NZIFF 2021: Night Raiders (2021)

Just over a year ago, I posted reviews from the 2020 London Film Festival, of which I attended a few online sessions (and which has since returned fully to cinemas this year). However, since 2020 I’ve moved to New Zealand and in November it was the New Zealand International Film Festival, now bilingually rebranded as Whānau Mārama (which loosely translates as “family of light”). Although a COVID-19 outbreak meant that there were restrictions in place (every other seat left empty and very few filmmakers present), it was still great to see these films in person, even if some of the sold out houses seemed eerily quiet.

Anyway, as it’s now December and I’ve only been posting my Criterion Collection films for the last few months, I’ll take some time over the next few weeks to post reviews of the NZIFF films I saw, which will also help us get up to speed before we get to the inevitable ‘best of the year’ lists. I’m going to start with a New Zealand co-production which focuses on issues of indigenous rights and history embedded in a story that by its nature (science-fiction) looks to the future.


This is pitched as a dystopian post-war science-fiction set in a fascist state where kids are taken from poor non-citizens and brainwashed to prepare them for… well, the usual. You know the deal, big Starship Troopers crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale vibes. Many of these tropes are pretty familiar, but this film puts an extra spin on them by using a First Nations perspective, wrapping up race and class with its dystopian oppression and imagining an indigenous resistance movement. In fact it puts plenty of spins on its subject matter and is all the richer for all the ideas it pops out. Some plotlines feel as if they could be more developed but then it wouldn’t be such a fine, tightly structured picture. Plus it’s lovely to see the star and director of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) back on screen again as a fiercely-protective mother who has a heartbreaking choice to make near the film’s outset that resonates strongly enough that it pulls the whole film together even more effectively.

Night Raiders (2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Danis Goulet; Cinematographer Daniel Grant; Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Brooklyn Letexier-Hart, Alex Tarrant, Violet Nelson, Amanda Plummer; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 462: Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro, 1980)

There are two stories here and I’m not convinced they are always in sync with one another. There’s the story of occupied France in the early-1940s, under Nazi control with people just doing what they can to make ends meet and escape the controlling boot of the occupying forces. And then there’s the theatre story, which is very much at the centre. It has all the feeling of Les Enfants du paradis but with opulent colour and set design and a bravura performance from Catherine Deneuve as a woman whose Jewish theatre director husband (Heinz Bennent) she says has escaped Paris but is actually secretly hiding out in the cellar. So you’ve got this behind-the-scenes story of a theatre troupe rehearsing for a new production, a bit of three-way love action courtesy of a handsome leading actor (Gérard Depardieu), and then you have Nazis. I suppose that puts it somewhat in the camp of Cabaret except with less, er, camp. It’s gorgeously shot and mounted, with some tense set-pieces involving the Germans, but in keeping its focus on the theatrical setting over the horrors of the era, it feels far more like a throwback to a classic era of French filmmaking, and that’s not a bad thing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Jean Poiret, Heinz Bennent, Sabine Haudepin, Jean-Louis Richard; Length 131 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 15 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 449: Missing (1982)

In a way this film by Costa-Gavras is exemplary of a certain strand of political filmmaking that flourished in the 1980s, finding a way into an epochal event through a human rights case involving (white) Americans, to make it more relatable. Interestingly, of course, the Chilean coup in 1973 that led to the death of the young American journalist Charles Horman (played here by John Shea) is so far in the background that Allende and Pinochet are barely even named, and the Chileans we see are just shady military characters with little to distinguish them. Costa-Gavras is very much more interested in focusing on the Americans involved, which makes sense given the help they gave to what was an explicitly anti-leftist and militaristic coup, aligning so well with their destabilising influence across Central and South America in this Cold War era. So we are led to see all these events, the disappearance and death of American journalists, as part of an essentially American story of silencing their own citizens as part of enacting geopolitical change that would favour their own national interests. That said, what I find frustrating about the film is just having to watch Jack Lemmon (playing Charles’s dad Ed) trying to throw his weight around and not understanding his own son’s situation, though it’s all presented as part of a learning curve for him — as someone of a certain age who implicitly trusted his own government finally understanding that he could never trust them again. His character is difficult and has trouble understanding the context, and that can just make him a little bit difficult to watch at times when it’s just variations of him going into rooms and being dismissive of his son’s wife (Sissy Spacek) and friends whenever they speak. Still, it’s a well-intentioned film that did attempt to grapple with some of this geopolitical reality at a time when Reagan had recently been elected.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Costa-Gavras Κώστας Γαβράς; Writers Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart (based on the non-fiction book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice by Thomas Hauser); Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Mayron; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 2000).

