Thursday, April 23, 2020

"Every Man Should Be an Author of His Own History" vs. True History of the Kelly Gang

Ma (Essie Davis) and son (Orlando Schwerdt) Kelly
(Justin Kurzel, Australia, 2020, 124 mins)

Justin Kurzel's grimy, punk-rock take on the life of Australian outlaw Edward "Ned" Kelly, which follows previous versions starring Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, picks up where Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale left off. While Kent set her brutal, bruising revenge tale in 1820s Australia, Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth, Assassin's Creed) shifts 40 years ahead, but the Irish characters still have the chips stacked up against them and the British have all the power.

Kurzel begins his loose adaptation of Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel with Ned as a 12-year-old. It's 1867, and our feisty anti-hero (played by the very good Orlando Schwerdt), grandson of Irish immigrants brought to Australia by force, lives in the middle of nowhere--the Colony of Victoria--with scrappy siblings, a tough mama, and a pop who likes to wear frocks. Kurzel has as much sympathy for John "Red" Kelly as his wife, Ellen (Essie Davis, star of Kent's The Babadook), which is to say: none at all, but it sets up the idea that Ned is--or will be--the "true" man of the family.

When a wealthy neighbor takes a shine to the kid and offers to pay for him to attend boarding school, Ellen puts her foot down, telling her, "You're trying to bleed our culture out like you did the black fella before us." She adds, "Only the Lord should take my children from me--not no Englishman." Clearly, she views boarding schools the same way Native Americans did in the States in the 19th and 20th centuries. And with good reason.

"Every man should be an author of his own history." / IFC
After Ned's father takes a powder, various men come to call, including the oily Sgt. O'Neill (Charlie Hunnam) and bushranger Harry Power (a scruffy Russell Crowe relishing a juicy role). When Ned asks Harry why he's writing his memoirs, he explains that his story is the one thing even the most impoverished man can call his own. "Don't leave it for the English to tell it. They'll only fuck it up and steal the proceeds." (Ain't that the truth.) Harry introduces Ned to a life of violence with a side of alcohol and profanity. At first, he comes across as a big, burly teddy bear of a man, especially when he teaches Ned's family a jolly anti-police song about "cunts" and "cunt-stables," but he's a vile creature who procures goods through cold-blooded murder. It's the first sign that this won't be a story about good vs. evil, but about evil vs. more evil.

Just as O’Neill once imprisoned his father--for a crime Ned committed--he locks away the son, too. By the time he gets out, Ned (now played by George MacKay) is no longer a boy. He's a bare-knuckle boxing, mullet-headed adult who returns to find that his mother has taken up with a younger man (New Zealand folk singer Marlon Williams). Cue up the Freudian frustration, which subsides when Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult, returning to Australia after his memorably unhinged turn in Fury Road) introduces him to hooker with a heart of gold Mary (Jojo Rabbit's Thomasin McKenzie). Like Ellen and Harry, Ned distrusts the British, and fully expects Fitzpatrick to betray him--and that's exactly what happens.

Getting the band, er gang, (back) together. / IFC
The betrayal spurs Ned to form a gang and hit the road. Along the way, he asks his brother, Dan (Nick Cave's son, Earl), why he likes to fight in frocks, much like their late father. "Men are most afraid of what they don't understand," Dan explains, adding, "Nothing scares a man like crazy." I'm sure it was unintentional on Kurzel's part, but it's worth noting that Earl's mother, Susie Cave, is a dress designer. Less intentional, however, is the fact that Nick and his father, Colin Cave, have been famously obsessed with--and creatively inspired by--Ned Kelly and his exploits. Just see John Hillcoat's Nick Cave-scripted western The Proposition for proof (seriously, do see it, it's a magnificent piece of work).

If the subjugation of the Irish by the British is one theme of Kurzel's film, the other is this: What makes a man? Ned is physically tough, but he's sexually inexperienced, possibly bisexual, and loath to take another man's life. In 2020, this wouldn't disqualify him from manhood, but in 1880, Shaun Grant's script argues, he doesn't quite measure up. That changes once he gets a taste for killing. Now he's an outlaw, and it will only be a matter of time before the cops catch up to him. This isn't a spoiler. Not just because it happened in real life, but because it's as inevitable as the death spirals depicted in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, two possible influences (Nick Cave makes a welcome cameo appearance in the latter).

