NZIFF 2021: @zola (2020)

The first film I saw at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is probably the most ‘commercial’ of the lot, though it still fits in a lot of darkness to its otherwise gaudily-toned story of… well, of Florida. It’s a setting that’s been done many times before (think Magic Mike for a start), but I can’t deny that there’s an energy to this setting that energises plenty of films, this one no less than any other.


Nobody’s really out there adapting Twitter threads and I can only applaud the ways the filmmakers here find to transfer some of that era-specific energy (Twitter, Facebook and… Tumblr all get a mention, because of course). There are bravura touches (a lot of toilet-focused exposition that’s revealing without being gross), a lot of humour (Cousin Greg!! sorry I mean Nicholas Braun, best known for his role in Succession) and the constant presence of Taylour Paige as Zola, being cool under pressure and rolling her eyes back into her head at Riley Keough’s character Stefani. Keough has played this type before but yet I didn’t recognise her; Stefani feels like a different character and a very specific one. It’s not all jolly laughs — there’s some very credible terror and some nasty men (okay those things are somewhat related) — but it is pulled through by the narrative voice and a sense of self-mythologising that’s ongoing and inherent to the narrative itself.

@zola (2021)CREDITS
Director Janicza Bravo; Writers Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris (based on the Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” by David Kushner and the original tweets by Aziah King); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.

Black Widow (2021)

I keep saying that I’m not going to any more Marvel movies, because what really am I getting from them? I certainly gave up posting reviews of them up here because they mostly just cover the same sort of arc (fun but empty, and was that bit where they destroyed most of [insert city here] really necessary?). I’m pretty sure I said no more after Avengers: Endgame, and I feel certain I’ve said it at other times too, but here I am, back in again (because, obviously, it’s directed by a woman). I’d sort of forgotten the main thing about the Black Widow character from that final film of so-called ‘Stage Three’ of the MCU (avert yr eyes, but if you care you know already: she dies), but this is a prequel and it largely eschews the other big stars of the franchise, so we get a fairly standalone film, which is I think the best thing about it. So yes, let’s get back into it.


At a certain level this is more of the usual Marvel sound and fury. Beforehand, I went to the Wikipedia page intending to spoiler myself just for fun but realised that I genuinely didn’t care about any of the characters at that point, so if the film achieves anything it’s that by the end, I did at least feel like there was something there, something to hold onto at a character level. As someone who was introduced to Scarlett Johansson back in the 90s in films like Manny & Lo and Ghost World, there was a little flicker of what she brought to those films, though she’s had a full career, a roller-coaster ride of decisions, so in 2021 the stand-out performer is of course Florence Pugh. She may perhaps be expected to take on Scarlett’s ‘Widow’ mantle in future and if so, it’s a canny choice, because one of the few reasons I consented to return to the cinema to see yet another MCU film was the presence of Pugh (and the director, Cate Shortland, whose style in her earlier, much lower-budget psychological dramas like Somersault and Lore, at times here manages to penetrate through the studio playbook). Of course, there are also the big explosions, the silly fights (there’s a lot that’s silly, both intentional and not) and the crashing of enormous things into the ground, but you’ve got David Harbour for the comic relief (who is very good at that), and some genuinely quite sweet scenes between Pugh and Johansson as sort-of sisters rediscovering their bond. Also, secretly, maybe the whole film is actually an allegory for #FreeBritney; certainly there is a message there that touches on conservatorship, I think, and about alienating women from choices over their bodies.

Black Widow (2021)CREDITS
Director Cate Shortland; Writers Eric Pearson, Jac Shaffer and Ned Benson; Cinematographer Gabriel Beristáin; Starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz, David Harbour, Ray Winstone, O-T Fagbenle; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 10 July 2021.

First Cow (2019)

I have been holding out for this particular film since I first heard about it after it screened at the 2019 New York Film Festival. That was even before there was a pandemic, and needless to say I’m extremely glad it’s finally been screened in NZ, because it’s clearly not the most commercial of pictures. Perhaps some of the director’s previous excellent works got it that slot, or maybe it’s because there was less of a glut of Hollywood nonsense clogging up the screens, but either way I’m glad! It’s great! I saw it twice.


