Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)

Hello! It’s been a while since I posted a non-Criterion review on this site, so let’s jump back in. Cinemas may now be (more) open in certain parts of the world, but home streaming is still A Thing, and probably… always will be? Well, time will tell, but here’s another week of “random stuff I’ve watched on Netflix” because it’s still the most popular option.


I’d watched the first two instalments (several years ago) and honestly couldn’t remember much of the plot. I wrote little capsule reviews at the time, but they’re not much longer than a sentence and barely convey any information beyond “it was quite fun”. Then again, it’s been a day or two and I don’t remember much of the plot of this one either now, so I don’t think that’s really the key to the trilogy and won’t affect your enjoyment. Basically, it’s about our rotund hero Po (voiced by Jack Black) ‘finding himself’ and discovering his powers and his empathy as part of a quest to defeat a legendary big bad guy, Kai (J.K. Simmons), who has just managed to return to the mortal realm. Po has his buddies and he has his antagonists, and I’m not sure the plot itself is particularly deep but it’s also fairly blandly positive so I can’t really fault it for that, but it’s a good excuse to get together some cute characters and show off the fine animation skills of the DreamWorks artists. I do raise my eyebrows somewhat at the writing team for this China-set film, along with getting notably non-Asian actors to voice some of these characters (Dustin Hoffman as an elderly sage called “Master Shifu”??), especially when they are called on to do an accent — but Jack Black at least isn’t doing that and isn’t really intended to be anyone but himself, and he and the filmmakers make it a likeable enough ride and an excellent conclusion to the trilogy.

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016)CREDITS
Directors Jennifer Yuh Nelson 여인영 and Alessandro Carloni; Writers Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger; Starring Jack Black, J.K. Simmons, Bryan Cranston, James Hong 吳漢章, Dustin Hoffman; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Saturday 3 July 2021.

My Wedding and Other Secrets (2011)

I covered Roseanne Liang’s most recent film Shadow in the Cloud (2020) yesterday, and this is her debut feature, though she has a 2008 short called Take 3 (which is included on the NZ DVD, and is particularly excellent). It hits a lot of the elements that you find in many romcoms and also casts the prolific Cheng Pei-pei as the mother, so you can’t really go wrong.


I think this would do pretty well as a Netflix original movie, given the lightness with which it plays out its romcom elements, along with the serious culture-clash drama of familial expectations that’s an undercurrent of the central romance. It coasts by on a fair deal of charm, though its lead actor Michelle Ang is very capable at delivering just the right level of adorable yet quirky that the script demands. This is especially notable given that her on-screen boyfriend is written as such a demanding asshole at times, and while I imagine she is supposed to be equally difficult (what with her avoidance of revealing her relationship to her parents), Ang’s skill at comedic delivery makes her seem far more reasonable — but then again, the romcom genre has always been adept at covering up behaviour that would be awful in any other circumstance. It also doesn’t hurt that the immortal Cheng Pei-pei plays her mother. As a whole it can be a little clunky at times, but there’s an exuberance to the story that belies its presumably small budget (what other level of budget do NZ films even have, that one beardy guy aside).

My Wedding and Other Secrets film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Roseanne Liang; Cinematographer Richard Harling; Starring Michelle Ang, Matt Whelan, Cheng Pei-pei 郑佩佩, Kenneth Tsang 曾江; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 23 February 2021.

Lucky Grandma (aka 幸運的奶奶, 2019)

I was expecting a very slowburn arthouse indie film from this, as it was at last year’s London Film Festival, and I guess I never did read the reviews, but had a sense that people liked it. I wasn’t fully expecting its turn into genre fights, but the film holds it together rather well. It has recently been released to cinemas in NZ, and I don’t doubt it’ll be on home streaming elsewhere.


By all accounts, once the funding got approved this film was made pretty speedily, but it never looks anything less than stylish and polished. Tonally it seems to owe a lot to recent southeast Asian cinema, with a very steely and quiet gaze and an almost glacially deadpan comedy, but it all works really well even in the context of New York’s Chinatown where it’s set. Of course, it helps that Tsai Chin really anchors the film as the title character, introduced smoking a cigarette in the looming darkness of a fortune teller’s shop, as she learns she’s coming into some extraordinary luck. Of course things don’t quite go the way she (and we the audience) imagine, but there’s still plenty of great setpieces. Even when it took a turn into some decidedly genre territory — mafia thugs and shootouts and all that — the film didn’t manage to lose me, which I think is testament to the good will it builds up over the course of its running time, and that fantastic lead performance.

