NZIFF: The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden (USA, 2013)

Doco about a weird unsolved murder mystery in the 1930s Galapagos Islands. There were only a handful of people on the island of Floreana, all eccentric or mad to various degrees, locked in strange jealousies and rivalries. It’s a small cast of characters, none of whom are particularly endearing, all destined to be either victims or suspects.

It was a good watch, but like more than a few docos I’ve seen in the last few years, it was slooow. There was a tight, excellent 90-minute documentary film inside this 120-minute version, and I would much rather have seen that. But I can recommend it anyway – there is much in this account worthy of eyebrow-raising, and that is surely a good measure of a documentary’s worth.

NZIFF: Under The Skin (UK, 2013)

Scarlett Johansson is an otherworldly being who seduces Glaswegian men to their otherworldy doom. It’s shot, framed, told, and paced as an art film, but the narrative itself is fairly straightforward. (Which is good! That’s not a criticism!) There are many mysteries, mostly unexplained, although the shapes of answers are given. There’s a lot of improvised stuff where unsuspecting Glaswegian locals found themselves interacting with Johansson in seduction mode. The whole sequence on the beach is one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen.

I loved it. Best thing i’ve seen in ages. But this is really not for everyone.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (USA, 2014)

This was a great action film in the mold of post-2000 action films – i.e. ludicrous stakes, lots of CGI, frenetic pace. I liked it a bunch. So some random notes:

* The film has Captain America’s name on it, but it’s a team film. Two black men, two women, and one traditional whitebread action guy. Sure, it’s that guy who’s on the poster, but this is definitely a good step forward. In related news, for heaven’s sake give Scarlett Johansen her own Black Widow film (if she wants it), she basically steals this one without even trying.

* Speaking of Black Widow – there’s a bit at the 3/4 mark when the big scary bad guy has Cap and Widow in his sights, and he says, “you get the man, I’ll get the woman”. And as soon as that happened and he went stomping after the brave resourceful woman, I sat a bit forward in my seat, because it’s the setup for one of the most cliche moves in action narrative.

To explain – as you move into your final sequence you need to set up the big confrontation – raise the stakes while you show your bad guy is scary as hell. The cliche way to do it? Aim your villain at the hero’s main ally. Put them in hospital, or in a coffin. Then the hero gets to be isolated and enraged and desperate all at once, ready for climax! (Or you aim your villain at the hero’s ladyfriend, and have them get killed or captured. “Fridged” you might say. Same deal.)

So in a movie called “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, the Winter Soldier (2nd part of title) could have a fight with Captain America (1st part of title) but he goes after another character instead? That character is toast, right? Is our super-resourceful Black Widow about to be stomped to put the villain over and set up a tearful Cap vs Winter finale?

SPOILER ALERT nope. Not even a little bit. It’s a small subversion, but it’s a pleasant one. This is a team movie, and the team get to work together the whole way through.

* Seeing comics writer/Winter Soldier creator Ed Brubaker in a scene was very distracting. He had good facial expressions.

* Marvel movies always have a little stinger scene at the end of the credits. They have one in the middle of the credits too. Well, this was the least rewarding end of credits scene yet. It was a loooong wait for something completely redundant. Don’t bother waiting for it.

* Anthony Mackie as the Falcon: yes, more of this sort of thing.

12 Years A Slave (USA/UK, 2013)

I am part of the film’s third audience, neither American White nor American Black, privileged to watch from outside, safely, to look upon the horrors and the injustice and whisper thanks that my people never devoured themselves with such madness, to observe with smug fascination at the broken ways of some other kind of people so different from my own. But the film doesn’t let me take this escape, for the unspeakable encompassing specificity of the American slave trade is an expression of something within, and Ejiofor and Nyong’o and Woodard and the rest don’t let me hide from the truth that I am complicit too, my veins are thickened with power, my people have embraced their strength and murmured that it could not be helped, and I sit white and healthy in what I call my property on a land my people once desired, a system of normalised exploitation replicating soundlessly around me, and just because my ancestors did not take a whip I cannot be at rest, it is in all of us, and it is in me and mine at strength, the sins are mine, and if I tell myself I am safe from this film I am lying, because it rebukes me too, it must rebuke me, it must teach me to hate a part of myself, but not just that, but also to love some part, some small part, that knows how justice might be found at any cost, that might be coaxed to hold on to justice, that might be tricked to fight for justice, for that is in my lineage too. This film is not safe, is not an instructive lesson in good morals for middle-class white people, it is not interested in me, but it comes for me anyway, and it looks at me, and it looks at me, and it looks.

