December 29, 2013

Scorsese on coke

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013). All of the Scorsese exuberance and volatility, without the dark underside of guilt and violence, like a cocaine frat house GoodFellas with Jonah Hill as Joe Pesci. Hedonism is its own reward. This is also the fullest realisation of the evolving Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio partnership – could any other American actor carry this blend of comedy and wild thriller as DiCaprio does across three hours, while both trusted and distrusted by audiences? Scorsese’s most enjoyable film since … well, GoodFellas. Easily his funniest.

December 27, 2013

The Priest, they might have called him

The Man in the Hat (Luit Bieringa, 2009). Luit Bieringa’s insightful documentary is a film about the inner life – the external world, the noisy, contemporary Wellington that his quiet subject, priest-like art dealer Peter McLeavey slowly walks through, is secondary (as is family, mostly). Long hours are spent alone in a peaceful white room two or three floors above street level. Contemplating what? An early memory has the young Irish Catholic McLeavey assisting a priest in church: “He was looking at things that I couldn’t see.” An artist or an art specialist does much the same.

December 20, 2013

Dreamed city

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (FW Murnau, 1927).

December 18, 2013

I kept forgetting that I wasn’t watching an experimental treatment of the inner life of Nigella Lawson

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (Matthew Akers, 2012).

Rest Energy, recorded in 1980 at Filmstudio Amsterdam, is also part of the That Self series and engages with the first acceptance of performance, when understood as a body test that can lead to endangering life. Ulay and Abramovic drew a large bow and arrow, each holding one side. The arrowhead was pointing at Abramovic's heart, creating a dense tension. Microphones on their clothes picked up their quickening heartbeats and irregular breathing. After four minutes, they dropped the bow. (from here).

December 17, 2013

Top tens


1 The Master

2 Gravity

3 The Act of Killing

4 Only Lovers Left Alive

5 Beyond the Hills

6 The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

7 Cosmopolis

8 Rust and Bone

9 Before Midnight

10 A Field in England

(more on these, with attempts at explanations, at Werewolf)

SECOND TEN: Behind the Candelabra, Camille Claudel 1915,  Frances Ha, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, Mud, Pacific Rim, The Past, Silence in the House of God, Stranger by the Lake, Upstream Color.


Partie de campagne (Jean Renoir, 1936)

Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947)

Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956)

Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957)

North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

Accident (Joseph Losey, 1967)

Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)

Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968)

Theorem (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968)

Bird on a Wire (Tony Palmer, 1974)

Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)

The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)

Radio On (Christopher Petit, 1979)

Wise Blood (John Huston, 1979)

Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981)

Utu Redux (Geoff Murphy, 1983/2013)

Starman (John Carpenter, 1984)

No End (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1985)

Illustrious Energy (Leon Narbey, 1988)

Ulysses’ Gaze (Theo Angelopoulos, 1995)

The Promise (Jean-Luc Dardenne and Pierre Dardenne, 1996)

The Life of Jesus (Bruno Dumont, 1997)

Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)

Eternity and a Day (Theo Angelopoulos, 1998)

Moloch (Alexander Sokurov, 1999)

Read My Lips (Jacques Audiard, 2001)

London Orbital (Christopher Petit and Iain Sinclair, 2002)

Into Great Silence (Philip Groning, 2005)

Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006)

The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (Sophie Fiennes, 2006)

Red Road (Andrea Arnold, 2006)

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)

Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009)

Down Terrace (Ben Wheatley, 2009)

Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe, 2009)

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009)

Thirst (Chan-wook Park, 2009)

Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, 2010)

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, 2011)

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011)

Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011)

Compliance (Craig Zobel, 2012)

Lore (Cate Shortland, 2012)

Marley (Kevin Macdonald, 2012)

No (Pablo Larrain, 2012)

TELEVISION: Breaking Bad, seasons 1 to 5. Mad Men, season 6. House of Cards, season 1. Rectify, season 1. Enlightened, seasons 1 and 2. Girls, season 2. 