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

A film that came out earlier this year, and got some Oscar nods (including a win for Kaluuya), is this impressive biopic. It’s hardly perfect but it’s put together well with some fine performances, and shines some light on an underappreciated aspect of revolutionary American history.


This feels in many ways like a pretty traditional biopic showing all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre, with its arc through to someone’s death, and though it’s not clunky or badly directed, it really stands or falls on the quality of its actors. Luckily Daniel Kaluuya as Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant Bill O’Neal, along with (notably) Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, the partner of Hampton, all do brilliant work. Kaluuya’s is the more up-front role, the more direct angry young man, but it’s Stanfield who particularly impresses as this fraught character (the ‘Judas’), torn in many directions who communicates that well without big speeches, but just in these quiet scenes between himself and his handler (Jesse Plemons), that means the epilogue about the real life Bill O’Neal somehow comes as no real surprise while also being quite shocking. But the greatest shock of the epilogue — and something not fully conveyed by the film and its casting (however fine the actors) — is just how young all these people were. Hampton was 21 when the film ends. It’s a film not just about his work with the BPP but also about the policing culture (at the time, though I think we all know that time hasn’t changed much in that respect), and about the way this authoritarian power was directed at those trying to make positive change and resist the racist, capitalist narratives of the mainstream. Ultimately this is still a studio product, but it allows for those voices to be heard, that protest to be enunciated, and as protest this is striking.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)CREDITS
Director Shaka King; Writers Will Berson, King, Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 423: Walker (1987)

Alex Cox certainly makes distinctive films. I’m not sure that they always gel with me, as I have a sort of in-built resistance to the carnivalesque and maximalist spirit he has (along with, say, Terry Gilliam). But I can’t fault Cox’s determination to bitterly present a satirical view of American involvement in central America, spurred by the contemporary exploits of such hucksters as Oliver North, and the film does everything it can to collapse one into the other. The mid-19th century setting increasingly becomes indistinguishable from the modern day as cars and helicopters, US tabloid news magazines and other anachronistic features start to become impossible to ignore. In the midst of all the pyrotechnics and madness is a very undemonstrative performance from Ed Harris, a tall blue-eyed blond man in a tailored black suit whose very stillness and composure in the midst of everything helps him stand out and grounds all the madness that swirls around him.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alex Cox; Writer Rudy Wurlitzer; Cinematographer David Bridges; Starring Ed Harris, René Auberjonois, Richard Masur, Peter Boyle, Marlee Matlin; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 7 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 391: if…. (1968)

After recently watching Spice World and 1933’s The Invisible Man, I feel I already have a sense of how small, insular and close-minded an island Britain can be. Perhaps those weren’t the lessons to be learned from those particular films, but an assessment of the British (or English) character is somewhat in the background, and it’s the same here in a portrayal of the kind of education our ruling classes get in the UK. It’s a satire of course, but even when it’s going over-the-top (there’s a priest in a drawer! there’s an entire stash of weaponry!) it’s never particularly untethered from the reality — or at least how I imagine it to be (though the writers of this film were certainly drawing on lived experience). Even the very removed microcosm of school life I endured showed some of the hallmarks of the society depicted here, though obviously never nearly as brutal. It’s also rather awkward watching this in the era of incels and domestic terrorism, as you get the feeling that what Mick (Malcolm McDowell) and his compatriots are doing isn’t so far removed from that paradigm either. Still, given the system they’re rebelling against here, there is still an underlying level of sympathy for Mick, and the satire remains pointed. It’s no wonder it caused such a stir at the time, given the nature of politicised student violence and the incipient revolution in the air back in 1968, but there’s still a revolutionary zeal to it watching even now, alongside that black comedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lindsay Anderson; Writer David Sherwin; Cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček; Starring Malcolm McDowell, Richard Warwick, David Wood, Robert Swann, Christine Noonan; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 22 January 2021 (and on VHS at home at some point in the distant past).

