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Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Adrian Martin leads off the annual Film Alert round-up - FIVE THINGS THAT DEFENDED CINEPHILIA IN 2016

1. The thing that most defended cinephilia in 2016 was television! Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Horace and Pete, Vinyl, The Americans, Crisis in Six Scenes, Better Call Saul, The Night Of, and – to get beyond the USA for a moment – the grand, apocalyptic finale of the latest Black Mirror series from UK, not forgetting The Kettering Incident, an Australian series that had everything Australian movies usually lack: emotion, melodrama, style, flair, daring.


La Captive, Chantal Akerman
2. It wasn’t a festival-hopping year for me (hence the TV emphasis above). But lecture invitations took me and my beloved Cristina Álvarez López to two great places and events in Europe: the first was (for the second year in a row) Antwerp, for the famed Summer Film College run by the Belgian Cinematek, devoted this year to the theme of “Staging the Song” (in musicals and beyond), plus a large, worthy tribute to Chantal Akerman. How extraordinary to see La Captive, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Long Day Closes, All That Jazz and more, projected on a big screen to an enthusiastic crowd! (PS – The Belgian Cinematek also released, early in 2016, a DVD box-set that didn’t get the attention or kudos it deserved: Hou Hsiao-hsien – Early Works, which includes three audiovisual essays commissioned from Cristina and me.)


3. The other visit was to the Portuguese Cinemateca in Lisbon. To build a bridge between scholarly conferences and the usual brief introductions at screenings, the Filmoteca now has an admirable series in which someone is invited to present ‘a filmmaker in 5 films’ over the course of a week, taking the time needed to put them in context and discuss them with the audience. I got to present Fritz Lang, lucky me. My contact with the lively, intense cinephile culture of Lisbon also resulted in a selection of 4 contemporary Portuguese films at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney during September, including the delightful, ultra-hip teen movie John From (João Nicolau), and A Woman’s Revenge (2012) by one of the least known of the greatest living directors, Rita Azevedo Gomes.
A Woman’s Revenge (Rita Azevedo Gomes, Portugal, 2012)


4. It has become standard behaviour to gripe, at every possible opportunity, about the ‘death of film criticism’, the lack of serious venues for serious talk, the rise of publicity, the endless and indistinguishable Internet drone of information, etc, etc – but I have never seen the situation of criticism that way. When people bemoan the ‘end of the public sphere’, it’s usually just the same old bourgeois lament about the imminent demise of ‘quality’ newspapers, ABC radio/TV, blablabla. But, in my opinion, the good stuff is always out there: you just have to be curious enough to learn where to find it. So, just one hint: recent Film Alert bulletins have kept us up with the latest movement at the Austrian Filmmuseum, where Michael Loebenstein (of the NFSA) has been appointed to replace Alexander Horwath. Let’s hope Mr. Loebenstein keeps up the track record on publications there, because to mark the start and end of 2016 the Filmmuseum gave us, respectively, Ted Fendt’s superb anthology on Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, and the English translation of Alain Bergala’s brilliant The Cinema Hypothesis, an essay on ‘pedagogical transmission’ (but it’s racier than that sounds) which every film teacher at any educational level must read.


5. There are many international releases of the year that I haven’t caught up yet with in any format – Arrival has hit Barcelona cinemas, it’s calling me – but here have been some personal highlights:

Evolution (Lucile Hadzihalilovic). Another disquieting gem of the ‘cinema of poetry’ from this director. Also caught up with her impressive short, Nectar (2014).

Malgré la nuit (Philippe Grandrieux). Overlooked, under-screened, and shamefully treated by critics who should know better.

11 Minutes (Jerzy Skolimowski). Such filmmaking energy! This movie is a total blast.

Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt). Low-key, haunting, Hellmanesque character-in-society study.

Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick). After the (to me) incoherent To the Wonder, I found this a poignant, expressive, beautifully structured work.

The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn). It unravelled by the end, but there were some strong sequences, ingenious stylisation, and about a million light years of improvement after Only God Forgives.

45 Years (Andrew Haigh). All proportions kept, this had a touch of Pialat about it. And what great performances from Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling.

The Was (Soda_Jerk). Absolutely hypnotic digital video piece by this Australian sister duo (with soundtrack by The Avalanches), bringing together Charlize Theron in Monster with the skater kids of Larry Clark’s Wassup Rockers, Jean-Luc Godard with Edward Scissorhands, Cheech & Chong with Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine. See it, over and over On this Vimeo link


© Adrian Martin, 30 November 2016

Editor's Note: My grateful thanks to Adrian for taking the time and trouble to send in this formidable compendium of cinephile activity in the past year. Adrian's latest book is now on sale. 

