The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. There aren’t too many animated films in there, because I don’t go to so many of those anymore, which it turns out is fine because Disney is barely making an effort to get them into cinemas, so most need to be watched via their streaming service. Hence this one, which I gave a shot to because it seemed to come from a more interesting perspective than fairytale princesses, and it is indeed very lovely.
It’s somewhat sad to me that Pixar films are so rarely nowadays shown in cinemas, because the attention to detail in the design and the animation that shows in films like this, or the previous year’s Soul, deserve the big screen but instead we have to subscribe to Disney+, which somehow lessens them. It also leads to factoids like it being the biggest money loser for a cinematic release (even though I’m fairly certain it was barely placed in any cinemas worldwide).
However, Turning Red still strikes me as one of the better recent crop of animated films, which both tells a discernable story from a specific perspective (a young girl from a Chinese background growing up in Toronto, voiced by Rosalie Chiang), but makes it both metaphorically rich and also cartoonishly cute at the same time. A lot of elements feel familiar from any coming of age/high school American movie, with its cliques of friends and confected schoolyard drama, but there’s a real strength to its focus on the setting, the details of the family temple such that even the supernatural plot twist (and I think the posters and marketing make it fairly clear that a large anthropomorphic red panda is involved) feels grounded in an authentic expression of familial ties and Chinese-Canadian culture.
Director Domee Shi 石之予; Writers Julia Cho, Shi and Sarah Streicher; Cinematographers Mahyar Abousaeedi and Jonathan Pytko; Starring Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh 오미주, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ava Morse, James Hong 吳漢章; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, 2 July 2022.
The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. This big historical action epic comes from the very dependable Gina Prince-Bythewood, one of the better directors working in Hollywood, and it’s a powerful evocation of an era not much seen on screen.
Just to kick things off: I really enjoyed this movie, especially as a big screen cinematic experience. It has an old-fashioned sense of an historical epic, albeit about a little corner of African history that isn’t often represented on-screen (primarily because it doesn’t revolve around white heroes or saviours, and surely the time for patriotic stories of European conquests over tribal peoples has long since passed). But it’s curious that this African story is written by two white women; given the other talent involved I don’t think that meaningfully invalidates any positive representation the film can provide, but it might give a hint as to the way in which the film tends towards a platitudinous Hollywood liberal sense of injustice being righted, as Viola Davis leads her Agojie (the so-called “Dahomey Amazons”) as a righteous force dedicated to eradicating slavery.
Clearly there are experts in this history — of which I am not one, nor are many of the online commentators peddling the criticisms to be fair — who acknowledge that the situation was more complicated than it’s portrayed here. Just my cursory awareness of our modern online world leads me to the understanding that it’s perfectly possible for groups of women to come together to actively promote and defend patriarchal systems of oppression, fascism and hate speech. The film doesn’t deny that the Dahomeys were just as involved in slavery as their enemies, the Oyo Empire. So the feel-good roles of Davis as Nanisca, her second-in-command Izogie (the brilliant Lashana Lynch) and young recruit Nawi (an impressive Thuso Mbedu) may not quite reflect real history, but that’s fine by me because this is primarily a film and an entertainment that hopefully leads people to learn more about this historical time and context.
However, whatever your caveats, it’s undeniably a well put-together epic with the appropriate levels of heart-tugging sentiment and brutal warfare action scenes. Gina Prince-Bythewood has come a long way from Love & Basketball and that sweetly saccharine film The Secret Life of Bees with one of the Fannings in it. She made the fantastic Beyond the Lights and her recent foray into action with The Old Guard was the rare superhero film I actively enjoyed, and so she is not short of directing skill, nor is her team lacking in their ability to both capture the location and people (cinematographer Polly Morgan), or the nuances of the acting — and this in particular seems like quite a departure in the type of role Viola Davis is usually seen in, and she surely deserves some awards love for it. There may be all kinds of ways to criticise it, but I admire any film that tries to tell a bit of history we’ve not seen played out before.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood; Writers Dana Stevens and Maria Bello; Cinematographer Polly Morgan; Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 3 November 2022.