American Hustle (USA, 2013)

First up: read Alasdair’s piece about this film, and how everyone’s talking about the actors and no-one’s talking about the plot. Good stuff.

This was headlining at the Roxy the same night Cal & I wanted to use our tickets to the Roxy, so we saw it. And it vexed me. On a different night I could imagine walking out of it. Not that I hated it, or found it upsetting or even boring, but there was something…

Excess – director David O. Russell drives this home right from the opening, an extended and lingering view of Christian Bale’s paunchy con-man applying a hair-piece. It’s not a subtle piece of filmmaking symbolism, this sequence, and I doubt it was intended to be. (See also: the nail polish.) Even here, the camera is restless, switching attention to Bale’s hands, looking at Bale then his reflection then back at Bale. Like the camera is anxious to get moving and is being forced, like the audience, to wait. And then it goes bezerk, two hours plus of feverish swirling camera, lots of closeups, lots of dense frames full of leering people. It goes for the voiceover method to fill in backstory but even here Russell acknowledges what he’s doing and loads it to excess, keeping the voiceover running and running and running until you’re sick of Bale’s voice and then giving other characters a chance to voiceover too and then finally ditching voiceover entirely for the bulk of the film. And Bradley Cooper’s FBI goon and Jennifer Lawrence’s messed-up wife get their characters stretched like bubble gum into the same excessive mold, Cooper’s especially, both saved from rolling over into caricature only by relentless, driving editing and the fundamental ability of both actors to ground what they’re doing.

Watching this film, for me, was an exercise in frustration. I kept feeling like the film was elbowing me out of the screen, knocking me back into my cinema seat, while it barrelled on to its next set piece. It felt like this film had been so caught up in filling itself with excess that it forgot to leave space for the viewer. There was no room for me inside it.

But even then, there was much to enjoy. Amy Adams, playing “sexy” (after building a career on winsome nose-wrinkling), but at the same time going raw, nearly method, letting her face go uncomposed or, I don’t know, unpretty, shameless, while the camera zooms in for a closeup. She was great to watch, and Cooper and Lawrence kinda kept me engaged just to see how they’d manage the high-wire of their OTT characters. And Jeremy Renner (as Alasdair notes, did you read that post I linked to, dooo it) was really sharp with his uneven principled but still sort-of-shady mayor. And Christian Bale –

– oh man, Christian Bale. Maybe it wasn’t David O. Russell who wasn’t giving me room, maybe it was Bale. Dude has screen presence to burn but when I watch him, I feel like there’s something fundamentally ungenerous about how he plays. Like he’d be happiest of all if his work never had an audience at all, the only viewer there’d ever be would be the cold lens of the camera. It’s a great performance, he holds the film together, he anchors it, and he communicates every beat of the tangled/poorly-explained plot through his performance choices. But it was like an ice cube in an empty glass. I wish the film was centred on Amy Adams instead.

Oh yeah, the plot, the story, good if you cared enough to pay attention, but you didn’t need to. The two pivot points (the one that gets Bale invited on a very unpleasant limo ride, and the one that leads to Cooper’s comeuppance) are both ostensibly surprises but I expect lots of people would see ’em coming from the moment they get set up. The point is the journey through the plot, not its ability to stay a step ahead of you.

High point of the film: the woozy, boozy counterpoint of Bale/Lawrence/Renner out for dinner intercut with Adams/Cooper out dancing. All the stylistic overkill just flowed. Funny, fun, and another reminder that it is a good thing to see Amy Adams dance.

So I dunno man. Did I like this movie? Yeah! Did I dislike this movie! Also yeah! It’ll get some Oscars I guess, and lots and lots of people seem to like it just fine. But, for a movie that’s all about drawing people in, I wish it had tried to do that to me.

