the bustling activity around her that we are getting a lot of National Geographic quality close-ups. While in a more conventional film, close-ups are used to such a familiar effect that we are discouraged from noticing them as we are to the editing. In Jackie we are compelled by them. They are glamour shots with dried blood and brain matter, with distress smouldering through the eyes. The glamour, though is as important as the rage and grief behind the persona for it is the glamour that will be needed for the screaming widow behind it to survive this cataclysm. Thus we don't get to enjoy the Oliver Stone style of cynicism warmed with idealism (or naivete) but the stress that forged the legend, the disease that made the cure look so beautiful.

Natalie Portman, on screen for almost the entire running time conveys this complexity with unfailing skill. From rage to confusion to numb flotation she runs the gamut but more impressively conveys the maelstrom beneath the poise. Did you ever wonder why John Hurt was nominated for the Elephant Man when he spent all of it under city blocks of latex? Watch it again. This is a performance to recall that one. John Hurt is in the film (his last role?) as a priest who, while attentive to her, seems gently impatient with her. And as we approach the photogenic moments of the presidential funeral with ceremonies that are more like performance art than ritual (yes, what's the difference? but there are moments that reminded me of Matthew Barney), Jackie's quest to find herself and her family in history draws close, too. And we arrive, without cheaply bought cynicism or hagiography, to the painful extent that a place in history requires. I stood and left during the credits, while it was still dark, just to keep face.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016: THE HIGH


2016 was a year worth wiping away for many reasons but the quality of the good cinema was higher than usual. It was also more varied. Harrowing tales of desperation at the concentration camp gas chamber door to strong comedies with fragile surfaces, weird but effective sci-fi, les Dardennes extending themselves and Ken Loach digging in, a surprise Anglo/Iranian entry that acted as a kind of signal booster to the great Dark Water and on and on. At worst they are good films but at best they are of the unforgettable quality of the best of the long gone arthouse scene. Yes, there is still compelling cinema. And it's still in the cinema ... as well.

Son of Saul
Extraordinary cinema of the kind my nostalgic daydreams are crammed with when I think of the great days of Arthouse back in the 80s. Strangely staged, strongly maintained, harrowing and bizarrely beautiful. Geza Rohrig as Saul lets only the tiniest sign of emotion out from his persona of survivalist automaton until a vision of life affirmation compels a smile that feels like sunlight. Welling up as I remember it now.

My favourite of the year.





Evolution
Crazy science fiction with the strength of conviction to fiercely pursue a crazy premise. The sense of the imagined world never tears and there are so many moments where you think "they aren't going to do that" and then watch it happen.





Goodnight Mommy/Ich sehe ich sehe
Stark, nerve eating tale of a broken mother/children bond plays like a classic fairy tale as told by Michael Hanneke. Takes a second viewing to sink in but boy does it sink in.






Fear Itself
Outstanding essay delivered over expertly chosen moments from horror cinema. The argument is couched in a fictional personal story of someone recovering from the true life horror of a car accident who has taken refuge in horror fiction. Everything works.





Kedi
It's about cats in Istanbul. It's about CATS in ISTANBUL.









Right Now, Wrong Then
Sang-soo Hong's latest deceptively gentle comedy of manners hits the breaks halfway through and does it all over with a significant revelation timed and delivered very differently with diametrically different results. The work of a contemporary master.





The Unknown Girl
The Dardennes take their continental Loach-like tales of the dispossessed into something like a murder mystery yet keep to their own initial commitment to tell these stories. I've seldom been able to fault any of their films and can't fault this one.





High Rise
Ben Wheatley's take on the Ballard dystopia spreads the grime and sweat of the lower orders on the walls of the higher-ups with great humour and anger. The 1970s setting accentuates the vintage arthouse feel of the movie leaking an unsettling kind of nostalgia.





Under the Shadow
This year's It Follows as far as lean, mean and socially aware horror stories go. Like Dark Water with the constraints of a thuggish theocracy instead of the earlier film's traditional gender roles, Under the Shadow punches well above its weight, keeping the scares relevant, scarce and all the scarier for that.






