Monday, February 25, 2019

Review: STAN AND OLLIE

Biopics are handicapped. Everyone knows their subjects and will pat them on the head indulgently as they recall the great moments without having to do much as movies. The exceptions use the lives they depict to get us thinking about our own. Amadeus doesn't match up to the timeline but it's really a story about genius getting attacked by mediocrity. Love and Mercy takes that further by adding an aggressive external influence to exploit low self esteem and further still by jolting its audience between a past that looks like the past and a present that feels ugly and confronting. Stan and Ollie begins with a shot that takes our minds off our expectation that the actors will or should exactly resemble their historical characters: we see the famous comedy duo from behind, chatting in makeup chairs. We're not even invited into the conversation but we do get a good idea of how the pair relate to each other.

And then we're into it, a present day (meaning the 1950s) story of the two reconciled after ears of estrangement with saliently placed scenes from the cause of the rift. In the '50s, Laurel and Hardy are touring Britain with a live show towards the promise of a new movie. The venues are small and underfilled and the sense that they are treading on territory forbidden them by the passing years is strong. The idea of the movie spurs them as they develop Stan's routines. Meanwhile, we follow the timeline of Hardy's betrayal of Laurel for the sake of job security which brought the partnership to an end. A begrudging agreement to start publicity stunts wins them new audiences and their fortunes reverse. Their wives join them on tour and the success balloons. But old resentments and the charge of ageing are going to want their own hour upon the stage.

See, already that's more than a series of great moments in history. This is largely due to the story starting after the years of inspiration and rise. No one snaps their fingers and says, "that's it," with a shock cut to the fully realised bit. These artists work on their routines as they would have, here a tweak there a tweak with the writer Laurel receiving light but knowing reward from Hardy's laughter. For the benefit of the uninitiated (like me) their interaction quotes a trove of gags and the writers remember to make sure they are funny. On that generational divide in one scene Stan tries breaking the indifference of a receptionist with some great bits which only puzzle her.

But this is less the story of Laurel and Hardy than of two longtime colleagues who harbour gripes and still need to cope with them while their livelihood and friendship are at stake. So much of this is polished through performance and the onscreen chemistry of Steve Coogan as Laurel and John C. Reilly. Coogan runs against type by acting a character rather than fitting one to his public persona and his Stan Laurel keeps a strained control over his growing anger. John C. Reilly is a dependable character actor and fills Hardy out with a quiet pathos that can vanish beneath a roar of worldly laughter. The pair's spouses have also been well written and steal their scenes. Shirley Henderson lets show the strength that gets her through a loving but difficult marriage as Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda allows her sincerity to peep through a hilarious brashness.

The sole complaint I have about the film is something that serves as a hobby horse for me and probably won't be noticed by most who see this film: the score. Given that the writing, tight direction and masterclass performances keep the frequently threatening sentimentality well at bay the orchestral score which has a an old TV movie heavy handedness too often breaks through and tinkles and noodles around like a fan who doesn't quite know what to do on finding their hero, so makes a lot of goofy appreciative sounds and hangs around too long. Less would have definitely have been more. It really cheapens things.

That one thing aside, this is a film of entertainers and shows up ready to entertain. It's also a film about ageing and feeling out of step with time, about friendship, marriage and their inconvenient demands so it puts those things in the way they appear in life, sharp, burning, hard and, now and then, sometimes, in moments of relaxation or abandon, purely joyous. The best thing I can say about this biopic is that it doesn't have to be a biopic.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Review: BORDER

Tina has the jutting forehead and forward mouth of an early humanoid. We see this in the film's second shot. It's not a spoiler to reveal that she later attributes this to chromosomes. She works as a border inspector, using her heightened sense of smell to pick out the kind of border crossers who are walking in fear or nervous states. Her accuracy is impeccable. One such she catches leads to her involvement in a police investigation.

One day a man with her peculiar looks passes through. He has no perceptible smell. The two regard each other with powerful and confusing emotion. His unsettling confidence returning, he tells her where to look for him and passes on. Tina tries to resume normal life sharing house in an uneasily platonic life with a young dog breeder called Roland but is too haunted and seeks the man, Vore, finding him at a local hostel. After an encounter which draws her into his normality she relaxes into relief and invites him to stay in the small bungalow at her place.

