March 25, 2011


So April comes hurtling around the corner next week. An obvious calendar observation I know, but in looking ahead to the fourth month of 2011 I see it's going to be really rather packed full of... stuff. Fantastic, amazing stuff... but I tremble a little at the sheer amount of it!

I was holding my breath and hoping for it, and lo... awesome classic films are starting up again at the Embassy cinema. A Streetcar Named Desire and Charade kick off the (hopefully continuing) programme.

I have a solid weekend of film-making as part of my Shoot on Film course in mid-April, where I will be DoP for an afternoon, shooting day for night. It should be an exciting, stressed and fun time!

There is the annual Script Frenzy, where mad participants take it upon themselves to write a feature-length script in the space of 30 days. I've participated for the last few years but have never managed to finish a script. This year, amongst everything else, I hope to make it to 100 pages.

Also coming mid-April and continuing through to the end of the month is the World Cinema Showcase where I'll (hopefully) be getting to around 17 films. And, of course, writing about them all here.

And the German Film Festival is playing at the Film Archive, with the focus on Werner Herzog. Sadly, the Film Archive is not of the best cinemas in town, but the films (all documentaries from Herzog) look fairly intriguing with some common themes being readily apparent.

In addition to all of that we've got the general releases of Sucker Punch, Jane Eyre, Paul and Thor. The annual blockbuster season is starting, for good or ill. As always, there are a few films I'm quite looking forward to and some where I just have to think "Why?"

But hey, I'm looking forward to the month and I'm looking forward to being busy. As always, I shall be keeping it all updated right here.

You've got red on you.

March 24, 2011

16mm film course: week 4


Well, filming a rehearsal. And the filming itself was, of course, a rehearsal for filming. The important thing is we rolled film. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to be on a film set, amateur though this one may be. The barely organised chaos as decisions are made, instructions misinterpreted, clarification sought, jokes made, equipment broken and scenes shot.

With a class this size, and the differing levels of expertise/experience, it’s sometimes intriguing just to watch it all. There are the guys (the class is all male, bar one lady) who know what they’re about, who have done a Film Production paper at the University or just have a desire to be involved in that particular aspect of film-making. There are the guys who, despite not having worked in film before perhaps, innately grasp the technical side of things. There are those (me) who tend to find themselves on the fringe, not having a specifically assigned task and not really knowing anything in particular but just wanting to help out and doing the best they can. And as much as you want to get in there, help out and look busy, sometimes the best thing to do is just step back, and get out of the way.

I may not have mentioned this already, so just to clarify: the course is going to call on us to film a short script knocked out by our course convener, Paul. We each have a scene that we will be rolling camera on; that we will, essentially, be DoP for. Our Tuesday nights will be spent filming, and there is a weekend shoot planned as well. This is the course. We will learn by doing which, for me, is awesome. Frankly I have little to no idea what I’m doing sometimes – I’ve said before I’ve never been on a shoot having to deal with lights and sound recording and now I find myself wrangled into the lighting department. Mainly because lighting seems to be the biggest job – making sure the scene doesn’t “look” lit, ensuring there’s enough light to see everything, but while also keeping it interesting and making sure everything doesn’t look flat. Add in to all of that that I have no idea what all the different lights are… well, it’s almost overwhelming. But hell is it fun. And my scene should be interesting as we'll be shooting night for day. I was hoping for soem beautiful, stark blacks to envelop the scene (it's a little spooky), with one sulphurous light but I don't know if that will be doable now. I guess I shall see!

Aronofsky. He shoots on 16mm

March 22, 2011


I'm not entirely sure where to start with the latest film that played as part of the Film Society programme, Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress. It has been sometime since I was as enamoured of anime as I once was. In my pubescent days once when I first discovered true, Japanese anime I was into things like Fist of the North Star, Ninja Scroll and Wicked City. Mainly, it must be said, due to the kinetic hyper-violence and nudity. I was a teenage boy and these films were like nothing I’d ever seen before. Millennium Actress is not anime, at least not in the sense that I am used to thinking of it. This is a heady concoction of a film; like a strong, perfectly blended cocktail that goes straight to your head and sends your mind into a spin. This is a dramatic film that just happens to be animated, as that is the medium Satoshi Kon seems to be happiest working in.

