Criterion Sunday 557: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

I do wonder, watching this classic documentary once again, how many figures from history are forgotten or only dimly recalled, people who have had enormous influence in their time. As the filmmaker reflects in one of the extras, you can easily imagine Harvey Milk fading from view, for while his importance at a certain point in San Francisco’s civic history may have been undoubtable, the wider significance of his work could easily have never been properly established. What this film does then is a work of urgent engagement with a public legacy, coming from a sense of injustice — not just in the way that Milk was killed, but in the way his voice took so long to be heard at all and about the easy way in which his killer was treated. But it’s not the story of Dan White that’s of interest here — his brand of neo-conservative Bible-thumping bigotry has been every bit as influential in American politics sadly — but the effervescence and life of Harvey Milk, a man who knew early on what his fate would be (as anyone who’d grown up in American politics of the post-war period surely knew) but forged ahead anyway. He has a great skill with oratory and a belief in what was right, more than can be said for some of his political colleagues who may continue to wield influence in the state of California. It’s a great film to celebrate a life, not just mourn a death, and that’s what it taps into more than anything else.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There is a wealth of documentary material included as extras here, including the film’s premiere at the Castro (although not its first screening, but the first to the local community), introduced by Vito Russo and with speeches from its director, as well as the rather more staid affair of the Oscars where it won the best documentary that year (no mean feat, given the closed way that the Documentary Oscar was for many years selected).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rob Epstein; Writers Epstein, Carter Wilson and Judith Coburn; Cinematographer Frances Reid; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Whina (2022)

As usual, my film blog has become largely just the Criterion Sunday entries this year, so I’m going to try and post more reviews of other films, maybe some that actually make it to cinemas in this country. This one is a local production, and it’s good to see one of the co-directors/co-writers is a wāhine, one of the crop of fine women directors who gained greater exposure via Waru (2017). It’s based on the life of Dame Whina Cooper, who is probably not as well known even in Aotearoa as she used to be, but retains a fearsome reputation for her land rights activism and Māori leadership up to her death at the age of 98.


I can’t really deny that I found this affecting, so any flaws were very much ones that are inherent to any generation-spanning biopic treatment. Given the time constraints, events from Dame Whina’s life are distilled down into short scenes, often between people representing different ideas, in order to keep things moving. There’s a constant back and forth between the 1975 hīkoi (march) that she led down the length of the North Island as an 80-year-old (though she lived another 18 years after that) and events from earlier in her life, and it’s very much that younger self, played by Miriama McDowell, who makes the most impact in the narrative. I was left wanting more to flesh out her life but that would probably have needed a wider canvas (like a miniseries). What’s here though is strong, and is focused around the community in its own spaces (we see nothing of the government and the only real pākehā representative is the Catholic priest), and that’s probably the film’s greatest strength, in depicting the power of community organising and action. It’s a suitable stage for Whina too, and the best place to gauge her contribution to society (there’s one brief scene of her in a Wellington boardroom and it doesn’t go too well). The only regret I was left with is that, if this had been a very different film with a different attitude to history, she would have flicked one of her late husband’s cigarettes over her shoulder as she turned to leave the Bishop’s Auckland church, as, in slow-motion and under a thudding rock soundtrack, she burnt down his church like he did her meeting house. The line the filmmakers went with is almost as damning, but…

Whina (2022)CREDITS
Directors James Napier Robertson and Paula Whetu Jones; Writers James Lucas, Napier Robertson and Jones; Cinematographer Leon Narbey; Starring Miriama McDowell, Rena Owen, Vinnie Bennett, James Rolleston; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 9 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 538: Paths of Glory (1957)

I think by the time Stanley Kubrick made this film he was really hitting his imperial phase, when every element of his craft was honed towards some form of perfection. I used to find that thrilling, but it has less effect on me now, though I’d certainly not quibble with anyone proclaiming this a masterpiece. It is a perfectly tooled piece of filmmaking after all, the many elegant dolly shots back and forth intensify the restless energy of Lt Dax, Kirk Douglas’s central character, as he struggles against the implacable will not of an unseen enemy but of his own military bosses, who show such contempt for human life that they are blithely willing to kill their own troops. You can well see why it was banned in France for so long, because there’s a genuine clear anger that is fully and almost bluntly directed in the courtroom scenes and the meticulous preparations for yet another senseless (if judicial) murder. It’s all beautifully shot and harrowing in some ways, almost as precision tooled as the military weapons it depicts.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick; Writers Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson (based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb); Cinematographer Georg Krause; Starring Kirk Douglas, George Macready, Adolphe Menjou, Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 31 March 2002 (as well as earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, September 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 6 June 2022).