There is far too much to spoil if I described more of the plot. Vore and Tina's increasing intimacy changes everything she was confident of in her world. Having learned to keep her place at the level of a sniffer dog, enduring the audible insults of the normals who pass by her intimidating gaze at the border she learns extraordinary things about herself from Vore.

Up to this point the film deftly challenges us to feel more than we wanted to for Tina. A few scenes later we are asking ourselves questions about our own acceptance of difference to degrees we would be too automatically guarded if the story involved the more recognisable spectre of intra-human racism. It's not just Tina who's getting a few life lessons. The expertly handled blend of magical realism and Nordic grit help us here. Tina and Vore look like Neanderthals but they are considered ugly rather than impossible. It's clever but it's also unfailingly warm. So, it works.

And then it gets dark. And then it gets darker. Unrelieved by sentimentality but rather leavened by the commitment of anyone who makes it to the third act, Border is a triumph of sustained credulity, a kind of prolonged dare to call it impossible and it is issued without a moment's collapse into cuteness or the dilution of comic relief. My cinematic year has begun.

NEXT OF KIN: Going Home Again

I bought my first copy of Cinema Papers because it had this image on the cover. Wow, an Australian horror movie that looks like a European one! That's for me. Also for me was the opportunity to read an industry magazine that made this film undergrad look and feel important. The story was thorough though a thinly veiled promo for the upcoming release. Except it wasn't a release. I waited months, looking for the title among the lists at both mainstream chains and arthouses around Brisbane to no avail. The cinematographer was touted as one of the nation's finest and costar John Jarrat was if not a household name more recognisable than most. This was in the early '80s, the era of The Thing and Alien, genre was news. But nothing. I went back up to the parental seat in Townsville where I found it on VHS. Straight to video was soon to be the judgement phrase to mean genre crud for pizza and beer nights. So, I rented it and watched. It was ok.

So, what's it about? Ok. Young Linda returns to her mother's country mansion as part of her inheritance. It's also an old people's home. She gets along with the staff and guests alike and even picks up a young and hot John Jarrat as a boyfriend. An ongoing narration of her mother's diary seems to reveal a kind of evil presence in the house. Some of the guests die. Eventually it ends with a big finish. I returned it the same day and moved on.

Recently, the film has resurfaced on Blu-Ray and I thought I might as well try it again. Maybe it fared badly in 4X3. Maybe the mono mix of Klaus Schulze's electronic score would bloom in multi-channel. Maybe I expected a more generic horror movie and forgot to see the subtleties of an energetic young team who wanted to form their own atmospheric genre.

Well, it's not bad but you have to ignore any of the hints you get in the first ten minutes that you are about to see a horror film. Jacki Kerrin is not a scream queen nor a Ripley, she's relaxed to the point of sedation. Often it feels like she's acting intentionally under the key of the writing to avoid cliche. There's no lack of intelligence in her demeanour just a lack of fear. John Jarratt perks her up a tad as his own presence is dependable. The cast of old eccentrics do their work and the third act does the heavy lifting on a movie that contains almost none of the horror it starts with. There is almost no tension in this film. But that might be the game.

A scene that in today's money would warrant a double jump scare is played out without alarm but plenty of aesthetic detail (e.g. a sudden uplit face). The figure of the girl with the bouncing ball only appears to guide the living to discoveries but none of them are remarkable. The deaths could easily be due to old age. Are the creepy doctor and administrator in cahoots? Find out. The sex scene happens with the lights out (really, all the lights are out; you see a back, kind of). And so on.

So it plays against genre, then. We'll it's so listless that it's hard to tell. If you take it as anti-gothic what does it offer in place of payoffs? Playing more like documentary style but in a creepy house would have to wait until the noughties and the post-Blair Witch trend. And there are those few moments in the closing scenes which are straight out of contemporary horror cinema (no spoilers here, though the reveals are so irrelevant it's hard to spoil them). Is that a satire? It doesn't feel like it.

In the end Next of Kin works best as a curio, a horror movie without scares or suspense but big colourful style in the era of low-key realism in Australian cinema. You could put it on to enter a new world where the bizarre rates little mention but looks like a million bucks. For me it was a little like going back to Townsville in summer by train and finding my parents not only alive but the age they were when I was young (but I would be the age I am now). So, maybe Thomas Wolfe was right about going home again. You can do it but you can't but if you do there are films like this to tell you why.

