October 11, 2015

When the stories run out

Everything from him has been stories. Stories as tricks, stories as frames for experience, stories that play games with time – that was his original gimmick, appearing as a time traveler. The terror near the end of Before Midnight is about the fear that the stories have just run out.  She has to trick herself into trying to believe them again.   

October 6, 2015


Chappie (Neill Blomkamp, 2015). We’re a long way from District 9, Blomkamp’s first film, which seemed like a genuinely radical and clever sci-fi allegory about race, power, media and law enforcement in near-future South Africa. Chappie is set in the same brutal world but the treatment is juvenile and sentimental, like a cyber-Pinocchio – the title character is a law-enforcement robot that develops childlike human consciousness and grapples with free will – while the poverty and crime tourism that seemed bold and fresh back in 2009 now offers diminishing returns. Only the closing minutes finally promise something better: when intelligence is downloaded from broken machines and given a fresh start, you hope that it is analogous again, this time for Blomkamp’s career.   

October 5, 2015


Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973).  

October 4, 2015

On Mars

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015). The prolific (too prolific?) Ridley Scott brings an unusually light touch to Drew Goddard’s tightly-written and entertaining screenplay about Matt Damon’s resourceful stranded astronaut. After Gravity and Interstellar, Scott’s brisk film is less about the deep loneliness of space isolation than the positive values of problem solving and their potential for global togetherness. When a Bowie song hits the soundtrack, it’s not “Space Oddity” but “Starman”, with its uplifting singalong chorus and “Over the Rainbow” melody. It’s a tough movie to dislike and may even be, somehow, the funniest film of Scott’s career. Nasa loves it and no surprise: with its use of documentary approaches, it even tricks you that you’re watching a precise dramatisation of the space agency’s greatest, most humane hour. 

September 27, 2015

Haunted instrument

The Wind Journeys (Ciro Guerra, 2009). I got to this late, via Embrace of the Serpent: like that, a long journey through haunted landscapes. Duels, challenges: the musical instrument as weapon, and cursed object. 

September 24, 2015

Down in the lab

The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983). David Bowie is a delicate, spectral presence in movies and just as that worked so well for him and Nic Roeg in The Man Who Fell to Earth, it also worked for him and Tony Scott in The Hunger. I hadn’t seen this since the late 1980s, on murky VHS on a small television, and given Scott’s love for shadows and dim light through billowing curtains or venetian blinds, it was like looking for figures in the fog. It’s better than I remember and it’s better than its reputation. The 80s high style is hazy and unreal, the mood is listless and eroticised Euro-decadence and the minutes that Bowie spends, abandoned and alone, ageing rapidly in a hospital waiting room, is the most affecting screen performance he ever gave. The Hunger appeared in April 1983 – the mass-appeal commercial breakthrough of Let’s Dance came in exactly the same month. There is something sad and significant in that timing as well, in seeing a reclusive and nocturnal Bowie die onscreen while out in the bright world he was being reborn as a popular entertainer. It was a transitional time: the unhealthy Bowie was on the way out and a healthy replacement was on the way in. With his wide hat and his limo rides, the dying Bowie of The Hunger even looks like the Thin White Duke of the 70s. The use of Bauhaus at the start was so obviously clever (as the band in the new wave club, they play their Bowie-influenced song about a dead movie vampire while Bowie and Catherine Deneuve hunt for warm bodies) but I had forgotten that another key scene is scored to Iggy’s “Funtime”, which was a Bowie co-write (“Last night I was down in the lab / Talkin’ to Dracula and his crew”). 

September 17, 2015

At war

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015). A tense, dark and gripping contemporary war film that is reminiscent of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty – What is legal? What is illegal? What, in the end, does it matter? – set on, above and below the US-Mexican border where a shadowy group of law enforcers fights a vast and unwinnable war against brutal drug cartels. As in the Bigelow film, a woman (Emily Blunt) is our guide and troubled conscience in a morally confusing world. Blunt was too good, too serious for the risible Tom Cruise actioner The Edge of Tomorrow; here, she is powerful and sympathetic as FBI agent Kate Macer and both Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin are excellent as the most enigmatic and cynical of the unofficial war on drugs/black ops team. With the invaluable assistance of cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve turns Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay into a strongly visual story and amplifies a sense that this is just one small part of a much larger picture (it’s the flip side of Traffic). Following Incendies, Prisoners and Enemy, Villeneuve shows that he is becoming a master of generating and sustaining ambient fear, even if the material has not always been equal to the mood. A Blade Runner sequel is next.  

September 7, 2015

Lost Pope

We Have a Pope (Nanni Moretti, 2011). Everyone wanted something else: a farce, or a biting satire of organised religion, or the thoughtful exploration of a loss of faith that Moretti vaguely hints at in his film’s best moments, when the elected Pope gone AWOL (Michel Piccoli) takes a night bus through Rome or sits in on rehearsals of The Seagull, finally free of the burdens of being himself. His air of quiet disappointment and failure is the persistent tone. 

September 4, 2015

Guns and cars

The Rover (David Michod 2014). A heavily bearded Guy Pearce is easily the best thing about the second, less celebrated film from misanthropic Animal Kingdom writer-director David Michod; it is a physical, soulful, quiet performance as a man alone on desolate roads in South Australia 10 years after “the collapse”. Everyone will automatically expect the son of Mad Max, but Michod isn’t interested in that kind of fantasy (or, to be honest, excitement) – he prefers to show us a largely male, brutal world that is slowly breaking down and reverting to barbarism. It is another kind of animal kingdom, powerfully imagined and sustained, and the mood is melancholy throughout (Sad Max?). 

