November 19, 2014

The Roman Empire never really ended

They Live (John Carpenter, 1988). Newly famous for its inclusion as an important political film in Slavoj Zizek’s recent The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, They Live endures as a cult artefact of the Reagan 1980s, shaped by a veteran of the counter-cultural 60s. The settings are downtown Los Angeles and the millennial revolutionary cult that discovers there are skull-faced alien bodysnatchers living among us, and ruling us through consumerist brainwashing on television and billboards, assembles in a small church in the city – and it is the church that gives the thing an unexpected early Christian/Gnostic flavour, like a sci-fi parable that Philip K Dick might have devised. The Roman Empire never really ended? I was thinking of Richard Linklater’s amazing PK Dick speech near the end of Waking Life. (In this thorough essay, Kenny Paul Smith says that while the political dimensions of They Live have been often talked about, the religious ones have been almost ignored: “The demise of the ghouls and the world they have created is in essence a vision of the eschaton. This trope of a spiritual warfare against evil invokes an apocalyptic tradition in which an embattled Church, persecuted by the forces of Babylon variously identified with everyone from the Roman Empire, to the Soviet Union, to the Federal government will ultimately triumph.”) They Live has a weird prescience: some (including Zizek) see it as proto-Fight Club, others talk about Occupy. Personally, I was surprised that a film made in 1988 would talk about year 2000 anxiety. That it is all so rudimentary – made for just $3 million – with the most basic of screenplays and a leading man (Roddy Piper, above) who is no Kurt Russell only helps with its intention as a message film, an urgent sketch of an obvious and brilliant idea. Like a musclebound Christ, Piper’s John Nada (yes, “Nada”) bursts into a bank with the news that he’s upsetting the established order: “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.” Bringing not peace but a sword and a lame 80s action wisecrack. 

November 17, 2014

High school and after

Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013). 

November 15, 2014

So resourceful

Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964). Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014). 

November 13, 2014

Water, ice, fire, dust

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014). Time, as Tarkovsky said, is the material of cinema. And sometimes it is also its subject, as Christopher Nolan showed us in Memento, The Prestige, Inception and now in his ambitious, optimistic, anti-nostalgic and deeply (uncharacteristically?) sentimental space epic, Interstellar. Fathers and daughters, worm holes and extra dimensions, and moments that would impress both Shyamalan and, yes, Tarkovsky.  

November 11, 2014


The Dead Lands (Toa Fraser, 2014). What a ridiculously good idea. Like a lot of people, I came out of Mel Gibson’s Mayan action film Apocalypto thinking that someone needed to make a movie like that, set in pre-European New Zealand, with all dialogue in Te Reo. And now someone has. It seems to me that the success of The Dead Lands is in the melding of a generic horror-action-martial arts idea devised by commercially-minded producer Matthew Metcalfe and writer Glenn Standring (previously, demons and steampunk vampires) with the more mainstream values of director Toa Fraser, cinematographer Leon Narbey and musician Don McGlashan, whom you would never have picked as the composer of the threatening electronic score. In other words, the right talent came together in the right way. The Dead Lands is a straight-forward, unrelentingly violent and constantly uncompromising action film that throws audiences into an unfamiliar world run according to codes of honour, family and spirituality (with occasional cannibalism). The secret weapon is the impressive Lawrence Makaore as the film’s soulful monster – so much more than the terrifying dark object used to frighten Tolkien and Jackson’s Anglo-Saxon and Nordic heroes in the Lord of the Rings films

November 10, 2014

Long nights, early mornings

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013). When you realise too late that you wasted 40 or more years. It seemed that Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita – the obvious model, along with La Notte and Fellini’s Roma – at least had time on his side. The same world, glittering, contemporary and hollowed-out. Once an unidentified sea monster on a beach suggesting something unfathomable, now a wrecked ocean liner. Once a holy statue soaring over Rome, now an ancient saint-to-be crawling up Roman steps on her knees. 

November 9, 2014

If I could remember the films we saw

We returned by the same route. Often, we went to the cinema, a local picture house which I found again: the Royal-Villiers, Place de Levis. It was the square with its benches, the Morris Column and the trees which recalled the spot to me, much more than the front of the cinema.
If I could remember the films we saw, I would be able to identify the time exactly, but only some vague impressions remain of them: a sledge sliding over the snow; a man in a dinner-jacket entering the cabin of a liner; silhouette dancing behind french windows …
from Missing Person by Patrick Modiano 

November 5, 2014

Island life

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (Dan Geller and Danya Goldfine, 2013). The sensational title and the hype oversell this cluttered, clumsily-told but fitfully interesting documentary about three groups of German-speaking exiles who made new homes on remote Floreana island in the 1930s. On paper it sounds appealing bullying Nietzschean superman, polygamous fake Baroness, jungles, wildlife, a birth, at least one murder and several unexplained deaths (if ever there was a subject screaming out for Werner Herzog, it’s this) but extensive interviews with only loosely connected present-day inhabitants gives you the sense that some thin historical anecdotes have been padded out and that the project has been in production too long. 

November 3, 2014


The Trip to Italy (Michael Winterbottom, 2014). Both more shaped and more affecting than The Trip, this is skilful comic film-making with the illusion of utter simplicity. Trips to Italy are almost always film trips and Roman Holiday, La Dolce Vita, Journey to Italy, Le Mepris, The Italian Job and The Godfather (and their themes of sex, death, fame and competition) are among the movies referenced here by Coogan and Brydon. It’s possibly a funnier, shorter, more gastronomic and less educational version of Scorsese’s My Voyage to Italy doco, with Michael Caine, Hugh Grant and Al Pacino impressions (Brydon still beats Coogan).