The film's final act revolves around Ned and his gang of frock-sporting, cop-hating, shamrock-worshipping "Sons of Sieve." For protection, they wear scrap-metal armor like rinky-dink Lost in Space robots. And this is the point at which the film goes off the rails, possibly because Kurzel takes so long to get to it that it feels anticlimactic no matter how many strobe light and other effects he throws at the screen. The time we spend getting to know the relatively innocent, pre-outlaw Ned proves more compelling in comparison.

Ned's pal and possibly lover (Sean Keenan) at center. / IFC
By the end, Ned has earned his mother's respect. He's a man. And all he has to show for it is a death sentence. The tragedy isn't just that it's a Pyrrhic victory, but that it fails to stir the soul the way Kurzel and Grant surely intended. I don't believe it's McKay's fault as much as their rather single-minded, charmless conception of the character. MacKay, who proved a more engaging lead in Mathew Warchus's Pride and Sam Mendes' 1917, gives it his all, but once Ned turns to savagery, he comes across as more petulant brat than righteous antihero, even if he never had a chance and even if he had brutal men like O’Neill and Power as mentors.

For what it's worth, MacKay is better in every way than the inexplicably-cast Mick Jagger in Tony Richardson's misbegotten 1970 biopic, which jettisons Ned's childhood in favor of a rustic Paint Your Wagon-style musical (even Jagger's singing doesn't measure up; folk isn't exactly his forte). I haven't seen the 2003 Gregor Jordan film with Ledger, which also drew from a work of fiction, but it didn't meet with an especially enthusiastic response. Further, not one of these gents looks anything like the real Ned Kelly.

Since Kurzel's film has been making the rounds, critics have complained that it's a distorted version of actual events, but the joke is on anyone who would take the title literally. First, the film is adapted from a novel rather than a work of non-fiction. Second, it opens with a title card proclaiming "Nothing you're about to see is true." Third, the disclaimer after the end credits clearly states, "True History of the Kelly Gang is a work of fiction." It only makes sense to judge it on those terms. As such, it doesn't quite work, but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth making or that it isn't worth seeing.

For all its faults, it's no small feat that the film looks good (it was shot by In Fabric's inventive Ari Wegner), it sounds good (Kurzel's brother, Jed, provided the spare, moody score), and Essie Davis offers her usual excellent value, though her performance as Ellen Kelly won't make anyone forget the fabulous Miss Fisher or the prodigiously stressed mother she played in The Babadook. But it does mean you're better off reading Peter Carey's novel, a rip-roaring work of historical fiction that truly does its namesake proud.

Rent True History of the Kelly Gang from Amazon Prime or Apple TV.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Home Is Where the Horror is in La Casa Lobo

THE WOLF HOUSE / La Casa Lobo 
(Cristóbal León and Joaquïn Cociña, Chile, 2018, 73 minutes)

La Casa Lobo, aka The Wolf House, is one trippy film. Though classified as horror, it isn't scary in the conventional sense. Instead, it's more like the fairy tale surrealism of Jan Svankmajer or the Quay Brothers, though Cristóbal León and Joaquïn Cociña took inspiration from real events. Their feature film debut is weird and creepy, to be sure, but it's more like a subversive political allegory in the form of a twisted domestic drama. In other words, horror, because what's scarier than families and politics?

It begins with a film within a film about the Colony, aka Colonia Dignidad, a Pinochet-era German commune in Chile. The Spanish-speaking narrator (voiced by Rainer Krause), a wolf, explains that they made the film to prove to the outside world that there's nothing dangerous about the Colony. After all, it revolves around the production of honey. The inhabitants are just simple farm people, and there's nothing sinister going on here. No sir, nope. (In actuality, Colony members tortured and killed political dissidents.)

León and Cociña, who shot the film in a variety of art gallery and museum spaces--Santiago, Hamburg, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires--then shift from the documentary-style prologue to an animated sequence featuring a Little Red Riding Hood-like Maria (voiced by Amalia Cassai) who escapes from the Colony to avoid punishment for lettings three pigs go free, but she's just jumping from the frying pan into the fire, because the single-sequence-shot film she enters is as much a propaganda piece as the prologue.

While fleeing through the woods, she comes across an abandoned house in a clearing. Because we see things through her eyes, we don't see her at first. Then, the animated painting she inhabits segues from black and white to color and from two dimensions to the three dimensions of stop-motion papier-maché puppetry. Every transformation is accompanied by the sounds of rustling paper, stretched fabric, and a tinkly, music box-like score.

