December 29, 2013
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013). All of the Scorsese exuberance and volatility, without the dark underside of guilt and violence, like a cocaine frat house GoodFellas with Jonah Hill as Joe Pesci. Hedonism is its own reward. This is also the fullest realisation of the evolving Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio partnership – could any other American actor carry this blend of comedy and wild thriller as DiCaprio does across three hours, while both trusted and distrusted by audiences? Scorsese’s most enjoyable film since … well, GoodFellas. Easily his funniest.
December 27, 2013
December 26, 2013
December 18, 2013
I kept forgetting that I wasn’t watching an experimental treatment of the inner life of Nigella Lawson
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (Matthew Akers, 2012).
Rest Energy, recorded in 1980 at Filmstudio Amsterdam, is also part of the That Self series and engages with the first acceptance of performance, when understood as a body test that can lead to endangering life. Ulay and Abramovic drew a large bow and arrow, each holding one side. The arrowhead was pointing at Abramovic's heart, creating a dense tension. Microphones on their clothes picked up their quickening heartbeats and irregular breathing. After four minutes, they dropped the bow. (from here).
December 17, 2013
TEN FILMS, 2013
Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Read My Lips (Jacques Audiard, 2001)
December 16, 2013
Mt Zion (Tearepa Kahi, 2013). There is a sequence near the end of Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Marley that shows how the idea and image of Bob Marley has travelled the world – especially the developing world – as a redemptive figure, equal parts Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela, only with music (and marijuana). That was the story in New Zealand, where there has also been the happy coincidence that Waitangi Day is Marley’s birthday. Tearepa Kahi’s amiable, mostly routine first film, Mt Zion, touches on some of this but never deeply – Kahi appears to have worked backwards after locating footage of Marley receiving a marae welcome in Auckland in 1979, writing an against-the-odds showbiz story that builds towards that indelible moment. Australian Idol winner Stan Walker is Pukekohe potato picker Turei who dreams of winning his band a spot opening for Marley at Western Springs but movie obstacles are in his way. No surprise that Walker is a better singer than actor but Temuera Morrison has an appealingly weary quality as Turei’s father and original Golden Harvest guitar hero Kevin Kaukau is here as his sub-Hendrix self. While never quite nostalgic, Mt Zion has a fairly convincing sense of time and place but for one thing: it’s not the late 70s if no one but the bad guy smokes.
December 15, 2013
December 10, 2013
December 7, 2013
November 30, 2013
Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, 2013). As allegory it’s obvious: 140 years in the future, the borders between Mexico and the United States or North Africa and Italy are now between Earth and a space station. Earth is a refugee camp or endless, brown-skied shantytown, filmed on the outskirts of Mexico City. The space station Elysium is a gated community in the sky. An earlier idea – with Eminem in the Matt Damon part, filmed in Detroit – would have been less generic at least. District 9’s satirical humour has evaporated; instead, Blomkamp gives you 10 or so minutes of thoughtful scene-setting and more than an hour of dull action. As Elysium’s overlord, Jodie Foster is being Helen Mirren. Also, is there a thesis to be written about the recurrence of the Hispanic solo mother as an unquestionably good character?
November 24, 2013
Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, 2012): There are ways in which the eerie, slow, powerful Beyond the Hills seems to be more than just a reflection of Mungiu’s 4 Weeks, 3 Months and 2 Days – it is almost a continuation of it. That earlier film was set in the closing days of communism; now we are in the world beyond. There are similar predicaments, worlds that seem transient or broken-down, and ineffectual authority. Mungiu’s source is a true story of an exorcism that went wrong in a Romanian monastery but the film is not entirely dismissive of the world of faith/the world of superstition: it recognises its consolations and the shape it offers lives. (Other meanings suggest themselves: Cristina Flutur’s resemblance to Amanda Knox.)
November 21, 2013
“We went to the film of The Grapes of Wrath. The faces of the three men talking by night, at the beginning, were now El Greco, now Brueghel, faces distorted by horror & by being isolated by the camera. The very poor everywhere, maybe, that is to say in ‘civilised’ countries, pass their lives in slave state or police state conditions. One can sense in American cities the lawlessness & brutality that Steinbeck exposes here; & during the terrible scenes of the camps in California I kept thinking that that is what Nazi rule would be like. That is what now all Europe has come to.
