February 8, 2016

Begin again

Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015). To restart the human race, you need to turn a church into electricity. Filmed in our neck of the woods, which appears as an idyllic lost valley in an imaginary south at some unspecified time in the near future, Z for Zachariah, with its Christian-apocalyptic overtones, is wrenched out of the nuclear-fear 1970s to be recast as a gentle and symbolic fable about survival. At least one shot quotes a famous moment from Stalker, which is something you may not expect. Also a surprise: the typical urgency and terror of end-of-world stories is missing, replaced by a mysterious sense of benign purpose and direction. Craig Zobel also made Compliance whose lead character is not dissimilar to Margot Robbie’s serious, studious Ann here. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the last man. Chris Pine is the snake in the grass.

February 7, 2016

Shine a light

Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015). Tom McCarthy’s excellent, rigorous, intelligent journalism film prefers plain-speaking and an emphasis on the laborious and potentially boring details of newspaper investigations (phone calls, files, door knocks, editorial meetings) to espionage cliches, but there is one image that borders on the symbolic. It comes when Boston Globe reporter Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) discovers that an ordinary, unmarked suburban home in his neighbourhood is a therapeutic halfway house for paedophile priests – it says a lot about how big stories can hide in plain sight waiting for the right person to notice. The acting is unflashy but Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton’s character studies are nuanced; mostly Spotlight is a film about a process that trusts attentive and interested viewers to actually follow the process, unlike, say, The Big Short

February 6, 2016

Streets of Los Angeles

Straight Outta Compton (F Gary Gray, 2015). Music films usually start in bedrooms and garages and end in lawyers’ offices, but the arc in Straight Outta Compton is quicker and steeper than most: success came fast for NWA and so did the end, meaning that one film can take in the start, the glory days, the break-up and the possibility of a reunion without feeling rushed – events that usually take two decades are done in seven years. There is a sense of the self-flattering authorised version to this, with it acting as Dre and Ice Cube’s public reconciliation with the memory of Eazy E, who is the hot-headed Joe Pesci to their calmer De Niro and Liotta in what can seem at times like a hip-hop GoodFellas (it is a crime film as well as a music film, and not just the crimes committed by managers and record companies), but it has a contagious energy and claims that NWA were acting as reporters documenting life under police occupation in a racist culture are borne out. 

February 3, 2016

You can’t remember

Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945); Rectify (Ray McKinnon, 2013-present).   

February 2, 2016

The singer

Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015). Amidst the wreckage, best supporting performance by an actual (rare thing) human being: Tony Bennett. “Life teaches you how to live it.”  

January 24, 2016


Fantasia (multiple directors, 1940). Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966). Dark nights and bright mornings. 

January 23, 2016


Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015). What is happening with Domhnall Gleeson? He seems to age about five years between films, even though I’ve seen him in four these past six months (Ex Machina, Star Wars, The Revenant, Brooklyn). At this rate, he’ll be playing his dad in two years. He’s very good in Brooklyn, a tasteful, slightly cautious and reserved drama about independence and home adapted from a small but emotionally powerful novel by Colm Toibin. The star is Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, guided through her immigrant experience by benign mentors. It’s a sunny picture darkened only during a Christmas scene early in the film, when elderly Irish men in New York gather for a dinner that the church – here, only ever a benevolent institution – puts on.  These are the men that built the tunnels and bridges, here 50 years but still homesick. 

January 22, 2016

Cheats and prophets

The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015). How can we make this stuff interesting and clear? Any ideas? Adam McKay and Charles Rudolph try everything they can in adapting Michael Lewis’ account of the 2008 banking meltdown. Anthony Bourdain chopping fish in a kitchen gets it; Margot Robbie in a bubble bath gets it; Selena Gomez at a casino table gets it. Why make a documentary when you can make a doco-like comedy? How many different, inventive ways can we find for some of Hollywood’s better movie actors – Christian Bale as an Asperger’s-tinged prophet, Ryan Gosling as a smooth front man, Steve Carell as a furious cynic, Brad Pitt as a hyper-Redford; all outsiders and smarter than the system – to say “fuck you” to each other and everyone else? Bale is tremendous and it’s entertaining while it lasts but gimmicky too, and weirdly anticlimactic: financial Armageddon just sort of comes and goes.  

