October 23, 2014

All plots tend to move Deathward

A Band Called Death (Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett, 2013). Nothing is allowed to remain obscure any longer. There is no question that the story of Death, a black teenage hard rock band of three brothers from Detroit that released one single and got nowhere in the 1970s, only to be discovered by record collectors and bloggers in the late 2000s, is incredible, whether or not you like the spiritual dimension, or the prophecies of David Hackney (which I do, by the way). As usual, we could do without the gate-keeping talking heads in approval mode – Henry Rollins is surely the Bono of documentaries about punk and post-punk – and reunions are rarely a great idea, but whatever. It’s touching. File with Into the Void and Last Days Here as a band appreciation doco that isn’t really about the music. 

October 19, 2014

Long walk

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011). The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Michael Apted, 2010).

October 13, 2014

Mud, fire, forest

Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985). As though war was – and always is – a kind of collective frenzy or contagious madness. Or horrific revelry (the Nazis, in their attack, seem possessed and delirious). Yet this strange and half-hallucinated war film is at its most horrifying when photographs drag us into real history, real time, towards confrontations you could never expect. 

October 5, 2014

Roads, hotels

They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1949). She’s far too good for him. Doomed innocence, impressive aerial car shots and memorably vile criminals (that one-eyed lush) but more a romance than the noir that film history – and the title – suggested. 

October 4, 2014


The card for the Santa Teresa cybercafé was a deep red, so red that it was hard to read what was printed on it. On the back, in a lighter red, was a map that showed exactly where the café was located. He asked the receptionist to translate the name of the place. The clerk laughed and said it was called Fire, Walk With Me.
“It sounds like the title of a David Lynch film,” said Fate.
The clerk shrugged and said that all of Mexico was a collage of diverse and wide-ranging homages.
“Every single thing in this country is an homage to everything in the world, even the things that haven’t happened yet,” he said.
After he told Fate how to get to the cybercafé, they talked for a while about Lynch’s films. The clerk had seen all of them. Fate had seen only three or four. According to the clerk, Lynch’s greatest achievement was the TV series Twin Peaks. Fate liked The Elephant Man best, maybe because he’d often felt like the elephant man himself, wanting to be like other people but at the same time knowing he was different. When the clerk asked him whether he’d heard that Michael Jackson had bought or tried to buy the skeleton of the elephant man, Fate shrugged and said that Michael Jackson was sick. I don’t think so, said the clerk, watching something presumably important that was happening on the TV just then.
“In my opinion,” he said with his eyes fixed on the TV Fate couldn’t see, “Michael knows things the rest of us don’t.”
“We all know things we think nobody else knows,” said Fate.
Then he said good night, put the cybercafé card in his pocket, and went back to his room.

from 2666 by Roberto Bolano

September 28, 2014

Psychedelic Vision On becomes real-life dirge

Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry, 2013). Psychedelic Vision On becomes real-life dirge. No illusion can be sustained for long. But the full (2 hours, 10 minutes) cut allows you to sustain it a little longer than otherwise. 

September 23, 2014

Family viewing

Stories We Tell (Saran Polley, 2012). Despite the pitiless interrogation of his daughter, it would be good to think (and for what it’s worth, I do) that Michael Polley keeps something back for himself. 

September 22, 2014

Meaningful blasphemy

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, 2013). The conjunction of the words “punk” and “prayer” is not a contradiction; instead, Pussy Riot (effective initials: PR) fall into a long tradition of meaningful and provocative blasphemy. Think also of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. As a punk band, PR are artists working as a band as a project, rather than “musicians”. Which is a good thing. Each performance is documented and has a developed purpose. Sometimes it works far too well.

September 19, 2014

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta, 2012). Fifty years later, framed in a how-I-wrote-that-book narrative, studded with stagey impersonations (a William Shawn here, a Mary McCarthy there) and awkward expository dialogue, Arendt’s conclusions from the Eichmann trial seem entirely preposterous. Which was surely not the intention. New Yorker assignment sub-genre (Capote). The Heidegger connection should be/could be a whole other movie. Perhaps a better one. 

September 3, 2014

Bank scene

Un Flic (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972). Things done better in film than any other medium include chases, bank robberies and train scenes. 

August 30, 2014


All is Lost (JC Chandor, 2013). A survival/ordeal story more minimal than Gravity – so minimal our hero (Robert Redford, silent) comes to us without a name, a back story or even a hallucinated sidekick to talk with. The sea is stormy then calm, and both forms are as terrifying as Gravity’s endless space. 

August 26, 2014

From Genesis to Revelations

The Dark Horse (James Napier Robertson, 2014). Former Dean of ChristChurch Cathedral, John Bluck, has an interesting theological take on The Dark Horse here. Yes, Cliff Curtis as Genesis Potini is incredible – it’s the performance we have all waited for since Curtis first slithered into view 20 years ago, circa Desperate Remedies/Once Were Warriors – but you can wonder if gang life in New Zealand is so entirely negative. Given the chess theme, maybe it’s no surprise that the film is so binary, so black and white: love/hate, peace/violence, with a sense that the damaged person has important truths to reveal to the rest of us.