Every successive behind-the-scenes politics documentary I’ve seen, I’m prompted to new questions about ‘what did the filmmakers get access to and what did they not?’ Partially that’s just an increasing awareness of the media landscape and the possibility of spin that every new generation has about politics, but I think you can start to see things shift with this documentary. Not in the sense that they are baring all — there is plenty of very interesting stuff here — but in the sense that they are very aware of how stories are made and how much access to give to camera crews. Given that it was never going to be released at the time of the actual election, they were probably more comfortable letting them into the so-called ‘war room’ but, even so, certain key figures don’t appear (like the campaign manager, or indeed very much of one William Jefferson Clinton). In a sense that’s what our leading figures (James Carville and George Stephanopoulos) were there for, to react to stories and spin them mercilessly in order to favour Governor Clinton, and that’s what a lot of the discussion is about. I’m not sure there was ever a ‘golden’ period of guileless political campaigning, but if there ever were it certainly wasn’t 1992. So there’s a fascination to watching this all unfold, but even with that wariness about what might not be being shown, you still get a lot of those key conversations around the major events, along with hints of behind-the-scenes dramas like that between Carville and Bush’s deputy campaign manager (whom he married the following year), or even with the other candidates, whether in the primaries or in the main election (Ross Perot, anyone?). It all makes for an interesting insight into modern politicking, which even now feels a bit quaint.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker; Cinematographers Pennebaker and Nick Doob; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 30 December 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, May 1998).
There’s probably a lot of reasons that people (in 2014) feel a bit conflicted towards Lena Dunham and her work. She grew up in New York City, the daughter of an artist (Laurie Simmons, who appears here as her mother Siri, a photographer of miniature furniture — hence the film’s title). She went to a liberal arts college in Ohio, as indeed does her character in this film, Aura. She first found prominence making videos which she posted on YouTube, and we see that Aura has done something similar here (while deriving a small amount of giddy validation in that a guy she’s met at a party is also internet-famous in this niche way). Indeed, strands of fiction and autobiography weave through her work, both here and in her HBO television series Girls. So it’s no wonder that some people have it in for her. For myself, I really enjoy her deadpan comic style, which eases over all too imperceptibly into a bleak commentary on growing up in such a mediated world. If at times her characters exhibit unhealthy levels of neuroses (albeit not far removed from the kind exhibited by certain other famous New York filmmakers), there’s also a pretty self-aware and critical assessment of herself and her life, as Aura throws tantrums and bemoans her ennui, even as her entitled British friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke) drags her along to any number of parties and social gatherings. In the way of early-20-something existence, nothing really seems to resolve itself, but the way it’s depicted has the ring of truthfulness to it, even if filtered through a rather rarefied lifestyle and background.
(Written on 16 December 2014; I wonder how much of the media landscape will have changed by the time this gets posted.)
- The main extra is her debut feature Creative Nonfiction (2009), and although it runs at just under an hour in length, this definitely sets up a lot of what would become classic Lena Dunham content: introspective, messy, open to exposing herself both emotionally and physically. It’s clearly made under the influence of the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movement, which by the late 2000s was fairly well developed as a community of filmmakers, though it’s also evidently made under the influence of no money at all, and just shooting on the fly for a student project, so that it’s watchable at all is to its credit. Still, as you might expect, it feels fairly half-formed and amateurish, albeit to my mind in a good, enjoyable way (though clearly not to everyone).
- There are four of her short films included, starting with her very first, 2006’s Pressure, which has, as you might expect, a sort of sketch comedy set-up as well as a fairly lowkey presentation: three young women sitting on the floor of their college library, doing some study and talking. It manages to link academic pressure to orgasm, and ends with a bit of a punchline, but for the most part it’s observational.
- Another short film in which Dunham explores the limits of her own need for attention is The Fountain (2007), in a sort of tripartite structure of exhibitionism in a campus fountain: first she strips off and takes a dip, then she confronts a security guard, then she reflects on the experience and what it says about her. I think you can sort of see the seeds of where she would go with Girls in later years.
- A third short film is Hooker on Campus (2007), and I suppose it would be foolish to assume some deep understanding of sex work, as this basically comes across like a skit about her pretending to be offering sex to students at her very homogeneous middle-class campus. Again Dunham is playing with a sense of her own desperation to please, and get attention.
- Finally there’s Open the Door (2007). I think there are interesting ways in which this very minimalist short film — a single shot of the camera entryphone to Dunham’s building — could be construed as a self-criticism of her own entitlement and petulant childishness, but you also have to witness Dunham being petulant and childish, and that can be difficult.
- These early student works are accompanied by an interview in which Dunham talks about her inspirations and her creative process, and some of the scepticism greeting her from her teachers (looks like very low-budget porn, suggested one). She still has the habit of saying things that take you aback, but that’s her way I suppose.