September 1, 2015

End of winter, first day of spring

Wes Craven, 1939-2015. With Drew Barrymore, talking knives during the making of Scream. Widely held to be the third of his three reinventions of American horror cinema, as though a career could be loosely mapped against the Vietnam 70s, the VHS franchise 80s and the post-modern 90s, it had the added side effect – good for him, maybe, but perhaps less so for us – of leading to remakes of his and Tobe Hooper’s original, almost unwatchably brutal 70s gore classics for a more flippant, less shockable age. But still, the first Scream would have to be in a Craven top five, with The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, the first Nightmare on Elm Street and the nearly too-conceptual-for-its-own-good New Nightmare. He was one of horror’s thinkers. 

August 28, 2015

50 years

“ … Miss Kelly has a particular and fabulous significance which is not limited to the screen but illuminates the suburbs and thus American life in general …” (Delmore Schwartz on To Catch a Thief, 1955). 

August 26, 2015

Unserious moonlight

Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen, 2014). As half-assed and underwritten as most recent Woody Allen, but in Colin Firth, Allen somehow found an actor who exactly matched his conception of the character, here a grumpy philosopher proving something to a much younger woman. So it is not without its charms and maybe we can almost admire the way Allen keeps producing this stuff, year after year, which varies from mediocre to terrible and returns again and again, gently but obsessively, to the same questions.

August 24, 2015

You want to be in a crowd

The New Zealand International Film Festival that just wrapped its fortnight in Christchurch seemed like the best one to play in the city in all the time I’ve been here, at least. Not so much for the quality of films, which is subjective, but for the undeniable buzz around the restored Isaac Theatre Royal as a venue and central meeting place. There is a way in which the festival must be a social event – not just done but seen to be done. You want to be in a crowded lobby with the others who are viewing your film. A top ten:

1 Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014). As a Friday evening film, this was the ideal antidote to a week of media bullshit (worms, cucumbers, Mike Hosking, Ashley Madison). This is a deep and nuanced film about performance, age and the dangerous and unstable appeal of youth, written by Assayas for star Juliette Binoche as a Persona-like piece. Kristen Stewart is marvellous in it too.

2 Cemetery of Splendour (Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, 2015). “The act of sleeping is an act of escape,” Weerasethakul has said, hinting at a political reading of his mesmerising film about, well, sleep. It seemed fitting that a man next to me slept through nearly all of it, as an act of sympathy.

3 Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2015). Call it psychedelic ethnography. There was a wizard in the audience and there was a shaman on the screen.

4 The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, 2014). The world’s first Ukrainian sign language feature is dark, strange and original work. I didn’t understand a word and I didn’t mind.

5 The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, 2015). Maddin at his most Maddin-ish: brilliant, excessive, singular, fiercely original and far too much. He and Johnson recreate a wealth of alternative, lost cinema worlds and histories that tunnel in and out of each other.

6 The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014). Oppenheimer’s simpler and less flamboyant companion (not sequel) to his sensational The Act of Killing puts more attention on the victims of the Indonesian coup of 1965. It is a film made in the long shadow of a still misunderstood atrocity, a film about historical amnesia and fading memory. To act (to perform) was central to the first film; to see clearly is central to the second. By the end, we finally feel that we do.

7 The Club (Pablo Larrain, 2015). The premise of Larrain’s black comic The Club suggests that the sitcom Father Ted could somehow become a harsh allegory about the Catholic Church’s cover up of abuses. Move the bad priests to a remote house by the sea, where no one can see them. A brutal, emotional film.

8 Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney, 2015). Just when you think that Gibney, adapting a book by journalist Lawrence Wright, has gone soft on Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard, he takes a very tough line on his successor David Miscavige and Miscavige’s celebrity enabler, Tom Cruise. Hubbard seems here to be a nutty, fondly-remembered eccentric while Miscavige seems more cunning and tyrannical, humourless and corporate, with his armies of lawyers and his pseudo-military uniforms. But given that Gibney was sceptical about Wikileaks in an earlier doco, it seems ironic that in the end it was the internet that really started to undermine Scientology’s control of its own image and information.

9 Ex Machina
(Alex Garland, 2015). This is sleek and efficient science-fiction, economically and even humorously told by a dour Garland. There are shades of Under the Skin or a pessimistic Her – with similar male anxieties. 

10 The Lobster (Yorgis Lanthimos, 2015). It starts brilliantly, with Roy Andersson-like surrealism and character-driven comedy, only to lose its way almost completely. Still, it’s worth it for the incredible first hour. But did I miss the lisping parrot?

August 14, 2015

Smoke and fog

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014). Earlier today, someone was talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger in the context of films from the 1970s. A few hours later, watching Inherent Vice, you remember: Schwarzenegger had that very small part in The Long Goodbye.

August 9, 2015

Separate reality

“A vampire film must somehow lapse into a separate reality otherwise you have not made a vampire film.” – Werner Herzog, on the commentary track of the Nosferatu DVD.

August 8, 2015

On the border

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958). Orson Welles is always restlessly acting; he is never not acting. And you can’t take your eyes off him. This has the same barrelling, excessive energy of Kane but it is an epitaph not for stumbling greatness but for corruption and squalor.