Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Ex Machina

Ex Machina is the kind of science fiction movie that hammers home Solaris' point: Any attempt to study or imagine the in- or post-human is doomed to collapse into yet more navel gazing.

Ex Machina is a decent film about a very particular masculine delusion. Namely the god complex as it manifests in youthful technology professionals. Call it Frankenstein 2.0. Unfortunately it fails utterly when attempting to depict an artificial intelligence: the best it can imagine is something yearning and learning to be human, first by explanation, then by physical experience. There's no thought as to what comes after it understands and embodies humanity or any thought that AIs might not be as interested in us as we are in ourselves. In that sense Ex Machina replicates the very delusion it describes.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Four Directors I've Loved

Four favourite directors is one of those "post four pictures" memes going around on twitter. As always I've lived in fear of not being chosen (no one thinks I'm a cool cinephile) and of being chosen (everyone will know what a shitty cinephile I am). Thanks to @jdrrr the former worry is alleviated and I need only grapple with the latter.

In all honesty there's no way I can pick out four directors I currently love because I'm not sufficiently versed in enough directors' oeuvres. There's more than a few of whom I can say that I love every work of theirs that I've seen but "every single work that I've seen" is often 1/3 or less of their output. So I've decided to cheat a little and go with four directors whose work I have been in love with at some point or another.

1. Hirokazu Kore-eda: Baby's First Cinematic Love
 Films seen: All his fiction features with the exceptions of Hana and Our Little Sister
Maborosi (1995)
I  saw my very first film by Kore-eda at my very first film festival. I hadn't seen a film that portrayed a foreign nation with a very different material and social culture before and it blew my very suburban, very white mind to see other cultural practices not just as theoretical differences but as lived, taken-for-granted experiences. The film in question was Still Walking so it also blew my mind to see such a low key and yet deeply moving film. Seeing as I was studying at the time I was able to source most of his films through my university's library and I promptly did so. I especially fell in love with After Life which I watched from a VCD (remember those?) on a laptop. Its portrayal of the afterlife as both stiffly bureaucratic and unabashedly romantic has stayed with me more than anything else Kore-eda's done. I also read more than a few interviews with him and in doing so learned a little about the history of Japanese film: Interviewers almost always quizzed him about Ozu and he almost always responded by acknowledging a debt to Naruse.

***

2. Carl Theodor Dreyer: Baby's First Religiously Attended Retro
Films seen: Everything, shorts included, except for The Parson's Widow.

Day of Wrath (1943)

As a terrible cinephile it's only natural that I viewed silent films somewhat suspiciously - sight unseen - for the usual nonsensical reasons (too silly, "bad" acting, too simple and so on). However when a full Dreyer retro came to town I had no choice but to attend. For one thing there would be live accompaniment, for another everyone insisted that The Passion of Joan of Arc was one of the greatest films ever, no qualifications necessary. So yes, I went and yes, I fell in love. The films I most enjoyed were his passionate dramas about religion and/or morality like Joan of Arc, The President, Ordet and Day of Wrath. Perversely it was these films that finally gave me the courage, after at least two years of disbelief, to finally tell my religious parents that I was an atheist and would no longer be attending church or leading youth group.  

***

3. Andrei Tarkovsky: Baby's First Use of Film to Fill a Hole in His Life
Films seen: Ivan's Childhood, Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Stalker, Nostalgia.

Solaris (1972)
Seeing as I was no longer attending church and - being an asocial hermit crab - had nothing much else to do I started watching films on Sunday mornings. For the first few months I ended up diving into Tarkovsky. It was more by accident than by design but I quickly realised just how appropriate his films were. In particular Solaris - in which humans go out among the stars ostensibly to search for something different to or bigger than themselves but in fact to find yet another mirror -  struck a chord with me.

