October 20, 2017

The last man


Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017). I could have spent all of the film in that radioactive orange light, among the ruins of the sex park and the casino in the desert. At that point, heading east from Los Angeles to what was Las Vegas, the new Tokyo of the first film that has been reproduced in the second, but as a city that now seems darker, wetter, less populated and less thrilling, gives way to a landscape that feels almost post-Soviet. The giant, Clockwork Orange-ish statues help but it also made a surprising and weird sense to notice so many eastern European names in the closing credits. I had no idea going in that Blade Runner 2049 was shot in Budapest and that the Las Vegas casino and hotel complex was partly found in the city’s old stock exchange that has survived empires, wars and communists. There is an old world ambience that seeps into the story just as the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles contributed so much to the post-war noir sensibility of the original Blade Runner.
This is an astonishingly beautiful film, even (especially) when it dwells on ruins – besides the two locations mentioned, there is a bleak farm that again feels eastern European, like something from Bela Tarr, and a city-sized junkyard that somehow contains vast orphanages full of grimy children. The aesthetic achievement is not just in the cinematography by Roger Deakins: it is in how well that is synchronised with the ominous score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, the production design by Dennis Gassner, the editing by Joe Walker and other technical elements. This is a film made with genuine care and love, a $150 million art film that is as happy to wallow in religious allegory – there is an appropriately heavy mood of awe, sadness and doom, a sense of a world too fallen to even be worth saving – as it is to join the dots of a science-fiction detective plot that kicked off in the 1980s.
What does it mean to be human when everything is degraded? What would a new start look like? Is there a feeling of expectancy coming out of the sense of dread? Those are three of the questions the film asks, and it earns the right to ask them – this must be the most profound science-fiction film since Children of Men. It is also a Philip K Dick adaptation (indirectly) that honours the Gnostic Christian vision of its creator, which was a dark and distressing belief that the world is something other than what most perceive it to be. Blade Runner 2049 has that sense, which Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly adaptation also had, of showing us a time and place that seems false, simulated or remote, where a flawed or incompetent creator is in charge and events are never clear (hence all the rain, the fog, the darkness). But I’ve barely mentioned the actors: besides familiar movie stars Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Robin Wright and Jared Leto (as the ultimate form of an Elon Musk-style tech visionary), the two people who made the strongest impressions were relative unknowns Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks – both women convey the pitifulness of those who are not quite human but not entirely manufactured either, stuck between human and not-human. 

October 11, 2017

Car at night


Christine (John Carpenter, 1983). Cars, sex, bullies, high schools and parents who just don’t understand. In the midst of the current Stephen King bonanza, it is instructive to go back to the King bonanza of the early 1980s, which coincided with John Carpenter’s purple patch (his only King adaptation, Christine falls chronologically between The Thing and Starman). There is a tongue-in-cheek effortlessness and humour about this teenagers-and-possessed-car drama – it’s not quite a horror, really – that has been missing from so many more po-faced King stories. The great set pieces include the car on fire at night and the marvellous strangeness of the near-death scene at the drive-in. It also features a nicely nonchalant appearance by Harry Dean Stanton as – would you believe? – a cop.  

October 1, 2017

"Everything is real"


The Changeover (Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt, 2017). “Everything is real” is a key line of dialogue in Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt’s powerful and daring adaptation of Margaret Mahy’s classic young adult novel about a teenager who discovers she is a witch and must learn to focus her new abilities on a sinister predator. That line expresses the idea that magic is real – that everything Laura Chant (enormously talented newcomer Erana James) encounters actually exists, a proposition the film never doubts – but it also says something about McKenzie and Harcourt’s methods. The film is deeply embedded in real settings (Christchurch after the earthquakes, with a house moved to the cleared residential red zone for the shoot) and in persuasive acting, especially from James and an impressively creepy Timothy Spall as a vampiric figure whose bony look, especially the claw-like hands, give him a kind of animal quality.
This is a matriarchal film about magic, which also pays tribute to its significant matriarchs – Kate Harcourt, mother of co-director and legendary acting coach Miranda Harcourt, who appears as the elderly witch Winter Carlisle; Jane Campion, who is named in the credits as a mentor to the co-directors; and of course Mahy herself, who died in 2012. There is a way in which Mahy has come to matter even more to post-quake Christchurch than she did before. One of the most successful post-quake developments in the still shattered central city is the Margaret Mahy Playground, which opened in 2015. That playground will have been just out of sight of the Manchester St locations the film-makers used. It became important to the city very quickly and there is something marvellous in the way that local kids abbreviate its name to “Margaret Mahy”, as in “We’re going to Margaret Mahy”.
I think this is a hopeful film that raises the stakes of the story – a local skirmish between good and evil – by setting it in a quake-damaged Christchurch that has been crying out for this kind of metaphorical use by a storyteller (a few others have been less successful). It’s especially impressive that a production that came to the city largely from outside has caught the mood and look so exactly. It is not just about the broken homes and buildings and the empty suburbs that still reveal the outlines of old sections, it also about all the water – the swollen rivers, the frequent floods and the deep puddles across deserted streets and vacant lots. Christchurch has become a much wetter city, and the idea of water – or the magical meaning of it – extends throughout the film, going back, one assumes, to the original cosmology of Mahy’s book. (I’ve not read The Changeover but recognise one of the story’s rules – the one that says witches must be invited in – from many re-readings of Mahy’s The Witch in the Cherry Tree.)  

