Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: CHRONICLE: the triumph of alphaghetti

The notion of the alpha male in casual use gets it all wrong. Well, not all wrong. Calling the dominant guy in the group the alpha is correct. But if you change the context he might well be reduced to beta status or plummet to a shelf of lowly gammas. And there can only be one in a given situation. If a delta successfully challenges the alpha, meet the new alpha. It is not intended to describe a constant status. So, if you hear of Baz or Gaz described as alpha males it's really only potential that's being claimed. And if you hear ANYONE describe himself as an alpha male then you should know he's only just running some advertising copy up the flagpole: alphas never have to tell you what they are.

Chronicle opens with Andrew whose life is comprised of reminders that he is not an alpha male. He focuses a video camera on a mirror attached to his door. His father's drunk an angry shouting invades and the mirror shakes from the fist hitting the other side. For a second the jolt of the violence combines with the odd thought that the door seemed to shake by itself.

School is a bully-infested jungle, alleviated for Andrew only by his chunky hunky cousin Matt who drives him there and back everyday, peppering the conversation with Schopenhauer whom Matt reads for the hell of it. We see him pov as Andrew is taking his camera everywhere, even to the big party in the woods that Matt insists Andrew go to ... minus the nerdy camera.

Minus the camera? Matt doesn't get it. The camera is what stops Andrew from fading into the wallpaper. The only girl who gives him any attention at the party also has a camera and even though she's opened the door for him all he can do is mumble flatly. And then a tanked neoderthal picks on him. Sobbing in frustration out in the carpark he is dragged along by one of Matt's friends to where something worth videoing has been discovered.

It's a hole in the ground that leads to a tunnel that leads to a cave filled with huge crystals emitting bright multicoloured light. When the crystals are touched they change colour. The trio are wonderstruck. They are richer for the experience, having seen something unique which has given them superpowers.

Superpowers. Goodbye teen troubles, right? Wrong. This is a magic power story like a million folk tales, before it, it is told as a caution against a thing that philosophy junkie Matt has already introduced into the dialogue: hubris. Schopenhauer suggested that the only way out of being slaves to our will was a kind of aesceticism, power through self-denial.

The three empowered friends, Andrew, Matt and Steve, work on their skills and the inevitable montage of what teens with superpowers would do ensues but this time it doesn't just stay funny. Of note here is the flying sequence which is delivered with such dizzying joy that if you don't smile irresistably at it you should start thinking about drafting a will and testament.

We are given a clear indication that the essence of each of these characters is not transformed into some godlike beneficence by these powers but accentuated for all its moral turbulence and lightning bolt judgements. There's no great stretch here in seeing the major underlying point about the nature of the state of adolescence, the bridge crossing where our personal powers are galloping into definition as we head towards innumerable mistakes in their use. We're about to see these teenagers in super form.

The flim I kept thinking of when watching Chronicle was George Romero's 1976 gem Martin. Martin is or isn't a vampire. He thinks he is. His cousin who is his ward in life thinks he is, too. He doesn't have fangs and walks around in the sunlight, delivering groceries. But we've already seen how he gets to the blood he thinks he needs and it involves syringes and murder. If he isn't a vampire then he's a serial killer. If he is a vampire then he was turned into one at an awkward age and will be a mixed up teenager for all eternity. The genius of this, emphasised by the low key indy film look of it, is that none of this is too far away from the realities of youth, particularly male youth.

To my mind it's important that the central trio is male. Doing this allows clarity in the depiction and examination of the struggle for alpha status among males. The possibility of sequels (very much open by the ending) would allow for and even demand further gender-based exploration. For now, we are in the male world, kept barely civil through friendship, brought to puncturing point and frequently breached with violence.

Once you accept this, it's not difficult to see where the film is going but the value is left to individual performance and the mix of verite found footage and impressive special effects in the bravura climax. This film frequently surprised me by choosing against a mainstream solution. Two moments present themselves: the only real use of sourced music on the soundtrack is rich by being the exception (and made me instantly thankful that they hadn't wallpapered the movie with a contemporary jukebox) and the fact of the choice of song which is both poignant and exhilarating; the second moment involves a spider. The latter is a perfect use of restraint to illustrate a character's development. It's a small gesture, quietly disturbing.