1 Boards of Canada, Tomorrow’s Harvest

2 Fuck Buttons, Slow Focus

3 The Dead C, Armed Courage

4 Wooden Wand, Blood Oaths of the New Blues

5 The Haxan Cloak, Excavation

6 Autechre, Exai

7 Tim Hecker, Virgins

8 Bardo Pond, Peace on Venus

9 Zoviet France, The Tables Are Turning

10 Forest Swords, Engravings

Also: Merzbow, live in Christchurch, November 21. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, live in Auckland, February 8. Leonard Cohen, live in Christchurch, December 14. Laurel Halo, Behind the Green Door EP (and live in Christchurch, September 12). Follakzoid, II. Ontal, Output EP. Miles, Unsecured EP. Carter Tutti, Coolicon. Prurient, Through the Window. Atoms for Peace, Amok. Ensemble Pearl. The Black Dog. Gate. Skeptics. Wooden Wand and the World War IV. William Basinski, Nocturnes. Hawkwind, Space Ritual. The Clean, Vehicle/In-A-Live. Death Grips, Government Plates. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, II. Black Boned Angel, The End.

December 16, 2013

Easter, 1979

Mt Zion (Tearepa Kahi, 2013). There is a sequence near the end of Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Marley that shows how the idea and image of Bob Marley has travelled the world – especially the developing world – as a redemptive figure, equal parts Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela, only with music (and marijuana). That was the story in New Zealand, where there has also been the happy coincidence that Waitangi Day is Marley’s birthday. Tearepa Kahi’s amiable, mostly routine first film, Mt Zion, touches on some of this but never deeply – Kahi appears to have worked backwards after locating footage of Marley receiving a marae welcome in Auckland in 1979, writing an against-the-odds showbiz story that builds towards that indelible moment. Australian Idol winner Stan Walker is Pukekohe potato picker Turei who dreams of winning his band a spot opening for Marley at Western Springs but movie obstacles are in his way. No surprise that Walker is a better singer than actor but Temuera Morrison has an appealingly weary quality as Turei’s father and original Golden Harvest guitar hero Kevin Kaukau is here as his sub-Hendrix self. While never quite nostalgic, Mt Zion has a fairly convincing sense of time and place but for one thing: it’s not the late 70s if no one but the bad guy smokes.

December 10, 2013

No help

Inch'Allah (Anais Barbeau-Lavalette, 2012). Plausible motivations for suicide bombing, raw immediacy and measurable anger, but who needs the mediation of a blank-faced and earnest Canadian tourist? 

December 7, 2013


Silence in the House of God (Alex Gibney, 2012). Silence comes to mean several things: the victims were deaf, of course, and a culture of silence allowed the abuse to continue for so long but beyond all that, and undiscussed, the silence or absence of God. “God’s famous reluctance to appear.”

November 30, 2013


Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, 2013). As allegory it’s obvious: 140 years in the future, the borders between Mexico and the United States or North Africa and Italy are now between Earth and a space station. Earth is a refugee camp or endless, brown-skied shantytown, filmed on the outskirts of Mexico City. The space station Elysium is a gated community in the sky. An earlier idea – with Eminem in the Matt Damon part, filmed in Detroit – would have been less generic at least. District 9’s satirical humour has evaporated; instead, Blomkamp gives you 10 or so minutes of thoughtful scene-setting and more than an hour of dull action. As Elysium’s overlord, Jodie Foster is being Helen Mirren. Also, is there a thesis to be written about the recurrence of the Hispanic solo mother as an unquestionably good character?

November 24, 2013

Years later

Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, 2012): There are ways in which the eerie, slow, powerful Beyond the Hills seems to be more than just a reflection of Mungiu’s 4 Weeks, 3 Months and 2 Days – it is almost a continuation of it. That earlier film was set in the closing days of communism; now we are in the world beyond. There are similar predicaments, worlds that seem transient or broken-down, and ineffectual authority. Mungiu’s source is a true story of an exorcism that went wrong in a Romanian monastery but the film is not entirely dismissive of the world of faith/the world of superstition: it recognises its consolations and the shape it offers lives. (Other meanings suggest themselves: Cristina Flutur’s resemblance to Amanda Knox.)   

November 21, 2013

Charles Brasch goes to the pictures

I’ve been making my way through Charles Brasch Journals 1938-45 (Otago University Press, 2013). Brasch didn’t see many films, or if he did, he doesn’t tell us. But here is one example. We are in London in August, 1940. War is on everyone’s mind.