In the house, Maria finds two pigs. She promises to keep them safe from the wolf outside the door. The house and its inhabitants are constantly changing. Maria melts into a chair and re-materializes as a movable mural. The pigs alternate between papier-maché creatures and murals. León and Cociña add real furnishings to these dioramas, blurring the lines between animation and live action. To pass the time, Maria plays games and sews clothes. She encourages the pigs to become humanoid, and so they do. She names them Pedro and Ana. When she reads Pedro a story about a dog and a house, which parallels her own escape from the Colony, the story comes to life.

But then, something happens and the children are injured. She feeds Pedro honey to restore him to health. Though he improves, he doesn't revert to his brunet form, but rather a blond version more closely resembling his Germanic "mother." She also transforms Ana into something more Germanic. The formerly silent children (both voiced by Cassai) also begin to talk, but they just parrot things Maria wants them to say, though they speak in Spanish, while she continues to speak in German.

Just as Maria recreated a version of the Colony in the house, the children end up turning the tables and making her their captive. She left the Colony precisely to escape the fate in which she has found herself. Out of desperation, she calls out to the wolf to save her. The ending, which returns us to the film within a film, is meant to be happy, because we're told that it is, but the narrator was never reliable. If it sounds like I've given too much away, I haven't. La Casa Lobo is the kind of film that needs to be experienced, because it's unlikely you've ever seen anything like it before.

La Casa Lobo was set to open at Northwest Film Forum March 27, but was postponed due to the quarantine. It will now screen virtually May 15-29. Link to come! I also hope to discuss it at this year's Crypticon, which takes place Sept 18-20, as part of a panel on Spanish-language horror.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Kansas City, Here I Come: A Reconsideration of Robert Altman's Most Personal Project

Jazzy new art for the Blu-ray cover
(Robert Altman, 1996, USA, 116 minutes)

"It's a jazz memory."
--Robert Altman on his 30th feature film

The term personal project suggests autobiography to some degree or another, but that isn't exactly what's going on in Robert Altman's jazz-saturated period piece, Kansas City. Ever the literalist, I was confused by the description at first, but all artists have their own unique ways of integrating their history into their work, and the late filmmaker (1925-2006) found a rather elliptical way to do that with his.

First of all, he and co-writer Frank Barhydt (Tanner '88), who have shared roots in Kansas City, built the story around a woman, Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who worked with Altman in Short Cuts), and not a man. Women loom large in Altman's filmography, but not often as leads, and Blondie is older by a decade or two than Altman would've been in 1934. And he didn't just grow up there, he launched his career as a director of industrial films in Missouri before moving to Southern California to work in television and then, later, the movies (he and Barhydt, whose father ran the production company where Altman got his start, reconnected after they moved to Hollywood).

Carolyn "Red" Stilton and Blondie O'Hara
So, there's no obvious Altman analogue in this large-canvas tale, and yet the autobiographical elements are baked into the recipe, informing who he was and who he would become. The wealthy husband (Altman regular Michael Murphy) of the laudanum-addicted wife (an excellent Miranda Richardson) Blondie kidnaps, for instance, isn't just any man, but one inspired by his father. In the film, Henry serves as an FDR adviser, and he's out of town when Blondie bluffs her way into the Stilton household in an attempt to force him to use his political connections to release her husband (Dermot Mulroney) from the clutches of Seldom Seen (a commanding, gravel-voiced Harry Belafonte), the owner of the Hey-Hey Club and de facto head of the juke joint district, a bustling hub impervious to Prohibition and Great Depression alike (in his entertainingly rambling audio commentary, Altman describes Seldom as "a real guy around town").

If it all sounds convoluted, it is! Not in the sense that it's hard to follow, but in that the narrative plays more like the plot of a pre-code film than anything drawn from real life. "I'm sure it isn't terribly realistic," Altman admits. Still, he was combining actual incidents--kidnappings were a regular occurrence in the '30s--with stories he heard as a young man, some of which were surely embellished, but he captures the vibe of the place, a time when KC was filled with jazz, political maneuvering, and vices of every kind.

"Harry is my closest friend."--Robert Altman
As the son of a prominent man, Altman was likely shielded from some of KC's harsher realities, and yet he was clearly paying attention, since a bone-deep sympathy for the downtrodden is a distinguishing characteristic of his work. That brings us back to Blondie, who isn't really blonde, but who is definitely downtrodden. She used to bleach her hair, like her idol Jean Harlow (a KC native), but had to stop when it fell out. This is actually a myth about Harlow; no one has reliably proven she lost her hair, but Altman runs with it. The fact that Blondie, who comes across as hapless, takes strength from Harlow's powerful screen presence, though, provides a link with the young Altman, who also started out as a movie-mad dreamer before he found a way to make movies of his own (in the commentary, he credits David Lean's 1945 Brief Encounter for showing him just what a film could do, since he started out skeptical and ended deeply moved). Blondie, on the other hand, just wants her man back. That's her sole ambition.