September 26, 2017

At home in the world


mother! (Darren Aronofsky, 2017). In a conversation with William Friedkin (yes, the directors of two of the great religious movies, just talking it over), Aronofsky described this hallucinatory horror/unusual Biblical adaptation/domestic nightmare as a “howl into the world”, written from a place of “fury”. The feeling stayed intact throughout a hothouse rehearsal process and the result is something that seems utterly uncompromising and highly personal, but that still manages to communicate a dark, absurdist humour. The first half is all about a mood of intense nervousness, claustrophobically shot, with Jennifer Lawrence followed closely as she walks the halls, rooms and stairs of a strange house in the country; the second half escalates, dream-like and unceasingly, into something closer to apocalyptic panic. It is easy to assume that Aronofsky has married the deranged, intensely subjective style of Black Swan (another horror movie about the terrible burden of being creative) with the conventional Biblical storytelling of Noah and its meditations on the Old Testament God and the problem of evil – meaning this is every bit as misanthropic as that Bible story. Again, there is a loathing for creation and the urge to keep trying, but for what? The creator’s ego? To prove something? All of human history passes by in a flash like a bad dream of married life, or perhaps the reverse. Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel is in here, Aronofsky says – there is also the Lars von Trier of Antichrist and perhaps even Children of Men, which is a more hopeful and less overwhelming version of some roughly similar ideas. Call it a masterpiece. 

September 20, 2017

Imaginary double bill




The Innocents (Anne Fontaine, 2016) and The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017). Communities of women at the end of wars, with stories about the sidelines of war and their lasting damage. 

September 16, 2017

From another century


Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, 2013). David Lowery’s A Ghost Story sent me back here, to a sad, sweet crime story set in a timeless, semi-mythic Texas, featuring the same actors (Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck) who get to do more. Like A Ghost Story, it is a love story, with love notes, love letters. There are Malick influences but it’s more of an actors’ film than anything post-Days of Heaven, and the romantic mood and textures feel both authentic and fresh, as does its deep sense of being in and from some past we cannot access.  

September 15, 2017

Exterminate all the brutes

Kong: Skull Island (Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017). B-movie monster nostalgia is expected (and delivered on), but Vietnam war movie nostalgia? (Specifically Apocalypse Now.) That opens up a whole other multiverse of possibilities. Meaning it is a welcome idea.  

September 4, 2017

At 50

The Trip to Spain (Michael Winterbottom, 2017). The food, once the focus or at least the official reason for the part-documented, part-constructed journey, has became almost irrelevant and even the impressions now seem secondary (although Rob Brydons long Roger Moore/Moor thing is inspired), which has pushed Winterbottom, Brydon and Steve Coogans middle-aged ruminations to the fore. Youth, it passes. Genuine, lasting achievements are out of reach. Vanity is all folly. You might find yourself stuck in the desert of your own self-absorption. What should you have done differently?

September 2, 2017

Epic neediness


Dog Eat Dog (Paul Schrader, 2016). The best thing about this lurid post-Elmore Leonard/Tarantino nihilistic guns-and-drugs black comedy is Willem Dafoe in what would normally be the Steve Buscemi part – epic, debased, painful neediness. He makes co-star Nicolas Cage appear restrained and Paul Schrader fans might see him as a version of the infamous pre-Taxi Driver Schrader. The second best thing is the hallucinatory ending with its overtones of religiousness and sudden innocence, as though (let’s cut him some slack) Schrader was trying to make amends for the sometimes hilarious, often depraved filth we all just waded through. 

September 1, 2017

Pure hell


Pure hell. You don’t joke around about this. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is (still, more than 40 years later) like an artefact or fragment of something even worse than what you see, something buried or obscured or hidden. Which means I’m much more likely to rewatch the late Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist or (why not) Lifeforce than Texas Chainsaw, while still admiring it more than almost anything else in horror. The legend is probably part of that, but not all of it. 

August 30, 2017

Sea of heartbreak

The Vessel (Julio Quintana, 2016). Strongly influenced by Terrence Malick (who executive produced), but lacking Malick’s cosmic scale and deeper, questioning intelligence, Julio Quintana’s The Vessel plays like a religious fable improvised amongst the wreckage of a devastated community, where Martin Sheen is a Catholic priest who tries to hold things together. Coherence is sometimes lacking but strong feelings are obvious, and if some viewers are helped spiritually by the story, that was surely the intention (I was reminded at times of the twee fantasy realism of Beasts of the Southern Wild). Versions of this were made in English and Spanish – I think I might have preferred the latter with subtitles to the film I saw. 

August 28, 2017

Where the past is


Lion (Garth Davis, 2016). The first half of this exceptionally well-crafted and highly moving drama is a patient exercise in Indian neo-realism set among lost and runaway children, in railway stations and back streets  and it is a remarkably brave decision to tell Saroo Brierleys story in this linear way rather than to start in the present with well-known actors (Nicole Kidman, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham) and rely on flashbacks or recovered stories. What it all adds up to  helped by another powerful performance by Kidman as the fragile Sue Brierley, especially during her vision monologue  is a study in loss, emotional damage and what it means to construct a family. There is also the unnerving strangeness of finding that the past is still just where you left it, 25 years ago. How many viewers imagine variations of the same thing, wondering if the past is a place that can somehow be found? 