The other film Chronicle reminded me of is Primer, a 2004 sci fi film about time travel as a backyard project which managed to be both innovative and provocative by pushing the ideas far forward through the characters without breaking into caricature. That's what happens here, too, and a deft use of cinema technology has allowed for some impressive visuals which only ever serve this superhero origins story. They have superpowers. They are still teenagers. It looks like fantasy. It looks like home.

I saw this at the beginning of a Melbourne heat wave. The cinema (a new multiplex) had no air con and felt wrong from the word go. By the time the credits rolled I had long forgotten about it. Chronicle is intelligent and thrilling. It is exhilarating cinema.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: Shame: Oblomov as a sex addict

Brandon wakes to the cool light of morning swathed in sheets of such a rarefied blue-grey that their colour must have a name like Murchison. For a long screen minute he gazes into space. He sleeps naked. It's just the cotton and he.

Any teacher of creative writing will tell you about character keynotes: gestures, utterances etc that establish them from the get go. Major Jack Stormbahn enters a debate about the ethics of a surprise attack and barks: "Smoke 'em!" Trudence Farrow fluffs the kind of small decision that will become a life-and-death one later. Brandon stares into the light in front of him without a blink. He is either void of thought or possessed by thoughts that haunt him every second of every day. It's an eerie opening.

He gets up and turns the day's switches on, shower, teeth, dressing, walking around the featureless corner between rooms as his answering machine plays out some pain: another woman has mistaken him for a viable life partner. He listens as though it's the breakfast show.

Work is all open neck shirts and open plan. The boss is a good guy and the colleagues rag each other in such a low key fashion that you know their competition is serious and seething. When you see suits in this office it's clear that they are clients. This is not the generic yuppie stockbrocker firm of this kind of tale. Brandon works at something altogether more intimidating than that. He gets out of the morning meeting, goes to the gents, wipes the immaculately janitored seat and masturbates. Hang on, rewind.

Stuttering through this is a series of snippets of his train ride into town. He sits across from a radiant young beauty and gazes at her. After avoiding it she gives in and gazes back, her smile at the power of this attraction uncontrollable. When the scene spreads out and plays for itself the pair are locked into this wordless seduction. The music is high emotion, sweeping strings in a minor key. It's big enough for a battle scene. But there's something wrong here (see it to find out why). She gets off at the next stop (he is standing close enough behind her for their bodies to touch) and loses him in the throng of the station. He pursues futilely. His self-maintenance in the cubicle tell us how successfully he has cast the incident from his mind.

Back home he opens his front door to expensive prostitutes. His laptop is always on and always connected, its hard drive engorged with jpgs, videos and camgirls. The paradise of a man who has leaped from thirteen to thirty-five without stopping for lunch. It is closeted, narcissistic and male.It is violated, according to his central nervous system, with an invasion by his sister. Their reunion is combative and unsettling.

Life goes on but with an increasing strain as her physical and emotional slovenliness stuffs its way into every corner of his inner sanctum. She's always on the phone, pleading with someone else who finally found her too irritating to bear. She's a singer and performs at a club the night he takes his boss out.

Her performance of the standard New York New York is shown in an almost unbroken close-up that depicts every nervously anticipated cue. She goes for a Marylin Monroe "Happy Birthday , Mr President" feel. The pianist keeps trying to break it out into Broadway but she can't let go of the driftwood of coyness she started with. And the song in its entirety grinds on to its tiny whimpering death. Brandon is embarrassed by it but his boss can't take his eyes off her and claps like he's just seen a resurrected Billie Holiday. Later, back at his apartment, the sound of the pair's foreplay drives Brandon insane. He might be a sex addict but no junkie likes seeing anyone else fit up. He goes for a jog.

As his private empire of self-gratification has now been exposed to the elements, Brandon's response is like any other addict's, more of the good stuff. More prostitutes, more pickups. When he tries for something more substantial his failure is a profound self-confrontation. He doesn't like what he finally can't look away from and ... goes for more of the easy stuff.

You know where this is going. I know where this is going. We all know where it's going but it's still hard to look away. And it keeps digging deeper. Helping our own compulsion are performances both nuanced and intense. Michael Fassbender, his beauty both earthy and sophisticated, shows a man whose chief skill in life seems to be the masking of intense emotional pain. Carey Mulligan as his sister, Sissy, is at a constant teeter between disassembly and mania. They are both constantly needy and greedy having both come from an emotional isolation tank of a family, the privileged equivalent of Harry Harlow's laboratory.

