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.