Lucky Grandma film posterCREDITS
Director Sasie Sealy; Writers Angela Cheng and Sealy; Cinematographer Eduardo Enrique Mayén; Starring Tsai Chin 周采芹, Hisao-Yuan Ha, Michael Tow, Yan Xi; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Monday 2 November 2020.

LFF 2020: Stray (2020)

My London Film Festival took place entirely online this year (they did put on some actual screenings, but I did not venture to any). This was my first film, an American documentary about the animals in a Turkish city. It was a pleasant enough start to the week of films.


It’s impossible, I suppose, in thinking about this (American) film about the stray canine population of Turkey’s largest city of Istabul, not to think also about the recent documentary Kedi, which deals with felines in the same city. This cleaves closely to the dog point-of-view, the camera rarely making it above knee height on any of the humans, as it follows a number of dogs around the city. Of course, it’s not just about dogs — there’s a fair amount of circumstantial evidence of protests against Erdoğan’s rule, and of the way in which dogs become part of the fabric of urban society. But it also very much rewards the dog lovers amongst the audience.

Stray film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Elizabeth Lo; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Wednesday 7 October 2020.

Joy (2018)

Because my Global Cinema series will be covering the country of Austria tomorrow, I’ve done a week of German-language cinema by women filmmakers. The most recent release I’m covering is this film I saw at the 2018 London Film Festival, where it won the main prize. It’s very far from a joyful film, despite its title, and is a tough watch, but is available on Netflix (at least in the UK).


I’m not sure how to feel about this film, but it’s certainly not always an easy watch — there’s no happy ending on offer, despite the title (the name of the central character, played by Joy Anwulika Alphonsus, rather than a particularly defining emotion throughout the film). It’s also not, I would hope, intended to be a film about how it is to be a sex worker but rather presents one particular experience, which is of non-European women (in this case, Nigerian) trafficked into sex work and trapped for a significant chunk of time through mounting debts in a form of slavery. The filmmaker bookends the film with scenes set back in Nigeria, though this is largely an Austrian film from an outsider’s perspective — at least, though, it balances the early scene of juju witchcraft practised in Nigeria with a similarly syncretic religious/pagan folk tradition in the mountains of Austria. It also keeps its focus firmly on the character of Joy, so even when we see well-meaning (white) Austrians trying to help her, it’s clear how ineffectual they are and how impossible it is for Joy to act according to what they consider the self-evidently moral and righteous response. Joy’s story is part of an ingrained and ever-repeating cycle of exploitation and capitalism founded on the inequalities of the world’s economy, so the film recognises all it can do is shine a light on this one immigrant story.

Joy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sudabeh Mortezai; Cinematographer Klemens Hufnagl; Starring Joy Anwulika Alphonsus, Mariam Sanusi; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Tuesday 16 October 2018.

Global Cinema 8: Armenia – Armenian Rhapsody (2012)

For all its diminutive size, Armenia has a fairly active film industry, albeit on a smaller scale, perhaps one of the legacies of its Soviet past. Sergei Parajanov was Armenian (albeit born in Georgia) and it has had a number of at least locally well-known filmmakers since. One of my favourite films of recent decades was The Lighthouse (2006) by Maria Saakyan, who sadly died too young at the age of 38. The film I present below isn’t technically Armenian but is a fine introduction to the country, and available on YouTube


Armenian flagRepublic of Armenia (Հայաստան)
population 2,957,000 | capital Yerevan (Երևան) (1.1m) | largest cities Yerevan, Gyumri (122k), Vanadzor (86k), Vagharshapat (47k), Abovyan (43k) | area 29,743 km2 | religion Christianity (Armenian Apostolic Church) | official language Armenian (հայերէն Hayeren) | major ethnicity Armenians (98%) | currency Dram (֏) [AMD] | internet .am

A mostly mountainous, landlocked country, bordering Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran. The original name Hayk’ (Հայք) traditionally derives from a legendary patriarch who settled in the area of Ararat, but the modern name Hayastan dates back to the Middle Ages, with the Persian suffix -stan. Evidence of human habitation dates back to the Bronze Age (c4000 BCE), including the earliest-dated wine-producing facility. The earliest Armenian geographic entity was established by the Orontid Dynasty (Achaemenid Empire) in the 6th century BCE, and became a kingdom within the Seleucid Empire, then Persian Empire. It went through various dynasties during the Middle Ages, until being conquered by the Mongols, and then divided by the Ottomans. Conflict during and after World War I resulted in the ‘Armenian Genocide’ by Ottoman Turks. Armenia was annexed with its neighbours by the Soviet Union in 1922, becoming its own SSR in 1936, eventually declaring independence on 21 September 1991. There was a conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan, ending in 1994 but resulting in the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. It now has a market economy, led by an elected President and Prime Minister.