“We went to the film of The Grapes of Wrath. The faces of the three men talking by night, at the beginning, were now El Greco, now Brueghel, faces distorted by horror & by being isolated by the camera. The very poor everywhere, maybe, that is to say in ‘civilised’ countries, pass their lives in slave state or police state conditions. One can sense in American cities the lawlessness & brutality that Steinbeck exposes here; & during the terrible scenes of the camps in California I kept thinking that that is what Nazi rule would be like. That is what now all Europe has come to.
“I shan’t forget the scenes & faces of this film.”

[italics added]

November 14, 2013

Crowds and heat

Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young): “We could go to another city.”
Thorn (Charlton Heston): “What for? They’re all like this.”
Dream double bill: Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). The infernal city, crowds and heat.

Iris (Jodie Foster): “I’ll move up to one of them communes in Vermont.”
Travis (Robert De Niro): “I’ve never seen a commune before but I don’t know. I saw some pictures once in a magazine. It didn’t look very clean.”

November 11, 2013

Six readers reading

Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, 2012). The one about the Korean clone could have been a movie by itself. So could the one about the 1930s composer who commits suicide. The other four stories in this adaptation of the David Mitchell novel – filmable, after all! – are too generic in narrative shape and conception to be useful as anything other than padding or to illustrate the greater point about … what is it about, again? Connectedness, similarities, recurrence, reincarnation, that sort of thing. Sci-fi mysticism. From memory, to be generic was kind of Mitchell’s point – the ingenuity was in how the stories were relayed or transferred (someone reading a journal writes letters, and so on) rather than what was told within them. We were readers reading other readers. A film can’t do that, but it can do something that books can’t – it can offer six stretches of time happening at once.

November 9, 2013

The Raging Bull of terrorism movies

Carlos the Jackal (Olivier Assayas, 2010). Not just the epic scale and the rise and fall narrative (attention to the hero’s physique, his bloat), but the man as a victim of his own impetuousness, even vulnerability. His terrorist outfit – beret, dark glasses, leather jacket – is a costume, a Che mask.

November 6, 2013

Coney Island baby

Love Story (Florian Habicht, 2011). Florian Habicht has an ebullience and charisma that might remind some of a three-way hybrid of Woody Allen, Werner Herzog and a Sacha Baron Cohen creation, and he is naturally drawn to benign eccentrics, which makes New York City his ideal setting. Co-written and edited by Peter O’Donoghue, Love Story is Habichts best film yet: an improvisational romantic documentary that gets the excitement of a new city in summer. People he meets on the streets become oracles and guides in his quest towards Masha (Masha Yakovenko), spotted one day on the subway to Coney Island carrying cake on a plate (it must be a sign). The spirit of Habicht’s films has always been open, experimental and almost innocent – see his 9 ½ Weeks-style food scene here – but there is a trickier undertow, as fantasies are sometimes run down by the yellow taxicabs of stark reality. “You know I’m just acting right?” Yakovenko tells him in bed. His other guide through and into his story is his father, photographer Frank Habicht, who skypes from New Zealand. In one of their conversations, Frank steers his son towards Desperately Seeking Susan – apt, as Love Story has much in common with the film that inspired that one, Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating

November 5, 2013

The one who gets to remember, the official mourner

Patti Smith on Lou Reed in the New Yorker:

As I mourned by the sea, two images came to mind, watermarking the paper-colored sky. The first was the face of his wife, Laurie. She was his mirror; in her eyes you can see his kindness, sincerity, and empathy. The second was the “great big clipper ship” that he longed to board, from the lyrics of his masterpiece, “Heroin.” I envisioned it waiting for him beneath the constellation formed by the souls of the poets he so wished to join. Before I slept, I searched for the significance of the date — October 27th — and found it to be the birthday of both Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath. Lou had chosen the perfect day to set sail — the day of poets, on Sunday morning, the world behind him. 

Title of this post from an earlier Patti Smith post.

November 4, 2013

The viewer is treated to another’s dream

Lloyd Jones in the Sydney Morning Herald, ahead of Mr Pip’s Australian release: “The best and only approach for a filmmaker adapting a novel is to make the story over. To some extent, this is achieved with Mr Pip. Matilda’s imaginative forays into Dickensian London are colourfully explored, and the reverse colonisation hinted at in the novel is more fully expressed in the film.
“Any other departures owe more to differences of genre and where the spell is laid. In film, the magic tends to be woven on the surface. The viewer is treated to another’s dream. In literature, the reader does the dreaming. And that, for me, remains the greatest act of magic of all.”
(Jones piece here; my review here).

