January 9, 2017

Regrets, nothing

Unplanned double bill: What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015) and La Vie en Rose (Olivier Dahan, 2007). 

January 7, 2017

January 6, 2017

Space ghosts

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, 2016). Carrie Fisher died between my first viewing of Rogue One and my second, which complicates the already problematic decision to create a younger version of the actress for this so-called standalone story that is really a direct prequel to A New Hope. The digital Leia is only in it for seconds but a reanimated Peter Cushing gets more screen time and the effect makes him seem strangely shifty, like a lost ghost who isn’t sure if he should be there either. The other resurrection is more straightforward: unused A New Hope footage puts a pilot played by the late Drewe Henley back in the series. Maybe nothing can ever die in the Star Wars universe and not just because there will always be prequels, sequels, flashbacks, recastings and maybe even remakes one day, but because everything returns to the Force, in a Buddhist sense. Sometimes characters die and get to live again (Poe Dameron, Anakin Skywalker) so why not actors? But is there also something about George Lucas’ light, artificial conception of a plastic universe in which actors aren’t even necessarily human beings that jars with Gareth Edwards’ impressive ambition for Rogue One, which is to construct a realistic, behind-enemy-lines war movie within the confines of the greater, Lucasfilm mythology? That tension is interesting and it makes Rogue One more provocative, stranger and less obviously crowd-pleasing than The Force Awakens, which seemed perfectly designed to disappoint absolutely no one and had a remarkable lightness of touch (in that film, resurrections were limited to Alec Guinness’ voice). So I do agree with the critics of Rogue One who say that the story is complicated and even exhausting, and that important plot points and great actors (a Fury Road-ish Forest Whitaker, especially) are lost in the murk while Felicity Jones and Diego Luna feel like the gloomy flipsides of Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac in The Force Awakens, but there is plenty to like here as well: Ben Mendelsohn’s Krennic is already one of the series’ great tragic figures and the duo of Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen don’t just expand the idea of the Force across the entire series, they even seem to refer all the way back to Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, which is one of the things that kicked off all of this for Lucas in the first place. Like every viewer, I’m already thinking of other spin-offs I want to see from this spin-off. 

January 4, 2017

The cinema at the corner of the avenue

“There, I had arrived. I had forgotten the cinema at the corner of the avenue. It was called Le Mexico and it was no coincidence that it had such a name. It gave you a longing for journeys, for running away or escaping … I had also forgotten the silence and the calm of avenue Rachel that leads to the cemetery, but you don’t think of the cemetery there, you tell yourself that right at the very end you will emerge in the countryside, and even with a bit of luck on a seaside promenade.” Patrick Modiano, In the CafĂ© of Lost Youth

January 3, 2017

Interstellar, second time

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014). The troubled single parent in highbrow science fiction: Interstellar, Midnight Special, Arrival, Signs. As with Arrival, Interstellar is more emotionally affecting on a second viewing. On a first viewing, you are awed by the scale (time, space), but on a second, by the smaller details and connections. Or: nothing gives a film longevity quite like a requirement to view it more than once. The single parent theme owes everything to Spielberg and at least two of the above are homages. 

December 28, 2016

Unthemed triple bill

This was yesterday. I struggled to think of a connection, but there is one. Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: Episode IV  A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977); Patrick Stewart in Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, 2016); Maria Callas in Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969). 

December 27, 2016

Irrational world

Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969). The achievement, as I see it, is to put you not just in an ancient world (that seems relatively easy) but in the ancient mind, and its startling otherness. I can’t think of anything like the early sequences Pasolini stages in his imaginary Colchis, these elaborate and bloody ceremonial sacrifices in bright, dry landscapes. 

