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.
October 27, 2016
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, 2016). This really is a Story with a capital S: a cop on the verge of retirement and his Indian partner chase two brothers with a sentimental reason to rob banks across a raw Texan landscape obviously subject to sharp economic decline. The themes are clear, but the treatment is so soulful, you will forgive any tendencies to feel too literary, too conscious of history and meaning. The minimal screenplay is by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), the very clear and precise direction is by David Mackenzie (still best known for Young Adam) and all four lead performances are strong. Jeff Bridges even finds naturalism in a character – a grizzled police veteran with rare intuition – that would encourage showboating from almost any other actor.
October 26, 2016
The Conjuring 2 (James Wan, 2016). Two films in, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are very good as devoted Christian paranormal-investigating couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, as they bring out a kind of tenderness and dedication, but now I want to see something simpler that focuses on them, their story and their faith, without the generic horror bells and whistles, the regularly timed shocks and the ludicrous Marilyn Manson goth-nun that terrifies Lorraine throughout the sequel. While the art-directed shabbiness of 1970s London sometimes feels overdone, the film is at its best when it sticks closest to the known facts of the so-called Enfield haunting, including the strong possibility of hoaxes. This is the supernatural world in all its murky, smudged, suburban ordinariness (see Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black).
October 25, 2016
Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015). Three hours in Berlin, in the corner of the morning, that move seamlessly from rave film to crime film to something other. One of the best things about this enormously impressive stunt is that you always believe what happens is possible, which also means it is much more than a stunt. But who was she before and who is she after? Schipper and his writers wisely don’t offer any clues.
October 8, 2016
Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children (Tim Burton, 2016). Less camp and straighter than Burton has been for years, which is very good news. There are also interesting ways in which this seems to intersect with both WG Sebald and Austerlitz. Has anyone written more about this? Here, the kindertransport has become a supernatural fable in the hands of a contemporary writer named Ransom Riggs who formed a narrative around strange old photos of children (even the settings seem right: Wales, Belgium). There might be something of the book Haunted Air in that, too. In the story, we keep replaying a loop of time to delay death, and eventually the reassuring supernatural fantasy comes to almost completely obscure the historical tragedy.