January 19, 2016

The kids were just crass

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (DA Pennebaker, 1973/2002). This is no Dont Look Back: an enigmatic Bowie reveals nothing in the backstage sequences, not even Dylan-style cryptic messages or put-ons. Angie seems more present than him. Or perhaps it was his nerves or his dedication keeping him quiet. The usual notion is that Ziggy was a character, but that isn’t the right way of putting it, nor is alter ego. Instead, Ziggy was the concept of a rock singer, a vague outline, the presentation of Bowie as the leader of a cult of teenage girls, an adult playing knowing, even manipulative songs about teenage frenzy to frenzied teenagers, flashing ass and thighs, but through the shameless, inspired and nearly obscene distancing device of Ziggy Stardust. The songs address the kids, they flatter them, exalt them, charm them, turn them on (“You’re wonderful! Give me your hand!” in the closing song). Ziggy is lascivious, smirking and ruthless, more confident and extroverted than the man himself; you can understand that the concept might have threatened to take Bowie over and that one of them had to go, as though Ziggy was a long psychotic break or manic episode. Or more realistically, that Bowie grew bored and restless, limited by these teenage boundaries. The final Ziggy show in July 1973 was the first of Bowie’s staged exits over four decades; there were other departures and other comebacks before the departure we all mistook for a comeback (Blackstar this month). The shooting of the concert is murky but energetic and catches the mania – is anyone in the audience older than half Bowie’s age? Of course they are but this version plays to the myth. And there are such brilliant songs, of course, played by a small, tight band led by the ferocious guitar of Mick Ronson. The take on “My Death” is here but there are other places to look for clues and continuity, which we are all doing now: when I saw him do his mime act of opening a wall and stepping through during the long hard rock work-out on “Width of a Circle”, I thought for a moment about these esoteric comments about other dimensions and even the image in the very last video, “Lazarus”, of Bowie stepping back, into the wardrobe, almost the same act in reverse, slipping in and out of worlds. 

January 18, 2016

The Tarkovsky connection

I mentioned Tarkovsky when talking about The Revenant the other day. Andrei Rublev would be the obvious one; that sense of a complete, raw, vanished world caught on film. As production designer Jack Fisk says here, Inarritu asked Fisk to watch Andrei Rublev – he’s talking in connection with the ruined church in the wilderness, but the influence is broader and deeper. 

January 16, 2016

Car windows

We talked three years ago, after watching Radio On and listening to the commentary, about car windows as movie screens. Maybe Alice in the Cities is the best example of that. 

January 15, 2016

Mountain of skulls

The Revenant (Alejandro G Inarritu, 2015). The trees, snow and mountains, the low angles, close-ups and wide shots: in The Revenant, Inarritu blends the spiritual cinematic visions of Malick and Tarkovsky – look out for a levitating woman as an obvious pointer – with the economic brutalism of frontier history to create a masterpiece that is both highly immersive and deeply artistic. Nature is a cathedral and the temporary works of man are a ruined church, a fort on the edge of the wilderness and, most notably, a mountain of buffalo skulls. Look beyond the western: in this intimate epic of struggle and revenge, Apocalypse Now and the Mad Max series seem like natural predecessors, and by building on and deepening the fluidity and ease of Birdman, Inarritu avoids the pretentiousness that threatened to sink the likes of Babel and 21 Grams. It is a film made of astonishing sequences – the Indian attack, the bear attack, every other attack – with nearly unidentifiable movie stars buried under frozen beards and layers of fur (not buried enough in Tom Hardy’s case, perhaps). Despite all the Oscar talk about Leonardo DiCaprio as mildly embellished historical figure Hugh Glass, actors seem almost secondary: surely the movie’s real star or hero is the gifted DOP, Cuaron and Malick collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki. 

