Monday, August 3, 2020

SHADOWS Contactless: Friday August 7 9pm: COLD WAR

This couldn't have happened better. As I was mulching over which of my short list to program next SBS came to save the day. Remember Ida, that quiet but powerful tale of complicated identity following disaster? Well, Pawel Pawlikowski's follow up has appeared on SBS on Demand. And it has demanded that I screen it as the next Shadows. Cold War was one of my favourites from MIFF 2018 and remains a strong recollection of that festival.

A couple meet in post war Poland as they travel the countryside seeking authentic Polish singers to promote the brave new submission to the Soviet giant. Their careers lift and take wing which flies them to the hot spot Berlin. They have to defect, of course. Now's their chance. You can probably predict the next move but I won't tell you which goes and which stays. But it doesn't end there as these soul mates are compelled to each other through the ranging alterations to life in Europe in the fifties and sixties. Their paths just keep crossing. This can be a tricky business punishable by Soviet retribution. Will there be a solution? How will it leave them?

Sounds dour? Some of it is. But it's also funny, thought provoking and always compelling. Telling his tale again in t rich deep black and white, Pawlikowski takes us back to his parents' epoque of big politics and even bigger music and sculpts an epic love story into less than ninety minutes.

With me? Let's go!

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

SHADOWS Contactless: Friday July 31 9pm on SBS and Messenger: THE HOST

A laboratory slip-up delivers a starter culture for a big bad life form that appears years later. Like everyone else strolling by the river in Seoul on that sunny afternoon, the Park family are directly affected by the massive mutant beast that bounds up from the water and takes what it wants along the bank. Stunned, the remainder of the family have to deal.

But that's the point of this modern monster movie and many before it. Only part of the fun is in the great beast on the rampage. Most of it is about family. The dysfunctional unit has long been stretching into malaise for a generation and there's nothing like a crisis to being it together. But then there's nothing like bringing it together to foment more crisis.

Director Bong Joon Ho's greatness is that he is indifferent to the genre he's working in as long as he can forge a strong theme about the human animal and especially how it works (or doesn't) in community. His contemporary fable about families and privilege Parasite made it clear that the title didn't just refer to the obvious move. Similarly, The Host asks you where you think the monstrosity is. It is always a monster movie. It is always a family saga. It is frequently an irresistible comedy without ever having to stoop to the cheapness of lampooning the genre it's in. Such is the hand of a master of cinema.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Review: RELIC

The woman who lives in the mansion in the mossy forest has vanished. Her daughter and granddaughter arrive to investigate. When Edna reappears one morning her replies to questions are deflective or vague. She has dementia. Her daughter Kay knows that her mother must finally enter into aged care as the dangers of leaving her in the house alone are too great. Kay's daughter thinks her age and opposes this. Marks have appeared on Edna's chest and arms. They are like the black mould that is spreading in the stained glass window of the front door.

Relic appeared on my radar as an upcoming Stan original and then in online reviews as a new horror movie. I didn't bother with trailers as they often miss-sell films: The Babadook was protrayed as a big loud jump scare fest when it was nothing of the sort. I didn't want to buy into that corruption, especially as this one appeared in trusted reviews as an allegory-forward fable about dementia. I was right: for all the darkness of the interiors and the trope of a shadowy figure appearing behind unwitting characters it is easy to see how it could be shoehorned into a James Wan style trailer.

The friend who recommended it to me as an impressive debut was right but then when I joined him in a chorus of praise he shot back a frown about the film lacking character development. That got me thinking and I let him know that I disagreed with the importance of the point. Relic, for all its disturbing atmosphere and gothic setting behaves less like a conventional horror piece and more like a fairy tale. Once we have understood our types (though there is real characterisation in the early stages) we just need to see them play their parts to an end that, for all its quiet performance delivers a real blow.

I was enjoying the sparse dialogue by themselves but the thing that really got me on side was the sequence of the granddaughter exploring a corridor in the house. This continues longer than it would in a normal horror and extends so much that it must be intercut with scenes outside of it as Sam just keeps moving forward, seen only from behind, often little more than a silhouette of a bobbed haircut. While this delivers real chills as its happening it also serves as a very strong manifestation of the film's central theme of dementia (and that isn't a spoiler).

While there are other characters this is essentially a three hander expressing generational diversity. Veteran Robyn Nevin delivers a terrifying volatility, owning the film even when absent from view. UK actor Emily Mortimer must, like her character, hold the centre and does so with enough vulnerability to show how difficult the job is (and in a very natural sounding Australian accent). Bella Heathcote gives us the fire and easily stung impetuousness of youth. In the end the three parts come together to form a timeline in a final tableau impossible to forget.

Relic is currently available through Stan.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Review : I SEE YOU

When something pops up in your Netflix suggestions you'll at least look at the titles and maybe the specs before you click somewhere else. This one also had some service from a number of voices in the greater Netville metropolitan area so I thought I'd give it a spin. First impressions: deft eye for eerie composition, colour pallette and a very promising electronic score. Ok, I'm in.

After a prologue which features a boy knocked off his bike by an invisible force we enter the home of the Harpers, mum dad and son. There is a coldness in the home directed at Jackie. Her son resists her olive branches and her husband sleeps on the couch in a show of acceptance. He's a detective, on the job of what looks like the resurgence of a particularly vile serial monster. If that wasn't enough there are some strange things happening in the house.

