Friday, July 5, 2019

Review: PARASITE

The Kim family are down and out but after a considerate favour the son is given a job as a tutor which leads to the other three Kims replacing the rest of the rich family Park's staff through a series of cons too ingenious to spoil. As the Kims make themselves increasingly at home in their fortunate bliss the breach arrives suddenly and sets the tale off into a charge toward a violent climax.

The complexity, here, is not in a weave of themes. The son, Ki-Woo frequently describes things admiringly as metaphorical. Another character spends more screen time than necessary lampooning North Korea in a scene that already involves a direct comparison between an app's send button and a nuclear one. A third act scene renders literal the notion of keeping one's head above water. Bong Joon Ho who gave us the forward thrust of Snowpiercer, the still but deep waters of Mother and the freak-out of The Host is far less interested in his audiences wasting time guessing at his themes than he is playing them out. And it's no different here as have and have not, cultured and demotic, privilege and destitution all meet in the melting pot of aspiration.

Those things catered the cast is put through a workout from nuance to physical comedy so athletic it borders on shock. Veteran Song Kang Ho, whether detaching from the noise of the world into a meditative state or battling to hold his fury gives us a lot of what the film is about. This is an ensemble piece but Song carries its weight until his character can no longer bear it. It's an impressive turn.

This is a comedy but it is not one that begins with gags and multiplies them. For all the strident indicators of the social divide on show we are given a gentle start and naturalistic introduction to characters which compels us to invest when the pace and stakes lift. This is simply masterful filmmaking. If this review is briefer than usual it's because I will not spoil this spoilable thing but more so that I just don't want to collapse into gushing. Parasite took out this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes. It deserved it.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Review: ROCKETMAN

A good biopic can interest you in the life of someone for whom you harbour little interest. An even better biopic dispenses with the approach that quilts a series of great moments from history. That last one is virtually non-existant but some get close. Amadeus works by letting you know that the biography it promises is contained in the confession of a madman and plays to myth instead of history. Dexter Fletcher's recent save job on Bohemian Rhapsody pulled back on the mighty moments of biography to push forward mighty moments of the film that it was. And here he is again and he has gone one better.

Rocketman begins with Elton John as a character in a stage outfit of a stylised Satan coming offstage and into a therapy session for addicts. He begins his life's confession, challenged by the therapist, and almost immediately weaves dialogue with song which then transports to a thrilling dance number. Then back to the group circle. That is the structure of the rest of the film. But that's a good thing.

It's good because we know straight away that we are in for a broadened perspective, narrative sleight of hand, dialogue that, sung not spoken, can serve variously as private thoughts or open declarations, timeline flexibility (songs are chosen for thematic relevance not chronology) and the host of other acceptable liberties that a musical can offer that is largely forbidden to the straight drama. This is primarily a musical and works best as an exploration of the themes of its subject. It almost entirely works that way.

Fletcher uses a shifting pallet that takes from the monochrome of Post War Britain to the brown of film of the '70s, through the neon of the '80s and so on. This is very fleet but it has to be as it needs to keep up with some rapidly shapeshifting musical arrangements which can go from the cast singing lines as ensembles, Taron Egerton as Elton partly voicing and partly miming the real Elton's vocals as the orchestration morphs from rock to the Thousand Strings of Cinema. And while we're having fun just with that Fletcher gives us a host of wow moments. The young Reg Dwight imagines himself conducting an orchestra from his bed who are lighted by his pen torch. As we cut between the players and Reggie his costume goes from pyjamas to something like a tuxedo. The gig at the L.A. Troubadour features a moment so spectacular I can't spoil it here. The pool scene for the title song might well leave you breathless. Between these moments (and there are more) we are shown some historical pinpoints but, with everything else on screen and the genuine drama of identity and forgiveness at the centre, they feel a little tokenistic.