But as cold as the character's might get (and they do, rugged up against their personal winters as much as the one sinking the mercury around them) these performances allow us in and we follow with a fascinated gaze.

Brandon administers the self-anihillating dosage common to all addicts. His might well be the endorphin rush of orgasm rather than an injection or the next shot of booze but it looks like addiction. When he masturbates there is no joy in the thievery of the moment nor even some solemn appeasement of an erotic idol. It's like watching an alcoholic lick the whisky spill on the tabletop, machine-like, action+action=result.

This is the Manhattan Alpha planet where Patrick Bateman once roamed, tearing into the soft and perfect skin around him. But then the towers came down and the dollar went psycho and the light of even the most refined of the one percent has a grime and borrowed feel to it. The brilliant icy sheen of the New York buildings that fill the windows of the lofty offices and apartments is like wallpaper in this tale of hopeless detachment. This feature comes into play later when he must process a life-changing shock and those towers dwarf him like adult strangers around a lost child.

Shame is an intensely cinematic film whose power is only thinly covered by its steady restraint the same way as David Cronenberg's Crash or Neil La Bute's In the Company of Men. It's only February but I think I've seen one of my top five of 2012.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

George Smiley a grey eminence in British espionage, is called in from retirement to expose a mole. The alarm bells sounded when an extremely exclusively secret mission was thrwarted through an obvious and troubling betrayal. Ok, action movie time! No, and again, no. This is not just a spy story, it's a John Le Carre spy story. There's a difference.

This is not a Bourne/Bond sparking circuit board of a spy movie, it's a tale of patient deduction, of examining evidence and testimony, of gauging the meaning of a lifted brow or turn of phrase to establish the fundamentals of loyalty or guilt. This is told through time shifts and is ordered more from the importance a given scene's information holds than a linear progression. A near constant shift between past and present is eased in an elegantly few shots of Smiley's visit to his opptometrist: big 70s square glasses = present: small round 60s frames = past. There are other signifiers of this kind of shift carefully interwoven into the film's fabric to inform without distraction. Care is a good word to keep in mind with this piece as everything you see on screen and hear from the speakers has been put there with expertise.

Now if I say that when the plot's chief revelation happened my reaction was simply, "oh, it's him" rather than anything like, "ahaaaaa!" it isn't from disappointment. This film does have a plot and its tight but it also has a number of themes which are of equal or even greater importance playing throughout. These are what I have taken with me.

The first of these is the portrayal of post-empire Britain, a place of smoke-filled burnt-brown office walls, raindrops on dirty windows, and the kind of fatigue that seems to keep all its victims in a life long grip. It's the 1970s and the UK hasn't been a player in the grinding Cold War for about a decade. To all but the very inner circle, the spy was an unwelcome relic, a dowdy reminder of the hysteria of the 50s. What might strike the common punter of the time as dusty irrelevance is the focus, a lot of clerical work, but that's just the way it looks; what's at stake is what's always been at stake: national security.

The other theme is a human, personal one that forms an examination of betrayal, whether at the level of high spies or in the kitchens and bedrooms of the people you know. To me, this was what the film was about: the central hunt for the mole and its many passing revelations of the worst of human desire and resulting distrust and violence, building a picture of a society in perennial trouble where friends and colleagues are contacts rather than intimates and love, however powerful a force it remains, a thing of quantifiable value for use in trade.

I'm mentioning the cast this late in the review as their excellence (a roll call of UK greatness, past and present) forms the texture of the stories of this film (ie both the spy story and the personal ones) more than is usual. If you want a demonstration dvd of underplaying for your home cinema system, this is the title to get.

Tomas Alfredson shows that he has the strength to move from something as signature as Let the Right One In into such a subtle piece as this which puts him on my to-watch list of promising careers.

Tinker, Tailor cannot be for everybody as a spy movie but as a film about aging, disappointment, and simply making the decision to shut up and start coping, its a powerful sleeper in its own right.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Review: The Artist: a self responding question

It's 2012, why go and see a silent movie? Try this: a man who looks like a cross  between Douglas Fairbanks and Sean Connery escapes torture at a military prison and flees by foot, car and plane until suddenly he runs in behind a screen showing the movie we've just seen. A group of nervous Hollywood types glare at him. Behind them, the end credits start rolling. Tension. Our hero takes a peep around the screen. The audience is applauding rapturously. He thumbs up to his cohorts. Suddenly they too are in rapture as though they hadn't heard for themselves. Why go and see a silent movie in 2012? Because the jokes in silent movies are grouse.

