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


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).