Thursday, August 23, 2012

Auckland Cinephile #1 (week of August 23rd)

Auckland Cinephile is a guide to the various arthouse and retrospective releases of the week that in our highly subjective opinion are worth mentioning. Listing doesn't guarantee a theatre will follow through with their plans, or I might have fucked up, so double check before going. For a full listing of screen times across Auckland, Flicks or the theatre website is probably your best bet. If you think we've forgotten something, please mention it in the comments. Suggestions for improved formatting also welcomed.


* NZ documentary HOW FAR IS HEAVEN was one of my highlights of the NZFF, and I'm glad to see this beautiful observational documentary about a small community is returning to local theatres.

How Far is Heaven Trailer from Deer Heart Films on Vimeo.

* Kenneth Lonergan's MARGARET, starring Anna Paquin and feted by many critics as one of the greatest US films of 2011, unexpectedly returns to Rialto for its third trip to theatres this year (after World Cinema Showcase and a May run at some other theatres). Screening in 35mm!

* Pang Ho-Cheung's VULGARIA, a cheap quick and filthy film about the perils of filmmaking, is the first film from NZFF's Incredibly Strange section to return for a theatrical run (at Event Queen St and St. Luke's). Other Asian films releasing this week: the Chinese STARRY STARRY NIGHT and LAN KWAI FONG 2.

* Academy Cinemas are hosting a mystery screening of an "ultra-out there black comedy involving splatter and irreverance (sic) at every turn blows the politically correct society apart, literally. Rated R18 contains violence and offensive language, this film will have its Australasian premiere at the Academy, Sunday the 26th of August at 7.30pm."

* And, rather unexpectedly, a lot of major critics have reasonably nice things to say about HOPE SPRINGS, despite it seeming like blue-rinse fodder and having a poster I can't bring myself to look at without cringing.

Continuing in release are a passel of NZFF '12 films, including:
* I WISH directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda (STILL WALKING, AFTER LIFE)
* SHUT UP AND PLAY THE HITS, the LCD Soundsystem concert film/documentary.


* Terrence Malick's second film, DAYS OF HEAVEN, returns to Academy Cinemas in HD for four screenings. They're also showing a Who double feature of THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT and QUADROPHENIA on Sunday at 3:15.

* This Monday's film at Auckland Film Society: VACATION, a 2007 German film directed by Thomas Arslan (35mm).

* Dave and Dan present LABYRINTH on Sunday at Britomart Country Club (Blu-Ray).

* Monterey Cinemas plays digitally MAX MANUS Friday at 6:30 and THE BIG SLEEP Sunday at 2:00.

* Berkeley Cinemas in Mission Bay plays THE WIZARD OF OZ Sunday at 6 pm.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Unfinished notes on the sadness of HOLY MOTORS

Arriving on a wave of hosannahs from Cannes (although no laurels - it left the Croissette prizeless), HOLY MOTORS was my most anticipated film of NZFF 2012. The word was that it was bugnuts, joyously insane. And I love joyously insane. I love Leos Carax, the director, who is responsible for my favorite live-action scene in cinema, Denis Lavant's run to David Bowie's "Modern Love" in MAUVAIS SANG. He's responsible for THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE as well, a glorious film that was ruinious financially and to his career: HOLY MOTORS is only his second feature in the 21 years since then. His previous feature, POLA X, I've only seen once: it lives faintly in my memory as an artistic challenge but spiritual slog, certainly nothing as uplifting as HOLY MOTORS seemed to be from a distance. I knew little going in, other than Denis Lavant featured prominently throughout playing different roles, and many of them were absurd, and all in all, it seemed like riotous fun. The remarks that I heard post-the first screening at NZFF (a Friday afternoon one I couldn't make) attempted to mitigate my expectation - "it doesn't add up to much, but it's lots of fun", was the common refrain.

Fast-forward to the end of the screening, and my immediate question was not "what the fuck did I just see" (a question most of the audience seemed to have), but this: why am I so sad?

And why the hell is nobody else reacting like this?

