Empathic pain response: Green Room (2015)

Green Room chessboard floor

Image by Angela Wolf (Flickr)

There are many more gruesome deaths in Green Room, but for some reason — I can’t explain why — the one that really got me was the machete to the throat. This poor sucker, whose red laces mark him out as a neo-Nazi redshirt, gets one shotgun blast away before being incapacitated by a mic stand. One of our heroes charges at him, blade in hand, and strikes one vicious blow to the left side of his neck. The shotgun falls to the floor, and as blood drains from the wound, his body follows.

A few seconds after the machete struck his flesh, I felt a pain in the exact same spot on my neck. Left side, about four inches across. The pain lingered through the rest of the film, through the drive home — through the rest of the night until I went to bed and fell asleep. As I write this, a full 24 hours after leaving the theatre, recollection of that scene brings the pain back. It’s the first time a film has provoked such a strong mirror neuron response in me.

But why that particular wounding? To a minor character, and in a comparatively minor fashion? I don’t know. That’s the sort of response Green Room wrings from you: visceral, unexpected, disorienting. It expertly builds and maintains tension, populates the screen with memorable and believable characters, and shows you the ‘how’ of what’s happening without muddying the waters with the ‘why’. It delivers the thrills you expect without pandering. It’s a genre classic.

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

The greatest love of all: Toni Erdmann (2016)

corp.jpg

Image via jvc (Flickr)

I’m reminded of the efforts to sell The Death of Mr Lazarescu as a comedy because it didn’t fit into any other marketable box. Toni Erdmann is not a comedy, and the ‘prankster’ father present in every synopsis barely resembles the Winfried/Toni Erdmann we meet in the film. No, this is a deeply depressed and bitter film, filled with frustration at what market forces and globalisation are doing to people of all ages and at all levels of society.

As the father and daughter, Sinonischek and Huller give us two of the saddest characters of 21st Century film. The seams that hold their lives could tear at any moment, and they can keep from falling apart for a while, but the time will come when they realise there is no point trying any more and they might as well have a full breakdown. Winfried is a failed husband and failed father, blundering through one encounter after another, his alienation becoming his defining characteristic. Ines is an exceptionally competent business consultant, capable of turning her own blunders into leverage in a heartbeat, and the fact that she is so good at her job has stripped away everything else, turned her into an emotional husk, alternately raw and unfeeling. They both need a hug.

Thankfully, director Ade has a lot of warmth towards these characters. Perhaps it would have been more of a comedy if she didn’t. But she works so hard to make you care about them, and the actors give all they have, especially Huller. You so want them to connect with each other, or with anything, really, and it’s so hard to see them keep missing. It’s a better, more excruciating film for that warmth.

Did I say it wasn’t funny? Oh, no, it’s funny. It’s piss-funny in places, especially in the final hour. The situations are funny, expertly written and performed to get the laughs, but you’re relieved as much as amused. A few moments are profoundly moving and funny at the same time.

Will they be okay, though? Probably not. The world isn’t getting any friendlier. Toni Erdmann is a remarkable film for our times, one that I may one day call great.

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

Respect: Tower (2016)

tower.jpg

Image via wattsbw2004 (Flickr)

I spent a lot of the running time of Tower wondering: why make this film? A terrible mass murder happened 50 years ago, and in the reporting of the outstanding Texas Monthly journalist Pamela Colloff, definitive records of the events already exist. So why film one of those pieces? And why animate it? And why drag the survivors through it one more time?

In retrospect, I can put a lot of those questions to the side. My suspicion of director Maitland and his team has given way to a kind of grudging respect. Though his treatment of this dreadful subject is a little showy, the extended animated sequences make it seem far more real than straight re-enactments would have, and he takes you inside a mass shooting in a way that no other film I’ve seen has. (The obvious comparison is with Elephant, which is a lesser film by comparison.)

Most importantly, Maitland’s focus is squarely on the survivors. The ultimate point is the correct number of times for this story to be told — Colloff or not — is however many times the survivors are willing to tell it. This film witnesses their suffering and bravery, something they were largely denied at the time. That alone makes it worthwhile.

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

No budget, no genre, no problem: Chronesthesia (2016)

Chronesthesia

Image by glix (Flickr)

I found lots to like about Chronesthesia.

The high-concept premise seems like a gimmick at first, but it earns its big climax and all the editing trickery along the way. The ‘mental time travel’ idea is both a way into the story and an effective means of pushing it forward.

