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
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 Theroux’s version adds little to the groundbreaking work in Going Clear (Lawrence Wright’s book and Alex Gibney’s 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 church’s intergalactic, celebrity egotism?
November 28, 2016
November 25, 2016
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 America’s 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
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
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
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 7, 2016
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.)