December 10, 2017

Dead road

Wrong Move (Wim Wenders, 1975). The less romantic, gloomy middle film of the 70s road movie trilogy, bookended by the more fondly remembered Alice in the Cities and Kings of the Road, has Rudiger Vogler’s Wilhelm constantly slipping back into uncomfortable German pasts – is it fair to say that this is the Wenders road movie that is closest to Radio On?  

December 9, 2017

Animal house


Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016). This French vegetarian horror movie is made with such conviction, such an impressive unwillingness to compromise. Animal torture and initiation, sexual confusion and terror: yes, it is also the campus film of the year. There is a certain poetic realism to it, an immersion in its world, its rules. Call it the thinking person’s feminist cannibal movie. 

December 6, 2017

Three local films


The Stolen (Niall Johnson, 2017). I didn’t know Alice Eve from Adam but she’s easily the best thing about this otherwise under-powered and disjointed colonial western that was filmed around Christchurch in the winter of 2016. The South Island gold-rush setting is an uneasy mix of history and fiction (we have a Corktown and a Goldtown, but also a Westport) and the film’s trajectory is a familiar one that takes Alice’s Charlotte Lockton from relative civilisation to the lawless frontier. Eve aside, the acting is highly variable – Jack Davenport seems to have popped in from some brooding, northern Gothic romance – and the less said about the screenplay the better. Some good ideas are frustratingly undeveloped and compared to recent, not dissimilar films like Lady Macbeth and The Beguiled, it feels thin and even naive. 
One Thousand Ropes (Tusi Tamasese, 2016). Putting Newtown on film. Even if you are not sure that you fully understand this quiet, grave film about redemption and haunting set in a Samoan-language community in Wellington, you will be struck by the controlled power of the marvellous Uelese Petaia as Maea. 
Spookers (Florian Habicht, 2017). This documentary feels like minor-league Habicht after the Pulp film and his sly personal-experimental Love Story but who couldn’t be impressed by Habicht’s ability to find incongruous human warmth in any setting, even a haunted house attraction in a former nurses’ hostel attached to a disused psychiatric hospital? 

December 5, 2017

Personality


Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (Chris Smith, 2017). To give what is possibly the best and easily the most long-awaited EPK of all time its full title. There is a strong possibility that this film is actually a better, more playful, more rewarding study of the (quiet, sweet, kind) Andy Kaufman and the difficulty of explaining or capturing him than the much straighter movie it documented. Perhaps Man on the Moon needed a Spike Jonze directing it, not a Milos Forman. After two hours, the mystery of Kaufman stays intact but the workings of the no less interesting Jim Carrey are laid bare.  

November 26, 2017

Mountains


Neruda (Pablo Larrain, 2016). A wildly entertaining account of how a great poet might outwit reality. 

November 12, 2017

One of those rare times


The Color of Pomegranates (Sergei Parajanov, 1969). This astonishing exercise in film-as-poetry is one of those very rare times (you can count them on one hand) when you feel that cinema has revealed a world that existed long before cinema, in some corner of the world that has gone largely unseen (also, for me, Pasolini’s Medea, Murnau’s Nosferatu). Not just in its images and sights, observed in a detached and almost impersonal way, but its belief systems, its thoughts, its superstitions, its general air of being impossible to reach now. Even more than that, actually: it showed a different way of doing cinema. 

November 8, 2017

Lost in the world


The Sea of Trees (Gus Van Sant, 2015). “It’s a long, lonely journey from death to birth,” as someone once sang in a much better Gus Van Sant film about suicide. But kill the generic romantic-movie soundtrack and this much-vilified outing might work as a small, introverted parable about grief, loss, failure – all that fun stuff. Alternatively, sometimes you learn that the line between Terrence Malick-ish and Nicholas Sparks-ish can be very thin, and the difference is a guiding, metaphysical intelligence that Van Sant never quite locates. With an underpowered Matthew McConaughey as the suicidal hero, an impressively dark Naomi Watts as his dead wife and Ken Watanabe as the magical Japanese man in the fine tradition of cinema’s “magical negros”.

November 2, 2017

50s/80s





Streets of Fire (Walter Hill, 1984) and Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986). Even though Streets is Springsteen filtered through Jim Steinman (bombast, self-pity, teenage yearning turned morbid), the highly artificial studio-musical staging makes it as dreamlike in its own way as Lynch. But a different kind of dreamlike: abrupt, strangely heightened.

October 28, 2017

Families

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach, 2017). The question seems more pertinent now than ever: do artists get away with being complete assholes just because they’re artists? What does privileging “genius” do in families, other than creating monsters? Just as resentment and narcissism were the engines of earlier Baumbach films like The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg, they also drive this literate black comedy about family life that ultimately feels more resolved and hopeful than the tougher, clearly autobiographical Squid ever could. It even feels like a generally mellower sequel to that film that still offers some genuinely excruciating moments (if that was stuck at adolescence, this has the reflectiveness of middle age). And the performances are uniformly marvellous: Emma Thompson, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman. Especially Sandler and Hoffman. 

October 25, 2017

The personal is disastrous

Colossal (Nacho Vigalondo, 2016). How often is a good idea ruined by efforts to explain it? 

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.