“I shan’t forget the scenes & faces of this film.”
November 16, 2013
November 14, 2013
Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young): “We could go to another city.”
Thorn (Charlton Heston): “What for? They’re all like this.”
November 11, 2013
November 9, 2013
Carlos the Jackal (Olivier Assayas, 2010). Not just the epic scale and the rise and fall narrative (attention to the hero’s physique, his bloat), but the man as a victim of his own impetuousness, even vulnerability. His terrorist outfit – beret, dark glasses, leather jacket – is a costume, a Che mask.
November 6, 2013
November 5, 2013
As I mourned by the sea, two images came to mind, watermarking the paper-colored sky. The first was the face of his wife, Laurie. She was his mirror; in her eyes you can see his kindness, sincerity, and empathy. The second was the “great big clipper ship” that he longed to board, from the lyrics of his masterpiece, “Heroin.” I envisioned it waiting for him beneath the constellation formed by the souls of the poets he so wished to join. Before I slept, I searched for the significance of the date — October 27th — and found it to be the birthday of both Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath. Lou had chosen the perfect day to set sail — the day of poets, on Sunday morning, the world behind him.
Title of this post from an earlier Patti Smith post.
November 4, 2013
“Any other departures owe more to differences of genre and where the spell is laid. In film, the magic tends to be woven on the surface. The viewer is treated to another’s dream. In literature, the reader does the dreaming. And that, for me, remains the greatest act of magic of all.” (Jones piece here; my review here).
November 1, 2013
NO (Pablo Larrain, 2012). Larrain’s entertaining end-of-Pinochet drama is an 80s-set film that evokes the age – shot on period video, its bright glare and shaky register suggest a VHS tape unearthed from the back of the cupboard. In Chile in 1988, advertising successfully did the work of politics, even if it was never quite this simple – and the skateboarding advertising hotshot (Gael Garcia Bernal) is no less cynical at the end than he was at the beginning (in his next campaign, a soap plot is shot like news). As for Pinochet himself, he only appears in historical footage as if it is still not safe to impersonate him. A smart film, and not just for students of political marketing.
October 29, 2013
October 28, 2013
October 27, 2013
Dont Look Back (DA Pennebaker, 1967)
Eat the Document (DA Pennebaker, 1972)
8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957)
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)
Masculin Feminin (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)
Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, 1941)
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Martin Scorsese, 2005)
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)
Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970)
Petulia (Richard Lester, 1968)
Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991)
Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)
Serpico (Sidney Lumet, 1973)
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes, 1987)
Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998)
The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)
October 26, 2013
Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999). There are dying fathers who betrayed their families, paying with cancer. There are selfless caregivers, estranged adult children, child geniuses – one former and one present – there is endless emotional pain and there is unpredictable, expressive weather. Some characters are better conceived than others, and initially you wonder whether Anderson – just 28 when he made this – had more ambition and skill at this point than experience, and whether this shows, and whether the acting is too obviously acting, but there is an alert wisdom and sensitivity than wins you over. You also wonder how personal this is, what parts of which characters are parts of Anderson, in these tense relationship dynamics (see also: The Master, There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights).
October 23, 2013
October 20, 2013
October 19, 2013
October 18, 2013
A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006). “Seven years from now. Anaheim, California.” That makes this 2013. The moment that always gets me is Philip K Dick’s roll call of “a list of people punished entirely too much for what they did”. Death, brain damage, psychosis and so on. His drug buddies. He put himself on that list, reprinted verbatim from the book.
“The entire project happened in the post-9/11 environment and it was pretty clear that the writing was on the wall, the way that government uses a tragedy like that to really clamp down on its own population. Once you’re at war, you can get away with anything.”
