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

Depth


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

Rottnest

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).

July 27, 2014

The Two Jakes


Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, 2014). Enemy is Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of The Double by Jose Saramago, presumably retitled to allow for Richard Ayoade’s film of Dostoevsky’s The Double (yes, two films about doubles). Jake Gyllenhaal is the history teacher who discovers that a replica of himself is working as a bit part actor in the same city – a very Cronenbergian Toronto in Villeneuve’s account. The mood is clinical, oppressive and dour and the scenario is gripping, with the action unfolding that much faster in the film than the book, largely because the book was set in a pre-internet world where it was harder to track down your double. But do Saramago’s books make good films, though? Yes and no. The situations both here and in Blindness (filmed by Fernando Meirelles) would seem immediately high concept in a 25-words-or-less pitch meeting but the weirdly realistic fact of the impossible scenario – influences on Saramago from Borges, Beckett and Kafka, probably ­­– is harder to put across in film than you might suspect, at least for Villeneuve. It is a kind of total pessimism. You also lose the intense self-consciousness of Saramago’s style, those long, obsessive sentences. The (spider-less) ending is better in the book as well. But Gyllenhaal was perfect casting: as in Prisoners and Zodiac, his version of bland and decent vulnerability is ideal.

July 15, 2014

Utopia


Utopia (John Pilger and Alan Lowery, 2013). John Pilger’s powerfully angry and bitter documentary about Australia’s appalling treatment of its first people has a strong personal dimension: at its heart, there is Pilger’s dismay at the persistence of white Australian racism. We flash back to earlier stories, with Pilger stumbling on the “secret Australia” in the 1960s as a young expat reporting for a British newspaper, and returning again in the 1980s and campaigning with Arthur and Leila Murray, whose son Eddie died in police custody in 1981. Nothing has really changed since then other than the (mostly) more guarded political delivery of the same white Australian sentiment – Pilger sees the controversial 2007 “interventions” in Northern Territory communities as almost indistinguishable from earlier policies that created the stolen generations, only now the attitude is dressed up in early 21st century bureaucratic-concern-language of rescuing children from (probably fictional) abuse. Anger boils over when Pilger goes to Canberra and interrogates politicians Mal Brough, Warren Snowdon and Kevin Rudd. Utopia’s most distressing sequences are filmed in remote camps where Australians still live in third world conditions, but Pilger hasn’t lost a sharp sense of humour: he contrasts luxury resorts in coastal New South Wales, at Uluru and, most incredible of all, the former penal colony of Rottnest Island with the lives of the people who lived there before. 

July 13, 2014

A different world than the one you and I came into



Dream double bill: Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, 2010); Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013). 

“But there are now more serious discrepancies in income levels, even among people with comparable educational qualifications. There is little incentive for people to go into professions that are not lucrative. Consumption, among those who can afford it, is conspicuous.” Teju Cole, Every Day is for the Thief

July 5, 2014

Hope and Wire


No way. Not skinheads. Surely not. I would estimate that Gaylene Preston lost approximately 50 per cent of her Christchurch audience’s goodwill early in the first episode of her quake series Hope and Wire. The exact moment came when a gang of skinheads terrorised passers-by on Colombo St on the evening of September 3, 2010. Now and forever, Christchurch gets to be the city of skinheads, boy racers and uptight Merivale matrons wearing pearls. The quakes destroyed a lot of things but it looks like some bad reputations and regional stereotypes remained intact.

Eight years ago, I interviewed the American poet Robert Hass when he was in Wellington for writers’ week at the NZ Festival. I told him that I had seen him in the Embassy during one of Robert Fisk’s sold-out sessions. Fisk had read what I thought was a powerful excerpt from The Great War for Civilisation. From memory, it involved Fisk getting emotional as he mused over a dead Iraqi soldier during the Iraq-Iran war, wondering about the young man’s home life and family, imagining a bereft wife and kids. Hass was a little more sceptical about Fisk’s fiction: “Dostoevsky might at least have entertained the possibility that the soldier was not a good person.”

