NZIFF 2021: Ninjababy and El Planeta (both 2021)

My reviews of films I saw last month at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival has been getting a bit grim. That is somewhat the nature of festivals, to focus on the darker works that maybe aren’t so commercial, but here’s a Norwegian and a Spanish film that are both a bit more fun. Sure both deal with young women who are sort of sad and listless. The first one gets pregnant and tries to get an abortion and then spends the rest of the film getting anxious about this baby inside her, while the other she is just living beyond her means. But for the most part these are pretty enjoyable and funny even.


Ninjababy (2021) [Norway, certificate 15]

It’s interesting, and a positive corrective, that the more women who come into filmmaking, the more stories we see not about awkward indie dudes trying to pursue their art, but instead about depressed, creative young women beset by annoying indie dudes who believe they have something to say. The day before I saw the Spanish-set El Planeta (see below) and now here’s this Norwegian film, also about a young woman who fits a similar bill (Rakel here is a comics artist), but the twist is that she’s become pregnant despite her best efforts to the contrary. Having created this dilemma, it’s both acutely sensitive to the emotional terrain she experiences as a result, but also a bit anarchic (not unlike, say, Alice Lowe in Prevenge, which also gave voice to an unborn baby, albeit that film was a horror where this is sort of a… romcom?). In any case, it never quite slows down and it’s even a bit touching at times, as Rakel has to deal with her own body and feelings about children in a way that tends to resist the usual paradigms in movies like this one. And, being a comedy, there’s a broadly positive outcome to her story, but it’s not necessarily the one you expect.

Ninjababy (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Yngvild Sve Flikke; Writers Flikke and Johan Fasting (based on the graphic novel Fallteknikk by Inga H. Sætre); Cinematographer Marianne Bakke; Starring Kristine Thorp, Arthur Berning, Nader Khademi; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.


El planeta (2021)
El Planeta (2021) [Spain/USA, black-and-white]

Although this is a film that deals with some pretty heavy sadness, there’s also a lightness to it and a certain idiosyncrasy that both points back to the French New Wave (shooting on location in black-and-white with a loosely improvised feel to the whole thing and an Anna Karina-like look from the writer/director/star Amalia Ulman) but also to the talkier elements of say contemporary Korean cinema (I was thinking of Heart if only because it’s another film by a writer-actor-director which has a slightly brittle sense of absurdism that I saw recently). Here the Argentinean/Spanish Ulman casts herself as Leo(nor), and right from the start — where we get a brief cameo by fellow director Nacho Vigalondo — you know that things are going to get weird. Mostly it’s in rather delightful ways albeit ones that highlight the precarity of this Spanish family, the wide-eyed desperation of Leo who has skills but no ability to really find work given her economic situation and her scamming grifter of a mother, both of whom are equally trying to make ends meet. It’s a film about the connectedness yet distance in the modern world that doesn’t manufacture hope for any of its characters, but still leaves you having enjoyed their brief chaotic presence in your life. And then it ends.

El planeta (2021)CREDITS
Director Amalia Ulman; Cinematographer Carlos Rigo Beliver; Starring Amalia Ulman, Ale Ulman; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 427: Muerte de un ciclista (Death of a Cyclist, 1955)

It’s natural to want to try and read films made under fairly repressive governments as being veiled criticism of that regime, but I’m not the person to try and do that with this film made during Franco’s Spain. It’s about collective guilt, about mistrust, and about the things that shame and the fear of being found out do to desperate people. Perhaps when you’ve killed once, even accidentally, and especially when it seems you’ve gotten away with it, it becomes easier to do it again, is at least one of the questions which is raised here. But there’s a lot going on in this tale of two lovers who, as the film begins, knock down a cyclist on a darkened street, apparently unseen, and quickly flee the site when it becomes clear to them that there’s nothing to be done, and the fact that they’re in an adulterous affair means they don’t want to be found out. Things spiral out from there, as the film has the feel of a film noir but filtered through the melodramatic framing of a film from the golden age of Mexican cinema. It has a certain European froideur to it, as these two navigate their own complicated feelings towards the accident as well as their behaviour, but it’s never less than stylish and beautifully composed in stringent monochrome.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Juan Antonio Bardem; Cinematographer Alfredo Fraile; Starring Lucia Bosè, Alberto Closas, Otello Toso, Carlos Casaravilla; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 14 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 403: Cría cuervos… (1976)