The whole film is layer upon layer, level upon level; if you thought Inception was too simple minded, this could be the trip for you. And like Nolan's blockbusting opus, Millennium Actress is a love letter to film and film history. Two men come to interview faded, reclusive actress Chiyoko Fujiwara. The interviewer, Genya Tachibana, delivers an old key to her; the key "to the most important thing of all". A key given to a young Chiyoko by a young man on the run from the authorities. He was a revolutionary artist that she saved and subsequently fell for. He moved on in the morning, never to be seen by Chiyoko again though she searched for him. As she tells the story of how she was knocked down by, and saved the life of this young man, the two man film crew find themselves pulled into the story. Not figuratively, but literally; they are there, interacting with the people and scenery. The story kaleidoscopes through Chiyoko's life and film roles as she continues to search for her love and takes on roles that move through 1,000 years of Japanese history, forever in search of their loves.

The film is mirrors upon mirrors: are Chiyoko's roles reflecting her life or is Chiyoko in fact the woman doomed to search for her lover for 1,000 years, and the actress she is now is just one of those stages? The film offers no easy answers and continually works to keep you off balance. The audience literally stumble along with Genya Tachibana and his cameraman as they attempt to keep up with Chiyoko's story; moving seamlessly from an attack by bandits on a train (in Chiyoko's life?) to a medieval Japanese castle under siege (one of her roles? Or the beginning of her curse?). It's possible the film is also part meta-commentary on the history of Japanese film; I am unfortunately not knowledgeable enough in this area to comment. But when you see some of Chiyoko's roles recalling the more "traditional", adolescent view of anime or martial arts flicks and even a giant monster movie, you cannot help but wonder.

I was no fan of Paprika and I haven't yet seen Perfect Blue or Tokyo Godfather's, Kon's other well known films, but I was wrapped up in Millennium Actress. It was a cerebral experience, with a real sadness to it and I was constantly engaged, continually trying to keep up. On the strength of this film alone I am keen to track down Perfect Blue and Tokyo Godfather's to see them for myself. Perhaps I'll explore some more anime out there while I'm at it. 

March 21, 2011


Alright. I'll say it up front and get the giggles out of the way: I love Dick. Phillip K. Dick that is. You can see why Hollywood loves him too - a lot of his excellent work revolves around a fantastic hook or set-up. With the best of Dick's writing you can almost see him, hammering the keys of his typewriter, soaked in drugs and paranoia, feverishly trying to transcribe his vivid thoughts. And while Adjustment Team (as the short story is originally titled) is one of Dick's short stories that I haven't read (yet) you can certainly peg it as coming from him. The hook in this story is that fate and free will are illusions; there is a mysterious team of “Adjusters” out there, who work to make sure humanity stays on plan. They’re snappily dressed, be suited bureaucratic types and they don’t watch everyone, just those who are “fated” (i.e. planned) to make a difference in the world. One of these people is David Norris, a young and an impulsive up-and-coming Congressman who falls for an equally impulsive contemporary ballerina, Elise. Except they were only supposed to meet once; enter the men in grey suits and hats (the hats are important).

George Nolfi’s adaptation is a fairly muscular paranoid thriller with, of course, quite a sweet and real central romance. It’s not a perfect film by any means, and I feel like it was just short of being really great, but it was significantly better than I could have hoped for; there’s a lot of bad Dick out there (Next, Paycheck with Damon's old mucker Affleck). Nolfi and Damon obviously enjoy working together, as Nolfi has previously worked as a scriptwriter on Ocean’s Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum. Here he takes a turn directing as well, and if The Adjustment Bureau is anything to go by, he should be an interesting director to keep an eye on: I think he’ll be a writer/director that could grow with experience.