This is a tale of a movie star in Hollywood's golden years. George Valentin, having allowed his applause to take weight, skips out in front of it, taking as many bows as he can. His costar gives him a resentful finger as he introduces his "real" costar, Jack Russell, Uggie who walks from the other wing toward the star on his hind legs before doing his part in a play dead trick. Life is a walking paradise for this man. But then we've already seen the title card that tells anyone who knows a smidge of cinema history something important: it's 1927, the talkies are coming to town. To town? To the known Milky Way Constellation. George's days of stardom are numbered.

Cue the new breed. Plucky young hopeful, Peppy Miller (a kind of young Natalie Wood), literally stumbles into stardom, falling into the arms of George on the red carpet. The cameras flash and a star is born. A rapid montage of her rise from chorus girl to dramatic bit part later and the pair are reunited on the set of one of George's spy actioners and he gives her a break. Not long after, George's self financed darkest Africa adventure opens on the same night as Peppy's star debut, a talkie. As she's already seen it and has never stopped worshiping George she is in tears watching him sink into the quicksand in the final reel as the near empty cinema wakes up for the end credits. Reversal of fortune guessable almost to the last detail.

 But the tale is only part of what The Artist is about. Silent cinema took its pantomime seriously and worked hard to deliver its extra payloads of theme and commentary, developing its own grammar and symbology.A whole mini-cosmos of significance in gesture, editing, lighting etc etc was created. But The Artist isn't really about cinema history even to the light extent that Singing in the Rain was, unless you consider that history to include 2012.

The Artist is resolutely a contemporary film and it's because of its monochrome palette, use of music and occasional foley sound and initially jarring restraint to the 1.37.3333....:1 aspect ratio (my younger readers need only look a the next example of one of the saddening old tvs left out on the nature strip to experience a 4X3 frame). The Artist knows it's a silent film. It loves the fact. From the extraordinary sequence where George can hear every sound except his own voice to misdirection joke towards the end that was so good that it was met with two waves of laughter.

But even the fun had with the characters variously knowing or not that they are part of a silent movie the film delivers emotionally as the plot demands deeper emotion from them. The climactic scenes are genuinely fraught and build to a high tension. If there be gimmicks in this movie they are cast aside by this point. We sit on the edge of our seats and ride along with it.

And that's why you go to a silent movie in 2012: it brings you slamboombang back to the potential of cinema not just to entertain but to grab you, your friends and everyone else in the room whether you know them or not and keep you in its grip until the credits start rolling. Here's a tip: see this at as full a session as you can, this film needs to be shared. When the end title came up at my screening I experienced an odd but satisfying tribute for a silent movie. It came from the centre of the crowd and spread quickly until everyone was joining in, giving a very loud round of applause, just like the one we couldn't hear at the start of the movie.

Quite simply, a must.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Review: Kill List: is rough tough enough?

A year on from a botched job, hitman Jay, is nursing a bad back and cruising along with his young family. He doesn't get a lot done at home apart from finding rabbits in his backyard which he home-slaughters, fries up with wine and eats from the pan while enjoying the sun on the lawn. His wife knows he's a hitman and wants him to stop all this moping around the house, make some money and get back into his trade. Sounds like a black comedy so far, doesn't it? Well, Kill List does have its intentionally funny moments but for the most part it's one of the most relentlessly unsmiling films I have seen since Eden Lake. Like Eden Lake, it's British, very British.

One night, Gal, ol' pal from the hitman circuit, comes by with his girlfriend for a dinner party where he offers Jay a job. It's a multi target hit with a big payday and the chance to make up for "Kiev". We never learn what happened in Kiev to send Jay into disgrace but watching most of the 95 minutes of this film we are led to make a decent guess at what might have happened. But something's wrong here.

The oddness begins with the contrary pull of the high gloss scope cinematography and the severity of the action, dialogue and performances. The resulting intensity ensures that we are completely embedded in the location and situation with the way out locked tight. I would never call this film theatrical but the sense that there is no normal life going on outside of any of its given scenes which borders on the claustrophobic. And then we get to the characters themselves. Each of the main players is granted a measure of warmth but it does little to endear them to us. These people feel real ... too real ... as real as the lift where your nightmares might gather you all together. The scene at the hotel restaurant where Jay "objects" to the A.A. meeting going on loudly behind them is very funny but also a frightening depiction of effortless intimidation.

