John and the Hole

John looks into the hole

John and the Hole is a story written by Nicolás Giacobone, so there’s a weird element along with the everyday. He also wrote Birdman, which interspersed familiar scenes of an actor in crisis preparing for a show with moments where he’d be transformed into the superhero he’d played years before. In Biutiful, the 2010 movie starring Javier Bardem, the story of a man dying of cancer is interpolated with moments of magical realism.

John and the Hole does the same, but differently. At one level it’s a straightforward story of a 13-year-old boy who might be on the autistic spectrum – he’s certainly very closed off and has a knack for mathematics – who one night drags all his family out of their beds (we assume he’s drugged them) and deposits them at the bottom of a hole, a bunker started years before but abandoned before it was finished.

And he leaves them there, popping over occasionally with a bottle of water or some food, some warm clothes. Why? We have no idea, and since this kid is fairly unexpressive, we don’t really learn what’s going on in his head, just that he seems capable of some fairly cool, cruel behaviour.

And calculating. Impersonating the voice of his mother (Jennifer Ehle), he fires the gardener by phone. Taking the ATM card of his father (Michael C Hall), he takes big chunks of cash out of the bank account. He checks the balance in the savings account – there’s about $750K, so enough to keep going for a good while. He invites his gamer friend Peter (Ben O’Brien) over for a few days, so they can play games and swim in the pond, eat fast food and just hang out.

The family in the hole
Meanwhile, in the hole itself



The weird element, as if that wasn’t weird enough, comes in a parallel story strand which seems to have little bearing on the story of John and his family. Young mother Gloria (Georgia Lyman) is telling her 12-year-old daughter Lily (Samantha LeBretton) a story called John and the Hole. Later she’ll do something that mothers don’t generally do to 12-year-olds, something really really odd. These two only turn up a couple or three times and have maybe five minutes in total on screen.

The whole thing is an allegory of child-rearing? It might be. A parable? Possibly. If there’s a nag to be had at John and the Hole it’s its opaqueness, its wariness. Like John, the film isn’t letting on what it’s thinking. If it’s meant to be an exploration of a psyche it didn’t get very far, beyond sketching out the terrain.

It’s more a bizarre mood piece anchored by great performances. Jennifer Ehle is in that category of actors who are so good that they get overlooked by the big prizes – too good for an Oscar, because it doesn’t look like acting, the thing she does. The cliche is “inhabits the role”, so let’s go with that. Michael C Hall, understated, a sketch of a dad who might be angrier than he’s letting on. Taissa Farmiga as the daughter, again a thumbnail performance, as the daughter wide-eyed with fear but trying to keep a lid on it.

But it’s Charlie Shotwell as the oddbod John who is what the film is all about. His day to day blankness. His fascination with drowning as a way of trying to feel something, anything. Perhaps that’s why he’s put his family in the hole, as a goad to his emotions. Never a blink out of place, Shotwell is spot on as the odd kid who might be a sociopath, or a psychopath. His stilted dealings with the gardener, whose body language shouts “I’m wary of this weird kid”. His angular interactions with his mother’s friend, Paula (Tamara Hickey), who keeps popping by and is asking awkward questions.

It’s atmospherically shot on a narrow aspect ratio to suggest the closed-offness of John, maybe, with a soundtrack that consists mostly of single notes. John isn’t a harmony guy either. That requires interacting. Perhaps one film it’s close to, in terms of theme as well as look, is The Ice House, another story of a middle class family (two, in fact) in something of a hole.

Except far less happens in John and the Hole. Eventful this film ain’t. But then that’s kind of the point.





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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Saint Maud

Morfydd Clark as Maud



Where are the jokes about Muslims then? the gammon-faced men shout at “liberal left” comedians making jokes about Christianity. They might have a point. But when it comes to films there is no shortage of ones about radicalised Muslims, from the serious (A Prophet) to the comedic (Four Lions). Which makes Saint Maud rather different, a drama about a young woman whose religious experience is transcendent, though not always in the generally accepted sense.

It joins the likes of Requiem (the 2006 film starring Sandra Hüller) and Stations of the Cross (the 2014 film starring Lea van Acken) on a shortlist of powerful recent films about Christianity’s downside. All three are about vulnerable young women in the grip of religious fervour, with belief acting as an analogue for the social pressure on women to conform, if that’s how you want to see it.

Saint Maud can be watched as a simple spooky story, however. About a young nurse taking care of a former dancer, now chemo-bald with stage four spinal lymphoma – “a bit of a cunt”, the woman’s previous palliative nurse, clearly busting to get away, tells Maud as she gets out of Dodge as fast as she can, leaving Maud to cook and wash and tend to her patient’s every need.

We know Maud is religious because we have been introduced to her in interior monologues (she’d probably say dialogues) with God. Though, as she chattily tells Him, she has little time for “creative types as they tend to be rather self-involved.” Says the entirely self-involved Maud.

In fact this is a story of self-involvement so intense that it’s pathological, destructive and dangerous. However, things are breezy at first, the intense Maud and the bohemian Amanda managing to strike up some kind of friendship. Amanda, scoffing initially at Maud’s devoutness, softens after a while and even seems to have moments where she too experiences what Maud increasingly seems to be experiencing – religious ecstasy.

