I’ve been busy lately writing a few pieces for publication elsewhere in the media biosphere. Here’s a few:
This was a difficult one to write, and more personal than I typically get, but it’s an important topic. About 18 months ago I got waylaid by a shock health diagnosis and it sent me on pretty intense personal journey. Both Radio New Zealand and NZ’s biggest news website Stuff have kindly published this one:
It’s World Thrombosis Day on Sunday, and I wrote this to tie in to that important awareness day. There’s been some great commentary and feedback about my piece by people on these sites’ Facebook pages sharing their own stories, which really gratifies me and makes the effort of writing this one worthwhile.
In less dramatic writing, I also had a very fun feature printed in the New Zealand Herald‘s weekend Canvas magazine the other week about a boom in Auckland cinemas showing revivals of classic films. It’s part of their paywalled content but if you’re a Herald member it’s worth a read!
Lastly, this one was actually published a little while back over at Radio New Zealand but I might as well link to it as well here, because the issue of America and guns certainly hasn’t changed much since I wrote it. I wrote about it from the perspective of an American who’s lived abroad for more than a decade. I often get asked about America’s mass shootings. Wish I had an answer, but for now this is what I had to say:
It’s not easy being a legend in their autumn. Billy Wilder was easily one of the best film directors of all time, a storyteller without peer who managed to balance comedy and drama perfectly in all-time classics like Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Double Indemnity, Stalag 17 and many more.
But by the time the 1970s rolled around, Billy Wilder had been making pictures for nearly 50 years. He wasn’t “hip” anymore. He made several films before his final movie, Buddy Buddy in 1981, but few of them are remembered well today. He died at 95 in 2002, but his peak was decades before.
Wilder’s final four films aren’t quite up there with the classics that made his name, but there’s something interesting in all of them.
1972’s Avanti! is the underrated gem of Wilder’s later period, with a terrific Jack Lemmon performance. A harried businessmen learns his father has died in Italy, and has to retrieve his body. He learns his father had been having an affair when he meets the daughter (Juliet Mills) of his late mistress. The best of Wilder’s late work tackles ageing and death head-on, and Avanti! is a solid example of that “successful men having a mid-life spiritual crisis” genre that’s been done to death over the years. The charming, free-spirited Mills is a nice foil to Lemmon’s bitter cynicism. It’s not a perfect movie – it’s way too long at nearly 2 1/2 hours, and there’s a bit of a crime plot thread that doesn’t work, but there’s something resonant in Lemmon trying to make peace with his father’s memory and his bittersweet midlife tryst. Wilder’s ‘70s films up the swearing and nudity content, with mixed success (Buddy Buddy, below, just seems foulmouthed), but Avanti! is a mature, witty work.
The Front Page (1974) is a team-up of Walter Matthau and Lemmon, in one of many remakes of the screwball ‘30s comedy about feuding journalists. The material’s good, but you can’t really top the perfection of Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (another adaptation), and there’s something about watching a screwball comedy remade in the ‘70s that feels forced and inauthentic. While Matthau and Lemmon are always worth watching, a miscast Carol Burnett throws the whole thing off kilter and The Front Page is a trifle for Wilder that never feels essential or particularly bold.
Fedora (1978), on the other hand, is Wilder’s last grand creative statement, and even if it’s an imperfect film, it’s not quite like anything else he did. A spiritual sequel to Sunset Boulevard, it also stars the great William Holden seeking the truth about a revered reclusive Hollywood actress, the great diva Fedora. Placed in a sun-basked European setting, much like Avanti!, it’s got an autumnal, valedictory feel. Holden was only in his late 50s at the time of filming, but seems at least 10 years older (he’d sadly die at just 63 a few years later after a fall). There’s a mystery wrapped at the heart of Fedora, which is a bit far-fetched but still proves to be a fascinating rumination on the cost of fame, ageing, and celebrity, and the cost people are willing to pay. It’s unfortunate that Fedora isn’t quite as good as it could’ve been. Some of the acting is rather suspect (the lead two actresses were dubbed, which was a bad call), and Holden, who’s always captivating, basically vanishes for much of the second half. But Fedora is a movie by a man who still had something to say, and it wouldn’t have been a half-bad last work by Wilder. As it is, it’s a rough gem.
