Sunday, 18 May 2014

A look back at 2013

This year, I'm going to try and write a blog about the Auckland Film Festival. As a dry run, here are my personal favorites from last year's line up.

FRANCES HA (dir. Noah Baumbach) 

Everything about this movie seemed designed to turn me away: the mumble-core trappings, the polly anna protagonist, the New York hipster setting... For some reason however, I decided to go.

Everything I was afraid this movie was was there. And yet, all this stuff worked. This movie is a lovely little curio about a woman who remains determined to achieve her dreams while everyone around her  has made compromises to achieve something more realistic.

This film rides the edge of being an overly cutesy, self-indulgent eulogy to New York hipsterism. One move out of place and the whole structure could have collapsed, but somehow Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig never put a foot wrong, elevating FRANCES HA above most of the dross which constitutes the post-mumblecore indie scene.  After DAMSELS IN DISTRESS and now this, I am a big fan of Gerwig, and I look forward to checking out the rest of Baumbach's previous work.

PRINCE AVALANCHE (dir. David Gordon Green)

I've been a fan of David Gordon Green for awhile. My first exposure to him was PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. It's a good movie, but it wasn't till I saw SNOW ANGELS that I became a real fan. When I heard this movie was in the festival line up, I jumped at the chance.

This movie is the kind of indie I like. Small, loose, and set in a microcosm of reality. It's not a big story in any way, just two road workers re-painting the centre lines on a road after a major forest fire in the backroads of Texas.

As our central protagonists, Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd, still somewhat under the radar but relatively known quantities, establish a lo-fi, unpredictable, and intimate rapport that allows them to play off each other in ways that give them a chance to really stretch. Emile Hirsch, looking disconcertingly like a young Jack Black, delivers a loose, hilarious performance as a simple-minded party-animal in a quarter life crisis. Paul Rudd, still underrated, delivers an excellent performance as a man who tries to keep everything under control, but is just as lost and confused as his comrade.

With Green's mix of kitchen-sink realism and poetic mood-setting, PRINCE AVALANCHE is a great  boost to his creative mojo after a slew of increasingly moribund Hollywood ventures.


The Spectacular Now (dir. James Ponsoldt)

My third and final favorite of the festival. Great performances, a terrific script, and understated, empathetic direction combine to make a film that actually lives up to the overused term, 'coming of age'. 

Suspiria with live soundtrack by Goblin

I've seen Dario Argento's classic before, but watching this in the Civic on a massive screen with Goblin, the band behind the film's lauded soundtrack, blasting out the score right in front of me, took the whole thing to another level.

Outside of the festival, I had a few other favorites.

Blue is the Warmest Colour (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)

I actually saw this at the start of this year, but since it's a 2013 release and bloody brilliant, I had to say something about it.

Put aside the controversy over the director and its sexual content, this is a truly great film. Heck take away the lesbian angle, and it still stands as an achingly real and deeply visceral portrait of the life cycle of a relationship. There's nothing exceptional about the people involved, or the way they meet, or live, or how they break up, it just feels lived in.

An epic treatment of a mundane situation, BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR is a truly superlative experience I cannot recommend enough.


Imitation of Life (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1959)

I've got a working version of a top ten of all time that's up to about 6 now. Whatever iteration I finally go with will definitely include this.

Telling the dual stories of two mothers and their daughters, IMITATION OF LIFE uses its parallel narratives to offer a terrifying commentary on race and class in fifties America. Words cannot begin to describe the sheer, subtle genius of this movie as both a traditional melodrama and a savage satire on the gap between Hollywood 'reality' and the social context outside the studio gates. 

It's rare for a 60 year old movie to feel like a punch in the gut, but IMITATION OF LIFE is a unique and multifaceted beast with a nasty sting in its tail. By the time the end credits roll, it will have you considering the words 'I'm dreaming of White Christmas' in a whole new light...

Monday, 5 May 2014

The Chronicles of Bill

New post! Switching things up a bit. 

I'm testing the waters with a book review. Now, this is not entirely new. I've taken an old review and re-jigged it a bit, but I'm going to try and include more reviews like this in the future. Enough from me, read on!   

MASTERING THE PRESIDENCY is a biography on US President Bill Clinton by respected English author Nigel Hamilton. He's written some other biographies on other famous people including an earlier book he'd done on Monty (the WWII general, not Python).

It's the story of Clinton's first term, and how he evolved into a respected world statesman. I sniggered at the last part (everyone remembers what happened in his SECOND term), but it did get me thinking. I had been nay but a youngling during Clinton's presidency. The only time I remember him existing was during the Lewinsky scandal. However, even without knowing that much about him, I realized something else.

While Clinton's personal failures were certainly detrimental to his image, compared to the colossal failures of his successor, he was almost saintly. Intrigued, I decided to invest in this doorstop of a book.

