Friday, December 6, 2019

Review: KNIVES OUT

Celebrated whodunnit novelist Harlan Thrombey is discovered dead in his study the morning after a party for his family. All of them have benefitted from the patriarch's position and wealth and all are about to reveal that they had a motive for doing him in. Not only is this like the plot of one of his novels but the police investigation includes a private detective in the form of a southern savant Benoit Blanc who also seems cut from the pages of a Thrombey book. So, rich family, a mass of motives and opportunity and a cluey sleuth on the case: who did dun it?

Well, that is the point but every whodunnit worth its salt offers scope for social commentary, satire and even just some old fashioned morality mining. That's what this one does and, a smattering of moderne narrative compression techniques, makes for a very entertaining couple of hours. End of story? Not quite.

There is an engaging fluidity here that lets the film move between arch and basely funny moments and more genuine thrills. It's hard to pin it down as a thriller or a comedy. The problem here, for me, is that this approach has encouraged a lot of belt-loosening in the screenplay and final edit. What feels like a constant thread of narrative is more like a meandering tour of the film's cleverness. While performances are never pushed to parody and the flashbacks in characters' recollections are more efficient (especially when the account is at odds with the memory) we are neither victims of self-conscious artistry nor routine genre service. Knives Out is a whodunnit for today but did we need it? I was left wondering if the bash-it-out approach of Ready or Not might not serve both its times and audiences better (also, it's shorter and funnier).

That said we do have some engaging performances. Daniel Craig is having a ball with his hand-rolled southern drawl and classic sleuth persona. His counterpart Ana de Armas owns the screen as the hapless accused from the illegal end of the immigrant family spectrum (and as cheap as the joke is the fact that every uppercrust Thrombey thinks she comes from a different part of Latin America it is a funny one). Michael Shannon, normally a go to galeforce presence clearly engages with the controlled rage of his family loser character. Christopher Plummer does what he says on his tin. Chris Evans is funny and edgy as the loose canon grandson Ransom. However, Toni Collette and Jamie Lee Curtis seem underwritten. Speaking of that, why bother casting the wonder LaKeith Stanfield in a role that makes absolutely nothing of him? Had the filmmakers not seen Atlanta, Get Out or Sorry to Bother You? As soon as you see him you think extra-dimension but what you get is 1st Detective. Such a waste.

At over two hours Knives Out ends up feeling hollower than it should. So what, aren't whodunnits fun piffly puzzles? Well, no. As they generically play out among the higher echelons the motives for the murders they depict are themselves a mix of the base passions of anger or jealousy etc. and troubling deeper moral currents. Super sleuths philosophise and comment. I don't know that I care so much about the reflexive architecture of a whodunnit about a master of whodunnits in a house that one character describes as looking like a Cluedo board. It's tidy, perhaps too much so. It's clever but perhaps not enough.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Summer: Will You Get To Heaven?




Trailer


Ave!

As we brace ourselves for what might be a cataclysm of fire in the new Australian summer we might spare a thought for those who sought and found a kind of salvation. These tales might not always be obviously heavenly but that just goes with the time. From a living hell of the imagination through to a desire given a difficult birth I have some treats for you here. Why only four? Aren't seasons more like twelve weeks long? Well, the anniversary was only for 2009 and I never went very far into December with them and the earliest I ever started was late Feb 2011. So, four. But welcome ye and see below and ponder the chorus as I sing with Girls at Our Best: "Will you get to heaven with advance publicity?"

ERASERHEAD (USA 1977)
I never showed this at Shadows. It almost felt like showing my own work. I'm not saying that I'm remotely capable of creating such a thing but Eraserhead has become such a part of the way I view things and even how I think that it would have felt like projecting pages from a diary. Now, that the screenings are dispersed I don't have to front up and feel embarrassed.

So, here it is: Henry who lives in a troubling world that might have once been America but is now a series of claustrophobic streets and machinery shown in deepest black and white. He finally goes for dinner with his girlfriend's parents only to learn (after the mechanical self-saucing mini chickens on the table have ruined the occasion) that he and Mary are pregnant and, according to Mary, "they're not even sure it is a baby!" Then there's married life in Henry's grimy flat feeding a thing that looks and sounds like a newborn lamb except still foetal. David Lynch's feature debut came directly from his experiences as a young parent trying to start an art career and when I say directly I mean in raw uncensored form moulded by one of the most creative imaginations cinema has ever known. "In Heaven everything is fine. You've got your good things and you've got mine."