With Matt Damon, you couldn’t hope to have a better actor playing your young, up-and-coming US politician. He has the intelligence, charisma and good looks to pull it off, and has played the whip-smart and impulsive troublemaker before (Will Hunting, anyone?). He’s also had a fair bit of experience with running around in movies. Damon continues to prove himself as one of the best, and possibly least recognised, actors of his generation. Norris is a natural politician, but he had a rough childhood – his older brother, mother and father all died – and he is prone to self sabotage and reckless behaviour. Thanks in no small part to Damon’s performance, theses aspects of his personality do not overwhelm the character.

Emily Blunt plays Elise, the woman Norris falls for, with charm and a twinkle in her eye. She is a captivating character and the chemistry between the two leads is very real, especially for the first two thirds of the film. Hopefully this marks the beginning of something bigger and better for Blunt – she’s a talented young actress and has, unfortunately, found herself in a bit of tat amongst her better work (Gulliver’s Travels vs. The Young Victoria and, in my opinion, The Wolfman). Elise is impulsive, but not destructive. She could have easily been a fairly thin, unsympathetic character but Blunt helps to elevate her to someone the audience actually care about. It's a shame then, that come the end, she is reduced to following Damon around with her head-a-spin.

It is never explicitly stated, but it's made pretty damned obvious that the much mentioned "Chairman" is God and the "Adjusters" (Mad Men's John Slattery and Terence "General Zod" Stamp among them!) are grey-suited, bureaucratic angels. This is not an angle of the story I knew about going in, and actually preferred my own (mistaken) theory of these all being human Adjusters. Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) is Harry, Norris' guardian angel, working to make sure the Congressman stays on the plan. This doesn't necessarily mean guarding him, but more manipulating people and events around Norris. But over the years Harry has come to have a true affection for his charge and Harry is the one who comes to help Norris, feeding him information about the whole operation.

There is a perhaps worrying central thesis to the love story – Damon and Blunt are kept apart from one another, not because they are bad for another and they will cause harm to each other and their respective dreams and careers but because together, they’ll settle. They will both find the other person to be "enough"; they won't have to strive for those dreams they've always wanted and they won't encourage and help one another, because they'll be "content". That’s a very Dick message; a little bit of cynical mixed with the sweet. The other way, of course, to look at it is that there is an even higher power than the Chairman at work here; perhaps there is such a thing as fate and, if so, perhaps free will too.

In terms of Phillip K. Dick adaptations The Adjustment Bureau may not stand with the likes of the barnstorming insanity of Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly and sit more comfortably with the relatively straight ahead thrills of a Minority Report, it is a far cry from the worst adaptations seemingly only after a Paycheck.

March 17, 2011

07.03: GET LOW

Get Low played as the opening film of the Wellington Film Society's 2011 season. It was a packed audience (one of the largest they've had I hear) and I was lucky enough to have my lady surprise me by purchasing me a full year's membership for my birthday. She's a sneaky one, she is.

The film is the (apparently true, but no doubt lovingly embellished) tale of a hermit, in Tennessee circa 1930, who decides to host his own funeral party - while he's still alive. Not an entirely silly idea, to my mind. A big party in your honour - why wouldn't you want to be there to enjoy it? My paternal grandfather thought much the same and had what you could call a "living wake" before he got low himself. Central to the film, however, are the mysterious circumstances that led to Robert Duvall's Felix Bush hiding himself from the world. The film opens on the haunting image of an old wooden house, engulfed in flames, set against the night sky. Someone tumbles out, covered in flames. And then the silhouette of a man in a long coat, tears across the field and away. What happened here? What was this strange conflagration and what does it mean? These questions sit in the back of your mind as you become entranced with the intriguing, ornery, intelligent and lonely Felix Bush.

Duvall as the feared hermit, is as good here as he's ever been. Bush is a loner of his own making, living his segregated life for the past 40 years on the outskirts of a small Southern town, only occasionally interrupted by the daring local kids. The reveal of the man beneath the uncompromising local legend is slow, and Duvall does it effortlessly. Duvall brings this character to muttering, breathing life. Despite Bush's sealed off lifestyle, his desire to drive everyone away, he decides he wants to throw a funeral party and have people come and tell stories about him. The man who takes on this strange proposition, the one who will organise this out there event? Bill Murray of course, as local funeral home owner Frank Quinn. When you get to see Murray in a role like this, you really wish he would answer more of those calls on his voice mailbox. Quinn could easily have been a forgettable or unsympathetic character; he's something of a shyster and definitely considers the funeral home as a business rather than an essential service. But Murray makes Quinn just a little bit different to the small town folk he's stuck with, without losing the heart of the character: he genuinely cares for his assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) and there a couple of small moments, looks really, between Murray and Sissy Spacek's Mattie that tell you so much more than any speech could.

