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.

April 30, 2017

The bears


Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog, 2010). If this feels uncharacteristic of Herzog, it’s because he came to it late: Vasyukov had made a series of four one-hour docos tracking four seasons in a remote part of Siberia before Herzog saw it and offered to recut it, narrate it and re-release it as a feature. Not only does it not look Herzogian, but the narration is unusually straight and subdued, free of both philosophical speculation and the occasional sideways mockery of subjects. But in another important way, it feels like a response to Grizzly Man. If Timothy Treadwell was a deluded sentimentalist who paid with his life, the Russian hunters in Happy People share Herzog’s wary respect for nature. These bears are mindless vandals and killers, and a hunter knows to keep his distance. A black bear is only seen once but their presence is sensed throughout and a story told about a bear attack is the only truly harrowing moment in the film. Nature, for Herzog, is always unsentimental. 

April 22, 2017

Morality and family


Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, 2014). You probably knew people like this: intellectuals who dropped out, isolated themselves, developed their own systems of thought, messed everything up. They probably read a lot of Nietzsche. The one thing worse than being all talk and no action is to be both talk and action. Diaz’s leisurely (four hours plus) film takes an anthropological approach to such figures; it is a moral film about morality and family. 

April 20, 2017

Bob, Bonnie, Clyde

Warren Beatty says he wanted you to play Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde. Did that offer get to you?
No, the offer was sent to my manager’s office and we weren’t speaking; we had had a falling out. I didn’t get any mail or offers that were sent there.
You could have had some love scenes with Faye Dunaway – any regrets?
Nope.

April 19, 2017

Avoiding people is easy


Patience (After Sebald) (Grant Gee, 2012). “Coincidence is like dreams. If you talk about them, they become dead, inert,” says artist Tacita Dean in this film. Does over-explaining the work of German writer WG Sebald, and his masterpiece The Rings of Saturn in particular, have the same risk? Reading Sebald has always been a highly private and individual experience; everyone (mis)remembers the books differently. The good news is that Gee’s sensitive documentary leaves Sebald’s deep and singular mysteries intact even as its selection of well-known Sebald fans have the fervour of cult followers – besides Dean, there is Iain Sinclair, Marina Warner, Rick Moody, Andrew Motion and, possibly the most insightful of all, psychologist Adam Phillips. Artist Jeremy Millar takes a nearly Shroud of Turin-like photo of the site where Sebald died and the veneration does get almost holy. But Sebald still slips away. There is a sense that he was both unique – a German writer living in England, writing in German, often obliquely about the Holocaust, and with an antiquarian sensibility – and a pioneer of a type of writing that now almost borders on cliché. As Sinclair says, “The countryside is black with people going for walks to write books.” In most cases, these have a therapeutic angle: they are restorative nature walks, feel-good treks. Sebald’s walk dwelled instead on the dark catastrophes of history and the trip put him in hospital. Nor did he ever ask for disciples – as Sinclair says, following the trail of The Rings of Saturn is the worst way to experience or understand Sebald. It unfolds in your head. 

April 13, 2017

April 11, 2017

Cruelty and sorrow


Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016). The art worlds depiction of strong or violent emotions pales in comparison with the real thing. 

April 8, 2017

Ghost houses, bomb shelters


Under the Shadow (Babak Anvari, 2016). Ghost houses, bomb shelters. Well-known horror tropes (children see things) and a genuinely fresh setting and perspective. 

April 6, 2017

Planet of the idiots

Hard to be a God (Aleksei German, 2013). This Russian medieval sci-fi epic is a distant cousin of sorts to Tarkovskys Stalker and Andrei Rublev: it shares an author with the former and a sense of grimy, lived-in medieval authenticity with the latter. But the excess and even derangement of Chimes at Midnight is here too. The planet Arkanar is a world of dirt, blood, spit, fog and gore and your engagement is less about a coherent plot than an immersive experience that has the consistency, or even pungency and texture, of a nightmare. Rain means something in Tarkovsky, but here it is just rain. It is constant and it turns everything into mud.  

