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: 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 (

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.