Criterion Sunday 504: Hunger (2008)

The subject of this film is undeniably tough, like Steve McQueen’s later film about American slavery (12 Years a Slave), and one that I had put off viewing for some time. I remember watching Wang Bing’s epic documentary Dead Souls a few years ago (about Mao-era Chinese re-education camps) and one of the most striking and upsetting things was the extensive descriptions of what happens to the human body when it’s starved. Here instead we get a visual depiction, and though McQueen leaves much of it to the last 15-20 minutes, it’s still impossible not to reckon with the image of Fassbender’s body, not unlike that of the slaves in the later film, even if their situations are obviously different. Bodies remain a focus throughout, and wounds, like those on the knuckles of the prison guard that start the film, making us wonder how they were sustained (and pretty quickly we find out). Quite aside from his knuckles, that guard’s fate makes it clear that nobody really benefits from these struggles. That said, McQueen is fairly circumspect with the politics: the points it makes are largely visceral ones, and Bobby Sands’s place in re-energising nationalist republican politics isn’t explicitly confronted, though the centrepiece of the film is a bravura single-shot dialogue he has with a partisan priest (Liam Cunningham) shortly before starting his hunger strike, in which he sets out his philosophical basis for the action. (I didn’t learn from the film, for example, that Sands had been elected an MP in the UK Parliament while he was striking, nor about the specific demands that led to the end of the strike, after 10 men had died.) After all, you don’t need to have characters speaking about the brutality of British rule when it is enough to see the conditions of the prison and their struggles to retain some dignity. So ultimately, for all my fears about the film, it walks a line between the visceral evocation of horror and a visual artist’s eye for semi-abstraction in the compositions; this is McQueen’s debut, but it merely begins a new phase in his artistic work after many years at the forefront of gallery-based visual arts.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve McQueen; Writers Enda Walsh and McQueen; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 5 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 497: Roma città aperta (Rome Open City, 1945)

I’ve seen this before, but I must have underestimated it. When you’re studying film and told that something is a classic, you can’t help but want to react against it, find it a bit boring, especially when you’re young. In fact, I’ve seen it twice and don’t recall much about it, but I think I wasn’t coming to it in the proper frame of mind. It practically invents the “neo-realist” style of filmmaking, shooting on the streets (in a Nazi-occupied city no less), telling a story with next to no budget, but with some great actors and some evocative faces. In fact, it’s pretty great, as indeed everyone knows, and not just for its technical achievements. The blend of heartrending tragedy (I mean, it’s wartime; most everyone dies) and moments of levity, like the priest earnestly turning away a statue of a monk from the naked bottom of another statue, or playing football with a bunch of kids. Moments like that make it all the tougher to see the same characters in much different circumstances. It’s about resistance to fascism, it’s about surviving in an occupied city, but it’s also about transcending that spiritually. I’m not even sure the church had a particularly great record during the war in terms of resistance, but these are the things you want to believe, that there were those who had a more ennobled spirit. It makes the difficult times worth bearing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini; Cinematographer Ubaldo Arata; Starring Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 22 August 2001 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, October 2000, but most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Tuesday 18 January 2022).

Criterion Sunday 496: Che (2008)

The first time I saw Steven Soderbergh’s magnum opus, his enormous two-part biopic/investigation of Argentine doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s revolutionary life, I think I must have been a bit underwhelmed. In retrospect it’s probably significantly to the film’s benefit that it avoids the preachiness of most Hollywood biopics, and certainly avoids some of the moralising traps of other Soderbergh films. It’s hardly a revolutionary picture itself, though, and feels overly interested in pastiching period news footage in the scenes from NYC in 1964, with grainy black-and-white, off-centre close-up framings, nervous handheld camerawork and on-screen captions that mimic exactly the font of those old burned-in subtitles you used to see in footage. In other words, you wonder at times if it was more about the technical challenge than capturing the man, and certainly contemporaneous accounts invested a lot in the digital technology Soderbergh was using. But yet at its heart I feel as if this is quite an earnest project. Guevara isn’t the hero of the kind you see on the famous poster images, but just a man amongst many others (and women, too, as we see in the guerrilla armies he forms and leads) trying to make a positive change to a country mired in corruption, no thanks to US involvement. Soderbergh is hardly interested in digging deep into the politics, but just by focusing on Guevara, Castro and the others there’s a gentle sense of solidarity with those holding these revolutionary ideals and the dream of a future forged in training camps in the jungles and skirmishes on the streets.

