Criterion Sunday 609: ¡Alambrista! (aka The Ilegal, 1977)

For all that this is from a different era of filmmaking — when earnest, socially engaged white men made films about the immigrant and Black experience (the director of this film was also writer and cinematographer for the excellent 1964 Nothing But a Man) — this also feels like a prescient film, and a contemporary one too. It’s about a young Mexican man who goes to America to get work to help feed his family, and there becomes entangled with forces intent on preventing him from working, cops and traffickers (including a memorable small role for Ned Beatty) and such. It’s a film that without making any grand speeches, eloquently lays bare the way that migrant workers (who may have illegally entered but are so clearly necessary for many industries) are treated and the lack of rights afforded to them. At some point, these kinds of stories became less trendy to depict, perhaps, and nowadays the creative talent behind the cameras would likely have the personal experiences of those on screen, but this is a fantastic bit of engaged 1970s filmmaking that deserves a wider audience. It must surely be one of the more overlooked standalone Criterion titles.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert M. Young; Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz and Young; Starring Domingo Ambriz, Trinidad Silva, Linda Gillen, Ned Beatty; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 21 January 2023.

Spencer (2021)

Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here). This isn’t the only film on my list to have been comprehensively talked out already. You don’t need another review of it, you got everything you needed about a year ago. But it wasn’t released in NZ until into 2022, and despite all my many reservations, I really enjoyed it. Not because of any fondness for its subject, but because of the way it was done, the atmosphere it evoked. So here we go, another review.


This film is a whole vibe, and either you get with it or you don’t, I somewhat suspect. I did, but I can understand people who go the other way. In terms of its felicity to ‘real life’, well I think that’s a fraught question at least; I’ve seen some people marvel at the accuracy of Kristen Stewart’s performance. I’m not enough of a devoted royal watcher to really know how much she captured Diana, but I don’t really see her specifically in Stewart’s portrayal. But this is as much a story about a woman in a particular situation, imagining how it might go down; it’s a fable and a fantasy, it’s shot in a hazy, gauzy, pastel-hued way yet somehow also manages to channel gothic horror. But Stewart’s Diana is trapped from the start, a doomed woman, even if around her the royal family seem nothing so much as zombies, not least Charles (Jack Farthing) and Her Majesty, who have the deadest of eyes. So she only has her head to delve further into; she gets visions of Anne Boleyn and increasingly dissociative fragments of an alternate reality, which we know is not her own because she’s giddy and happy, moving down endless corridors like Kubrick’s The Shining, cautiously at first perhaps, but with an increasing abandon as the film progresses. Against my best instincts — because I really do not like or want to hear about the British royal family — it manages to be a beautiful film, and an excellent performance as ever by Stewart who goes in fully and bodily to the whole thing. Whether it captures Diana per se, I can’t say, but it captures something fleeting, somehow both archly camp and deeply felt, about an impossible life.

Spencer (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Pablo Larraín; Writer Steven Knight; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 6 February 2022.

Benediction (2021)

Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here). Maybe I missed the gathering of the Terence Davies fans last year, but I don’t recall many people listing this on any year-end best-of lists for some reason, and that perplexes me. He’s never exactly been fashionable, but this was a really strong film, an evocation of the past and the movement from youthful impetuousness into a conservative older age, set against the backdrop of WW1 and the ensuing interwar period.


Nobody is out here making films like Terence Davies. As it opens, this comes across like a combination of archival museum video that you watch in hushed silence in a media centre before entering a memorial to a horrifying past, along with the kind of TV drama which feels boldly experimental sheerly out of budgetary necessity (such enterprises usually restricting themselves to a handful of sets in old buildings sparsely populated by actors in costumes). And yet, for all that this seems like exactly the kind of thing cinema should not be doing, I really do mean it not in a bad way — for example, Raul Ruiz’s magisterial Mysteries of Lisbon very much had that latter kind of quality, and it doesn’t even feel like cost cutting but about cutting away the pointless aggrandisements of the costume/period genres to get to something essential.

In this film, Jack Lowden is fantastic as Siegfried Sassoon, who has a tender impish charm alongside a bitter seriousness (though it’s really only the latter quality that Peter Capaldi as his older version gets to show, his youthful esprit having been thoroughly dissipated). Not being familiar with Sassoon’s story, I was somewhat surprised he lived past the First World War (I think in my head I had conflated him rather too much with Wilfred Owen), but this film captures something of the turmoil of the early-20th century, while cataloguing popular/gay culture of the period (Ivor Novello, Edith Sitwell, and quite a parade of handsome slightly bland looking chiselled youths that flit through Siegried’s life).

