Kurt Cobain will have his revenge on all of us

It’s the darnedest thing with Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. I can see that it’s a good documentary, but I have no idea what it wants to do or where it wants to go. It latches on to the biographical details as a red thread, and everything in it – the music, the drawings, the puppets and statues – is by, or at least featuring, Kurt Cobain. A bio-pic would feature a lot more interviews. Ok, so maybe it’s all about Kurt Cobain as an artist. Hardcore Nirvana fans will appreciate that, but all others must be warned: Cobain’s artwork is as uncompromising as his music. Since the movie is 130 minutes long, that means a lot of monsters. I grew slightly tired of exploding entrails and erected penises.

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The excerpts from his diaries are more interesting. There are songlines, thoughts, directions, to-do lists and ideas that bring you very close to what he thought was important to him at the time. Together with all the newspaper snippets in the second half of the movie, MoH gives you a lot to read. My eyes started to grow tired. Maybe reading the actual published diaries would be easier. The interview bits are moderately interesting, but kept to an absolute minimum – how else can you explain the absence of Dave Grohl? Wendy O’Connor talks about how she caught her son using heroin. Courtney Love goes on about how she is sure that taking heroin while pregnant didn’t affect Frances Bean in the slightest.

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The movie does two things very right: it doesn’t play the intro from Smells Like Teen Spirit until it’s called for, and it doesn’t glorify anything, especially not Cobain’s suicide. This is not a hagiography, and neither does it feel the need to push Cobain off his pedestal. There never was a pedestal. Montage of Heck shows his childhood, his teen years with some beautifully animated scenes, then his first concerts with Nirvana. The rest is history. What’s probably new are the home movies with him, Courtney and baby Frances. My feeling is that they are so intimate that they shouldn’t have been publicized.

Ah, the music. It hasn’t aged. The most fascinating scenes contain Kurt Cobain doing what he does best: playing his stuff. Throwing around his guitar and crashing into the drum kit gets old very fast, but there are moments on stage when Cobain seems almost happy. Other moments show his despair: during boring interviews, and on stage, overwhelmed by his own success. He stubbornly denied being the spokesperson for anyone or anything, only to be asked how it felt to be the mouthpiece of a lost generation. Together with his stomach problems and heroin addiction, it’s a miracle he found the inspiration to write his songs.

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I can very well live without his drawings, but want to have a look at the written bits of his diaries. What MoH has done to me is that it has rekindled my love for the music. It’s immediately accessible and listener-friendly. You have to remind yourself that many of the songs are driven by bilious self-loathing. Cobain knew how to write a song better than anyone. Most bands can count themselves lucky having two or three great songs. Nirvana’s discography is surprisingly short, but there are at least a dozen songs that have become part of rock music DNA. There is an energy that is unique to Nirvana’s songs. They seemed to be able to perpetuate themselves. I hope Kurt Cobain realized that.

Love and war – same thing

Les combattants is essentially a love story, but the movie is at its best when it forgets that. There’s Arnaud, a carpenter who helps his older brother build pergolas in other people’s gardens. He looks on as the daughter of their latest customers fills a backpack with roof tiles and jumps into the family pool. He fears she might drown. “It’s combative swimming,” she replies, as if she did that every day. She does. Later, he will give her a ferret as a pet.

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She also puts a whole fish in a blender and drinks it all. “I have to prepare for the end,” she says, although she doesn’t know exactly what that end might look like. Madeleine is not a gun-toting tomboy, nor a pessimist, but a young woman who thinks it’s her best choice to enrol in the French territorial army. She can be outgoing, but chooses to stay silent because she is not too good with people. She seems constantly on the brink of exhaustion, what with all that survival training. When Arnaud sees her, he is not love-struck at first, but curious enough about her to enrol alongside her. Madeleine has not much of a clue that he might like her. She takes his tagging along with a shrug.

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Almost none of the scenes play out the way you think. There is a very tender moment where they paint each other’s face with camouflage colors. Another scene shows raindrops on her naked skin. Arnaud is fascinated, but all Madeleine wants is for him to punch her. Madeleine realises that the military is actually not hard-core enough for her, so she and Arnaud desert into the woods. There is a surreal scene at a gas station where they seem to grow apart, but actually find something out about each other. Arnaud doesn’t have much interest in joining the army, Madeleine wants it far too much.

