May 31, 2015

Red light

Hardcore (Paul Schrader, 1979). Paul Schrader memorably described The Exorcist as God and Satan fighting over the body of a girl. Obvious Searchers parallels aside, that’s Hardcore too – but in Schrader’s account, the girl (Ilah Davis) barely has a word to say about it, as though Schrader is unintentionally reproducing the misogynist worlds on screen. George C Scott is the John Wayne-esque Calvinist father from the midwest descending into the 70s porn and peep show underworlds of Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, looking for his vanished daughter, about whom we learn nothing, although Season Hubley has some energy and conviction as prostitute Niki – even if she is written largely as a continuation of Taxi Driver’s Iris. Further evidence that Schrader always talked a better movie than he wrote, and wrote a better movie than he directed. 

May 30, 2015

Dull west

Slow West (John Maclean, 2015). Barely qualifying as a footnote in the history of the revisionist western, debut film-maker John Maclean’s small and almost proudly unoriginal Scotland-to-America fable (filmed in Scotland and New Zealand) is really notable for one strange thing: it must take a special kind of skill to make even Michael Fassbender uninteresting. Deep into the third act, we realise who this film should have been about all along: not thin, pale, lovesick Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) but smart, independent Rose, played by New Zealander Caren Pistorius. 

May 29, 2015

Leaving Planet Earth and trying to get home

“These are the seasons of emotion / And like the winds they rise and fall / This is the wonder of devotion / I see the torch we all must hold.”

Led Zeppelin, “The Rain Song”.

“Finally, I would like to say that, if one absolutely needs to compare me to someone, it should be Dovzhenko. He was the first director for whom the problem of atmosphere was particularly important, and he loved his native land passionately. I share his love for my land, which is why I feel him very close to me. I’ll add: he made his films as if they were vegetable gardens, as if they were gardens. He would water them himself, he would make everything grow with his own hands … His love of the land and of the people made his characters grow, as it were, from the earth itself. They were organic, complete. I would very much like to resemble him in this respect. If I didn’t succeed, I would feel mortified.” 

Andrei Tarkovsky, interviewed by Michel Ciment, Luda Schnitzer and Jean Schnitzer, in Positif, 1969. 

Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972). The Song Remains the Same (Joe Massot and Peter Clifton, 1976). Outward and inner travel, a fear of going into space and of what memory will produce during the long stretches alone. A desire to be back home, on Earth, near grass and water and children. Space travel and reluctance to travel. 

May 20, 2015

Desert stormed

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). A pagan city built on slavery (Vehicular Valhalla, Temple of Vroom), Jawas on motorbikes and a motorcycle matriarchy, spiky cars that ate Paris (homage to Peter Weir), slave wives who could be in beer or burger commercials, armies that travel with their own heavy-metal guitarist and grotesque old Australian men still running the world, or what’s left of it. After a gap of more than 30 years, George Miller locates the very same exciting, funny and lurid Mad Max sensibility, just bigger, louder, faster, wilder – in every sense, better. Max (now Tom Hardy, more sidelined in his own story than he ever was before) is still nearly mute and the entire thing is told almost without dialogue, such is the elemental nature of it (part-western, part-sci fi). The desert is brighter and wider. If anything, Miller’s original scenario has become even more topical and plausible since the 1980s: these are myths of the near to immediate salvage-punk future. Ridiculously great, either way. Who would want to bother with the heavily-CGI’d and intellectually vacant Marvel blockbusters after catching a whiff of this? 

May 18, 2015

Top 10 films about journalism

Last year one of the country’s leading journalism educators asked me to compile a top 10 of the best films about journalism. It didn’t run – long story – so here it is. One little update since late 2014: George Clooney’s Hack Attack movie might be a contender in the future, if they can get around the problem of not upsetting Rupert …

Until someone makes a movie out of Dirty Politics (working title: The Rawshark Redemption), this list will have to stand as one possible selection of the 10 best films about journalism. Is it noteworthy that the majority of these dramas are based on fact, and only a couple could be said to be entirely fictional? Yet there are no documentaries in the line-up. Also, every journalism film has a moral to impart, or maybe just conveys a depressing reality about the business. 

All the Presidents Men (Alan J Pakula, 1976). This list is alphabetical but even if it were not, this would probably still be at the top. The 1970s was the heyday of the disenchanted paranoia thriller – Pakula also gave us Klute and The Parallax View – and All the President’s Men is all about what Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) do in the shadows. Nixon is the monster. Journalism gets results.

Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000). Seventies debauchery has never looked as squeaky clean as it does in Crowe’s fictionalised account of his life as a cub reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. The band he is tracking is a blend of Led Zeppelin and the Eagles, the groupies have hearts of gold and the drugs aren’t killing anyone yet. But will the kid get his cover story? Actual rock journalism legend Lester Bangs (who later died of an overdose) is impersonated by the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman (who later died of an overdose). Journalism can ruin your life.

