Friday, February 17, 2017


Juan, the amiable neighbourhood meth merchant befriends a small boy who clearly lives in fear of the local bullies. Juan recognises something kindred in the boy, Chiron, who takes a long time to speak so much as his name to Juan and his wife and then it's to explain that most people, meaning the bullies, call him Little. Juan persists with his gentle mentoring of the boy, teaching him to swim and telling the story of how once in the moonlight he was given a nickname which he then rejects, preferring to define himself. Chiron understands but we know how difficult it will be for him to dream of such independence. It's not just the bullies. His mother is one of Juan's customers and her violent mood swings push the boy further away from a life that does not welcome him.

Adolescence is no kinder to Chiron. The bullies are worse and his mother's addiction runs hotter and colder. His emerging sexuality confuses him into shame and anger, especially that it seems to match the hateful labelling by the bullies. One act of the closest thing he has known to love is followed by a brutal betrayal. His equally brutal response forms his most decisive act of identity yet and leads him into an adulthood of one ineluctable course. Or does it? Is there some way out?

This story of self affirmation is given a muscular treatment by Barry Jenkins on his second feature film. The play with focus and motion at its best (Jenkins can use both excessively) establish solid location and motivation. A 360 pan following the bully in chief as he circles Chiron in the quad, bashing into other people who give way to his violence as though he were a rabid dog creates a freezing dread. The conclusion of the scene with its brutality is almost a relief. The consequent scene that travels from a moment of self-realisation in a mirror to a hardened metaphor of breaking barriers and ends in a retributive act feels finished but, thankfully not satisfying. The violence that repays violence is not celebrated the way it would be in a Stephen King story. The sense that it is the next step of a process is too strong for this to be a gratifying conclusion. That's the thing about this film that pushes it ahead of any comparable outing about forging identity and battling injustice: the absence of sentimentality in a genre characteristically turgid with it keeps things focused and intense but also, strangely, light.

There is a strong choreography of character in Moonlight that also sets it apart. The establishment of space, of characters in their landscape and between each other and what that means for the strength of their identity never lets up. A strong cast (some familiar faces but many unknowns) deliver fine goods. Dialogue is lean and the action is intense, allowing moments of beauty to elevate under their own power and very little assistance from the score or burdensome writing. This is a lean masterpiece and a masterpiece of leanness. In recognition, this review will close here.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Review: JACKIE

Fade in. The exquisite beauty of Natalie Portman's face fills the screen as she walks. The scenery around her is a blur. You know this film is about Jackie and you chose it because of that. But if you were expecting an inspiring celebration of strength in a darkest hour you are already being told that that is not going to happen on this screen. The music is played by a string section but the chord bends, everything at once, violins to basses in a descending portamento. Then does it again with the next chord, delivering a sense of vertigo. Pretty movie star vs the kind of groaning strings of post war doomers like Penderecki. Dig it, you feel worried from the first minute.

This is not a conventional biopic. There's a familiar framing device of the titluar character relating the story to a listener but even there the resemblance is distorted. At its worst this can be a clunking parasite sticking out from the rest of the body but behaving as though it's a part of it. Even the great Amadeus which used a fanciful Salieri to tell a crazy tale of Mozart brought the comfortable story to the table. Jackie stops that in its tracks early when the journalist who is to hear the story is told that his subject must be allowed to edit it so that it tells the story she prefers. That is what this intense film is all about. Jackie doesn't start and end a heroine through adversity, she takes the savaging of her beautiful life from politics and violence to Camelot.

Meantime we follow as she descends the steps of Airforce One, her dress spattered with her husband's blood, as she asks the driver of the limo bearing his coffin if he knows about some of the lesser lights on the Presidential timleline, as she asks about the calibre of the bullet that killed JFK, as she numbly fends off the ascendant Lyndon Johnson from invading her house, as she deals with the complexity of her relationship with Bobbie Kennedy, and so on. The choreography, differing aspect ratios, alternate filmstock choices (public events have an uncomfortable Zapruder vintage Super-8 look) parade before us to the point of fatigue.

You would be forgiven if you started finding this film plotless and little more than a series of living tableaux as Jackie gets her story straight but, as we swerve back into a scene from the time she is relating to the reporter and are again immersed in the last days of her life as the president's wife we notice, more and more, in the bustling activity around her that we are getting a lot of National Geographic quality close-ups. While in a more conventional film, close-ups are used to such a familiar effect that we are discouraged from noticing them as we are to the editing. In Jackie we are compelled by them. They are glamour shots with dried blood and brain matter, with distress smouldering through the eyes. The glamour, though is as important as the rage and grief behind the persona for it is the glamour that will be needed for the screaming widow behind it to survive this cataclysm. Thus we don't get to enjoy the Oliver Stone style of cynicism warmed with idealism (or naivete) but the stress that forged the legend, the disease that made the cure look so beautiful.