1981’sBuddy Buddy, unfortunately, is a bit of a stinker to go out on. Wilder was 75 when it came out, and it’s clearly the product of an old man running on empty. The traditional Wilder cynicism is there but shoehorned in an overwrought “wacky” comedy – it’s the story of a hitman (Walter Matthau) whose work keeps getting interrupted by a suicidal loser (Jack Lemmon, in full “Gil” from The Simpsons mode). There’s a few funny morbid moments – Lemmon pauses in the act of hanging himself in a bathroom to use the toilet to take a leak, for example. But the plot is all over the place, incorporating Lemmon’s battle to win back his wife (a deeply unpleasant character played by Paula Prentiss), some groan-worthy hippie satire, and topping the list in sheer weirdness, a sex clinic run by a bizarre Klaus Kinski (!) who seems to have wandered in from a different movie altogether. Lemmon’s too broad in his role and the suicide jokes seem a bit icky in 2019, but Matthau is admittedly pretty great as a cynical hitman. It’s a shame he’s not in a better movie. You’d barely recognise Wilder’s distinctive touch in it.
The great unrealised ambition of Wilder in his later years was to direct Schindler’s List. Of course, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was a great film as well, but as a Jewish man who lost much of his family in the Holocaust, including his mother, Wilder’s take could’ve been remarkable.
Then again, Billy Wilder’s entire career was a pretty remarkable thing. There’s been few storytellers who showed us more about human nature in Hollywood’s history.
“You’re afraid to dive into the plasma pool, aren’t you? You’re afraid to be destroyed and recreated, aren’t you?” – Seth Brundle
It’s gory, grotesque and disturbing, yet in my personal time capsule of favourite movies of all time, Jeff Goldblum and David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” sticks with me.
Despite having watched it more than a dozen times since 1986, I’d never seen it on the big screen until the other night, when I caught a gorgeous 35mm screening. There’s nothing quite like seeing “The Fly” on a big screen, with an audience screaming along in synchronicity.
Like most of Cronenberg’s movies, “The Fly” hasn’t dated at its core, except for Goldblum and Geena Davis’ big ‘80s hair. The gore is still horrifying, the emotions still tight, and the movie’s fundamental core of a man grasping for knowledge and being burned by its power is as old as Icarus.
It’s a horror movie, with some of the most intensely disturbing mutations and goop of Cronenberg’s visceral career, but it’s also a doomed love story, brought to life by Goldblum and Davis’ immense chemistry (they were a couple at the time).
When I first saw “The Fly,” it was on a battered VHS dub tape someone made for me back in high school. I watched that tape so many times that whenever I see the movie now I expect to see the same tracking glitches the tape had. It was my first Cronenberg, which will screw you up for life.
“I’m saying I’m an insect… who dreamt he was a man… and loved it. But now the insect is awake.” – Seth Brundle
There’s a speech Goldblum gives towards the end, covered in latex and deformed, about insect politics. It and the movie as a whole are Goldblum’s finest hour as an actor.
Everybody loves Jeff Goldblum these days, and heck, I do too, but he’s become kind of a cartoony eccentric version of himself. “The Fly” shows what happens when Goldblum actually acts instead of quirks, and it’s still revelatory to watch Seth Brundle’s horrible transformation and mutations.
As a teenager, I saw a lot of myself in Seth Brundle’s horrific transformation into a human/fly hybrid. Golbum’s face breaks out, his body changes, he doesn’t recognise himself when he looks in the mirror. That’s every teenager in the world for you.
I see it now, I see darker metaphors – as a middle-aged dude, your body continues changing, not always in great ways. At one point in the movie Goldblum worries that he’s developed some hideous form of cancer (spoiler: it’s way worse than that). Now I see “The Fly” as a parable about anyone who’s ever felt trapped in a body that’s a stranger to them.