March 31, 2017

Working with Walt

Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams, 2016). Of course the story of how autistic Owen Suskind learned to communicate with others using characters and situations from Disney films is touching and inspirational, while being entirely individual rather than typical, but there are darker undercurrents here as well, which the documentary does touch on. Do parents of disabled children want them to stay in some sense innocent, even as they hit adulthood? How many decades into the future does your thinking and worrying go? And are the responsibilities and stresses on the siblings ever properly understood? I felt there was much more to know about the obvious burdens on Owen’s older brother, who is named – and this is hard to believe, but true – Walt. 

March 21, 2017

White trash precariat


American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016). How many films have been this concerned with money? Counting it, coveting it, stashing it, earning it, conning people out of it. Andrea Arnolds first non-British film is a road movie through the US midwest  Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota  that embeds viewers within a group of drifting, nihilistic teens who form a kind of white trash precariat (this was conceived several years ago and it debuted at Cannes last May, but it feels very much like a Trump-era story). As in Arnolds Fish Tank, there is a young woman at the centre (Sasha Lane, above) who is trying to negotiate the rules of the world and identify its predators. Arnolds view is raw, sympathetic, intuitive and not immune to the weird beauty of the entirely ordinary even when her Academy ratio close-ups risk giving viewers claustrophobia. 

March 20, 2017

Ten years earlier

The Serpent’s Egg (Ingmar Bergman, 1977). As though Cabaret could be repackaged as a dark and murky nightmare (apartments, corridors, basements, crowded clubs, wet night-time streets) in which Nazi crimes were somehow rehearsed 10 years ahead of time. David Carradine was no Max von Sydow but he was arguably more of a Max von Sydow than David Bowie was in the thematically similar but much sloppier Just a Gigolo a year later. 

March 19, 2017

On the river

Sully (Clint Eastwood, 2016). A man lands a plane on a river in New York and everyone lives, so why does he feel like this? 

March 18, 2017

Cities at night


Heat (Michael Mann, 1995). I hadn’t seen this for 20 years, I think, and I remembered the bank shoot-out most clearly – sudden guerrilla warfare choreographed in downtown Los Angeles – but I had not recalled its feeling, both grandiose and sad, beautiful and strange. And there is Mann’s romantic admiration for these quiet men – cops, criminals, what’s the difference? – who run on a mix of intuition and discipline, outsiders looking in. 

March 11, 2017

Trains and bad weather

Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2008). A dark and fairly pitiless noir with hauntings at its centre. The sex and death that drives these plots goes unseen, leaving just the clouds of suspicion and guilt, the sound of trains and bad weather.

March 9, 2017

Last time I walked down your street


Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016). This has an unexpected shape that feels like shapelessness (as we saw in the equally moving and impressive Margaret, Lonergan likes to take his time with scenes that might have seemed extraneous to others), and it’s observational rather than highly personal, but it is unusually sensitive to the burdens of guilt and grief and the ways that we try and sometimes fail to move on. There are entire worlds and stories beyond what we see here: the way Lee (Casey Affleck) wraps up the three photos when he moves, or the way the young Patrick glances at his passed-out mother, or the story of the man who lost his dad in 1959 and remembers every detail, or many other small and important moments. If you leave wanting more from Joe and Randi, maybe that is the point as well. 

March 5, 2017

Almost pleasantly underpowered

Café Society (Woody Allen, 2016). The annual Woody Allen film is nearly beyond criticism by now. This time: period nostalgia (Hollywood, gangsters) and an almost pleasantly underpowered love triangle in which passion, anguish or despair seem to be entirely absent. Call it a sketch of an idea of an experiment about a story about life, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in a year, will you even remember which one this was?

March 4, 2017

The best Christopher Lee performance


The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1967). The seriousness of the metaphysical struggle. He’s almost Max von Sydow.  

March 1, 2017

Old news

Snowden (Oliver Stone, 2016). The disillusioned patriot shaped the trajectory of Stone’s Vietnam films – Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven and Earth (in Wall Street, the disillusioned capitalist). The Edward Snowden biopic is closest to the second in plot terms but it lacks the urgency and righteous anger that risked being embarrassing, which makes this seem stale, cautious and under-imagined instead. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance is suitably diligent. One thing: if your storytelling is hugely dependent on news clips and audio, are you making a dramatic feature or is it really a dramatised documentary? Another thing: it’s some kind of achievement to make even Nicolas Cage appear boring. But Stone manages. 