August 25, 2017

Ghost time

“I wanted it to be a movie about observation. I can watch someone watching something for a long time ... I knew that there would be this patience to the movie, this patient pace, and that time would play a big part of it. That is one of the big things that differentiates film from other forms of visual art, because when you go to a museum and look at a painting or look at a photograph, you are determining how long you look at that. It’s up to you. When you watch a film, it’s up to the film-maker.” 
David Lowery, interviewed about A Ghost Story, at the Seeing is Believing podcast.

August 24, 2017

Post-human

Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017). This 80s cyberpunk future already feels retro, like something pre-Matrix and straight to video, but a more imaginative story and a sharper screenplay could have allowed Scarlett Johansson (quiet, grim, warmer than in Under the Skin) to be one of the better post-human characters. She almost always deserves better. 

August 20, 2017

Ten from the festival


Happy End (Michael Haneke, 2017). The mood of the times? I was reading Jonathan Taplin’s book about why we should be afraid of the internet, Move Fast and Break Things, during the second week of the New Zealand International Film Festival and this sentence jumped out as a potential summary of several films, including Happy End: “In his seminal 1976 work, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell contended that modern capitalism creates a culture of such self-gratification and narcissism that it may end up causing its own destruction.” There was a persistent theme of disgust running through the European films from Cannes this year, which aligned with European anxieties about inequality, elitism and indifference refugees appeared in glitzy French dining rooms, beggars slept rough on the streets of Stockholm and Syrian asylum seekers showed up in Helsinki. It obviously made the festival topical in a way I had never noticed before, but attacks on bourgeois comfort, liberal contradictions and hypocrisy have been core business for Michael Haneke since at least the late 1980s. This also means that Happy End, which revisits the social satire of the (more topical than ever) 2005 film Cache/Hidden and earlier films like Funny Games and Code Unknown, is a step back of sorts from the career peaks Amour and The White Ribbon. Compared to those two films, Happy End feels like minor Haneke, but you can also appreciate the way he plays around effortlessly with the satire of his earlier films, where the family is shown to be the corrupt microcosm of society and it takes a rebellious child or two to reveal the horrible truth. I always enjoy Haneke as a stern, disapproving moralist and he is funnier here than he has been in years.
Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2017). Epic Russian sorrow. In Zvyagintsev films, the apocalypse is terrifyingly sad and beautifully staged. You can think of this one as a sombre and hypnotic monument to selfishness and indifference. In the west, we look to Zvyagintsev to tell us important things about Russia; the strong sense of mystery he likes to generate tells us he is conscious of that role. But I wonder how his films are viewed in Russia, or are they essays made for export?


The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017). Another European moralist presents a scathing black comedy, this time in the comfortable suburbs of an American city. As much as I enjoyed Sofia Coppola’s atmospheric remake of The Beguiled, I would say that if you are only planning to see one pairing of Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman in 2017, make it this genuinely creepy art-horror about a family plagued by – again, Haneke-like – guilt and repression. Sometimes the horror feels Kubrickian – high and low camera angles, music by Ligeti – and sometimes you get the dread of films like The Omen and The Amityville Horror. Other things I did not expect to see in 2017 include the return of Alicia Silverstone.
The Square (Ruben Ostlund, 2017). A critic at Cannes joked that if Loveless had not been called Loveless, then Happy End could have used the title. The same applies to The Square, which won the big prize. There is a nihilism at the core of this overlong and sometimes inconsistent art-world satire that is largely disguised by a pleasant comic tone. You could say that it is broadly about art’s failure to be effective as social criticism within a rarefied social bubble (all opening nights, fundraising dinners and black-tie events) but is the film doing the same thing, and if so, does that make it somehow both impotent and self-satisfied, or is it simply proving its own point? As in a Haneke film – he really has become the presiding spirit, hasn’t he? – a comfortably-off figure is attacked by the social forces he provokes or patronises.


The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismaki, 2017). Kaurismaki’s refugee film is smaller in scale and less self-important than the likes of The Square and Loveless, and its droll humour and carefully curated world should be attractive to fans of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, but some of us can remember when Kaurismaki films didn’t restore our faith in humanity. Has the world changed or has he changed? Either way, I loved it.  


Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2016). As though Lady Chatterley’s Lover could turn homicidal and be restaged as a Victorian noir – which is the category hastily invented by critics for this engrossing low-budget film that has little overlap with Shakespeare’s play other than one important line of dialogue. The source is a Russian novel relocated to the north of England in the 1860s, making it roughly contemporary with The Beguiled, with which it has a fair bit in common. The source novel has apparently been denuded of Russian supernatural elements although traces of that spirit remain. Florence Pugh is suitably evil in the lead.
Human Traces (Nic Gorman, 2017). This mostly impressive debut is a writer’s film that presents a tricky structure, offering three perspectives on the same events, which unfold on a fictional Sub-Antarctic island (the appropriately bleak, windswept locations were on Banks Peninsula and in the Catlins). As Gorman told an appreciative audience at its world premiere in Christchurch, Bergman films were an influence. He didn’t say which ones but I imagine he meant movies like Shame and Hour of the Wolf (remote islands, Max Von Sydow and/or Liv Ullmann going mad). More than anything, Human Traces is a feat of editing and continuity under very difficult circumstances (Richard Shaw edited, John Christoffels shot) and while the stories do weave together in the third part, it is hard to say whether the ending truly makes psychological sense. But then again, you could argue that Gorman’s models (Bergman, possibly Von Trier and possibly Dead Calm) didn’t always, either.


Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979). The lasting but obvious gag is that like the Zone itself, Stalker seems to be different every time you step into it – a theory I tested by going twice. You have to be in the same room without distractions, you have to endure its long stretches of time. You have to walk in circles alongside these guys, drink at that oily, sepia bar in that ruined town. You have to make the trip. After the second screening, late on a Thursday night, the fog outside was thick and low, turning all the roads home into dark tunnels. 
Bill Direen: A Memory of Others (Simon Oggston, 2017). The fog from Stalker seemed to have settled on the Otago town of Middlemarch where Direen, poet and singer, emerged out of the fog like a figure from history. The world of the film is mostly the world of the 1930s to the 1960s, populated by surrealists and literary modernists, Janet Frame and James K Baxter and the first Labour government, Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, even as it unfolds on a short New Zealand tour/road trip in the year 2016. Direen is a unique figure who does not appear to have fit comfortably into any of the scenes he worked in or near, and there was something strangely moving about the film that I struggled to identify. I suspect there is a story somewhere beneath this one, which we glimpse at times, and it is about how we turn ourselves into the people we are and what the cost or effort of that might be. The film is intelligently and sensitively put together and Oggston largely avoids the talking-heads-and-historical-clips format that plagues typical rock docos. But then, Direen isn’t a typical rock subject.


A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017). This sad and beautiful film was the revelation of the fortnight. A small and personal project for David Lowery, apparently made in secret with actors Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, it has big things to say about time, transience and memory – often without words, and almost always with its lead character disguised under a sheet with eyeholes, like a kid’s drawing of a ghost or a Halloween costume. People are talking about Terrence Malick and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and those are very good precedents, but Lowery has hit on a style that is completely his own. They say that time is both the subject and the raw material of cinema – this film shows how and why. 

August 9, 2017

Soda jerk

David Lynch: The Art Life (Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Jon Nguyen, 2016). Adding to the Its a Wonderful Life/Eraserhead theory: the young David Lynch ran errands for a drug store, as he explains in this poised, fascinating study of a reclusive, self-taught outsider artist. “I got a job at a drug store, delivering prescriptions at night. One time I came in during the daytime and I went to the soda fountain to get a Coke. And Jack Fisk was the soda jerk. He said, I hear you have a studio. I said, Yeah. He said, You want somebody else to share the rent?

August 7, 2017

The paranormal 1970s

Only the dialogue about flying saucers, ghosts, telepathy and the Bermuda Triangle – or the lack of them, in an unutterably boring world ruled by cast-iron laws – locates the production of Stalker in the 1970s, I thought. 

August 2, 2017

Soul food

Okja (Bong Joon-ho, 2017). I liked The Host but not Snowpiercer. And this seems to have the flaws of the latter, as an awkward mix of social satire, speculative science-fiction and sentimental adventure – but the giant, hippo-like super-pig in question is so well-rendered, she easily out-performs Jake Gyllenhaal and even, at times, Tilda Swinton in a garish double role. Only Paul Dano is more soulful. 

August 1, 2017

Night, days



Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau in La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961). Sam Shepard and Brooke Adams in Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978). 

July 31, 2017

Confessions of a window cleaner

In Swagger of Thieves, the long-gestating Head Like a Hole film by Julian Boshier, New Zealand rock arguably has its own Dig! The rare access and the constant threat of self-destruction. It is just as entertaining but perhaps not as well shaped. My interview

July 30, 2017

Dotcommotion

How and why did Kim Dotcom go from ubiquitous (2014) to reclusive (2017)? Why did New Zealand act like he was the internet age’s Nelson Mandela, rather than, as a Variety reviewer said, a braggard and publicity hound or a Gatsby-ish promoter of himself? Were naive New Zealanders fooled, and has his moment passed now, anyway? I think Annie Goldson’s doco Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web catches the contradictions of the story, and the politics that flows out of them. It is not a campaigning documentary that has been seduced by its subject but good, balanced journalism. My interview.

July 26, 2017

Fathers


Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017). A lot has been said about the remarkable immersiveness of this Christopher Nolan wartime masterpiece; its confident choreography borders on pure cinema. It is somehow intimate rather than grand in its scale, concerned during its relatively brief running time (at 106 minutes, Nolans shortest since Following in 1998) with the here and now, and Nolans familiar tricks with time are unusually subtle rather than ostentatious. The dominant emotional mood is not triumphalism but pity, which is apt given that another five years of terrible struggle were ahead of them in 1940. Ive seen less discussion of how, like Nolans Interstellar, it is also a film about fathers. If Interstellar was about guilt or responsibility, with the remote father absent for decades from his daughters life, then Dunkirk gives us two touching examples of tolerant, forgiving fathers who guide us in Mark Rylances small but heroic and stoic Mr Dawson and Kenneth Branaghs benign Naval commander.  

