The Listener at the NZ Film Festival: computers & comedyby David Larsen
Reviews of Computer Chess, Prince Avalanche, The Spectacular Now, plus a documentary round-up.
Ashton Kutcher might be playing Steve Jobs in the forthcoming Hollywood biopic, but Andrew Bujalski has already delivered what will likely prove the year’s nerdiest comedy. Since he kick-started the mumblecore movement more than a decade ago, the Texas-based director has made only four features. In his latest, which is his first period piece, Bujalski creates an atmosphere unlike anything else in recent mainstream or indie cinema (that is, outside avant-garde and experimental circles), and he does so primarily by making brilliant use of outdated video-recording technologies.
Computer Chess takes place over a drawn-out weekend in early 1980, somewhere deep in the heart of Texas. Teams of geeks from across the US, most associated with the Comp-Sci departments of this or that university, gather in a hotel to witness thousands of lines of programming code go head-to-head, game by game, for one of three trophies. Two other plot elements have a hold on the narrative. First, a couple’s-counselling seminar being held in the hotel that same weekend offers some unexpected crossover action, and second, to unwind, some of the computer geeks drop acid and get stoned (which occasions a pretty good 420 sight-gag).
The sorts of things we now take for granted in any movie or TV show—split-screen, and text banners or announcements, for example—appear in Bujalski’s film in their most rudimentary, unappealing iterations. As the competition becomes more fierce, and the couple’s counselling attendees become more amorous, and as everyone becomes more drug-addled, something like the spectre of the Overlook Hotel settles over these hallways, and we realise these people are suffering through a long collective nightmare of sorts. (It’s still a comedy, though.) We see super-impositions on the screen; images blur together; someone wanders into a group-trust exercise and experiences a spiritual rebirth.
At one point, thinking a little too deeply about a philosophical conundrum, a frustrated, spaced-out nerd exclaims “Everything is not everything!” An equally oxymoronic statement: the film was shot on video. (To be specific, it was made with vintage equipment from the era in which it’s set.) Aside from a brief flash of grainy colour stock at its centre, this is an intentionally ugly film: it has to it a greasy-grey, boxy, proto-VHS look. Bujalski has mentioned that William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton — a movie that served an important cultural-history function in the rock-doc Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, also in NZIFF ’13—was a reference point for the look of Computer Chess. Wiley Wiggins (Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Waking Life) might be the only (barely) recognisable name among the cast—which gives the film some of its essential elusiveness. This is not a mumblecore film: unlike with most everything Bujalski and his contemporaries have made to date, in this picture, editing and technique are front-and-centre—part of the basic fabric that’s usually hidden. Commitment to retro technique makes this a thrillingly original and wholly fascinating movie-going experience—one that rivals, for example, mind-expanding first-time viewings of Darren Aronofsky’s π and Shane Carruth’s Primer.
PRINCE AVALANCHE (Hugh Lilly)
This light-hearted buddy comedy starring a moustachioed Paul Rudd and a slightly rotund Emile Hirsch is something of a welcome return-to-form for the director David Gordon Green, a one-time Terrence Malick acolyte whose 2003 film All the Real Girls rightly made many critics’ decade-end lists. Prince Avalanche, a remake of a 2011 Icelandic film, is set in 1988; Hirsch and Rudd play Lance and Alvin, highway workers who have to repaint broken yellow centre lines after wildfires have devastated large swathes of Texas forest. The two spend most of their time bickering, arguing, and talking about women—mostly the girls Lance wants to hook up with, and Alvin’s wife, who happens to be Lance’s older sister.
The film mixes the warmth of Gordon Green’s more artfully minded and admired fare with the dumb stoner antics of his Pineapple Express and Your Highness—and, in its third act, contains a dash of indie-experimentalism for good measure. Gordon Green evokes the era subtly and sometimes pointedly, but never with an eye to making cheap jokes or inserting asinine references for the sake of it. The director’s regular composer David Wingo (who also works with Jeff Nichols) and the post-rock band Explosions in the Sky provide a subtly affecting score to complement cinematographer Tim Orr’s inviting, well-framed visuals. Rudd is perpetually likeable, even with a gross moustache, and Hirsch ingratiates himself slowly as the story develops. A minor and happily self-contained film (from a director most had rightly written off), but an unexpectedly pleasant one nonetheless.
THE SPECTACULAR NOW (Hugh Lilly)
James Ponsoldt’s charming second feature is, in a number of aspects, remarkably like his début, last year’s Smashed. That film, a shallow but affecting comedic drama about alcoholism, starred Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as a primary-school teacher trying to get sober in order to save her relationship. In The Spectacular Now, Sutter (Miles Teller, Project X) is a dozy teenager whose relationship has just ended—more or less because of his excessive drinking and general attitude to life (i.e., “YOLO”). Everything changes when he’s woken up the next morning by a girl named Aimee (Shailene Woodley)—he had passed out on her front lawn.