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The film avoids almost all of the clichés of boy meets girl or of the army. By the end of the movie, the two of them have grown closer together – in what way is for you to decide. Les combattants shows you fresh faces and an unusual story, told in an unusual way. Arnaud is played by Kévin Azaïs, slightly dorky and clueless about who he wants to be; Madeleine is played by Adèle Haenel, and I have a hunch that she might go on making good to great movies.

No strings on her

Can a machine ever be truly intelligent? Can it have feelings? If a machine fakes these things convincingly enough, at what point does the appearance become the real thing? Whatever the answer, Hollywood tends to remind us that it’s a bad idea to fall for robots and AIs, however seductive they look and however much they sound like Scarlett Johansson. Ex Machina is not alone in dramatising the Turing Test, but Alex Garland’s first film as a director is definitely a striking addition to the genre.

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Ex Machina‘s Ava (Alicia Vikander) is one of the most intriguing movie AIs I’ve ever seen. It would have been easy just to make her a sexy, seductive woman that easily passes not just the Turing Test but whatever test would have to be devised to find out whether a computer can pass as human when flirting (the Samantha Test, perhaps?). Ava, while sexy, is clearly not human. It’s not her semi-transparent iMac design so much as the way she moves and talks so deliberately, the way she behaves. Is she only imitating human behaviour, is her learning process as yet incomplete – or is she something else altogether? Ava may be Ex Machina‘s greatest asset, but she is not the only character in this film whose behaviour falls into some uncanny valley. Her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), is a bullying genius for whom humanity has little to do with humaneness, and there is more than a little Bluebeard to him even before we see the remains of his previous ‘wives’ that he tellingly keeps in his bedroom. And then there’s Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who should be the excited kid that found the Golden Ticket, but who soon realises, if not soon enough, that he’s as much of a rat running around a maze as the beautiful subject whose intelligence he’s told to assess.

Ex Machina is a fascinating sci-fi three-hander, the kind of smart, philosophical science fiction that Alex Garland does well (even if he doesn’t always know how to end them), but it can be something of a cold fish, mostly due to Caleb being a somewhat frustrating character; he is awkward and aloof, but in ways that – together with his orphan background and lack of friends – made me wonder if his humanity was something we shouldn’t quite take for granted, and a hard-to-watch scene late in the film suggests that he harbours the same doubts. The film resists making him too much of an audience stand-in, which is an interesting choice – but it also creates a distance that kept me from fully engaging. Garland’s scripts, not least when directed by the likes of Danny Boyle or Mark Romanek, find intriguing ways of combining the cerebral and the emotional, the ethereal and the earthy, but I’m not sure I fully understand what, as a director, he does with Caleb. For lack of a better word, there’s an unfinished quality to him: as much as Ava is not human, she feels like more of a character than Caleb. I appreciate that Garland didn’t sentimentalise the character, but I haven’t yet found a way to integrate his oddness into either my feelings or my thoughts about Ex Machina.

Regardless of whether Caleb passes my own version of the Turing Test, Garland’s film succeeds at being intelligent sci-fi – and like Sunshine and 28 Days Later, there may be some quibbles about the ending (though to a much lesser extent than with Sunshine), but what Garland brings to genre cinema, whether as a writer or as a director, is a worthwhile addition. It would make for a fascinating, and uncomfortable, companion piece to Spike Jonze’s Her. It would be interesting to compare Samantha and Ava’s notes on humanity.

P.S.: Ex Machina isn’t Domhnall Gleeson’s first encounter of the robotic kind, although last time he was on the synthetic side of things. If the Gods of YouTube permit, you can check out the entirety of “Be Right Back” from the second series of Black Mirror. Well worth watching and at least as chilling as Ex Machina:

It’s showtime!

I almost managed to live to the age of 40 thinking that Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz would be a film I’d hate. High camp, stage dancers from the days when disco was just about still alive but definitely already starting to smell funny funny and the like aren’t exactly on my list of favourite things; I’m more of a whiskers on kittens and David Fincher’s Seven kinda guy. It was only when Criterion brought the film out on Blu-ray and Matt Zoller Seitz did his video essay on the film (embedded at the bottom of this post) that I thought I should perhaps try to get over my Fear of a Leotard Planet.