December 23, 2016

A date with Elvis

Elvis & Nixon (Liza Johnson, 2016). Does it bother you if a historical figure is played by an actor who bears no resemblance? Michael Shannon looks nothing like Elvis Presley  a skinny, black-haired, insomniac speedfreak, his Elvis looks more like Sisters of Mercy frontman Andrew Eldritch  and he suggests an inner life more tortured or complicated than we usually expect of Presley. Such is Shannons gift. This slight and generally mediocre film imagines the circumstances surrounding a famous, or famously strange, photo of Presley shaking hands with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office in 1970, when he reportedly offered his services as an undercover narcotics agent. Kevin Spacey plays Nixon as a kinder, gentler Frank Underwood  his right-wing paranoia is nothing compared to that of the Kings, whose side of the story dominates. But one brief reflection on the psychic burden of being a surviving twin is as deep or memorable as it gets. This cartoonish Elvis mostly muses in cryptic silence. The sadness is interesting but is it Elvis sadness? 

December 15, 2016

Arrival again

Arrival is better on a second viewing, once you know what its time structure is telling you. I said it bit off more than it could chew, but actually we need to see it twice at least to digest it. On your first viewing, it is a cerebral story about aliens, the military and language. The second time, it becomes more intimately focused on motherhood and even courtship: you notice when time leaks in and why, you notice the subtlety of Amy Adams and Jeremy Renners physical performances, the growing closeness. The first time, I remembered the dark outlines of the alien ship and the powerful score and sound design; the second time I remembered the water on the lake and the years passing, all the Malickian stuff.

December 11, 2016

Year in review 2016: witches, models, dads, mothers, hopeful aliens

1 The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015).
A different kind of horror movie, made with historical fidelity and Bergman or Dreyer-like seriousness – and a rare economy and a gradual increase of dread throughout. This small masterpiece may be the greatest religious film in years – relatively calm and steady where Lars Von Trier’s more personal Antichrist was psychologically overwrought and fiercely anguished, but it is just as deep. And it was even timely in ways no one could have expected: in a year of Satanic child-abuse conspiracies in the basements of pizza restaurants, maybe it’s useful to go back to the source of America’s founding Puritan terrors.

2 Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016). 
The funniest film of the year is nearly three hours long and German. Peter Simonischek in wigs and false teeth is the disruptive father who acts as a mischievous prankster within the carefully controlled professional life of his daughter (Sandra Huller), a German businesswoman in Romania. The comedy unfolds within the drab non-places of EU commerce: hotel lobbies, meeting rooms, serviced apartments.
3 The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016). 
As though Dario Argento and Kenneth Anger had collaborated on a far-too-beautiful horror film about a Los Angeles modelling world that apparently chews women up and spits them out. There are elements of Lynch as well in its Hollywood occult gothic – you might wait for someone to say “this is the girl”, Mulholland Drive-style. Watch this as the second half of a double bill with Terrence Malick’s esoteric LA film Knight of Cups.
4 Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015). 
People leaving and arriving, crossing roads, half-hidden, seen through car windows or behind the wheel: this marvellous and subtle Todd Haynes film of a Patricia Highsmith novel both opens up the mystery of romance and lets it remain enigmatic. Haynes’ rock biopics (I’m Not There, Velvet Goldmine, Superstar) turned lives into complicated mysteries to be solved or not solved ­the same may apply here.  

5 Julieta (Pedro Almodovar, 2016). 
Just as Haynes adapts Highsmith, Pedro Almodovar adapts Alice Munro and produces his most mature and melancholy film so far. These are stories about estrangement and forgiveness that allow Almodovar to demonstrate once again that he is a subtle master of film narrative who can move effortlessly between different iterations of characters, times and locations. Tendencies towards camp are entirely suppressed.
6 The Revenant (Alejandro G Inarritu, 2015). 
Nature is a cathedral and the temporary works of man are a ruined church, a fort on the edge of the wilderness and, most notably, a mountain of buffalo skulls. Look beyond the western: in this intimate epic of struggle and revenge, Apocalypse Now and the Mad Max series seem like natural predecessors, and by building on and deepening the fluidity and ease of Birdman, Inarritu avoids the pretentiousness that threatened to sink the likes of Babel and 21 Grams.
7 Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016). 
Extending cleverly from his collaboration with Kristen Stewart on the more classical Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper has Assayas asking that most contemporary of questions: can you be trolled by the dead? This film is both an up-to-the-minute ghost story and an almost experimental character study developed for the precise talents of Stewart: that hurt loneliness, that sullenness. 