Maybe it's where my brain was. NZFF 2012 was a festival, as I've noted elsewhere, characterized by the transition from film to digital, DCP stepping in for film, works like SIDE BY SIDE (which I skipped watching but couldn't avoid hearing about) analyzing the trend, TABU sending a love letter to cinema's past, and TWO YEARS AT SEA waving goodbye to the physical medium of film altogether. HOLY MOTORS, not content with these challenges, took things a step further, and imagined a near-future world where the apparatus of cinema is vanishing completely. That it's often hilarious as fuck and relentlessly inventive is true, but it's often funny in the way Samuel Beckett is funny, maybe: in service of a bleaker truth.

I've only seen HOLY MOTORS once, and I'm bound to get some details wrong, but herewith, a spoiler-filled discussion of what I saw in this film. (Well, until I bailed. You'll see.)

SETUP: We meet an older man, alone, in his room. (This man, as it transpires, is the director Leos Carax.) Hidden away in his room is a secret door to a cinema. This is the only cinema we see in the film. Am I right in remembering the audience sleeping? Perhaps not. Regardless, it's disconnected from the world. Is this where the films that we see are going - to a hidden audience - or is this (more likely) the tomb of the cinema audience of the past? A black dog roams the audience - a guard dog, like you'd find at a deserted warehouse, perhaps? Or is there other symbolic freight here?

(Incidentally, Drew McWeeny's review, which is pretty insightful and great albeit seemingly unwilling to address the obsolesence of cinema as more than just a possible reading, reminds me that the film starts with early Meuybridge photography. It's the birth of film, and perhaps it's not unreasonable to read this opening as the dateline on a tombstone, showing the birth and death, before we get to the epitaph.)

MEET THE ACTOR: Somehow (the precise shot order eludes me) we get to a lovely house with sports cars that the actor, Denis Lavant, emerges from. We are led to believe that this is his home, and therefore he is well compensated for his work. (But is it? Bear in mind when we flash forward for the night he winds up in another home entirely, and as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that the boundary of the films is not as clear as the inside/outside of the limousine that appears to be the organizing principle.)

With only a limo driver as staff, seemingly, he prepares for his first job, and like many things in HOLY MOTORS, parallels should be made with that which is absent. He does not have a hair and makeup department. He does not have a director. He does not have a camera crew, and as he arrives on site in an old woman's costume, no crew whatsoever are apparent. For some reason, I think all the great films about filmmaking (DAY FOR NIGHT and 8 1/2 spring immediately to mind), and how they take as their principal text the nature of the filmmaking family: the group of people that must come together to make a film happen. With the exception of the singular indulgence of the driver, and one other forthcoming character, we never see any non-actors involved in making these films. (Again, as I recall. Correct me if I'm wrong on this or any point.)

PERFORMANCE #1: It's difficult to work out on a first viewing the entire schema for what Carax is trying to do with his choices of scenes, but I think that the sheer variety of textures and stories that he chooses are meant to reflect the cliches and limitations of cinema. Nonetheless, things must be ordered for a reason, and it seems like a thesis statement for the film that the actor's very first performance is of an elderly woman, alone, ignored on the street. Metaphor for film as it once was?

PERFORMANCE #2: there's clearly a dialectic intended between the first performance, reliant on makeup, and this, its total opposite: a performance in a green-screen. Actors enter one by one, exit without interacting with each other. This scene is of course an amazing demonstration of Lavant's physicality, but it's equally noteworthy photographically: in that the images captured of the performance of Lavant bounding about in motion capture are far more striking than the CGI results, not just in this film but virtually any film I can think of. This reaches its apex when a second performer, a contortionist, joins, and Lavant and her are joined in stunning physical twists and turns, whilst simultaneously transformed into laughable serpent gods having sex.

Again, humans (apart from a disembodied voice, which may or may not be human) are absent from the means of production.

PERFORMANCE #3: And the Godzilla music hits the screen, whilst we have allusions to LA BELLE ET LA BETE and KING KONG as the monster attacks. Here, I decided that Carax was exploring every genre and turning it inside out (a decision that later scenes, perhaps, made me equivocate). As this went on, I found this more and more a bleak, trenchant commentary on the limits of genre: by seeing something so outside our expectations within that genre, we were reminded just how entrenched the rules of each genre were, how ossified our expectations of cinema had become.