Moving on a few years for the second half of this epic, it’s clearly possible to see how it works in tandem with the first part. That film presented revolutionary ideology and practice with the stylistic flash of, say, the contemporary New Wave cinemas of the era, as Guevara worked alongside his fellows in Cuba in the late-1950s, intercut with interviews and speeches at the UN in 1964. This part takes a quite different tack, going for more of a handheld observational style, using a muted colour palette that really downplays the lushness of the highland setting, as Guevara faces up to the reality of the struggle in Bolivia in 1967. If the first was a film about glory, this is a film mostly about disappointment and failure. Its episodic march of time, numbered by the days Guevara has spent in country, sees his people slowly picked off, their deaths really just captured in passing or off-screen, as the action follows increasingly bearded men messing around in the hills, trying to win over the local people and with a mounting sense of desperation. There’s nothing glorious here, but there’s a certain fascination to Che’s resolve, even as he’s battered by asthma and poor discipline from the forces he’s trying to lead. Perhaps by design, but it feels almost underwhelming after the first part, a corrective perhaps but a sad one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Che: Part One (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen (based on the non-fiction work Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria cubana [Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War] by Ernesto Guevara); Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Demián Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Julia Ormond; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 13 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).

Che: Part Two (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen; Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Franka Potente, Gastón Pauls, Lou Diamond Phillips; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 17 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).

Criterion Sunday 491: Z (1969)

This film, made in 1969, is practically a playbook for repressive governments — sponsoring violence, manipulating the media, brazenly lying, evading censure, blaming others — that hasn’t really changed in the intervening years, and may indeed be a useful study guide for anyone thinking of getting into a bit of dictatorship. There are essentially two parts, the story of an opposition leader within the unnamed (but presumably Greece-adjacent) country, and then a judicial investigation being led by Jean-Louis Trintignant’s character (who is a shady background presence in the first part). It’s all put together with a keen sense for suspense and pulls you through its twisting narrative, exposing as if a documentary the lies being perpetrated, while the narrative gives you a little bit of hope that things might work out on the side of justice. You’ll have to watch it to find out whether they do, but it’s well worth watching whatever you think might happen, because it’s gripping in all the best ways for a political thriller.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Costa-Gavras Κωνσταντίνος Γαβράς; Writers Jorge Semprun and Costa-Gavras (based on the novel by Vassilis Vassilikos Βασίλης Βασιλικός); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Yves Montand, Pierre Dux, Irene Papas Ειρήνη Παππά; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 1 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 490: Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire, 1987)

I find it easy to resist this film, its blend of poetic voiceover, impressionist use of colour and black-and-white, and reflections on the nature of freedom in a still-divided Berlin. But watching it after so many years since having last seen it, I am still forcefully struck with the underlying melancholy. Bruno Ganz is one of a number of angels who seem to be assigned to shadow a handful of people in the city of Berlin; we see (and hear the thoughts of) those he follows, but we also see his fellow angels standing imperceptibly and calmly over the shoulders of others he passes. This all seems to stand in as a conceit by which to evoke Berlin itself, and the film is in a lineage of city symphonies (that prominently includes, of course, Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 silent one about the same city), but it’s a powerful one, suggesting a higher purpose that has been severed somehow. Broken people shuffle amongst ruins and building sites, and there’s a provisional nature to what everyone is doing, a holding pattern. That’s all in the atmosphere, and is barely even expressed, but we have Peter Falk playing himself after a fashion as an actor, grounded and gruff, while Solveig Dommartin is a French trapeze artist, flying lightly through the air, and these seem to be like poles within which Bruno Ganz’s Dammiel tries to make his way. There’s a choice, and a movement towards the end, which promises a sequel (there is one; I’ve not ever seen it), and I’m not sure how substantial it all is really, but it feels somehow defining of an era and remains a beautiful film — and it seems appropriate that it was shot by the cinematographer of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast — however much I try to cynically resist it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wim Wenders; Writers Wenders, Peter Handke and Richard Reitinger; Cinematographer Henri Alekan; Starring Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk, Curt Bois; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, April 1998 and again at home (Kanopy streaming), Wellington, Sunday 26 December 2021.