August 25, 2014


Having seen the John Pilger doco Utopia not too long ago, I liked this bit in the new David Mitchell novel, The Bone Clocks:

“If ever a place had a karma of damnation, it’s Rottnest. And all those slick gallerists selling Aborigine Art would have removed my will to live. It’s as if Germans built a Jewish food hall over Buchenwald.” 

August 23, 2014

Fourteen films in 25 tweets

Film discussion at home:
Wife: “Did I see Maps to the Stars?”
Me: “Julianne Moore on the toilet.”
Wife: “Ah, yes.”

The 2014 International Film Festival wraps this weekend in Christchurch. I made it to just 14. The idea was to try to summarise each on Twitter, in one tweet or two (or three). I wish I had thought to say that the incredible Under the Skin (above) is “Lifeforce meets Morvern Callar”.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014): Time has been the subject since Slacker. Now it’s the raw material too. Not just growing up, but ways of being dad. 

The Double (Richard Ayoade, 2013). In Enemy, a double is horrifying. Here, weirdly plausible. Incredible post-Brazil design but you lose interest in the story.

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014). Not sure this outsider band satire ever finds the right tone but a damaged Fassbender in the final minutes is so deeply affecting (Syd Barrett at Abbey Rd, 1975).

Housebound (Gerard Johnstone, 2014). A genuinely funny horror comedy made by the strength of its performances (O’Reilly, te Wiata) and clever plotting, plus one fantastic gore shot. Morgana O’Reilly is new to me but is great as our bipolar sarcastic bogan everywoman.

Into the Void (Margaret Gordon, 2014). I was expecting Ronnie van Hout to be the star of Margaret Gordon’s wry, funny doco about a post-art school underground rock band in Chch, but it’s actually guitarist Jason “prints of darkness” Greig. At the first, so far only, NZFF screening, band and audience came together to watch themselves. It was the closest thing to a genuine buzz at the Chch festival in 2014.

It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014). More than ever, sex is the currency of teen horror. Maika Monroe looks like Laura Palmer. Sequel possibilities are endless.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013). Favourite moment: Jodo goes to see Lynch’s Dune and is relieved to learn it’s terrible.The moral is that even unmade films can be influential (w/out the unmade Dune, no Alien?).

Leviathan (Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2014). A kind of modern Russian Job, drowning in vodka, on the edge of the known world. Whales are alive, dead and symbolic. 

Locke (Steven Knight, 2013). Male emotion, or the gap between heroism and duty. I hated Bronson but that wasn’t Tom Hardy’s fault. He nails this. 

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, 2014). Hollywood curses and childhood monsters. Savage entertainment black comedy served ice cold by Cronenberg. With Julianne Moore as a kind of washed-up middle-aged Lohan and my favourite murder of the 2014 NZFF. In its pitilessness, it reminded me more of things like The Brood and Videodrome than any Cronenberg film has in years.

20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, 2014). Nick Cave makes a fortress out of his Nick Cave-ness. Or a portrait of the artist as a disciplined professional. Apart from “Jubilee Street”, I didn’t much like Push the Sky Away, but isn’t it good to see Blixa looking so well?

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014). Further into Ken Loach territory than the Dardennes have ever gone before with a stunning lead performance by Marion Cotillard as a fragile woman whose need for bravery is making her sick. Question: will people be good when you let them?

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013). “I need your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle.” Incredible score, deep immersion, dark-haired Johansson. Best case of genre re-invented as art since, maybe, Drive.

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2014). An intimate epic that offers the rare pleasure of screen conversations that take as long as they need to.

August 15, 2014

The Film Festival in Christchurch, 2014

Right now, we’re in the middle of the International Film Festival here in Christchurch. A summary will follow once it’s all done, as collections of lines off Twitter. The following was written as a preview for Dunedin magazine Point (#64, August 6-19). Thanks to Campbell Walker for commissioning.

Here in Christchurch, we complain about things happening and we complain about nothing happening. When things happen, roads are blocked, traffic is re-routed and noise is constant – all of which has been happening for months just outside my place of work as the quake-damaged, historical Isaac Theatre Royal is slowly turned back into a working theatre. And that is good news in a city still drastically short of venues. That the theatre’s re-opening in December will be ‘‘celebrated’’ – and I use the word advisedly – with two shows by resurrected prog-folk flute botherers Jethro Tull is less exciting. I had a better idea. One day last year, walking through the empty Cathedral Square, it dawned on me that the theatre needed to re-open with the world premiere of the third Hobbit film. I made what I thought was a brilliant pitch with a view to my employer getting behind a public campaign to Bring The Hobbit to Christchurch, imagining that a duplication of the premieres that Courtney Place had staged for other Peter Jackson mega-productions would be a good way of telling the world that Christchurch is ‘‘open for business’’ or whatever, but it went nowhere. 

