Sunday, March 23, 2014

Review: WADJDA

Wadjda wants a bike. She can't afford one yet but that's all she wants. She sells football bracelets that she makes herself to the other girls at school but they aren't going to do it. The next time she's up before the headmistress they are taken away and declared forbidden so that's gone, too. Oh, Wadjda (pronounce it Wazhda) lives in Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia and girls there don't ride bikes.

Her father is an occasional visitor as he wanders the social realm in search of a wife who can lift his social status and bear him a son. Her mother works a job across town which makes her dependent on a driver (she's not allowed to drive).

Between school and home there's Abdulla, also about eleven, whose trades taunts with her that are energised by their frankly sweet mutual attraction. There's also the everything shop bursting with all kinds of cheap rubbish inside but puts on display on the footpath a small squadron of kids bikes that gleam with freedom. Freedom has a price and it's way beyond what the bracelets are going to rake in.

So far this might as well get in line with all the other inheritors of Italian neo-realism, a genre that ventured great truths through spare means. For that, all it would have to do would be to follow Wadjda's progress in getting the bike or not and, happy or sad ending, that would fill the checklist. But something else is happening here.

The first scene of this film involved her joining her classmates in a devotional song. She's crap at it and is sent out of the room. A few scenes in will tell you that it wasn't singing but the song. She'll happily sing along to the foreign pop in her room as she twists the bracelets into being. She's just not a joiner. She doesn't reject her family's religion but doesn't express any piety either. When the opportunity to make the ticket price of the two-wheeler compels religion she takes to it with the seriousness of a child making a discovery. Does it make her religious? See the film.

That classroom song is staged as a kind of verite scene of daily life, routine by which we see our heroine in context. It is also a direct tribute to Robert Bresson's Mouchette from 1967. Mouchette, though pretty and capable is a social leper. While she shares her fellow teenager's joy at things like dodgem cars she finds it impossible to truly connect with anyone until an encounter with an older outsider offers a kind of escape. She failed choir practice, too, and was humiliated for it.

Wadjda's intelligence (made electrically animate by Reem Abdulla whose bright grin both knows and cajoles) keeps her apart from everyone in her life and brings to the fore the intelligence of the women who surround her which has long been as veiled as their faces out of doors.

There has been some commentary about this film, the first Saudi film directed by a woman, suggesting that come opportunity was taken to serve the constraints of Saudi society to Western audiences as a kind of neo-realist exploitation flick. As we see Wadjda approach her goal we wonder how much of the freedom she expects of it will materialise and how fleeting it might be as the world around her seems daily to fit her up for silent subservience.

To my mind if there has been any distancing it is that of writer/director Haiffa Al-Mansour who must put her own distance between her own experience and the world of Wadjda, to actively seek an alienness in the familiarity. By the time we see Wadja catching sight of the dangerous liberty in front of her we get the distinct feeling that the same feeling ran rampant in the mind behind the camera that brought this vision to the screen.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Top 10 Intense Films (Anniversary of Eraserhead Premiere)

Not necessarily the best nor even my favourite intense movies. Just the first ten I could think of.

Eraserhead: premiered this day in 1977. My favourite film and the only one I know that Kubrick wished he'd made.

Irreversible: One that doesn't get a lot of viewings because it only really needs the first. The point to the reversed timeline is the eradication of moral identification. It works. It's tough because that works. It's extraordinary.

Martyrs: Starts as a very icky revenge tale but suddenly gets bigger and unblinkingly scary ... as the violence lessens.

Solaris: Intended to be the Sovyeet answer to Vest's decadent running dog 2001 Tarkovsky's exploration of the Lem novel took off into its own universe, entered a haunted house of loss and desire. The ending punches guts.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her: Godard's essay on prostitution for consumption began with a newspaper article but he goes beyond it into a city crammed with fashion colours seared by a nagging whisper of dissent, climaxing not in the supermarket items in a row up like a skyline but in the cosmos he finds in the bubbles and swirls of a cup of coffee.

Apocalypse Now: How a long and slow film with very little of the warfare it promised on screen can have held my attention like a real life situation for more than twenty times over as many years is puzzling but true. Martin Sheen occupies the screen for most of the film's two plus hours and doesn't smile once.