Director Kelly Reichardt’s style by now is pretty evolved, and there’s a gentleness to the pacing that belies some of the emotional stakes. Because at core this is a film about capitalism and exploitation even in the supposed freedom of the frontier, out west in early-19th century Oregon. It couldn’t be more different tonally (and in Academy-ratio colour rather than black-and-white) but I kept thinking of the similar backdrop to Dead Man and how differently the two films handle this land and the characters who are out here forging a life (the kind of loud-mouthed military man played by Ewen Bremner is far more cut from that generic cloth than the two leads, the kinds of people you just don’t usually see in Westerns, being quiet and humble and self-effacing). However, having the comparison in mind already meant it didn’t feel like much of a surprise when Gary Farmer showed up in a small role towards the end. At a narrative level, though, what surprised me is that this is essentially the story of the first hipster food stall in Oregon (of course I jest, it’s so much more than that) but also that suggests an underlying comedy that might easily be missed by focusing on the harsh frontier lives or the pathos of this single cow out there on a rich man’s land.

First Cow (2019)CREDITS
Director Kelly Reichardt; Writers Jonathan Raymond and Reichardt (based on Raymond’s novel The Half Life); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 30 April 2021 and Wednesday 5 May 2021.

Land (2021)

Part of getting films into cinemas after a period of closure is that there are still a number of titles that probably would have gone straight to streaming which are still getting a shot, and this feels like one of those. Still, it looks good on the big screen, whatever other shortcomings it may have.


There’s stuff in this film that feels a bit programmatic and well-trodden, and when the script does get to the emotional sharing (right at the very end) it suddenly starts to feel like too much, but that’s because the rest of the film is an exercise in restraint that is made more precise and affecting by the quality of Robin Wright, the star and director, in this role. She has retreated to the wilds of Wyoming after some unnamed tragedy, but it quickly becomes clear it has to do with a death close in her family, and pursues a solitary life to varying success, eventually settling in. This process forms the bulk of the film as time slips away unnoticed until she becomes reacquainted, in a small way, with the comfort of fellow humans (in the form of Mexican actor Demián Bichir). The way that her isolated life and his incursion is played out is very nicely done, and it feels almost like a step too far that the script feels the need to wrap it up with a little moral lesson but even that feels earned by the slow, but never boring, pacing.

Land (2021)CREDITS
Director Robin Wright; Writers Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam; Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski; Starring Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 21 May 2021.

Good on Paper (2021)

I think we all have a sense, deep within us, that when we think about a Netflix original movie, especially one that’s brand new, just out, getting all the attention, we know it’s going to be a romantic comedy. There are no shortage of romcoms on Netflix, which along with stand-up comedy sets, is one of their staples, so why not combine the two? That, I feel, is the proposition here, and as an attempt to synthesise these two key Netflix genres, it does alright.


Anyone who loves romcoms know that they can be problematic, particularly when it comes to normalising borderline-obsessive and creepy behaviour from predatory men. So I can see what this film by writer/star Iliza Schlesinger is trying to do, in refocusing instead on the lead woman, a stand-up called Andrea, who falls for a slightly dorky dude (Ryan Hansen) and then starts to discover inconsistencies in his ideal persona (at least ideal as perhaps seen by one’s parents) as a Yale-graduate hedge fund manager. Tonally, it moves from playful comedy to something much darker by the end, and though it plays effectively on Andrea’s latent pent-up anger as a stand-up comedian who’s not making the breakthroughs she’d hoped, it never pushes her character into the kinds of extremes it sometimes threatens and, for me, retains a lightly comedic undertow throughout (though I can see other viewers feel maybe the film loses this).

Good on Paper (2021)CREDITS
Director Kimmy Gatewood; Writer Iliza Schlesinger; Cinematographer Giles Dunning; Starring Iliza Schlesinger, Ryan Hansen, Margaret Cho, Rebecca Rittenhouse; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Saturday 26 June 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.

Global Cinema 29: Cambodia – First They Killed My Father (2017)

My trek around the globe now takes me to Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea), where a lot of the films which have made it to Western audiences focus on the turbulent era under Pol Pot in the 1970s. Prestige Hollywood dramas of the 1980s like The Killing Fields still define the Western understanding of the country, deepened somewhat by the films of newer auteurs like Rithy Panh. Angelina Jolie follows in this tradition with her 2017 Netflix feature film, though it certainly does showcase the country beautifully, despite the harrowing content.