But that darkness would settle in later. There's no question this section is a glorious goof, and I think it's here that many viewers decide just to take this film as a comedy. (It's quite significant in this context, though, that the subsequent scene, of a cab driver picking up his daughter from a party, is almost mirth-free: a needed corrective.) But it's also the first place where the reality of what we're seeing starts to break down: when a fashion photographer's assistant's fingers are bitten off, there's no sense that it's fake. It's actually quite scary, as we still don't even know the ground rules at this point: is this an actor intruding into other's lives? We eventually learn of invisible cameras, but here is our first (and not last) sign of invisible special effects artists.

It's also quite a mean-spirited moment - the assistant isn't THAT terrible of a person, as I recall - and one where I perhaps in retrospect feel the anger overwhelming the silliness. And if I'm not wrong, it's somewhere in this section where if I recall correctly we first see the Pont-Neuf, the site of Carax's career Waterloo (I mean this in terms of his ability to get films made). Is there a connection here? Is there something to be made of the fact that, whilst the film being made has no real crew (and Carax, more than likely, has a crew a shadow of the size of his old crews), the insipid fashion photographer has a gigantic supplemental entourage?

… and this is the point where I would love to continue, but I'm reasonably confident that I can't do a great job without a second viewing (possibly even with one, but anyway), and this terrific piece captured more eloquently than I many similar points, and so, I intended to abandon it, or perhaps revisit on a second viewing. But upon (bizarrely enough) popular request, I do want to publish and finish this, in order to address the ending.

To contextualize broadly: the visible apparatus of filmmaking only consists of two visible elements in the end of the film: the white limousines and the people who travel in them. (The cameras have all been left in an abandoned building, the one Kylie fell from. [Which McWeeny points out is possibly a reference to Carax's wife, Katerina Golubeva, who committed suicide last year.] If I remember correctly, it's after this scene that the digital nightmare invades our actor's dreams.) After leaving the actor Alex in his last role for the night (with a chimpanzee, or perhaps monkey, family, I can't recall - endearingly goofy, but also deeply cynical in its address of the cinematic gesture of evoking an emotion of narrative completion, and perhaps a hint that the future of filmmaking doesn't even require other human participants?), the limousines return to their home at Holy Motors. The driver, Celine (played by Edith Scob), leaves the car, wearing the mask that she wore in EYES WITHOUT A FACE 50 years ago (simply an allusion to cinema history, like many others in the film? or an allusion to a further absence?), and disappearing away.

And then, quite unexpectedly, the limos talk to each other.

One person I spoke to afterwards said something to the extent of "I was with that film til the last scene, but Carax was just trolling us then, wasn't he?" Even people who love it see it, as near as I can tell, as a goofy fun digestif to a buffet of cinematic joy.

But beyond the superficial absurdity, in a film where there are no other humans left to talk about the filmmaking appartus with, these machines are noting that they, too, are about to become extinct, just like the cameramen and makeup artists before them. And in a world where cinema has been reduced to such a bare existence, if these limousines are removed, these holy motors, what is left to drive cinema forward?


Result: fin du cinema.

And maybe this is all too bleak and/or overdetermined of a reading. I get films wrong often, when what I expect collides with what I get (DRIVE and SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK being two films I completely misread on first viewings). And I don't mean to imply that I didn't laugh a lot and viscerally enjoy many scenes in HOLY MOTORS, because I did. But I can't reconcile the seemingly popular interpretation of this as a simply joyful, ecstatic, goofy, playful, fun film with the contents on screen, and I certainly don't see it (as some NZFF viewers did) as a funny goof with no organizing principle.

But with such a rich movie, I'm sure that it doesn't give up all its secrets with one viewing, and I can't wait to return.

Monday, August 13, 2012

NZIFF 2012: awards wrap-up.

The New Zealand International Film Festival, for the most part, doesn't give awards (with the exception, this year, of a curated section of New Zealand's best shorts, about which more shortly). So I thought I might give some. Because why not?