That's it for the plot as the spoilers start early in this movie. I can, however, say that while this one strides along at a decent clip and you probably won't regret giving it the time it leaves with a sense of very little achievement. There are a number of massive revelations at crucial points that all feel like writers playing get out of a jam cards and as each one happens it's not so much that you predicted it as a lack of surprise at learning it.

That's a pity as this film is constructed to take energy from its reveals and how they affect our view of characters we've been following so far. When the currency of the thriller is not good enough could there at least be characters to fall back on? There are many such films I can think of where I have forgotten the big denouement but recalled a strong build and atmosphere. This one's tightly constructed to the end, I just didn't care about it. One character begins benign and turns out dark 'n' nasty. Another begins with the burden of sin and then .... well, we kind of forget about it as something bad happens in that corner. Dig? It's a writer's room movie, however handsomely presented and how good the score (and it's great).

So, I can't even get passionate in my dismissal of it and it's for the same reason that every parent learns to give when they really want to cause a moment's damage to their offspring: I'm not angry, just disappointed.

On Netflix Australia.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

SHADOWS Contactless: Friday 24 July 9 pm SBS + Messenger: IN A WORLD

In a world where the barriers are determined by gender one woman struggles to break through and reach for the crest. Well, that's the way it should go. To Carol, who knows all about gravel voiced movie trailers from being a Hollywood vocal coach and the daughter of a prominent voice over man, it means a nice career fulfilment. The king of the voiceovers has died and there is room at the top. Can she do it?

Lake Bell's frustration film is kept nice through quirky humour and a light touch to allow the serious themes through. The scramble to take the top spot on what seems to us as the edge of the periphery of the film industry might seem trivial but the competition's ferocity reveals the darker side of tinseltown. No one doubts Carol's vocal prowess or professionalism but also no one considers her a candidate if only because the words of the title are never uttered by any but the most testosteronic tonsils to ever approach a mic.And just when you think she's broken through, Carol gets a reality check from a surprise corner.

You might say that Bell's film is a subversion in itself by its very existence but that might only serve to illustrate how far artists like her still have to go. The easy flow and warmth of character add up to something feelgood and that's what we get but we're also thinking.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

SHADOWS Contactless: 9 PM Friday July 17 SBS on Demand and Messenger: THE GAMBLER

Axel Freed has more than most in his social percentile. Literate and middle class, he's a popular teacher of literature, still young and sexy but is constantly haunted by the thrill of risking everything. He loses in freefall, rises with a break and deep dives into debt, inviting the mob into his daily life. But this is not just the usual riches to rags morality tale. Axel is constantly on the lookout for a hustle, no matter how small the thrill, same as any addict, but his other hook is in his social currency. Despite all the bluster and dealing and bourgeois machismo he still wants the love that keeps on giving. But look what happens when the stakes are the highest and take the most he's ever given to build and play? Will he still own himself and where can he go if he does win?

An early casting choice for the lead in this film was Warren Beatty and you'll see why. Beatty's instant charm mixed with the sleaze he was able to inject made him perfect for Axel. Instead, James Caan, still fresh from The Godfather, brings a tougher New York sass to the role. Grittier than Steve McQueen but rougher than Beatty (who'd go to his own masterclass the following year in Shampoo), Caan allowed the film as a whole to breathe around him rather than own too much of its centre. Lauren Hutton as his girlfriend Billie offers her own toughness and pushback, allowing a fluidity to their standoff.

The Gambler is a '70s film the same way that Taxi Driver or The French Connection are '70s films: it flies low enough to the street level to look verite but keeps its cine-art ... arty. Czech born Karel Reisz had already made a visible presence as a filmmaker in the UK but here adapts himself easily to US conditions, going straight to the new Hollywood table with the confidence to know that his sense of classic Hollywood could take care of itself.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

SHADOWS contactless: 9 PM Friday July 10 SBS on Demand + Messenger: THE ENDLESS

Ever heard of mumble core? That's because it pretty much faded before it could find a hand hold back in the 2000s. The idea was "millennial understatement meets..." It had its own bona fide auteurs and festival darlings. But now it's only part of an approach to indie movies, a kind of exotic touch to the cocktail. What happens, though, when you get that and smash it against the cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft? The answer is Benson and Moorhead, one of the oddest teams of filmmaking from the past three decades.

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead  play brothers Justin and Aaron who, having escaped from a cult while young have been sent an alluring VHS tape welcoming them back for a visit. One wants to go back just one more time and the other brother wants to keep clear. Nag nag nag, the older brother agreess but for ONE DAY ONLY! Old UFO death cult where the significant members don't seem to have aged a day in the last decade, what could go wrong?

The Endless is a new form of fantastical cinema. It does have the deadpan humour of mumble core, where self aware players tell each other how culty the thing the other said was. But it also does the homework and puts genuine chilly mindwarp moments in. This is really not just laughing at the new age hippies, it's the shock of finding that they really might have a point. And then there seems to be something spreading out and getting comfortable in the lake.

Join me for a trek through some dizzying mind games and earthy day-to-day observations of same. It's Benson and Moorhead and they're the future ...  in a sense.