Black Christmas (2019)

So although I’m following a New Zealand theme this week, this horror remake of a 1970s classic isn’t strictly-speaking a NZ film. It was, however, shot there — and in that sense reminds me of 1996’s The Frighteners, another ostensibly American-set film shot in NZ (and coming across rather oddly for that reason) — and it gets a NZ co-production credit depending where you look, so I consider it NZ enough to include it. Though it’s not perhaps a perfect film by any means, it was written and directed by women, and probably for that reason attracted a lot of online derision. That said, the horror community is a passionate and cinephile one, so in not having a background in viewing that genre’s films, perhaps I went rather easy on it — then again, there’s a good case to be made that it was specifically aimed at non-horror afficionados.


I haven’t seen the original 1974 Black Christmas, but as a non-connoisseur of horror cinema, I can say this film is not really as horrific or gory as some of the advertising might lead you to expect. Though it has a few effective jump scares, the vibe at times feels very much closer to something like Dear White People (2014) or other cutting (sorry) campus-based satirical films about (rich, white, male) entitlement culture, or an episode of a 90s TV show like “Buffy” (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Sure, a lot of the targets are fairly obvious, but those things do need to continue being targeted and it’s good to see a film explicitly calling out campus rape culture without being cringingly performative in its ideas about social justice — though there are a few scenes early on in which Kris (Aleyse Shannon), the Black woman in the ensemble cast, waves around a clipboard outside a class trying to get signatures for her petition, which feel a little bit phony (though I’d definitely sign it, if only to get the reliably wooden Cary Elwes off screen). On the whole, though, this is a solid and topical horror film that is fairly enjoyable.

Black Christmas film posterCREDITS
Director Sophia Takal; Writers Takal and April Wolfe (based on the 1974 film written by A. Roy Moore); Cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard; Starring Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Cary Elwes; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Surrey Quays, London, Thursday 19 December 2019.

Waru (2017)

It’s interesting to see some of the directions NZ film has taken, and as a showcase for a disparate range of indigenous Māori women directors, Waru is a fantastic project. It’s more cohesive than a simple anthology or portmanteau film, given it takes place over a single day and all the films deal with a single (tragic) event, but like any collection of shorts, some are better than others. Naturally, though, I hope for more from all of these directors, though it may be hard to find funding in such a small country, so I imagine many of them will see more work on TV.


I’ve seen a number of films that stitch together short films under a vague theme (the Australian film The Turning comes to mind in the last few years), but Waru has clearly considered how these separate films should come together most effectively, and all of them contribute towards a central narrative about a young boy’s death and how that affects a (largely) Māori community, and what actions need to be taken. If there are hints of a heavy-handed moral judgement guiding the story, then the filmmakers (all of them Māori women) largely manage to integrate it into the narrative very well — though for me the sequence dealing with the pākehā (white) media commentators, while understandable, didn’t quite spark as well as the other segments. Visually, the film is held together by a single cinematographer (Drew Sturge), who leans heavily on sinuous, unbroken handheld takes in some of the shorts, but elsewhere has an almost classical rhythm. There’s power to this tale which goes beyond a single-issue televisual film to speak more directly to the kind of society we want to live in.

Waru film posterCREDITS
Directors Ainsley Gardiner, Casey Kaa, Renae Maihi, Awanui Simich-Pene, Briar Grace Smith, Paula Whetu Jones, Chelsea Winstanley [as “Chelsea Cohen”] and Katie Wolfe; Writers Gardiner, Kaa, Maihi, Smith, Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu, Whetu Jones and Wolfe; Cinematographer Drew Sturge; Starring Tanea Heke, Roimata Fox, Ngapaki Moetara; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 14 May 2018.

Three Films by Taika Waititi: Boy (2010), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and Jojo Rabbit (2019)

As far as the international reach of New Zealand cinema goes, I would guess that Taika Waititi is probably the most successful export of this decade. He made his directing debut with the quirky Eagle vs Shark (2007), starring Jemaine Clement from the Flight of the Conchords, which I somewhat liked if not quite as much as some people did. His next film was Boy, which took its time to find international audiences (it didn’t get a release in the UK until many years later) but is generally regarded as one of his finest works, and he followed it up with the low-budget Wellington vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site. After the success of Hunt for the Wilderpeople his following films have had a far more international flavour, without entirely losing his distinctive voice (given he does like to cast himself in his projects). The film I’ve omitted below is Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which as Marvel superhero movie, can’t quite be fit into the same category, though it retains plenty of his humour and is one of the better titles in that seemingly endless run of superhero films.

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The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps (2019)

Casting my eye over the new releases in Britain this week I can’t see much that thrills me particularly. However, I will not be in the UK this Friday, but instead will be winging my way to New Zealand. Therefore, in honour of that, I am doing a week themed around New Zealand films (or films made there, depending on how I go for titles). I’m going to start with this engaging documentary about a seminal NZ indie band of the 1980s and on, The Chills, and its charismatic frontman.