November 1, 2013

Age of video

NO (Pablo Larrain, 2012). Larrain’s entertaining end-of-Pinochet drama is an 80s-set film that evokes the age – shot on period video, its bright glare and shaky register suggest a VHS tape unearthed from the back of the cupboard. In Chile in 1988, advertising successfully did the work of politics, even if it was never quite this simple ­– and the skateboarding advertising hotshot (Gael Garcia Bernal) is no less cynical at the end than he was at the beginning (in his next campaign, a soap plot is shot like news). As for Pinochet himself, he only appears in historical footage as if it is still not safe to impersonate him. A smart film, and not just for students of political marketing.

October 29, 2013

Direct Lou Reed moments

‘‘Venus in Furs’’, heard from different time zones in Last Days. ‘‘Satellite of Love’’ as genuine love song in Velvet Goldmine. The man himself as a legendary and unseen figure in Adventureland. Less legendary and seen in the Auster film, Blue in the Face. Berlin sequel in Berlin sequel (Faraway, So Close!). 

October 28, 2013

October 27, 2013

A series of restless farewells and all the things we gave up

The title of this entry suggests that Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan film I’m Not There is partly a eulogy for the 1960s, an idea expressed in his excellent commentary track on the DVD. As is the extent to which it is a collection of quotations – about a man who is himself a collection of quotations, or at least shows himself to the world that way. “I don’t think there’s anything in the script that’s actually my own.” I like this movie more each time I see it and the experience is deepened by listening to Haynes – director as Dylan scholar and film historian – talk about it. These are the films he names, mostly as influences. Some are inevitable and some less so:

Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)
Dont Look Back (DA Pennebaker, 1967)
Eat the Document (DA Pennebaker, 1972)
8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957)
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
Masculin Feminin (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)
Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, 1941)
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Martin Scorsese, 2005)
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)
Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970)
Petulia (Richard Lester, 1968)
Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991)
Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)
Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973)
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes, 1987)
Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998)
The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)

October 26, 2013


Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999). There are dying fathers who betrayed their families, paying with cancer. There are selfless caregivers, estranged adult children, child geniuses – one former and one present – there is endless emotional pain and there is unpredictable, expressive weather. Some characters are better conceived than others, and initially you wonder whether Anderson – just 28 when he made this – had more ambition and skill at this point than experience, and whether this shows, and whether the acting is too obviously acting, but there is an alert wisdom and sensitivity than wins you over. You also wonder how personal this is, what parts of which characters are parts of Anderson, in these tense relationship dynamics (see also: The Master, There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights).

October 23, 2013

Watching Stalker again

“The Zone is the very whiteness of the cinematic screen.” Slavoj Zizek, in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.

October 19, 2013

Documentary revelations

“If we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations.” Thom Andersen, in Los Angeles Plays Itself.

October 18, 2013

Watching A Scanner Darkly again

A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006). “Seven years from now. Anaheim, California.” That makes this 2013. The moment that always gets me is Philip K Dick’s roll call of “a list of people punished entirely too much for what they did”. Death, brain damage, psychosis and so on. His drug buddies. He put himself on that list, reprinted verbatim from the book.
Apart from all that, though, it’s a counter-culture comedy and a triumph of casting. Keanu Reeves as the agent and addict who ends up investigating himself – Philip K Dick’s mythologised or paranoid explanation of his own condition. Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr as the drug users who seem to be living in his house. Winona Ryder as … did you know Ryder was Timothy Leary’s god-daughter and had a connection to the author that way? Animated, the actors seem more like themselves than ever.
In 2006, a couple of months after first seeing this, I talked to Linklater by phone (this interview). He was promoting Fast Food Nation but I managed to get a few minutes on A Scanner Darkly:
“The entire project happened in the post-9/11 environment and it was pretty clear that the writing was on the wall, the way that government uses a tragedy like that to really clamp down on its own population. Once you’re at war, you can get away with anything.”
Dick wrote A Scanner Darkly in 1977, long before there was any official war on drugs, let alone a war on terror, but “he saw the darker underpinnings of all corporate and government power”.
 It starts in hallucinated bug paranoia – Dazed and Confused stoner Rory Cochrane scratching under his skin – and ends in drug-damaged burn-out. Will you ever be able to see clearly again? The undercover agent’s “scramble suit” becomes an image of wider distrust and uncertain or blurred selves, just as the animation onto digital video throws a veil over reality that is impossible to penetrate (an advanced version of the much looser, psychedelic animation in the more hopeful Waking Life). The main settings are institutional interiors and the permanent half-light of a drug house. And despite it being both 1977 and 2013, it really has been 2006 all along: the people with contracts to clean up after the war are the same people who profited from starting it. 