Natalie Portman, on screen for almost the entire running time conveys this complexity with unfailing skill. From rage to confusion to numb flotation she runs the gamut but more impressively conveys the maelstrom beneath the poise. Did you ever wonder why John Hurt was nominated for the Elephant Man when he spent all of it under city blocks of latex? Watch it again. This is a performance to recall that one. John Hurt is in the film (his last role?) as a priest who, while attentive to her, seems gently impatient with her. And as we approach the photogenic moments of the presidential funeral with ceremonies that are more like performance art than ritual (yes, what's the difference? but there are moments that reminded me of Matthew Barney), Jackie's quest to find herself and her family in history draws close, too. And we arrive, without cheaply bought cynicism or hagiography, to the painful extent that a place in history requires. I stood and left during the credits, while it was still dark, just to keep face.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016: THE HIGH

2016 was a year worth wiping away for many reasons but the quality of the good cinema was higher than usual. It was also more varied. Harrowing tales of desperation at the concentration camp gas chamber door to strong comedies with fragile surfaces, weird but effective sci-fi, les Dardennes extending themselves and Ken Loach digging in, a surprise Anglo/Iranian entry that acted as a kind of signal booster to the great Dark Water and on and on. At worst they are good films but at best they are of the unforgettable quality of the best of the long gone arthouse scene. Yes, there is still compelling cinema. And it's still in the cinema ... as well.

Son of Saul
Extraordinary cinema of the kind my nostalgic daydreams are crammed with when I think of the great days of Arthouse back in the 80s. Strangely staged, strongly maintained, harrowing and bizarrely beautiful. Geza Rohrig as Saul lets only the tiniest sign of emotion out from his persona of survivalist automaton until a vision of life affirmation compels a smile that feels like sunlight. Welling up as I remember it now.

My favourite of the year.

Crazy science fiction with the strength of conviction to fiercely pursue a crazy premise. The sense of the imagined world never tears and there are so many moments where you think "they aren't going to do that" and then watch it happen.

Goodnight Mommy/Ich sehe ich sehe
Stark, nerve eating tale of a broken mother/children bond plays like a classic fairy tale as told by Michael Hanneke. Takes a second viewing to sink in but boy does it sink in.

Fear Itself
Outstanding essay delivered over expertly chosen moments from horror cinema. The argument is couched in a fictional personal story of someone recovering from the true life horror of a car accident who has taken refuge in horror fiction. Everything works.

It's about cats in Istanbul. It's about CATS in ISTANBUL.

Right Now, Wrong Then
Sang-soo Hong's latest deceptively gentle comedy of manners hits the breaks halfway through and does it all over with a significant revelation timed and delivered very differently with diametrically different results. The work of a contemporary master.

The Unknown Girl
The Dardennes take their continental Loach-like tales of the dispossessed into something like a murder mystery yet keep to their own initial commitment to tell these stories. I've seldom been able to fault any of their films and can't fault this one.

High Rise
Ben Wheatley's take on the Ballard dystopia spreads the grime and sweat of the lower orders on the walls of the higher-ups with great humour and anger. The 1970s setting accentuates the vintage arthouse feel of the movie leaking an unsettling kind of nostalgia.

Under the Shadow
This year's It Follows as far as lean, mean and socially aware horror stories go. Like Dark Water with the constraints of a thuggish theocracy instead of the earlier film's traditional gender roles, Under the Shadow punches well above its weight, keeping the scares relevant, scarce and all the scarier for that.

I, Daniel Blake
Ken Loach proves again that he does far more than point cameras at people at the desperate end of the street. He is a master filmmaker and this declaration of compassion honours his oeuvre.


A maestro's swansong, Cosmos plays like a milder outing than Zulawski's more famous efforts like Possession or Third Part of the Night. Very enjoyable, nonetheless.

High hopes for DenisVilleneuve's excursion into sci-fi but these gently deflated as the central concept became obvious well before time, a kind of Christopher Nolan twist that, like almost everything by Nolan, felt less impressive than intended. I'll still see what Villeneuve makes of Blade Runner.

La La Land
Some good songs, committed performances and sensational choreography almost got me in a sleight of hand. Just not quick enough to mask the shallowness of the overall exercise with its welcome stretching length.

Enjoyed for its strength of conviction in sticking with the less glamorous aftermath of atrocity, following the healing process rather than glory in the sordidness of the crime. Still, felt short of the mark I wanted it to hit.

A Month of Sundays
Good effort from Matthew Saville about grief and mid-life ennui with characters and dialogue that reminded me of Paul Cox's best. Too long, though, and too often indulged in setting up humour that would have been better served by brevity.