January 12, 2016

Believing the strangest things

He made his death a work of art, said Tony Visconti, and none of us knew how he had planned it. We mistook his departure for a comeback. Apart from the generosity and the artistic control, I am impressed by the vulnerability, which is striking for an artist that private, who rarely slipped autobiographical details into his work, or overtly at least. David Bowie in the blue hospital waiting room above is a still from The Hunger, 1983. A fuller review is here, from last September. And the vulnerability of Bowie in those Hunger scenes seems to anticipate the final two videos, for Blackstar and Lazarus

“I found in Celliers all too many areas of guilt and shortcomings that are part of me. I feel tremendous guilt because I grew so apart from my family. I hardly ever see my mother and I have a step-brother I don’t see anymore. It was my fault we grew apart and it is painful – but somehow there’s no going back.”

January 11, 2016

We can forget it for you

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004). Rewatching this clever, funny, tender, complex masterpiece about love and forgetting after 10 years, this stands out: it all happens in a pre-social media age. No online profiles, no curated selves to wipe. Like Scientologists, you put your stories onto audio tapes and into manila folders, to be kept by others.  

January 10, 2016

Snow in Texas

Joy (David O Russell, 2015). Can every story be improved by the application of Russell’s patented screwball exuberance? No, not really. What cuts through the chaos: the movie-star charisma of Russell’s company of actors – De Niro, Cooper and especially Lawrence. 

December 30, 2015

Year in review

Fahrenheit 451 (Francois Truffaut, 1966). Hunted by the enemies of written language, and its production of individuality. Relationships to the (better) Blow-Up: a similar-looking male lead, a chic imported director, but this is stuck in a scrupulously modernist suburbia. 

December 23, 2015

More is more

Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams, 2015). The new Star Wars blurs the lines that would normally separate a reboot from a remake from a sequel, which makes it nearly as forward-looking as the George Lucas original was in 1977, despite its appearance of looking backwards. Lucas made the old new again; in a more narrow sense, so does Abrams in an ingeniously pitched film that is skilfully designed to disappoint no one. When it quotes the originals, it does so with a knowing wit, and when it coins fresh dialogue, it often joins us in commenting on the wonders we are seeing or the new chance we are getting (“It’s true. All of it.” “I can't believe we’re really doing this.” “Don’t stare ... at any of it.”) The story and visuals are clear and simple and the performances by the franchise’s newcomers – Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac – are powerful and compelling, which is pretty much the exact reverse of the prequels, where the images were cluttered and actors rarely seemed to be in the same galaxy as each other, let alone the same room (with the exception of Ian McDiarmid, who has never got enough credit). There is pastiche and then there is revising history: it’s hard not to imagine that Abrams and writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt are not only remaking the original, they are doing an even more audacious thing, which is to correct one of the prequels’ most notable flaws. What is Driver’s Kylo Ren but the petulant Anakin Skywalker done right? 

December 22, 2015

Watching Paul Dano

Paul Dano has been so superb at creeps that you sense come easily to him (12 Years a Slave, There Will Be Blood, Prisoners) that it was good this year to see him take that quality – hurt, which can manifest as something painful or dangerous or sullen – and do more with it, stretch it, in Sorrentino’s Youth and, especially, Bill Pohlad’s Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. Dano is tremendous in the Wilson film, as the genius drowning in the sounds he hears in his head, but the movie is mostly a straight film about going crazy, with a certain truth to prove. I thought of a different way in: take all the Dano scenes and separate them from the burnt-out John Cusack scenes, and run Inherent Vice in the middle; lead in and out of the join with Love & Mercy’s hallucinatory three Brians in one bedroom (2001: A Brian Wilson Odyssey). That Dano and Cusack don’t really look or seem alike would matter less and the weirdness would increase, with Paul Giamatti seeming like a grotesque who escaped from Inherent Vice: California bad dreaming. 