October 16, 2013

They’ve shut down the water, they’ve stolen our teacher

Mr Pip (Andrew Adamson, 2012). Great acting, terrific locations, lovely shooting (thanks John Toon), interesting themes (and you Lloyd Jones) – it’s hard to recognise the film that so underwhelmed them in Toronto a year ago (see here and here) before it was apparently tightened up and made clearer. As in the Jones novel, Dickens’ Great Expectations is a totem but there’s more to it than simply the civilising value of education contrasted with a barbaric civil war or one girl’s personal development. This is also about whether the western novel can co-exist with other systems of knowledge, Christian and pre-Christian: note that Mr Watts’ first act as a teacher of local children and the last white man in the wild is to wipe a prayer from the blackboard but he goes on to join the village’s most visible and committed Christian in making a sacrifice that changes the story. It may be fair to say that the war is underplayed or less seen than heard (machete sound effects) but the most risky idea – Melanesian actors in Victorian costumes re-enacting Great Expectations in (among other places) a tropical Oamaru ­– comes off, believe it or not. You can pack nearly all of your post-colonial themes into that one bold image. The great acting we mentioned is by Hugh Laurie and teenage newcomer Xzannjah, largely. Also, in a movie that wants you to read, did you notice the Lloyd Jones product placement? (A copy of Choo Woo in a Queensland school library).

October 15, 2013


Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012). The notion is that for decades, musician and distant audience were unaware of each other – he starved, they thought he was dead. It wasn’t quite like the myth, but Searching for Sugar Man is touchingly nostalgic for an era when such myths still had the time and space to be possible (see also: Salinger). Run this in a double bill with Only Lovers Left Alive: the reclusive musician in Detroits ruins.  

October 14, 2013

The 1970s

Lists. We all love lists. Personal lists of the top 10 films of the 1970s are being gathered online at places like here.

My own view:

1. Taxi Driver
2. Apocalypse Now
3. Stalker
4. Eraserhead
5. Chinatown
6. The Exorcist
7. Radio On
8. Badlands
9. Fata Morgana
10. The Godfather

October 9, 2013

Charismatic psychopath

Chopper (Andrew Dominik, 2000): Comedian Eric Bana plays the man dubbed (possibly by himself) “Australia’s most infamous living criminal” as a charismatic psychopath. The entertaining violence is like a dare, performed for our benefit: making a name for himself in Melbourne’s Pentridge prison, Mark “Chopper” Read kills another inmate, is betrayed and stabbed by a friend and stoically removes his own ear to get a transfer. Upon release, he assaults his girlfriend, shoots a drug dealer, kills another man and goes back inside. So it goes. By 2000, he had spent exactly half of his 46 years in prison and claims to have killed 19 people (an exaggeration, apparently). He had also published nine bestsellers with titles like How to Shoot Friends and Influence People and No Tears for a Tough Guy. So he’s a lovable rogue and he’s a psycho and a bullshit artist and there is something peculiarly Australian about the combination. He is the architect and main consumer of his own legend. (edited from original review published in 2000)

October 8, 2013

Valleys of dry bones

Illustrious Energy (Leon Narbey, 1987). Still a fascinating anomaly, 25 years later – 1980s New Zealand cinema that was serious, sensitive to history, entirely unmacho. Its subject is the long-repressed story of Chinese gold miners left behind in Otago after the goldrush: some are settling in, others are trying to find their way home. Life in these Otago valleys should be harsh and difficult but Narbey and co-writer Martin Edmond keep finding ways to make it look magical, even romantic. They treat these forgotten lives with real reverence. The thing has become nostalgic in other ways: these valleys of dry bones have been flooded since.

October 5, 2013


A Lonely Place to Die (Julian Gilbey, 2011). Part human hunting in the Scottish highlands, part disrupted Wicker Man festivities. Like fellow gun nut Ben Wheatley (Kill List), Gilbey enjoys sudden, brutal, unsentimental screen violence; unlike Wheatley, he does all that without a sense of humour.

