Sunday, May 29, 2016


Kim, a copy writer for a New York based news service is deemed worthy of a frontline post as she is among the few available staff still unattached. She takes the opportunity to change her life and heads to Afghanistan in the wake of the Coalition incursion where she is rapdily inducted into the toughness of military reporting and the emotional steam-valving of the media back in Kabul.

She becomes part of the Kabubble, the live-fast-die-whenever fellowship. When she is asked for her motivation to come to this violent realm she tells a story of how she felt she was stagnating. Her anecdote is smirkingly described as white lady and she admits it. Whatever the cause, however came the first sharp taste she soon uses the phrase "I need a hit" to mean both a high profile story and a dose of adrenaline. The Kabubble is all about supply and demand.

This is a well told story that shares some cousinship with Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker though with understandably less white-knuckling. What fills the gaps here is not the looser tension of that film expressed in macho bouting but with wit and a kind of comedy of manners under fire. While this makes for a perfectly credible approach and a decent movie it also forms the chief point of resistance for any viewer even slightly versed in the career of its star Tina Fey.

The scene in the news room establishing the reason for Kim's deployment turns on a joke about attachment, corporate culture and a threat to life and limb. It's a funny joke but it feels like a diluted joke from 30 Rock or Kimmy Schmidt. It takes a few scenes for this to clear but any fan of those shows will have to do some quick negotiating with this movie to avoid disappointment.

It would be a shame if that happened too often as the seriousness underlying this tale is weighty and well played. Fey's performance is nuanced and serious and triumphs against her movie's early attempts to sell an Altmanesque satire on the Afghanistan conflict and its reportage (nice exchange over that word in the dialogue).

Alfred Molina's Afghan minster might be brushed a little broadly. Martin Freeman's Scottish veteran reporter might remind us of an earlier Oliver Stone caricature. Margot Robbie's ambitious hot Brit might recall any number of tokenistic characters. Have we not seen Billy Bob Thornton's gruff field officer a little too often in the last few decades? All of these, though, bring enough lift to let the aisle jaffas roll under them without taint.

But that's the thing. Watch the performance. Follow the character. She develops and the trek is not an easy one. Allow the satirical, arch, cynical tones that fly around like ricochets their due but keep your eye on the centre and keep your head. Fey is funny, frequently, but she's good at that and always has been. Don't get fixed on it, though, it's not Fey, it's her character. This is not Liz Lemon does the War on Terror, it's much better.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Review: GOODNIGHT MOMMY (original title Ich Seh, Ich Seh)

A widescreen frame within a frame of a vintage clip of a von Trapp like family singing Brahms Cradle Song in angelic harmony. The mother directs them and while she might only be concentrating on their performance her face is cold with concern.

Two young boys, twins by the looks, gambol about in a rustic setting, running through corn fields or exploring forests. Two moments cool the joy down, one at a cave entrance and the other on a lake. They amble back to their designer house in a field and wait around the house.

An SUV drives up. Their mother is back. We don't get a maternal embrace. The boys have to find her by following a scraping sound at the other end of the  house. The mother is in her room, opening and closing blinds. She is back from surgery. Her face is bound in a mask of surgical dressings. She greets the boys sternly, chiding them for their dirty appearance and orders them to clean up and dress properly.

At this point  we are given what I think is the first token in a slow revelation. I won't spoil this but will note that it is quite clear if unstated. I believe this is deliberate. We are to follow this film with the notion in mind, wondering if we're right and when, if we're right, the big reveal will come and with what impact. It will be just one more fuse of tension.

Another is how the boys begin to doubt that she is their mother or a kind of reversed changeling. The evidence mounts and the boys must take action. They do. But it's not so simple.

There are fevered dreams, real and imagined atrocities, extraordinary events but mostly there is a tension that stands above the others in the tug of war between a dreamy fairytale logic and a cold European realism. Mostly, this plays fair (the head-rattling scene in the woods) by being certified either way but much is left vague. Were these boys really left to themselves while their mother was in hospital? Are we just seeing what felt like the case? The original German title is Ich seh. Ich Seh or "I see. I see." We know it in English as "I spy with my little eye."