***

4. Claire Denis: Baby's First Director Loved From Afar
Films seen: Her fiction features with the exception of I Can't Sleep, plus US Go Home and The Hoop Skirt.
Nenette and Boni (1996)
I was theoretically studying history and social science at uni but that didn't stop me from reading film studies books when I was supposed to be researching Zapatistas. It was when reading a book of director interviews that I first came across Claire Denis and learned of her radical take on Billy Budd. For some time Beau Travail - and her films in general - were my cinematic white whale. I nearly rent my garments when I realised that I had turned down the chance to see a Denis film at a festival because it (35 Shots of Rum) had been programmed in the YA section. Fortunately I soon got a chance to see one of hers when White Material played in my city and I caught up with others on SBS or through DVD. However I didn't fall in love until I caught attended a near complete retro of her work while completing a teaching prac. I would stagger into the art gallery every vendredi soir, dead on my feat but eager to prop my eyes open in order to catch Denis' seductive, sensual films. Fittingly none of her films proved to be more alluring than Beau Travail which, despite five years of being an unattainable object of desire, did not disappoint.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cure

There's a CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan quote from The Drowning Girl that sums up this film's subject perfectly so I'll let it do the heavy lifting: “Hauntings are memes, especially pernicious thought contagions, social contagions that need no viral or bacterial host and are transmitted in a thousand different ways."

Kiernan goes on to say that one of those methods of transmission is art and if that's so then Kyoshi Kurosawa is probably responsible for more than a few hauntings. Cure has no jump scares whatsoever but it nonetheless conjures an undercurrent of dread by way of otherwise innocuous things: a repeated routine becomes unnerving when shot from a new set of angles, water creeping across the floor becomes unsettling when it begins to trace a connection from antagonist to victim and conversations are made uncalm when their expected rhythms are disrupted.

In comparison the brutal act of murder is often portrayed a rather banal manner. When it's shown at all it occurs in long shots (as, to be fair, most of the action does) which reduces the impact of gore, is over quickly and is perpetrated against victims who never get a chance to cry out or show obvious signs of distress. I'm not sure whether this is intended to make it feel like a natural, expected outcome of the events leading up to it or whether it's intended to make them more unsettling through perverse means, or both. Whichever it is Cure succeeds admirably.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Duel to the Death

Duel to the Death's title implies that it's going to be something of a long, frustrating march to the fireworks factory. The finale is indeed an impressive show-stopper of a fight which slowly builds to the bombastic spectacle of the combatants reshaping nature around them but the build-up is impressive too.

It begins with a meticulously edited scene in which ninjas hunt for a book. Searching library shelves doesn't sound exciting on the face of it but the camera - anxiously gliding along the shelves, searching just as restlessly and as athletically as the ninjas - sells the scene. Bold stylisation helps sell later scenes too. Duel to the Death makes a motif of characters striding or running towards distant cameras set at low angles; the fights are well choreographed and use wire-fu judiciously; and the production design features some truly unusual imagery (including men suspended from ropes in a geometric pattern and hang gliders stalking men on foot).

The film is equally attuned to its characters' warring passions. Personal pride, love, nationalism and honour are all set against one another. Furthermore all the characters are offered a measure of dignity. The film's sole female fighter gets a truly badass introduction (executing a particularly harsh but fitting bit of revenge) and a potentially unctuous scene in which she tries on clothing coded as feminine is defanged by focusing on her pleasure rather than indulging the audience. Her hands are shown in close-up sliding through silk sleeves (practically caressing them) and the last shot is of her smile as she combs out her hair.

All of the above does pay off spectacularly when Duel to the Death does culminate in its heroes dueling to the, well, you know what. Yet while the fight may thrillingly defy the laws of gravity its conclusion is also genuinely sobering.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Forty Thousand Horsemen

Forty Thousand Horsemen is very much an unapologetic propaganda film complete with embarrassing racism, cloying nationalism and an awful, condescending romance. It's appropriately scored almost entirely to the strains of the national anthem and Waltzing Matilda so if you don't appreciate either of those awful songs this film may present as something of a struggle.