Whiskey Foxtrot Tango
Compelling dramedy with Tina Fey in the lead (followed closely by Margot Robbie) in a tale of the costs of adventure and finding one's best fit. Wanted more of the grit outside of the Kabubble, though.

Blood of My Blood
Impressive tale of long reaching vengeance against the misogyny of the church told across centuries in a small Italian town. Keep wanting to put it in the high list but it doesn't quite make it there for me.

Greek weirdwave in the tradition of Dog Tooth and Attenburg about male competition subverted by its own cleverness and a confusing play of the competition itself to the effect that it was easy to forget about as the character quirks were aloud to prevail. A scene of competitive Ikea shelf assembly should have been sidesplitting but bled out its own energy.

A Dragon Arrives
Some fun and epic sized mystery storytelling realised that it had to get all serious towards the end or disrespect the whole premise. This worked but felt separated from the first two act

Gary Numan: Android in La La Land
A mostly informative and endearing character portrait on an interesting pop star who engineered a major shift in music at the start of his career. Numan suffers from Aspergers syndrome which highly focused but cold appearance actually aided his robotic persona into fame. His is a good story but the documentary's purpose was to concentrate a little too much on his most recent album, suggesting that much of the fame years' stories are still to be told.

The Beatles: The Touring Years: Eight Days a Week
A loss of focus on the declared purpose of the piece (went beyond the touring story into the recording which has been told very fully elsewhere) but also suffered from too sharp a focus on the US tours. Always nice to see the Fabs on screen but this felt like a feature length introduction to the Shea Stadium footage (which had more than a little flown in from other audio sources). There is a much fuller and truer film to be made about this.

2016: THE LOW

Kate Plays Christine
Great concept hijacked by its own author and continually flattened into inconsequence. There was a fictionalised feature at the time about the same case. Should have gone to that instead.

Looking for Grace
A potentially compelling story rendered indigestibly cute by over cooking design, performance (Richard Roxburgh managed to overact just by standing still at one point) and concept.

Whimsy and ugliness blended until it was clear they wouldn't mix without more ugliness. Try-hard satire better managed by Roy Andersson or Elaine May than here.

The Demons
A kind of Michael Hanneke cover band which, despite some impressive choreography in the early scenes, flattened into a kind of hate-me-if-you-dare void.

The Lure
Great concept but aborted development. Felt like a short stretched into a feature length musical (what a good idea!) and just looked stretched out of shape as some themes were warped beyond purpose and others shrunken beyond recognition.

Nocturnal Animals
Lots of love for this one but I found myself unable to care about anyone on screen and sat back to look at all the lovely design. A waste of some of my favourite screen stars.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Review: LA LA LAND

Funny thing about musicals is that if you put them in a different format no one thinks of them as musicals. Frozen or Aladdin are thought of as animations or kids movies but they are stuffed with songs. When it's live action like Grease or Chicago everyone wants it to be innovative or subversive, never just a musical. Lars von Trier made a near Dogme one with Dancer in the Dark (the genre alone would have disqualified it but the look and dialogue were on the money). Chicago played Broadway for the MTV generation cutting all the fluidity out of the dancing with more edits than the human eye could register. And anyway, apart from a few rogue entries, musicals seemed to have died off after the big 60s bubble, recalled for their kitsch value and then their irony value and then the kitsch of their irony or the other way around. Why do one now?

La La Land doesn't promise much beyond genre and keeps to that lack of promise. Sounds like faint praise but read on. We open (after some cute jokes about technicolor and cinemascope) on a jammed L.A. freeway, closing in on a beautiful young woman in a car who's dubba dubba-ing a tune which turns into a big opening song and dance about the eternal sunshine of Los Angeles. The song itself is generic to the point that it needs nothing memorable in the melody or much or the lyric. It's big and loud and colourful and kinetic. It's an opening number which ends on a genuinely amusing note of bathos and the rom com element's meet cute.

Emma Stone is distracted from the traffic by the lines she will be reading in the audition she is driving to. Ryan Gosling can't get the cassette (yep, cassette) in his dashboard to cue at the right spot but when the traffic starts to move again he baaaaaarmps the horn in Emma's ear, overtaking her with a contemptuous sneer. In 1936 when we saw Fred and then Ginger we started following them from the get go. In 2016 this musical also gives us two movie stars and we do the same for them. We're soon to see some developmental dialogue, visual quotes from earlier eras of the genre and so on and the songs will get more character and narrative based. Bring the two together, prise them apart and then bring them back together stronger than ever. End.