The characters are well-realised people, from youngest to oldest, and their conversations feel authentic, whether they’re meeting cute or arguing, whether or not they’re generations apart. You really feel an emotional investment by actor/director/editor/writer Weal in all of them, even in the smaller supporting roles, and he deserves extra credit for that, especially as he is the star of the film and in nearly every scene. It could so easily have been a straight-up vanity project. Perhaps he realised the quality of the talent opposite him and decided to give them room to do their thing.

Wellington looks marvellous. We already knew that, but Duncombe’s cinematography shows it off in style. Because this is a no-budget film, I also have to mention the sound quality, which is impeccable.

This is a rare film that takes mental illness seriously, to the point that large chunks of dialogue explore its effects on and place in society. A character with mental illness is treated with consistent respect, despite at times being a potential danger to the people around him. Not just a plot device after all!

The only thing I would change is the title. Being a New Zealand film, and hence a product of British English, it should be ‘Chronaesthesia’. But I’ll give them a pass if it gets them an American distribution deal.

Leave a comment

Filed under Film, New Zealand

The audacity of hope: Tanna (2015)

8422834972_43d24c5d22_z.jpg

Photo by sydneydawg2006 (Flickr)

The Romeo and Juliet comparison is obligatory, so let’s get that out of the way.

But no, really, Tanna is a lot like Romeo and Juliet. Except it’s set in tribal lands in Vanuatu, where residents have rejected money, Christianity, democracy, and t-shirts, instead choosing a traditional life. And this story really happened, only a few decades ago.

And instead of going all in with the tragedy, it ends with hope — the hope that if you look at the consequences of certain customs, and see how tragic they can be, you can find another way. The hope of charismatic and thoughtful leadership, with speeches backed by action. The hope that minds can change.

It’s so easy to be cynical about such sentiments. You hear them so often from politicians and they so rarely amount to anything tangible. But that’s truly how Tanna made me feel! I would never want to live the way the Yakel do, but I think we can all learn something from them, or at least be reminded of how we are capable of learning.

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

Desert island dudes: The Red Turtle (2016)

3659854718_a5be25af1b_o.jpg

Image by chaitanyak (Flickr)

A very interesting test.

Here is a film that looks stunning, boldly limits itself (there is no dialogue) but still succeeds narratively and thematically, and tells a moving and memorable story.

A quarter of the way through, the protagonist flies into a rage and commits a surprisingly cruel act of violence. The other characters in the film forgive him for this, and he attempts to atone for what he has done.

But can you, the audience member, forgive him? Can you accept that act, or put it to the side, and enjoy the rest of the film on its own terms? Can you look at him go on living and loving without shaking your head and tutting?

I’m kind of on the fence, which probably means no, I can’t forgive him. Even though it’s all a fantasy, and even though I was genuinely touched by the lifelong love at the film’s core.

You should forget all this and just see it. It’s worth seeing. Then let me know what you think.

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

Manifest destinies: McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

2495055557_db20f699c5_o.jpg

The church. Image via drmvm1 (Flickr)

Altman’s thoughts on the American Dream, so fully realised in Nashville, are also central to McCabe & Mrs. Miller. In their efforts to find fortune at the frontier, Beatty’s McCabe and Christie’s Mrs. Miller are two sides of the same flawed coin: one a projection of self-belief with few smarts to back it up, the other jaded (and drug-addicted) but knowledgeable and streetwise. Their manifest destinies lie not in ever-expanding fortunes but at the end of a gun wielded by a more ruthless and powerful man, and at the end of an opium pipe.

The American Dream theme goes beyond the business partnership at the film’s core. Sheehan, proprietor of the local tavern, is a committed small-timer, quick to cosy up to any man who acts a little bigger or smarter than he is. All the women in the film are ultimately objects, but within that limited scope of their possible lives, they find value in themselves and in each other. There’s even a moment in which the town’s only black residents, having just joined in a community effort to put out a fire, shuffle hastily away as raucous celebrations begin. Better not stick around in case things get ugly.

And as a whole, McCabe & Mrs. Miller feels cobbled together, as though Altman didn’t quite get all the shots he needed and had to improvise in the editing. But whatever limitations were imposed on his production — whether by the weather, the studio, or the disgruntled star — ultimately serve to improve the film as an artistic statement.

I recall being enchanted by this film when I first saw it, despite its deep sadness. And I found it just as enchanting on a second viewing — not only for the perfect marriage between Vilmos Zsigmond’s images and Leonard Cohen’s music, but also for the lighter touches. The town drunk dances sloppily on a frozen pond. The barman muses about how best to groom his beard. Everyone’s got to kill time somehow.

That’s the way it goes. You work and you kill time until your number’s up, and along the way, you try to find some beauty in it all. Some meaning. This film has both, in spades.

Leave a comment

Filed under Film