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.