The screenplay is from Chris Provenzano (some Mad Men) and C. Gaby Mitchell and it is a well measured piece of work, with an ear for the dialogue particular to the time and place. This is quite a debut feature film from director Aaron Schneider; having previously worked as a DoP on Kiss the Girls and a few TV movies. Judging from this confident debut, not only has he got a good eye but he has a great ear and a great sense of character and place - and how those can all intertwine and the effect they can create. The final revelation is not particularly revelatory - you can guess at what it may pertain too fairly quickly, if not the specifics - but I don't believe the reveal, for the reveal's sake was the point. The point of the narrative was getting Bush into a place where he could talk about himself, what happened and why. The end may tie things up a little too neatly, especially for a character who is so un-neat, but it doesn't hurt the journey.

I seem to have an attraction to these films set in the backwoods of America (see also: Winter's Bone). Perhaps it has something to do with the rural setting? At once so strange and different to my own, New Zealand based understanding of "rural" and at the same time so very familiar, from years of exposure to American movies. It only helps when the film you're watching has such fantastic, well rounded and real characters. A cracking film to kick off the Film Society year.

March 16, 2011

16mm film course: week 3

This week, we actually got hands on. The lights were yanked out and cranked up, the sound gear dusted off and furred up and the camera... rolled (it didn't actually film anything per se. But it rolled) . 

Of course, this being a film class (being much like a film set) it didn't happen anywhere near that quickly. We were, of course, taken through a few things beforehand. Things such as loading film (using some junk stock) into the can, the lighting kits etc. Alex pulled out a Kino light he has - a piece of lighting gear, that can act as a fluorescent light, without the flickering you would find in actual fluorescent (fluorescent lights are not continually "on". They flicker back and forth along their tubes at 100 times a second). These Kino lights are also good for hiding around a scene, for a lot of ambient lighting - apparently used on Green Zone quite a bit. So, again, I'm not someone who is generally a hands-on or technically minded person. This is my challenge and my opportunity for this course.

I was once again reminded of the importance, and the difficulty, of lighting a scene. With my background in (so far) low-to-no budget film(video)-making I have not had the experience in properly lighting a scene. With this workshop we were working entirely with the lighting kits (using no natural or ambient light) and in an entirely black room - something of a challenge. When lighting a scene, it's not just a matter of plunking a light in front of the actors and lighting them up so we can see them. If you light someone from front on, it tends to look rather flat and boring. So, you have a key light, likely off to one side. But you don't want that to be the only light, because then one actor will be in shadow and will just generally look weird. So, you have a number of fill lights. There's one in the back, just to help to add some sort of depth to the scene. There's one coming in from the other side, to throw some light on from there. And maybe another, softer one at the front just to even it out. It's kind of a challenge to light a scene without it looking like it's a lit scene. So, there is much fiddling about, taking light readings, adjusting light heights etc. I ended up holding some diff (diffusion) to soften one of the main fill lights; the fill was just that tad too bright, and needed to be toned down so as not to over-ride the key light. Not the most glamorous job, but it has to be done. I also find it best to sometimes just stand back, try and not let too many cooks get involved. Sometimes a film set can seem like many people working, but not much getting done.

So many aspects, so many different things and departments have to come together and work together just to get one scene of 10 seconds or so filmed. Of course, quite a few us are relatively inexperienced so things may have taken longer than usual, but it is certainly a prime example of that old filmmaking adage: hurry up and wait.

March 15, 2011


Of Gods and Men (or Des hommes et des dieux to give it its French title) is A Serious Film with Something To Say. You can feel the Weight of the Big Themes director Xavier Beauvois is looking to tackle. Things move at a measured pace, events taking their own time to unfold. It is also elegant and spare, with very little pretension. In short, not a film the Saturday night crown is destined to rush to. But it is worth your time.