A film that opens with the death of a military father made when Spain’s leader Generalissimo Franco was dying invites an allegorical reading, and clearly from reading review many have done so. This is a film that is suffused with a feeling of melancholy and loss, as a young girl, Ana (played by Ana Torrent, so memorable in The Spirit of the Beehive), first witnesses her dad’s death and then sees a vision of her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) that seems so real but turns out to be a haunting of sorts. Questions then as to Ana’s own culpability in these deaths and her desire for others makes it a film complicated by all kinds of ways of dealing with and processing grief and loss. The director deftly manages to keep these moods and ideas in play right to the end.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are interviews from 2007 with two of the main actors in the film, Ana Torrent (now obviously grown up and with little in the way of specific memory from that time in her life, though it’s good to see her looking healthy and happy), and a longer one with Geraldine Chaplin, who was the director’s partner and mother of one of his children, who worked with him for much of the preceding decade. Her interview is particularly interesting, in contextualising how it was made, how they did not intend the political reading in any way, and how she had to work almost against Ana in order to get her to react properly. She also mentions that she hated the pop song by Jeanette which is played multiple times in the film, and whose refrain of “because you’re leaving” seems particularly laden with meaning given the film’s theme; she admits she was wrong to think it would fail (the song became a break-out hit), but also she’s wrong because the song is great.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carlos Saura; Cinematographer Teo Escamilla; Starring Ana Torrent, Geraldine Chaplin, Conchi Pérez, Maite Sánchez, Florinda Chico; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 26 February 2021.

Salir del ropero (So My Grandma’s a Lesbian!, 2019)

If you watch enough Netflix you will of course plumb some fairly murky depths when it comes to mediocre filmmaking. And because I’m trying to fill out this themed week, here’s one of them. It’s not one I chose myself, it was watched with a group of friends (well, online not in the same room), but there you go, I did watch it. I cannot in all honesty recommend it to you.


I think a more accurate title would be “So My Granddaughter’s a Homophobe” given how relatively little time is spent on the grandmas (who are obviously the most interesting characters). This has its moments, most of which appear to be a sort of anodyne Almodóvar, but it hardly does itself any favours with the terrible young people and the bad Scottish accents. It is clearly aiming to keep things light and fluffy, and I do think its heart is in the right place, but it is a bit wayward at times.

So My Grandma's a Lesbian! film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ángeles Reiné; Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine; Starring Rosa Maria Sardà, Verónica Forqué, Ingrid García-Jonsson; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Friday 5 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 351: El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive, 1973)

I think a lot of people look to Terrence Malick when they think about what a period film could achieve in the 1970s, but the same year as his debut was this Spanish film, and it achieves a similar beauty to its stark images of World War II-era Spain, just following the Civil War and the rise of Franco and his fascists. The sociopolitical context is important, but the film doesn’t really give you any of that aside from hints — the glimpse of the wounded young soldier who has deserted Franco’s side is the main one, though I warrant there are more clues for attentive Spanish eyes. Then again, maybe they are all too subsumed in the allegory because, after all, the film wasn’t banned, so those threads remain pretty buried in the thematics, which revolve around a mobile screening of Frankenstein in a small rural town where two sisters play games with one another and tell stories. It’s all really about the atmosphere and the performance of the youngster Ana Torrent, all wide-eyed and innocent yet trusting, like the little girl Maria we see in the clip of James Whale’s famous film. It’s a gorgeous evocation of a past still informing the film’s present, and the visual look clearly influenced Guillermo del Toro when he made The Devil’s Backbone, set in a similar era.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Víctor Erice; Writers Erice, Ángel Fernández Santos and Francisco J. Querejeta; Cinematographer Luis Cuadrado; Starring Ana Torrent, Teresa Gimpera, Fernando Fernán Gómez; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 3 September 2020 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).