Cambodian flagKingdom of Cambodia (កម្ពុជា Kămpŭchéa)
population 15,552,000 | capital Phnom Penh (2.3m) | largest cities Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (245k), Battambang (119k), Sisophon (99k), Poipet (99k) | area 181,035 km2 | religion Buddhism (97%) | official language Khmer (ភាសាខ្មែរ) | major ethnicity Khmer (97%) | currency Riel (៛) [KHR] | internet .kh

A country in the south of the Indochinese peninsula, whose name comes via French, though the Khmer name comes from Sanskrit for “country of Kamboja”, alluding to the country’s foundation myths. Evidence suggests settlement as far back as 6000 BCE, with Iron Age cultures by the 6th century BCE. The Khmer Empire grew from Indian influenced states of Funan and Chenla, established by the 9th century CE and the largest in SE Asia by the 12th century, with its capital at Angkor, the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It remained a force until the 15th century, but power in the region became divided between Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam. In the 19th century it became a protectorate of France, part of French Indochina (and briefly controlled by Japan during WW2), but the French failed to control the monarchy and it gained independence on 9 November 1953. Tension with Vietnam over control of the Mekong Delta led to Vietnam’s invasion and subsequent conflict and a coup hastened a civil war, in which the Cambodian communists (known as the Khmer Rouge) gained the upper edge, despite aggressive US bombing. Under Pol Pot, the KR modelled itself on Maoist China and led to the death of several million people, eventually toppled by a Vietnamese invasion, though formal peace didn’t come until 1991, and the monarchy was restored in 1993. There is now a constitutional monarchy, with a PM appointed by the king on the advice of an elected assembly.

Cinema didn’t begin until the 1950s, encouraged by King Sihanouk, with many films made and screened during the 1960s, until the rise of the Khmer Rouge when it virtually ceased (aside from a few propaganda films). The industry has only slowly recovered, with notable figures including the French-trained Rithy Panh, whose films focus on the KR era (and who produced the film below). Recent years have seen a rise in horror cinema, though overall the industry has stagnated and only 11 cinemas remained by 2011.


មុនដំបូងខ្មែរក្រហមសម្លាប់ប៉ារបស់ខ្ញុំ Moun dambaung Khmer Krahm samleab ba robsa khnhom (First They Killed My Father, 2017)

This is undoubtedly a very polished and well-made film. Angelina Jolie has made a number of films over the past decade or so, and has made a habit of telling less commercial stories, which I very much respect (though her masterpiece so far is By the Sea, a weird French riviera-set twisted love story starring her and Brad Pitt). This film about a young girl during the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia cleaves very closely to the girl’s point of view, including a lot of the camerawork being distinctly low angle and close to the ground. This has the benefit of avoiding the need to contextualise everything, because she herself has an imperfect understanding of the situation, but that’s also to the viewer’s detriment, because it’s unclear what exactly the issues are. Still, the young girl is a very fine actor, called on to walk through all this horrendous suffering, a witness to her country pulling itself apart — albeit somewhat prompted by the extensive covert US bombing during the Vietnam War. It manages to give a lush sense of Cambodia’s countryside at the same time as hinting at the horrors which its people endured. It may not quite reach the same heights as its producer Rithy Panh’s own films, but it’s a commendable effort all the same.

First They Killed My Father film posterCREDITS
Director Angelina Jolie; Writers Loung Ung អ៊ឹង លឿង and Jolie (based on Ung’s non-fiction book); Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheta Sveng; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 4 March 2021.

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Moving onto another quite different NZ film from the documentary I reviewed yesterday, there’s this. Roseanne Liang is a NZ-born and raised director who made an interesting debut (which I shall cover later in the week) and went on a few years later — presumably it took time to bring the project together — to make this utterly ridiculous B-movie action horror thriller, which I really enjoyed but certainly pulled down mixed reviews.