The focus is on a group (collection? Order? Flock?) of French monks in a small Algerian community. The village is uniformly Muslim but there are no tensions here: the monks fully participate in village life, being invited to important ceremonies and the like. These are people of two different religions who, as religions do, have warred with one another over the centuries and continue to do so. But here, at this point and at this place, they all just get on with the job of living. The monks do not hold themselves above the poor; they offer assistance with what they can. And the villagers do not treat the monks as meddling outsiders. And Beauvois gives us time with the monks and the community, letting us soak it in; the landscape, the relationships, the life. Of course, things cannot continue like this. There is growing news of a gang of Muslim extremists; the village elders are just as disgusted as anyone by their actions. The crux comes when the extremists murder a Dutch road crew and are reported to be on their way. The monks must decide whether to stay and save themselves, or leave and abandon the village.

And that really is what the film is about, on a surface level at least. There is more than enough symbolism and thematic musing to fuel multiple viewings. And, I'm afraid, I'm not going to get too involved in that sort of musing: I feel like I really need to sit down with the film again, possibly with pen and paper, to really chew through everything going on under the surface. Some moments are a bit too on the nose, but for the large part proceedings are handled with grace and a sense of humanity. Although, I think Beauvois makes a mistake in all but cutting out the village during the second act - right when these monks are deciding to stay or not, it would help to see what they are, in part, staying for. But the monks themselves are delicately sketched out, with particular focus given to Lambert Wilson as Christian, the leader, and Michael Lonsdale as Luc, the old doctor. Where Christian is their thoughtful leader, given to meditation and study of the Koran, Luc is the heart of the group working long hours in their medical clinic, treating the people of the village.

The film could almost be set at any point in the last 20-30 years, yet could also be happening right now. There are no signposts or pop culture reminders of what is happening outside of this village and this situation, and I believe that that is entirely the point (or perhaps this is just my own damned ignorance - the film is based on a true story). In any case, the film manages to feel rather timeless, and this works entirely to it's advantage.

It may not be a film you "enjoy" per se, in that sense of "wee-explosions-action-sex-guns-BOOM-win-catharsis" of a blockbuster, but it will be one that engages your brain (the film, in fact, demands it) and should have you thinking about for a few days afterwards.

Of Gods and Men plays as part of the World Cinema Showcase.

March 10, 2011

16mm film course: week 2

During the course of the day at work I became tired, bored and depressed. This is not (unfortunately) an uncommon occurrence and especially annoyed me as I had, up until that point, been greatly looking forward to my second 16mm film making class. 

Thankfully, by the time the end of the working day had rolled around I was once again, more or less, looking forward to my class.

This week the focus was on sound and sound recording. I can't say I've had too much previous experience with sound equipment - the world of sonics has always confounded me a little. I easily miss the nuances and background noise. Whether this is a question of training my ears, being more attentive or just plain ole' old man deafness on my part, sound is something I've never really fully understood or appreciated.

Which is a little foolish - sound is one of the most important ingredients in film and film-making. Yes, it is generally considered a visual medium but without the correct sound mix, the little aural queues and flags littered throughout (the next time you watch an Edgar Wright film really listen), the levels just right... the whole tale can fall flat. You can't turn everything up to 10.

We also had a quick talk, demonstration and play around with light meters. And it's not just holding up a weird wee machine with a white ball on the top and getting a magic read-out. It's also thinking about how the machine is operating - how is it reading the light in the room and what type of light is it reading. Handing them round, I don't know that everyone knew what they were doing with them though - I sure didn't.

So things got quite technical this week - cables and knobs and dials and readouts and whatnot. The technical side of the things is, sadly, not my strong suit but then, that's one of the reasons I'm taking this course. Technical things can be learned, so there's no reason I shouldn't know them.

Next week: filming.

March 7, 2011


Today marks the day that the annual World Cinema Showcase have launched their programme of wonderful films. I'm a big fan of the Showcase: it's like a smaller, more relaxed version of the big Film Festival in the middle of the year. As per usual, I'll be helping out but what I'm really keen for is a number of the films on offer.