Oh, I'll just single this out: there's a sequence in which Elton John is on stage playing Pinball Wizard,  the song he acted and sang in Ken Russell's film of Tommy. The camera circles around the star and his grand piano as he changes costume with every rotation. This is clever as Rocketman bears more than a little resemblance to Tommy. It's also clever as the song is about winning via extraordinary means. So, it's a take on an earlier film using a song that was a cover version. But the best thing about all of this is that you simply don't have to know or care about any of it. If you're letting go of the thrill of this thrilling film you have gone into the wrong cinema.

Taron Egerton as Elton John gives us a Protean figure whose person and persona are constantly in combat as the riches and the fame take the ironic vampiric toll that has killed many and driven more into ruin. Early scenes are perhaps a tad theatrical as the actor shows us how he found the look of his role. It's a smile. His teeth are given a central gap like his character but we don't just see this. We see a smile and it's strange at first. Why? because it looks like someone whose smile normally bends the lower lip bending the upper lip. Try it (the reverse of the way you normally do it) and see how difficult it is. Then go and look at Elton John smiling. He smiles in the opposite direction. The weird thing is that when Egerton does it he instantly looks like Elton John. Egerton is made up to look as much like his subject as you'd want but it's this and a lot of work around the mouth that gives us a continual sign of conflict and vulnerability. Ok, that's just his mouth. His performance outside of this detail is assured and characterful and feels less like the impersonation that was Ramy Malek's Freddie Mercury (but that was a very different movie).

I think that might be my point, here. Fletcher's insistence on the music's central placement and the plot and themes starring out from it allows all three elements to fill a screen and auditorium with big cinema. This is a joyous experience that, if you do the right thing by yourself and see it at a cinema, will only reward. If you see it and start listing biographical inaccuracies you might ask yourself why you went in the first place. Meet this halfway and it will do the rest. Bloody wonderful!

Friday, June 7, 2019

Shadows Winter Part 1 2019: SANCTUARY


So, settle into the first of winter, with a log in the hearth, a rum toddy by your elbow and the night wind whipping and whispering without. Without a venue, that is. Well, the venue's at your place or a friend's place and you can set it up any way you wish. You might have to dig around for some of these titles (that's half the fun) but you'll be glad you did.

Season Trailer.


THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (Dario Argento, Italy, 1969)
A young American writer in Rome witnesses an attack in a gallery in which a woman is left crawling near death on the floor. He tries to help but is trapped in a double glass door, powerless to intervene. It's the first of a series of attacks that will lead him deeper and deeper into dark mystery. Dario Argento's debut is a giallo which uses the classic form as a springboard for a new stylistic iteration, both more colourful and nasty than its inspirations. That said, it's also frequently hilarious with one of the most entertaining police detectives you'll find in the genre. Add to that a score by Ennio Morricone in a playful experimental mood and you have something both of its time and timeless. The film equivalent of the power chord assault on track one of the first Led Zeppelin album.

JUGFACE (Chad Crawford Kinkle, USA, 2013)
A community of backwoods folk who arrange marriages and sacrifice to a blood red pit. All goes well until young Ada, who's gettin' hot n heavy with her own brother, is chosen as a sacrifice (this happens by a kind of divination and pottery ... really!) She's pregnant. This ain't gonna end well. Guess she could just high tail it to the city but there's a problem. That pit they find so godlike ... um, it really seems to be godlike. A strange and intense tale of responsibility that, if flawed, works through sheer pluck.

LAKE MUNGO (Joel Anderson, Australia, 2008)
Young Alice Palmer drowns while swimming in a dam on a day out. Through interviews, home movies and family (and some not so familial) photos we learn about her from her family and other people who knew her. As this begins to get a little too intimate we are taken to their experiences of her presence in the house and efforts in contacting her posthumously. Is fantasy just spiritual comfort food? What of the evidence of hidden cameras, accidental sightings and the thing on the phone from Alice's holiday at Lake Mungo? Grief is not just tears, it's a greedy emotion and a personal entertainment industry. Joel Anderson's extraordinary tale of a haunting is presented like an extended episode of Australian Story, using a mix of professional and non-actors with a mix of performance and improvisation which seldom feels less than real. That's before you get to the genuinely clever use of technology as an extension of the best and worst of our humanity.

