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Hark, It's Flickers: The Quietus Film Column! Release The Doves!
The Quietus , January 10th, 2015 08:56

A bleary plethora of Quietus writers tackle Birdman, The Rover and Wakolda in this month's film round-up column

Hail, hungover reader, and welcome to another edition of The Quietus's how-many-semis-can-we-put-before-'regular' semi-regular film round-up. I trust your silly seasons were all really f*cking silly and that the only way you know you're alive is because you still feel absolutely terrible. That's what the month of January is for, after all.

To be honest wasting time on long introductions seems a little unnecessary in a world where James Franco can nearly start a nuclear war, Angelina Jolie thinks David Fincher would be a good fit for a biblical epic and there aren't any Ray Harryhausen films on on Christmas Day, so I'll let you get on with reading the reviews below with a soothing plink-plink fizz. Hopefully by the time you've finished, the world will have sorted its shit out and we can all sit down to Jason And The Argonauts in the spirit of brotherly generosity. I guess we'll have to wait and see. Until next time!

Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) (dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu)

What's so astonishing about Birdman – other than the near universal levels of acclaim that it's received since its release – is that despite a witty script, fantastic performances and a frankly astounding level of technical ability it's still not a particularly great film. It's a good film, yeah - in terms of ambition alone it leaves most others flopping about in the primordial soup, and Michael Keaton fully deserves that inevitable Oscar – but its central flaws are so glaring that it fails to come together into a cohesive whole, leaving it feeling curiously flat and unmoving.

Keaton portrays a washed up actor who used to play an iconic superhero, who has banked everything on producing a high-brow Broadway production of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Birdman documents, in (nearly) one continuous take, the effects this act of hubris has on his family, his friends, his colleagues and, most centrally, his ego.

If you've seen the film or even just heard about it then you'll know that the central conceit – the single tracking shot – is masterfully handled. The camera glides around the backstage area of the theatre, out through the streets, soars up into the stratosphere and then back again with a seamlessness that belies how extraordinarily difficult the whole effect must have been to achieve. The film's DP, Emmanuel Lubezki, deserves most of the credit for the films successes (of which there are several), but no amount of staggering technicality can get away from the fact that Birdman can't quite stick the landing.

The first half hour is magnificent -the sense of claustrophobia in the theatre, Keaton's brow sweating as indignity piles upon indignity - it feels freewheeling and electrifying; everything punctuated by a soundtrack of rattling jazz drums that serves to underscore the sense that this is real seat-of-the-pants film making; proper rabbit-out-of-a-hat stuff. But momentum stalls soon after as sub-plots appear and then (Accidentally? Deliberately?) vanish into thin air, that sense of claustrophobia – previously so vital – begins to become a drag and, most crucially, it dawns that Birdman is not nearly as clever as it wants you to think it is.

The main problem here isn't over ambition, it's that Birdman's main theme – that of authenticity VS inauthenticity, Broadway plays VS Hollywood Superhero franchises, commercial stuff VS stuff that isn't that commercial – is relentlessly pounded into the viewer without the film ever really seeming to be saying much of anything about it. Sure, there are other themes – modern celebrity, family, actors being pricks – but director Alejandro González Iñárritu doesn't focus on any one of them long enough to leave an impression. Like his camera, he's relentlessly moving, but this ceaseless activity doesn't add up to a good watching experience. Despite its central conceit tying it all together Birdman ends up feeling bitty, and what should have been a focussed and original piece of film making feels more like a missed opportunity. Mat Colegate

Birdman is in cinemas now

The Rover (dir: David Michod)

There have been scores of films made about the apocalypse, more than a few of them stone cold classics, and usually there's at least some sort of positive flipside to the end of all things. Consumerist daydreams are fulfilled and indulged in Dawn Of The Dead, while in the Mad Max series protagonist Max Rockatansky at least gets to thrillingly work out his latent sociopathic tendencies, even if he's an unhappy camper the rest of the time. Australian director David Michôd's film The Rover, out on DVD now, differs in that it presents the collapse of civilisation as the relentlessly nihilistic, irredeemably awful affair that you’d expect it to be.