In short, I was transfixed. A couple of years ago I wrote about artifice and authenticity in films, and already while watching All that Jazz I was startled how well the former was used to evoke the latter. The film is often highly stylised, it eschews the surface markers of realism, it embraces camp and staginess like so few films do, and even fewer do successfully. The style of All that Jazz is showy, but it’s never insecure or needy: there’s an almost staggering confidence at play in the film. It’s rare to find a film that has learnt the right lessons from theatre, and that understands how limiting cinema’s obsession with realism is.

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That’s perhaps the main thing I took away from All that Jazz: it’s exciting to see a film that isn’t beholden to a narrowly defined and all too often shallow representational realism. While it wouldn’t fit all kinds of films and stories, the kind of illusion that’s more common to the stage is something I wish film would embrace more often. Filmmakers try to make things look more real, but we know that what we see isn’t real: the dinosaurs and flying superheroes are pixels, that tower with a big flaming eye on top is a miniature, and that guy running with a gun is Tom Cruise. There’s a certain demented futility to the extent to which cinema is often at cross-purposes with itself: movies want you to get excited about the extravagant illusions they create, yet they want to hide the fact that they are illusions. There’s a fetish of the seamless – and it isn’t limited to CGI orgies: in a way, what Linklater was aiming for with Boyhood was also the seamless appearance of reality. There’s definitely a place for that, but realism isn’t inherently more valuable than other modes of representation. To my mind the most powerful illusion is often not the one that is seamless: it’s the one where the audience sees the illusion for what it is, a mirage, and fully buys into it nevertheless.

On the stage, we can watch an actor slip from one role into another, yet make them all real. There’s no need for Academy Award-winning makeup to hide the fact that we’re still looking at, say, Meryl Streep. A different hat, changed body language, all of these change an actor from a young man into an old woman, and both can touch our heart. The audience doesn’t just watch the illusion, it becomes complicit in it, intensifying the effect. I’ve seen a modern actor playing an Elizabethan player playing Thisbe, making us laugh at the incongruity one moment and cry the next as Thisbe’s pain and death feel utterly real. When it works, that reality is in no way diminished by the obvious artifice of it all. To make the audience see both the trick and the reality of what the trick presents at the same time, that’s magic. As Tony Kushner wrote in his stage directions to Angels in America: “It’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do.”

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Obviously, film isn’t theatre, and what works in one medium has to be adapted for another. I wouldn’t want all movies to resort to the Brechtian strategies Lars von Trier resorted to in Dogville. I do want film to be less fixated on the invisibility of its illusions, though: the more magic happens entirely on the screen, the less it happens in my mind. All that Jazz‘ magic isn’t entirely that of the stage and its visible wires, but it rejects a superficial realism. It invites the audience into a much larger and more exciting space. Its reality is emotional first and foremost, its razzle and dazzle is artificial and has no qualms about this – artifice can heighten reality much more than a seamless illusion can. It opens up space and time, showing what a tiny stage realism is. How many leotarded angels can dance on the head of the pin that is realism? Many times fewer than Fosse was able  to imagine, I’ll wager.

The Last Honest Businessman

A Most Violent Year isn’t as good as Margin Call or All Is Lost, the two previous films by J. C. Chandor, but it is still a fine film. What stands out here is the screenplay: there is very little actual violence, no grandstanding, no soul-searching, no deus ex machina, and no lucky coincidence. If Abel Morales can save his NYC heating oil distribution business, it’s by smarts and perseverance, not by some last-minute con. The threats to his firm come from outside: someone is stealing his trucks. There are armed goons observing his mansion at night. The DA (David Oyelowo) waves a warrant in his face during his daughter’s birthday party.

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The film evokes the early 1980s effortlessly: Reagan, street crime on the radio. It features a lot of meetings, talks, negotiations. At the same time, crime is never far away: truck drivers get beaten up, trucks get stolen, a newbie on his sales team is hijacked. Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac, wants to keep his nose and his books clean at all costs. His wife and business partner’s goal (Jessica Chastain) is the same, but she is ready to do what needs to be done. A Most Violent Year has been compared to The Godfather: Part II – maybe because it is its opposite. It’s hard not to think of Scorsese or Coppola or Tony Soprano, especially if you cast Jerry Adler, but Morales is the principled center of the story while things fall apart around him.