Monday, December 31, 2018

2018: THE HIGH



THE FAVOURITE
Yorgos Lanthimos escaped the yoke of being the leader of Greek weirdcore a few films ago without needing to do much more than change languages. His third film in English is an energetic and deep essay on power with a cast for the ages.

HEREDITARY
This caused a lot of whinging as its massive midstream shift was seen as a letdown. I went with it and enjoyed it more than most of the new films I saw this year.

A QUIET PLACE
The story of a family struggling to maintain itself in the face of an existential threat. Beautifully realised by a first timer.

THE SHAPE OF WATER
Maestro Del Toro tells a fable like no other, this time of pride in difference opposed by the shame of keeping it secret.

OUR HOUSE
Parallel universe or haunting? This strange debut feature from a student of Kyoshi Kurosawa brings back what the teacher has apparently abandoned, the sublime in horror.

TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID
Tough and mean but heart rending in the most beautiful way.

THOROUGHBREDS
Nasty and stark but the more powerful for that. Great performances all round. Still waiting for a release locally.

HERE TO BE HEARD
Strong rockumentary that neither elevates nor bores which makes it almost unique in its genre.

LUCKY
A poignant farewell to an old hand managed also to serve as a deceptively light tribute to finding treasure in the everyday. Haunting.

BEAST
Unexpected. Like Ben Wheatley meets Ken Loach and a commitment to a devastating conclusion.

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Satire writ large in this lashing of contemporary and future capitalism. Might well prove to be the cinematic satire of its era.

TULLY
Tale of impossibly angelic stranger improves the more thought it's given afterwards. Good turns by the two leads and a very funny subversion of the let's-party drive to a golden oldie.

2018: THE MIDDLE



GAME NIGHT
It began, progressed and ended without great strides in the art de cinema but it was a well paced comedy that stuck to its guns. I don't see enough of them.

UNSANE
Stephen Soderberg is prolific filmmaker but has never been an auteur. Any of his films could be by anyone as he doesn't appear to be obsessed with making the big scratch of cinematic signatures. This tight thriller with the preposterous plot works a charm, never claiming to be anything else. Shot on a modified phone but you wouldn't know it.

CARGO
Interesting take on zombie/infected tale in the Australian outback is an efficient story of family, the land and its first peoples. Could have been a lot darker to better effect.

COLD WAR
Same director's Ida left me with more shivers of delight at seeing a great small film. This, though, was a fine piece.

LADY BIRD
My initial enthusiasm for this one was, I think, too driven by my relief that it wasn't a Noah Baumbach/Wes Anderson cringe but a genuine account told with underplayed flash. Superb performances are where most of the work went and it paid off.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY
Sheer joy when I saw it at the cinema but it doesn't linger so finely in the memory.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
Solid plot of righting injustice with a powerhouse central performance by Frances McDormand. Some misdeeds by its chief lunkhead character never examined after his redemption which leaves a bad taste.

I, TONYA
A blend of redneck ridicule and the divergence of personal recollections of the same events could not resolve itself for me. Good performances and an appreciable treatment of domestic violence almost take it into the High list but not quite.

THE DEATH OF STALIN
Mighty cast and some tough satire give this grim political fable a place at today's political table but perhaps too many easy dismissed moments of horror which play lightly and move toward overload.

DISOBEDIENCE
Compelling tale of freedom and morality in a guarded culture let down by a few too many obvious metaphors where more concentration on the already strong central relationship might have served better.

NICO 1988
A good rock bio movie that has a good look at post-fame careers. Not quite loveable but impressive for its contempt of the hagiographic approach.

THE CHILDREN ACT
A decent tale of ethics and impressionability goes further than it needs to prove its point. Very good performances, though.

LADIES IN BLACK
Coming of age tale diluted by lack of sense of struggle despite great charm in some of the performances. Also, scores like this one don't belong in the cinema.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME
Some very fine performances and an intriguing premise can't quite lift this one from its over-even treatment.

THE WIFE
Fine central performance in a story that could have done with more muscle from the writers and director. Not quite a waste of Glenn Close but ... close.

MY FRIEND DAHMER
Decent enough adaptation of the graphic novel but couldn't eclipse it.

THE BREAKER UPERERS
Consistently funny and subversive but perhaps a little too neatly wrapped.