8 Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016). 
You didn’t make the mistake of thinking Verhoeven had mellowed, did you? This remarkable rape-revenge story, with a mesmerising performance from Isabelle Huppert, is the wildest thing he has made since … we probably have to say Showgirls, but we would rather say Starship Troopers.
9 Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016). 
Better than Stranger Things, more intimate than Arrival. This under-rated film is so deeply American in its story of religious persecution, so packed with early 21st century anxiety and terror despite its deeper yearning towards the more innocent 70s/80s science-fiction of ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Starman, and it contains Michael Shannon’s most tender work so far for Jeff Nichols. Watch in a double bill with 10 Cloverfield Lane.
10 Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson, 2015). 
Laurie Anderson’s deeply immersive essay film plays like a complicated dream about death, family and memory. Despite what it is about, and the person it never directly addresses, it feels joyful at times and even hopeful. That rare commodity.
Honourable mentions: Anomalisa, Arrival, Hell or High Water, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I, Daniel Blake, Knight of Cups, One More Time With Feeling, Paterson, Son of Saul, 10 Cloverfield Lane.

1 Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
2 Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965)
3 Alice in the Cities (Wim Wenders, 1974)
4 Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)
5 River’s Edge (Tim Hunter, 1986)
6 Damnation (Bela Tarr, 1988)
7 Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002)
8 Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2006)
9 Yella (Christian Petzold, 2007)
10 Enemies of the People (Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, 2009)
11 Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, 2010)
12 Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman, 2010)
13 Girlhood (Celine Sciamma, 2014)
14 Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014)
15 Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015)
Some of these were seen for the first time (Chimes at Midnight at the NZFF) and some were revisited (River’s Edge nearly 30 years after seeing it at probably the Paramount, Wellington).

November 30, 2016


I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016). Ken Loach has been so consistent for 50 years that we almost risk taking him for granted or feeling we know what to expect. But still, I, Daniel Blake is very powerful and moving in its plainness and compassion. We see the deep, personal humiliations of austerity; this is almost a culture of humiliation. What Loach does here, and elsewhere, is more European than British: his use of non-professional actors in important roles, his commitment to quiet realism. 

November 29, 2016

Interplanetary ego

My Scientology Movie (John Dower, 2015). Does the cutesy school-project-style title suggest that we all have a Scientology movie in us? But Louis Therouxs version adds little to the groundbreaking work in Going Clear (Lawrence Wrights book and Alex Gibneys film) and other, earlier cult-abuse exposes, opting instead for stunts over scoops. So we watch as Theroux tests the patience of security guards, films people who are filming people, cribs an idea about re-enactments from Joshua Oppenheimer and, ultimately, reveals the limits of his personality-based journalism. (Ethical limits included.) Or could you argue that the empty, hall-of-mirrors self-centeredness in this Scientology movie is a comment of some sort on the churchs intergalactic, celebrity egotism? 

November 28, 2016

Swimming pools in The Neon Demon

Because a film set in Los Angeles should have swimming pools. But no one swims. They have other uses, largely ceremonial. 

November 25, 2016

This is the girl

The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016). There is something about esoteric colour symbolism, and all these triangles and prisms, so it makes sense that The Neon Demon is screening (finally!) in the pseudo-Kenneth Anger-ish Alice Cinematheque in Christchurch, with its golden Egyptian kitsch and red walls. Call this The Inauguration of the Americas Next Top Model Pleasure Dome. Deeper and richer than Only God Forgives but less accessible or romantic than Drive, this is a cold, slow, brutal, intensely artful, beautifully shot and uncompromising film  a savage horror riff on beauty, envy and violence that owes much to Anger as well as Argento, Jodorowsky, Dressed to Kill-era De Palma and of course Lynch (I was waiting throughout for someone to say this is the girl). Elle Fanning is pretty wonderful in it but can we also say that we really need to see Keanu Reeves doing more of this? 