I, Daniel Blake
Ken Loach proves again that he does far more than point cameras at people at the desperate end of the street. He is a master filmmaker and this declaration of compassion honours his oeuvre.

2016: THE MIDDLE

Cosmos
A maestro's swansong, Cosmos plays like a milder outing than Zulawski's more famous efforts like Possession or Third Part of the Night. Very enjoyable, nonetheless.






Arrival
High hopes for DenisVilleneuve's excursion into sci-fi but these gently deflated as the central concept became obvious well before time, a kind of Christopher Nolan twist that, like almost everything by Nolan, felt less impressive than intended. I'll still see what Villeneuve makes of Blade Runner.






La La Land
Some good songs, committed performances and sensational choreography almost got me in a sleight of hand. Just not quick enough to mask the shallowness of the overall exercise with its welcome stretching length.












Room
Enjoyed for its strength of conviction in sticking with the less glamorous aftermath of atrocity, following the healing process rather than glory in the sordidness of the crime. Still, felt short of the mark I wanted it to hit.






A Month of Sundays
Good effort from Matthew Saville about grief and mid-life ennui with characters and dialogue that reminded me of Paul Cox's best. Too long, though, and too often indulged in setting up humour that would have been better served by brevity.






Whiskey Foxtrot Tango
Compelling dramedy with Tina Fey in the lead (followed closely by Margot Robbie) in a tale of the costs of adventure and finding one's best fit. Wanted more of the grit outside of the Kabubble, though.






Blood of My Blood
Impressive tale of long reaching vengeance against the misogyny of the church told across centuries in a small Italian town. Keep wanting to put it in the high list but it doesn't quite make it there for me.






Chevalier
Greek weirdwave in the tradition of Dog Tooth and Attenburg about male competition subverted by its own cleverness and a confusing play of the competition itself to the effect that it was easy to forget about as the character quirks were aloud to prevail. A scene of competitive Ikea shelf assembly should have been sidesplitting but bled out its own energy.




A Dragon Arrives
Some fun and epic sized mystery storytelling realised that it had to get all serious towards the end or disrespect the whole premise. This worked but felt separated from the first two act









Gary Numan: Android in La La Land
A mostly informative and endearing character portrait on an interesting pop star who engineered a major shift in music at the start of his career. Numan suffers from Aspergers syndrome which highly focused but cold appearance actually aided his robotic persona into fame. His is a good story but the documentary's purpose was to concentrate a little too much on his most recent album, suggesting that much of the fame years' stories are still to be told.

The Beatles: The Touring Years: Eight Days a Week
A loss of focus on the declared purpose of the piece (went beyond the touring story into the recording which has been told very fully elsewhere) but also suffered from too sharp a focus on the US tours. Always nice to see the Fabs on screen but this felt like a feature length introduction to the Shea Stadium footage (which had more than a little flown in from other audio sources). There is a much fuller and truer film to be made about this.



2016: THE LOW

Kate Plays Christine
Great concept hijacked by its own author and continually flattened into inconsequence. There was a fictionalised feature at the time about the same case. Should have gone to that instead.







Looking for Grace
A potentially compelling story rendered indigestibly cute by over cooking design, performance (Richard Roxburgh managed to overact just by standing still at one point) and concept.






Album
Whimsy and ugliness blended until it was clear they wouldn't mix without more ugliness. Try-hard satire better managed by Roy Andersson or Elaine May than here.







The Demons
A kind of Michael Hanneke cover band which, despite some impressive choreography in the early scenes, flattened into a kind of hate-me-if-you-dare void.





The Lure
Great concept but aborted development. Felt like a short stretched into a feature length musical (what a good idea!) and just looked stretched out of shape as some themes were warped beyond purpose and others shrunken beyond recognition.






Nocturnal Animals
Lots of love for this one but I found myself unable to care about anyone on screen and sat back to look at all the lovely design. A waste of some of my favourite screen stars.