In other words, it was an argument against stereotypes, or easy and obvious villains and heroes. Preston’s characters in Hope and Wire seem designed to represent points of view, with geography as destiny. It’s equivalent to a drama about Auckland taking one family from Outrageous Fortune, one family from Bro’Town and one family from Gloss. In Merivale, Maxine Redfern – er, Ginny (played by Luanne Gordon) – is learning that her perfect life is not as perfect as she thought. Her husband, Jonty (Stephen Lovatt) is a dodgy lawyer – in this moral universe, there may not be any other kind. Her teenagers are rebelling. You can expect a journey towards social awareness and self-reliance, through feminist storytelling familiar from Preston’s Bread and Roses, Perfect Strangers and Ruby and Rata. Maybe she will even get a grown-up name. 

Out east in a new subdivision, Ryan (Jarrod Rawiri) and Donna (Miriama McDowell) are illustrating the seriousness of liquefaction and land slump (filmed, naturally, on location). Honest battlers with a hefty mortgage, they also represent another post-quake trend, but Hope and Wire gets the timing slightly wrong. In the weeks after the big February 2011 quake, it was widely observed that men wanted to stay with the house, even if it was only partially liveable, while women were more likely to want to take the kids and go somewhere safe (for people we knew: Timaru, Dunedin, Nelson). In Hope and Wire, Donna takes off with the kids before the quake – in fact, she is on the road to Picton when it hits. She doesn’t feel it while driving but does catch news of the quake on the radio about 20 minutes later. It’s a surprisingly gentle and tangential way for Preston and writer Dave Armstrong to bring the big quake into the story, before they rewind and show us where Ginny, Ginny’s kids and another key female character, Joycie (the best actor in the show, Rachel House), were at 12.51pm.

The situation of Joycie and her husband Len (Bernard Hill) is based on the real-life story (link here) of Raewyn Iketau and Charlie Duthie, who set up a post-quake community around a central city house and could be seen as an example of the points that Rebecca Solnit made about post-disaster communities in A Paradise Built in Hell. Solnit’s argument is that the immediate aftermath of a disaster can promote altruism, even utopianism, which disappears once official or elected authority starts to manage the post-disaster recovery. We saw that in Christchurch in the weeks and months after February 2011 when all the certainties were upset and people got to know each other. It was like a holiday from regular life and despite the horror of the event, it was also a weirdly exciting time. At the end of the second of six hours of Hope and Wire, we are still at February 22. Len, whose pieces to camera bring a political perspective that may not be too far from Preston’s own, is missing in Lyttelton, or perhaps the red bus we saw him catching is under some rubble. But it looks like the community that he set up after the first quake – again, slightly inaccurate – will evolve into a version of Iketau and Duthie’s red zone camp.

That inaccuracy, and the earlier one about Donna leaving with the kids before the February 22 earthquake, point to a problem that faces anyone dramatising the Christchurch quakes, which is that there was a phony war between the first quake in September 2010 and the bad one in February 2011. If you are being strictly chronological, as Preston is, then you have to accept that the early parts of the story risk being a little, well, boring. Which means you could do it differently. Why not start in February? Or take some greater storytelling risks. When I was thinking about Hope and Wire before it screened, I was thinking that David Simon’s New Orleans series Treme might not be the big influence everyone expected. Maybe Broadchurch or Les Revenants (The Returned) were better models for how to do a Christchurch series. In one, a murder exposes the relationships and tensions in a small community. In the other, there is a kind of supernatural disaster that reveals aspects of a small French community’s history. One of the great innovations of Les Revenants, besides the rare beauty of a series filmed entirely at dusk, is that it based episodes on the “journey” (terrible word) of individual characters. After watching two out of six Hope and Wire episodes, I wonder if Preston should have done the same. Len’s story, Joycie’s story, Greggo’s story, Hayley’s story, Ginny’s story, Donna’s story. That might have eliminated a flaw in the series so far: that none of the characters have depth or are doing much more than illustrating a trend, tendency or news story. 