July 20, 2017

Lingering intellectual distrust

“It is perhaps the lingering intellectual distrust of the horror genre that has prevented George Romero’s ‘living dead’ trilogy from receiving full recognition for what it undoubtedly is: one of the most remarkable and audacious achievements of modern American cinema, and the most uncompromising critique of contemporary America (and, by extension, Western capitalist society in general) that is possible within the terms and conditions of a ‘popular entertainment’ medium.”
Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan … and Beyond. 2003 edition. 

July 19, 2017

Gun crazy

“One of the points of George Romero’s zombie films is to show how easily America slips into a state of gun-crazed fascism – those rednecks with firearms are ideal citizens. In one of the most shocking moments of the 1978 entry Dawn of the Dead, heavily armed law enforcers storm a public housing building and wipe out some poor immigrant families under the martial-law-like pretext of zombie hunting.” From a review of Zack Snyder’s lesser Dawn of the Dead remake, 2004. None of the late reboots (Land of the Dead, Survival of the Dead, Land of the Dead) added anything to a scene already cluttered with films and series inspired by Romero’s 60s/70s example – by the time we reached Land, the dead were nearly incidental – but they will never detract from the early achievements either. 

July 9, 2017

Placid

Loving (Jeff Nichols, 2016). When so much is at stake, how can everyone remain so placid? Part of it, I suspect, is the hindsight perspective of civil rights movies and their inevitable journeys towards the better present we know and inhabit, and partly, it is a decision that to represent decency we must show calm, quiet patience. 

July 6, 2017

She remembers how hot the sun was


Jackie (Pablo Larrain, 2016). “She remembers how hot the sun was in Dallas, and the crowds.” To read the Life magazine feature depicted in Jackie, as the grave journalist meets the newly widowed subject, soon after seeing the film itself, is to recognise that the film has caught the tone perfectly – the same sadness, obviously, but also the same reach towards a possible future, the same slim sense of hope, while a new myth of the past is constructed in front of us, to stop time from destroying everything. You could argue that this alone makes Jackie one of the great films about journalism. Beyond that, it is a great work of art. There is Natalie Portman’s commitment to the part of Jackie, with the anxious, grieving energy that accompanies the emergency. There is the surprising poignancy of John Hurt in an apt role as a priest. There is the alienating power of Mica Levi’s score. And there is the rare artistry of Pablo Larrain’s directorial methods. He makes the film a visionary biopic that has unexpected topicality.

July 4, 2017

Los Angeles plays itself


La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016). The cleverness is limited to the title, thank goodness. This musical for a time without musicals is less about smart-alec post-modernism (worst offender: Moulin Rouge) than trying to recover some old innocence. Who wouldn’t fall for its LA dream vistas, its sense of the movie city as a museum of itself? By the end, the songs hardly matter – if you even really noticed them to start with. 

June 24, 2017

Problem with the past

The Two Jakes (Jack Nicholson, 1990). “That’s the problem with the past. There’s always plenty more where that came from.” A failure as a sequel to Chinatown, this is still interesting as both a study of and exercise in nostalgia at its most morbid and debilitating. It suffers from the condition it describes. Nicholson’s Jake can’t shake it: there are doubles and impostors, missing people, voices on tapes edited to revise history, earthquakes that feel strangely personal. He goes through the photos and clippings, he hears her voice. But the person we miss most in this unusually gloomy story is Polanski. 

June 23, 2017

Notes on brightness


Salt and Fire (Werner Herzog, 2016). The bright light off the salt flats, it will do your head in. That or the volcano or the aliens. This Herzog feature isn’t quite as bad as some of the press has suggested (or as bad as the truly awful Queen of the Desert) because it still has his eccentric, questing spirit and his sense of imminent planetary disaster. He is still the great pessimist of the natural world. But as far as storytelling is concerned, perhaps it is best to think of this as a documentary that doesn’t have a subject to attach itself to – Herzog and regular cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger feel cooped up and uninspired during the absurd, thriller-like sections that open the film and are happier in the wild without a script. Of the actors, only Michael Shannon doesn’t embarrass himself.