TAG (Japan 2018)
Mitsuko gets on her bus to school as always but as she bends to pick up the pen that's fallen to the floor a force bashes through the vehicle and severs not just the roof but the upper halves of everyone on board except for her. She escapes into the nearby woods, cleans herself of the blood of her dead school mates and finds some cleaner clothes. Suddenly she's walking into school with her friend Aki who goes to a different school which Mitsuko now also goes to. Somethng very strange is about to happen all over again and after the shock of the opening we can't stop asking questions. What is turning everything into weird violence? Is she really still Mitsuko despite a new body and name? Why are there only female characters? In this hyperspace Battle Royale of manners Mitsuko might have to take the teen rebellion of her friends as something more like a life manual. From the never predictable Sion Sono who gave us Suicide Club and Why Don't You Play in Hell?

GINGER SNAPS (Canada 2000)
Brigitte and her sister Ginger are so emo that they are each other's only friend but this actually works so well that the situation is more like the most exclusive club at school. One night, while organising a prank on one of the alpha girls Ginger is attacked by something savage and powerful. Back home, her cuts heal before their eyes. What just happened? In a world (yes, please imagine that spoken by a dusty voiced voiceover artiste) where puberty is marked as much by menstrual as ejaculative onset a new field of bloodletting is about to open. From the death scene videos under the credits to the final genuinely tragic end we are taken through some of the funniest teen sass since Joss Whedon and subversive humour as teen movies collide with werewolf movies. "I get this ache... And I, I thought it was for sex, but it's to tear everything to fucking pieces."

SECONDS (USA 1966)
Mr Wilson, an ageing white collar is given a second chance at youth which comes as a freaky phone call one night. Proving it isn't a prank, the caller gives him the time and place. He turns up to find it's completely different to expectations but everybody working there seems to know who he is and why he's there. He soon learns that he is to become a younger man through surgery and socio-financial magic and there will be no turning back. He recovers to find he is a young painter in a Californian bohemian colony, at the canvas by day and the Martinis by night. And there is an alluringly mysterious woman enticing him out to the wild crashing waves. Paradise? How would you do? John Frankenheimer in the mid sixties was on a roll, from the serious and stylish thrillers like Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate to this intriguing take on the clash of silent generation and the emerging hippies as the third act of the American Dream goes wrong. Rock Hudson's casting is poignant, allowing him a kind of abstract declaration of the double life he still had to lead. I think of this as the real Twilight Zone movie. It was the one I started with back in 2009 and here provides confident if bracing landing.

Vale!
Well, it certainly has been fun doing all this again. I have missed the curation of the lists and editing the trailers. I hope, if you've been following this, that you've sampled some of these wares. There's so much of cinema to discover from its various prodigious eras and there's no sign at all that we're sick of it yet. I'm certainly not. So, it's another farewell from me as I send this off to the blog and check the spelling. I'll still find myself striding along Smith Street of a Friday evening with a pleasant sense of panic that I've forgotten a subtitle file or just couldn't find that pesto dip everyone loves.

Bye.


Sunday, December 1, 2019

Spring Part 2: People Are Strange

As we move closer to the end of spring and the closing off with a summer season I thought we might diverge from the primaveran concerns of love and reproduction to notions of other fruition. This could be the strange literal afterlife of The Rapture, the vanity spinning hilariously out of control in Death Becomes Her or the big overcast dread of Kairo. And more. Your chair!

DEATH BECOMES HER
While it can be self-consciously cute at times this black comedy is continually funny with a range of performance styles which work for rather than against it. Streep and Hawn prove fiery combatants and Bruce Willis is cast against type at a time in his career when he would dare such a thing. Watch out for Sydney Pollack who only gets one scene but it's bloody funny and he steals it.


THE RAPTURE (USA 1991)
Sharon goes from spicing up her dull workaday world with nightly hedonism to born-again zealotry after she investigates an image seen in a tattoo that haunts her. This puts her on a rough outward spiral to something far more extreme than anything from her sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll days. But is a very literal apocalypse really happening around her or is she just caged in her own terrifying delusion?



KAIRO (Japan 2001)
Another apocalypse but this time one of of loneliness as a group of friends and then the rest of the world succumb to what would now be called a dark web room which brings them together with ghosts. These never go well, leaving the curious as black stains on walls where they have hanged themselves or even just explosions of ashes. Kyoshi Kurosawa has moved on from the horror films that made his name but they have a way of haunting all by themselves. I can't do better than one online critic who described Kairo (often translated as Pulse, but don't bother with the U.S. remake) thus: like The Omega Man directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

DISTRICT 9 (South Africa 2009)
Sci-Fi satire as an alien invasion has long settled into being more of a refugee crisis, drawing inter-species bigotry very poignantly set in contemporary South Africa. Adopting a mockumentary style, following a bureaucratic staffer who in taking the crew to the internment camp of the title comes upon some illegally synthesised fuel, the inspection of which leads to ironies both hilarious and horrifying. A brilliant idea served so well that any heaviness of hand is forgivable through its sheer panache.