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). This is partly an epic in-joke at the expense of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, himself a tyrannical and charismatic ink-stained giant from the golden age of newspapers. In this account as well as in real life, he provided the war. Journalism is an egomaniacal pursuit. One egomaniac recognised another.

La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960). This classic gave us the paparazzi, both as a word and as an idea. Marcello Mastroianni is the handsome, jaded reporter in Rome as the 1950s give way to the 1960s. His beat is celebrity (Anita Ekberg at the airport and splashing in the fountain) and superstition (the kids with their Madonna sighting). We learn that journalism is a job for cynics,  hedonists and depressives. See also: Antonioni’s The Passenger, which you forget is sort of about journalism until you remember its other title, Professione: Reporter.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998). The drugs do work. Do people still want to be Hunter S Thompson? Both a drug-addled genius and a libertarian blowhard, Thompson is played by Johnny Depp, who does the voice and the walk as a kind of Gonzo cartoon. Gilliam doesn’t stint on the hallucinations and even manages to get some end-of-the-counterculture poignancy into this long weekend bender. Journalism can ruin your life but never really feels like work. For best results, watch with The Rum Diary (2011), in which a younger, straighter Hunter S Thompson, again played by Depp, is working on a chaotic newspaper in Puerto Rico. It’s like a square prequel.

The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999). Al Pacino should be in more films about journalism. He plays real-life investigative reporter Lowell Bergman in a dramatisation of how 60 Minutes persuaded a whistle-blower to tell all about big tobacco. That whistle-blower is played by Russell Crowe in what is still the best acting of his film career. Like Pakula in the 70s, Mann turns shadow-chasing editorial legwork into the stuff of a gripping paranoid thriller. Journalism gets results and can even change the world.

The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe, 1984). An important film for what it told us about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and so on, but there is also a glamour and seductiveness about its sweat-soaked images of foreign correspondents, played here by Sam Waterston, John Malkovich (almost never better) and Julian Sands. See also: Salvador, The Quiet American and The Year of Living Dangerously. Journalism takes you (dangerous) places.

Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976). One of the great media catchphrases – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” – came out of this hysterical 70s satire of the TV business, which seemed ridiculously prescient simply by imagining the worst. What would happen if a news anchor suddenly flipped out and told the truth? See also: Broadcast News. Journalism? It’s just a branch of entertainment.

Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander McKendrick, 1957). There is a vicious and amoral gossip columnist (Burt Lancaster) and there is the shameless lackey and gossip peddler who hangs off him (Tony Curtis). Some stories never get old and there are few depictions of the news machine that are less virtuous than this black comedy. It’s overdone but it also has a horrible exactness. Journalism can be a filthy business.

Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007). Two San Francisco newspaper men become obsessed with finding the Zodiac Killer, long after he stops being a story. One is an alcoholic crime reporter (Robert Downey Jr) and the other is an earnest cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal). The film is itself obsessive; Fincher is hung up on detail and relates to their doggedness. Journalism is sometimes about failure.

May 16, 2015

And it was all fire

Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981). Like dreaming something dark, confusing and violent and struggling to make sense of it later. Nicol Williamson’s charismatic Merlin is initially your guide through it – all the shouting, fire and hacking off of limbs – before he is treacherously sidelined by a girlish (only 35) Helen Mirren as Morgana. Everything here is collapsing and doomed even as it starts; some of the images feel very deep, primal, raw and original. You can’t stop thinking that somewhere in here too is the outline or maybe the corpse of Boorman’s abandoned Lord of the Rings: what kind of film would that have been? 

May 10, 2015

Not sane

The Water Diviner (Russell Crowe, 2014). This post-Gallipoli reconciliation fantasy would make sense only if Crowe’s Joshua Cooper was not meant to be sane. But I don’t think the Crowe directorial style, whatever that is, allows for that kind of ambiguity.

May 8, 2015

A brief history of the future

Mad Max (George Miller, 1979). Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981). Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (George Miller and George Ogilvie, 1985).

Will Mad Max: Fury Road  the year’s other much-anticipated sci-fi reboot  be a futuristic story actually set in the past? George Miller’s cheap, brutal original appeared in 1979 and was set “a few years from now”. Which was when? The 1980s or, at most, the 90s? On depopulated roads outside Melbourne, leather-clad road cops driving Ford Falcons battled Droog-ish motorcycle gangs, but nothing about the action or locations actually suggested a futuristic setting. Max Rockatansky seems initially to be the meekest rather than the maddest of the cops and for most of the running time, future star Mel Gibson is the youngest and most innocent-looking grown-up on screen (Joanne Samuel, who plays Max’s wife, was just a year younger but a more experienced actor). The domestic scenes are mostly excruciating and the Ocker humour is not integrated as seamlessly into the Roger Corman-ish action as it would be in Miller’s second and best Mad Max film, but the absurd and daring car scenes were already the selling point and Miller demonstrated that he immediately a rare knack for the choreography of action (before dabbling in cinema, he trained as a doctor which reportedly gave him an insight into how car crash victims look). The creation of Max as a western-style avenging hero late in the second half is also the creation of Mel Gibson as movie star, mirrored perhaps by the creation of George Miller, versatile director. Audaciously, it was a debut film that presented itself as a prequel.