There's an early scene to establish why Australians are fighting in the Ottoman Empire and the given reasons are class mobility and free speech. How those aims are achieved by participating in a European power struggle is never made clear. The Ottomans themselves are treated as worthy opponents who rightfully respect the fearsome yet laid back Australians. Meanwhile the Germans are mustache twirling villains - unsurprisingly given the film was released in 1940. Local civilians get the shortest end of the stick: they're presented as patsies just waiting to be fleeced by larrikin (a nicer word for arsehole) Australian soldiers.

The sets and battle scenes have clearly had a lot of money lavished on them but while director Charles Chauvel comes up with some stirring images - cavalry leaping over trenches is possibly the most exciting World War 1 combat has ever been - he fails to tell a sophisticated story with them. Instead they're reduced to a simple montage, the upshot of which is that the Australians won.

In the very broadest sense Chauvel is faithful to the historical record - unsurprisingly since his uncle played a crucial role in the battles portrayed. He does though, in the tradition of all good Australian propaganda, elide the role of British forces and he's not at all afraid to sacrifice truth on the alter of pulp storytelling. The highpoint of the film is easily a James Bond-like finale in which our ocker hero battles a dastardly German officer to prevent him from blowing up explosives that would kill everyone in Beersheba. Forty Thousand Horsemen is by no means a good film but at least it's not the torturous history lesson embodied by the likes of Smithy.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Barking Dogs Never Bite

In many ways this is the kind of formally flashy film first time directors often make. Every other cut in Barking Dogs Never Bite is a match cut and on one of the occasions that it's not it's a rather goofy demonstration of the Kuleshov effect that appears to have been used for no readily apparent reason. (Aside from linking the two main characters I guess? But they are already pretty firmly linked by that point...)

That's not to say that Bong Joon-ho is all about empty tricks here - far from it. For example he employs a rather low key variation of the "people mover" shot to make an ethically dubious discussion suitably queasy. One might argue that he's over-egging it - the scene is already shot in an overlit restroom - but given the outsized goofiness of the film as a whole it fits right in.

That outsized goofiness never gets in the way of its overwhelming sincerity. This is a remarkably sympathetic portrait of scrabbling suburbanites. While the characters suffer every indignation and reversal possible and many give in to their canine instincts in order to pursue their place in the sun they all ultimately transcend both their suffering and their human nature. Even the typically overbearing wife is revealed to have been straitjacketed into her role by the patriarchy and even the cruelest fate suffered is revealed to have a silver lining.

Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet's characters constantly remark on just how strange the world is but in case someone in the audience mishears them there's always the regular human ear made alien by close-up, the lip syncing mobster or the non-stop perspective distortion to set them straight. It's all the more ironic then that Blue Velvet's world is not very strange at all.

I suppose it's darker than the idealised catalogs of suburbia, with capital E Evil lurking inside even the most straight-laced college boy, but it's less surprising or unusual than many a 40s noir. Everything is exactly as it's described less than 40 minutes into the movie - the rest is just wheel spinning. Perhaps more damningly the cynicism with which it views pristine colourful surfaces is so diffuse and toothless that it doesn't even break the skin. Ultimately Blue Velvet feels less like an earnest weirdo and more like an awkward teenage boy cultivating a series of studied poses.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Neon Lights

Shanghai Triad takes the familiar approach to 1930s Shanghai as a place of wealth, opportunity and corrupting vices that sits in stark contrast to a simple virtuous countryside. The truth is considerably more nuanced: most of Shanghai's residents worked as pedicab drivers, factory labours, taxi dancers and the like while living in hovels or in cramped, sublet houses. In many cases they were actually worse off than "country bumpkins". The "money and sin" approach does mirror the contemporary, popular perception of the place though. I suppose in that sense it's truer than a broader representation of the city would be.

•The cinematography and sets support this duality. In the Shanghai half of the movie there are a lot conspicuously studio bound sets which are fussily lit - the beams of light in an early scene in a warehouse fall just so. When the action moves to a rural island there is considerably more on location shooting and while the lighting of scenes is far from relaxed (this is Zhang Yimou we're talking about*) it is less luridly colourful - there are no bright blues present.