November 24, 2016

Washed up

The Light Between Oceans (Derek Cianfrance, 2016). This has the placeless artificiality that often strikes us in period movies that were filmed here but set elsewhere see also: Sylvia and it may not help that British and Swedish actors play post-WWI Australians, with real Australians in support parts. The material is a fable-like soap opera about grief and love in which nothing fully rings true. Would it have been better if Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) had really loosened his hold on this and let it turn into wild, Gothic melodrama? I think realism was his problem. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are excellent and should be doing the same thing somewhere better; Rachel Weisz is stuck as a crone-like widow, the living spirit of guilt that complicates sunnier romantic stretches. As expected, New Zealand looks good, especially around the picturesque and remote lighthouse at Cape Campbell, which has been hit by the Kaikoura earthquakes since. 

November 21, 2016

Friday night lights

Crucifixion and temptation in Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese, 1972) and The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988), where Barbara Hershey was the secret and visible link or direct influence. Boxcar Bertha is lurid and roughly-made, a cheap, fast knock-off of Bonnie and Clyde in which the terrible physical shock of the crucifixion and the bright artlessness of Hershey are the only really memorable elements. It makes sense that these two aspects, a crucifixion now more drawn out and stoically resisted and Hershey as a more mature witness and female hero, were carried over to a very different, very personal project. 

November 12, 2016

Unstuck in time

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016). Arrival is a science-fiction film that combines awe and sadness in an unusual way. How often do we see those qualities together? Is it ultimately hopeful too, as some claim? Not sure. The black spaceships hang in the air like bombs that never quite land or giant, inscrutable art objects and the screenplay bites off more than it can chew about big issues like time, grief and language. The very skilled Denis Villeneuve (his Jose Saramago adaptation Enemy is close in feeling to this) aims to give us both a deep emotional experience and a cold cerebral puzzle, as though 2001 had got in a blender with The Tree of Life. It is impressive, especially its sound and visual design, but it feels dark and insular too. 

November 10, 2016

November 7, 2016

Two words for the same thing

Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson, 2016). This is the only Marvel film so far that let me forget that it is just a small part in a much larger scheme – that vast, carefully-plotted Marvel universe. Until the two closing credits scenes, at least, which drop us back into Marvel’s mechanical, militaristic version of normal reality. Ignore that. Doctor Strange can stand alone as a surprisingly deep and psychedelic variation on the typical superhero initiation story that owes a little to The Matrix and quite a lot to two Christopher Nolan films (Batman Begins, Inception), and isn’t swamped by an over-complicated, incoherent story. The depth is largely supplied by the actors, for a change. How often have you come out of a Marvel film remembering the performances? But this has Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and I can’t think of many times I’ve enjoyed them more. (But I won’t include an unusually limited Mads Mikkelsen in that list, because I can think of many times when I have enjoyed him more.) 

October 29, 2016

Auteur theory, East Coast

Mahana (Lee Tamahori, 2016). It’s been a really good year for Maori cinema – Poi E: The Story of Our Song, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Mahana have all come from different directions, and tackle different eras, but all have had confident Maori directors in charge. In the closing seconds of Mahana, adapted from Witi Ihimaera’s novel Bulibasha by screenwriter John Collee and directed with a strong sense of nostalgia and affection by Lee Tamahori, a girl asks teenage Simeon (Akuhata Keefe) to the movies. The story’s tyrannical patriarch is dead and this meeting happens at his tangi (there is a sense of liberation: this tangi rhymes with the gloomy Christian funeral that opens the film). The patriarch had outlawed trips to the movies along with any fraternising with another local family, so this invitation breaches two of his now redundant rules. Who’s in the movie, Simeon asks the girl. Elvis, she says. Who made it, he asks. Don Siegel, she says. Oh, he made Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Simeon replies. Which means the Elvis movie is Flaming Star and the year is about 1961. This outbreak of auteur theory among teenagers on the rural East Coast in the early 1960s might seem unlikely but that hardly matters because it really signals that Simeon is the stand-in for Ihimaera, himself a famous movie-lover and, more broadly, his love of the movies and their escapism and glamour relates to the ways that Simeon, more sensitive than the other boys and young men around him, can see the fantastic, mythical and epic in the everyday, including in his own family history, even though this is an aspect of the material that Tamahori, cleaving closely to a kind of sentimental realism, never fully capitalises on.