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.

August 2, 2015

Philosophy blues

Irrational Man (Woody Allen, 2015). As underplayed and casually assembled as most recent Woody Allen, with unusually lacklustre acting by Joaquin Phoenix as the drunken, dark, seductive philosophy professor suffering the existential blues (does the world need another book on Heidegger and the Nazis, he sighs), this at least hits a couple of familiar points for long-term Allen watchers: what is the role of chance? And what is the perfect murder? The thing only really comes alive, oddly enough, when Phoenix’s Abe Lucas wrestles with the second question. 

August 1, 2015

Citizen Kane and journalism

Citizen Kane was an entirely predictable and completely necessary choice in a list of 10 greatfilms about journalism that I posted a little while ago, but the short summary was a little shallow: Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane as an ink-stained monster from the golden age of newspapers, waging wars, settling grudges and scoring political points through his mastheads, much like an early 20th century Rupert Murdoch. Of course, the film is entertaining on the shameless lies, agendas and inventions of yellow journalism and “dirty politics” (as in the front page pictured above, in which a rival paper finds a way to attack Kane’s political campaign, and famous lines like “You write the prose poems, I’ll provide the war”, straight out of the Hearst back catalogue), but there is much more to its struggle with journalism. I watched it a couple of times this week, after not seeing it for more than 15 years, once with Peter Bogdanovich’s commentary and once without, and became more aware of the obvious: it’s framed as journalism about journalism. The almost faceless reporter Thompson is sent to find the missing detail in a newsreel obituary: what did “rosebud”, Kane’s last word, mean? The film is unusually literary, for its time and for now, and the bulk of it is presented as his interviews with people who knew Kane, unspooling as long flashbacks; we only see Kane “objectively” in the opening moments, before the newsreel comes on.   
Of course, Thompson never finds out what rosebud means, but we do. There is a secret complicity between film-makers and audience, who are in possession of information that is not shared with any living character on screen. It’s easy to forget that no one within the film’s present ever knows why rosebud is significant. In that sense, the journalist has failed – his investigation has turned up nothing and it is likely that no one will ever be any the wiser about what made Kane tick. But does that matter? Welles went on to dismiss the idea of rosebud as cheap Freudianism and Bogdanovich explains that Welles introduced the dialogue preceding the revelation, about no word ever being able to explain one man, for that very reason (similarly, at the end of
Touch of Evil: “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?”). Welles seems to have believed there was no great secret, there was no one great truth to be found out about anybody – the film opens and closes with “no trespassing” signs – but audiences have disagreed and the idea that one word, deeply connected to childhood memory and loss, can unlock everything has become almost metaphysical. People want to believe in the explanation and see it as tragic that the evidence is destroyed.

July 27, 2015

Going undercover

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014). Magnificent and sensitive work from Benedict Cumberbatch, playing code-breaking mathematician Alan Turing as though he had Asperger’s Syndrome, suggesting that the human social code is tougher to crack and that much more cruelly enforced, and casting an ambivalent light on the title. Everything else is the routine simplifications, convenient fictions and prestigious production values of the historic biopic. The impersonation game. 

July 20, 2015

Passed upon the stair

Cobain: Montage of Heck (Brett Morgen, 2015). It’s a pity Nick Broomfield used Kurt and Courtney as the title of his notorious conspiracy doco because it would have been a perfect fit for this mess, which is voyeuristic when it shows us its big prize, Cobain and Love’s junkie home movies, with the obnoxious Love already acting for posterity, always conscious of her legendary status, and merely exploitative when it shows us touching Super 8 footage and drawings from Cobain’s childhood, presumably stored for all those years by the family who didn’t want to know him when he was a teenager. Music comes a distant third, which is a problem because it was only within music that Cobain’s sense of humour and subversiveness were really on show (we’ve seen and heard enough of the Sid-and-Nancy doom stuff to last any number of lifetimes, and the punk rock notebook doodles and animations add little). Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic talks far too briefly and, amazingly, Brett Morgen passed on including Dave Grohl. Buzz Osbourne has already talked about what he sees as the errors (“Cobain was a master of jerking your chain,” he says here) and other important contemporaries, such as Dylan Carlson, are missing. We’re at the 20-years-on phase of the myth-and-afterlife now, almost exactly the same point in the cycle that the Doors were at when Oliver Stone made his Jim Morrison movie. And that’s a sobering thought. 

July 18, 2015

Hippies, whales, epiphanies

On the Greenpeace documentary, How to Change the World, directed by Jerry Rothwell. Pictured: Walrus Oakenbough. 

July 17, 2015

Dreamed streets

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956). Empty, dreamed streets in London. Vertigo’s green light (it meant death) seen on the porch of a hotel in Marrakech. Dream scene: a small group watches you as you make an important telephone call. Doubles, mistaken identity, repeats. The ghoulish assassin with a mummified face. The sense that being abroad could easily slip into some kind of terror.  

June 26, 2015

Summer in the city

King Kong (John Guillermin, 1976). How strange that Peter Jackson’s version should be the most childish and innocent of the three Kongs. His is a world of oversized cartoon monsters. The 1930s original still has its crude nightmare-ish quality. The unfairly slammed second version is all bright 70s American excess: oil money and greed, the newly built World Trade Center as the obvious summit and an almost constantly ecstatic Jessica Lange as the prey. It’s superbly lurid, unpretentiously directed and never not entertaining. 

June 23, 2015

Moustache as weapon, symbol

Marshland (Alberto Rodriguez, 2014). Not a True Detective imitator, but made in parallel, stripped of occult complexity and carrying instead some dour weight about the years after Franco, but never quite as interested as you hope it might be in the actual details of its sordid crimes.  

June 13, 2015

New meat

An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981). The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981). Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982). Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980). A short-lived but intense cultural moment if you were 13 or 14 until – this is a guess but also entirely plausible – the John Landis-directed clip for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” ruined it. Slasher movies, with little of the comedy and sexual vulnerability of metamorphosis horrors, were no real substitute. 

June 8, 2015

Shake appeal

Watching San Andreas as a quake survivor, online here

June 4, 2015

For a few years he thought he was God and a number of people agreed him

The Source Family (Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos, 2012). The fascinating story of Father Yod and the 1970s hippie health food cult that took care to document every move. A dream subject for any archivist, but what about the apostates? 

June 1, 2015

How to be a reporter

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940). There was a social media uproar when I recently posted a list of the 10 “best” journalism films that did not include His Girl Friday. In my defence: the list was drawn up with journalism students in mind, so I thought it should lean towards the dramatisation of important historical moments and big stories as potential learning experiences (the major exception was the berserk but prescient satire of Network) rather than fun comedies and dramas that happen to be about the world of newspaper reporting. But while I still would not have it in my top 10, I can see why His Girl Friday has so many fans. This smart rewrite of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page as a romantic comedy has the fastest dialogue in the west, its implausible-but-who-cares? comic action is spread across several hours as two real-world deadlines approach – a remarriage and an execution – and in Cary Grant’s editor Walter Burns and Rosalind Russell’s reporter Hildy Johnson, there is a timeless vision of how journalists still like to see themselves and their profession: flawed, disreputable, fascinating, never bored or boring, untrustworthy but ultimately on the side of good. Probably useful for students, all that.