They hit it off immediately, and the rest—well, the rest is a bit complicated (and gives a solid supporting role to the actor Kyle Chandler). Woodley, who was the only good thing to come out of Alexander Payne’s disastrous The Descendants, is disarmingly authentic in this girl-next-door role. Ponsoldt’s choice to not put any makeup on her (save for a scene when the couple goes to the prom) is a fascinating one: when was the last time a fiction-film about teenagers had on screen people who looked like real teenagers?
There’s one really beautiful Steadicam two-shot, a long take set at a riverside keg party, in which the chemistry between these two characters is almost palpable—you can just about see them falling in love in front of your eyes. The script is, unfortunately, a little predictable (in story if not dialogue), but when those expected beats arrive, they’re often handled with an uncommon reverence and affection. (I’m thinking here, specifically, of the inevitable sex scene. This one’s not so much different as it is nicely conveyed—and skilfully acted.) The film is gorgeously shot—on 35mm, no less—rich with warm, full tones. If it weren’t for prominent appearances on the soundtrack by the likes of Washed Out, Kurt Vile, and others, this story could easily have been set any time between the early ’70s and now, so effortlessly hazy is its mood.
Discounting Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippets’ deceptively simple documentary Only the Young, no film since Gregg Mottola’s Adventureland has so affectionately portrayed the fumbling and attendant foibles of late adolescence as this.
SPIES AND LIES: THE GATEKEEPERS, TERMS AND CONDITIONS MAY APPLY, GORE VIDAL: THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA (Helene Wong)
There’s something heartening about the number of documentaries featuring truth-tellers of one kind or another. As well as Assange and Manning (We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks) there are also the journalists who’ve refused to get into bed in the Middle East – Jeremy Scahill in Dirty Wars, and our own Jon Stephenson in He Toki Huna: New Zealand in Afghanistan.
But with those guys, telling the truth is their mission. What you don’t expect are six former chiefs of Shin Bet, the Israeli agency for internal security – whose job is to keep secrets – agreeing to sit down in front of a camera to talk openly about their time in office and in particular the conflict with Palestine. Calmly analysing successes, failures and mistakes. Not in a cold way, nor even a cathartic way, but with the cool distance of hindsight, age and wisdom. It happens in The Gatekeepers.
You have to wonder why. These are hard men tasked with hard decisions. Some of those decisions led to dreadful civilian deaths. They worked closely – and some probably still do – with senior politicians and military top brass. Why would they want to talk? But having heard them, it’s clear that all are disturbed about the way their government is handling Palestine, and perhaps this is their way of delivering the message.
Israeli director Dror Moreh keeps his treatment spare, confining it to closely-shot interviews and supporting archival footage (news reports, surveillance cameras, combat film) for minimum distraction. His purpose is to show how the experiences of each of these men in office have led them to conclude that the strategy being pursued will not work. Or, as the oldest among them, Avraham Shalom, says dismissively, “It’s not strategy; it’s tactics.”
It’s risky and courageous stuff, like most truth-telling, and it’s also a little depressing. There’s no sense from these men that they expect any change in Israel’s policy on the occupation or negotiations. But with the film being Oscar-nominated and invited to festivals, and Moreh planning to show it in the West Bank, it could be a small but vital step towards it.
In Terms and Conditions May Apply, the secret being revealed is one we’ve all joked about but can’t be arsed following up. Cullen Hoback did, though, and it seems that yes, we should be very afraid when we click on “Agree” in that Terms & Conditions window.
With fancy graphics and talking heads – corporation execs, hackers, IT experts and ordinary punters – he examines the way post-9/11 paranoia has manifested itself in a surveillance creep that is now an integral part of our cellphone and website activity. Over the years, with the co-operation of the likes of Google and Facebook, the rights to privacy under those agreements have been progressively eroded by the government. These are the bits we didn’t see because we didn’t scroll down, and even if we had, we might not have realised their implications. Hoback checks them off one by one to build his case, gives examples, some scary, of what can happen when that privacy is breached, and ends by trying a Michael Moore on Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
Hoback doesn’t offer suggestions on how to defend ourselves against this. So, other than raising consciousness and maybe getting us to think about minimising our exposure (yeah, right, but for most of us that horse has already bolted) the film’s a bit of a downer, really. At least we can’t say we weren’t warned.
Depressing? Downer? Not so Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia. The American writer, commentator and raconteur might be the most amusing truth-teller of all. His trenchant and cynical critique of American politics and government, delivered in beautifully sculpted phrases, feels like a fresh breeze in a room filled with the fog of war ... actually, the fog of anything he chose to fix upon.
Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary is a digestible, easy introduction, picking the eyes out of his career and personal life and influences, and illustrating them from a varied visual archive. But beyond the entertainment of the trappings of a well-heeled and well-connected celebrity thinker’s lifestyle, the chief impression you’re left with are his words – and shockingly prescient some of them are, too – and the mind behind them. It makes you want to seek out his writing, and it makes you feel the lack of someone like him today. Sure, you’ve got your Jon Stewarts and your Assanges, and the media through which they deliver their truth-telling is absolutely appropriate for today’s world ... but dammit, they just don’t do it as elegantly.
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