Criterion Sunday 488: Howards End (1992)

I feel it’s fairly easy to be sniffy about the period costume drama of much British cinematic and TV production. After all, the heritage industry is omnipresent in the UK and does seem to contribute a lot to the economy, though it contributes less that’s valuable to Britain’s perception of itself and its history, as most of these productions are focused on something glorious and golden about the past. I certainly lapse into an easy disdain for the costume drama, even as I love to go and see each new one and see how it tries to extend or adapt or even maybe undermine that (now tedious, to me) cultural narrative. As far as these productions go, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, along with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, were among the most adept, and I think in some ways this adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel — one of their later productions — maybe also be their finest.

It’s a handsomely mounted Edwardian period production, replete with all the fashions and details of the era, but it tells a story about class and wealth, which touches slightly on colonialism even — as when we see Anthony Hopkins’s rubber trader Henry Wilcox in his office named for Africa, but which Emma Thompson’s Margaret Schlegel notes has nothing that might suggest that continent. The two of them fall in love after the death of his wife Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), who had become friends with Margaret, and even between these two families, the class divides are strong, roughly Tory vs Labour politically, bankers vs artisans. Into that mix, the story also throws the working class Leonard Bast (Samuel West), eagerly trying to better himself, but the way all these three families intersect creates tension, conflict, a bit of tragedy and a lot of shifting ethical dynamics. The film cannily compares the interaction between Leonard and Margaret’s younger flighty sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) with that between Henry and Margaret, and shows the hypocrisy of classism. But all the while, those who long for bucolic countryside, period dresses and the trappings of English heritage cinema will find plenty to their taste also.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director James Ivory; Writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (based on the novel by E. M. Forster); Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts; Starring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West, Vanessa Redgrave; Length 142 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 17 December 2021 (and a long time ago, probably on VHS at home in Wellington in the 1990s).

NZIFF 2021: شیطان وجود ندارد Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)

After last week’s review of the Iranian film Hit the Road at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, the festival screened another quite different film from the same country, the kind of thing that doesn’t get screened in its home country due to some pretty direct criticisms of the regime. It’s long, depressing, and in several parts, but pretty great all the same.


I feel like if you’re going to do an issues-driven drama based on contemporary society — and this one is about the death penalty — then this is the way to do it. It’s not unclear what the filmmaker’s point of view is — it’s clear enough, indeed, that he’s had to endure prison sentences and bans on filmmaking over the last few years — and he goes in pretty hard on his own country’s use of the death penalty, though despite being made in Iran and featuring its cities and countryside rather beautifully, it’s a story that could be told anywhere that the death penalty exists.

Like a lot of Iranian films, the focus is very much on the moral quandary of those involved in it, which range the gamut from bland acceptance to turmoil. The first segment lulls us in with a very quotidian story of a middle-class family that could be in any western country and whose bickering and patterns of life are entirely relatable, before a stinging twist at the end. Indeed, having booked to see the film a month ago, it wasn’t until the end of the first story that it became clear to me what the structuring conceit of this film was.

The second and fourth stories seem to be continuations of one another — in the earlier one, a young military conscript rebels against the requirement that he get involved in an execution, while in the last an older man who did the same when he was a kid and ran away to the countryside, comes to terms with the choices he made in terms of his family. The film indeed is very interested in moral choices that aren’t made in a vacuum, but take place in terms of ensuring one’s own freedoms, one’s own family and work, and the extent to which we should or should not accept capital punishment if it’s just a means to get food into mouths or to live the life you want (given that the person being executed is just going to killed by someone else).

It’s not necessarily an easy subject, but the filmmaking is clear and flows beautifully, with solid performances across the board. It is entirely deserving of its awards, and one can only hope that the filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof can continue to make films.

Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mohammad Rasoulof محمد رسول‌اف;
Cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani اشکان اشکانی; Starring Ehsan Mirhosseini احسان میرحسینی, Kaveh Ahangar کاوه آهنگر, Mahtab Servati هتاب ثروتی, Baran Rasoulof باران رسول‌اف; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Thursday 11 November 2021.