Paradise Hills (2019)

I had promised a week of foreign-language science-fiction films, but though today’s film is Spanish, it’s in the English language. This creates a strange tonal dissonance, which doesn’t exactly distract from the film — being a bit weird and distanced is sort of what it’s all about — but does create a peculiar frisson.


This is a deeply odd film in many ways, one of those strange English-language hybrid foreign films (it’s a Spanish production) which is toying with big ideas in sometimes inspired ways, and sometimes rather more clunky ones (I’m reminded of the Kirsten Dunst sci-fi Upside Down which has a similar tonal oddness while also being a film largely buried by distributors, or in terms of plot the French weirdness of Innocence). The plot itself is fairly silly, and holds together only in the vaguest of ways, while the big reveals are well telegraphed up-front so most people will probably see what’s coming. However, clearly all the budget went into set and costume design, and it all looks fantastic, putting a queer sci-fi twist on fairytale aesthetics. It lands on a sort of dreamy romantic dystopian vision and sustains this atmosphere throughout, even when the plot itself is getting a little trying. A director to watch.

Paradise Hills film posterCREDITS
Director Alice Waddington; Writers Brian DeLeeuw, Nacho Vigalondo and Waddington; Cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui; Starring Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald, Jeremy Irvine, Eiza González, Milla Jovovich; Length 95 minutes.
Seen on a flight from Singapore to London, Friday 13 March 2020.

Criterion Sunday 332: Viridiana (1961)

I’ve never quite been sure how to take Luis Buñuel, and I certainly wouldn’t wish to deny that his films have a vision and polish to them, but I’m not sure I’m particularly receptive to that vision. Undoubtedly it’s not from love of the Catholic church, because that seems to be his most consistent target, as indeed it is here. Most of his strategies seem to be a form of heightened trolling, so when for example he deploys rape as a trope (and our saintly titular heroine is threatened with it more than once in this film), it’s presumably to make the point that it is inextricable from religion itself, almost as if tacitly condoned by the God-fearing patriarchy. Likewise, having the beggars profanely recreate the Last Supper, trashing the bourgeois villa, seems to be implicating hypocrisy in the middle-classes. I can feel these things at an intellectual level, but there’s a certain heavy-handedness to it that I find myself resisting, quite aside from the very real trauma that these ideas carry. I guess this way of blending a sprightly humour and a gift for evoking atmosphere and place with a deep, acrid bitterness is very much Buñuel’s style, and sometimes it’s unclear to me whether that bitterness is directed at the institutions or the people trapped within and by those institutions, but it comes off at best as misanthropy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Julio Alejandra and Buñuel (based on the novel Halma by Benito Pérez Galdós); Cinematographer José F. Aguayo; Starring Silvia Pinal, Margarita Lozano, Francisco Rabal, Fernando Rey; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 July 2020 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 2000).

El silencio de otros (The Silence of Others, 2018)

This past week has seen the launch of an online platform for streaming films from the 2020 Sheffield Doc/Fest, which has obviously been unable to go ahead in physical form. It’s one of Britain’s premier film festivals, dedicated to documentary cinema and a key launching pad for films in that genre for a number of years now, and only growing in international significance. In fact, last year I put the 2020 dates in my diary, intending to try and visit in person, which I hope to do again in future. It’s also fair to say that a large number of the films premiered there have fed into local cinema releases, and notably films that are shown at the Bertha DocHouse screen of the Curzon Bloomsbury, one of the only screens (if not the only one) dedicated solely to documentary films, and one of the venues I have most missed these past few months.