“I’ll bet you think that you woke me up about the flesh, don’t you? But you only know society’s straight line about the flesh. You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick, gray, fear of the flesh.” – Seth Brundle
I’ve had my share of health woes the last few years and I have to admit that watching Goldblum go from a dazzling shirtless golden god to a deteriorating, disintegrating wreck of a man hits home hard. We are all transforming, every day, in ways big and small. Sometimes it’s wonderful. Sometimes it’s horrible. The question is how we endure it.
“The Fly” is still a movie I return to every few years, and each time I see something a little different in it. It’s dark and down, sure, but yet I also feel a weird glimmer of optimism in parts of it too. We never stop wanting to better ourselves, no matter the cost. We are all swimming in the plasma pool.
“It wants to… turn me into something else. That’s not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.” – Seth Brundle
I’m a fan of a lot of things. But “Star Wars” is complicated for me.
Like pretty much everyone born in the 1970s, I grew up with “Star Wars,” surrounded by Kenner action figures and C-3PO Underoos and painstakingly assembling the entire 107-issue run of Marvel comics. I never thought I’d still be seeing new “Star Wars” movies 40 years later.
But these days, the more toxic elements of “Star Wars” fandom have seeped into my appreciation of the Jedi mythos, already diluted by middling prequels and a never-ending tsunami of content-expanding product – some good, some unnecessary. They’re a tiny keyboard warrior minority, but seeing the misogynists and trolls outraged at gerrrrrls and non-white characters brought into their little biosphere in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” had a contaminating effect for me. I’ll always love “Star Wars,” but I’m uneasy lumping myself into the fandom scene.
Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best of 1999’s “The Phantom Menace” have faced years of harassment and bullying for simply appearing in a movie. It’s hard for me to square up my own childhood Jedi fandom with an invisible online world of real-life Sith lords throwing bombs from their keyboards. If fandom is hounding an Asian-American actress off the internet for being in a “Star Wars” movie, I don’t want any part of it.
So it’s complicated watching “Star Wars” movies in your late 40s, with a lifetime of your own memory baggage tossed into a cultural Tower of Babel of hot takes and trolling that never ends.
I watched “The Last Jedi” again recently, and it’s the rare post-1983 “Star Wars” movie that actually gets better on each viewing. It goes in hard, unexpected places and objectively speaking is the most beautiful movie of the entire series to date, with director Rian Johnson composing painterly, stunning vistas that remind me of why I fell in love with the alien skies of Tatooine and Bespin in the first place. The cast is great (sorry, keyboard warriors) and it’s honestly the most surprising “Star Wars” movie since “Empire Strikes Back.” While I dug “The Force Awakens,” it’s hard not to see its plot as a ramped-up remake of “Star Wars”. “The Last Jedi” goes against what fans expected, and it suffered a backlash in some quarters as a result.
And yet, “The Last Jedi” is also a cruel movie, where betrayal and despair is everywhere. Watching the last remnants of the Rebellion slowly being picked off and almost every character suffering incredible losses is a downer, much like the ending of “Empire Strikes Back” was in 1981.
It’s likely that December’s Episode IX will live up to the title “The Rise of Skywalker” and deliver some kind of feel-good catharsis, but I don’t know. These are bleaker times than 1983. Cheesy as it may seem, the original trilogy had the standard-issue happy ending, with Ewoks singing wub-wub and everybody smiling at the force ghosts.
Perhaps it’s a more brutal world now or a less blinkered one, but “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” are here to tell us there are no happy endings. (MAJOR SPOILERS ahead if you have yet to see either of these movies.) Han Solo has an apparently failed marriage to Leia and dies alone on a bridge, killed by his own son. Luke Skywalker sees his every ambition fail and spends his final years bitter and alone on a rocky island. General Leia Organa’s entire life is filled with failure and loss, the Rebellion crumbling around her, and whatever her final fate in “The Rise of Skywalker” is likely to be, it’s coming at the end of a hard life. I’m only hoping Lando has had some happiness in his final years.