With some variations that's what you get. If you don't like that this won't convert you but the curious cinema goer might well feel rewarded by taking the chance in this case. This is a rom com with the theme of following dreams vs sticking at more realistic drudge jobs. The reason you might care about this has a lot to do with that casting. Apart from an early scene between Sebastian (Gosling) and his sister which can't rise above it's old school dialogue about being a serious artist, the central pair put all their more typical dramatic chops into these roles to warm up what might have legitimately been vessels for song and dance numbers. The dramatic and comedic two-plays work well and both get their moments at breakout performance.

The trouble is that the second act sags without strong numbers as we live through the origins of the conflict and it is here that we might have softened the determination to appear like a legit drama between songs and created something more convincing for confidently joining the rest of the musical. As soon as we accept these young A-listers as musical actors we're happy following them through that. Why have such a lengthy dialogue about conflicting lives when a song would have lifted it into compulsion? We know Gosling and Stone can drama how wonderful to have seen them sing it (as they already, creditably had).

The third act lifts itself ably and when director Chazelle (of the compelling Whiplash) amps up the cinema it feels worth the wait. Here we have Mia (Stone) putting the kitchen sink into her audition number. The final what-if sequence, similarly is masterfully handled as the piece remembers it's a movie and can do what it wants which is best done with depth and the director's own obvious musicality.

The score deserves a plaudit for erring on the side of the jazz at Sebastian's core which even knocks on the door at more orchestrally-appropriate moments. This feels less like a tribute to Michel Legrand's masterful Umbrellas of Cherbourg than an extension of it. And we can't leave without stating that the choreography is not only always welcome when we see it but given as live as it can be without those Chicago split second cuts. Stone and Gosling really dance well and one sequence involving swapping places on a park bench rises above it own cuteness with sheer wow-factor.

While I might not see this again soon, I enjoyed it but would rather see another one with even more confidence and commitment to the genre. Now the twenty-teens homages to Singing in the Rain etc have been played out let's find something else (between this and London Street, perhaps) and forge a way. I liked musicals as a kid. They were played on the ABC on Friday nights before I had a legitimate party life at school. I still like them. This shows they can still work but let's keep going and find out what else they can do.

Review: I, DANIEL BLAKE: Rockin' a Hard Place

Dialogue over a black screen with the credits. An ageing man, Daniel, is struggling to get through a welfare interview about his health and capability. He has a heart condition that keeps him from employment, especially in his trade as a carpenter. The interviewer has to keep hooking him back to the script of the form, warning that a combative attitude will only go badly for him. It does.

But it does not because he is difficult but because the Kafkaesque system of queuing and eligibility and eligibility to queue has left no room to move. He can't get his suspension from benefits appealed until the overloaded system allows it which means that he will have to sign on for the dole but that means that he will be obliged to look for work that he has been declared unfit for. That's all assuming he can make his way through the computer form because all applications must be online. He doesn't know what a mouse is when he gets in front of a public access computer and by the time a helpful fellow beneficiary can get him through the form he has run out of time at the terminal.

Trying again at making it personal (the phone queue torture has led to more absurd frustration) at the welfare office he is again rejected but is stopped when witnessing a woman with two children being ejected before their interview for being late. He stands and cries out for the stranger to be given a chance and it is the first moment of control we have seen him take. It leads to more frustration but also a personal bond and that's when we really know that we are in a Ken Loach film.

Why? Well, like Belgium's Dardenne brothers whose work his precedes, Ken Loach has documented the anger of the dispossessed but is always careful to steer away from nihilist revenge fantasy to serve an fanbase. We understand the constraints and feel the anger but instead of going to bed angry afterwards we will leave the end credits with some perception of the value of retaining humanity in dire circumstances and also of keeping lucid when faced with frustration.

Daniel's fatherly relationship with Katie and her kids has the kind of goodness to it that feels like the last vestiges of currency they have. This is not saintliness and it is important to avoid characterising Loach's filmmaking as documentary style. Loach makes fiction cinema and it doesn't pretend to be objective reportage. The good in Daniel Blake (whose name is drawn from the Old Testament and the pantheon of English poetry) is the same that suggests a need for the welfare system that has been so tightly wound that it must reject him. The common good and the commonality of good. While Daniel's efforts to keep the young family's spirits up might give us some unease when we know how others might misconceive it there is plenty we have seen to allow for it. He's not a saint he's just a bloke who, stressed, is yet unbroken.

That Loach is still making films like this after four decades should tell us just as much. These stories don't go away, are not ironed flat by the rhetoric of neo-liberalism nor so bludgeoned by the hard right. That he makes each one with consummate craft and keeps the blocks between us and the characters clear so that we might walk beside them in their trials is testament to his own resolve.

We need Ken Loach, we still need Ken Loach. We need him, his spare but powerful writers, his perfectly chosen casts and the plainness of his eye. We need him as the eighteenth century needed Hogarth and the nineteenth Dickens. And you will need a tissue or two if you want to get through this film. But if you do get through it you will be, however slightly, stronger for it.