December 10, 2015

The 15 films of 2015

1 Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). This is what a comeback looks like. Not a cash-in, not nostalgia, not a lazy retread but something bigger, louder, faster and wilder. Everything madder than everything else. It felt like it had to happen.
2 Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014). In unexpected ways, this was almost a companion piece to Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth: it’s about performance, youth, glamour and the innate selfishness of artistic creation. It’s a nuanced, beautifully acted film.
3 Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2015). Sleep as escape, even as a political act. Deep and mesmerising.
4 Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2014). Why are all the great actors in capes? Birdman was a technical feat, a stunt that felt lighter than air, an inside joke about acting and insecurity and Hollywood vs theatre, with almost too many self-aware layers to penetrate.
5 Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2015). Call this psychedelic ethnography – there was a wizard in the audience and there was a shaman on screen. This Colombian revelation steered me towards Ciro Guerra’s earlier film The Wind Journeys, which is also highly recommended.
6 Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015). It was divisive and often unloved, but this ambitious Paolo Sorrentino statement (or is that “testament”?) floored me. Michael Caine, in his frailty, has seldom been better.
7 The Tribe (Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, 2014). Factions and dark uprisings in a Ukrainian school for the deaf, told in sign language without subtitles – no, I didn’t understand a word but I got it.
8 The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, 2015). Brilliant, excessive, too much: Guy Maddin is good in small doses and this was a big, big dose.
9 The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014). Joshua Oppenheimer’s harrowing Indonesian atrocity documentaries reveal a world in which evil has not just gone unpunished – no one has even called it evil. The effect is nauseating: you watch in disbelief as morality is turned upside down.
10 Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014). I preferred this to Bennett Miller’s more celebrated and more pretentious Capote. Maybe this is Capote’s gloomier, colder, quieter brother: no one comes out of this story as a success. 
11 Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015). A war film without a war, set on the porous drug-gang borders between Mexico and the United States. Denis Villeneuve generates ambient fear in the sky, on the ground, in tunnels and on dark, lonely roads that could be on either side.
12 Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney, 2015). In a perfect world, this Scientology expose, with David Miscavige as the tyrannical lord of time and space and Tom Cruise as his celebrity enabler and sidekick, will get the documentary Oscar next year. That would be like a bomb going off in Hollywood.
13 The Salt of the Earth (Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders, 2014). Profundity came easily or flowed naturally in this sensational, moving documentary about photographer Sebastiao Salgado that tracked, over the course of one life, discovery, disillusionment and then that rare thing, hope.
14 Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015). Sleek, efficient and often funny science-fiction about female robots and male anxiety. It also contained the year’s least expected dance sequence.
15 Mr Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014). A portrait of the great artist as a grunting genius.

Worst film of 2015: Terminator Genisys. In a year of successful reboots (Mad Max, Star Wars, the disposable Jurassic World) this one was an absolute franchise-killer. It won’t be back, surely.

Disappointments: Blackhat, Inherent Vice, The Wolfpack

Acting: Michael Caine in Youth, Michael Keaton in Birdman, Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, Tom Courtenay in 45 Years, Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria, Timothy Spall in Mr Turner

Films about writers: Should we have felt touched and even inspired by the mostly agreeable and cuddly version of David Foster Wallace that The End of the Tour gave us? Perhaps. But the less heralded, cynical Listen Up Philip was just as true in its portrait of a “notable” writer as a total fucking asshole. Not inspiring at all, but refreshing.

For kids: Inside Out.

Documentaries (recent New Zealand history edition): in The Price of Peace, The Art of Recovery and The Women of Pike River, three of the most traumatic events of the past decade were explained and contextualised in ways that even long-form journalism seldom allows.

Documentaries (the dark side of Hollywood edition): Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Listen to Me Marlon