2018: THE LOW



This list is usually comprised of movies that I found disappointing rather than poor. But this year my radar failed me more than once.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
Old style Tarantino ensemble thriller never gets beyond ok and takes too long to get that far.

THE GREEN FOG
Recreating a vague version of Vertigo through a mishmash of other films with the same setting. Why hasn't anyone thought of it before? I hope Guy Maddin finds his form again some time soon.

SUSPIRIA
Good filmmaking wasted on unjustifiable remake that was so divergent from its source that its use of the same title was offensive.

GHOST STORIES
A promise of something pleasingly complex collapses into an unsurprising twist. Wish it had been better.

HALLOWEEN
The matrilineal message is undercut by a clumsy mix of tribute and new ideas that don't quite make it. And how come, if this is meant to be the real Halloween II, are there so many call backs to all the other entries in the franchise that this film pretends never existed? What did I expect? What T.S. Eliot said about poetry, a return to the banal.

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
Why subvert something when all you are doing is using the title to make what you wanted despite the source material? This unscary extended psyche workshop is using the branding without substantial reason. See also Suspiria 2018.

WILD LIFE
A guy with loser syndrome, his restless wife looking to survive while he's off being a hero and a boy
who looks happy to stand around. Then it ends.

THE INSULT
Potentially explosive story of accelerating pride in a community of opposites keeps going when it should just get over itself and resolve without the grandstanding.

THE KING
Conceptual documentary of a road trip in celebration of Elvis Presley never quite answers its own question of why it was made.

THAT SUMMER
In which the footage of the failed first attempt of what became a great documentary proves why it was a failure. Is there merit in the meta?

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Review: THE FAVOURITE

Films by Yorgos Lanthimos often sound like they're going to be comedies. But the weirdly cossetted kids in Dogtooth lived in an affluent nightmare. The Lobster's government-sponsored mating program (that results in surgical metamorphosis for the unsuccessful) was an absurdist horror. And here, Anne, last of the Stuarts, creator of the sovereign state of Great Britain, gout-stricken and quaveringly self-doubting is the goal in a fight between two manipulators. This film is frequently funny but it is not a comedy.

The opening scenes cut between a demonstration of how the Queen's favourite, Sarah Churchill/Lady Malborough, micromanages her monarch and the arrival of Abigail, fallen from high birth after her father lost her in a card game to a large German with a small penis. Sarah is staving off the parliamentary Whigs who want the current war to stop as it's bleeding the coffers despite British victories. Abigail is pranked into interrupting a meeting between Sarah and a politician and sent to work in the kitchen (where her pranker continues to prank 'er). All continues except that now Abagail has her eyes on the kitchen door and uses her expertise to find Sarah's favour. From that point the pair are in competition for the royal ear.

Lanthimos keeps the range of competition wide, from country dance moves that fall between mating rituals and partner-swinging jitterbugs, mating rituals that play like kickboxing bouts (with the female in the ascendant), afternoons of bird shooting which double as tutorials in manipulation and manipulation in itself, and so on unto direct physical harm. The surface might be powdered and tailored but the motivations are no different from the madames and ponces in the bawdy house we see at one point. But there is a difference between power attained and power applied skilfully.

Between scenes of opulence shot through a spherical lens that give a Vermeer's mirror look to wide, flat splendour to the details of faces known only to intimates we have a dark oak palette and a sense that, even within the appearance of gentility we might easily see brutality or gore. Though it's stylised to the last pixel of each frame this world looks lived in. And from the grandeur of Purcell and Handel to the unsettling monotonic scraping of the contemporary score we also know that we are in a film that can turn us.

There are major empathy shifts in the power play and for all the luxuriant space of the palace the squeeze of dominance can be stifling. The central trio of performances is thus crucial and we are served beautifully by Olvia Coleman's Queen Anne who can whimper like a lapdog or rage like a banshee, Rachel Weisz who brings a dark and fierce intelligence to Sarah, and the mercurial Emma Stone who, in an arc that takes her from a put-upon survivor to a character from The Harlot's Progress, can wait like a hunting hound and triumph like a shark. The charge the trio must create between them for this film to be more than a chess game is in every scene they share, as classically marbled as a John Dryden verse and as vulgar. I know I've tapped out some purple patches here but it's hard to describe this film justly without them: it's good, it's very good.