BEST OPENING TITLE CARD: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS. (Although I'm counting the sound design as part of that.)

MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE, TECHNOLOGY DIVISION: DCP. With the Civic Theatre upgraded to DCP, digital titles no longer have the "must-avoid" stigma that they did for me just a few short years ago, and the back to back screenings of MOONRISE KINGDOM on film and THE CABIN IN THE WOODS on DCP left many suspecting the latter may not just be equal but a superior format. (MOONRISE, being shot on 16mm, and seeming to have registration problems during projection, may not be a fair comparison, but anyway). Two of my three favorite "films" (an increasingly quaint word now that "film" is no longer part of their medium) were TABU and THE LONELIEST PLANET, both screened in this format. (TABU, in particular, looked luminescent.) So the good news is that, by and large, digital projection is under control during the festival. On the other hand, it's underlined the factor that the subpar digital projection which features at many local venues outside of the festival is really and truly no longer acceptable. (The author makes plans to see I WISH, which he missed at the festival, realizes it's playing at the Rialto Cinema Newmarket's e-cinema, and cancels such plans as he waits for the rest of Auckland to catch up with the film festival.)

MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE, FILM DIVISION: TWO YEARS AT SEA. It shouldn't have been a total surprise, given its recommendation by film critic Michael Sicinski, but I wasn't expecting to be this profoundly affected, or that it would be in my top three films of the festival. On paper, it's a wisp of an idea, barely deserving of feature status - an almost speech-free portrait of a man living alone in the woods in hermitude. (I went in thinking it was a drama, and it sort of is, but it's based on a real guy who lives like this, closer to documentary in some ways but still dramatized.) What makes this film so special is that it was shot on short ends of black and white 16mm film stock that's no longer being made. Just as we get the sense of loss from our protagonist when he looks at pictures from his past, so too we feel the sense of loss as shots are abruptly truncated or damaged because of limitations of the source stock. The grain is monstrously, overwhelmingly alive - arguably, film grain is as much the subject here as our human character - and seeing a pristine DCP of FROM UP ON POPPY HILL the next day, I couldn't help but long for the life of film grain, now forever gone in a static, crisp DCP universe. The final shot of TWO YEARS AT SEA (which one of NZ's best film writers, the ever-perceptive Steve Garden, adroitly pointed out evoked THE TURIN HORSE) is a gorgeous long goodbye to that grain; it will be missed.

(As a quick aside: DCP can do a wonderful job of capturing film grain; for instance, I saw THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY at Fantastic Fest last year, and it looked gorgeous and astonishingly film-like. But other times, grain doesn't exist; still other times, it inexpertly pops in and out (such as in STUDENT). The application of grain in a post-film universe is something that will be interesting [to nerds like myself, anyway] to chart over the next few years. In the meantime, the alchemical life that film intrinsically brought to even the most static frame is gone by default. Perversely, my second most satisfying film experience, image-wise, was THE WALL - shot on Red Epic, it gets insane levels of detail normal 35mm stock wouldn't capture, and amazing definition in low-light conditions. But projected on 35mm print (for whatever reason), it managed to combine the sharpness of the digital with the softness of film for something altogether transcendent, beautiful, and undoubtedly transient. Three years from now, it's hard to imagine any film following that workflow.)

BEST CHARACTER: the lifeguard, IN ANOTHER COUNTRY. Festival perennial Hong Sang-Soo presented his most accessible film in ages, not just because of Isabelle Huppert's appearance but because of its uncharacteristically clear structural conceit. Overall, it didn't strike me as one of his strongest works. However, no character in any other film made me smile like the not-particularly bright, easily love struck lifeguard (played by Yu Jun-Sang). In a film where everybody has their secret purposes hidden, his guilelessness was not just winning but transcendent.

BEST DOG: Lynx, THE WALL. Both the regular readers of this blog know that I have a complicated (at best) relationship with dogs. If I had known going into THE WALL that despite its clever conceptual sci-fi premise (a woman is separated from the rest of society by an invisible wall), at heart it was really about the friendship between a woman and a dog, I might have skipped it. Thankfully, I didn't know that. But after spending an hour and a half with Lynx, I wanted him as my own. I mean seriously: if you had to be cut off from the rest of the world, why not choose this furry dude as your companion?