It’s a fascinating way to tell this story, which gives as much time for him to read a poem to himself as it does to rather more melodramatic goings on, but it’s an effective story that neither panders to its period nor to us as modern viewers, and is all the better for that.

Benediction (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terence Davies; Cinematographer Nicola Daley; Starring Jack Lowden, Simon Russell Beale, Peter Capaldi, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Sunday 24 July 2022.

రౌద్రం రణం రుధిరం Roudram Ranam Rudhiram (aka ఆర్.ఆర్.ఆర్ RRR, 2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. So on the penultimate day of the year I caved to the clamouring voices online telling me that this was a fun film. I’m hardly resistant to popular Indian films either, but I’d hoped it might get a cinematic screening (then again, I’m in NZ, so of course not). It still works fine on the small screen but you can see it’s made for an audience.


People have been talking up this film all year, and, to be fair, it’s pretty clear why. Watching it is not three hours of your life that you’ll regret, I don’t think. Not that it necessarily does things differently from other big Indian productions I’ve seen (and technically, as an aside, this is not Bollywood but Tollywood as it’s originally in the Telugu language — not that Netflix cares one bit about that kind of fidelity, meaning I had to watch it in Hindi and you probably will too, though it’ll default to English dubbing).

But what it does as a film, it does bigger! And more! And… uh, bigger, have I mentioned that? It is undeniably a lot, and I think towards the end it becomes pretty mired down by some problematic weighting — it has a hard-on for torture like no film since that Mel Gibson one about that guy on a cross, and so I suspect its politics lean rather hard into nationalism. However, at least at the historical level of the film’s plot, we’re dealing with freedom from colonial oppression, and who can’t get behind booing a giddily awful British aristocracy, a group of feckless oppressors delighting in misery, division and bloodshed (except for Jenny; she’s nice).

So, seen as a story about getting out from under the thumb of some bad guys (who are also bad actors), this hits all the buttons and does it with the kind of bold maximalism you come to expect from this kind of production, with gleefully non-naturalistic animal fights (all CGI-rendered), explosions, and some thrilling camerawork. It passes the time quite nicely.

Roudram Ranam Rudhiram (aka RRR, 2022)CREDITS
Director S.S. Rajamouli ఎస్. ఎస్. రాజమౌళి; Writers Rajamouli and V. Viyajendra Prasad కె. వి. విజయేంద్ర ప్రసాద్; Cinematographer K.K. Senthil Kumar కె.కె.సెంథిల్ కుమార్; Starring N.T. Rama Rao Jr. జూనియర్ ఎన్.టి.ఆర్, Ram Charan రాం చరణ్ తేజ, Ajay Devgn अजय देवगन, Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट; Length 182 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Friday 30 December 2022.

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (2021)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. This Australian revisionist western film by an Aboriginal woman director, writer and star came out at festivals in 2021, but I caught up with it on a flight (it would fill a big screen though, and for some reason in my mind that’s where I saw it). Not a perfect movie, but it had a lot that I really liked.


I suppose that, strictly speaking, this isn’t a Western (because it’s not set in the American West, or even the West of Australia) but it shares a lot of characteristics with those kinds of frontier dramas, where (white) settlers are put in precarious situations due to their low socioeconomic status and lack of protections afforded by ‘opening up’ a country not previously inhabited by them. But as this film knows all too well, that kind of work doesn’t lead to great outcomes for indigenous populations, and while it’s based on a classic 19th century Australian short story, it’s also very keen (being written and directed by an Aboriginal woman director) to strike out in a new direction that can acknowledge the complicated history and stories being interwoven here. Which is all by way of making it sound pretty dull and well-meaning, when actually this has a lot of the striking widescreen compositions and tense drama that the best of the Western genre brings, plus some excellent lead performances from the director herself in the title role, plus Sam Reid as a well-educated indigenous man who come across her cabin and who she tries to help. By the end I felt invested in the story, even if not every element worked so well for me (the music had a tendency to push a little hard at times).

The Drover's Wife - The Legend of Molly Johnson (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Leah Purcell; Cinematographer Mark Wareham; Starring Leah Purcell, Rob Collins, Sam Reid; Length 104 minutes.
Seen in flight from Auckland to Nouméa, Saturday 8 October 2022.

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here) and this post falls into two themes already identified: (1) unexpected pleasures; (2) Colin Farrell as a fine actor. I would not have imagined the latter 20 years ago when he was starting out as a fairly generic pretty dude in big budget films, and the former is the case for a lot of films on my list this year. Most years, they’re unexpected because they are directors or projects unknown to me. However, this one, just about the last film I went to see in 2022, is by a director I know and have not liked the films of, plus with the general Oirishness of the enterprise (deedly-dee music, whimsical religious irreverance, and cute animal friends), I was primed to dislike it intensely. But I didn’t.