February 27, 2017

Whatever it is

The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor, 2016). A terrible shambles about maternal guilt, sexual jealousy and the black hole of alcoholism that demonstrates, again and again, that it takes a special kind of talent (Fincher, Hitchcock, Verhoeven) to make great entertainment out of psychologically lurid material. Perhaps it takes a sadistic or single-minded or simply cold-hearted person. Whatever it is, Tate Taylor is not it. 

February 22, 2017

Who makes the Nazis?


Imperium (Daniel Ragussis, 2016). The renaissance of Daniel Radcliffe (Swiss Army Man, Kill Your Darlings) seemed more myth than reality until his surprisingly strong showing in this unexpectedly topical undercover Nazi thriller. Radcliffe is a dweebish FBI agent turned shaven-headed Aryan warrior (he looks like a pocket-edition Henry Rollins) infiltrating neo-Nazi gangs who have – you will never believe this – been radicalised by a smarmy, conspiracy theory-peddling radio host.     

February 20, 2017

Faces in the water



Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979) and Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016). Like both Stalker and Andrei Rublev, Silence could be understood as a long and introverted meditation on the gap between religious aspirations and ideals and the compromises made by those who must live in the world. It is profound enough to wear the comparison and there is a rare cautiousness, or maybe piousness or seriousness, in the way that Scorsese directs. It may be true that Andrew Garfield lacks the gravity or sorrow that Liam Neeson and even Adam Driver carry with them, or the thin-skinned anguish of Willem Dafoe in the more turbulent and vivid Last Temptation of Christ, but there are many consolations. A remarkable Japanese supporting cast is just one of them. A thoughtful screenplay (by Jay Cocks and Scorsese) is another. Like Tarkovsky (or recent Malick), this is religious art, and you have to meet it at least halfway. 

February 11, 2017

Fish tank, hall of mirrors


The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947). Where is that line between the too-much-ness of Welles as actor and the hamminess? To put it another way: between the actor caring too much and not caring enough? You can say (David Thomson does) that Welles put a lifetime of acting into Citizen Kane and everything after was a variation on parts of Kane’s corruption. And everything is informed for us now by biography. The unconvincing figure Welles plays here, the Irishman O’Hara, is smart but clueless, an insightful writer who is easily duped. Welles’ expressionist flourishes are daringly at work in the closing amusement park Caligari scene, despite studio edits, but I’m as taken with the hallucinatory aquarium scene. No one has ever made sense of the story.

January 27, 2017

Last one leaving


Don’t Breathe (Fede Alvarez, 2016). The Detroit setting will get your horror movie at least half-way there (Only Lovers Left Alive, It Follows). Other than that, think about bringing the war home. This is efficient, brutal when it needs to be, and packed with dread. 

January 25, 2017

In the world


Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016). It seemed impossible but everyone learned something. Deep within it, there is pioneering American religious separatism, the founding story, tribes of children and the possibility of innocence. Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, George MacKay. 

January 24, 2017

At the lake


Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015). There is a 1970s feeling to Alex Ross Perrys psychological drama  not quite a horror, but nearly – Queen of Earth, both in its setting (a lakeside cabin with timbered interior) and its theme (a Bergman-ish descent into madness). The eerie score by Keegan DeWitt has echoes of Rosemarys Baby and there is a similar sense of persecution and humiliation in the story of Catherine, a young woman who has lost her famous artist father, played with remarkable commitment and intensity by Elisabeth Moss. As in Perrys previous film, the vicious literary black comedy Listen Up Philip, these are well-connected, creative, upper middle-class New Yorkers whose relationships have turned competitive and bitter  it can almost feel like the dark flip side of a privileged, whimsical Wes Anderson world. 

January 20, 2017

Back from the dead: Mel Gibson, martyrdom and violent religiosity in Blood Father




Blood Father (Jean-Francois Richet). 
Chapter 1: it begins and ends in churches, with confessions of hopelessness.
Chapter 2: the body artist, the dragon drawing and the meaning of Don Quixote.
Chapter 5: the missing mother.
Chapter 9: when he loses the biker beard, he reminds you of his most vulnerable and remorseful self. 