As far as music from NZ’s jangly indie 1980s underground goes, The Chills were probably the biggest name, though they were never my favourites. Still, they gained the greatest success through a handful of major label records by the end of that decade, and their leader, Martin Phillipps, had an undeniable sense of pop hooks and sweet harmonies reminiscent of Brian Wilson, all imbued with a thematic darkness — which probably explains why Neil Finn pops up early on as a talking head commenting on Phillipp’s artistry. However, for the most part this documentary eschews celebrity commentators in favour of Martin himself and his former bandmates and managers speaking about the chronological development of the music, for The Chills were probably second only to The Fall in having a huge rotating cast of musicians all unified under Phillipps as lead singer and songwriter. What gives it that lift beyond the familiar topics of the rise-and-fall of egos and ambitions, of a man almost destroyed by drug and alcohol-related excess of the pop star lifestyle, is Phillipps himself and his self-deprecating humour as he reflects back on some bad decisions in his past, or sorts through his toy collections, or gets excited about some mummified animal-based art he’s working on (those are some of the biggest laughs but laughter with an unmistakable tinge of sadness and maybe even horror). That’s the tone of the film ultimately, and it’s rather beautiful too, though you feel there’s so much more they could have covered (so I’m hoping for DVD extras).

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps film posterCREDITS
Directors Julia Parnell and Rob Curry; Cinematographer Tim Flower; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

Criterion Sunday 291: Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Ernest Lubitsch made some classic films, and there are plenty of moments of elegantly satirical comedy in this one too, starting with Don Ameche’s elderly philanderer Henry Van Cleve showing up to an appointment in Hades, but finding a bit of resistance from the gatekeeper there. Thereupon he recounts his story, which largely revolves around his likeable old codger of a grandfather (Charles Coburn) along with his stuck-up parents and cousin. Gene Tierney as his love interest Martha shows up altogether too late, and seems rather poorly used by both Henry and the director (especially as she ages during the film). The film rather coyly suggests Henry’s infidelity, but also lets him off the hook for it, hinting at a clear double-standard at play, which is all played for delightful laughs, even if it hasn’t exactly aged brilliantly. Still, it all looks fantastic, shot in lush Technicolor, and played with spirit by the supporting cast (including an ever amiable Eugene Pallette, playing pretty much the same character as in The Lady Eve).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a half-hour 1982 TV episode dealing with writer Samson Raphaelson’s career, including some interviews with him, which touch on this film amongst others he worked with Lubitsch on.
  • We also get a few minutes’ worth of snippets of home recordings featuring Lubitsch playing the piano, accompanied by some personal photos, introduced by his daughter (I think).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernest Lubitsch; Writer Samson Raphaelson (based on the play Születésnap “Birthday” by Leslie Bush-Fekete); Cinematographer Edward Cronjager; Starring Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 29 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 290: Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974)

One of Buñuel’s typically absurdist late films, which narratively careens from one character to another almost randomly (like Linklater’s Slacker), a series of brief skits which fundamentally question the meaning we ascribe to narratives by constantly bamboozling one’s expectations. It may be one of his greatest films in fact, although the experience of watching it can necessarily be a little bit confounding, as familiar targets are satirised — like the bourgeoisie (sitting down to go to the toilet together), the police (the commissioner with his fixation on his sister, or the cadets being taught about polyamory in a class setting), men of religion (drinking and gambling in an inn), and just the general slew of human perversions and vices. There are some hilarious individual episodes as well as others which seem somewhat more of their time, but Buñuel stays above the fray dispassionately observing these foibles.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The only significant extra is a short video introduction by the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière which sets up some of the ideas he and Buñuel were playing with in the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; Cinematographer Edmond Richard; Starring Julien Bertheau, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michael Lonsdale, Michel Piccoli, Jean Rochefort, Monica Vitti; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 7 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 9 February 2020).

Mr. Jones (2019)

Today the fearsome British costume drama industry unleashes yet another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma upon us all. Last week my Polish themed week led up to the release of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film, but it can probably be considered as much a British film as a Polish one, especially as it deals with a British subject. It has the big old handsome period details you expect from such films, but it tells a slightly different story once it gets to the USSR, and perhaps that sets it apart from the usual run of such things, but I think there’s a lot to like.


This film sets itself against the backdrop of the “Holodomor” in the Ukraine — a famine during the 1930s largely engineered by the Soviet leadership, which killed millions of peasants — but really it’s about the way that these kinds of stories are treated by the media, about how the media is in the pocket of business and government interests. And so our crusading Welshman Gareth Jones (played by James Norton, the same actor who most recently was seen as Mr Brooke in Little Women) campaigns to bring to light this atrocity at a time when Western powers were more interested in alliances with the USSR and so not well-disposed to such revelations (and the media, as ever, reliable lapdogs to the powerful). The acting is all pretty solid (even Vanessa Kirby in a rather token role as the only apparently non-historical figure), and it’s directed capably by Agnieszka Holland albeit with some little expressionist touches. However, there’s plenty about this movie which rather too on the nose, seeming to ask us “do you see??” as it’s waving its arms to make clear what its teachable moments are. For example, and perhaps most clunkily, there’s the framing device of George Orwell writing Animal Farm, which we gather might have been a rather anodyne book about animals being mean to one another until our titular hero impresses upon Orwell exactly what the Soviets are really doing, at which point his faith in the Revolution starts to waver. Sadly, then, the film never quite lifts the way it needs to, but it’s worth watching all the same.