- There’s also a short interview with Paul Schrader, who talks about enjoying Tiny Furniture, and touches on some comparisons which in retrospect don’t perhaps hold up so well (James Franco, anyone?).
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lena Dunham; Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Jemima Kirke; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 15 December 2014.
I’m rounding up my favourite films of the year before I get to a list, and the first thing to acknowledge is that this isn’t actually a film. It’s presented as a three-part television special on Netflix. But the chapters are wildly different in length and the total running time puts it firmly in feature film territory. It’s a choice to present it this way, of course, but I watched it all in one sitting and it works perfectly fine that way.
This is an odd way to present what is essentially a feature-length documentary, as three sort-of-half hour episodes in a ‘limited series’. I wonder if that’s just to give more space between them, because although they are all part of a continuous narrative arc, there’s a feeling of chapters which I suppose plays into the way that Naomi Osaka’s (at this point, still fairly short) professional life has panned out, and also the interruption that the pandemic has had not just on sport but on society. Osaka is a reflective interview subject (though her primary interview for the film is presented as a voiceover), perhaps not profoundly deep but why should one expect that from an athlete of her age, but still more reflective than many who are thrust into the limelight in their teens and early twenties. And of course in the hands of Garrett Bradley, who made my favourite film of last year (Time) — at least I think it was last year (time, eh) — there’s an assured sense of how the film constructs its subject, and plenty of empathy. It made me fascinated by her, by her life and career, of what she’s achieved, of what she struggles with and and by the possibility yet to come.
Director Garrett Bradley; Cinematographer Jon Nelson; Length 111 minutes (in three episodes).
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 20 July 2021.
It’s that time of the year, the time of the year for the extremely bad (but hopefully still fun to watch) seasonal films on just about every channel you care to look on, and as usual Netflix has stepped up to the plate with a bunch of releases. I had hoped to bring you that seasonal treat Spencer for this special day, but inexplicably that hasn’t been released here in NZ yet, so you’ll have to make do with this very bad — but nevertheless compulsively watchable (if only for the car crash of Elwes’s Scottish accent) — film.
The director Mary Lambert is best known for directing horror movies (most famously 1989’s Pet Sematary), and I’d really like to put the knife in and say this is in the same genre, but honestly there is stuff I liked here. It is formulaic in the extreme, and don’t even get me started on Cary Elwes’s Scottish accent (okay maybe do, because it is very bad, just constantly, almost every scene perceptibly worse than the last one), and there are many holes in the plot. The script, in short, is messy. There’s a slightly evil couple who show up at one point in the middle of the film, and you go, “Ah… her ex! Or some nefarious English buyers for the castle. The stakes have just been raised!” but it swerves and you never see them again. The stakes therefore never get raised, and remain firmly at the level of the relationship between Brooke Shields’ American romance writer and Elwes as a Scottish duke fallen on hard times (or hard-ish, well maybe not hard at all really in the grand scheme of things, but hard by the standards of Christmas-themed romance movies). It really is a mess, and the music is mostly pretty bad and makes it seem like it really wanted to be an Irish-set movie (though most of the actors are English, so maybe they should have just sticked to there, as England has castles too). But, for all that, it retains a sort of kitschy charm.
Director Mary Lambert; Writers Ally Carter and Kim Beyer-Johnson; Cinematographer Michael Coulter; Starring Brooke Shields, Cary Elwes, Lee Ross, Andi Osho; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 12 December 2021.
Jane Campion’s latest directorial effort, her first feature film since 2009’s Bright Star, was the opening film of the New Zealand International Film Festival but it gained a cinematic release while the festival was underway so I went to see it just afterwards. It’s a film that doesn’t reveal its hand until fairly late in the piece, a classic slow burn story, and even by the end there’s still plenty of mystery to the characters, but that makes it all the more compelling in my opinion.
I am aware that this film isn’t for everyone, and honestly I approach this as someone who is not a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as an actor or of Campion’s work this past decade (chiefly on Top of the Lake, though I adore all of her feature films). That said I feel there’s enough here that’s resonant and special, especially within the context of modern film production and certainly among films commissioned by Netflix. This is mostly a film of atmosphere and setting — narratively Montana, but it’s filmed in New Zealand, and I think that’s going to be fairly clear to anyone who’s from either of those places. It’s essentially a two-hander between Cumberbatch’s grizzled older rancher Phil and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, the son of Kirsten’s Dunst’s Rose (who marries Phil’s brother George, played by a doughy-cheeked Jesse Plemons).