I saw the trailer for this and it seemed like something I’d definitely not want to watch. After all, I’m hardly the biggest fan of the lead actor (though she’s been in some good films), and it looked silly. Well, it is silly. It is beyond absurd. But the thing about starting from a place of absurdity is that you can pretty much do anything, and this film goes to places other films don’t, or at least not since that classic era of weird off-the-wall B-movies (the 50s? maybe the 70s). It takes its low-budget constrictions and spins them off into all kinds of things in its taut running time: an intense horror-inflected chamber psychodrama; a film about toxic masculinity in war; an emotional story of domestic abuse and motherhood; an alien film; a WW2 fighter film; the kind of action film where characters climb across the outside of a moving plane; and a bunch of other stuff, although I feel that this much is in the trailer if you’re attentive. And somehow, despite the involvement of screenwriter M*x L*nd*s (who I can only assume contributed the misogyny, though that’s one of the film’s themes, and it’s pretty clear that it’s very much set against it), it all seems to work somehow — or at least it does for me. I can imagine other people finding this just downright bad, but I think it might be some kind of masterpiece. It certainly deserves a release on one of those psychotronic video labels in maybe 50 years as an undiscovered classic.

Shadow in the Cloud film posterCREDITS
Director Roseanne Liang; Writers Max Landis and Liang; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Taylor John Smith, Nick Robinson; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at the Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 February 2021.

Finding ‘Ohana (2021)

I feel as if my themed week of Netflix has just made the case that they are good at formulaic, brightly-coloured confections, and if so today’s review won’t change that opinion. Maybe it’s true. There is some good, nuanced, interesting stuff on there too (they’ve added a bunch of Youssef Chahine films, and now some Swedish silents I gather), so who knows maybe one day it’ll be a great service for everyone. In the mean time, there’s Mubi if you like austere arthouse and Amazon if you like to support the exploitation of workers (also they have some good content of their own), so really it’s a great time for online streaming.


Unlike the Netflix film I reviewed yesterday, the Chinese movie Monster Run, which felt a bit like a kids’ film, this very much is a kids’ film. There’s little point in me complaining some of the child acting is a bit lacking in nuance (that would be absurd) or that the plotting can be silly. After all, when we get the flashbacks to the ye olde times white explorers, it’s narrated in a Drunk History style, and they’re played by Chris Parnell and Marc Evan Jackson, so clearly silliness is the point. The set design feels like a Disney theme park version of Hawai’i and the film ends up basically being an advert for the place, but that’s certainly forgivable too. These are all intentional choices and they make sense for this film. It’s a likeable, brightly-coloured reimagining of The Goonies in Hawai’i and while it’s unlikely to have that film’s enduring (cult?) appeal, it does everything it’s supposed to do and has its heart in a good place.

Finding 'Ohana film posterCREDITS
Director Jude Weng 翁菲菲; Writer Christina Strain; Cinematographer Cort Fey; Starring Kea Peahu, Alex Aiono, Lindsay Watson; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 18 February 2021.

Work It (2020)

If there’s one thing you can rely on Netflix for, it’s formulaic teen movies and romcoms, and then maybe the intersection between those. They have lots of examples, yes, I’ve seen plenty, but mostly they’re pretty likeable I find, and it’s a genre they seem able to do quite well. So here’s another teen film and another dance competition film, with a little bit of romcom to it but not too much.


It would be easy to write this film off as formulaic, because after all it is formulaic: it follows the ‘let’s form a team and beat our peers in the big finale’ and it cleaves tightly to all the rules as we understand them. Plus, being set in a high school, it folds in all the rules around teen high school movies too (all those cliques to introduce). And then there’s the team in question, which is a dance troupe, and already this film feels very mid-2010s because we’ve seen all those movies already, and clearly so have the filmmakers. But I can’t write it off, because dance movies still spark joy in me however formulaic they may be, and this one isn’t entirely witless. Sabrina Carpenter in the lead is pretty good (except at pretending to be bad at dancing), her band of high school misfits endearing in almost exactly the same way as, say, Pitch Perfect, and the love story is almost perfunctory, but I found it all very likeable and watchable, once you get past the initial wobbles (where the screenplay tries to throw in of-the-moment buzzwords like ‘being cancelled’ in a really clunky way).

Work It film posterCREDITS
Director Laura Terruso; Writer Alison Peck; Cinematographer Rogier Stoffers; Starring Sabrina Carpenter, Liza Koshy, Jordan Fisher, Keiynan Lonsdale; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 14 February 2021.