November 2, 2014

Evil has feelings too

Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014). Disney multiculturalism now extends to allowing even evil to have its misunderstood point of view represented, although this prequel/alternate version of Sleeping Beauty was probably inspired by the Oz prequel Wicked or Tim Burton’s Alice and has much in common with Spielberg’s clumsy Hook. Production design has leaned heavily on Jim Henson and Avatar (and it turns out struggling first-time director Robert Stromberg was an effects guy on Avatar, Alice and Oz the Great and Powerful). Angelina Jolie could be impersonating Joanna Lumley, with her face sculpted and sharpened. The effects-heavy live action is even more camp and artificial, and less sinister, than Disney animation from 1959. But for readers of Greil Marcus there is a whole other field of interest. In his recent book The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, Marcus relates his belief that actors carry parts of one role into another. It’s a good idea. He’s talking about Sam Riley playing Ian Curtis in Control, as one of the 10 historic songs is “Transmission”; he then discusses Riley as Pinkie in a remake of Brighton Rock. The alienated Pinkie is a biological father to Ian Curtis in this theory. But Maleficent might suit Marcus’ purposes more. Riley plays Jolie’s accomplice, a crow who shape-shifts into a man (and sometimes a wolf or a dragon). A man who is a crow? Remember that Brandon Lee died making The Crow? And that Nine Inch Nails covered “Dead Souls” on the soundtrack? From now on, everything Sam Riley appears in will be an Ian Curtis prequel/sequel/alternate version. This: his Goth afterlife.

October 25, 2014

Death in Australia

Wolf Creek 2 (Greg McLean, 2013). A too-familiar story: the horror sequel as a sadistic and cartoonish rerun of the bleak but inventive first (see also: Texas Chainsaw Massacre vs sequels and remakes). John Jarratt’s backpacker-hunting Ocker Mick Taylor has come down with a bad case of the wisecracking Freddy Kruegers, although I did like the farmhouse interlude and the sheer absurdity of the citizenship quiz (now with some unintentionally sinister Rolf Harris …), as though Mick the killer is just the ordinary Australian xenophobe writ large. Based, still, on the horrifying crimes of Ivan Milat. 

October 23, 2014

All plots tend to move Deathward

A Band Called Death (Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett, 2013). Nothing is allowed to remain obscure any longer. There is no question that the story of Death, a black teenage hard rock band of three brothers from Detroit that released one single and got nowhere in the 1970s, only to be discovered by record collectors and bloggers in the late 2000s, is incredible, whether or not you like the spiritual dimension, or the prophecies of David Hackney (which I do, by the way). As usual, we could do without the gate-keeping talking heads in approval mode – Henry Rollins is surely the Bono of documentaries about punk and post-punk – and reunions are rarely a great idea, but whatever. It’s touching. File with Into the Void and Last Days Here as a band appreciation doco that isn’t really about the music. 

October 19, 2014

Long walk

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011). The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Michael Apted, 2010).

October 13, 2014

Mud, fire, forest

Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985). As though war was – and always is – a kind of collective frenzy or contagious madness. Or horrific revelry (the Nazis, in their attack, seem possessed and delirious). Yet this strange and half-hallucinated war film is at its most horrifying when photographs drag us into real history, real time, towards confrontations you could never expect. 

October 5, 2014

Roads, hotels

They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1949). She’s far too good for him. Doomed innocence, impressive aerial car shots and memorably vile criminals (that one-eyed lush) but more a romance than the noir that film history – and the title – suggested. 

October 4, 2014


The card for the Santa Teresa cybercafé was a deep red, so red that it was hard to read what was printed on it. On the back, in a lighter red, was a map that showed exactly where the café was located. He asked the receptionist to translate the name of the place. The clerk laughed and said it was called Fire, Walk With Me.
“It sounds like the title of a David Lynch film,” said Fate.
The clerk shrugged and said that all of Mexico was a collage of diverse and wide-ranging homages.
“Every single thing in this country is an homage to everything in the world, even the things that haven’t happened yet,” he said.
After he told Fate how to get to the cybercafé, they talked for a while about Lynch’s films. The clerk had seen all of them. Fate had seen only three or four. According to the clerk, Lynch’s greatest achievement was the TV series Twin Peaks. Fate liked The Elephant Man best, maybe because he’d often felt like the elephant man himself, wanting to be like other people but at the same time knowing he was different. When the clerk asked him whether he’d heard that Michael Jackson had bought or tried to buy the skeleton of the elephant man, Fate shrugged and said that Michael Jackson was sick. I don’t think so, said the clerk, watching something presumably important that was happening on the TV just then.
“In my opinion,” he said with his eyes fixed on the TV Fate couldn’t see, “Michael knows things the rest of us don’t.”
“We all know things we think nobody else knows,” said Fate.
Then he said good night, put the cybercafé card in his pocket, and went back to his room.

from 2666 by Roberto Bolano

September 28, 2014

Psychedelic Vision On becomes real-life dirge

Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry, 2013). Psychedelic Vision On becomes real-life dirge. No illusion can be sustained for long. But the full (2 hours, 10 minutes) cut allows you to sustain it a little longer than otherwise. 

September 23, 2014

Family viewing

Stories We Tell (Saran Polley, 2012). Despite the pitiless interrogation of his daughter, it would be good to think (and for what it’s worth, I do) that Michael Polley keeps something back for himself. 

September 22, 2014

Meaningful blasphemy

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, 2013). The conjunction of the words “punk” and “prayer” is not a contradiction; instead, Pussy Riot (effective initials: PR) fall into a long tradition of meaningful and provocative blasphemy. Think also of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. As a punk band, PR are artists working as a band as a project, rather than “musicians”. Which is a good thing. Each performance is documented and has a developed purpose. Sometimes it works far too well.