March 6, 2014
March 4, 2014
The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013). Horror Retromania. The hauntings in this fact-based (aren’t they all?) early 70s-set horror can feel like a warm-up for the Amityville story that came later in the same decade, with bits of The Exorcist and The Birds thrown in. Creaky old houses, the creepiness of toys and mirrors, sleeping children, mysterious noises, stopped clocks, secret basements, heroic priests, paranormal-research technology: director James Wan (Saw) and cinematographer John Leonetti – great subjective camera set-ups – deliver old-fashioned shocks with intense regularity. But the best feature might be Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga (above) as demonology duo Ed and Lorraine Warren who appear like a Masters and Johnson of the paranormal. You could call it Masters of Ghostbusting and it makes sense that a franchise will follow. Incidentally, this must be the only horror film in which “Caroline, no!” appears as a line of dialogue.
March 2, 2014
March 1, 2014
Her (Spike Jonze, 2013). Blog title from Brief Encounter, quoted in The View from the Train: Cities & Other Landscapes by Patrick Keiller.
February 27, 2014
Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013). Lynchian Bangkok, in corridors and nightclubs. Is Nicolas Winding Refn more interested in setting – cities – than character? Like the Los Angeles of his less experimental, less violent Drive, his unnervingly quiet Bangkok is nocturnal, in red, blue and yellow lights. The acting ranges from catatonic to catatonic, dialogue is minimal and every frame is art. The dedication is to Jodorowsky, which explains all the severed arms and hands. Nicolas Winding Refn should direct the next James Bond film. Seriously.
February 23, 2014
Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013). By every reasonable measure, a bad film – boring, unoriginal, pointlessly well-made – but one reading of its scenario gives you an anti-war message: Tom Cruise’s Jack Harper is a pilot who suddenly becomes disgusted with delivering technological death from above via drones (actually called drones) and so he imagines he has been set within a Matrix/Total Recall simulation with La Jetee false memories and joins the resistance. It’s the less overt, less sincere Avatar on a picturesque ruined Earth. More predictable too: the future is slick and anonymous designer interiors; authenticity is a cabin by a lake with an old LP collection.
February 22, 2014
Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee, 2013). The coincidence of two AIDS films in 12 months (this and Behind the Candelabra), a full two decades after Derek Jarman’s Blue, among others, is partly about Hollywood’s delays and caution. The subject of Dallas Buyers Club, Ron Woodroff, died 18 months before Jarman and the newspaper story that inspired the film appeared in the Dallas Morning News just ahead of his death in 1992. Maybe it just waited for the right people at the right time: Matthew McConaughey, hunger artist, and French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (the less realist C.R.A.Z.Y) working with a tiny crew on a quick shoot. Arguably, it’s almost television-age cinema, or commercial cinema made possible by television’s recent broadening of subject matter and exploration of less typically heroic or generic characters. Another difficult man.
February 20, 2014
Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2013). “I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar, it meant that you were a protest singer.” Actual singing, historical moment. New York is colder than you've seen it. Not an easy send-up in a Mighty Wind style, but with greater maturity, even reverence for a time or style more often mocked. Does he make it? Greater question: is he just part of someone – something – else’s story? Dylan maybe, but not just him.
February 16, 2014
Byzantium (Neil Jordan, 2012). Washed-out end-of-the-line Hastings not Constantinople and a bawdy melodrama with fangs – no, not fangs but sharpened nails. War declared on a vampire brotherhood’s misogynistic code. Not Twilight’s romantic complication but daughter (thoughtful) vs mother (errant) stuck at the same point in the same relationship for 200 years.
February 13, 2014
Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013). An ultimately trivial film about a non-subject, delivered with inappropriate seriousness. Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut (he also wrote and stars) is a warning about the dangers of pornography – or the seduction of images in general. All the clichés – the cartoon Italian-ness like a tenth rate Sopranos (Gordon-Levitt’s Jonny could be one of Christopher Moltisanti’s boys); Scarlett Johansson as womanhood at its most conniving and artificial; Julianne Moore as womanhood at its most maternal and “real” – must be intended.
February 11, 2014
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013). The disbelieving civilised man sold into slavery is an ideal guide to its horrors. As ever, Steve McQueen is concerned with dignity in suffering, inflicted again and again on the human body, but his style here is more classical and less stark than Hunger.
February 9, 2014
“No one will remember our work. Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun. For our time is the passing of a shadow and our lives will run like sparks through the stubble.”
I didn’t know when I saw Blue that Derek Jarman adapted those powerful and moving closing lines from the apocryphal Book of Wisdom/Wisdom of Solomon. They are delivered by voice-over against that unchanging blue screen, a blue based on Yves Klein. The sensation of that constant blue is that you are seeing what the artist is seeing, and hearing what he is thinking and remembering, as vision diminishes, and perhaps even consciousness. In those last moments, you disappear into blue memory. Blue sky, blue light, blue sea, blue depths. Blue was shown in European festivals and on British television before Jarman’s death in February 1994 – 20 years ago – but it didn’t reach New Zealand until after his death, acting for the quiet few (as I remember them) at an Auckland Film Festival screening as a requiem rather than an anticipation.