BANSHEE CHAPTER (2013)
This one comes in under the radar and tries a few things that might have killed it. It has a character who stands in for Hunter S. Thompson who is played as close to cheap parody as possible but never crosses that line. It borrows from the found footage sub genre while never assuming it as a narrative device which allows us to forget about its evident low cost. What it does provide is a lot of resourceful invention and a deft touch with what makes a scene scary.


SATANIC (USA 2016)
A bunch o' young adults head to a music festival but get sidetracked by some dark tourist attractions in LA. Getting in too deep, they witness a ritual. They come upon one of the participants at the ritual who tells them, with the eerie confidence of a zealot, that Hell is a beautiful confusion. She then draws something on the wall and changes the course of every other life in the room. Now, this should not work at all; it seems constructed by genre brickbats and only meant to hold until the credits. But the cast and direction ensure that, once the obnoxiousness of the kids is ironed out, the jeopardy is mounting and the rules are not for the general public. The contrast between the sumptuous shots of the LA skyline and the grime of the life closer to the drain adds a kind of pathos and Hell, when it is entered is confusing but maybe not so beautiful. A bright young horror for today.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Review: JUDY & PUNCH

If you take almost any folk tale or traditional entertainment and think of it happening in real life you never have to delve deep to find its horror. While some form of Cindarella or Snow White might well be told today it's hard to imagine anyone getting away with a Punch and Judy puppet show now without exhaustive surgical remodelling. The link to domestic violence is not even allegorical, it's just there in the action. The closer you get between the violence of an old story and its surface the deeper you are going to have to think about how you do it if you are going to render it as more or less recognisable drama. This is pretty much why magical realism exists, that dark ferry ride between the realm of the impossible and the face-slapping other one we know from every day of our lives. So, if you use Punch and Judy in a fiction you are going to need a firm hand at the helm.

Punch and Judy are a theatrical duo who perform a well loved marionette show in a rowdy medieval mishmash of an inland town called Seaside. Punch has a problem with alcohol and, while initially seems a loving husband and father, can turn darkly narcissistic with a drop or two. It might well explain why, as Judy observes, the show is getting more violent. He pleads public appeal but we already know better.

The basic set up of a Punch and Judy show is that the short tempered and violent Punch is left with responsibilities he can't handle and disaster ensues for which he is punished despite a self-defence riddled with lies. This forms the climax of the first act and in a test for the production, we are shown what happens when this flesh and blood Punch does when asked to mind the baby and do some other chores. We are taken so close to horror in this sequence that it elicits the same response to children watching a puppet version on a seaside holiday, we gasp or just hold our breath with popping eyes. And then it gets worse.

Act two changes pace as it might but, even though it does introduce some engaging elements and some strong filmmaking, begins to drag when it ought to start tightening and accelerating. Punch tries to make do with what's left of his life to build another like it as Judy slowly returns to life in a kind of fairyland bootcamp peopled by women who describe themselves as heretics. We have already seen what the folk of Seaside do with anyone accused of difference in an early stoning scene that is not played for laughs.

The problem which will plague this film until its coda is one of pacing. When we need the conflict and action of the third act we get exploration of themes we are already familiar with. The climactic action is passably carried off but is allowed to slow down too much to regain momentum. As said, there is a coda and it is effectively creepy.

What brings us repeatedly back to focus through these lapses is performance. Everyone's go-to Charles Manson Damon Herriman (that needs to change) gives us a complex monster in Punch. An early shot of him looking at his own reflection after being chided for his drinking shows someone who doesn't like what he sees but later, darkly sophisticated by his own extremity, it's an affimation of his talent at facade. The puppet Punch is a trickster, even cheating the hangman, using charm and guile in the path to violence. Not one or the other but both. Herriman's Punch knows his failings but also the delicate balance of public opinion. His initial capacity for love colours his quickly rising brutality with horror. Mia Wasikowska finds the gravity under Judy's initial complanency to emerge as credibly vengeful. It is a nuanced and tough performance.

The trailer for this film plays up the lighter ironical moments that might suggest a contemporary Princess Bride but the gravity sets in early and, while there are a few Pythonesque gags here and there they are not allowed too much weight. The setting might as well be anywhere but, puzzlingly, there are references to London and Wales in the dialogue and the accents for this landlocked village are character-based (Cockneys for common folk, Irish for the showbiz title characters, Scottish brogues for the tugs etc.) all of which contribute to the tension between pantomime and drama that must be kept taut throughout.