Criterion Sunday 389: W.R. – Misterije organizma (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971)

I’m very amenable to those critics calling this a masterpiece, but I fear that perhaps when I look at it, I find it difficult to perceive the depths that others do. It’s an assemblage of narrative fictional material — a Yugoslav woman (Milena Dravić) preaching free love who seduces a Russian ice-skating comrade hero (Ivica Vidović), only to lose her head — along with archival sources, an old Soviet propaganda film, and documentary elements dealing with the later life and research of controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Indeed, for much of the early portion it seems like a straight documentary, in so far as anything about Reich could be called straight. His theories deal with the orgasm and sexual potential, and other segments (like Nancy, the “Plaster Caster”, making a mould of the Screw editor’s penis, or the hippie, Tuli Kupferberg, who stalks through New York masturbating his toy rifle and menacing the bourgeoisie) sort of develop these themes in relation to capitalism and the West, while the propaganda footage suggests a misunderstood sexual dimension to Soviet Communism. It’s all pretty feverish and clearly you may love it, but while I certainly wasn’t bored, I guess I didn’t really connect at the level the film was aiming for.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Dušan Makavejev; Cinematographers Aleksandar Petković and Pega Popović; Starring Milena Dravić, Ivica Vidović, Jagoda Kaloper, Tuli Kupferberg; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 16 January 2021 (and a long time before that on VHS at home, Wellington).

Criterion Sunday 385: L’Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, 1969)

Melville was always a stylist and that much has been clear in the films so far featured in the Criterion Collection, titles with Alain Delon such as the remarkable Le Samouraï from a few years earlier, or Le Cercle rouge from the following year. These films, along with his 1956 classic Bob le flambeur, are crime dramas in which laconic men don hats and heavy coats, look cool and carry out their crimes like elegant statesmen. Here our protagonists are also criminals, but only in the eyes of the Nazi-controlled Vichy government they are resisting; it’s set during World War II, with solid, stocky Lino Ventura playing Philippe Gerbier, head of the Marseille resistance. From the very start there’s a sense of the danger, as he’s picked up by the police and sent for questioning (involving certain torture and death), from which predicament he escapes this time, but throughout the film that heavy sense of impending death hangs over everyone. The film is thus a series of setpieces of characters just buying a little more time from their fate as they try to organise resistance to Nazi occupation. When one of their group is picked up, Simone Signoret’s Mathilde steps in, while meanwhile Gerbier has taken a submarine to London to meet the head of the resistance, a philosopher called Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), and coordinate strategies. At no point is there any particular glory (aside from the unseen hand of de Gaulle awarding Jardie a medal in London), just constant attempts to outwit the bad guys and put death off for one more day, all in Melville’s usual steely blue set design, noirish shadows hanging as heavy as the coats and impeccable suits his leads always wear. The cumulative effect is deeply emotional, just for knowing how impossible the situation is that they are all in, and how little they could know about what might happen after their inevitable deaths, but that we can watch knowing they didn’t ultimately die in vain.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a series of extras dealing with the work of the Resistance, among them Le Journal de la Résistance (1945), an anonymously directed and shot wartime documentary. At just over half an hour, this is narrated by Noël Coward (at least, the English version) and shows footage shot by Parisian cameramen of the battles that led up to the liberation of Paris in August 1944. We see fragments snatched from windows and hiding places of tanks rolling up the Champs Elysées, of dead French bodies piled in a courtyard as evidence that the Germans have fled, as shots ring out and barricades are lifted by Parisians quickly becoming aware that things have taken a turn. The Allied tanks aren’t far away as the citizens take up arms to drive back the Germans ahead of the final victory. It’s all very spiriting and narrated with a sense of pomp and idealism, but you’d expect that as a document made to strengthen morale in the dying days of the war.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the book by Joseph Kessel); Cinematographers Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz; Starring Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Simone Signoret, Jean-Pierre Cassel; Length 145 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 373: The Proud Valley (1940) and Native Land (1942)

The director of The Proud Valley (the first film on this disc) — who was a descendent of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson — died the year after it was released at the remarkably young age of 28, but he shows a sure sense of direction in this work set amongst Welsh miners at the cusp of war. Of course, the star is the African-American expatriate Paul Robeson, by this point no longer particularly welcome back in his home country, and who had already had most of a decade working in Europe to various success. This film escapes the jingoistic colonialism and condescension of Sanders of the River (1935) and is much more in-line with the kind of noble depiction of the Black American that Robeson was far more interested in conveying. Indeed, racism becomes very much a minor issue amongst this group of workers — when they’re down the mines, after all, they’re all coated in coal dust — and the film is about the small town’s attempt to reopen their mine and restore work to the struggling community above all else. In that sense, it has a fair amount of feeling for the struggle of working class people across racial divides that would certainly seem to become rarer in British culture thereafter.

