Fire Island (2022)

Not all the best new films are released to cinemas, especially not if it’s screening on Disney+ because they really don’t like to get their films onto big screens anymore, which is a real shame because there’s no reason why this comedic retelling of Pride and Prejudice shouldn’t be a wider hit (though to be fair it’s not soft-pedalling the gay comedy here like similar 90s films might have done).


I feel like we had that great era of classic texts being revamped — and indeed, there’s even a brief throwaway reference to Clueless (1995) at one point in this film — and why not, because at this point it’s those films I’m pegging any remakes to rather than the original texts. But if Emma. (2020) and its ilk have been trying to take the classics back to their period settings, Fire Island proves that there’s still a lot of value in finding contemporary resonances. Imagining the Bennet sisters as a ‘family’ of gay men on a final summer holiday to the titular destination of their hedonistic youth turns out to be a pretty great twist, and productive too. There’s all the finely-nuanced character work drawn from the original with a wealth of sly references to modern culture and socialising added in, but if this were all just a studied ‘spot the reference’ competition it would quickly become boring. Luckily star/writer Joel Kim Booster and his co-lead Bowen Yang really bring the pathos along with the jokes. Yang, for all his other memorable turns, is still best known to me for being a breakout star on recent seasons of Saturday Night Live but here, fabulously, his level of party-killer/boring dorky dude is set via the detail of his recapping memorable SNL skits for people who couldn’t really care less. And while the rest of the cast are largely unknown to me, I look forward to all of them guiding the future of comedy, because there’s scarcely a dull performance amongst the group.

Fire Island (2022)CREDITS
Director Andrew Ahn; Writer Joel Kim Booster 조엘 킴 부스터; Cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey; Starring Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang 楊伯文, Conrad Ricamora, James Scully, Margaret Cho 조모란, Matt Rogers; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, Friday 1 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 514: Ride with the Devil (1999)

I’m not sure if Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich and Jewel (the singer) counted as big stars back in 1999, but I suspect they may have had a greater lustre to them at the very least. In retrospect, though the casting is solid, their faded celebrity is perhaps now more appropriate to the Confederate bushwhackers they play: basically kids trying to mount a guerrilla offensive that starts out rooted in family but increasingly becomes a brazen attempt to profit by any means. This movement into banditry is where Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s slippery, traitorous character comes into his own. None of them are exactly people you want to root for, but Maguire and Jewel at least bring something a little bit empathetic, given their youth and evident inexperience at war. Of course, the real emotional centre of the film is Jeffrey Wright’s ex-slave, fighting on the side of the Confederates out of loyalty to his former master (a relatively brief appearance for Australian actor Simon Baker). There’s nothing particularly gung ho or patriotic about this film — it tells the story of a group of people caught up in events much bigger than them and which frequently seem too large even for this (fairly lengthy) film. In the end Lee is far more interested in the time between the battles and the effects of war than in mounting big combat scenes, and this is all the stronger a film for that.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • On a disc fairly light on bonus features, one of the main extras is a 15-minute video interview with Jeffrey Wright some years later, as he reflects on his role and the place of African-Americans in the forces of the Confederacy, which is needless to say a fraught and nuanced subject.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ang Lee 李安; Writer James Schamus (based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell); Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Tobey Maguire, Jewel, Jeffrey Wright, Skeet Ulrich, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers; Length 148 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 12 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001).

Minari (2020)

A film from earlier this year that I liked and need to try and recall at this great distance, it was released in NZ just before the Oscars ceremony it qualified for (being a 2020 film), where it won the Best Supporting Actress prize for Youn Yuh-jung. I’d seen the director’s debut, which is a Rwandan-set film called Munyurangabo, so his career (and presumably life) has been a fairly peripatetic one. And while this deals with a Korean family, it is set in and also very much is an American film at its heart.


A gentle and sweet film about assimilating into a new culture which will surely ring bells with anyone who’s done that — even if my own experience is merely moving from one anglophone country to another, hardly placing me in the same situation as this Korean family looking for better lives in the early-80s. Having been living in LA, the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), tempts the family out to a small corner of the middle of nowhere (Arkansas), where he can start a farm and live the life he wants; his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is hardly convinced, and brings her mother over from Korea to help her (this is Youn Yuh-jung). However, surprisingly for me, the highlight of the film is the kids (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho), who manage to hit the right note and not be too precocious or annoying (as they too often are in films). The plot takes a few rather big turns (such as a fire at one point) that I’m not sure the story needed, but the ensemble acting pulls it through for what is a sensitively told tale.

Minari (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lee Isaac Chung 정이삭; Cinematographer Lachlan Milne; Starring Steven Yeun 연상엽, Han Ye-ri 한예리, Youn Yuh-jung 윤여정, Alan Kim 김선, Noel Kate Cho 노엘 케이트 조; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 11 February 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Memoria (2021)

Some films are made for film festivals, and none more so than any given new film by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Some of them have becoming (surprisingly) modest arthouse hits, like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Memoria is very much in a similar mould, with lush jungle terrains (here in Colombia) and a slow, mysterious narrative that seems to promise both naturalism and also science-fiction and fantasy at times. The central investigation may recall Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, in being based around a mysterious sonic fragment, but there’s little else that recalls mainstream narrative cinema, and Tilda Swinton is looking strangely ordinary here as she searches for… something.


Apichatpong Weerasethakul proves that even making a film largely in English and set in Colombia, he’s still able to make exactly the kinds of films he makes, which is to say slow, somnolent and oblique. As with Cemetery of Splendour I nodded off a little at times (to be fair that one was a film about people with some kind of sleeping sickness), but it felt like part of the artistic process, a durational one, about a woman who seems to be searching for the source of a mysterious sound. That search takes her to various specialists (real or imagined?), and to a small village in the mountains, and those shots of ruins and lush vegetation seem very much of a piece with his most famous works. I think in many ways Memoria extends those themes, with some surprising additions that never exactly serve to make clear what’s been going on, but instead intensify and deepen the mystery. But that’s often the way. This had me fascinated and I loved the slow rhythms of it, but it danced nimbly away from explaining itself. Undoubtedly both this and the pacing will madden many of its potential viewers, but it’s an experience in being open to the possibilities of narrative.

Memoria (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom สยมภู มุกดีพร้อม; Starring Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Balibar, Elkin Díaz; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 18 November 2021.

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.