Cinema in the country was established by the Soviets in 1923, though there are earlier films with an Armenian subject. The Armenfilm studio was established shortly after in 1924. In modern times, two or three feature films and a number of documentaries are produced each year, with the most notable director being Sergei Parajanov (who worked during the Soviet era, most famously on The Colour of Pomegranates). The most famous international director of Armenian ethnicity is Atom Egoyan (although he was born in Cairo and lives and works in Canada).


Rapsódia Armênia (Armenian Rhapsody aka Հայկական ռապսոդիա, 2012)

This film, which calls itself an “Armenian Rhapsody” isn’t actually Armenian it turns out, but rather a Brazilian film made by a trio of people with Armenian ancestry (or so I’m guessing from their surnames). However, given that I imagine most people don’t know very much about Armenia, it’s a fairly pleasant ride. Images of people flash up over the credits, and we get to see a few of their lives in a bit more detail: a likeable young couple getting married; an old man talking about the pitfalls of Communism in front of a victorious statue; another chap at home talking about the Armenian Genocide (which is officially recognised by Uruguay, he exclaims); and a chap with a glorious moustache he grows in recognition of tradition (for facial hair looms large). It’s not a revelatory work, but a pleasant stroll through various parts of Armenia, and a likeable introduction to the country.

Armenian Rhapsody film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Cassiana Der Haroutiounian, Cesar Gananian and Gary Gananian; Cinematographers Der Haroutiounian and Gary Gananian; Length 63 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Wednesday 1 July 2020.

Sonita (2015)

This week I’m covering documentaries which screened at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the past (this year’s programme is online, and taking place this month), and the 2016 winner of the Youth Jury Award was this film about an Afghani/Iranian rapper who left to pursue her musical dreams and now finds herself a de facto activist against child weddings.


A sweet and likeable film about a young Afghani woman living in Tehran, Sonita Alizadeh سونیتا علیزاده, whose family want to sell her as a bride but she has different ideas. Specifically of course, as documented by the film crew who are following her, she wants to be a rapper. Along the way she drags the director into her plans and things take a different turn from what we expect. The film gives a strong sense of the intersection of tradition and patriarchal violence, and from a Q&A at the screening afterwards, Sonita’s dreams after the film were of becoming a lawyer and working against child marriage, so that’s pretty great too.

Sonita film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami رخساره قائم مقامی; Cinematographers Behrouz Badrouj بهروز بدروج, Ali Mohammad Ghasemi علی محمد قاسمی, Mohamad Hadadi محمد حدادی, Arastoo Givi ارسطو گیوی, Parviz Arefi, Torben Bernard, Ala Mohseni; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Friday 11 March 2016.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)

This was released back when cinemas were still open, but has since gone to streaming-on-demand services (where you can pay some money right now to rent it). It got a bit of flack from the usual quarters, but it’s a really solid, colourful and beautifully-orchestrated superhero action film, a genre I have been very wary in recent years of dipping back into (having gone to see far too many of the Marvel films, and having been burned on some of the DC ones) but this one somehow managed to renew my interest. The director’s 2018 debut film Dead Pigs had some success on festival circuits, certainly a distinctive if divisive work, and she gets a bigger budget and brighter palette here.