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The film’s weakest spot is its plot: if everyone around you turns out to be cheating, you can no longer stay clean. The fact that everyone is dirty is the opposite of a spoiler – it’s a stereotype. And the DA’s work does no longer seem to be a smart move, but a lazy, random stab: take any businessman to court, and you will find the dirt on him eventually. Seen that way, the movie slowly deflates. Juding from his earlier movies, J. C. Chandor’s strength is racking up tension by showing us characters who have created situations that slowly turn uncontrollable, so what will be their fate? Morales might give in to backroom deals, or he may refuse and go bankrupt.

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This film is probably too predictable if you compare it to Margin Call, but it is interesting to watch. I’ve had my problems with Oscar Isaac, but he plays his role understated and straightforward. Jessica Chastain reminded me of Lady Macbeth because if her husband can’t take care of business, she will. And I didn’t recognise Albert Brooks or Jerry Adler until after the movie. New York City looks derelict, on the edge; apparently, 1981 was the year with the most murders. There is an early scene in a hospital where the corridor is strewn with litter. The outlook is bleak, not because business is bad, but because the people around you make it so hard for you and your business.

The fact of the meta

François Ozon’s Dans la Maison (In the House) makes for an interesting companion piece to his Swimming Pool. Both films are highly meta, both are about the process of storytelling, and both highlight the tenuous relationship between what makes a good story and What Really Happened. Based on these films, and on Ozon’s career as a filmmaker, his loyalties lie with the former – which is an attitude I very happily endorse.

Dans la Maison is a cheeky variation on the tale of Sheherazade: Germain Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a jaded teacher in late middle age finds himself becoming first intrigued and then well and truly hooked on the essays of the one student of his that shows promise as a writer, in a sea of bored, uninterested pupils that would give even mediocrity a bad name. Claude (Ernst Umhauer), who appears to come from a less privileged background, recounts in a waspish tone how he insinuates himself into the decidedly middle-class home of a classmate, eyeing the seemingly happy family – and especially the attractive though fading mother – like an underage Tom Ripley. The very first of these essays ends in a teasing, even flirtatious “A suivre…” – To Be Continued.

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Surely, it is no accident that the teacher’s name echoes that of another fictional middle-aged man who enters decidedly murky ethical waters in an ongoing affair-of-sorts with a teenager – but Germain is no Humbert and his student is no precocious twelve-year-old. The seduction we witness is done by means of storytelling, and while Germain says, and may even believe, that he’s letting Claude continue his story and his infiltration of the titular house only to help him become a better writer, it is only in part the intimate but controlling act of teaching that motivates him. Germain is hooked on the illicit voyeurism of observing this middle-class family through the eyes of a transgressing young man whose attitude is partly desire, partly envy and partly disdain of what he sees.

In writing what he observes, Claude shapes both his material and his audience, and as the film proceeds it becomes increasingly less clear to what extent his story swerves from what he actually sees and hears towards pure fabulation. Germain prompts these changes by criticising the story Claude tells – too ironic, too predictable, too melodramatic – but it remains ambiguous whether these critical notes are indeed genuine feedback or the desperate attempts of a captive audience to maintain at least the illusion of control. Claude seems to defer to his teacher’s criticism, but he may just be giving the man what he’s asking for so he can snare him all the better. Germain wants the story to meet his standards of good fiction, yet he also wants it to be true, and the more the former is the case, the more he believes what he reads.

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It’s a shame that while Ozon gets the relationship between Claude and Germain precisely right, he falters when it comes to the teacher and his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). No doubt, there are interesting elements there: Germain is a snob who patronises his wife with respect to her fear that she may lose her job as an art gallerist, and he is oblivious of the growing rift between the two of them as he clearly favours his pupil’s fiction over the art she works with, showing off the former to her while dismissing the latter. Late in the film, Claude insinuates himself into Germain’s life, apartment and marriage, much as he inserted himself into his classmate’s family, and again it is not clear where fiction ends and reality begins – but in these elements Dans la Maison remains underdeveloped. While there is a coda that is strangely serene, reconciliatory and sad in equal measure, a fitting end for the characters and the story, what precedes it feels like a first draft, something that hints at ideas and themes but fails to develop them fully. Claude’s final story, about him and Jeanne, feels too sketchy and rushed to warrant Germain’s extreme reaction, and the teacher’s final confrontation with his wife falls uneasily  between the stools of relationship drama and French bedroom farce. It’s a shame: the film falters especially because what surrounds its resolution is sharp, smart and has the necessary lightness of touch. In this, too, it makes for a good companion piece to Swimming Pool. Regardless of the film’s third-act problems, Dans la Maison shows that Ozon still has the wit for playful meta, and I’ll gladly consider myself a willing audience to this particular Sheherazade.