Contributions to this series are welcome throughout December and the holiday season. Send them to filmalert101@gmail.com


The Current Cinema - Max Berghouse reviews THE ACCOUNTANT

(SPOILER ALERT: Great chunks of key plot elements given away here.) 
Customarily in a Hollywood film, mental aberration, serious or otherwise, is dealt with from a Freudian perspective (or it could be from a cod Freudian perspective!) in which aberrant behaviour or feelings are caused by infantile trauma which is resolved by catharsis.That catharsis is usually the climax of the film or the immediately preceding event which enables the protagonist to overcome the final hurdle of his tests, the tests being in accordance with the "hero's journey" theory on successful films. Hollywood must be the last refuge of the viability of Freudian psychotherapy which has been universally disdained by the medical/psychiatric profession. There may be some lingering hold with psychologists, although as to that, Woody Allen with his lifelong adherence to analysis might be a better guide than this writer.

The protagonist of this film is Christian Wild (Ben Affleck) a high functioning – indeed a very high functioning – sufferer from Asperger's syndrome. Introduced as a deeply troubled and non-verbal child he is on the one hand nurtured by a caring mother and visited with "tough love" from a demanding but nonetheless very caring father who is an officer in the US Army. The father, in my view rightly, insists that his son cannot be allowed to remain cocooned in his own silence and forces him to interact with the world. As an adult Christian is a mathematical genius practising as an accountant with a profitable sideline in laundering money for mafia gangsters. There is not so much as a whiff of condemnation about his sideline. 

Mr Affleck is almost impossibly good-looking so it's a relief to most males watching this film (it is quite clearly an actioner excessively seeking out a young male audience) that he has no sexual or emotional interests with any female (not live ones anyway). Oops, almost forgot to mention that he is a crack pistol and rifle shot, has the killing ability of a comic ninja and is superfit, courtesy of the nebulous career of his father who appears to have been in some sort of "black ops". Whatever requirements daddy may have had as to secrecy for his employers, he makes the best training and facilities available for Christian and his younger brother.

I don't think I can recall seeing a film in which so much of the first couple of acts was spent nailing one hook after another into the wall of the plot, so that it was not so much a matter of following the plot, with or without interest, as it was seeing how quickly one could recognise the relevance of this or that hook. I'm pretty sure every possible point was covered subsequently so that one could mentally refer back to some hook referred to prior. That part was I suppose quite clever. The obverse and downside is that with these multiple hooks made so manifestly clear as "hooks", one could spend much of his time predicting the plot and this necessarily discourages drama.

My language above may indicate some disdain for this film but for what it is, rather than for what it might purport to be, it is entirely worthwhile. Production values are exemplary, Mr Affleck in particular acts well in a role without much in the way of demands. There are other well-known actors involved, but they could scarcely be considered "characters", capable of deep characterisation. Instead they are just straw men. Once the curtain came down I would not have given the film another moment's thought although over coffee my companion at the movie asked for virtually a blow by blow account of the plot and mentioned, probably correctly, that the interaction of the personal – the travail of the protagonist with his particular mental illness and the second plot, concerning the Department of Treasury trying to find out the protagonist's whereabouts and his involvement with crime, is probably too complex for the average viewer.

Ultimately this is a masturbatory fantasy. The weak boy with glasses (indeed the youthful Christian is shown as such) becomes not merely highly intelligent but wealthy as a consequence of his intelligence, is fantastically fit and handsome and a ruthless killer of his enemies.

Given what I've said in the first paragraph of this review, the normal trajectory would be the breaking down of Christian' s emotional barriers to embrace an emotional relationship with some female in the film. This is hinted at but doesn't transpire and instead he is last seen driving off into the sunset and recasting himself with yet again another new identity. There have been multiple such in the past and he has adopted the names of the major mathematical genius is of history. At least the ones with a Christian name and surname. I suspect he would never have called himself Pythagoras! Possibly this gives the producer and director the opportunity of a sequel. I hope not.

The Accountant, USA, 2016.
Directed by Gavin O'Connor, Written by Bill Dubuque.
With Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J K Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor and John Lithgow
128 Minutes

Monday, 28 November 2016

the end - Poetry by Bill Hannan

the end

Jack’s got diphtheria sister
he’s gone to hospital
Jack won’t be back my children
he’s gone to Mary and the angels

they are looking after Jack 
he died in the arms of our saviour
be like Jack and die a good death
so you’ll go straight to heaven

in my youth I am still a believer
I sing souls to paradise in requiems
but I must be becoming a sceptic
I don’t see myself going with them

eventually I understand that death
offers nothing useful to think about
we don’t know the how or the when of it
and nothing at all will follow it

and now in my eighty-fifth year
I suppose I must be waiting
for my rendezvous with death
but how does one prepare to meet nothing

you could say we’re both in rehearsal
Lorna’s sight and my hearing are fading
yet timeless darkness and silence
are still not the same as nothing

since we know not the day nor the hour
it’s probably prudent to make lists
of those things that you now regret
and of the companions you will miss

I must make some time to do that

Sunday, 27 November 2016

On Blu-ray - NZ's finest - Taika Waititi's HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE and Geoff Murphy's UTU (Redux edition)

As Hacksaw Ridge sinks slowly into a box office of maybe $7-8 million, it's clear now that we can name a winner of the award for the most popular film from this neck of the woods in 2016, to whit Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a supersmart little film from New Zealand which grossed over $10 million. It's probably also the best film from anywhere near here. Not that anybody official or in charge of anything from round here is recognising this in any way. Possibly embarrassment might be coming into it somewhere.