I swore off superhero movies some time ago, but I was drawn back in by the creative team. It’s surprising to me too the way that Margot Robbie has really come into her own in the last five years; there’s a scene in this film where a girl is in awe of all of Harley Quinn’s achievements (that’s the title character played by Robbie), but it feels like she’s talking directly to Robbie. No, it turns out that between director Cathy Yan, the producer/star, the fabulous ensemble and the tireless work of her production designers and set dressers and costumiers, that I low-key loved this film. It does its critiques of toxic masculinity (Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina, both on top form) without ponderousness, giving them vignettes of pure malevolence and just letting them linger without distracting soundtrack choices or cutaways: when things are bad, they are allowed the space to be bad. But then there’s the fun, colourful, hyper, truly comic book fizz of the rest of the film, especially the kinetic fight sequences which make most of the Marvel ones (in fact, most of the fights in most other comic book films) feel badly staged. The ensemble camaraderie is real, and Winstead is a particular stand-out, albeit perhaps just by virtue of sort of playing against the cartoonish colourfulness of everyone else, but this feels like effortless fun (and I imagine it was anything other than effortless to create).

Birds of Prey film posterCREDITS
Director Cathy Yan 閻羽茜; Writer Christina Hodson (based on characters from DC Comics); Cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Tuesday 11 February 2020.

The Half of It (2020)

We used to talk about films sneaking out under the radar on streaming services (or on home video back in the day), but right now online is the only game in town, so the difference is whether you’re seeing it on subscription services like Netflix, or pay-to-play VOD, and Netflix can be a bigger platform than some cinemas (though as they never release their viewership, it’s difficult to be sure, aside from the vagaries of cultural impact). This is the case for the release of the new film from Alice Wu, or should I say the second film she’s been able to make in over 15 years, disappointing given how fundamentally solid her writing is. Anyway, it’s worth checking out.


This is a rather sweet film, and it’s a shame that it’s been 16 years since the last (and first) film by the same director, Saving Face (which I also very much enjoyed) — though I daren’t assume that the market for Asian-American-focused gay love stories has become any more viable in the intervening years. This one rather soft pedals the gay love story, focusing more on the relationship that develops between the jock, Paul (an appropriately lunkish Daniel Diemer), and the bookish Chinese-American girl, Ellie (Leah Lewis), who helps him write a love letter to his (far smarter) enamorata, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), the daughter of a Spanish pastor. Like a lot of high school-set quirky comedy-drama coming-of-age stories, it gets a magical/cutesy at times, pushing its characters at times beyond credulity, but it’s in the service of what is essentially a character-led film about three people trying to find their way in a deeply conformist little corner of America (a fictional town in, I think, New York state?). The three leads are all winning and likeable in their own ways, and the film never really gets dark, beyond a bit of love-based humiliation, when Paul wants to open up about his love (also an awkward scene in a church near the end). It’s an easy watch that may capitalise on the success of To All the Boys, but definitely goes in its own specific direction.

The Half of It film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Wu 伍思薇; Cinematographer Greta Zozula; Starring Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 6 May 2020.

La Vérité (The Truth, 2019)

Although this isn’t strictly a Japanese film — in fact, as mentioned in the review below, it feels very much French — it’s from director Hirokazu Koreeda, who rarely seems to do the things people want him to. He’s made his name with gentle family dramas like I Wish and Our Little Sister, but as I’ve covered in a post earlier this week, he also has a tendency to do odd little films that don’t quite fit in. This one doesn’t feel entirely successful, but it’s certainly a family drama, with rather fewer cute kids than some of his previous ones.


There are a number of reviews out there expounding on how very ‘French’ this film is, despite being written and directed by a Japanese man, but I suppose I can’t deny it. It’s essentially a two-hander between Catherine Deneuve as the film star diva mother and Juliette Binoche as her daughter, and I can’t think of any more iconic French stars of modern cinema. Binoche plays Lumir, now based in the States and married to Ethan Hawke’s somewhat less successful actor Hank, while Deneuve is Fabienne (which is her real middle name, suggesting to me some level of meta-textual play going on). It’s about families and about the stories they tell about themselves, specifically the stories that Fabienne tells about herself and her family in an autobiography she’s just had published (called La Vérité, obviously). Still, it’s not one of those films where half-lies tear a family apart, and maybe that’s the bit which comes from writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda — indeed there’s a touching, almost sentimental, sense in which maybe things can be patched up and even an old diva can learn humility. I wouldn’t place this in the first rank of Koreeda’s work, but it’s a sweet and well-acted film all the same, and I can certainly identify with Hank, who, as family drama constantly swirls in French around him, is just stuck there going “uhhhh, vin rouge?” to an indifferent room.

The Truth film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda 是枝裕和; Cinematographer Éric Gautier; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, Ludivine Sagnier; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Saturday 28 March 2020.