This makes for an odd note to end a year of film watching at the cinema, but it’s not a bad film by any means. I’ve often been a bit suspicious of McDonagh’s cinema, and haven’t liked most of the stuff that people have been big fans of, but this hits a very honest note in dealing with some pretty deplorable behaviour in a way that makes it clear what’s gone wrong. Colm (Brendan Gleeson) just wants to be left alone to work on his fiddle music in silence without the tiresome chatter of his buddy Padraic (Colin Farrell), a nice yet dull local cow herder; the film throws us straight into Colm’s decision, but it’s easy to take on trust how this longstanding friendship went by in a haze of stout down the local pub. The film captures their interactions, and those of the local characters, by focusing on the simmering tensions of rural life, and though it does ratchet things up a bit towards the end, it’s a commentary on people getting far too mired in their ideals to notice what it’s doing to them as people. Thus, there’s a sort of bleakness built in there — the confrontation with a person’s life and the worth they derive from it at the end — but the film works hard to ensure that it keeps us just teetering on this side of that particular abyss very ably. There’s a bleakness of course, that goes with the 1920s civil war setting, and the craggy glowering landscape, but it’s a bleakness primarily expressed by the way the characters end up, making this a sort of parable about paying attention to what matters when the world is falling apart (a parable for our times).

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Martin McDonagh; Cinematographer Ben Davis; Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Saturday 31 December 2022.

After Yang (2021)

I listed my favourite films of 2022 here but I’m trying to post fuller reviews of them as well. One that was again a 2021 favourite was one that showed up on streaming probably some time early in 2022 (maybe the year before, I don’t know; streaming seems so vague in terms of release dates), so I only caught up belatedly though in truth I was hoping for some cinema screenings. Fat chance I guess. Maybe one day in a retrospective, or if some enterprising soul does a season of mediaeval-set movies.


Kogonada’s follow up to the well-reviewed (and well-liked by me) Columbus is a strange futuristic tale, albeit one that doesn’t overwhelm with its technological aspects (there are human-like cyborg robots, but we don’t get too much into how they’re engineered or even how widespread they are, beyond a sense that their existence is more or less a commonplace). It’s a future largely connoted by modernist architecture and a sense of calm (although partly that’s Colin Farrell’s father and his obsession with tea), and the film rarely attains the same sense of ecstatic joy that comes during the dance-based credits sequence near the beginning.

Although she’s not a major part within the whole film, in a sense it’s Sarita Choudhury’s museum curator who is the key to this film, as it feels at times like a film about museum curation as much as Columbus was about architects: a story that locates the human, lived experience that those professions are only abstractly about. And like many films that feature robots, it’s actually a way of talking about what it means to be human, what it means to love and to remember, and the strength of memories across a family and across generations, linking together people who don’t even know one another, which is in a sense what curating a museum exhibit or a gallery is about.

After Yang (2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Kogonada 코고나다 (based on the short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang” by Alexander Weinstein); Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb; Starring Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Sarita Choudhury, Haley Lu Richardson; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, Thursday 28 April 2022.

The Green Knight (2021)

I listed my favourite films of 2022 here but I’m trying to post fuller reviews of them as well. One that was again a 2021 favourite was one that showed up on streaming probably some time early in 2022 (maybe the year before, I don’t know; streaming seems so vague in terms of release dates), so I only caught up belatedly though in truth I was hoping for some cinema screenings. Fat chance I guess. Maybe one day in a retrospective, or if some enterprising soul does a season of mediaeval-set movies.


I think it’s fair to say that this film has divided opinion — although we are now fairly far from its release, and therefore hopefully people are able to come to it without preconceptions now. Presumably, though, that’s partly due to the way it endeavours to film a 14th century chivalric romance. After all, the way that such texts were written doesn’t much fit with the modern conception of psychological motivations and naturalism, and I think trying to find a way to visualise a story told in a different mode has guided many of the choices here. As one example, text frequently shows up on screen, giving the whole an episodic feel, as our hero Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) tries to make sense of, well frankly, his whole life.

There is throughout an undertow of inevitable death which probably fits pretty well with the period, especially for a (wannabe) knight such as him, who must face all kinds of dangers, and in the final reckoning his quest is as much a question of morality, of doing good and being virtuous and finding where that line lies. It’s also very interesting the way that the finality of death is not presented as the end of life; beheaded characters walk away with their heads, a vision of a skeleton gains flesh and vice versa, those who are dead also converse with the living — and presumably that is led by the storytelling tradition.