Dick wrote A Scanner Darkly in 1977, long before there was any official war on drugs, let alone a war on terror, but “he saw the darker underpinnings of all corporate and government power”.It starts in hallucinated bug paranoia – Dazed and Confused stoner Rory Cochrane scratching under his skin – and ends in drug-damaged burn-out. Will you ever be able to see clearly again? The undercover agent’s “scramble suit” becomes an image of wider distrust and uncertain or blurred selves, just as the animation onto digital video throws a veil over reality that is impossible to penetrate (an advanced version of the much looser, psychedelic animation in the more hopeful Waking Life). The main settings are institutional interiors and the permanent half-light of a drug house. And despite it being both 1977 and 2013, it really has been 2006 all along: the people with contracts to clean up after the war are the same people who profited from starting it.
October 16, 2013
Mr Pip (Andrew Adamson, 2012). Great acting, terrific locations, lovely shooting (thanks John Toon), interesting themes (and you Lloyd Jones) – it’s hard to recognise the film that so underwhelmed them in Toronto a year ago (see here and here) before it was apparently tightened up and made clearer. As in the Jones novel, Dickens’ Great Expectations is a totem but there’s more to it than simply the civilising value of education contrasted with a barbaric civil war or one girl’s personal development. This is also about whether the western novel can co-exist with other systems of knowledge, Christian and pre-Christian: note that Mr Watts’ first act as a teacher of local children and the last white man in the wild is to wipe a prayer from the blackboard but he goes on to join the village’s most visible and committed Christian in making a sacrifice that changes the story. It may be fair to say that the war is underplayed or less seen than heard (machete sound effects) but the most risky idea – Melanesian actors in Victorian costumes re-enacting Great Expectations in (among other places) a tropical Oamaru – comes off, believe it or not. You can pack nearly all of your post-colonial themes into that one bold image. The great acting we mentioned is by Hugh Laurie and teenage newcomer Xzannjah, largely. Also, in a movie that wants you to read, did you notice the Lloyd Jones product placement? (A copy of Choo Woo in a Queensland school library).
October 15, 2013
October 14, 2013
6. The Exorcist
7. Radio On
9. Fata Morgana
10. The Godfather
October 9, 2013
Chopper (Andrew Dominik, 2000): Comedian Eric Bana plays the man dubbed (possibly by himself) “Australia’s most infamous living criminal” as a charismatic psychopath. The entertaining violence is like a dare, performed for our benefit: making a name for himself in Melbourne’s Pentridge prison, Mark “Chopper” Read kills another inmate, is betrayed and stabbed by a friend and stoically removes his own ear to get a transfer. Upon release, he assaults his girlfriend, shoots a drug dealer, kills another man and goes back inside. So it goes. By 2000, he had spent exactly half of his 46 years in prison and claims to have killed 19 people (an exaggeration, apparently). He had also published nine bestsellers with titles like How to Shoot Friends and Influence People and No Tears for a Tough Guy. So he’s a lovable rogue and he’s a psycho and a bullshit artist and there is something peculiarly Australian about the combination. He is the architect and main consumer of his own legend. (edited from original review published in 2000)
October 8, 2013
October 5, 2013
October 4, 2013
Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, 2013). This two-person space drama is vast, intimate, gripping and terrifying. And that was only in 2D. Planet Earth is blue, gold and black. The production design and effects execution is magnificent and the suspense is such that you hold your breath. You already knew that George Clooney is the man you want around in a crisis, even if you get Toy Story flashbacks (it also has two Barbarella moments and a compressed theory of evolution).
October 3, 2013
October 1, 2013
September 22, 2013
September 16, 2013
Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012). Viewed on flawless, digital Blu-ray, this is a tribute to analog imperfection. In the early 70s, introverted British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) travels to Italy to work on a horror picture (technically, a giallo). We see the Italian film’s lurid, black-and-red credits – an excellent simulation of 70s occult-themed Euro-horror – but we have to imagine the rest of the action from Gilderoy’s repetitive work in the recording studio. Actresses scream and scream, watermelons are smashed and stabbed (it sounds like dismemberment) and, in an anachronism given the medieval storyline, the sound of a chainsaw is made by a food processor. The dour spirit of Peter Strickland’s mostly mysterious second film is that of the reserved Englishman abroad, constantly paranoid and intimidated – a mood somewhere between Kafka and Barton Fink. His frustration risks becoming our own as a promise or threat of actual horror is never entirely fulfilled, but we can luxuriate in the carefully reproduced retro-fetishist detail of the era’s typed labels, tapes and film. As in Persona, breakdown or body-swap is signalled by film burning in a projector. All is artifice, including personality. But it needed to be weirder.