June 18, 2017

A last glimpse of the land now being lost forever


Notes on Blindness (James Spinney and Peter Middleton, 2016). “Do you remember the way the tide came in, right up the main street?” As we hear this Sebaldian sentence, we see actors playing the theologian John Hull and his wife Marilyn, gazing out of a window. It is a complicated moment: the audio comes from interviews with the Hulls before John’s death in 2015, recalling a memory from their honeymoon in 1979, which present-day actors re-enact in 70s period costume. Past and present, real and unreal, are mixed up. And of course, John could still see at that point. It is one of the few shots we have in Notes on Blindness of him (or someone playing him) looking out into the world.
Can you ever communicate the experience of someone losing their sight? Can film put itself into that subjectivity? (See Blue by Derek Jarman.) And if you are used to identifying the meaning of everything, what does going blind meanJohn Hull started to record thoughts on audio tapes; these notes became a book (Touching the Rock) and eventually formed the basis for a short film, in 2014, which was then expanded into a feature by the same directors. It is a work expressing intellectual enquiry as well as humility. 
There are ways in which I prefer the 12-minute short to the 90-minute feature. There is less emphasis in the short on building a narrative, sometimes too literally, and we see less of the lip-synching actors playing the Hulls and their children. Some key moments appear in both versions of Notes on Blindness – his terror at feeling enclosed by his growing and finally total blindness; his difficult question, “Who had the right to deprive me of the sight of my children?”; and his sense that the sound of rain, which varied as it struck different surfaces in the garden, restored a moment of beauty to him, which extends to a fantasy that it is raining inside the house, Solaris-style – but the longer version inevitably brings in other memories that are crucial to his story. Two stand out. On a holiday to Australia, where his parents live, John is shocked to discover that Australia is no longer there for him, as though things he knew long before he went blind would somehow have remained visible. And the second important moment is a theological understanding: if this blindness is meant as a gift of some sort, don’t ask why but ask what.  
He comes to accept the blindness, finally. He begins to even find it stimulating in unexpected ways: “There is something so totally purging about blindness, that one either is destroyed or renewed. Your consciousness is evacuated. Your past memories, your interests, your perception of time, place itself, the world itself. One must recreate ones life. In my case, fortunately, I had a central core around which to recreate it. That was my good fortune.” 

June 13, 2017

Multiples



The Visit (M Night Shyamalan, 2015) and Split (M Night Shyamalan, 2016). The cheaper and more generic, the better – the more chance there is for something personal to come through. But then, he finds it almost impossible to keep his preoccupations out. In most cases, the anxiety about difference, the childhood traumas that keep replaying (absent or abusive parents), the paranoid sense that the world you are in is not the real one and can not be trusted. The imperfections of these films only make them more endearing. 

June 10, 2017

Cars at night


Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016). I don’t think it would be insulting to say that the aestheticisation – the style that Jenkins has borrowed from Claire Denis and Wong Kar Wai, that kind of sensuousness – is sometimes overdone, and that less could have been more, because the thing itself is still so affecting, so immensely sad, and provides an insight that is so out of the ordinary. All the comparisons with Killer of Sheep – as a singular expression, as a sociological document, as a counter to Hollywood representations of experience – are warranted. There is all the everyday pain and, in cars and at beaches and in water, some relief. 

June 7, 2017

Hometown




The cosmic scale, the fears and responsibilities of fatherhood, the sick child, the dreams of leaving. I searched the internet in vain for a fan theory that linked It’s a Wonderful Life and Eraserhead (Lynch’s most spiritual film). The opening moments of both are pictured. 

May 31, 2017

May 30, 2017

City of dead gods


Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017). “Mother.” I had thought of comparing and contrasting Alien: Covenant with Morten Tyldum’s Passengers, as both confront anxieties about hibernation and space travel as though they are inevitabilities we must adjust to, but Ridley Scott’s second Alien prequel made me think instead of Terrence Malick and The Voyage of Time. In Alien: Covenant, “mother” is the computer system that runs everything and maintains a commentary, like Hal in 2001, rather than Malick’s feminine deity, but this is still concerned with a lot of the same stuff. It’s about creation, the source of it, the scale of it and our place in it, but the view of Scott (and writers John Logan and Dante Harper) is much darker, closer to an epic pessimism or the Greek myths that the Prometheus title evoked rather than Malick’s Christian and Buddhist-leaning notions of a benign creation. Too much knowledge, it says, is a dangerous thing – embodied in a nuanced double performance by Michael Fassbender, playing two variations on being post-human. This is a grim and violent vision that reaches its peak in astonishing scenes set in the city of the dead gods. Prometheus was gesturing at some of this, but its screenplay was a problem – this is tighter, more focused and that much more profound. It’s also one of the most beautiful films you will see this year.  

May 26, 2017

For Denis Johnson



Sad news about the death of Denis Johnson, a wonderful writer still best known for Jesus’ Son. I talked to Alison Maclean, who adapted it, in 2001. The story ran in the Listener exactly as it does below. The top picture is of Billy Crudup as Fuckhead. The second picture is of Maclean directing James Rolleston in The Rehearsal (2016). The third is of Johnson himself, and I have no idea where or when it was taken.