Night of the Living Dead: Made for $5 in 4X3  black and white when the mainstream was scope in technicolour this still beats all its descendants in grip and economy.

Arsenic and Old Lace: Yep, a comedy, a screwball comedy at that, but one blacker than the hobs of hell as two old spinster aunts find that their career of mercy murders is about to be exposed and don't seem to mind a bit. Moves faster than the human heart until its owner is a few minutes into it.

The Exorcist: Friedkin approached the genre piece as though it was a true story. All the generic traits were discarded, recalling that empathetic pain and fear are most effectively related by making them look real. They do. THEN you get the mystique and dry ice horror because then the alienness of it also feels real.

Repulsion: Catherine Deneuve is driven insane from fear and we're in the back seat. Polanski still had a few gems to make but he never topped this for intensity.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Woody Grant is a wintry old man at the end of his life. His wife, long indifferent to him, either ignores him or is in his ear about something. One son has reached middle age on the verge of highly local celebrity and the other works a job failing to sell home entertainment systems to people who just want to browse. One day Woody receives a letter that tells him he's won a million dollars. He starts walking. The place he needs to claim from is one and a bit states away in Nebraska so he needs to get a move on. He does but he keeps getting hauled back by police or the underachieving son and more nagging. Finally, his son who has tried to tell the old man that the win is actually a scam to trick people into buying magazine subscriptions but Woody doesn't seem to get beyond the words WINNER and WINNER printed in gold either side of the big bursting star and pot of gold in the centre of the letter. So they set off.

Ok, you know where this is going. Father and son road trip blending quirky comedy and serious life discussions in a big ol' road movie. All of that is there and is unfortunately emphasised by the trailer. But to say it's more than that is both inadequate and saying too much. It's inadequate as the tale unfolds to reveal layers and sides of characters that delight with the discovery in a finely judged display of narrative and character perspective. Too much because the road trip scenario if done well needs only minimal description. You dig it or you don't. I do. I've been left short changed now and then (Little Miss Sunshine or this same director's About Schmidt) but not here.

This is the America of Robert Frank and The Handsome Family where your cousins' second question after "how are you?" is "how long did it take to drive here?" But we're not having a giggle at the hicks for more than a little handshake phase. These people are as wily as city folk even if their manifest fantasies sadden us at exposure. When, waylaid from the goal by circumstance, Woody and his son David camp at their cousins place in Woody's home town, the story enters a medieval movement as visions of the pot of gold stir the locals to schemes and greed. Darting around this and averting disaster by aborting an interview with the local paper, David learns some poignant things about his father which prey on our minds as we watch the remainder unfold.

It goes where you think it will but boy does it keep you going alongside. Bruce Dern made his career by stepping from one intense centre of gravity after another but Woody reminds me more of his subtle turn in the satire Smile as the small town Vietnam vet made good who really wants the local beauty pageant to embody the new, positive America he thinks he fought for. Here, Woody, at the end of his life holds decades of disappointment in and expresses his later life's desire in greatly reduced form as the simplest of things (go and buy a ticket to find out what they are). Dern will have to pull a Bengal tiger out of a hat to better this as a swansong.

Will Forte as David must find the futility of regret while still young enough to avoid it and old enough to prevent youthful stupidity. We need him between Woody and the venal world with its rustic smiles and wicked thoughts. He gives us a weariness that might yet wake. June Squibb (also in About Schmidt) gives us a hell of a lot more detail that the trailer's cantankery suggested. If there is a little herk herk with the ways of the country there is also the keen-eyed greed of an Ed Pegram (a magnetically bullish Stacy Keach) and a folk songbook's worth of regret and heartache in Peg Nagy's single gaze at Woody as he goes by towards the end.

All of this lives in a landscape of powerful black and white cinematography that Alexander Payne took from colour hi-def into that pallette of Robert Frank and added a grain-noise filter the way that big hitters in the 90s added vinyl crackle to their digital recordings. Add a purpose-built score of gently lapping jazz and folk to whisper around all that fading agriculture and a greatly diminished Mount Rushmore and you get something designed to the last pixel that feels as real as roadside mud. I've liked most of Payne's movies like Election and Sideways but I've never known any to settle from the injections of quirk and self-conscious gravity as this piece, without overweening, without easy sentimentality. This is a masterpiece.

