August 26, 2016

In a dream of being seen

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, 2010). Life in a dream of being seen, with witnesses, and on stages. 

August 22, 2016

The shame of history

Enemies of the People (Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, 2009). In a gentler and less cerebral way, Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath gets to the same places Joshua Oppenheimer got to in his Indonesian genocide films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence – the shame, the embarrassment of history. It’s a low-key, patient and undemonstrative film based on the slowly evolving relationship between Sambath, whose father was killed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, and Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s “Brother Number Two”, second only to Pol Pot. Chea and other former killers contemplate their consciences and their souls, explain or demonstrate their methods and show us where the ditches were. What Sambath learns, and this is something the Oppenheimer films do not convey, is that the truth from the past you dreaded or always half-expected does not come with a great flash of insight or pain or outrage, but arrives as simple human sadness about our flaws and unexplained motivations and the gaps in our memories. 

August 12, 2016

Ghost in you

Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016). Extending cleverly from his collaboration with Kristen Stewart on the more classical Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper has Assayas asking that most contemporary of questions: can you be trolled by the dead? This film is both an up-to-the-minute ghost story and an almost experimental character study developed for the precise talents of Stewart: that hurt loneliness, that sullenness. 

August 10, 2016

Curated world

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016). “It’s like living in the 20th century!” That line defines the film. So does this speculation: there wouldn’t be a book on Paterson’s shelf that Jarmusch has not read himself. 

August 8, 2016

Religious film of the year

Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016). So deeply American in its story of religious persecution, so packed with early 21st century anxiety and terror despite its deeper yearning towards the more innocent 70s/80s science-fiction of ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Starman, and containing perhaps Michael Shannon’s strongest and most tender work so far for Jeff Nichols.

August 3, 2016

70s interiors

High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, 2015). JG Ballard used to say that Britain lacked a homegrown surrealist tradition. One of the good things about Ben Wheatley’s crazed adaptation of High-Rise is that it restores the surrealism to Ballard, who is seen too often as some kind of severe futurist or Alvin Toffler figure. In Wheatley and regular writer Amy Jump’s hands, Ballard becomes a moral satirist with a vicious sense of humour. Wheatley also turns Ballard’s science-fiction-of-the-present into retro, keeping the setting at 1975 in a Britain on the edge of Thatcherism, amplifying a class war between a high-rise apartment block’s lower and upper levels and luxuriating in kitsch. Like many Ballardian heroes, Laing is a bystander in his own story, and Tom Hiddleston plays him as an effete, shallow figure who could have arrived from another time, like a preview of the 80s man (it makes sense that Hiddleston was told to watch The Conformist to prepare). The real mania goes on all around him, personified by a decrepit Jeremy Irons as Royal and a Luke Evans made up to look like Oliver Reed as Wilder. This High-Rise is 70s hedonism within a British-surrealist landscape of rubbish strikes, power cuts and smashed cars, where orgies and costume parties are soundtracked by orchestral or mournful covers of Abba’s “SOS”. There is an intriguing connection to David Cronenberg’s sexual revolution horror Shivers, released in 1975 and also set in a modernist apartment block (both films contain variations on wildly out-of-control pool parties). But where the feeling of Shivers was chilly and contemporary, Wheatley’s High-Rise is allowed the distancing effect of debauched retro. One other thing about Cronenberg: Crash was his Ballard adaptation but Dead Ringers might be his most Ballardian film and the journey from modernist luxury to death and ruin is similar to High-Rise, but slower, deeper and more tragic.

August 2, 2016

When everything has already happened

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (Werner Herzog, 2016). Fata Morgana is a long time ago now, and Werner Herzog is a very different kind of figure who works much closer to the mainstream, with eccentricities that are now considered to be quirks, but his internet documentary Lo and Behold reminded me of Fata Morgana more than anything else: it appears before us as a creation and destruction myth, narrated in numbered chapters that are reminiscent of the mythological chapter headings in Fata Morgana. There is the same mix of portentousness and black humour and a soundtrack, relying heavily on Wagner, that suggests both the start and the end of time at once. Mythological time. Herzog is drawn to images of catastrophe and collapse, even here. Where many would see only the Utopian and democratic promise of the internet, and the convenient ease of online shopping, travel and communication and the improved quality of life, he thinks about black holes and sun spots, destructive storms and the end of mankind, and finds a tranquil beauty in imagining that a deserted Chicago means we have all left for Mars.