October 4, 2013

Space is dark and it’s so endless

Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, 2013). This two-person space drama is vast, intimate, gripping and terrifying. And that was only in 2D. Planet Earth is blue, gold and black. The production design and effects execution is magnificent and the suspense is such that you hold your breath. You already knew that George Clooney is the man you want around in a crisis, even if you get Toy Story flashbacks (it also has two Barbarella moments and a compressed theory of evolution).

October 3, 2013

San Francisco

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013). Oddly over-rated and still a long way from remotely cinematic (thinking of Gordon Willis, Annie Hall and Manhattan). For all its loose relevance to the damage done by the global financial crisis, this is still predicated on a dated and snobbish view from the top of the social ladder downwards – from Allen’s upper-middle class social environment of affluence and casual entitlement (desperately longed for in the Ripley-ish Match Point and taken as the norm in the lazy, amiable Midnight in Paris) into the imagined proletarian wastelands where sub-literate jerks Allen has never met watch boxing and guzzle beer. Cate Blanchett as Jasmine/Blanche DuBois seems artificial and exaggerated in all but one, important scene, like a stage performance transplanted wholesale (which it more or less is). Yes, Andrew “Dice” Clay is a good idea but Peter Sarsgaard is a bad one.

October 1, 2013

General rule

Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press, 2010). Only three years old and already nostalgic (shooting on film, laying out newspaper pages). A little sketchy about his relationship with the New York Times (which co-produced) but therefore less congratulatory than promo piece Page One. And a fashion photographer is never a war photographer, whether he’s working streets or black-tie events. But regardless, this would make any list of films about photographers, for its simple attention to craft and process — not quite work, not quite art, but some third category. Could have done with fewer talking heads, though, but that’s a general rule. The secondary story — the slow disappearance of a loved idea of New York — is handled with subtlety.

September 22, 2013

The woods

“I told him not to go through the woods. He just wouldn’t listen.” Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957).

September 16, 2013

Sound effects

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012). Viewed on flawless, digital Blu-ray, this is a tribute to analog imperfection. In the early 70s, introverted British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) travels to Italy to work on a horror picture (technically, a giallo). We see the Italian film’s lurid, black-and-red credits – an excellent simulation of 70s occult-themed Euro-horror – but we have to imagine the rest of the action from Gilderoy’s repetitive work in the recording studio. Actresses scream and scream, watermelons are smashed and stabbed (it sounds like dismemberment) and, in an anachronism given the medieval storyline, the sound of a chainsaw is made by a food processor. The dour spirit of Peter Strickland’s mostly mysterious second film is that of the reserved Englishman abroad, constantly paranoid and intimidated – a mood somewhere between Kafka and Barton Fink. His frustration risks becoming our own as a promise or threat of actual horror is never entirely fulfilled, but we can luxuriate in the carefully reproduced retro-fetishist detail of the era’s typed labels, tapes and film. As in Persona, breakdown or body-swap is signalled by film burning in a projector. All is artifice, including personality. But it needed to be weirder.

September 15, 2013

Deep River, Ontario

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001). “I fell in love with the actress / she was playing a part I could not understand.” From my capsule review sometime in the past decade: Lynch’s theme is the use and abuse of young women in Hollywood. As in several of his other films, Lynch reveals that the strings of the visible world are pulled by a hidden cadre of evil men who seem to have supernatural powers – part-Mafia clan, part-occult lodge, these shadowy figures giving enigmatic instructions in secret rooms date back to Twin Peaks, at least. Other abiding Lynch concerns recur: doubles and ventriloquism, the inexplicable sadness of popular songs, odd scenes in coffee bars … On the fourth viewing, possibly the fifth: the red herrings and loose threads from the abandoned TV pilot are more glaring and seem impossible to absorb into any straight-forward dream/realism reading or decoding, and you notice that the break between the Betsy section and the Diane section now seems to mirror the split between the goofy comedy of the Twin Peaks series and the deeper horror of Fire Walk With Me.

September 11, 2013

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension

Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974).Blog title from Sapphire & Steel. Time plays tricks.