No, I’m not a Hobbit fan at all – I haven’t seen the first two parts and I don’t intend to see the third – but it seemed like a good fit. Jackson could pay back the South Island for all the scenery he borrowed in the Lord of the Rings films. The idea was a no-brainer once someone told me that the last time the Film Festival felt like a big deal in Christchurch was in 1994 when the big Heavenly Creatures screening was at the Regent. That had a real sense of occasion. When I moved to Christchurch in 2007 I was surprised by how marginal the Festival seemed as an event. You almost never had to book as almost nothing sold out. The venue, the Regent, was divided into a warren of small cinemas and the small foyer meant that the venue didn’t act as the social centre of the Festival, like the Civic does in Auckland. Some of the bigger titles didn’t cross the Cook Strait. You heard whispers that the event was barely sustainable in Christchurch, that the city risked being wiped off the Festival map due to lack of interest. You would talk to people at the Canterbury Film Society and they would say the same sort of thing, that it had been hard to maintain any real cinema culture in this town since the old theatres were cleared from the Square in the 80s. The Academy in the Arts Centre and the Rialto were still running then on a steady diet of middlebrow art-house with the odd eccentric, local touch (Gloomy Sunday every week for years? What was that about?)

Maybe it was more of a stay at home cinema culture. Christchurch had, and still has, what could be the best video store in the country – Alice in Videoland. If this sounds parochial, maybe that was part of the issue. Christchurch wanted to maintain things that were its own. Alice was its own. The Festival? Not so much. There seemed to be a wider, national downturn in the Festival at the end of that decade, too – the big sponsor (Telecom) went and the audience for foreign language films contracted. 

In Christchurch at least, some of that changed after the earthquakes. People were grateful that the Festival came back in 2011 (the Rugby World Cup stayed away). That Festival’s opening and closing night films, The Tree of Life and Melancholia, were ideal book-ends: creation, grief, sorrow, destruction. Von Trier destroyed the world and then we all got in our cars and drove home through the ruined city. That was catharsis. The Festival had decamped to the suburban wastelands of a Hoyts multiplex in the Northlands Mall but apart from the constant smell of popcorn in the lobby, who cares? There was plenty of parking and no one ever screwed up the projection. It snowed and I still got to Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D. For those reasons I remember that as one of the better Festivals I’ve ever been at, even if ticket sales were actually down that year. Since then, the total replacement of film by digital projection means that the south misses out on fewer big new films than it used to, as 35mm prints no longer need to get to Melbourne straight after Auckland and Wellington. This year, that means Maps to the Stars, Winter Sleep and Leviathan, all fresh from Cannes.

From next year, the Festival will have a dedicated venue here again. It was a relief that within the Government-led rebuild’s ‘‘arts precinct’’, the most democratic art form of all, cinema, was finally recognised. The restored Isaac Theatre Royal was intended to be the Film Festival venue from this year, which will be good news for those of us who work directly opposite – ‘‘Just popping out for …er, an interview, back in 110 minutes’’ – but the usual delays have meant that we’re getting Jethro Tull rather than Pulp, Nick Cave, Kathleen Hanna or Into the Void. Margaret Gordon’s documentary on the latter celebrates a ridiculously local phenomenon. A cult-rock hobby band made up of local artists, Into the Void play shows that act as reunions for their audience. At the sole Festival screening of the documentary, the same audience will get together to observe the persistence of this phenomenon since the 1980s, through gentrification and the ups and downs of the Christchurch art world, through earthquakes and the destruction of a High St practice room, and it may – I’m speculating because I haven’t seen it yet – have more to say about resilience or stubbornness than the already forgotten Hope and Wire. It is the eminently, inwardly local in action. 

August 7, 2014

Rhythm of the night

Gloria (Sebastian Lelio, 2013). And thinking of Beau Travail.  

August 6, 2014

About Elly, finally

About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, 2009). Like After May, this came to us belatedly – this time with a five-year delay. The local DVD release was just a few months back, inevitably after the success of A Separation and The Past. Like those films, this is rich and nuanced family drama about contemporary middle-class Iran but with a plot twist that pushes into thriller territory. As early fan David Bordwell said, it swerves from Rohmer towards Hitchcock and Highsmith. Recommended. 

August 4, 2014

Stasiland cinema

Barbara (Christian Petzold, 2012). In this account at least, control is both looser and more secretive than expected. The party and ideology is never explicitly mentioned, or life is lived by codes. Or, more likely, so much goes over the heads of the western viewer, 30 years later. 

July 30, 2014

15 years

“La Douleur” (Pain) by Emile Friant, 1898, featured in I’ve Loved You So Long (Philippe Claudel, 2008).