Under the Silver Lake [2018]

By far the most interesting film I saw at NZIFF 2019 was this one. It’s impossible to really get to grips with why that’s the case without spoilers but this is a special case, where the people who’ll like this film won’t care about the spoiler and the people who won’t like it are better off knowing now what they’re in for. This is a one-star film for a lot of critics for very good reasons that I’ll get into with spoilers in the next paragraph.

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Point Break [2015]

I had a hankering to watch Kathryn Bigelow’s seminal action film the other day, but I had that hankering after a road reached up and smacked me hard in the head and so I walked out of Aro Video with the wrong one. To be fair, the staff did quiz me on it, but by the time I’d gotten to the counter I couldn’t be arsed fixing my error. It’s been 20-odd years since I last saw Point Break [1991], so my memory of it is hazy and mostly parsed through references such as Hot Fuzz, which is itself now more than a decade old. It’s therefore become more of a mythology than a specific film, and the duel between friendship and morality has become, if not a staple, a leitmotif in the modern action genre as seen in The Fast and the Furious [2001] etc. These movies all inhabit a genre space that’s widely regarded as dumb, but where I think surprisingly sophisticated storytelling strategies are in play at a structural level, and critics mistake a lack of a serious aesthetic for a lack of serious design – a case I’ve made before, for Fast 7. Like all genre films, Point Break thus lives or dies on the detailing of its implementation of a story structure.

Let me break that structure down a bit, as Umberto Eco famously did for Bond in The Role of the Reader:

Step 1 – Establish the “protagonist”‘s credentials, or more pertinently, their near credentials. The point of view character must be sort of capable of entering the world of the criminal, but they’re not entering that world as a genuine rival to the main “villain”, but as a potential protege.

Step 2 – The meet-cute is engineered by the would-be crimestopping protagonist. Inevitably they’re shown for to be inferior but promising, and there’s enough chemical energy for the relationship to seem interesting.

Steps 3 – Trust and expertise are built as the hero works his way into the inner circle and begins to imbibe the

Step 4 – Tragedy strikes as something goes wrong and a key member of the team is killed, creating an opening for a new but promising member of the team.

Step 5 – The heist where things “get real” and the hero must ostensibly decide where his loyalties lie, but fails in his moral character, unable to discard his regard for the villain. Nonetheless, in this process they are outed.

Step 6 – The hero must use his inside knowledge to get one step ahead of the villain, leading to a final true confrontation where the hero’s loyalties are finally established in favour of law and order.

Obviously, as with any such skeletal summary, there are major variations here, such as the distortions in Step 6 in The Fast and the Furious. In our three-act-structure obsessed world, I think most would summarise Steps 1-3 as “Act 1” with Step 4 as “Act 2”, and roll the last two steps into “Act 3”. I hope by pulling out these steps explicitly the stupidity of trying to squash the story into a nice and linear three-act structure is obvious.

You may also see some passing similarities to the Hero’s Journey, but bear in mind that adaptation for a new purpose of existing story structures is as sophisticated as human art gets. Don’t we have a hero here who finds a dark version of the wise mentor? He at first refuses the call to becoming a hero in order to not slay the villain. Yet, the dramatic energy from a classical Hero’s Journey comes from the dramatic transformation of the main character, such as Mr Anderson transforming into The One by way of Neo – that isn’t really the source of dramatic energy or story shape in this narrative. Our protagonist undergoes something of a transformation through their near-seduction in the middle of the story and then un-transforms in the end. It’s something more like a failed romance story, like Annie Hall.

What this remake attempts to do that I don’t really recall in the original, is to explicitly mythologise the villain’s modus operandi. The seductive power in the original comes from a fairly general hedonistic lifestyle, one that purports to offer freedom from responsibility; this is wholly inverted in the remake, where the villains are trying to make a statement about the evils of modern capitalism with their crimes. They are in a sense righteous crusaders, though their cavalier acceptance of collateral damage makes it impossible to really sympathise with them or to entirely buy the seriousness of their commitment to their stated philosophy. The hyper-masculinity in the original is retained and repurposed.