Hollywood: the place where nothing happens. John Gregory Dunne’s book Monster is ­a funny, insightful, sometimes frightening account of Dunne and his wife Joan Didion’s trials and nightmares getting a screenplay into production – specifically, the true, nasty story of crash-and-burn newsreader Jessica Savitch that, over eight years, became the Michelle Pfeiffer/Robert Redford soft-soaper Up Close & Personal. A defining moment? In an early meeting, former Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg asks Dunne and Didion if Savitch really needs to die at the end.
In passing, Dunne mentions taking a meeting with an unnamed woman director from New Zealand who was briefly attached to the project. And, assuming that it wasn’t Jane Campion? Yes, that director was Alison Maclean who was then learning the ins and outs of development hell. “When I came on board, there had been something like eight drafts,” Maclean says. “It was absurdity, a real horror story.”
A tranquil weekday afternoon at the Ponsonby headquarters of the New Zealand Writers’ Guild – Maclean is back in town to inaugurate a “screenwriter’s laboratory” ­– feels like a long way from all the industry gameplaying. Maclean has a stillness and reticence that lets her relate these Hollywood war stories with a kind of lofty, amused stoicism. But you might still wonder what the auteur of two solid art features – the New Zealand-made Crush (1992) and the US-made Jesus’ Son (2000) ­– was doing with stuff like this?
“I love Joan Didion’s writing and I thought there was some very sharp writing within the script. I also read the original biography of Jessica Savitch [Golden Girl]. I thought it was interesting, a tough story. She was wildly self-destructive and an addict and had a very messy life, and was an unusually ambitious, driven woman, but obviously a successful, charismatic anchorwoman. But they kept wanting to turn it into A Star is Born and her into this fluffy, airhead protégé.”
In the end, the film was directed by the undistinguished Jon Avnet and the wider lesson meant more than the product. “I saw it and I thought it was junk, really,” Maclean says. “You hear so many stories like that, of a story or an idea being so hugely compromised that nothing good can come from it, and having so many writers involved rewriting each other. It makes me very nervous about making a film in the studio system. Unless you have the clout of someone like Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) ­– ie your last film made a lot of money – then it’s something to be avoided.”
Again and again, the system lets you down, even if you are at the Martin Scorsese level. Another project that came and went over two years without ever going into production was a remake of the 1946 asylum film Bedlam. This looked good: Scorsese as director with Maclean as writer. “That was a sad story. I had a disagreement with Scorsese about casting and we parted company. Then, ultimately, it didn’t get made anyway because the company that owns the rights was obstructive and not really serious about making films.
“There was more than six years between Crush and Jesus’ Son. There were a number of projects, but there were three scripts that I wrote and spent two years each on. That’s more than meetings, that’s hard work. Casting them and finding locations and putting all that burning drive into something that doesn’t happen. It’s made me a bit more cautious in the sense of only taking on something that has a pretty real chance of happening. As much as you can ever know.”
Canadian-born, a New Zealand resident from the age of 14, Maclean left for good after the Cannes success of Crush. At times, though, it must have seemed like it was easier to make films even in cash-strapped New Zealand than the US. “In certain ways,” she says. “It seems like it’s easier to make a first film here. I’m not sure about beyond that. The problem with the US is that it feels like there are so many opportunities – suitors, in a way – that ultimately may not be very real.”


But the genesis of Jesus’ Son was something else. This was “a strange, charmed convergence,” she says. It felt fated, inevitable, meant to be. The film is adapted from a book by US writer Denis Johnson, a loosely connected, semi-autobiographical series of short stories, with the title taken from Lou Reed’s song “Heroin”. Johnson’s narrator, known as Fuckhead, is a hipster saint slouching towards some form of redemption through a midwestern 1970s of cheap hotels, dives and drug abuse.
The book first appeared in 1992 and Maclean read it not long after. “I loved the book, it’s one of my favourites. It’s so compressed, it does so much with so little, a perfect book in a way. But I probably considered making it a film for five minutes and didn’t go any further.”
Equally, though, she was inspired enough to track the author down in remote northern Idaho, phone him to congratulate him on his terrific book and pursue him to collaborate on another script. Even later, she was involved in an unproduced script adapted from another Johnson book, The Stars at Noon, set in Nicaragua.
Through this period, there was all the other shadowboxing, the grappling with illusion: meetings and proposals, living off development money, writing in her apartment in New York’s East Village. She directed some TV, including Homicide and the first two episodes of Sex and the City, which is not considered slumming: Kathryn Bigelow, John McNaughton, Steve Buscemi and others have directed Homicide. She also shot the video clip for Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”, and got a memorably emotional performance from the singer.
But that’s all just business. Some time later, she got a call out of the blue from producers/writers Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman, who had seen Crush and figured that Maclean would be perfect for a property that they had recently acquired: Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson. They even had an idea for the script.
But even with this beautiful fluke, it was a hard project to get moving. The thing was budgeted for a tiny US $2.5 million and had a solid cast signed up  Holly Hunter, Samantha Morton, Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary and then unknowns Jack Black (High Fidelity) and Billy Crudup (Almost Famous). The package should have been a dead cert.
“We sent that script out to everyone, to all the usual distributors and companies in the US and Europe that might be interested in that kind of slightly offbeat drama, and we got turned down by everybody. Even with the actors we had. It seemed shocking and disturbing to me. The only reason that film got made is because the producers had access to private money.”
Still, what really matters is what’s on the screen and that is the best work that Maclean has ever done  simultaneously downbeat and rapturous, sharp and soulful. In the lead, Crudup has a soft, crumpled, easy charm. The film’s mordant humour is typically Maclean, and a great example is the scene in which Crudup and Black’s characters, who are pill-popping hospital orderlies, receive a man who has a knife lodged in his eye. “Patient complains of knife in head,” writes Black. The scene is as blasé and low-key as his reaction, and is all the better for it.