BEST ACTOR: Denis Lavant, HOLY MOTORS. He only deserves all the awards ever.

MOST INDELIBLE MOMENT, ONSCREEN: When I say it's from HOLY MOTORS, I think those who saw it might think of any number of moments - from the opening, to the Eva Mendes scene, to the green-screen, to the accordion, to the ending … the list goes on and on. But it's a peculiar moment that I've seen nobody else comment on that's stuck with me. Driving late at night, we cut outside the limo, and as the trees pass by, the image starts degrading. Just as I looked back unconsciously to see if the projector was somehow freaking out (like I could even tell from my seat?), our protagonist wakes up, and the nightmare is clear. It's a short sharp sad moment that's a skeleton key for the whole film, which is, beyond the silliness at its surface, a deeply mournful statement about all the losses we face at the end of this era of cinema. Godard's WEEKEND may be the film that ends with a title card "FIN DU CINEMA", but this film deserved it more.

MOST INDELIBLE MOMENT, OFFSCREEN: Festival director Bill Gosden calling the Civic "fucking awesome" during his closing night speech. It's an amazing place to see movies, and it's sad that 50 weeks of the year we're denied the pleasure, but it makes the festival all the more special.

MOST ENCOURAGING DEVELOPMENT: I bailed on the short film programs a couple years back because they were virtually all coming of age stories, a genre that as a rule I don't value very much. When a friend's film* made the finals of New Zealand's best shorts, however, I had to attend, and was pleased to discover that five of the six shorts were not coming of age stories in any meaningful sense. Does this mean that we've finally got stories to tell in this country in short films that aren't about twelve year olds gazing dolefully into the distance as adults do bad things?

LEAST ENCOURAGING DEVELOPMENT: The coming of age short won both jury and audience awards. (Insert covering one's ass statement here about how it's a well made film, no offense intended to the filmmaker, it's not his fault I never want to see a coming of age film again, etc.)

MOST DIVISIVE FILM: KILLER JOE. I loved it, personally. Yes, the third act (violent/sexual act everyone's discussing without regards to spoilers but me) is a hell of a slap in the face, but I've come to terms with it as a necessary violation of the audience relationship that we've had up to that point with the character who commits it in order to reset our moral compass. But man, people HATED this film with a passion that I haven't seen since … well, since SLEEPING BEAUTY last year.

MOST AFFECTING FILM: COMPLIANCE. The last film I saw at the festival. I won't tell you anything about it if you don't already know the story; suffice it to say that it's based on a true story which seems too outlandish to be believable, and too infuriatingly sad and horrible to want to believe. The astonishing performances (particularly Ann Dowd, the credulous manager) go miles towards making this film work; while I'm not convinced by every aesthetic decision, its sum impact was so great that merely watching the trailer a few hours after seeing the film left me shaking with anger, tears streaming, after only 30 seconds.

MOST CRUSHING DISAPPOINTMENT (BUT ONLY BECAUSE I'M AN IDIOT): HIMIZU. Should I have known that the casually transgressive Sion Sono (COLD FISH, LOVE EXPOSURE) might not have been the man to count on for integrating real life disaster footage from Fukushima with subtlety and tact? Yes. I should have known that. A mess of a film that became distasteful. (Runners up: BEYOND THE HILLS, IN THE FOG.)

BEST Q&A: David Bruckner, V/H/S. After defending KILLER JOE, I found myself struggling with this omnibus horror film, which comes out of the gate with some casual attacking of women on the street (stripping their tops to expose their breasts whilst being filmed for a porn site) segueing almost directly into the first segment about a guy getting glasses with spy-camera installed so that their voyeur porn dreams can come to life. Since it's a horror anthology, it's not a spoiler to say it doesn't end well, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. However, hearing David Bruckner (who directed this first segment) speak made it a lot clearer what he was getting at and retrospectively increased my appreciation of the sexual politics of his work. That aside, he's a fucking smart and thoughtful guy, I'm grateful to Ant Timpson for bringing him down, and I hope he gets to make a feature soon. And I hope his next trip to New Zealand doesn't feature a question which begins with a certain someone reading Ray Bradbury's definition of horror yet again.