In the absence of much other information, in those years before the internet, I read and re-read the Festival’s programme notes, almost committing the text to memory:
Blue is 76 solid minutes of blue screen. And we don’t mean special effects thrown onto a hi-tech magic surface. We mean B-L-U-E screen. That single colour is projected sans alteration, inflection or interruption. Only the odd blemish on the celluloid or explosion of scratches at end of reel affords variety; those and the volatile perceptions of the viewer, nudged to see subtle visual changes even when there aren’t any by the film’s amazing soundtrack.
This aural cut-up of voices, music, and sound effects could be a career bookend to the imagistic cut-up with which Jarman began. There are musings on art, colour and infinity: ‘Blue transcends the solemn geography of human limits.’ There are dispatches from the AIDS frontline: “The doctor in St Bartholomew’s Hospital thought he could detect lesions in my retina…‘Look up, look down’ …blue flashes in my eyes.” There are fantasy sound-trips to far-off times or places: a café in Bosnia, a scene from Marco Polo’s travels (wind, goat bells, barking dogs, human cries). And there is Simon Fisher Turner’s astounding music: Jarman’s longtime composer pulling out all elemental stops as he places individual effects against an ostinato of chiming eternity (glockenspiel, Aeolian harp, wind chimes).
The movie doesn’t so much move forward as swell around us. It’s all about an artist’s vision intensifying with failing sight. “In the bottom of your heart,” says the voiceover, “you pray to be released from the image.” And we are: released from it into new-created powers of seeing. -Harlan Kennedy, Film Comment, 11.12.93
Today I looked up the colour “blue” in Tessa Laird’s book A Rainbow Reader (Clouds Publishing, 2013), a guide to colour, and found her summary or perhaps a memory of the same viewing:
Blue is both a requiem the artist composed for himself, and for the entire homosexual holocaust of the 80s and 90s. But it is also a requiem for the human race, and our beautiful blue planet, which is ebbing, fading into irreversible illness, just as he is. In coming to terms with his own encroaching death, he is at least one step ahead of the rest of us.
If I was in London, I would watch it again at the Tate Modern.
February 4, 2014
February 3, 2014
February 1, 2014
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984). The incredible sincerity and sweetness of Harry Dean Stanton as Travis, mute initially and unfathomable (collected by his brother, like Rain Man) until all the driving seems to slowly restore his memory of who he is (“Is four years a long time?”). Nights seen from cars, the ranter on the bridge – the cars’ windscreens and the mirror windows in the club as Travis and Jane (Nastassja Kinski) tell their stories to each other and to us, with Jane trapped in rooms that look like stage sets, or versions of the America we have just driven through. The motel rooms and diners. And the saddest guitar in the world.
January 27, 2014
Lovelace (Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein, 2013). There was Deep Throat (1972), a cheap and ugly film that made millions for someone, then there was the moronically celebratory doco Inside Deep Throat (2005) and now a biopic of its doomed star? It’s hard to argue that it is all worth this much attention 40 years on, but at least Lovelace takes a sceptical view. In Howl (2010), documentarians turned feature directors Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein championed the (not) “obscene” Ginsberg poem as an important expression of artistic freedom; the Linda Lovelace story is the grim reverse, in which pornography’s 70s claims for liberation and personal freedom are shown to have been a cover for spousal abuse, exploitation and prostitution. But the real story of Linda Boreman/Lovelace (a meek Amanda Seyfried) and her sleazoid husband Chuck Traynor (wolf-moustached Peter Sarsgaard) was more brutal, ambivalent and much creepier than this straight-forward and sanitised account adapted from Lovelace’s post-trauma memoir, Ordeal. Everyone was on the make, including – even especially – Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, pitifully impersonated by Howl star James Franco. The mood of 70s excess is largely absent and the barely passable historical re-enactments that were just one aspect of Friedman and Epstein’s more complex Howl are now the entire thing.
January 26, 2014
American Hustle (David O Russell, 2013). Over three films, David O Russell has formed a company of ambitious actors: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence. All four are acting within an inch of their lives in American Hustle, drawing near-absurd character-based black comedy out of what could easily have been obvious Scorsese-isms (the music choices, editing, voice over). The art direction suggests that 1970s American magazine spreads have come to life and the hair stylists have had a field day. Could we rename it "I Heart the 70s"? "No more fake shit" is the ironic chant in a disco bathroom at one typically excessive high-point. Ironic as it's all gloriously, almost ridiculously artificial (everyone seems to be at least two people at once and nearly always in disguise). This is easily Russell's most pleasurable movie.