July 29, 2016

College bullshit

Everybody Wants Some!! (Richard Linklater, 2016). Watching Boyhood in 2014, I had the sense that it was about to intersect with Slacker – that we were going to be taken back to the start in some great, interlocking scheme devised by Linklater. Everybody Wants Some!! grows out of the same intersection, as a first-year-of-college movie set in Austin, Texas, in rambling student houses and big American cars and to a rock soundtrack. The era – four years after the 1976 of Dazed and Confused – also suggests a “spiritual sequel” to that film. But it’s disappointing by comparison. The sense of nostalgia isn’t as powerful and the film never really drifts as the best Linklater films do, but nor does it ever deepen. It feels almost unformed. Is it too conventional in the end and not personal or experimental enough? The problem is that Linklater can be boring when he’s trying not to be himself (see also: Me and Orson Welles, Fast Food Nation). 

July 28, 2016

Old gods

Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015). I talked about Fruitvale Station, his first film, back here; on the evidence of Creed, in which the necessary sentimentality of the script is overpowered by a strong social and political sense that feels natural and fresh, you could say that Ryan Coogler is one of the most exciting young US film-makers around. But the most moving part of this comeback/send-off/reboot (compare and contrast with The Force Awakens) is in the way Stallone graciously takes a back seat, both in the story and the production. 

July 19, 2016

Like a play about the end of the world

10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016). Speculations about disaster have become the most fertile subject of contemporary cinema, but no one could claim to be wise after the event, or at any point, not even with the title presenting a possible clue. 

July 18, 2016

Night time

The BFG (Steven Spielberg, 2016). Like ET 34 years ago, this is a night film not a day film. About the wonder children have when they see things in the dark. 

July 9, 2016

Cinema itself is a time machine

“I think cinema itself is a time machine” Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

July 3, 2016

Reality distortion fields

Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, 2015). A portrait of the artist as a sociopathic monster. Or: backstage at the Apple product launches and inside the visionary’s withered conscience. What if your mastery of the universe meant that you knew exactly what to say when you wanted to say it? The screenplays of Aaron Sorkin present an ideal world where we are all wittier and more devastating and even the worst of us have something clever to add. The best aspects of Boyle, Sorkin and actor Michael Fassbender – who has almost never been better, and that actually is saying something – come together in this collaboration, which is not a just a departure from tired biopic conventions, but even appears like a filmed version of a successful and long-running play that never had to bother with being a play. As for the man himself, in the third act, in his black polo-neck and glasses, he has the austere look of a German theologian, a man who is almost all idea.  

June 26, 2016

City of the plains

My story on Christchurch as a location and subject of films, from Heavenly Creatures and Goodbye Pork Pie to The Changeover and The Stolen, is here. It is a follow-up, really, to this from 2011.   

June 24, 2016


Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2015). When I reviewed Synecdoche, New York back in 2009, I talked about the tangled realities of it, the collapse into surrealism, all of it as a cinematic expression of a total breakdown from which there is no coming back. Anomalisa, co-directed and written by Charlie Kaufman, is familiar territory (see also: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) that operates on a border between narcissistic self-absorption and a kind of sweet sorrow that expresses a wider human condition. Its easier to like or sympathise with than Synecdoche was, at least partly because the child-like puppetry softens the edges of Michael Stones predatory acts on a night away on business in Cincinnati that is disastrous or life-changing, depending on where you sit. The sound design is also ingenious: David Thewlis voices Stone, Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Lisa and Tom Noonan voices every other person, whether male, female or a child (it is an symptom of Stones disorder that everyone else in the world is the same person to him, and its a real condition, known as the Fregoli delusion). The presence of Noonan reminds me of his utterly depressing plays-turned-films from the 1990s, What Happened Was and The Wife, which Kaufman would have known and liked.  

June 18, 2016


Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes, 2015). Nemes’ uncompromising Holocaust film brings hell to the screen in a way that reminds me (blasphemously) of the woozy start of Irreversible – all of hell’s sights, noises, textures, smells. It’s almost more than you can bear and it’s unrelenting, a point of view film suffused with Saul’s guilt and delusion, as well as Nemes’ lasting anger both at the events and earlier, melodramatic depictions. There are few sights more infernal that the sight of prisoners shoveling grey mountains of human ash into rivers. Everything is contaminated by the production of death, and Saul is our guide into the derangement of it. 

June 17, 2016


Shivers (David Cronenberg, 1975) and Rabid (David Cronenberg, 1977). Pool party hedonism in a luxury swingers’ apartment building, an adult movie theatre in the red light district – these are sour (and, yes, deadly) places and experiences in both films. In these early body-horrors, Cronenberg is the sexual revolution’s satirising moralist. The first is wilder and more compressed, limited to the high rise. The second has a larger vision but feels less original. Both are motivated by disgust, and neither is exploitative of its actresses. In both stories, the disease gets out and humans are collateral damage – the most tender sight is of tragic adult star Marilyn Chambers tossed into a truck like garbage at the close of Rabid