Day of the Doctor

Made it to the afternoon screening spoiler-free. Embassy Theatre full to the brim with families and teens and aging chaps like me. And the lights went down…

I have not been a fan of the latest era of Doctor Who. Despite loving Matt Smith in the role I have been frustrated and bored by the show’s narrative with its weightless mysteries. So my expectations were low.

And that does make me sigh a bit, because this is my show, barmy and self-contradictory and ever changing but always, always kind. How annoying to be waiting for change in my show as it climbs undreamt of heights in popular culture. And to have the 50th anniversary during this period!

But I was delighted. The special showed all the best of showrunner Steven Moffat, and very little of the worst. And the first moment, the first blurred hum of the opening theme from the original credits, still utterly strange and timeless, brought a tear to my eye.

I’m starting to think this special is, in fact, the highlight of the revived show. Tremendous.

My only regret is that by the time I made it out of the auditorium most of the fans in costume were gone. I really wanted a pic of the girl in the marvellous Ace costume.


To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf, 1927

Micro-review. We’ve had Woolf’s classic on the shelves in a 60s Penguin edition for years, and finally the time was right to pick it up. I knew virtually nothing about it, only that it’s often talked about as a partner to Joyce’s Ulysses as one of the milestones of early-20th-century modernism. (It’s also a fraction of the length.) Given how much I enjoyed Ulysses, I was looking forward to this.

But I nearly put it down and didn’t pick it up again.

I was enjoying the read, Woolf uses language beautifully of course, but I hit the half-way point and I just wasn’t *grabbed* by it. It seemed like one of those art milestones that you can’t read properly any more because all of its innovations have since become cliches. The stream of consciousness shifting perspective Woolf offers has become a commonplace stylistic trick. Heck, I’ve done it myself. Combine that with a busy run that saw days go by between chances to knock off a few pages, and I almost lost momentum entirely.

Then I hit the second phase of the book. I had no idea it was coming; a sudden change in tone and style and scope, crossing decades after spending dozens of pages in the minutia of a single day. Then the narrative eased into a third and final phase, another intense dive into character POV across the moments of a single day, a decade on from the first section.

And I *loved* it.

I can’t think of another time my reaction to a book changed so completely in the span of a few pages. The structural moves Woolf made completely won me over. Simple and powerful, retroactively making the first section seem fresh by the unexpected (to me) contrast with the final section. I think I’ll be going back to this one in a few years.

(Also: I imagine this book would be frequently studied in english lit courses. I am glad I never had to apply the scalpel of analysis to this – I doubt it could survive the experience. This seems to me a book to be felt rather than understood, even though there is so much in it to be understood. That’s a definite contrast to the cheeky gamesmanship of Joyce, who seems to be clearly writing with such analysis in mind.)

Edwin: My Life As A Koont (2013, New Zealand)

Koont poster

Tuesday night we had a rare outing to the cinema, to see the local premiere of Edwin: My Life As A Koont, a new comedy feature by local low-budget impresario Jason Stutter (Tongan Ninja, Diagnosis: Death, Predicament).

It’s a mockumentary about the eponymous Edwin, who has a medical condition that makes him an asshole. He’s rude to everyone, basically. The film is about his mission to stage a benefit concert for those sharing his condition, helped along his way by Peter Jackson’s dropped cellphone with contact details for half of Hollywood.

And I liked it. I liked it more and more as it went along. The first act mostly just hits the beats you expect, making a lot of play out of the condition’s unfortunate name, and that was fine and dandy but I wasn’t exactly laughing out loud. But then, as it runs out of the obvious gags and starts leveraging its characters, the pic starts to grow in two directions – it gets more engaging and dramatic, and it gets funnier. By the end of the film, I was totally on-side with it, and had enjoyed at least a good half-dozen real bursts of laughter (clearly passing the Kermode test of comedy).

Both of these directions of growth leaned on the same thing: the leads. As Edwin, Bryce Campbell was just excellent. Endlessly watchable, entertainingly rude and obnoxious while finding the right notes of obliviousness and sympathy, and landing his big laugh lines with the timing of an old pro. Shockingly, he’s not an old pro – his IMDB page is remarkably sparse of on-camera appearances, and it’s absolutely delightful that he won the LA Comedy Festival’s Best Actor award for this role.