Shanghai Triad uses a protagonist with limited knowledge (it's a young boy, it's always a young boy). Like a lot of similar movies it more or less has its cake while eating it too. While Shuisheng may not have perfect information the audience sees everything they need to in order to fully understand the story. That's not to say that Shanghai Triad wastes this device - far from it. There are a number of effective scenes - often shot in pov - in which a crisis' impact is heightened because the audiences' perspective has briefly been limited to that of Shuisheng. While the film does eventually explain itself these brief moments of confusion and uncertainty are genuinely thrilling.

*Yeah, I know he did Not One Less but it's fair to call that a departure, right?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Still Alice

For a weepy about Alzheimer's disease Still Alice is uncommonly orderly and efficient. Every scene starts clearly, gets straight to the point and then cuts to the next - much like it would in a well made thriller. In the film's early stages this strategy works well as in some sense the film is a thriller. Alzheimer's is more or less a monster stalking Alice. Every time she begins to speak or goes out on her own the disease is lurking, ready to cause her a sudden moment of discomfort or anxiety. There's a particularly strong scene in which Alice is shakily drinking a glass of water while her husband walks out the door in the distance. For a reason I can't quite articulate the scene is surprisingly suspenseful despite the fact that the worst that could happen is that she might drop the glass. She doesn't though and the film moves swiftly on.

Unfortunately towards its latter stages the film begins to feel too precise and clinical even as Alice herself is able to muster less and less order in her daily life. It's not that the film ignores the ruptures that Alzheimer's tears in Alice and her family's life - far from it - it's that it quickly moves passed them and on to the next, hitting each beat but never leaving them time to linger.

Aside from the problems with the film's overall strategy there are a few individual scenes which don't work for entirely different reasons. Many people have singled out the speech to the Alzheimer's support group and I think they're right to do so. The overall conception of the scene is strong. It's a moment in which Alice is able to reclaim her identity as a distinguished expert and public speaker. However it's played far too traditionally. There's far too much emphasis on her words as a thesis statement and the scene's arc, in which Alice successfully overcomes an early fumble to win over the audience and assert her identity, is stultifyingly conventional.

Equally frustrating is the film's use of product placement. The film opts for the strategy of actively integrating the product being pushed into the storyline. I'm sure that the real Alice had favorite branded hangout spots but the repeated use of the company's full name and it's positive association for Alice means that as a viewer all I could hear were the brand experts selling the film to advertisers as an sophisticated entertainment targeted at upscale auds. Product placement may be a necessary evil but there's no reason to make it an excessively obnoxious one.

This all might sound a excessively negative so I should emphasis that Still Alice is by no means a bad film. It does contain moments of unexpected subtly and grace.* However Still Alice feels like a film that is holding itself back lest it be judged as being too manipulative or indulgent, as a result it's at war with itself.

*I do wish it had held back on the butterfly though, as contradictory as that seems.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

When Animals Dream

There's a long history of feminist werewolf stories and it's easy to see why: Aside from the terror of big, nasty dogs the horror of the werewolf lies in a loss of control over one's own body. When Animals Dream gets great of mileage out of this subtext. Before the protagonist, Marie, has even begun to wolf out she's subjected to an intrusive doctor's examination and the unwanted attentions of a local boy.

By the time she's asserting pride in her werewolf identity by refusing to shave the film is not only underlining its feminist subtext but also giving it an additional queer resonance. At this point in the film the townsfolk are fairly certain of what she is but have been prepared to tolerate her, provided she doesn't claim her identity in public.

When Animals Dream also gets great mileage out of the bright Scandinavian light, particularly in indoor scenes were it is often used to create images like this one: i.imgur.com/SUgE3Ph.png in which Marie's similarly "afflicted" mother is highlighted in the background.

It's somewhat disappointing then that a beautiful horror film that is so effectively about horrors (as opposed to fear) relies on a undercooked love story and builds to familiar and, as a result, anticlimactic conclusion. But I suppose it's fitting that a film about a werewolf doesn't have the best control over where it wakes up.