So this week I will focus on documentary films, specifically ones which screened at Sheffield or received a premiere at that festival. In 2018, for example, one of the big award winners was the excellent documentary about inner city life (and skateboarding), Minding the Gap, and there were screenings of films I’ve already covered like Hale County This Morning, This Evening and Black Mother. The winner of the 2018 Grand Jury prize was the Spanish film The Silence of Others, which confronts the way that people misremember even recent history, which has been a topic of some news coverage recently, what with our (British) government doubling down on honouring and supporting the statues of slave traders and famous colonialist and racists; there’s a sequence in this documentary in which a city council is frustrated repeatedly in its attempts to try and address its (relatively recent) fascist past, and that is very much a theme running through this entire work. We must not be silent about our history, wherever we live.


Some stories are important to try and remember, and that’s especially the case with Spain under the government of Francisco Franco from the 1930s to his death in 1975, given that the Spanish Parliament’s response to his regime was passing a ‘Pact of Forgetting’ in 1977 that gave amnesty to Franco’s victims but also, importantly, to his allies (many of whom were still in powerful positions in the parliament that passed it). The subsequent calls for justice have been slow to build, and largely blocked by the Spanish judiciary and government due to that Pact, hence this story of a group of people uniting to bring a case in Argentina. The film hears the testimonies of some of the people involved in the case, all of whom were either tortured themselves or had family members assassinated by the Franco regime, as well as presenting contemporary footage (such as exists) and contextualising the long legal battle with a gathering of public support. We also clearly see that there’s still a strong contingent of Franco supporters in power even now, as plenty still show up for his birthday, while people in the street talk about leaving the past untouched, and we see a hatchet-faced cadre of supporters amongst the Madrid city councillors, opposed to renaming streets which honoured him and his generals. There’s clearly still a long way for Spain to go in facing its past, but this documentary shows some of the ways this policy of silence is being challenged.

The Silence of Others film posterCREDITS
Directors Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo; Writers Ricardo Acosta, Bahar, Carracedo and Kim Roberts; Cinematographer Carracedo; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 19 February 2019.

LFF 2019 Day Four: A Thief’s Daughter, The Sharks and The Orphanage (all 2019)

Day four of the London Film Festival is the first weekend, and so the first day on which I have bought myself tickets to more than two films — only three, mind, and with fairly generous spacing, so there’s no running from screen to screen today. Two of them are in Spanish (one is Catalan although mostly in Castilian, the other Uruguyuan) and two are coming of age stories (The Sharks and The Orphanage). Oh, and all three are directed by women of course.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Four: A Thief’s Daughter, The Sharks and The Orphanage (all 2019)”

Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory, 2019)

Stepping away from this week’s horror theme, I wanted to highlight another film that’s out in UK cinemas today, which is the latest by Pedro Almodóvar, a filmmaker who is getting older and has made a film about it. Maybe it’s me getting older — or maybe it’s Pedro — but I really warmed to his latest film far more than anything I’ve watched before by him (and I gave his films a few tries back in the 1990s in particular).


This is a fairly thinly-disguised self-portrait of the filmmaker as ageing man, dealing with the pains of growing up, and more particularly the pains of getting old, self-medicating (with heroin, but of course), and generally trying to come to terms with his own life and those around him drifting away and dying. It trades less on heightened melodrama but is given enormous gravitas by Banderas’s underplayed performance, finding all the right notes for this guy who’s rather at loose ends now that he can’t work due to chronic pain and depression. He still has a very precise eye for framing a shot, and the use of music is perfect, plus there’s no big event, just a sort of flow of moments in a man’s life. There’s levity and there’s self-reflexiveness (a scene with his mother telling him he better not be thinking about putting her in a film), there’s a bit of darkness, but mostly there’s light and colour (bold, saturated colours, of course), that I enjoyed spending time with.

Pain and Glory film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Pedro Almodóvar; Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine; Starring Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 17 August 2019.