January 27, 2014

That 70s sleazebag

Lovelace (Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein, 2013). There was Deep Throat (1972), a cheap and ugly film that made millions for someone, then there was the moronically celebratory doco Inside Deep Throat (2005) and now a biopic of its doomed star? It’s hard to argue that it is all worth this much attention 40 years on, but at least Lovelace takes a sceptical view. In Howl (2010), documentarians turned feature directors Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein championed the (not) “obscene” Ginsberg poem as an important expression of artistic freedom; the Linda Lovelace story is the grim reverse, in which pornography’s 70s claims for liberation and personal freedom are shown to have been a cover for spousal abuse, exploitation and prostitution. But the real story of Linda Boreman/Lovelace (a meek Amanda Seyfried) and her sleazoid husband Chuck Traynor (wolf-moustached Peter Sarsgaard) was more brutal, ambivalent and much creepier than this straight-forward and sanitised account adapted from Lovelace’s post-trauma memoir, Ordeal. Everyone was on the make, including – even especially – Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, pitifully impersonated by Howl star James Franco. The mood of 70s excess is largely absent and the barely passable historical re-enactments that were just one aspect of Friedman and Epstein’s more complex Howl are now the entire thing.

January 26, 2014

That 70s costume

American Hustle (David O Russell, 2013). Over three films, David O Russell has formed a company of ambitious actors: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence. All four are acting within an inch of their lives in American Hustle, drawing near-absurd character-based black comedy out of what could easily have been obvious Scorsese-isms (the music choices, editing, voice over). The art direction suggests that 1970s American magazine spreads have come to life and the hair stylists have had a field day. Could we rename it "I Heart the 70s"? "No more fake shit" is the ironic chant in a disco bathroom at one typically excessive high-point. Ironic as it's all gloriously, almost ridiculously artificial (everyone seems to be at least two people at once and nearly always in disguise). This is easily Russell's most pleasurable movie.

January 25, 2014


Top of my list, anyway. Despite the horrific subject, exuberance more than dread. That it was filmed so locally (actual sites) helped. As for overarching New Zealand film history, I was never a fan of the macho first/new wave.

January 23, 2014


The Way (Emilio Estevez, 2010). His father’s son (not his brother’s keeper). Estevez imagines his dead self, his tranquil ghost, and pictures his own father suffering and walking towards understanding. Still, it feels free of ego. 

January 22, 2014


Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013). Apart from anything else, the almost old-fashioned pleasure of some beautiful black-and-white (shot by Phedon Papamichael) in a nearly empty cinema. Those empty main streets on the shining screen could be from The Last Picture Show. The black-and-white adds layers of gravity or even nostalgia while Alexander Payne depends less on comedy here than he did in Sideways, The Descendants and About Schmidt. Schmidt is easily the Payne film that Nebraska most resembles ­– not just in its characters and the restorative-road-movie outline but in its deep regionalism and sense of a Midwestern past. Look for what registers in the glassy eyes and gaunt face of Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant – what is it that startles him about the sight of a train, early on, as he and his son David (Will Forte) set off for Nebraska?

January 20, 2014


Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, 1970). A loose relationship to the previous entry: the Stones in America in 1969 was the first modern rock tour, with a live album and a documentary lined up as physical evidence or audience maximisation. As documentary realism, Gimme Shelter’s Altamont footage is unbeatably immersive and still terrifying (see gurning bad-tripper above), which is one reason it lasts – whether or not you think it’s the “end of an era”. Actually, maybe it was the start of one.

January 19, 2014

I watched Katy Perry’s tour doc …

Katy Perry: Part of Me (Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz, 2012). And I liked it. New to me: the historical fact that the confessions of Alanis were a liberating force for a Christian teenager who thought you weren’t allowed to write songs about anything but God; the idea that a male pop star wouldn’t expose a failed relationship to scrutiny in the same way Perry does here, meaning that he probably wouldn’t be expected to (she does all the relationship work). Even in a pre-fame setting, the star is both more interesting and squarer than you might expect. Not noted: that the lyrics of “Firework” were inspired by On the Road – the bit about “the mad ones”. Really. But Part of Me tells us that unlike, say, Gaga, she actually isn’t one. The music always runs like clockwork (it’s obvious we belong on tour).

