Tuesday, 30 December 2014

... And Everything Nice: Part Three

Say something nice, or nothing at all. 

This piece continues the review of 2014 releases begun here and continued here. The films covered here include some of the finer films of the year, and this may be a reach, but all of them place strong emphasis on unveiling narrative 'ghosts' (those backstory elements that surface as central to the story).

Notes: Spoilers abound, large and small. (Accordingly, some references border on cryptic.) I clearly don’t apply too strict a notion of what “2014” is. Even to other Antipodeans, several of the below will look like 2013 and 2012 releases. Finally, the positivity constraint need not apply to any who comment on this article.

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho) – Truly if there’s an ‘uncanny valley’ in 2014 cinema, it has to be this fusion of graphic novel aesthetics, Marxist politics, environmental dystopia and setpiece-driven suicide mission. I understand the disconnect more sensible minds experienced when they encountered this, but after a week juggling fever and wine tastings (in Adelaide of all places), the sweet notes outweighed the jarring chords. Cockroach protein bars; sniffable narcotic fuel crystals; the ‘cutting of the fish’ as prelude to slaughter; the circumnavigation salute; the danse macabre violin waltz as eggs are circulated to one and all and bullets re-enter the narrative; the impossible glance and firefight between the cars of a train arcing around a corner; Marco Beltrami’s carrying of the Jerry Goldsmith flame. A memorable ensemble too: great to see Song Kang-Ho (the beating heart of Bong’s The Host) used so well.

All of these are decorative, and perhaps secondary to the broader dramatic arc we go on with Chris Evans’ protagonist. The film takes advantage of the assumptions we place on heroes like this, and this blond-haired blue-eyed revolutionary has a monologue at the three quarter mark that bloods the stereotype memorably. Revolution is not uncomplicated in this world (even if the same can’t be said for what it’s attacking). Another highlight is the ‘sound of the engine’ beat – I don’t know if the moment quite worked (the metaphor is not so much mixed as naked), but I have to admire a film that puts that idea at its climax. Such a film is more than a dumb action movie.

Le Passe (Asghar Farhadi) – There’s an older post on this blog (lamentably incomplete) on how effectively Farhadi’s script utilises the framework and beats of the detective genre. (Quite likely without any intention of doing so, in much the same way his A Separation ups-the-ante on the courtroom battle stories.) This was pitch perfect filmmaking on every level. If we went into every thing it did right, we’d be here all day. Some things to watch for: deep focus compositions that allow the cast to breathe; realism without shakey-cam; an opening that beautifully flags the issues ahead without the symbols showing too clearly; a discrete colour arc; the metaphorical setting (a house mid-paintjob); great performances at all ages. The most graceful touch of all: a style shift to formalism worthy of Bresson as we finally meet the ghost whose unhappy wake we’ve witnessed.

Farhadi already showed in A Separation that he doesn’t need bad guys to generate dramatic conflict, and that instinct shows in his crafting of the characters. The film consistently turns left when other films would turn right. (Take the unease we naturally feel when Ahmad – Ali Mosaffa – is left in the care of children not his own, and how it’s subverted by what a natural Ahmad is with the kids.)  Perhaps the ablest hattrick is the passing of the ball between protagonists over the course of the film. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is the right perspective to bring us into this world, and when others take over the torch to lead us to the self-revelation, most viewers will never notice that it’s happened.

Gone Girl (David Fincher) – Whoever said ‘a couple is a conspiracy in search of a crime’ might have been thinking about a story like this. Many films blend genres together effectively. Few pass the ball entirely from one form to another, and seeing it done well is reason enough to see this. Here the genre baton is passed from the most poe-faced of forms, thriller/crime, to the least sincere, social satire, both well suited to the feeling of emotional detachment Fincher’s films often convey. Many staples of satire appear in memorable forms – the preacher whose teachings leave us outraged (Anna Ratajkowski); the innocent who exits the stage screaming at the insanity of the system on our behalf (Carrie Coon); the sardonic trickster who knows better than to expect sane results (Terry Perry).

Perhaps the characterisation most native to satire is that of Amy (Rosamund Pike). We can lament that the film tilts sympathetically towards Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) – Amy’s psychotic status nullifying most of her criticisms of him – or we can relish the film’s awe of this impressive antagonist. When she wanders up that garden path, drenched in blood, and her husband insists on a naked shower with her for his own safety, I could only smile, and it took a while before I stopped. You have more to fear than the safety of your bunnies with this partner in crime.

I’m not sure the film tears marriage apart. Rather it seems to be saying that even under absurd circumstances, it's necessary for survival. That theme is written all over that ending, but perhaps the strongest hint is in that mid-film encounter Amy has with trailer park America. It takes two to take on the world, and when she gets that math wrong, even this superwoman is vulnerable.

The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones) – SPOILERS (worse than usual) - I don’t know that I really appreciated what Alfred Hitchcock pulled off in Psycho, ripping out the protagonist without killing the film, until I saw this adaptation of Glendon Swarthout’s novel. True, this is a double journey (between Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones), so the loss of a key character is mitigated somewhat, but it’s the more important character that we lose, and I had no hint that it was coming. The way the film carries on despite that loss perhaps is not so surprising – from early on some truly disturbing images are laid out in so casual a manner that we see these moments for what they are, rather than the melodramatic value they’d normally bring to a story. The time jumps are handled similarly, the kinks are somehow abrupt, yet not – perhaps influenced by Jones’ collaboration with Guillermo Arriaga (Three Burials).

There are deep ironies in this material. That the same behaviours exhibited by women and men will be seen as madness in the former and strength in the latter. That figures of strength might fall to depression more readily than more obviously fragile cases. And as far as prize-worthy final images go, this film has a beauty. A drunken man tries to lose himself in revels and gunplay as he drifts across a river into darkness. It caps off a strangely ambiguous final scene that seems to be saying that the redemptions so many films offer us are not possible here. (What makes it an  ambiguous scene is that we don't have a character revelation to experience this through. Normally films use empathy with a character's learning as a way to tell us what they're trying to say. Our point of view is separate to anyone else's in the scene. Truly perhaps this is what is meant by 'letting the audience discover something for themselves', although the risk is that discovery is less assured.)

Marco Beltrami does lovely work in a folk-hymnal idiom, connecting to the time and mourning the disappointment of its ideals.

The Rover (David Michod) – I suspect one’s enjoyment of this film depends on foreknowledge of the destination. If you know where it’s going, as I did, the title becomes an apt pun, and more importantly, the protagonist’s desire line becomes a lot less opaque. Brooding silences take on a clear subtext, someone’s motivation becomes clear, and seemingly unrelated environmental details – the way dogs bark in the background as Guy Peace’s anger comes to the fore, or a brief glimpse of a dog shelter – point towards the film’s unstated ‘ghost’. Without that knowledge, you’d assume more was going on than is, the coda would be a letdown, and the film would have to stand on its decorative merits. (Which are considerable, starting with that seamless shift from metal-popping opening underscore to the sound atmosphere of the opening scene.) Fortunately that experience wasn’t mine, and I appreciated Michod’s slow but limited unveiling of this dystopian society.

Part 4 follows here.

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