It was actually pretty good. First of all, Hamilton doesn't eulogize Clinton.The portrait he constructs is of a man with both great empathy and genius-level intelligence but compromised by a pathological desire to please everyone, hazy principles and a complete lack of personal discipline. The fact that Hamilton is not American helped make this book more appealing to me, since most American biographies seem to BLAST "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER" THROUGH YOUR BRAIN AS SOON AS YOU OPEN THE FIRST PAGE. Moving on...

The book describes events starting from the transition of power in 1992-1993 to Election night 1996, and is divided into both volumes and books. It sounds complicated but it really isn't. Quite frankly, it aided my reading immensely, as I can't help fiddling the pages and it gave me specific places to mark. Not to mention the fact that I could go back to remember a name or event I had forgotten which had popped up again. These separations also work dramatically, to signal the transition between both major events and the evolution of Hamilton's subject as both a man and a politician.

The book works as two halves, bisecting the four years between 1993 and 1996. The first half is interesting in showing how a government gets started, and this portion is probably the funniest, as the government is thrown into disarray by Clinton's indecisiveness. However, as 1993 rolls into 1994, the parade of snafus gets longer and more monotonous, and Clinton's inability to get his (White) house in order begins to get tedious.

By this point I was wondering how the hell Clinton won a second term. It would only be after I had finished the book that I realized this question was why Hamilton wrote it in the first place.

Objectively however, this section of the book suffers from a lack of real drama, and a lot of policy which will probably turn off readers. There are suspensful episodes, such as the well known events in Somalia, Waco, Haiti, the World Trade Centre bombing and Clinton's showdown with North Korea, which almost led to war.

The problem is, and this has more to do with history than with Hamilton's book, is Clinton's handling of most of the above. While the screw ups at Waco are well known, a few of the more successful crises, such as his dealings with North Korea, are not really because of him. By the time you're a quarter through the book you'll be wondering why Hamilton didn't write a book about ex-prez Jimmy Carter, after he manages to defuse both the Haiti and Korea situations.

Things pick up around the same time Clinton's healthcare bill gets sent down the gurgler. Then the shit really hits the proverbial fan - which is about the time I really started enjoying the book.

Every protagonist needs an antagonist, and history has provided Hamilton with a great one: Speaker of the House Newt Gingrinch. What's better is that his entrance is perfectly timed to coincide with Clinton's biggest problem: the loss of both Houses of Congress to the Republican Party. My understanding of the situation is pretty basic, but it basically meant that Clinton would have a VERY hard time passing any laws. It's pretty tame in light of the present Congress's (in)action and a sad reflection of how low the bar is now. 

The real dramatic meat of the book is the struggle between Clinton and Gingrinch. Super-smart and super-sexed,Gingrinch is like Clinton's doppleganger. He's a great antagonist and a worthy opponent to Clinton, lacking Clinton's humility (he asks his first wife for a divorce while she's undergoing cancer treatment), world view and, most critically, his media savvy.

Gingrinch's arrival on the scene seems to galvanize Clinton into action. If this were an action movie, Clinton would be tooling up with weapons in some glorious montage complete with some wonderfully overblown martial music while Gingrinch cackled in his evil lair. In real life, this involves alot of back room negotiation and the appointment of Leon Panetta as Clinton's Chief of Staff to instill a sense of structure and discipline over the woe-fully disorganized Clinton White House. More importantly, in regards to this book is that this battle of the political titans gives Hamilton's prose the steriodal energy boost it needs, and the rest of the book flies by. My lack of knowledge was beneficial at this point, since it meant I could enjoy their struggles without any fore-knowledge of the climax.

And then there's Monica...

I won't spoil the rest for you, but by the end of the book, I was pumped. Especially since Hamilton ends the book on a cliffhanger ending, with Clinton celebrating his re-election completely unaware of the shit storm of controversy his personal indiscretions were about to unleash.

The second half of the book is inarguably better than the first half, and this is one of the few books I've read (fiction or non-) that actually gets more exciting as it heads into the home stretch. While this heavy tome might be hard going at first (politics...), it's worth it just to see how Clinton turned his administration around and went toe to toe with the Grinch. From then on it's like the Rumble in the Jungle with Clinton as Ali and Gingrinch as Foreman, with better suits and flabbier pecs.

Another interesting bonus feature is comparing how Clinton did with how Obama's faring - a nice postscript to the book for me was watching Newt Gingrinch's failed presidential run in 2012. Oh sweet justice...

All in all, I really enjoyed the book. Nigel Hamilton was supposed to be working on a sequel ( I guess the working title for that would be 'Un-Mastering the Presidency'?). Based on the strength of the material he has to work with, CLINTON PART II ought to be both more dramatic (the impeachment) and funnier (the impeachment) than its predecessor. While there's been no new developments, hopefully this second tome comes to pass.

Original post: 11-8-2010