This is a film I have been intentionally avoiding reading anything about: all I know is that it is supposed to be brilliant and you should go in knowing nothing. So far, so good.

Oh fuck yeah! FINALLY we get to see this absolutely, amazingly, mental looking film! Rubber is the tale of Robert: a psychotic, psychically powered rubber tyre. That's all you need to know really. If you're not intrigued from that synopsis, I don't really know what can be done for you.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
Starring the delightful Alan Tudyk as one half of the hapless rednecks in this fantastic looking horror-comedy. Tucker and Dale are two redneck types, living in the backwoods and when some teens come along and start dying all over the place, the poor guys get the blame for it.

Rabbit Hole
This marks something of a complete left turn for director John Cameron Mitchell (director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the "family-values" baiting Shortbus); not only is this a serious drama not focusing on sexuality, it's also his first film starring known actors. In this case, Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman (in the role she was nominated for an Oscar this year). It looks to be an intense, emotional drama.

Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer
I remember seeing the trailer for this quite a few months ago, and have been intrigued ever since. I think we can all admit that no-one does politics quite like the Yanks and this doco charting former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's fall from grace looks to be riveting. And coming as it does from Alex Gibney (director of Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) you can be sure it will be intelligent and uncompromising.

Waiting for "Superman"
Another doco, this time from Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, It Might get Loud) this could be one of the more controversial films at the Showcase. It focuses on the American education system, and Guggehiem takes square aim at the unions, who he sees as blocking education reform. One to stir debate indeed.

The Way Back
Peter Weir does epic really, really well. And this film, that tells the true tale of a group who escaped from a Soviet forced-labour camp and then proceeded to walk some 4,000 miles to freedom looks pretty damned epic.

Now, this is dedication to a documentary. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington were embedded with a US military unit in Afghanistan for a year and filmed them. Their ups, downs and deaths.

Another Year
Jim Broadbent in the new Mike Leigh film? 'Nuff said.

Ok, this film I hadn't heard a thing about until I perused the Showcase programme. Sounds like a totally wacky kung-fu film and I am always keen for one of those. Such as...

Reign of Assassins
A Michelle Yeoh starring kung-fu film, directed (in part) by John Woo? Yeah. Ok then.

Another documentary I've been looking forward to, with contributions from Morgan Spurlock, Seth Gordon, Alex Gibney and more it should be interesting to see if it all ties together. 

We Are What We Are
This is another film on the programme that sounds more than a little nuts (in the best way possible). About a family of Mexican cannibals, this looks to a blackly funny and possibly satirical film in the vein (ha!) of Romero.

And I've only picked these from a quick overview of the programme! I'm certain there's a few more tasty cinematic morsels and meals for me to check out and I will, of course, be writing about them all right here. 

The World Cinema Showcase runs April 1 - 18 in Auckland, April 14 - 30 in Wellington and May 5 - 18 in Dunedin. There is no Christchurch show this year, for obvious reasons.

27.02: TRUE GRIT

Them's readin' words!
Do you remember your first Coen Brothers film? I do. It was Fargo. I cannot remember how I saw it (likely on TV), but I remember how absolutely dumbstruck I was by it. The dialogue, the economical (and brutal) use of violence and that wicked dark humour captivated me. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Sure, some of their more recent efforts (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers) were less then successful, with many a person wondering where that once magical Coen touch had gone. But since the Oscar winning No Country for Old Men they have shown they’re still on top form. Theirs is still a singular vision projected into our brains, with these late-career missteps being nothing more or less than that.

Before we continue any further a disclaimer: I have not seen the John Wayne starring original adaptation, nor read the original Charles Portis novel. While this precludes me from discussing any differences between the previous adaptation and the source material, I (hope I) can focus instead on the Coen brothers’ True Grit as its own film.