In the brief interregnum from 1984-1997 or so when “Star Wars” fandom went underground, where there were tons of comic book sequels and novels and the like, an entirely new ending was imagined for Han, Luke and Leia, one filled with ups and downs but definitely less fatalistic than the bleak realities of Episodes VII and VIII. I feel sad to see the characters I followed so obsessively as a kid not getting their happy endings. Then again, you can call back to Ben Kenobi’s lonely Tatooine exile or the brutal deaths of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru and say that “Star Wars” has always had harsh endings.
Yet I can’t fault its reality – war rarely ends cleanly or easily in real life, and it was always a stretch to imagine a bunch of Ewoks in a forest singlehandedly brought down a galactic empire. But I liked the fantasy. I liked the happy ending in 1983, and not having to read hot takes on it all the next day online. One of the biggest problems with the 42-year history of “Star Wars” now is that everyone has their own expectations of how things will go, and their own disappointment when it doesn’t measure up. Like most things, “Star Wars” is an imperfect creation, and part of being a fan of it all after decades is coming to grips with it.
In the end nothing will be as pure a love as the kind you had when you were a starry-eyed kid. I’ll always be a “Star Wars” fan, despite my misgivings. But it’s complicated.
What is it: It’s not exactly a household name, but in certain circles, it’s the holy bible of cheesy kung-fu schlock. Master of the Flying Guillotineis a 1976 Taiwanese film written by, directed by and starring Jimmy Wang Yu, a sequel to his One-Armed Boxer (about… you guessed it). It’s one of the wackiest kung fu movies of the ‘70s, featuring an insane blind assassin and his fearsome “flying guillotine” (a bizarre weapon which resembles a bladed cap attached to a chain. You throw it and boom, instant haircut). The guillotine master has a mad-on for the famed one-armed boxer who killed his students, and the entire movie is basically an excuse for inventive, crazed kung fu revenge ultraviolence, leading to a fantastic showdown between a one-armed fighter and a blind guillotine wielder.
Why I never saw it: Hell, I’d never even heard of it until recently, when I’ve been going on an extended martial arts movie binge, from the classic moves of Bruce Lee to the slapstick antics of Jackie Chan to the cool charms of Donnie Yen.
Does it measure up to its rep? This is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite movies and a clear influence on his “Kill Bill” series. It’s not slick, but its clunky moves (the ‘one-armed boxer’ moves about as smooth as I do on a Saturday morning), crazy krautrock-influenced soundtrack and bizarre characters make it unforgettable in a genre filled with wacky kung-fu killers. While Wang Yu is a kinda stiff leading man, Lung Kun Lee as the guillotine killer is fascinatingly over-the-top – with facial hair that makes him resemble a rabid woodchuck, a snarling theme song that announces his entrance, and a penchant for throwing explosives around every building he enters, he’s amazing. The entire movie stops dead at one point for a half-hour of so of a bloody, murder-filled martial arts tournament featuring crazily baroque fighters, which basically plays like “Mortal Kombat” invented 20 years earlier. There’s sheer energy to the way this revenge tale is framed that gives it a kick. Perhaps the best way to watch is it like I did, on a low-rent dubbed video which inexplicably switches back to Chinese 5-6 times during the middle of the movie for a few lines here and there. It’s like I was there in the grindhouse drive-in movie theatre parking lot of 1976 this movie was made for.
How’s it different than I thought: Unlike the other “flying guillotine” movies out there in this sub-sub genre, this is pretty bloodless. In fact, a couple of the marquee decapitations in this flick are like watching an abandoned puppet go down, made funnier because in one scene you can clearly see the “headless man” is a man with his still-attached head stuffed into an extra-large shirt. And we won’t even talk about how the “one-armed boxer” is clearly hiding his arm in his tunic in almost every scene.
Worth seeing? Absolutely. It’s the kind of kung-fu insanity I dreamed about as a lad, and a hidden gem if you haven’t discovered its sloppy charms yet.
A good film festival is like a church for its acolytes – a place to find solace and enlightenment, to forget your troubles and to imagine exciting new possibilities in life.
I’ve been going to the New Zealand International Film Festival every late July and August for more than a decade now, and every year, it’s a highlight of our rainy grey winters. I’m a mere amateur compared to some of the festivalgoers who manage 12, 15, 25 or 30 of the nearly 150 movies that unspool over two weeks or so. This year I’m managing eight, and it’s a spectrum of images and ideas, enough to make me close my eyes at night and dream of red curtains parting to see white screens.