The Mule

You know Australian cinema isn’t having a good time at the box office when what is essentially a direct to video release is hailed as an innovative distribution strategy. Having said that it’s clear that The Mule wasn’t dumped; there was a considerable effort to promote the film through twitter and the like which suggests it was intended to attract an audience that simply doesn’t show up to poorly promoted, short run limited releases (www.theguardian.com/film/2014/oct/26/australian-film-australian-audiences?CMP=twt_gu).

As for the film itself The Mule begins on a less than innovative note by using the America’s Cup race of 1983 to establish its time period. However as the movie progresses the race is transformed from a banal indication of The Mule's period bona fides into a loopy simile for the battle of wills that drives the film. Ray Jenkins (Angus Sampson) is a drug mule who, when caught, refuses an examination that would reveal his wrongdoing. In response the police decide to hold him until he, uh, expels the evidence. Will Jenkins hold on or will the police be triumphant? It’s a bit like the America’s Cup race although I’m still not sure exactly how that's so...

Sampson has the perfect face for this role: with his large lips, weak chin and long forehead emphasised by a particularly awful haircut he genuinely looks like a regular, somewhat feckless, bloke drowning in 1980s Australian suburbia. There’s an obvious class difference between him and the clean cut, suit wearing Det. Les Paris (Ewen Leslie) although this is kept as subtext for most of the film until it’s brought sharply into focus in their final confrontation.

Not that the subtext is subtle. One scene plays as a parody of The Castle’s alternately condescending and celebratory portrayal of lower middle class Australia. Which is fitting because The Mule lands in a similar place: ultimately the rich assholes are vanquished, racism takes a literal beating and the middle class can relax in the knowledge that their moral balance is in the green, no matter how much money they’ve made from selling drugs or how poorly they’ve treated women. (Oh c’mon Glen, It’s all for a laugh.)

The comedy element of the film has been somewhat oversold in its marketing although Hugo Weaving finds the humour in Les Paris’ repulsive partner, Angus Sampson is particularly funny when woozily declaring victory in the rather unconventional contest and Georgina Haig, despite being underutilised, finds a kind of derangement in her crusading legal aid lawyer’s decision to ditch her values for the pleasure of putting one over the cops. For the most part though this is a low key suburban thriller with a jarring edge courtesy of co-writer Leigh Whannell’s horror past.

If I’ve made it sound like a film driven by its performances and script that’s because it is. That’s not to say its cinematography is inept or boring. For example there’s a neat series of rhyming two shots, a good use is found for a garish neon sign and John Noble is particularly menacing as a silhouette behind plastic drapes.

Such unremarkable competence is a good synecdoche for the film as a whole. Its attempt at social commentary is not thoughtless but it doesn’t really get off the ground, its attempt at humour is funny but comes and goes, and its attempt to be thrilling bears uneven results – sometimes uneasily threatening and sometimes jarringly violent.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Birdman

Birdman is so in your face that it makes a motif out of characters speaking directly to the camera. It's a manic, propulsive, eager little thing driven by a relentless drum score, a swooping camera and restless actors who talk as though they could burst into flames at any moment. It's populated by caricatures and filled with the kind of passionate nonsense that regularly fills columns exclaiming that Hollywood has run out of ideas, or that theater is a dying art, or that truth and authenticity fill playhouses, or that blockbusters are beautiful diversions, or something...

None of this really covers up the gaping hole at the center of it where there should be an authentic human being grappling with the value of his life. But maybe that's the point? Maybe it's a movie about the hollowness of art that is itself hollow? Maybe it's made a - wait for it - unexpected virtue out of ignorance? I'd like to believe that but it does grasp after emotional truth. You can see it strain when Keaton tells his jellyfish story or when the camera tries to climb into Stone's eyes. Unfortunately you can't magically transcend the bullshit; you do have to leave some flesh and blood in your film.