Over time, the films became more cluttered and the back story was extended. The bikers in the relatively minimal first movie were just rough sketches of the bikers in the much more ambitious and sophisticated second, which pushed Max deeper into the desert. A newsreel prologue and voice-over sets out the legend, a long story to do with wars and oil shortages, but when are we? The famous black V8 Interceptor is now dusty and beaten-up, Gibson’s leather outfit is in tatters and there seem to be no other cops left anywhere. Gibson looks more than two years older, but still he barely speaks. In Gibson’s acting, speech has usually revealed an underlying vulnerability or insecurity, or is Max’s near muteness in this film really a symptom of his lasting trauma? But then, what does he need to say? Either way, the film is effective enough, and elemental enough, to communicate almost without dialogue.

In the first two films, Gibson takes a serious beating and stoically goes on, much like the bloodied, enduring heroes of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, which Gibson would eventually direct. People have speculated about a mad masochism. In a neo-western about lawlessness and a threatened, civilised community in the wilderness (made up largely of the plummier-voiced Australian actors), the warriors have Mohawks and the storytelling reveals obvious debts to Ford, Kurosawa and Lucas. All is petrol, speed and fire and the final truck chase is still one of action cinema’s greatest achievements. The good news is that the visual language Miller established in Mad Max 2 is the one adopted in Mad Max: Fury Road, if the trailers are anything to go by. And Tom Hardy’s rebooted or renewed Max is the same character, which puts the new story within the same span of time rather than moving ahead a generation, as Star Wars has. So, when are we up to now, with Fury Road? The 2000s?

I know that seems literal, and that Miller was always more concerned, as the series went on, with creating future legends rather than parallel or possible histories. The story grew bigger still and the scale grander in the third, less fondly remembered Mad Max. With its stunt casting (Tina Turner as matriarch of Bartertown, located even deeper in the desert) Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome risks being remembered as one of those 80s rock star fantasy movies, alongside LabyrinthDune and, if we can stretch the 80s into the early 90s, Freejack. Not the best company. The now carless Gibson has become Max of Arabia, driving camels and wearing Bedouin robes (black ones, naturally). Bartertown looks like the setting of Duran Duran’s pretentious Wild Boys clip. Gibson’s hair is longer, as though he is warming up for Braveheart; the tone is generally softer and less violent, and the story of a tribe of lost children seems to draw heavily from Russell Hoban’s classic Riddley Walker while looking ahead to Spielberg’s much less classic Hook. The man with almost no name has now become nearly messianic, spoken of in stories and myths (is this film the straighter, Ocker El Topo?). While Mad Max 2 still feels timeless, you suspect that topicality has dated the third film: rather than oil shortages, Beyond Thunderdome has a very specific mid-80s mood of nuclear fear, which does give us a spooky sense of a ruined, hazy Sydney lit by fires.

Did any other action trilogy ever drift so far from its initial premise? So maybe it does need a correction or adjustment, back to Max 2.0. Along those lines, some Beyond Thunderdome dialogue leaps out.  Aunty Entity (Tina Turner): “What did you do before this?” Max (Mel Gibson): “I was a cop, a driver.” How long ago all that seemed by 1985. 

May 4, 2015

Strange birds

Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014). I preferred this to Bennett Miller’s more celebrated, more pretentious Capote. Maybe this is Capote’s gloomier, colder, quieter brother: no one comes out of this story a success. It’s about male pride, painful loneliness, failures and humiliations, with superb acting from Steve Carell as the eagle-beaked eccentric billionaire John du Pont and from – less surprisingly for most – Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum and Vanessa Redgrave in supporting parts. The mood is funereal throughout, but earned. 

May 2, 2015

Transitional states

Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2010). You can see why Birdman’s many fans (I’m one) thought that Inarritu needed to lighten up after the ever decreasing doom and seriousness of 21 Grams, Babel and (especially) Biutiful, but are the worlds on screen really so different? Or is Michael Keaton’s tormented, charismatic, supernaturally-inspired Riggan in Birdman just the comic inverse of the increasingly ruined Uxbal (Javier Bardem) in Biutiful? Breakdowns (personality, marriage, career) played for laughs not as tragedy. Wise children, dreams, drug moments, transitional states. 

May 1, 2015

Year of the drummer

Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014). Music school teacher as drill sergeant or high school football coach and operating without – thank goodness – any kind of justifying back story. We would also have accepted Full Metal Jazz. You can call it a single-minded film about single-mindedness ­­– and the dad and the girlfriend are as perfunctory for us as they are for Andrew (Miles Teller) – but you should admire its confidence.