While this doesn't always work I'm going to give it credit for its commitment. In times of revised public figures, the Roman Polanskis, Woody Allens or Michael Jacksons, a public repentance with a sorry-not-sorry tone sounds, appropriately like a sports figure trying to get past a difficult public faux pas. With the horrifying figures on domestic violence nationwide there is no better time to haul such a story from the puppet booth into live action cinema, especially with a plea to consider its victims and survivors over the power of its perpetrators. And then, crucially, how airing the issue in public life in a fictive medium can have a double edge. This film's coda includes itself in this equation. Now that's commitment!

Friday, November 22, 2019

Review: PAIN & GLORY

Salvador Mallo, prominent film auteur, is ageing. The medical conditions that have followed him from childhood are ramping up and preventing him from concentrating on creative work. His mother, centre of his life's gravity, is recently deceased. And then the national Cinemateque has revived his old breakthrough hit and demands he front up for a Q&A at the screening. He pursues its star, Alberto from whom he has been estranged ever since, some three decades to join him on stage at the event. As Salvador smooths over the initial hostility from Alberto, on a whim he asks to join the actor in a spot of heroin. It's the drug habit that split the pair as creative partners back in the day but Salvador's pain is getting the better of him and he likely sees it as a bonding opportunity. He loves it. Welcome to the slippery slide.

Actually, no, welcome to Pedro Almovodar's strongest film for years. Salvador is his stand-in and Alberto is the stand-in of Almodovar's old dependable Antonio Banderas. Antonio Banderas is playing Salvador. Confused? You won't be. Almovodar wants us to delight in the meta casting but really leaves it there and just gets on with telling the story. And that's what we do get; a tale of interlocking lives backed by an autobiography that celebrate the bonds between colleagues, mother and son, friends, old flames and the past and present incarnations of one's own self. Almodovar keeps all these elements so elegantly defined that there is no space for confusion and precious little time for guessing.

Banderas' Salvador is fragile from pain, he shudders from touch and takes time to speak as though the act of it was burdensome. In picking something up from the floor he will first drop a cushion there for his knee. Just as we confidently assume his testimony of medical conditions (delivered in a 3D animated sequence) is a confession of hypochondria we do see him in physical difficulty. His taste of heroin is not just curiosity. Banderas almost makes us see the emotional diving bell Salvador carries around him in the company of others. The fragility in contrast with the ferocity of his creative thoughts let us in on the raging figure he has been.

As his mother in flashback, Penelope Cruz shows us the hardening of a woman whose life has become a swing between the weakness of a war-damaged husband and her devotion to a son she sees as the sole possibility of goodness to emerge from their lives. Julieta Serrano, as her older self shows a woman who has learned a lighter touch to a laborious life and even to an impending death. Her dialogues with the older Salvador are of grave matter but given with such levity we have to remember what they were about. Asier Etxeandia as the movie actor Alberto is like a mid-career De Niro but lost without his best director. That might make him sound overly dependent but the relationship is a complex one that requires a lot of impromptu tinkering.

This is set against a non-nostalgic past and unromantic present yet it still charms and engages. And even if it doesn't there are always the visuals which are among Almodovar's richest and most nutritious. If that's too purple you might more plainly enjoy the poignancy of a great cinematic artist celebrating what he loves about his life and however fancy of image or lofty of thought that might be it must always come back to the work. The work is where this film ends and what it has always been about and where its heart and beauty live.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ten from the VoD Streamers for Halloween


Can't be arsed getting up from the couch to find a disc or try a fun round of spooky charades? Same here and it's not like we really get into Halloween in Australia, anyway. However, I've done the next best thing to a lucky dip and dragged out some things from the local streaming services. Caution: all such lists are folly. They never please all and sometimes please none. But these aren't necessarily from my favourite horror movies, more a mix of classics and new things that have caught my attention and then only from what you can click on from Netflix, Stan and SBS on Demand. I chose against Mubi (as I don't subscribe to it anymore) or TubiTV as while it has a few hard to see antiquities o' merit it can be daunting to navigate for the newbie (newbie? How old did I say I was?)  and Shudder still hasn't arrived here. And there are many I've left out. It was hard keeping it to ten. Anyway, Halloween.

THE EXORCIST (1973) - Netflix
I don't know how this happened but the version on Netflix is the original 1973 cut which is in every way superior to the bloated 2000 re-release. So, yes, this champ among horror flicks can be seen from the comfort of your living room while you hear all the sounds your house makes but normally don't notice. If you are watching with purpose tomorrow night and you haven't seen this cut (which should pinch the subtitle from the later cut as it now applies more accurately: the version you've never seen) choose this one. A great movie of any genre.