September 8, 2013

Careless people

What Maisie Knew (David Siegel, Scott McGehee, 2012). “They retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness.” This is at least the third film this year that could have been retitled Careless People, but perhaps the only one of the three to apply the title as an unambiguous moral judgment. Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan as the monstrous parents, Alexander Skarsgard and Joanna Vanderham as the fantasy substitutes.

September 6, 2013

Colour of ghosts

The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012). Introducing the soulful thug. Every improbable moment grows out of the gap between who he is (who he thinks he is) and what he does.

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012). New wave worn on sleeve, sure, but Gerwig isn’t the Karina to Baumbach’s Godard – clumsy analogy aside – because, in the end, it feels like her film, not his. One other thing: the entire Sacramento sequence (her parents as her parents) is masterful and concise in ways that the rest of the film isn’t, quite.

Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013). Do the sickly green walls give you Vertigo flashbacks? For Hitchcock, green was the colour of ghosts, based on old theatre conventions.

September 4, 2013

September 3, 2013

Acts of killing

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Domink, 2007). Second time. Still the mythic deconstruction, like a film that’s all endings, and the sombre realist detail. Notice how the narrator switches perspectives and is close to both men ahead of their deaths. Casey Affleck is still uncanny as the assassin or coward: naïve, vulnerable, raw, brazen, resentful, unstable, his emotions largely unreadable, and his acting without any appearance of obvious strain.

August 31, 2013

Mystery solved

When asked why there’s no apostrophe in the first word of Dont Look Back, he says, “I got tired of everything looking like everything else. And I thought, Fuck it.”
DA Pennebaker, interviewed in Mojo, April 2013.

August 28, 2013

Actual photographs

Lore (Cate Shortland, 2012). At the end, actual photographs.

August 23, 2013

Watching Stalker again

We even planned to have a variation of the ending in which we would tell the viewer that the Stalker had invented the whole thing, and that he was desperate because people didn’t believe in it.
Andrei Tarkovsky interviewed by Aldo Tassone, 1980.

August 22, 2013

Geologic time

Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993). Further back now than 1976 was then. Third time round, there are more layers of time travel than you can count.

August 21, 2013

Secret music

The more I think about Jim Jarmusch’s new Only Lovers Left Alive, which came to the New Zealand film festivals almost in a straight line from Cannes, I think of Coffee and Cigarettes, his group of 11 themed/linked shorts from nine years ago. It’s partly the buddy aspect or the duo aspect, but not only that. In my 2004 Listener review of Coffee and Cigarettes I described Jarmusch as “a museum curator of good old-fashioned bohemian values”, and that side of Jarmusch is very apparent in Only Lovers Left Alive. One setting is Detroit, the other is Tangier. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) keeps the curtains pulled, lives at night and is surrounded by rare and expensive musical instruments – it’s how you might imagine Jimmy Page living. On his wall, there is something like a gallery of bohemian heroes, some of whom have connections to Jarmusch films past (Iggy Pop, Joe Strummer, William Burroughs), and some of whom are more like presiding figures (Kafka, Oscar Wilde). From 2004:
So, in that vein, the moment when two old guys make a toast in Coffee and Cigarettes is key. “Here’s to Paris in the 20s,” says one. “New York in the 70s,” adds the other. That’s where Jarmusch came in.
This bit from 2004 seems prescient, too, if you think of the planet made of diamond that generates a gong-like sound, which is a kind of sublime or ideal image in Only Lovers Left Alive:
Iggy’s music is in the background of a short that features Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes. Jack is telling Meg about the sound experiments of Nikolai Tesla. “He conceived the earth as a conductor for acoustical resonance,” Jack says. Pay attention, because this idea – the planet’s secret music – will come up again later.

August 19, 2013

Vampire diaries (film festival, 2013)

Notes from the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival, Christchurch division. It ran from August 1 to 18. There isn’t a dud on this list, but two came close. This is everything I saw. It was a good couple of weeks — thanks Film Festival and thanks Hoyts (Northlands over Riccarton every time, despite the bigger screen at the latter being ideal for the Hitchcocks). Isaac Theatre Royal next year?

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012). Offering the surreal queasiness of an atrocity documentary in which no one has been formally judged or punished, this runs like a version of Shoah set in a moral void. The 159-minute director’s cut might be too much but also, as Oppenheimer has said of Shoah, just the tip of the iceberg.

Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013). Michael Douglas and Matt Damon bring great dignity and affectionate humour to an unreliable (but does it matter?) account of gothic showbiz at its most secretive and sordid.