The Rover wisely leaves its apocalypse unspecified, merely stating in a title card that it takes place “ten years after the collapse”, though it's fair to guess that the harsh state of the world stems from the slow-boiling impact of economic crisis and environmental degradation. A future state of affairs that unfortunately feels probable to the point of near certainty.

Guy Pearce stars as a mysterious and nameless loner (though the credits list him as Eric) travelling by car in the post-apocalyptic Australian outback. He quickly has his car stolen by a gang of thugs, hot off a heist of some sort, and Pearce spends the rest of the film monomaniacally hunting them down in order to retrieve his vehicle. His motivation is mysterious, as he instantly finds a replacement vehicle, but he pursues his prey with a shocking degree of ruthlessness.

He quickly happens upon Robert Pattinson's Rey, the gravely wounded and none-too-bright brother of one of the car thieves, who is abandoned in the fracas at the beginning of the film. Eric essentially takes him hostage, but eventually a warped sort of connection forms between the two, more unsettling than it is heart warming.

It's hard not to draw comparisons to the Mad Max films, what with the apocalyptic outback setting and the focus on cars and mobility. The Rover essentially works as a respectful arthouse re-imagining of Australia's most iconic cinematic export, laced with a hearty dose of Cormac McCarthy-style poetic misery. The details of its world also mirror that of the first Mad Max, which didn't actually have anything to do with World War Three. Both deal with society slowly imploding from within for unclear reasons, while gradually tearing itself apart via vaguely Ballardian roadside slaughter.

Michôd's first film, the ace crime-family drama Animal Kingdom, was dense and complex with a large cast and a tight focus on plot and character. The Rover on the other hand is loose and minimalistic to the point of sparseness. Action is rare, and when it does occur it's far more horrific than it is entertaining. Nor is there much dialogue. Instead this is a disturbing and aesthetically gorgeous fever-dream that gets right under your skin. James Ubaghs

The Rover is out on DVD and Blu-ray now

Wakolda (dir: Lucia Puenzo)

A notorious Nazi war criminal, hiding in South America, meets an ordinary family on his travels and finds in their secrets and obsessions a reflection of his own past... It’s a compelling premise and a weighty theme, and Argentinian Oscar-contender Wakolda is a self-consciously solid, serious kind of film. It’s also a story that’s fraught with difficulty in the telling.

Director Lucia Puenzo adapted Wakolda from her own novel, but it’s by no means a straight translation. The book has a peculiar blend of subtle grotesquerie and gauche obviousness, whereas the film is straighter and more opaque. One salient difference is that the novel reveals who the main character, José, (Àlex Brendemühl) really is immediately, but the film only hints at his identity (making the poster campaign that gives it away look like an unfortunate spoiler). It becomes clear who this sinister scientist must be, but the film continues to avoid naming him, almost superstitiously.

Wakolda sublimates his desire to experiment, and to ‘perfect’ the human form, with Argentinian father Enzo (Diego Peretti) doing with dolls what José did to people. The tension between the tranquil scenery and the evil that’s stepped into it is both strength and weakness in Wakolda. The contrast is more acute when visualised; the wonderful landscape reacts to the intrusion with thunder, lightning and snowstorms. But unlike the novel, the film doesn’t want to examine his deeds too closely, restraining itself to ink drawings and tasteful bruises, and leaving out the more queasy descriptions of experiments and suggestions of attraction between José and the subject of his scientific fascination, 12-year-old Lilith (Florencia Bado).

Bariloche in southern Argentina provides an exceptionally gorgeous backdrop. but creates a tone that’s at odds with what’s happening - it’s like an experiment itself, to see what happens if you take this man out of the hell of Auschwitz and let him perpetrate his atrocities in the most idyllic setting imaginable. Do his deeds seem less evil? More?

Wakolda does do very well in examining what happened amongst some Nazi sympathisers after World War II ended. It reminds us that these terrible loyalties might have been hunted into obscurity, but they died hard and obstinate. It’s just a shame that pursuit of an Oscar-worthy gloss causes the film to pull many of its punches, and that Puenzo didn’t stay slightly truer to the strangeness in her original story. Yasmeen Khan

Wakolda is out on DVD and Blu-ray on the 12th of January