Like the comic-strip cutie from whom she got her name, she's all broad strokes. The Western Union telegraph operator talks like a moll and walks like a pigeon, head thrust forward Olive Oyl-style (considering that Altman directed a live-action adaptation of E.C. Segar's strip, I'm not sure this is completely coincidental). He's also made her unnecessarily unattractive, which isn't a dig at Jason Leigh, but she has to hiss her lines through dingy dentures, and she's lit in a way that does her no favors. Richardson, by contrast, gets the soft lighting and the flattering angles. Altman may sympathize with the downtrodden, but he definitely doesn't sugarcoat them. As the film hurtles towards its cynical conclusion, it becomes clear that Johnny isn't just a hood, he's a loser. Blondie can't see it, but Carolyn can. The way she looks at Blondie softens as she learns about her mouthy captor's lousy life--even if Blondie has a gun pointed at her the whole time.

A Blondie favorite / By MGM - eBaycard, Public Domain
Before the ladies come to an under-
standing of a kind, one that favors the haves over the have-nots, they tangle with a range of KC figures, includ-
ing mobster Johnny Flynn (Steve Buscemi), Junior Leaguer Nettie Bolt (Jane Adams)--a name Altman swiped from his grandmother--and Charlie Parker's mother, Addie (Jeff Feringa), a Union Station cleaning woman.

Altman depicts Charlie (Albert J. Burnes) as a 15-year-old aspiring musician who would sneak into the Hey-Hey Club, sax in hand, to watch Coleman Hawkins (Craig Handy) and Lester Young (Joshua Redman) and pianists Bill "Count" Basie (Cyrus Chestnut) and Mary Lou Williams (Geri Allen) do their thing (the climactic Hawkins-Young cutting contest, in which the sax players were encouraged to improvise, is a real highlight). Other players include David Murray, Don Byron, Olu Dara, Curtis Fowlkes, and Ron Carter. Whew. Led by music supervisor Hal Willner, this stunning array of players also appear in the concurrently-shot Great Performances documentary Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34. They swing in ways the rest of the film doesn't.

It's not that Kansas City is a failure; it's that it takes too long to work up any sympathy for these characters. Next to Addie, the one with the greatest sympathetic potential is Pearl (Ajia Mignon Johnson), a pregnant 14-year-old who comes to town to have her baby and, then, presumably to give it up for adoption. Other than the friendship she strikes up with Charlie, though, we don't learn anything about her. She and Blondie have a brief, touching exchange about their Joplin, Missouri home town, but that's about it. I don't think it's that Altman didn't care about the black characters in the film, but that he and Barhydt had trouble coming up with more compelling story lines for them. The exception, of course, is Belafonte, who is terrific. He and Altman had been friends for years before the director cast him in a film, and he was delighted with the results, not least because he cast the civil rights icon completely against type. It's possible that Belafonte found it freeing to say things he would never utter in public, like "White people are consumed with greed" (he blames them for the Depression, which seems fair) and the eminently quotable "I ain't scared of death--he's a cold cocksucker."

Altman and the Hey-Hey Club crew
If Altman opens with Blondie, he closes with Seldom Seen, and that feels right, though he considers the fade-out on Belafonte counting his bills as more of "a stopping place" than an ending, because "the only ending I know about is death" (few knew it at the time, but Altman's heart was getting ready to give out on him; his transplant took place shortly afterwards). Kansas City might have been a better movie with more of Belafonte's character and less of Jason Leigh's, but I agree with Altman that "it’s a film you have to see a second time." He adds, "And that was a mistake."

As grating as I found Jason Leigh in my first go-round, and those chompers are really the worst, Blondie's tough-gal act made more sense the second time around as I could see the extent to which she--and not Jason Leigh--wasn't a very good actress. Though Altman doesn't mention it, he had known his star for pretty much her entire life, since he worked with her father, Vic Morrow, on the '60s WWII series Combat! In the commentary, he expresses regret that critics accused her of overacting and rather gallantly takes the blame, since she was only doing what he asked of her.

If the time has come for Kansas City to get a second look from those who dismissed it 24 years ago, I hope they'll be as kind to her as he was.

Kansas City is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy/MVD Entertainment.