This is a crucial element of successfully adapting a work – in fact, it is absolutely essential to restructure and re-present the material, as Harold Bloom articulated so forcefully in The Anxiety of Influence. The review on RogerEbert.com makes this point very clearly, but without recognising it at all:

The original “Point Blank” may have been a spectacularly stupid movie but at least it was straightforward and direct. Here, Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay meanders all over the place and is so concerned with allowing Bodhi to spout his kooky koans about becoming one with nature through the Ozaki Eight that it neglects to adequately explain what the challenges are or what they are supposed to represent.

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/point-break-2015

In fact, reviews of this ilk are a dime a dozen, strongly showing that while critics were able to recognise what was happening, they couldn’t see the strategy being deployed – they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Let’s leave aside for the moment the misreading of the original, the conscious attempt to reframe the film as a semi-mystical exploration of extreme sports definitely has a kernel of interest. This bland dismissal just doesn’t grapple with the film to determine whether the strategy was successful. There was every chance it could have been successful, and joined the pantheon of remakes that we forget are remakes, because they make their originals seem like an ill-formed predecessor, if they’re remembered at all.

Of course, I’ve got to admit that this is no 5-star classic, however interesting I find its attempt to repurpose the “spectacularly stupid” action film into something better. But I think that the failure in this film is where it cannot completely escape the original, and instead consciously repeats critical moments and shots. Indeed, it’s not easy to read the entire aesthetic of the re-cast central pair as trying anything other than to recreate the dynamic of Reeves and Swayze. Truly that was the time to “kill your darlings” and completely reimagine the characters to better suit the reimagined morality tale in progress.

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The Realm [2018]

This is a slow-building thriller about a corrupt politician whose schemes unravel amidst his abandonment by his friends.

This film brought to mind strongly Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. Like most formalist studies, Save the Cat is very reductive, choosing 11 “basic” narratives (compared to, say, Christopher Booker’s even more distorting 7 basic “plots”), but that’s a reduction based on exploring the different mechanisms and strategies for creating dramatic interest. The problem in a way is that despite advertising themselves as perfectly general studies, they are still very specific versions of even more general studies. The key advice in Snyder’s book, which gives its title, is that early in a narrative you need to give the audience some reason to care about the fate of the protagonist, whether that’s to make you love or hate them (alternate title: Murder the Cat). There’s a really crucial meta-theory in the background there, which is that the audience needs to care about what’s going on, generally focused on the fate of the protagonist. What The Realm completely lacked for me was that “saving the cat” moment that made me sympathetic or interested in Manuel [Antionio de la Torre].

Once I realised that I didn’t really care about any of the characters, who all seemed petty and grubby, it was hard to generate much of an emotional response to the film. That left me trying to figure out the plot and track the machinations of plot, of move and counter move, and on that level the film was equally disappointing in that everything was driven by a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. As a refresher for those who haven’t read Truffaut’s Hitchcock, a MacGuffin is some plot device or prompt that kicks off the action but about which you (the audience) does not care and in which you are not directly interested. This makes a lot of the scenes feel almost surreal, with characters who are pretty much cyphers arguing with each other trying to gain advantage over exposure of involvement in plots that are also cyphers.

The end result is something akin to a hyper-real narrative, where there are signs, but they all point only to other signs. We’ve got a representative figure of a protagonist, but one who doesn’t drive the action and in whom we are not interested, engaging in plots whose details are unknown and whose consequences are mere suggestions. The film rallies in the 4th act with a very well-constructed car chase and finishes with a satisfying verbal debate, but that leaves this far short of being a good film.

As I always say, criticism, however well intentioned or informed, always begins with an emotional response and my emotional response was “Meh”.