And what a film. The Coens grace us with their first “proper” Western – as in, set in the 1800’s with six shooters, grizzled lawmen, honour and dirt. Newcomer Hailee Steinfeld is Mattie Ross. She’s 14 years old, and she’s out for vengeance. Her Poppa was shot down by the drunken and cowardly Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who lit out of town on a stolen horse and who will not be pursued by the authorities. But Miss Ross is not some wilting desert flower, or helpless maiden or child. No, she is a supremely self-confident young woman, demanding a measure of justice from the uncaring world. A scene where she confounds a poor shopkeeper with her intelligence, determination and moxie neatly sums her up; she brow beats, crunches numbers and threatens legal action and, when she does eventually have her way, a victorious child-like smile breaks out.

Hailee Steinfeld as the whip-smart but head-strong centre of the film is phenomenal. She’s a fast-talkin’, no-nonsense kinda gal who isn’t fully aware of just how far out of her depth she is. Not that that would bother her – as she proves by forwarding a deep river all by herself, she is one determined lass. Jeff Bridges is, of course, great as the grizzled and damaged “one-eyed fat bastard” Rooster Cogburn. He is a booze-soaked U.S. Marshall, hardened from years of violence. As opposed to, say, Clint Eastwood’s William Munny however, he knows exactly what he is and does not run from it. Bridges’ Cogburn seems to accept his empty, lonely life for what it is; that is, until Mattie Ross hires him and manages to bring out some remaining compassion and humanity within him. This is not done in some cloying, overly-sentimental fashion however – this is the Coen brothers we’re dealing with! Cogburn’s gentler, more human side is drawn out slowly and elegantly.

Damon is a welcome addition to the Coen Ensemble of character actors, with his jingly-jangling Texas Ranger LaBouef (pronounced “La Beef”) coming across as a puffed up and faintly menacing character in his first scenes. Due in no small part to Damon’s charisma, you begin to actually sympathise with him come half-way. Brolin returns from the brothers’ previous, more contemporary Western to play the cowardly and vicious Tom Chaney. He manages to do much with little – he really only appears in two scenes. Barry Pepper meanwhile, is almost unrecognisable as the leader of the outlaws, Lucky Ned.

But as with any Coen brothers film, it’s not really the actors who are the stars. It’s the Coens themselves, complemented once again by Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography and Carter Burwell’s score. The Coens continue to confound mainstream expectations, while also including all their own little touches that mark a film as coming from the brainsof Joel and Ethan. True Grit continues their love of dialogue and a well turned phrase, with all characters having thei own choice lines. Their depiction of violence is also typically sharp and brutal. But it is the smaller moments – two vacant Indian children at a store, the vaguely surreal meeting of a medicine man dressed in a bearskin, La Bouef’s tinkling spurs – that stand out.

True Grit is another fine film, in a long line of fine films, from the brothers Coen. Every detail, every nuance, is given the same careful attention. This is a finely crafted (please note that: crafted, not made) film, that is also a heckuva lot of fun. I truly cannot wait to see where the Coens take us next.

March 3, 2011

A funny thing happened to me on the way home...

...I signed up for a 16mm filmmaking class. Well, that's not entirely accurate (the title, not the signing up). It was on Monday night I got a call from my friend Rajeev, letting me know that three spaces had become available in the Victoria University run Shoot on Film - a 9 week Continuing Education course. This was the day before the course was due to start. There was a minimal amount of hmming and ahhing on my part. No time to think about it really – either I was going to do it, or I wasn’t.

And then I signed up (obviously). 
An Arriflex sans lens kit

I gotta tell ya, I’m pretty excited. Nervous, but excited. I've never worked with film before - actual physical film. The closest I've ever come was when I started to learn projection at the Embassy Cinema. Coming from a purely video and digital background the thought of having no preview ability, the fact that the shot is either right or wrong and you have no real idea... that frightens me a little. But, y'know, in a good way. I’ve also never really dealt with lenses and exposure and film-speed; I’ve generally involved myself more in the writing and editing of the film projects I’ve worked on rather than the more technical aspects of production. But I’m excited to be learning this stuff man. We'll be working with some gear from the old Film Unit; gear like an Arriflex 16SRII and (hopefully maybe) a shoulder-mounted 16mm camera as well as various sound and light equipment.