Mr. Jones film posterCREDITS
Director Agnieszka Holland; Writer Andrea Chalupa; Cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk; Starring James Norton, Peter Sarsgaard, Vanessa Kirby; Length 119 minutes (originally 141 minutes).
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 7 February 2020.

Rocketman (2019)

This is perhaps an outlier in my themed week of British costume dramas, but it’s a period piece and you couldn’t possibly say it doesn’t have costumes, so I’m including it. Obviously it’s a biopic of the life of Elton John, and it’s mounted with impressive brio (even if maybe it’s not entirely for me, I’m willing to believe it is better than the similar production the previous year about Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, which director Fletcher took over late in proceedings).


I don’t think I’ve ever specifically chosen to listen to an Elton John album or song, but of course they’ve often been on in the background or on soundtracks and such, so a lot of them remain familiar to me. That said, the point I’m making is I’m not really in the demographic for whom this film strikes any particular chord, as I’ve never been a big fan, but I concede that Dexter Fletcher has a solid touch with a musical and this one is good fun to watch. The performances are all good, and it has some nice set-pieces, such as the one where Elton goes from almost dying to being pushed on stage, seemingly in a single sequence. The framing device — him unraveling at an addicts’ group therapy session — is rather too convenient as a way to pull the narrative through his whole life, and he does a lot of confronting his earlier self and family/friends in feverish flashbacks, but it’s a musical, so it rather trades in elevating the quotidian to a magical and surreal level, and at that it succeeds nicely.

Rocketman film posterCREDITS
Director Dexter Fletcher; Writer Lee Hall; Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Friday 7 June 2019.

Wuthering Heights (2011)

A number of recent British heritage productions have attempted in their various ways to try to break away from some of the clichés of the genre, most notably the recent Lady Macbeth (2016). A lot of this has been in terms of casting (and certainly there’s a certain element of colour-blindness here), but the director also pushes the visual expectations of the genre with this adaptation of a well-loved and well-known novel.


Andrea Arnold certainly has an assured visual style. This film is shot in an Academy ratio (watch out that your TV doesn’t try to stretch it into widescreen) and frequently shoots through cracks and veils to further reduce the image size. When the camera does go outside there are some frankly beautiful shots, and some pretty taut editing too. It’s just that the script doesn’t always match this visual sense. There’s a lot of play with class and (newly for this adaptation) race, but most of it is enunciated at a formal level rather than in the dialogue, though that’s probably right for the period. There’s also an over-reliance on handheld camera; in many ways this feels like a period film for those who don’t tend to like them. Still, whatever else I might say, I do like it. The style is strong enough — and the performances too — to carry it.

Wuthering Heights film posterCREDITS
Director Andrea Arnold; Writers Arnold and Olivia Hetreed (based on the novel by Emily Brontë); Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Shannon Beer, Solomon Glave; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 3 August 2016.

Viceroy’s House (2017)

Not all the prestige heritage productions of the British film industry are about rich white aristocrats, but too many of them do tend to be, even the ones directed by British-Asian directors like Gurinder Chadha. I imagine it will take a long time to truly decolonise this most stalwart of the British filmic genres, but perhaps there may be little steps in that direction. This is hardly flag-waving patriotism, mind, but it still feels a little bit misty-eyed, though I broadly liked it.


I’ve seen plenty of commentaries calling this film to task for its representation of the partition of India, specifically the way that Pakistan and its leader Jinnah seem like the ‘bad guys’ and the aristocratic Mountbattens (here played by Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson) are the well-meaning yet unwitting deliverers of imperial judgment. I can’t really disagree with these criticisms, though however much the film may go out of its way to make the Mountbattens (especially Lady M) likeable and empathetic towards the Indian people, I can’t ever really get onside with imperialists, so really it’s the story of the younger lovers within the Viceroy’s household which is most affecting. It also leads to a poignant, tearful, melodramatic and sentimental climax, which can be a failing of many a big sumptuous historical epic (and this one is nothing if not sumptuous). It’s not a million miles from A United Kingdom in this respect. It has honour I think (and it clearly has personal meaning to director Gurinder Chadha, as the end credits make clear), but it’s not without its weaknesses.

Viceroy's House film posterCREDITS
Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and Chadha; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi हुमा क़ुरैशी, Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon, Om Puri ਓਮ ਪੁਰੀ; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 4 March 2017.