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Non-Fiction [2018]

I book tickets to films like this one because, well, you’re kind of supposed to as a cineaste. It’s all well and good loving silly genre films, but real cinema enthusiasts love Béla Tar and are familiar with the latest works of Fassbinder. I should be able to pontificate at length about mood and speculate knowledgeably about what lenses the director used for each shot. It’s true that I have seen and advocated for the odd bit of pretentious garbage – I’m a big fan of Stalker [1979] for example, so there’s a 2-hour conversation between myself and one Jamie Sands on that topic waiting in the aether for release. And like all film genres, if you’re not hugely disposed to them they can nonetheless still surprise you by being just so great that you accept that there’s no murderer, or espionage, or men on horseback who seem on the verge of forgetting human speech. The previous Oliver Assayas film I saw was just such a one. The Clouds of Sils Maria [2014] was a very thought-provoking study of fame and age with two great central performances and a not-bad third-hand from Chloe Grace Moretz.

Non-Fiction, not so much.

In a way, the English title is more accurate than the literal translation of the french title, which would be “Double Lives”, because while this film has “characters”, what it really has is cyphers who exist in a social matrix for the purpose of having highbrow discussions with each other on a range of topics. It may not be strictly factual, but what narrative and character elements exist for this film are totally suborned to this higher purpose. I think that will definitely not please people who, perhaps a bit like myself, came to see a character exploration such as that of The Clouds of Sils Maria; nonetheless, it’s far from being without merit. When you get a group of smart people having more-or-less well-informed discussions about any given topic, that can be quite compelling. Along those lines, one of my favourite Umberto Eco books is a transcription of a lengthy conversation, This is Not the End of the Book.

If we accept that this disconnected series of debates is “unrealistic” when measured by standard dramatic conventions then it becomes the same kind of un/hyper-real exercise as, say, a Western gunfighting picture, or a Super Hero film. Instead of flying through the air and firing laser beams from their eyes though, these constructs deploy wit. That kind of fantasy is for me equally desirable, because when I think about myself, I like to think that I am engaged in more than simple engineering or escapist reading, but as a participant in an intellectual dialogue about Important Topics ™. I read the Guardian weekly for example, and nothing is so pleasurable as recycling its talking points in conversation with anyone to my political right – most people. The fantasy you inhabit in a film like Non-Fiction is the kind of fantasy that powers all of Aaron Sorkin’s work, but especially the Newsroom. It is the fantasy that you have profound thoughts, and that you can engage others in debating those thoughts.

3 stars.

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century [2019]

Capital, and concomitantly “capitalism” and the whole democratic concept that’s intertwined with it, is a huge topic. I haven’t traversed the entirety of Capital by Marx, but I have slogged my way through The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, and dipped in and out of various perspectives from How the Economy Works by Roger Farmer to The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. Fair to say, Smith is in favour and everyone else has more than a few questions. A film of less than 2 hours is always going to be a light skim-coating, so the question isn’t whether this film can truly translate a wrist-breaking tome, but whether it can put forward a persuasive argument of sufficient complexity that it isn’t instantly dismissible by someone on the opposite economic flank from me.

In general, I thought this presented a fairly decent cross-section of the concepts in play and put enough of a spin on that for it to be more than a dry exposition. In particular, the way it was able to show analogous modes of capital existing in different forms but with the same systemic function was interesting – roughly, how the pure ideation of money creates a rentier economy not dissimilar to the way property historically accrued money. What this documentary also addresses in a fairly direct way is the practical implications of capitalist inequality, pointing out that in real terms it has lead to the stagnation or deflation of living standards (e.g. life expectency is gently declining in the USA.)

Where I think I’d have liked a little more emphasis is in the fundamental requirement for exploitation that underpins the global version of Capitalism. Examples aren’t hard to find, from consumer goods made in Bangladesh death traps going back to the exploitation of colonised countries, going back to slavery. It’s for sure not an accidental byproduct of the system, it’s a necessary predicate. Similarly, the obvious craziness of perpetual growth as a concept wasn’t really front-and-centre.