WHY DON'T YOU PLAY IN HELL? (Sion Sono, Japan, 2013)
Sion Sono bids a very fond farewell to the art of 35 mm film making (having gleefully adopted digital video much earlier) plunges into the punk ethos that drives his best work and style-checks a kind of history of Japanese cinema while he's about it. A gang of guerilla filmmakers inadvertently stirs a turf war between two Yakuza gangs but finds a strange means of reconciliation: make both sides stars in their own movie version of the feud. Violent, anarchic and frequently hilarious. "Long live the Fuck Bombers!"


HAROLD AND MAUDE (Hal Ashby, USA, 1971)
My favourite rom com. The meet cute is at a funeral. He's depressed and stages his own mock suicides for his mother's attention. She's a force of life and the strong poetry of the everyday. He's a Californian manboy, rich, idle, about twenty. She's a life model and saviour of smog smothered plants, about seventy. It works because it shouldn't. One of the most naturally funny and wrenching films ever.


THEY LIVE (John Carpenter, USA, 1988)
"Put the glasses on!" A drifter finds a job on a construction site and heads back with a co-worker to the homeless camp on the edge of town. At night there seem to be odd chanting prayer meetings in town but on investigation the soup kitchen folk are up to something. Picking up a pair of sunnies he finds in the hall our hero strides into town and finds that the glasses translate billboards from advertising to commands like OBEY and CONSUME. Not only that, all the high lifers and authority figures he sees through the specs look like bug eyed monsters. Our guy is big and strong and angry and has found out that you can't un-know things. John Carpenter's take on Reagan's America pulls no punches (and throws plenty) and remembers to push the thrill essential to all good satire.

Review: BRIGHTBURN

Youngish couple in rural Kansas are about to get it awn when something big and fiery crashes into their yard. It's not a meteor, it's a spaceship and there's a human baby in it. A home movie montage later under the credits and we see that they, the Breyers, have adopted young Brandon (their name) and he's now a nice enough twelve year old boy, if a little nerdy and introverted. He's going through puberty and exhibits a mild resentment of the changes but discovers a massive physical strength he's never known before. He's got a crush on a girl in class and there's a bully who taunts him. So, we're kind of Stephen King-ing this, right? Kind of.

After a swift opening premise things get staggered as Brandon's turn to the dark side gets motivated among a lot of quite repetitive scenes of parenting and school life. His force breaks through but there is no struggle of conscience around his violent actions. On the one hand, he's a mixed up kid with a mega punch and on the other he just seems to be moping around on the spectrum. One manifestation of his might is witnessed by his father who recognises it as extraordinary but doesn't bother to mention it to his wife. Everyone has pretty clear suspicions about Brandon being at the centre of some explosive local murders but this often just gets dropped in favour of a few more scenes of normal life. It just seems to meander.

Then again, it did remind me that if the central metaphor is one of the shock of learning you're adopted wasn't Superman also an adoption tale? While I think you'd have to be thick to assume the metaphor equated adoptees with evil you might well be disappointed in how smoothly Brandon manages to cope after the initial shock. Ok, he's turned evil but why? The central trauma of his life isn't enough. Being spurned by his crush (after being very very creepy to her) is a fizzer. Not even the school bully has that much power. Is this a tale of how hard it is to become truly evil in small town America where everything just gets swept under the carpet o' life lessons? If it's because he feels his alienness make him more goddanged alien. If his adoptive mother is so fiercely devoted to him, couldn't that be developed into something frightening? What we get is a series of inconsequential events ending in a dark climax that just feels like more of the same.

The near documentary style of the film with its muted palette and rustic understatement might have served as a compelling contrast with the sci-horror of the theme but it feels like neither side was allowed definition enough to combat the other. We do get some entertaining kills with some powerfully violent imagery. It made me think of the undersung first sequel to The Omen in which the adolescent Damien really struggles with the thing he is becoming. I thought of Chronicle which mixed found footage with superhero origins (with a very believable developing villain) to great effect. I even thought of George A. Romero's magnificent Martin which blended 70s verite cinema with adolescence and possible vampirism. Martin was hundreds of years old but still a confused teenager (but maybe he was just the latter). Young Jackson Dunn in Brightburn seems to do his job according to what his director bids. It's just that he never gets a chance from the film around him.