In all, I think the film effectively preserves the mystery of life and death and puts across a compelling alternative vision of storytelling itself. However, I would one day love the chance to see this on the big screen, as I do not think that our TV was able to cope with the various shades of darkness that are employed throughout the film, and the film seems designed to look better the bigger the screen.

The Green Knight (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer David Lowery (based on the anonymously authored poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo; Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Saturday 12 February 2022.

헤어질 결심 Heojil Kyolshim (Decision to Leave, 2022)

Onwards with reviews of my films of 2022 (see my full list here). I feel like a theme for this past year has been the stuff I didn’t expect to like. Paul Thomas Anderson (whose Licorice Pizza I’ve just covered) has only recently become a filmmaker I’ve started to like, but Park Chan-wook was never really high on that list either. I’ve admired his films, including 2013’s Stoker (probably the last of his I reviewed here) and The Handmaiden a few years later, but this most recent film was a surprise to me: a sinuous murder mystery, but far more taut than many of the rather shaggier and comedic efforts we’ve had recently.


At this point in the filmic world of murder mysteries, detective films, and neo-noirs with femmes fatales, there’s not a whole lot that’s new you can do, but you sure can imbue it with a masterfully orchestrated sense of enfolding narratives, a structure so intricate (but expressively evoked) that it threatens to fold in on itself, which turns out to be somehow apt but I won’t get to that here. Instead, Park Chan-wook (a filmmaker I’ve never perhaps fully appreciated) has a bag full of cinematic tricks for pulling different time strands into one another, making flashbacks one with the present and advancing a sort of woozy romance of sorts between its detective lead Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) and the mysterious Chinese woman Seo-rae (Tang Wei) who either has bad luck with her husbands or is murderously deceitful. Quite which is the case is what Hae-joon is trying to figure out, but instead he’s just falling for her it seems. I’m not sure there’s anything new to this, but it is made with a lovely sense both of place (whether foggy, snowy or beachy) and of these interlocking characters circling around one another for the film’s length.

Heojil Kyolshim (2022) posterCREDITS
Director Park Chan-wook 박찬욱; Writers Jeong Seo-kyeong 정서경 and Park; Cinematographer Kim Ji-yong 김지용; Starring Tang Wei 汤唯, Park Hae-il 박해일, Lee Jung-hyun 이정현; Length 139 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 4 November 2022.

Aftersun (2022)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a non-Criterion Collection review, but as 2022 is done and dusted (well, the year, not my viewing of films from that year, which will undoubtedly stretch out for years to come), it seems like a fitting theme for my first few posts of this year would be to cover some of my favourites from last year. This small British indie film was my favourite, until I eventually catch up with everything else. You can see my full list here though.


After a year of watching fairly unchallenging films at the cinema (sadly I missed my city’s annual film festival), it’s nice to see one that properly challenges audiences. Which is, I suppose, one way of saying it’s slow and sad — and thus probably not for everyone — but I think it has depths to it, and I miss a film with depths. Texturally, it reminds me of the early work of, say, Lynne Ramsay and that’s not just because its period setting reminds me a little of Ratcatcher in its lugubrious mood (though where that film went back a few decades to the 70s, this one takes us back to the 90s). Partly too that’s the way that the evocation of the era doesn’t rely on period hairstyles and music, but rather on some far more oblique signifiers of the era like the grain of the camcorder films (though, okay, there’s also the “Macarena”).

However, the more resonant aspect of the film is that sadness that haunts its tale throughout, though is never explicitly reckoned with. There’s the feeling evoked by the dark, heavily strobing club dancefloor sequences that punctuate the narrative, the emptiness of the video framings being watched by someone looking back on this period of life, and the quiet moments in the story of a young dad and his 11-year-old daughter on holiday in Turkey that are punctured by the dad’s attempt to be upbeat and positive. (It should be said up front that the darkness isn’t anything to do with sexual abuse, so don’t go in worried about that. The relationship between these two is clearly loving and strong, in both directions.) But there are strong hints throughout of the elegiac nature of this 90s holiday, and the way it resonates in the present, such that in a sense this is a coming of age film that goes beyond the innocuous flirtations on the beach or the innocent kisses by the poolside with teenage boys, into more delicately shifting psychological territory.

I imagine it will hit a long more strongly for those who are parents, but it feels beautifully cathartic in a way that relies on the audience to make the connections and draw out the emotional threads, and that’s just a nice change of pace.

Aftersun (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Charlotte Wells; Cinematographer Gregory Oke; Starring Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 11 December 2022.