A look at the Blu-ray disc of Wilderpeople purchased in shaky Wellington a week or so ago leads to a number of conclusions that make you think a bit so here's what I thought right off the cuff. Let me tell you first however that having watched the film only a few months ago I thought I would watch it with the commentary track on. I have never managed this all the way through before whether it be commentary by the film-makers or by the esteemed critics who do this sort of thing for  a living. (No offence folks especially to all the Film Alert contributors and correspondents who do this sort of thing for no doubt wildly bountiful recompense, but usually something sets me off and I switch it back over.) Oops. Where did that come from.

But...the commentary track is an ill-considered and rather banal and self-congratulatory mess, clearly done on the hop without much preparation or any 'production' that might seem to get the talk headed towards things of far greater interest than occurs here. Disappointing on that level alone.

When I mean 'production' I mean things like cueing up a point and then allowing the film itself, including its dialogue, to kick back in where appropriate. As it is, you can't hear anything except the voices on the commentary track. So...I'm reminded of the uncouth lout who yelled out from the balcony of the State Theatre in Sydney during a long ago SFF when the actor Keith Carradine was rabbiting on under the influence of something that affected his normal clipped delivery. "Listen mate, while you're wanking away down there we could be watching a movie.' Or some such. ...

So.. I'm afraid when a dinner break arrived I gave it up. I'll watch the film again when the memory of it retreats  and I want to remember its virtues - its steely humanity, the great sense of humour especially among all the supporting cast of coppers and backwoodsmen with no respect for authority.

Onto Geoff Murphy's 1983 Utu. The film was always quite a controversial movie in its home territory. Its quality and appeal to a broader international audience was recognised from the start with selection for Cannes way back then. Given the tiny output of NZ film in the day, it was immediately treated as something special. The story goes, according to expert observers and according to the info in the 8 minute short included among the extras, that once the film was finished the producers took it over and fiddled with it. Various versions were in circulation. No details are provided so you would need a hefty memory to recall just exactly what has been changed. But I am assured that the attached "Redux" title is well-justified.

Utu Redux Poster and DVD cover
Way back in the early 80s, Murphy was the rising NZ star. His  Goodbye Pork Pie was a huge hit, a smart local comedy that has retained its status as a local treasure. He followed it with Utu and followed that with The Quiet Earth. Both were hits and attracted much international attention. What happened after that may well be explained better in Murphy's recently issued autobiography but from this distance it remains inscrutable. Three years after The Quiet Earth he wrote and directed Never Say Die,  an action movie starring Temuera Morrison which has sunk without trace. Then he went Stateside, beginning with a TV movie starring Tom Skeritt and Max Von Sydow and then getting jobs on genre movies some of which were big hits.

In Gaylene Preston's making of doco that comes as an extra on Utu Redux Murphy comes across as a charismatic but gentle figure on the set. He's in charge and he takes care of details with lots of ease. You get the impression the large crew of actors and technicians would go the extra yard for him. Preston focuses lots of close-ups of Murphy at work, so much so you actually wonder what if any chemistry existed between the two film-makers at least while the rigours of making Utu were being undergone! Oh well.

Finally, the Redux version with its remarkably restored images reminds you that the acting talent selected for the speaking parts was patchy in its technique. Clearly Murphy wanted to delineate the class differences between officers and men and between Maori and Pakeha but the actors called on to do the first especially don't get to convince you. Maybe hard work with a dialogue coach wasn't a production priority but it's the one thing that distracts from the rigorous authenticity that is otherwise achieved, most especially in the representation of quotidian life in the Maori settlements and in the methods by which the Maori flee from their would-be conquerors. That remains extremely impressive.

The NZ Blu-ray has apparently sold lots of copies. My copy, acquired from Wellington's wondrous mostly rental store Aro St Video, was one of a pile the store held in the expectation of serious sales.

A New Zealand website has this information. There are two Blu-ray offerings - 2-disc ($39.95nz) and a signed, very limited edition, 3-disc set ($39.95nz) with the same contents as the DVD sets but have a Blu-ray of the feature. All Utu Redux editions are Region Free with two audio options, DD 2.0 and DD 5.1 Surround, for both DVD and Blu-ray. Details and orders can be placed with Aro Video of Wellington