Oh, and to the two gits at the back in my screening whose whispers rose and fell all through the thing: if you can't get treatment for your sociopathy please develop lifelong tinnitus. It's how the rest of the world experiences you.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Review: THE REALM

We first see a man in a blue suit on a beach take a phone call. He turns and strides into a building, goes (in a Goodfellas-style continuous tracking shot) through the kitchen of a restaurant, picks up a plate of prawns and delivers it to a table of high-lifers in style. The moment is small in their lives but noted as a kind of pulled favour by the lunch host. That's Manuel, political stoker and boiler. The conversation is as rapid as the music video cuts but you're not meant to get details, just the vibe that you are watching wealth and privilege. In a loo break during the lunch the president hints to Manuel that he is about to come into a promotion. Later, he wakes from an afternoon nap into a scandal filling the media like a burst water main. He's at its centre.

Most of the course of this film is his efforts to first staunch the flow of damage to the government he's part of and then, as more fellow conspirators are thrown under buses by the party, he himself is on the plank. The gigantic second act of this Spanish political thriller is taken up with this struggle as Manuel dialogues his way through fall guys and old faithfuls in need of bolster as his chances of getting out clean drain like dirty bathwater.

There is no ambiguity about his guilt, the film depends on our knowing that for the character to deal freely with his co-conspirators. What is the crime involved? Well, it's a kind of siphoning off of public money with a land zoning scam. Details emerge slowly in this story of information as wealth but you get the idea. More importantly you see how a character who is aware of his own sin but oblivious to its effects develops from forceful arrogance through an increasing desperation as his political survival turns to one of physical life and death.

Antonio de la Torre gives Manuel a performance that picks up nuance as his character must, going from an unchallenged bluster through a kind of acquired begging to an animal wildness as he sees the struggle become mortal. There are certainly times when we might wonder if we can follow him with such a lack of remorse for his actions but it is well before he is made a clear victim the we understand how novel this journey is. This is nowhere near the overwrought bombast of Bad Lieutenant or the more tragic downward slide of Raging Bull. He has chosen, in strength, to be a bad man. We long to see him understand this and for the moment it happens. When it does it is the least Hollywood of climaxes you could expect from the spectacle you've been witnessing. A question. Fade to black.

Robust cinema that rises above its risk.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Review: LONG SHOT

Romcoms need to sell you the conflict early and fast. Political satires need to steer a tight channel between whimsy and cynicism. Both ask you to indulge them for the promise of a big, preposterous resolution. So what happens if you soften all of this and try to inject some everyday grind in among the one liners and physical gags? You get Long Shot and it takes a little adjustment.

It opens on a neo-nazi den where Seth Rogen's Fred tries to pass for one of them, gets found out and runs through a window and splats onto the footpath below looking like he's broken his neck. He gets up and taunts his incredulous tormentors. That is comedy. Charlize Theron's Charlotte, Secretary of State is coddling a Trumpish Bob Odenkirk president into endorsing her as a future presidential candidate as he repeats ideas she's just fed him as though they are his own. That's satire. The real meet cute of this movie is the collision of those two. I spent the first twenty minutes swinging between wanting to laugh more and preparing for some hard cynicism. Both happen and then they stop and then they start again.

Fred meets Charlotte at a charity do and they realise they knew each other as teenagers when she was his idealistic and hell-hot babysitter. Decades on, he's an idealistic journalist and she a political golden girl. After he takes a verbal swing at the Rupert Murdoch figure (an unrecognisable Andy Serkis) and then takes a massive fall down a staircase he's so lodged in her mind that he's engaged as her speechwriter. The middle act that brings them together despite contrary forces is a series of travel locations and tight spots that veer between farcical and poignant. Rogan playing to his audience with a well known and appealing shtick of intelligent goof and Theron again showing a flair for comedy using poise to generate laughs (see also Cary Grant in his own romcoms).