If Jesus’ Son belongs anywhere, it is with films by Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) and Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Mystery Train) – both in the reluctance to accept Hollywood sentiment and convention, and in the deglamorised tone, the washed-out ambience, which makes its odd sense of the miraculous even more striking and unusual. The drug thing was the red herring that the studios couldn’t move past, Maclean says. It took the Catholic Church to see what studios couldn’t – the church gave it an award at the Venice Film Festival. “That was interesting and surprising. They said it was a film about healing. They got it.”
More than a year after a limited release – it did well in US metropolitan centres, ran for more than two months in New York – Jesus’ Son has paid back the initial investment, “which is respectable, but not great”. It may make the next feature easier to fund, though, and that looks like being a thriller about false memory from Maclean’s own script. There is also another, strictly bottom-drawer idea – a meditation on Moby Dick from the perspective of a woman posing as a man – which has kicked around ever since Maclean moved to New York.
It’s possible, too, that the newfound celebrity of Billy Crudup could lend Jesus’ Son a second life on video and DVD. Alison Maclean, talent scout: the recent Oscar won by the extraordinary Marcia Gay Harden (for her work as Lee Krasner against Ed Harris’ Jackson Pollock in Pollock) might equally boost the fortunes of the only other movie to really use Harden well – Maclean’s Crush. There, she played the vampish antagonist Lane to Donogh Rees’ helpless, bed-ridden Christina. The mere mention of Harden’s Oscar win puts a wide smile on Maclean’s face. “I just think she’s brilliant,” she says, with characteristic economy.

May 21, 2017

Religious art, teenage grief, secret weapons


Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson, 2016). In which Mel Gibson proves, once and for all, that his religious art is every bit as distinctive and personal as that of Malick, Tarkovsky or Scorsese. Even if you don’t warm to it – it’s earnest, defensive and repellent, bold, violent and anti-modern (his art, his thinking as well as this film) – you have to give him that. But his “realistic war scenes depend on horror movie tropes. 
Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise (Robert Mugge, 1980). “I’m not part of history. I’m part of mystery, which is my story.” Space-jazz aphorisms in museums and on rooftops and ecstatic sax freak-outs. I don’t think I got it before.
The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir (Mike Fleiss, 2014). Other kinds of excursions. A key moment comes when the young Weir finds his psychedelic family, with Neal Cassady as his telepathic uncle (he teaches Weir to drive) and Jerry Garcia as his musical brother. When Cassady and Garcia died, about 30 years apart, Weir dreamed about or sensed their passing. There is a kind of intuition (not just musical) that comes as naturally as breathing.  
The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016). Teenage angst, grief and some kind of realisation. See it for Woody Harrelson, but not only that. See also: Hailee Steinfeld, Kyra Sedgwick and even Blake Jenner, reprising the likeable athlete from Everybody Wants Some!! (in both films, likeable athlete seems at first to be a contradiction). 
Zero Days (Alex Gibney, 2016). Invisible wars with weapons so secret that when they hit us, we didn’t even know they were ours. Equally, it is about billions devoted to the industrial-scale production of paranoia. 

May 15, 2017

Life actually


Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick, 2016). A prayer disguised as a nature documentary or the reverse. In this visually stunning film, the mother that Malick addresses, via the medium of narrator Cate Blanchett (earlier versions proposed Brad Pitt and Emma Thompson), could be nature or could be God, assuming there is any difference. The question that has clearly bothered Malick since at least the 1970s, when this project started, is how Creation can be so beautiful and also permit suffering and death. If you assume this grew out of the central, meditative, creation section of The Tree of Life, it seems small, like a footnote to the recent features, but when you learn that The Tree of Life and, probably, The New World grew from this source, Voyage of Time seems as vast as Malick intended. Even a shopping mall rooftop car park seemed like a Malick setting afterwards. 

May 14, 2017

That song

Out of the Blue (Dennis Hopper, 1980). I like to imagine the moment Hopper heard the Neil Young song and thought, thats the story. And the insight that told him that these two useless criminal wash-outs were the Easy Rider pair 10 years later. The idea that punk rock is a rumour or an idea that has already been and gone, and eventually reaches teenage Cebe as stances or postures or a way of describing an opposition to everything you encounter, is appealing as well.  
The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942). Welles at his most pitiless and mature, and, at only 27, somehow drenched in nostalgia he may have never escaped. The legend is that this was his childhood too but the charismatic exuberance of Charles Foster Kane has already become the idiocy and arrogance of George Amberson Minafer. As has been said many times, everything else Welles did was somehow contained in Citizen Kane.
Mr Arkadin (Orson Welles, 1955). More of a mess than Ambersons ever was. Forget, from the distance, the politics of studio interference and grudges and assess what you see on screen. Is there a chance that Ambersons was better for not having Welles in it? And that, cornball happy ending aside, some of the edits were not so terrible? We will never know. But Arkadin is incoherent, all bluster and restlessness that spills over from a Welles performance that already feels like the worst of his caricatures.

Conquest of the useless


Fitzcarraldo (Werner Herzog, 1982). Movies come from the country fair and circus, not from art and academicism.” (Herzog in Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of Heart of Glass, by Alan Greenberg). 

May 5, 2017

Meet the parents


Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017). Are we seeing a new golden age of smaller, more intelligent and still highly entertaining horror movies? It Follows, The Witch, Under the Skin, Don’t Breathe, Under the Shadow and now this, which may not be quite as impressive a horror as all the hype suggests it could be gorier, I think, and the third act seems rushed but it is based on an ingenious and absurdly topical idea and Peele parcels out the twists and surprises with a rare precision (it is a very good story). As noted elsewhere, it really owes more to Twilight Zone-style social satire and speculation than slasher movie or walking dead conventions.