RAW (2016) - SBS on Demand
Starts as a kind of coming of age/loss of innocence but soon turns into a tale of newly discovered appetites and has a coda ending that lets its hitherto hidden tragedy into the light. French extremity is good for you.






LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) - SBS on Demand and Stan
Superb fresh take on vampirism also manages to outrank its source material (at least the translation from Swedish that I read). Notes of Stephen King are undeniable but this gets a lot more queasy. Solid tale, also, of the costs and benefits of friendship.







SATANIC (2016) - Netflix
This tale of young adults dabbling in the dark (when they should be going to Lollapalooza as they set out to do) and paying the price is much, much better than that premise or the thumbnail art it gets on Netflix. There's a real mounting sense of sadness in the encroaching dark which does a lot of driving where, in a lesser film, it would just be scares. One character says with the eerie confidence of the self-taught zealot, "Hell is a beautiful confusion." It's poignant and chilling. And she ain't kidding.

SHUTTER (2004) - Netflix
A superb Thai outing in the then burgeoning world of Asian Horror in the 2000s, Shutter is a slowburn personal investigation which keeps its mystery icy and saves its weird and horrible surprise (note: surprise, not jump scare) for the very last. You won't expect it.





HEREDITARY (2018) - Netflix
Justly celebrated horror debut of Ari Aster packs a wallop early and then goes quietly bonkers as a family visited by grief also gets visited by some grievous folk. A pleasing mix of hard edged family drama (just watch Toni Collette go off) and the supernatural.






DUMPLINGS (2004) - Stan
An ageing star seeks a means of arresting the process that plagues us all and finds a wise woman who can help her. There's a price, of course, and it might turn you off Yum Cha for life.








THE THING (1982) - Netflix
Doesn't get much better than John Carpenter's reimagining of the story Who Goes There, pushing the horror into the very cells of the characters. See if you can get through the blood test scene without biting the tip of your tongue off.




THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES (2008) - Stan
Really, really, really not for everybody. This found footage mini-epic goes deep into the dark of a sexual sadist's mind and crimes. I still don't know if it indulges in the sleaze it portrays (like Compliance) or fearlessly examines it.






KILLING GROUND (2016) - Stan
An intentionally scattered timeline begins to find its pieces and we see the ghastliness they build. Significant indications of sexual assault (though almost all of it is shown as aftermath) but the real fight, when it happens proves that this film is not just about violence but our response to it and how that can be both triumphant and ugly.



Saturday, October 26, 2019

Review: READY OR NOT

Grace and Alex travel to his family mansion to get married. Grace is treated to various shades of contempt by the American bluebloods she's about to join, feeling judged and excluded. There's a traditional remedy for this as Alex informs her: a ritual game at midnight which will be a kind of initiation ceremony. Not becalmed by this she joins them in a private chamber in the house and draws not chess or chequers as others claim they got but hide and seek. She agrees to it with relieved at the tokenism of it but is not informed of all the details. We have a good idea already from a prologue scene involving a young man being hunted down through the halls by people in hideous masks. How she finds out this particular bent introduces us to both the archness of the film's wit and its readiness for gore.

That's all the plot as this tale is too easily spoiled. But it's also a good place to leave the description as the balance of wit and gore can play for for and against this film. Such an odd juxtaposition is not so odd in satire like this where the rich are shown as ruthless sociopaths as it gives plenty of scope for comment on the brutality that buys privilege. In contrast Grace is well served by her own wit and wile against the tightening grip of the game.

But the balance doesn't always work. Some scenes which should be nail biting are undercut by humour which then feels mild for the sacrifice. Others amp up the gore with so slight a comedic payoff that makes the violence feel squandered. This is less a criticism of the film than a recognition of the difficulty in managing such a thing. Brian Yuzna's Society which partially informs this film, did this by spiralling into mutation, rendering the rich into physical monstrosities. Get Out added a sci-fi weirdness. While there is the suggestion of a supernatural motivation to the events it has to be kept subtle which means the human action needs to feel earthly. It's a tough gig but the film manages to fly above it and deliver real punches in the finale.

A lot of that transcendence has to do with one of the most vigorous and rangy performances you'll see on screen this year. Samara Weaving owns this film, going from an agreeably sassy urbane woman to a hunted animal to an all out warrior, managing a ton of nuance along the way. Take her out of it and it's an ok social comment, with her at the centre you have a battle of dusty status quo against the force of life itself. Actors don't get Oscars for genre movies and seldom for comedy and that's a pity.