Playing opposite is Jessica Grace Smith (Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, Sione’s 2) as Edwin’s long-suffering girl Friday. And… (disclosure: Jess is family, and the reason we were at the premiere, so…) …she was great. Some sequences were played too broad for my taste but as the film progressed she carried more and more of the dramatic weight as foil and conscience for the film’s collection of mutants and misanthropes. The genuine chemistry between Campbell and Smith pretty much made the film work.

So, not to put too fine a point on it, I liked it. I mean, it’s far from perfect, like any shoestring film – Wellington locations do a lot of stunt double work, for example, and the sound mixing for some crucial hot tub exposition scenes is fatally limited. And there’re certainly a lot of dumb jokes that don’t work too well. But there are enough that do work to make me give this film a clear thumbs up. And to recommend you buy it.

I can recommend you buy it because it’s available for digital download, right now, at the very reasonable price of $2.95. Less than a cup of coffee. (MUCH less, these days.) I reckon it’s worth it.

(It might also have some more screenings at the Paramount in Wellington? Such is the rumour I have heard.)

The Next Doctor

Matt Smith is leaving Doctor Who, someone new is coming into the role, everyone is speculating (with various degrees of tongue in cheek) about the likelihood of the role being filled by a woman or a black man or by Sophie Okenedo.

I don’t think it’s going to happen, folks. It’ll be a 30-ish white guy you’ve never heard of before.

Okay, it might be a black man. Paterson Joseph is widely acknowledged to have been Steven Moffat’s second pick for the role, and he had a lock on the part right until Matt Smith gave an incredible audition. I’d be surprised though, simply because of the weight of demographics. There are *so many more* white working actors out there, because there are more opportunities, institutional racism, blah blah you know how it works. If you dip a hand into the pool and pull out a wriggly actor, odds are good it’s a white guy. I’ll bet on those odds.

But the new DW won’t be a woman. They might even have auditioned women, but they won’t cast anyone who isn’t a chap. I think this is because the creators, either explicitly or intuitively, sense that a female Doctor will violate something about the show.

…and I think they’re right. Doctor Who is, among many other things, a show *about* men, and their relationship with women. Specifically, its about a certain kind of man, generous-spirited life-advantaged empathetic highly confident antiestablishment, like a genteel Edwardian adventurer with a rogueish streak, or indeed a TV creator, or most of the key decisionmakers in the creative sphere. The female companion is the means by which the show critiques this figurative man. In a sense, for better or worse, Doctor Who is about presenting a redemptive alternative masculinity.

So: there is nothing in the fiction of the show preventing a female Doctor (indeed, the show has explicitly allowed for it, very recently), but coded into Who is a gender-based dynamic that would be upended totally by casting a woman in the lead. For this reason, I don’t think they will.


There are meant to be 13 Doctors (according to one story from the 70s, never mind all the other stories that say different) – that number has seeped into public consciousness and can’t really be ignored. The show will have to confront this limit in order to move past it. Then, I think, it will have an opportunity for conceptual collapse and reimagining; and so I predict a woman Doctor will appear on the scene, but she’ll be the Fourteenth Doctor, at the earliest.

Let me be absolutely clear: I would be SUPER HAPPY if the creators decided to violate this thematic tenet of the show. It is NOT essential to Who. It wouldn’t be the first major violation of the series’ thematic structure (refer: the Doctor is an asexual being). I would be stoked to be wrong. I would watch the shit out of Olivia Colman as the twelfth Doctor, to take the name being chucked around at present. But it ain’t gonna happen, and this idea of a violation is why.

(Yes, I’m being deliberately provocative by calling it a “violation”. I’m a blogger and I sin as a blogger sins.)

The whispers I’ve heard say the next Doctor was cast months ago, in January. I guess we’ll know soon enough.

(Oh, and while talking Doctor Who, Stephanie left an interesting comment responding to the “Steven Moffat’s issues with women” critique in the Friday linky.)