If we keep up with this film we are rewarded with some definite statements in answer to our questions and then take delivery of a final question and here, if we know our classic weird tale tv history, we are sent, like the strange creatures Billy Mumy conjures in his Twilight Zone episode ,  to the cornfield.

If we are easily distracted we might dismiss Goodnight Mommy as yet another EuroHorror in the mold of a Funny Games crossed with a Martyrs. The traits are there and if that's all there is to it, you could go for your life flinging mud. But that its delivery of its guessing game is done with so much else should seize all of those charges before they make it out of your breath.

Here's my real bone to pick, though. This film was given a generous publicity tease with a trailer that was reputed to be the scariest ever. It wasn't. It looked tense and weird but most of its audience have seen scarier. Regardless, the process was aborted locally by the film's cinema-bypassing appearance on one of the video on demand services (Stan, in this case). As I had already paid for the ticket, as it were, I put it on one night and then showed it to friends as I needed a second viewing. What I didn't have was a cinema screening. I wasn't discouraged from interruption or wandering attention. I wasn't its captive. If I had been then once would have been enough. It would have filled my consciousness and once would have been enough.

There's a smile in the credits with the words: Shot in glorious 35 mm. I know it still would have been projected digitally (no complaints about that but it does dampen the claim). But even that would have had the tang of the cinema as home rather than the reverse.

Just sayin'.

Sunday, May 15, 2016


Frank is numb. He functions through his job and marriage aftermath but little more. One day he comes home and takes a call from his mother. She complains about her hip and chides him for smoking. After a fairly lengthy chat both realise that this is a wrong number and sign off awkwardly. Frank is disturbed. The conversation made him feel something. He'd call his real mother but she's been dead for months.

Haunted he calls the lady again. They begin a self-avowedly weird relationship which she, Sarah, recognises as a kind of mother surrogacy. Frank is so hooked on the contact that he has no idea of the potential nervous cataclysm it might bring him. But he has improved. His ex, from deep in her narcissistic profession as a successful actor, thinks he's got a new girlfriend.

I began this film with resistance. There are some overplayed scenes. Frank and his boss being intimidated by a lawn sprinkler is annoying rather than funny. The score is a jarring brass-heavy jazz which misdirects us into expecting an offbeat comedy. A few colourful character sketches later and my heart went looking for icebergs in preference to a couple of hours of Aussie-movie quirk.

But all of this eased as this quite beautiful film found its stride. Matthew Saville's return to the big screen after his continued tv work is welcome. I've been aware of him since Noise and watching this latest one bloom into cinema.

He is a filmmaker who puts his chops on the table but only ever just enough. A long track from behind two characters as they converse takes us into the bustle of a tv studio and the expense of the personal time that one of them pays. It's not just Scorsesean flash. If we note the train of girls in pink going past in the background holding helium balloons like escapees from a Wes Anderson shoot we also see in the same take the released balloons drift back across the sky behind the focussed characters. There's a point to them being children and letting go of things that fly. It's a broad brush but the stroke is gentle (which is more than I can say for anything by Wes Anderson. But what about -? No, none of them).

This is a tale of grief and the responsibility of survivors to do more living. The levity that this demands is expressed throughout as a kind of day-to-day wit that, while it does on occasion feel written, is delivered by this film's dream cast with a natural finish.

I've taken too long to write this review, time spent mostly in editing gushes, so I'll finish here by paying it two well-earned compliments. The first is that it is the best Australian cinema experience I've had since The Babadook: it is a film made of cinema (in case you were concerned that Saville was smuggling his tv work into the dark); it's scope and execution form a capsule for its audience.

The second compliment is that I was struck more than once in the atmosphere and quality of observation of the writing of Peter Carey. The sense of place (Adelaidean Saville composes a rich portrait of his native town) is exquisite and a lot of the dialogue is allowed to be absorbed between characters who mentally finish thoughts the way we do in real life. Finally, there is a spring garden on a day a degree or two too hot to comfortably wear a suit. Like the houses up for sale throughout and Frank's voiceover real estate summaries of them there is a sense of home and transition in the heat and the greenery of the back yard. This leads to the final image in which Frank wordlessly understands something he has previously failed to grasp. I left the cinema imagining how Carey might have put that for an Oscar Hopkins or a Harry Joy.