This pandered pretty well to my sensibilities – I would 100% recommend it as a survey of the situation. I do wonder how well it would cross the aisle though. I recently read PJ O’Rourke’s Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards, which was a great bit of advocacy for the free market and freedoms in general – but the absolute best bit of the book is about 3/4 of the way through where he surveys political discourse and says that neither side is even trying to speak to the other any more. That’s absolutely the case for me, where political disagreements are rarely productively explored but rather create tension. This film was sufficiently slanted to please me – is it sufficiently unslanted that, say, a National voter would largely agree with its points or at least find it a fair representation of their ideology?

4 Stars.

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The Whistlers [2019]

I always say that criticism, however well intentioned, begins with an emotional response. Critics respond in a strange way to their favourite genres – sometimes they’re just happy to see the favourite on the screen, sometimes they feel disproportionately displeased by variations or missteps. I, as an aficionado of crime and noir-inflections, was mostly mildly bored by this film.

I think my dissatisfaction comes from the real lack of emotional affect in virtually any of the performances in the film. The characters all basically drift through the narrative letting it kind of happen to them, and so they remain at a distance from each other. It’s hard to believe in the friendships, betrayals, or the love story that crops up with a grinding inevitability given no apparent emotion at any time. Maybe that’s all just lost in translation? A shoehorned love story between a middle-aged corrupt cop and a young beautiful femme fatale was the last straw for thinking this could be a good movie… Just so bored.

The mechanics of everything are pretty efficient and there are some nice shots, the dialogue isn’t bad per se. For sure I’ve seen worse films in this story space, but this is definitely below par.

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Where’s my Roy Cohn? [2019]

I picked this film because it’s blurb pandered to my obvious lefty-pinko sensibilities – a take-down piece of an American back-room trader about whom I knew very little, but was fully ready to hate. In that regard, this documentary dished just what I wanted as family members and former colleagues became talking heads ready to smear a portrait of a mendacious and hypocritical egomaniac with ties not only to organised crime but, even worse, the GOP, while sketching far-reaching influence with today’s villain de jour, one President Donald Trump.

Yet, I suppose, aside from fuelling an already well-stoked revulsion for an obviously odious type man, what did I learn? In Representing Reality [1991], Nichols outlines the obvious and key function of the kind of documentary that we all think of instinctively, as “advanc[ing] an argument about the historical world” that “emphasizes the impression of objectivity and well-subtantiated judgment”. In this documentary scattering facts as related by a curated selection of people who seem like they aught to know what they’re on about, there is a very curious lack of objectivity, of real facts that could be checked, verified, or substantiated. In this film there’s plenty of judgement and the lack of counter-balancing views to the strong thesis offered creates the impression that no serious counter view is possible. I always joke that a balanced climate debate should be held on TV between the two main sides: will the temperature rise by 2 degrees or 4 degrees? Not rising is so far off the rational end of the spectrum there’s no point even entertaining it – and that is the impression this documentary seeks to convey.

To me that makes this documentary a little one-dimensional, because for all that its portrait is convincing, by which I mean it is rhetorically robust, I left the cinema with a slight feeling of “so what?”. So, there was this awful political operator who caused all kinds of mayhem – so what? What can we do about this now? How were the mechanisms he used dismantled in his fall, or if they weren’t, how can they be? The film goes to great pains to link him to Donald Trump without offering any insights that seem to offer any present solutions to that problem. It seems all to clear to me after Boris Johnson’s ascension that this type of truth-optional political operator has a strong future and something that offers some insight into their undoing would be most welcome.

A great screenwriter once had some dialogue that said a good journalist reports the facts, a great one understands their meaning. Alas, this film falls into the first camp, and barely at that. It offers an emotive and evocative impression of a troublesome lawyer, but without a solid basis of factual connections, without a strong thesis of how such a person succeeds, this is just grist to the mill and not anything to get excited about.

3 stars then.

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