(I should note: in sum, I don't find V/H/S particularly offensive - and certainly not enough to get worked up over - but I think I'm the only person in NZ who had any qualms with the sexual politics of V/H/S whatsoever. Conversely, my Australian Twitter friends have largely loved KILLER JOE but found V/H/S epicly offensive. What that says about cultural relativism, I have no idea.)

WORST AUDIENCE MEMBER: The dude who got up every few minutes during THE WALL to wander around the cinema. Runners up include the woman who refused to turn off her phone despite my request during IN ANOTHER COUNTRY and the pair who ate an entire Renkon meal, then left halfway through STUDENT. In general, popular wisdom to the contrary, I don't think audiences were much better this year; I just did a better job not letting them get to me.

BEST DIRECTORIAL REINVENTION: Ursula Meier (SISTER). Meier's last film, HOME, was a masterpiece of deadpan existential surrealism, about a family who lives next to an abandoned freeway whose life becomes a game of Frogger once the freeway re-opens. (Cheers to critic Mike D'Angelo for the Frogger analogy.) SISTER trades in the surrealism entirely for a story more akin to the Dardennes (albeit a version that uses a tripod and doesn't follow the back of people's heads for ten minutes) about a boy who steals ski gear to make a living and his sister who he lives with. For the first half I was, truthfully, so homesick for the voice that we'd lost that I was having trouble adjusting. But Meier's direction is so assured (thanks in part to all-time great cinematographer Agnes Godard's work) that ultimately I was won over, and the precision in the ending deserves comparisons to THE SON: it's one of the most perfect endings I saw at this festival.

MOST JEALOUSY-INDUCING FILM: SOUND OF MY VOICE. This wasn't the best film I saw at the NZFF: it's either at the bottom of my top ten or just under. But as somebody who's just directed a first feature on a low budget, to see a first feature made with a similar economy of means and no-budget fantastical concept but such compelling narrative and stunning precision editorially was by turns inspiring and depressing. This should be required viewing for every first time low-budget filmmaker that aspires to reach a mass audience.

SEXIEST MOMENT: rope dance, CRAZY HORSE. I could go on at length about my issues with this film formally and in the context of Wiseman's work - and spent a great deal of the running time doing just that in my head - but then this scene happened. (With eleven or so burlesque scenes shown, and human sexuality being what it is, everyone will have different preferences; it's worth noting, however, that the most uniformly admired scene is not a proper performance at all, but an open casting/cattle-call tryout. THAT scene, regardless of one's personal tastes, is truly great filmmaking.)

BEST SONG: "This Must Be The Place", as performed by David Byrne in THIS MUST BE THE PLACE. Despite some qualms about the end, I loved this strange, unlikely film by Paolo Sorrentino. Others did not. But this performance is a wonderful, special, mysterious thing, in a film that seems largely to exist in order to contain strange and unlikely moments.

There's other great films that I didn't talk about (or talk about enough, like TABU and THE LONELIEST PLANET) here, but I have to save something for the next installment of Best Worst Podcast … coming when I can get through speaking a paragraph of thoughts without coughing up a lung.

*The film in question is Thomas Gleeson's HOME, and it's fucking excellent, and also pleasing to see a non-narrative film so well recognized (it won the Friends of the Civic prize). I'm a bit disappointed in myself that I can't discuss NZ films more extensively, but I only saw apart from this program the excellent HOW FAR IS HEAVEN, a beautiful observational documentary that will be returning soon. Of the many local films that I missed, I heard particularly wonderful things about THE RED HOUSE, and am quite disappointed to have missed it. Of course, I also missed Haneke's AMOUR, Kore-Eda's I WISH, Linklater's BERNIE, etc ad nauseum. The festival is, as always, a firehose of riches, and you drink in what you can.