January 19, 2017

The wretched of the earth


Chasing Asylum (Eva Orner, 2016). “It sat with me for quite a number of months. And if I didn’t speak out, who was going to? I’ve got a conscience and I was brought up the right way. And I don’t understand how we can do this to each other. I felt that it was the right thing to do. People need to talk up.” Manus Island guard and whistleblower Martin Appleby.

January 18, 2017

Gone missing


The Captive (Atom Egoyan, 2014). The sad thing about Atom Egoyan is that we measure everything against the heights of his greatest work and find it lacking, time and time again  perhaps he peaked too soon. It doesnt help when a (relatively) new film like The Captive seems to be a pallid, lifeless, poorly-constructed retread of his best films, with their deep explorations of loss and memory. Child abduction, disappearances, guilt, grief: it was all done so much better in The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica and Felicias Journey, which constitute the mature peak of Egoyans career. This has none of the sad, complicated feelings of those three films and Egoyan makes a confusing mess of the tricky timelines  the kind of thing that once came easily to him. 

January 9, 2017

Regrets, nothing



Unplanned double bill: What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015) and La Vie en Rose (Olivier Dahan, 2007). 

January 7, 2017

January 6, 2017

Space ghosts


Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, 2016). Carrie Fisher died between my first viewing of Rogue One and my second, which complicates the already problematic decision to create a younger version of the actress for this so-called standalone story that is really a direct prequel to A New Hope. The digital Leia is only in it for seconds but a reanimated Peter Cushing gets more screen time and the effect makes him seem strangely shifty, like a lost ghost who isn’t sure if he should be there either. The other resurrection is more straightforward: unused A New Hope footage puts a pilot played by the late Drewe Henley back in the series. Maybe nothing can ever die in the Star Wars universe and not just because there will always be prequels, sequels, flashbacks, recastings and maybe even remakes one day, but because everything returns to the Force, in a Buddhist sense. Sometimes characters die and get to live again (Poe Dameron, Anakin Skywalker) so why not actors? But is there also something about George Lucas’ light, artificial conception of a plastic universe in which actors aren’t even necessarily human beings that jars with Gareth Edwards’ impressive ambition for Rogue One, which is to construct a realistic, behind-enemy-lines war movie within the confines of the greater, Lucasfilm mythology? That tension is interesting and it makes Rogue One more provocative, stranger and less obviously crowd-pleasing than The Force Awakens, which seemed perfectly designed to disappoint absolutely no one and had a remarkable lightness of touch (in that film, resurrections were limited to Alec Guinness’ voice). So I do agree with the critics of Rogue One who say that the story is complicated and even exhausting, and that important plot points and great actors (a Fury Road-ish Forest Whitaker, especially) are lost in the murk while Felicity Jones and Diego Luna feel like the gloomy flipsides of Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac in The Force Awakens, but there is plenty to like here as well: Ben Mendelsohn’s Krennic is already one of the series’ great tragic figures and the duo of Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen don’t just expand the idea of the Force across the entire series, they even seem to refer all the way back to Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, which is one of the things that kicked off all of this for Lucas in the first place. Like every viewer, I’m already thinking of other spin-offs I want to see from this spin-off. 

January 4, 2017

The cinema at the corner of the avenue

“There, I had arrived. I had forgotten the cinema at the corner of the avenue. It was called Le Mexico and it was no coincidence that it had such a name. It gave you a longing for journeys, for running away or escaping … I had also forgotten the silence and the calm of avenue Rachel that leads to the cemetery, but you don’t think of the cemetery there, you tell yourself that right at the very end you will emerge in the countryside, and even with a bit of luck on a seaside promenade.” Patrick Modiano, In the Café of Lost Youth

January 3, 2017

Interstellar, second time

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014). The troubled single parent in highbrow science fiction: Interstellar, Midnight Special, Arrival, Signs. As with Arrival, Interstellar is more emotionally affecting on a second viewing. On a first viewing, you are awed by the scale (time, space), but on a second, by the smaller details and connections. Or: nothing gives a film longevity quite like a requirement to view it more than once. The single parent theme owes everything to Spielberg and at least two of the above are homages.