Far from sensationalising the Christchurch story, or making a fiction that is fundamentally inaccurate, Preston has actually done the opposite. Apart from a few timeline glitches, she has made the story almost too accurate. Much of the drama plays like pallid re-enactments of moments that would have more power and truth as documentary. This is obvious in the February 22 scenes towards the end of the second episode, when news footage from central Christchurch is edited into the staged disaster scenes. The real footage is still horrifying, even now, while the staged scenes have less impact and it is almost grotesque to see actors caked in fake dust and dirt staggering through recreated disaster zones alongside actual footage of actual places where actual people died. Episodes one and two are mostly tasteful but these scenes are borderline, to say the least.

At this point you might ask what drama can do that documentary cannot do, and the answer is nothing, if your answer is based only on Hope and Wire. Drama can provide you with subjectivity and an imaginative experience, but imagination has been largely sacrificed in favour of cautious adherence to reality. You can understand the impulse but it means that so far Hope and Wire has told us nothing we did not already learn from Gerard Smyth’s When a City Falls, a documentary made in Christchurch that evolved as the story changed. There is probably a whole other discussion to be had about the value – and ethics – of recreating real-life trauma as fiction, and it would probably extend from Claude Lanzmann’s famous refusal to include even historical footage in his monumental Holocaust documentary, Shoah. A Lanzmann-style earthquake and recovery documentary composed entirely of long interviews and shots of the ruins and empty spaces three and a half years on? The viewer would have to imagine what was being described.

There has been a lot of talk about documentary styles in Hope and Wire and Preston’s expertise in the area. Her Te Papa doco Getting to Our Place was a good one, no question. And she talked up her doco credentials in this Press interview, which included her incredible claim that she is “one of the very few film-makers in the world with experience in both dramatic feature film and documentary”. (Really? Tell that to Ken Loach, Michael Apted, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Winterbottom, Alain Resnais, Terry Zwigoff, Spike Lee, James Marsh, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Clio Barnard, Ken Russell, Agnes Varda, Vincent Ward, Kevin Macdonald, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Jonathan Demme, Alison Maclean, Florian Habicht …) But it turns out that there is nothing documentary-like about Hope and Wire so far. The breaking of the fourth wall via monologues to camera delivered by actors in character is a convention more reminiscent of sitcoms and reality television – a tool used by Modern Family and MasterChef.

Overall, despite being made for TV3, Hope and Wire seems to fit with TVNZ’s recent series of news-based topical dramas, like the one about Jan Molenaar, which some involved in the real story thought was being made and seen too soon. Is it too soon for a quake drama? There is probably no right answer to that question. The harder question is whether it was really worth doing. I’ve heard the word “opportunistic” a few times. I’m not sure about that but nothing in the first two hours of Hope and Wire convinced me that Preston had something she really needed to say that hasn’t otherwise been said. I suspect – in fact, I know – that Preston isn’t the only director from outside Christchurch who looked at the ruined city and thought there’s drama to be made from this, especially if they had gorged on Treme and other box sets from TV’s new golden age. They had a fantastic location. Now all they needed were stories.

June 22, 2014

1929


Blancanieves (Pablo Berger, 2013). Like The Artist, this is set at a key moment in cinema history, although with a much greater sense of film literacy (if the still above doesn’t suggest Sunrise …). Yet Pablo Berger’s approach is romantic and never academic. Snow White is now a female bull fighter – believe me, it works. 

June 21, 2014

Contained

Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013). Despite the journalism clich├ęs, this is actually a story about the triumph of journalism. With Frears in charge, all potential for satire is contained and any outrage is barely perceptible. I could have done with a little of the latter. Incredible story, either way: you wouldn’t believe a word of it if it wasn’t true.