There’s a subtle but unavoidable underlying homoerotic tension throughout the film — which mostly comes out within the screenplay as talk about Phil’s now-departed mentor Bronco Harry, but is also clear in some of the loving close-ups that really I can’t explain here but are evident when you see the film — and I think it starts to become clear that Phil has a lot of the same background as Peter. Indeed, he is in a sense a version of the latter, albeit one who has actively remoulded himself to meet the expectations of his era, of his surroundings and of his peers into a more ‘manly’ man. Some of the dramatic moves don’t quite work to my mind — especially the way in which Phil and Peter at one point start to become friendly — but there’s an underlying power to their scenes that has almost a classical tragic resonance as the power balance between the two starts to shift throughout the film. And while nothing much outwardly seems to happen, it’s clear that this subtly sketched yet evident mental struggle between the older and younger men starts to consume both their lives.
Director/Writer Jane Campion (based on the novel by Thomas Savage); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Thomasin McKenzie; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 25 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Friday 24 December 2021.
I’ve seen a range of different documentaries at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, and if this one fits into the rather more didactic end (which makes sense as a film best intended for public television), it’s no less interesting for that. Any documentary is going to succeed on the interest generated by its subject, and the Black American dance pioneer Alvin Ailey certainly is one such figure.
Not every film I go to see is moving or memorable because of its formal sophistication. This is a fairly straightforward documentary in that respect, blending people talking with archival footage, but the story it tells remains fascinating, being that of African-American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, who founded his own school of dance (which is still going as we see them rehearse a piece for its 60th anniversary) and toured the world. Part of what I like, though, especially watching the old footage — part of what moves me — is just the form: there is nothing like dance and ballet that seems quite as much like magic to me. How the dancers can put their bodies into the form that they do for such a long time, so gracefully and seemingly without effort (though clearly it is a punishing endeavour), it’s remarkable when it’s done well and clearly here it’s done very well. So just to learn about Ailey’s life and work is moving enough, just to see extended footage of him and his company at work, and makes the film (which seems to have been made for TV and would fit that format perfectly well) a worthwhile one for anyone keen to learn about 20th century art.
Director Jamila Wignot; Cinematographer Naiti Gámez; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.
I’ve reviewed documentaries of every type seen so far during Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, but this one breaks the mould a little bit by incorporating fictional restaged elements. It’s all very cannily done by a seasoned documentarian, but it’s a beautiful film that deserves a wider audience.
This film starts out with the feel of a documentary about a chef in NYC but then slips between various time periods in the childhood and early-20s of the same man growing up in small town Mexico. The struggles he has with same-sex attraction and holding down a relationship under the judgemental eyes of his family and those in the community around him have a certain familiarity, but are handled very beautifully here. Part of that is from the way the film surprisingly blends fictional narrative and documentary, becoming evident later in the film, and which deepens the richness of the 80s and 90s-set sections. It all makes sense as a move on the part of a long-time documentary filmmaker, and it certainly makes me intrigued to see more of what she produces, as this film has a very polished, gracious and beautifully shot sense of atmospherics with a slight touch of Malick at times.
Director Heidi Ewing; Writers Ewing and Alan Page Arriaga; Cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez; Starring Armando Espitia, Christian Vázquez; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Monday 8 November 2021.
Moving into the second week of Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month, I went to another fairly commercial film that I hope will be back here on big screens, though it’s already been released in most of the rest of the world. It’s a jolly American indie film with a single setting and that makes the most of its expressive actors.
The lead character Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is a mess, as a lot of people still at university in their early-20s tend to be, but this is exacerbated by the pressure and anxieties of being at a shiva (a mourning gathering) with her extended family and some strained former friends and lovers. In certain ways — the intense anxiety the film captures, by sticking to a lot of close-ups, moving through tight spaces with the threat of elderly relatives jumping out at any moment like a horror film, but most of all from the scraping dissonant score — this reminded me of Uncut Gems, but unlike that film, the cushion of family and the setting means there’s no real sense of physical danger as there is there. Still, there’s very much a sense of things unravelling at every turn, so the fact that it wrings plenty of laughs and humour from this situation is testament to the writing and the performances, from familiar stalwarts like Fred Melamed or the younger newcomers (I definitely want to see more of the actor who plays Maya, Molly Gordon). The characters might be confused and messy, but the film feels carefully controlled.
Director/Writer Emma Seligman (based on her own 2018 short film); Cinematographer Maria Rusche; Starring Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Polly Draper; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 11 November 2021.