Monday, March 3, 2014


Adele is a teenager in one of France's provincial centres. Her interests are existential literature and self-definition. The second of those is the tough one. She tries a boy. Doesn't work. On the way to dumping him she sees and can't stop seeing a slightly older girl with blue hair. After taking a tantalising pass from one of her female schoolfriends and then getting rebuffed for taking it too seriously the next day she suspects she has found her path. When she walks out of a gay friend's party and into a girls only bar Bluehair glides down to the rescue from the pit of bulls and cougars and the rest is history.

Kinda. Adele and Emma (Bluehair) share a love stronger than the most ferocious of peer group onslaughts and one more nurturing than all of the literature to which Adele has professed devotion. And we get to see it in daily sunshine and nightly dimmed bedroom glow. And see it and see it and see it.

Every review of this film cordons off a moment for the sex scenes. They are clearly erotic to begin with and that has more to do with their role in intensifying the relationship, same as in real life. As cinema there is a completeness to them which goes against the initial sense to become more observation than celebration, more Kubrick or Matthew Barney than 9 1/2 Weeks. While the eroticism greys down into Masters and Johnson laboratory conditions plainness at no time is the spectacle remotely pornographic. This is a film that lingers rather than states, inviting us to stand nearby and absorb it. The wonder of it is how seldom the epic running time feels laboured. The sex is not laboured, no more than the loose ramble of the conversations or the insistence on scene-length closeups. Part and parcel.

But this film is more than mere aesthetic approach. The tale of the two women moves with a kind of stately verite. Apart from the sudden caesura that seems to take us across years while feeling like a single scene, the pace is decorous and encourages examination. Examination is important here as we are going to go beyond genre where the love at the centre of the love story is tested to destruction but strong enough to defy the divides of oceans or death themselves and into the uncomfortable realm where it is denied unto death. If we liked the erotic spring we are going to have to live with the wintry pain as well.

That, for me, is where this film is at its strongest. While it has served above and beyond the call of love story duty in the first half it settles down to live with the harder stuff. When love turns into affection management and personal administration. Adele continues to serve as painter Emma's muse, starring in life size high impact canvases. Adele finds her vocation in teaching preschool where she finds constant bright fulfillment and the eye of the (h)unque in residence. The latter follows her through days of fete-ing as the face of the inspiration of a rising local artist and the realisation that her biggest impression on Adele's social circle is the pasta she feeds them with. The fiercely independant mind we saw in her adolescence is allowed only grazing in this new role. It's not that Emma has no  problem with this, it's that she doesn't notice that it has happened.

In a more mainstream film, Adele would emerge from this experience full of fight and corner Emma over with a spiky argument about being trivialised, reduced to a likeness on canvas and spaghetti chef. All we need to see the the size of the serving dish and hear the praise for the food which arrives at the point where the champagne has created a mass appetite. Adele begins to look around and we don't wonder as we see Emma's eye wandering and her body language preparing for a transfer of affection to someone else. Then, when we get the big confrontation we don't need to hear dialogue from Husbands and Wives because we feel as sad and tired as the characters.

But if we really wanted to see emotional violence we have to wait until the first meeting of the pair after their separation. The longing barely visible through their restraint swells and bursts through like a demon on the rampage, giving us a sex scene that, fully clothed and unfulfilled, is the most powerfully erotic of all of them. It is also heart-rending. We are looking at what feels like the final act of pure attraction between these two lovers and find the energy exciting only long enough to be gutted by its ultimate emptiness: burning love by programmed robots. This is a common scene in real life but I've never seen it so powerfully realised in fiction. It is the single strongest moment in this film so well supplied with them.

If you looked at the poster for this or any other promotional material and formed the impression that it was a low-substance wish-wash you might want to watch it if only to revisit the lesson about first impressions. It's not just French and pretty faces. This is a serious study of human attraction, youth and experience and features some of the strongest performances and visual direction you will see all year. These are three screen hours which do not quite feel long enough.