January 17, 2014


After the Waterfall (Simone Horrocks, 2010). Antony Starr is very good as the bruised dad turned mute and hopeless by the disappearance of his four-year-old daughter in the Waitakeres (his turf – he’s a park ranger). Adapting British writer Stephen Blanchard’s novel The Parrafin Child for a local setting, Simone Horrocks negotiates a Kiwi male language of emotional reticence so stunted it barely qualifies as communication – first scene: a barbecue; final line of dialogue: “Good on you, son” – and you could theorise about whether this is Smash Palace a generation on. Sombre barely covers it. 

January 11, 2014

Unsettled camera

Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, 2o02) and Faust (Alexander Sokurov, 2011). Unsettled camera, half-dreamt haze, supernatural guide.

January 10, 2014

Top tens

I’ve been reading Alexander Cockburn’s new (posthumous) A Colossal Wreck. Like The Golden Age Is In Us, it collects reports, opinions, thoughts, letters, replies and extracts from this great, unpredictable (and very much missed) political journalist, covering the mid-90s to 2012. In July 2002, Cockburn wrote up his top ten films list in response to the then-latest Sight and Sound poll. His ten went:
The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Sweet Smell of Success (1957), which is the “best thing ever done on the press”. Some Like It Hot (1959). La Dolce Vita (1960). Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Pierrot Le Fou (1965). Fantastic Voyage (1966). Life of Brian (1979). Eating Raoul (1982).
He added that if he could go up to 11, he would throw in Smiles of a Summer Night, “another from that amazing cultural year of 1955”.

January 9, 2014


Passion (Brian De Palma, 2012). The Brian De Palma erotic thriller has become almost conceptual by this point: the doubling, the dream sequences, the split screens, the killing with a knife and sometimes a mask (which we wait far too long for here), the Hitchcock quotes (Dial M for Murder), the twins, the blonde, the brunette … But a decade after the wild return to form that was Femme Fatale, Passion seems lethargic and under-powered. It doesn’t help that this year’s femme, or would-be Hitchcock blonde, is so pallid and the first hour, which she dominates, is such a drag. That’s Rachel McAdams as Christine Stanford, ruthless head of an advertising agency in a Berlin setting that could be anywhere – the protagonists are English speakers and the perfunctory business scenes have all the passion and intrigue of a corporate video. Things always improve when someone dies. But Rachel McAdams: she’s not even Melanie Griffith, let alone Tippi Hedren. 

January 8, 2014


The Spirit of ’45 (Ken Loach, 2013). History goes from hope to failure so go back to the start and see if you can run it again.

January 7, 2014


“ … that unnecessary thing, a museum of film: film is memory, even when, or especially when, we don’t remember it.” – Iain Sinclair in Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics. (2011)

January 6, 2014


Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010). Death, loss and the passing of time – how can the kids not relate?

January 3, 2014

Late contender for the worst film of 2013

Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets (Alex Gibney, 2013). Late contender for the worst film of 2013? Here’s why. Alex Gibney is trying an Errol Morris approach, telling a complicated, near-academic story through the foibles and flaws of his characters (basic human interest narrative) except that he can’t pull it off and not just because neither of the two main subjects – hacker guru Julian Assange and army leaker Bradley Manning – are available to him. He’s constructing profiles in their absence but his evidence, in the case of Assange especially, is unbalanced, adding up to ad hominem stuff about cult mentalities and rock star behaviour. The bigger ethical issues about journalism and how it’s practised now go mostly unexamined. But also, Gibney seems to lack the human flair to tell these stories with the humour and compassion that Morris would bring. Everything human seems gossipy, even sleazy. No one’s purported motivations can be trusted in this account – it’s the worst kind of cynicism.

January 1, 2014

Late additions

The Wolf of Wall Street would have made the 2013 top 10, and would have thrown Matthew McConaughey and Leonardo DiCaprio into the acting list. Through a Pre-Memory by Aanipaa would have been on the records list somewhere. And Homeland season 3 may even have made television: after meandering and dead ends (that Dana plot?), it flipped into an only-on-Homeland version of Zero Dark Thirty, subverted as ever by the magnetic power of the absurd Brody/Carrie melodrama. No more of that.