No wonder I can’t stop thinking about movies. It’s a kaleidoscope of cinema every year – in past years I’ve seen grand revivals of Sergio Leone movies, silent classics like “Nosferatu” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic, enigmatic Russian epics which demand to be seen on a gaping big screen.
And always something new or novel. Always something that just sounds like it might be interesting, whether it’s a documentary on tea in China or about the band Bikini Kill or a sprawling sci-fi epic or a thriller about zombies taking over a small New Zealand town.
Festivals like this remind me of why I’m so ambivalent about streaming. There’s great things about it, but I hate how it’s slowly eclipsing all other forms of cinema with what feels like an endless flood of cookie-cutter corporate “content.” Try finding more than a few token movies made before 1980 on Netflix. It’s much easier to sit and binge your brain on 12 episodes of some forgettable new show than it is to hunt down and figure out how to watch the greatest hits of a Billy Wilder or Robert Altman.
And while I’m down with the superheroes and the blockbusters there’s something special about gathering in the dark with a film festival crowd, whether it’s a bunch of twisted gorehounds cackling at gruesomely hilarious violence in one movie or an audience full of Tongans roaring at the quirks and jokes of their own closeknit culture.
Film festivals are the bestivals, every year a window into dozens of different worlds all flickering to life on the vast white screen.
Timpson’s a national treasure for NZ film geeks, having run the Incredibly Strange Film Festivalfor 25 years, the 48Hours film contest and produced such slices of taboo-poking kiwi-fried film strangeness as “Deathgasm,” “Housebound” and “Turbo Kid”. Now he’s finally directed his first film, “Come To Daddy” starring Elijah Wood.
Wood is Norval, a gawky man-child returning to visit his estranged father for the first time in decades. Dad (Stephen McHattie) lives in a surreal house on the edge of the sea, an alcoholic loner who apparently asked his son to visit but then batters and harasses him almost from the moment he arrives. “Come To Daddy” shapes up as an epic, tense battle of the wills between twitchy Norval and loathsome Dad, but then it takes a turn into stranger territory entirely.
It’s hard to review “Come To Daddy,” a shapeshifter of a movie that boasts wild shifts in tone from melancholy to bitingly nasty wit to grind house horror. This frenzied energy will likely make it a midnight-movie perennial, but it also means it’s the kind of movie that will really appeal most to those who like to get a bit battered by their cinema. The anything-goes craziness reminds me of Peter Jackson’s earliest gorehound work before he settled down to Middle Earth’s tranquil blandness.
Timpson’s got a very confident director’s eye as “Daddy” fluidly shifts its tone. He sets the stage with lots of languid shots of beaches and trees and Wood’s endlessly fascinating face, all rounded curves and rabbity energy. There’s some shots that manage a grotesque beauty out of the ugliest moments. Some of the secondary characters aren’t as well developed as Wood and McHattie’s, and unfortunately a pivotal character introduced halfway through seems more of a sketch than a fully-rounded human being. But amidst all the chaos that unfolds on screen, “Daddy” manages to say something touching and universal about the meaning of fatherhood.
Wood is the MVP of “Daddy” and the entire movie falls apart without his committed performance. This ain’t no Frodo Baggins. His career has been driven by his extraordinarily expressive deer-in-the-headlight eyes, which “Daddy” uses to terrific effects as Norval wrestles with his anger and guilt over his relationship with his father. His Norval is dressed in awkwardly hanging hipster’s clothes, a strangelysculptural haircut and topped off with a scribbly moustache that suggests facial hair hibernating for the winter.
Like alot of Ant Timpson-produced films there are scenes that will have you going OHMIGODNONONO as you cringe from the screen, guiltily chuckling all the way. There’s no better way to see them than in a crowded theatre with dozens of like-minded twisted souls. It’s the kind of defiantly original movie film festivals are made to celebrate, and I hope Timpson doesn’t wait too long to direct another film.