Maud levitating
Moving in mysterious ways



Two great performances make all this – the way these very different women bend towards each other – entirely believable. I’ve yet to see Jennifer Ehle – as smoky, drinky libertine Amanda – come up short in a role (from bonnet-y Pride and Prejudice to power-dressy Zero Dark Thirty is quite a range). Morfydd Clark ducks the easy win of making Maud a nutter, though is clearly disturbed at the very least, and also shows us the positive side of belief – the timid Maud, when she feels the spirit move her, can be remarkably forceful and forthright.

And in the central section when a lot more is revealed about Maud’s past, Clark switches in and out of personality – up, down, hot, cold, rational, bonkers, lost, calculating – at an impressive speed.

I’m trying to avoid giving the plot away, because this is a narrative driven as much by its story as the characters, though mood forms a third leg – that big gloomy house of Amanda’s, shot as a cavernous tomb-in-waiting by DP Ben Fordesman, who is also adept at using his nervy, swooping camera to suggest Maud’s mental confusion, or is it religious fervour, or are they the same thing?

Adam Janota Bzowski’s soundtrack is also intensely subjective and pumps and heaves and blips away electronically, more suggestion of mental states out of the norm.

At one point Saint Maud does start to look like it’s opening itself to the criticism of the gammony blokes – we’ve seen this sort of thing before and it doesn’t seem too challenging to suggest that Christians are delusional – but then writer/director Rose Glass switches gear for a finale that pushes Maud to the limit of ecstatic self-involvement and beyond. Things get bloody, there’s a hint of The Exorcist and then things gets really, shockingly, grim. And there Glass leaves us – high and horrified, expressionistically transcendent, both inside Maud’s head and also observing her from outside. What a finish.

Saint Maud – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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Contagion

Gwyneth Paltrow not feeling too good in Contation

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

23 February

 

 

Mass inoculation using the Salk vaccine, 1954

On this day in 1954, Jonas Salk started the first mass trial of his polio vaccine in Pittsburgh. At the time polio was killing more children in the USA than any other communicable disease and it seemed to be getting worse – there were 58,000 cases in the USA in 1952, of which just over 3,000 died and just over 21 thousand were left with some disability, including muscle weakness, paralysis. Salk’s approach differed from that of other researchers – he used a dead polio vaccine, rather than a live one. And though most scientists thought his approach was wrong, several deaths of children treated with a live vaccine gave him enough room to operate. The trial saw 1.8 million children vaccinated. Ten months later the results were announced, on the tenth anniversary of the death of President FD Roosevelt, who had died of complications caused by polio. The vaccine was declared safe and effective. Vaccination on a large scale started immediately. By 1957 the number of cases had fallen to 5,600. By 1964 it was 121. Polio has been considered eradicated in the US since 1979. Currently there are only three countries where polio is still endemic – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

 

 

 

Contagion (2011, dir: Steven Soderbergh)

Of Steven Soderbergh’s three human health jeopardy films – Erin Brockovich, Side Effects and Contagion (four, if we include the Spalding Gray monologue movie Gray’s Anatomy) – Contagion plays most purely to the health scares of recent years, Sars, bird flu, H1N1 and so on. It is an expert piece of scaremongering which demonstrates JUST HOW SERIOUSLY we need to take this threat by sacrificing a big star right off the bat. It’s Gwyneth Paltrow, and any film that kills off Gwynie in its opening moments is obviously going to have its audience, who will also be salivating gruesomely as we see a flap of skin from her skull being pulled over her eyes as an autopsy is carried out. This is about five/ten minutes in, so I’m not spoiling much, honestly. It’s all part of a highly procedural film which, starting with the sound of someone coughing before any visuals have arrived on the screen, tracks a deadly disease around the world. More than that, it tracks the social ramifications of the disease’s progress – mass panic, martial law, crazy alternative therapies, social breakdown, the hegemony of rumour. It’s a disaster movie without any asteroid or iceberg to drive it forward. Instead we get the gigantic breadth of human reaction – from Jennifer Ehle’s wonkish scientist trying to figure out a cure, to Jude Law’s evangelist making money out of bogus alternative therapies and spreading the idea that the disease is caused by government conspiracy. Soderbergh excels at procedurals – see Ocean’s 11 – and also at keeping a whole load of plot plates spinning, and he’s totally in his element here. Adding a quasi-documentary feel to his portrayal of globe-spanning events, he switches the action from Atlanta to London, to Hong Kong, to Casablanca and back, bathing everything in that clinical matt sheen he’s so good at. If you’re looking for a big heartfelt film with a Shelley Winters moment (Poseidon Adventure fans) then you will be disappointed. Contagion is a slightly pitiless drama with a brainiac quality that observes human beings as a scientist might observe a bacillus down a microscope. Which is appropriate. And it does, let’s face it, make a change.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An alternative disaster movie
  • A big name cast including Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard
  • An expert techno-thriller written by Bourne Ultimatum’s Scott Z Burns
  • Soderbergh’s beautiful clean cinematography (credited as Peter Andrews)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Contagion – Watch it/buy it at Amazon