September 15, 2013
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001). “I fell in love with the actress / she was playing a part I could not understand.” From my capsule review sometime in the past decade: Lynch’s theme is the use and abuse of young women in Hollywood. As in several of his other films, Lynch reveals that the strings of the visible world are pulled by a hidden cadre of evil men who seem to have supernatural powers – part-Mafia clan, part-occult lodge, these shadowy figures giving enigmatic instructions in secret rooms date back to Twin Peaks, at least. Other abiding Lynch concerns recur: doubles and ventriloquism, the inexplicable sadness of popular songs, odd scenes in coffee bars … On the fourth viewing, possibly the fifth: the red herrings and loose threads from the abandoned TV pilot are more glaring and seem impossible to absorb into any straight-forward dream/realism reading or decoding, and you notice that the break between the Betsy section and the Diane section now seems to mirror the split between the goofy comedy of the Twin Peaks series and the deeper horror of Fire Walk With Me.
September 11, 2013
September 8, 2013
September 6, 2013
The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2012). Introducing the soulful thug. Every improbable moment grows out of the gap between who he is (who he thinks he is) and what he does.
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012). New wave worn on sleeve, sure, but Gerwig isn’t the Karina to Baumbach’s Godard – clumsy analogy aside – because, in the end, it feels like her film, not his. One other thing: the entire Sacramento sequence (her parents as her parents) is masterful and concise in ways that the rest of the film isn’t, quite.
Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013). Do the sickly green walls give you Vertigo flashbacks? For Hitchcock, green was the colour of ghosts, based on old theatre conventions.
September 4, 2013
September 3, 2013
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Domink, 2007). Second time. Still the mythic deconstruction, like a film that’s all endings, and the sombre realist detail. Notice how the narrator switches perspectives and is close to both men ahead of their deaths. Casey Affleck is still uncanny as the assassin or coward: naïve, vulnerable, raw, brazen, resentful, unstable, his emotions largely unreadable, and his acting without any appearance of obvious strain.
August 31, 2013
August 28, 2013
August 23, 2013
August 22, 2013
August 21, 2013
So, in that vein, the moment when two old guys make a toast in Coffee and Cigarettes is key. “Here’s to Paris in the 20s,” says one. “New York in the 70s,” adds the other. That’s where Jarmusch came in.This bit from 2004 seems prescient, too, if you think of the planet made of diamond that generates a gong-like sound, which is a kind of sublime or ideal image in Only Lovers Left Alive:
Iggy’s music is in the background of a short that features Jack and Meg White of the White Stripes. Jack is telling Meg about the sound experiments of Nikolai Tesla. “He conceived the earth as a conductor for acoustical resonance,” Jack says. Pay attention, because this idea – the planet’s secret music – will come up again later.
August 19, 2013
Notes from the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival, Christchurch division. It ran from August 1 to 18. There isn’t a dud on this list, but two came close. This is everything I saw. It was a good couple of weeks — thanks Film Festival and thanks Hoyts (Northlands over Riccarton every time, despite the bigger screen at the latter being ideal for the Hitchcocks). Isaac Theatre Royal next year?
The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012). Offering the surreal queasiness of an atrocity documentary in which no one has been formally judged or punished, this runs like a version of Shoah set in a moral void. The 159-minute director’s cut might be too much but also, as Oppenheimer has said of Shoah, just the tip of the iceberg.
Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013). Michael Douglas and Matt Damon bring great dignity and affectionate humour to an unreliable (but does it matter?) account of gothic showbiz at its most secretive and sordid.
The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013). Such careless people. Run this smart, pleasurable LA film in a double bill with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby: “We had so many beautiful, gorgeous things …”
Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont, 2013). Human pain and religious doubt are registered with a greater calm than we expect from Bruno Dumont. Meaning that this is the closest he has come to the spirit or tradition of Bresson. Of course it helps that the film contains exquisite acting from Juliette Binoche (pain, doubt, calm).
Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954). Whose key is it, anyway? Hitchcock’s only 3D film is less about shock effects than putting you in the front row of a stage play, or sometimes right in the middle. Despite the dense murder plot, the dominant emotion is the anguish of Grace Kelly’s adulteress, lit up by lurid red lights in the courtroom scene and saturating everything else. Hiding in plain sight in a framed group photo, the director sees all.
Dirty Wars (Richard Rowley, 2013). A highly personalised documentary in which Nation reporter Jeremy Scahill’s quest for information about US secret wars becomes a type of lament, mournfully scored by the Kronos Quartet and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. War without end.
The Human Scale (Andreas Dalsgaard, 2013). The modern city as a dire warning and, just occasionally, a utopian opportunity. Co-starring Christchurch, which is not quite either of these things.
North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959). A comic nightmare of mistaken identity and a chase through a succession of stylish 1950s interiors – offices, hotels, homes, trains and taxis, train stations – interrupted by perhaps the greatest exterior suspense sequence ever filmed.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013). Sometimes it seems like the closing night film is intended to match or rhyme with the opening night film. So it was this year: could Jarmusch’s sweet-natured vampire muso romance with dashes of deadpan comedy be a hipster version of Behind the Candelabra? After a series of films with lonesome protagonists, this is also a reminder that the best Jarmusch films are buddy movies (Dead Man, Stranger Than Paradise, Coffee and Cigarettes). Weirdly poetic too: among other things, Jarmusch gives us beautiful tours of empty Detroit by night.
The Past (Asghar Farhadi, 2013). The new Ashgar Farhadi (A Separation) film is a relationship drama with a mystery at its core and so perfectly acted that despite the shape of the story, there was only one line I questioned.
The Pervert's Guide to Ideology (Sophie Fiennes, 2013). A crash course in Slavoj Zizek’s thought at its most provocative, paradoxical and entertaining, or a curated guide to dreams and ideology in cinema, from Triumph of the Will to Titanic. Also includes the funniest post-credits moment in the festival.
Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, 2012). Personal and experimental, sure, but also generous and open – people say Tarkovsky was an influence (Mirror, anyway) but I was thinking Weerasethakul. I could have watched it for hours.
Sheen of Gold (Simon Ogston, 2013). It’s not until late in the piece that Flying Nun Records founder Roger Shepherd uses the word “outsiders” to describe Skeptics. Outsiders and also boffins. While a little too much is made of the unlikelihood of this truly great and still-remembered band coming from Palmerston North, there is a way in which it was important that they incubated away from the main currents of New Zealand music, running their own venue (a detail not covered in this film), building their own studio and painstakingly creating their own sound. That brand of fearless individualism and originality is the positive side of the Skeptics story, forever overshadowed by the sad side: the death from leukaemia, at just 26, of singer David D’ath and the immediate end of the band. Maybe every former fan will find his or her own themes in Ogston’s film. For me: youth viewed from middle age, the unexpected emotional content of music and how it plays in your memory, wordlessness and words as just sound, and whether the past should stay in the past. D’ath remains a mystery. Maybe that’s how it should be.
Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 2013). A gay sex beach in France is the entire world in Alain Guiraudie’s minimalist and surprising thriller.
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick, 2012). Still experimenting with cinema’s conventions so that they can express individual perspective and spiritual yearning, which is more typically the work of novels. But let down a little this time by the actors. The central two, anyway. More bison, less Ben.
Utu Redux (Geoff Murphy, 1983/2013). No one ever accused Geoff Murphy of being highbrow. Macho, energetic, unsubtle and mostly entertaining, Utu remade early New Zealand history in the rambunctious style of a 70s western. Everyone looked like they were having fun. Where did that go?
Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013). Primer defeated me but the second film by the over-talented Shane Carruth (he acts, directs, writes, scores, shoots and even distributes) is admirably poetic and occasionally beautiful science fiction that won’t leave you entirely frustrated.