The past is a black-and-white cartoon

My first impression is this: Alois Nebel wants nothing so much as to evoke the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, with its ligne claire images and its story and themes – in both movies an imperfectly remembered historical event is key to modern-day goings-on. Unfortunately, the ambitions of the recent Czech film very much outstrip its actual achievements, in spite of winning the European Film Award for Best Animated Movie in 2012. It’s a shame, because visually Alois Nebel is moody and sometimes arresting, but too much of it ends up feeling half-baked and derivative.

It starts with the film’s look: Alois Nebel isn’t a carbon copy of Waltz with Bashir, using rotoscopy rather than the combination of Flash and more traditional animation of the latter, but it is close enough to serve as a constant reminder of a stronger film that makes better use of the medium. Bashir reflected on the gap between memory and history, using animation as a more overtly subjective mode of representation. The Czech film, however, doesn’t seem to have much of a reason why it is animated, doubly so since the actual actors, surroundings and objects are clearly visible in the rotoscoped lines. Other than the choice of black and white, there’s little obvious stylisation; form and function seem to be uninterested in one another rather than serving a common purpose. In the end, Alois Nebel mainly seem to be an animated black and white film because this gives it a more unique look, but as such the visuals come across as a vaguely motivated Unique Selling Point, not a purposeful directorial choice.

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Similarly, Alois Nebel is content to leave too many things unclear. Now, I like the effects that elliptic storytelling can have, but there’s a distinction between elliptic and vague, and the film tends distinctly towards the latter. Early in the story, the titular protagonist, a quiet-to-the-point-of-sullen train dispatcher is taken to a mental institution during the last months of Czechoslovakia as a Soviet satellite state – ostensibly because he has hallucinations about an event from his childhood, but the way the film represents it the one, sole hallucination he has, and in the privacy of his privy at that, could as well be a memory, a dream or simply a flashback. Why exactly is Nebel committed? Why is he released? What difference does either make to him? If it doesn’t matter to any of the characters we see, why should it matter to us?

After he is allowed to leave the institution, Nebel returns to this troubling memory several times, each time revealing a bit more about what happened, but the eventual moment of clarity comes as an anti-climax: it tells us little more than the original incomplete memory did, and it doesn’t flesh out Nebel. It does provide a motive for a secondary character looking for retribution, but that character’s story equally doesn’t add much to Alois Nebel – or indeed Alois Nebel. All of it feels like first draft material in need of being elaborated on; in order to pull off elliptic storytelling successfully, the author needs to have a strong grasp of the story, to know what to leave out and why, but this one seems to have been designed around pre-designated gaps to begin with. If the mystery comes before the story, it’d better be a damn good mystery, yet in this film the mystery is too perfunctory to matter much.

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The film comes into its own most during its middle, when Nebel is released from the psychiatric hospital, finds that he has been ousted from his job in the village of Bílý Potok and goes to freshly post-Soviet Prague looking for work. While this episode of the taciturn, middle-aged railway man finding companionship, momentary happiness and later disappointment may not be original, it works better at telling a story than the overall film, which includes too many elements while doing full justice to none of them. It’s in the Prague section that the film focuses on one thing rather than a shopping list of ideas, and it does so well (if somewhat predictably). Its mood does not come across as atmosphere for its own sake, as a repeated moody railway station vignette does in the early movie, and it is the better for it.

Unfortunately the filmmakers were too intent on telling their story about past crimes and present retribution, axe murder and all. It’s as if the film forgets its title character, or quite simply isn’t interested enough in him. There’s potential poignancy in a story that sidetracks its title character (I’m wondering what the Coens would do with such a story) – but sadly, Alois Nebel’s poignancy lies mostly in how most of the time it reminds you of a film that is better because it has a clear understanding of what it wants to be.