And then we get the big break in the third act where characters choose between happiness or aggrandisement but we also get the tightening swing between the two types of comedy and where earlier scenes felt frustrating and directionless there is now resolution. But it still feels like it has taken too long to get to this point.

What saves this frequently very funny film from collapse is the demand we develop to see more of the leads. However hokey or deflated it gets we perk up at the interaction of Rogen and Theron who get the best lines but do work as a comedy pairing. Theron completely outclasses Rogen but even the awkwardness of this seems to work.

In the end it feels less substantial than it has been, nesting into a goofy feelgood conclusion that, for all its genuine issue-facing, feels warm. The romcom has won. I liked it the more time I had to think about it which is the opposite of more audacious fare from earlier decades like Bulworth or Wag the Dog which tripped over their self-congratulation without the irony they were labouring to create. Network or The Candidate this aint but it kinda works, anyway.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Review: BURNING

Boy meets girl and they get on and get it on. She goes off to Africa as she's already told him and comes back with a suave and handsome devil whom the boy likens to Gatsby. The boy feels like garbage and very had. But Gatsby takes to him and the three strike up an uneasy three way friendship. Girl goes missing. Boy eyes off Gatsby with good reason. That's almost the entire plot. It could fit with leg room in a commercial tv half hour. But that's not why we're here.

Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) has his own problems. His father's anger disorder has lended him in jail and Jong-su has to go and look after the cattle on the farm. That's just in time for him to meet the beautiful, young and volatile Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo) spruiking outside a market stall. She recognises him from their country childhood and their mutual attraction burns through them through lunch and then a visit to her Gangnam apartment in Seoul. She flies off to Africa in search of answers to big existential questions while he looks after a cat in her apartment who seems to use the litter tray and eat its food without ever turning up. She comes back with Ben (Steven Yuen) on her arm .. Ok, I've already been through this.

But the thing is that while the lines for an intrigue are clear and the plot, when really needed, heats up to an expert level, we are not here for the plot as much as the title. Jong-su burns with ennui. He wants to be a writer but is finding it hard to get started. He burns with lust and then love for Hae-mi. He burns with envy at the lifestyle of the irritatingly serene self-possession of the well to do Ben. And he burns with rage at Ben's skills at enchanting Hae-mi with so little effort. And he burns at Ben's admission of arson as a hobby. And he burns with frustration at the crappy hand that the universe has dealt him before passing all the good cards on to every single other person alive.

The strength of this film is that he doesn't get to Brando this. If he does have a talent it's one of appearing aloof as all of the above sear his being's core from within. If circumstances have ever pressed you into a lip biting silence you will not sit easily through this film and you will not find its heavily extended running time a bore: you will be too busy feeling triggered. And the film will go on and on squeezing the damn thing. The sheer beauty of the lensing of the Korean often worrying music score aren't there to lull you into a nana nap. You have to do some burning of your own.

Yoo Ah-in compels us to watch him thread an emotional needle over and over again until he has the pieces of information to build a picture of a crime that he will not be able to tolerate like everything else. If we begin to understand that he will act we begin to worry at how forcibly he will (assuming the pressure breaks him at all). That's the strength of his performance. Jung Jong-seo's Hae-mi makes us fall for her along with Jong-su by playing the hazardous line between vivacious whimsy and crazy. Steven Yuen, plays completely against type (the heroic Glenn in Walking Dead) in his native Korean and needs us to doubt what we suspect by showing us some of the everyday persona he maintains to keep himself as sociable and successful as he is: is he too shallow to be real, is his smoothness really just what he is?

This is a character investigation rather than a thriller and will not be for anyone who likes their vengeance served cold and fast. If, on the other hand, you have ever liked how Kiyoshi Kurosawa handled his supernatural horror tales like kitchen sink realism or how Tarkovsky put the philosophy before the technology in Solaris to intensify the gut punch of its ending, this might well be for you. You might just like how not every feature film made today has to fall into genre lines and play nice. This is a big ask of a film but I'm glad it was made.