Ok, so we have here a mean as mustard British crime film sold as a horror piece. Why? For most of the running time we get a series of blunt acts which are played with violence that is confronting but not so much that you'd call it horror. But then, interwoven throughout and heading for the big gear change in the finale, we get clear hints that forces beyond the human brutal ones are at work. This is mostly done through the meetings between the clients and the hitmen which are increasingly sinister and then the gratitude creepily expressed by the targets seconds before they are killed. But for me the most genuine shiver came from a silent moment about two thirds of the way through when a character appears well out of context, looking up at Jay in his hotel room window from the blowy black night of the street below. A creepy portent, though we don't yet know what it is pointing to. Another moment so creepy that it goes through you like an x-ray involves someone waving.

Another point of contrast that needs a mention is the use of full screen title cards that herald the hit about to happen. Stark white letters on black identifying the targets as THE PRIEST or THE LIBRARIAN. This at first feels too forced, like someone showing us he knows his old Scorsese and Tarantino movies (and their influences, of course). This eventually finds its place and is used right up to the final scene, often, through its sudden and stark contrast with the colour of the cinematography, jolting us into expecting something nasty. It doesn't get much nastier than the final card.

Most of the responses I have encountered about this film complain about the ending, saying that it is too abrupt a change in direction to sustain credibility. I'll confess to having the same misgivings when I saw it. There we are in severe verite land and then for the last few minutes of screen time we're in another film with no decent preparation. Too much happens without prior cause. And that ending ... WHAT?

Well, if you have read much of the content of this blog you will know that I profess a lot of tolerance for where a film wants to take me, and a resistance to obeisance to mainstream convention. So, why the whinge here? Indeed, why? Kill List liberally peppers its severe plot with hints that a bigger picture is going to develop later and that it will do so without the protagonist's knowledge or consent. His creepy aristocratic client even calls Jay and Gal cogs. So, it actually plays fair. So, what's my problem?

My problem is that I fell into the film's own trap by accepting the realist tone of its first and second acts and resisting the fantastic tone of its finale. Some commentators have suggested it is a dream and others an hallucination but really the only adjustment needed for the viewers of this film is patience.I don't mean patience with the apparently casual sharp turn the film takes at the end but the viewer's patience with him or her self. This is a piece that reveals itself only after it is over.

If you stare at a negative image for a few minutes and then suddenly look somewhere else you'll get a fleeting positive image. You can't keep it, it even seems to physically slide out of your view. But you can remember it and if you are quick you can recall details. Well, that's what this film is like.

The more I think of it the clearer my impression of its structure becomes. The first act is a failing equilibrium, a family wasting without outside nurture, consuming itself. The second is the solution as Jay goes hunting or questing. The third is a kind of apotheosis, a crowning as Jay is confronted with the consequences of his being very good at his job. If you've seen the film you might appreciate the understatement of that.

Perhaps its intensity leaves too little room for welcome. The characters are very hard to love; you need to be content to understand them rather than  concerned for them. The contrast with their scenes and the ooky kooky scenes of the mysterioso clients jars rather than intrigues which leads to the sensation of abruptness at the ending. But this is not Paranormal Activity which snatched mediocrity from the jaws of effectiveness for its ending. No, it's much more like Irreversible with its bludgeoning way, or Inside's eye-popping and quiet end following its onslaught, or Martyrs with its profoundly unsettling close that places all its unrelieved violence firmly in context (however uncomfortable that context is).

So, why am I forgiving it now when I made such moan on freshly seeing it? Time. Also, as we do with every piece of narrative art we get through, I remember it in reverse, from its extraordinary finale back to its ruthlessly ordinary opening

Kill List is a strange film that will probably be condemned to cult status at its highest. The refusal to streamline its two opposing forces will daunt anyone who expects a service industry approach to the stories they encounter. That's not a slight, just a caution. If you go into this film expecting something like Drive you will probably be left resentful. I do not love Kill List but I am beginning to admire it. Why, I don't know. It's like that last troubling conversation you had with a friend that you still can't work out and won't until you see them again. So that's what I'm going to do....