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013). Such careless people. Run this smart, pleasurable LA film in a double bill with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby: “We had so many beautiful, gorgeous things …”

Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont, 2013). Human pain and religious doubt are registered with a greater calm than we expect from Bruno Dumont. Meaning that this is the closest he has come to the spirit or tradition of Bresson. Of course it helps that the film contains exquisite acting from Juliette Binoche (pain, doubt, calm).

Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954). Whose key is it, anyway? Hitchcock’s only 3D film is less about shock effects than putting you in the front row of a stage play, or sometimes right in the middle. Despite the dense murder plot, the dominant emotion is the anguish of Grace Kelly’s adulteress, lit up by lurid red lights in the courtroom scene and saturating everything else. Hiding in plain sight in a framed group photo, the director sees all.

Dirty Wars (Richard Rowley, 2013). A highly personalised documentary in which Nation reporter Jeremy Scahill’s quest for information about US secret wars becomes a type of lament, mournfully scored by the Kronos Quartet and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. War without end.

The Human Scale (Andreas Dalsgaard, 2013). The modern city as a dire warning and, just occasionally, a utopian opportunity. Co-starring Christchurch, which is not quite either of these things.

North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959). A comic nightmare of mistaken identity and a chase through a succession of stylish 1950s interiors – offices, hotels, homes, trains and taxis, train stations – interrupted by perhaps the greatest exterior suspense sequence ever filmed.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013). Sometimes it seems like the closing night film is intended to match or rhyme with the opening night film. So it was this year: could Jarmusch’s sweet-natured vampire muso romance with dashes of deadpan comedy be a hipster version of Behind the Candelabra? After a series of films with lonesome protagonists, this is also a reminder that the best Jarmusch films are buddy movies (Dead Man, Stranger Than Paradise, Coffee and Cigarettes). Weirdly poetic too: among other things, Jarmusch gives us beautiful tours of empty Detroit by night.

The Past (Asghar Farhadi, 2013). The new Ashgar Farhadi (A Separation) film is a relationship drama with a mystery at its core and so perfectly acted that despite the shape of the story, there was only one line I questioned.

The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (Sophie Fiennes, 2013). A crash course in Slavoj Zizek’s thought at its most provocative, paradoxical and entertaining, or a curated guide to dreams and ideology in cinema, from Triumph of the Will to Titanic. Also includes the funniest post-credits moment in the festival.

Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, 2012). Personal and experimental, sure, but also generous and open – people say Tarkovsky was an influence (Mirror, anyway) but I was thinking Weerasethakul. I could have watched it for hours.

Sheen of Gold (Simon Ogston, 2013). It’s not until late in the piece that Flying Nun Records founder Roger Shepherd uses the word “outsiders” to describe Skeptics. Outsiders and also boffins. While a little too much is made of the unlikelihood of this truly great and still-remembered band coming from Palmerston North, there is a way in which it was important that they incubated away from the main currents of New Zealand music, running their own venue (a detail not covered in this film), building their own studio and painstakingly creating their own sound. That brand of fearless individualism and originality is the positive side of the Skeptics story, forever overshadowed by the sad side: the death from leukaemia, at just 26, of singer David D’ath and the immediate end of the band. Maybe every former fan will find his or her own themes in Ogston’s film. For me: youth viewed from middle age, the unexpected emotional content of music and how it plays in your memory, wordlessness and words as just sound, and whether the past should stay in the past. D’ath remains a mystery. Maybe that’s how it should be.

Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013). A gay sex beach in France is the entire world in Alain Guiraudie’s minimalist and surprising thriller.

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012). Still experimenting with cinema’s conventions so that they can express individual perspective and spiritual yearning, which is more typically the work of novels. But let down a little this time by the actors. The central two, anyway. More bison, less Ben.

Utu Redux (Geoff Murphy, 1983/2013). No one ever accused Geoff Murphy of being highbrow. Macho, energetic, unsubtle and mostly entertaining, Utu remade early New Zealand history in the rambunctious style of a 70s western. Everyone looked like they were having fun. Where did that go?

Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013). Primer defeated me but the second film by the over-talented Shane Carruth (he acts, directs, writes, scores, shoots and even distributes) is admirably poetic and occasionally beautiful science fiction that won’t leave you entirely frustrated.