The final film on the set, the American film Native Land, certainly isn’t perfect — it pitches itself somewhat as a documentary about the union activism, its suppression by forces of government and capitalism, and its triumphant resurgence, but intersperses the documentary portions (narrated by Paul Robeson) with re-enactments of incidents in the struggle for union rights. These bits are a little bit stagy, but still valuable and interesting, though certainly I’ve seen persuasive critiques at the overall tone, a sort of patriotic nationalism that ties in the Declaration of Independence to labour struggles — and to be fair I can somewhat understand that impulse to cast the union as a patriotic institution deserving of vigorous defence. It also begs the question of whose land this is, and who exactly is native to it, and while the answer is presumably the honest worker, one does wonder at the lack of nuance around indigenous rights and anti-racist struggles. Still, it’s flying the flag for a progressive agenda, and for the power of the unions to affect our lives in a positive way (which they have historically done and continue to do in many cases), especially against the organising of fascists and their sympathisers, a theme that sadly has not aged.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

The Proud Valley (1940)
Director Pen Tennyson; Writers Fredda Brilliant, Louis Golding, Herbert Marshall; Cinematographers Glen MacWilliams and Roy Kellino; Starring Paul Robeson, Edward Chapman, Simon Lack, Rachel Thomas; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Thursday 19 November 2020.

Native Land (1942)
Directors Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand; Writers Hurwitz and Ben Maddow; Cinematographer Strand; Starring Paul Robeson; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 22 November 2020.

Criterion Sunday 371: Body and Soul (1925) and Borderline (1930)

Paul Robeson’s career is of course fascinating, and well worth reading up on, and while his appearance in the stage production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones predates Body and Soul (he had previously gained some success on stage, primarily in musical theatre, in the early-20s), the film of that play wasn’t to be made until the sound era. Instead our first glimpse of Robeson on screen was to be this film by pre-eminent and pioneering Black American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who five years earlier had made the fascinating (and superior) retort to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in Within Our Gates. Between Micheaux’s filmmaking — which sadly has been ravaged by the censors and survives only in this shorter cut — and Robeson’s magnetic screen presence, this is a fine film made for a Black audience, which very much implicates the role of the church through Robeson’s turn as a devious preacher Reverend Jenkins, who drinks heavily, steals money and commits rape (portrayed subtly but no less clearly) without raising concerns from his adulatory congregation. The film ends with a twist and the reveal of a dual role for Robeson, which stretches credulity somewhat, but this kind of ending is hardly unusual for the period or indeed for American cinema. The Criterion release includes a brilliant jazzy score by Wycliffe Gordon which only adds to the film’s depth, making it a highlight of the silent era.

Five years later and Borderline really feels like a one-of-a-kind film, nominally a Swiss production by a British crew, and a strange experiment in form that plays with all kinds of themes. These range from the racism and hypocrisy of a small town, a man called Thorne (Gavin Arthur) whose marriage is falling apart due to his affair with Adah, a Black woman (Eslanda Robeson) who’s married to Paul Robeson’s character Pete, not to mention what seems like a gay subtext with some of the women we see (one of whom is played by the excellently pseudonymous Helga Doom). Any of these themes individually would probably make the film interesting, but it’s the boldly experimental style that makes it so watchable, cutting across the various characters in an almost free-associative way. The score for the restoration is provided by Courtney Pine, and is jazzy and propulsive when it needs to be and I think elevates the film even further. A strange, singular late-silent period work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Body and Soul (1925) [classification PG]
Director/Writer Oscar Micheaux (based on his novel); Cinematographer [unknown]; Starring Paul Robeson, Julia Theresa Russell, Mercedes Gilbert; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Wednesday 11 November 2020.

Borderline (1930) [classification 12]
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Kenneth Macpherson; Starring Paul Robeson, Eslanda Robeson, Gavin Arthur, Hilda Doolittle [as “Helga Doom”]; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Saturday 14 November 2020.