Even more exciting is who will be teaching us over the next couple o’ months. The course (the teaching side of it anyway) is being taken by a man who has been involved in film for the last 30-40 years, often working as DoP for Miniature Units: Alex Funke. He came to NZ in 1999 to work on Lord of the Rings and decided to stay. But before that he worked on Total Recall and Starship Troopers with Paul Verhoeven! And the pilot for the original series of Battlestar Galactica! Awesome? Fuckin’ indeed.

NPR with lens - this can be shoulder-mounted
I’m going to be learning again. I’m forcing myself to tippy-toe outside my comfort zone and I think this is going to be an absolute joy. I think I need this right now. And I have said 2011 is going to be year of "Yeah, I'll give that a go". And on top of that, to learn and discover more about the process of using actual, physical film in this age of digital filmmaking and digital projection (something that I’ll admit to not being the biggest fan of) could be something that slowly becomes lost. And when that knowledge is being passed down from someone as gregarious and camera-geeky as Alex Funke… well, let’s just say I’m going to be soaking up as much as I can. And I will, as much as possible, be writing about it.

March 1, 2011

some thoughts on the Christchurch earthquake from someone who wasn't there

I, along with most of New Zealand, have just finished observing 2 minutes silence for those who have lost loved ones, lost lives and lost homes in the earthquake that struck Christchurch one week ago. As I have previously said, I was not in Christchurch at the time - I haven't been to Christchurch in something like 15 years. It's strange to think of Christchurch, of all places, being hit with such a large-scale earthquake. The place is flat. Flat as the proverbial pancake, and being raised as I was in the Hutt Valley in the shadows of the Eastern and Western hills, I remember being a little freaked out by this flatness the last time I visited.

Again, more of the benefit of any readers based outside New Zealand: Christchurch is one of New Zealand's largest cities. When bands, or international acts come to New Zealand they generally perform Auckland and Wellington in the North Island, and Christchurch in the South (Metallica were recently brought to Christchurch by a fan petition). So, Christchurch is one of our centres. And to have this city be struck so violently, so suddenly, can shake all New Zealanders.

Perhaps it's a bit of survivor's guilt on my part - here I was on Tuesday, at home due to some sort of stomach/gastro infection/inflammation, on the couch watching these raw images stream in. The reporters themselves were still in shock from the shaking, and camera's were capturing whatever footage they could. I had a doctor's appointment and, boy, did I feel selfish going to the doctor's when there were all these people in desperate need of one (on that note, one of the brighter spots of the earthquake was the story of the Melbourne doctor's who happened to be in the city for a conference. They rushed out to aid in any way they could). Also, for as long as I've lived here, people have always talked of Wellington being hit by "the Big One". A major fault line runs right through the centre of Wellington and a decent chunk of the CBD is on reclaimed land  - seabed that was brought to the surface in the last big 'quake some 100-odd years ago. But these news reports, constant and streaming live, became too much for me. I had to turn the TV off, I had to get myself away from constant breaking news of injuries, death tolls and landmark destruction. But the people of Christchurch can't turn it off.

The death toll has gone over 150 and is sure to rise. I remember thinking, naively perhaps, after the 'quake had first struck, that deaths would be minimal. I don't think my brain could even conceive it. This is the type of thing you see overseas: disasters and triple-figure death tolls, not in Aotearoa. We're too small, right? Godzone - a great place to raise your kids, yeah? But it has happened. Search and Rescue teams are still going through what remains on the CBD. I don't think they're looking for survivors anymore though.

It may be strange to think of movies at a time like this, but I do. Maybe it's because my brain is almost hardwired to do so now, or because we look for comfort in fiction. I know watching a movie may be the last thing that most Cantabrians would want to do right now, and with most Christchurch cinemas closed they likely can't. On the other hand, perhaps a film is exactly what some people need; an escape for a few hours from the worry. A moment of laughter, catharsis or just a distraction as they pick up the pieces.

That's it from me for now. I felt like I needed to say something: not to add to the dialogue or to act like I know anything about what Cantabrians all over the world are going through, but just to process this myself. To... I don't really know. All I know is, I felt I had to write, to write something, to help explain this unexplainable tragedy, even if it was only to myself.

Tuesday, February 22nd 2011.