Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here). Maybe I missed the gathering of the Terence Davies fans last year, but I don’t recall many people listing this on any year-end best-of lists for some reason, and that perplexes me. He’s never exactly been fashionable, but this was a really strong film, an evocation of the past and the movement from youthful impetuousness into a conservative older age, set against the backdrop of WW1 and the ensuing interwar period.
Nobody is out here making films like Terence Davies. As it opens, this comes across like a combination of archival museum video that you watch in hushed silence in a media centre before entering a memorial to a horrifying past, along with the kind of TV drama which feels boldly experimental sheerly out of budgetary necessity (such enterprises usually restricting themselves to a handful of sets in old buildings sparsely populated by actors in costumes). And yet, for all that this seems like exactly the kind of thing cinema should not be doing, I really do mean it not in a bad way — for example, Raul Ruiz’s magisterial Mysteries of Lisbon very much had that latter kind of quality, and it doesn’t even feel like cost cutting but about cutting away the pointless aggrandisements of the costume/period genres to get to something essential.
In this film, Jack Lowden is fantastic as Siegfried Sassoon, who has a tender impish charm alongside a bitter seriousness (though it’s really only the latter quality that Peter Capaldi as his older version gets to show, his youthful esprit having been thoroughly dissipated). Not being familiar with Sassoon’s story, I was somewhat surprised he lived past the First World War (I think in my head I had conflated him rather too much with Wilfred Owen), but this film captures something of the turmoil of the early-20th century, while cataloguing popular/gay culture of the period (Ivor Novello, Edith Sitwell, and quite a parade of handsome slightly bland looking chiselled youths that flit through Siegried’s life).
It’s a fascinating way to tell this story, which gives as much time for him to read a poem to himself as it does to rather more melodramatic goings on, but it’s an effective story that neither panders to its period nor to us as modern viewers, and is all the better for that.
Director/Writer Terence Davies; Cinematographer Nicola Daley; Starring Jack Lowden, Simon Russell Beale, Peter Capaldi, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Sunday 24 July 2022.
The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. So on the penultimate day of the year I caved to the clamouring voices online telling me that this was a fun film. I’m hardly resistant to popular Indian films either, but I’d hoped it might get a cinematic screening (then again, I’m in NZ, so of course not). It still works fine on the small screen but you can see it’s made for an audience.
People have been talking up this film all year, and, to be fair, it’s pretty clear why. Watching it is not three hours of your life that you’ll regret, I don’t think. Not that it necessarily does things differently from other big Indian productions I’ve seen (and technically, as an aside, this is not Bollywood but Tollywood as it’s originally in the Telugu language — not that Netflix cares one bit about that kind of fidelity, meaning I had to watch it in Hindi and you probably will too, though it’ll default to English dubbing).
But what it does as a film, it does bigger! And more! And… uh, bigger, have I mentioned that? It is undeniably a lot, and I think towards the end it becomes pretty mired down by some problematic weighting — it has a hard-on for torture like no film since that Mel Gibson one about that guy on a cross, and so I suspect its politics lean rather hard into nationalism. However, at least at the historical level of the film’s plot, we’re dealing with freedom from colonial oppression, and who can’t get behind booing a giddily awful British aristocracy, a group of feckless oppressors delighting in misery, division and bloodshed (except for Jenny; she’s nice).
So, seen as a story about getting out from under the thumb of some bad guys (who are also bad actors), this hits all the buttons and does it with the kind of bold maximalism you come to expect from this kind of production, with gleefully non-naturalistic animal fights (all CGI-rendered), explosions, and some thrilling camerawork. It passes the time quite nicely.
Director S.S. Rajamouli ఎస్. ఎస్. రాజమౌళి; Writers Rajamouli and V. Viyajendra Prasad కె. వి. విజయేంద్ర ప్రసాద్; Cinematographer K.K. Senthil Kumar కె.కె.సెంథిల్ కుమార్; Starring N.T. Rama Rao Jr. జూనియర్ ఎన్.టి.ఆర్, Ram Charan రాం చరణ్ తేజ, Ajay Devgn अजय देवगन, Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट; Length 182 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Friday 30 December 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.
The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. I recently covered Lena Dunham’s breakthrough feature film Tiny Furniture in my Criterion Sunday supplement (which led to her getting the Girls TV show), and in some ways she still struggles as an artist with growing up. Hence we get this feature in which she really throws herself into childhood, but with a middle ages twist, and it’s rather sweet really: almost brutal when it needs to be, but never really getting bogged down in the filth, at least not too much.
Lena Dunham directed (and wrote and produced) this adaptation of a young adult novel, but she isn’t in it at all, which is something worth pointing out to the sadly numerous anti-fans of hers. And though it may seem quite different from artsy studenty metropolitan lives, perhaps its mediæval setting isn’t so far removed from that spirit of creative jouissance she usually tries to cultivate. It’s certainly not far from the darker and more depressive concerns because for all its lightness of touch, quirky colour and spirited performances, there’s an underlying grimness to life itself which haunts the film. Of course the key is that for the most part the characters don’t dwell on this (perhaps because it’s something they can never escape), but it adds something grounding to what could otherwise come across as altogether too twee. There are memorable turns from all kinds of supporting actors, not least Andrew Scott (unsurprisingly) as Birdy’s father, or Paul Kaye as “Shaggy Beard” (some kind of Yorkshire nouveau riche), as well as from Bella Ramsey in the lead role who gets across her childish energy as she is thrust into an altogether more adult world (or rather, perhaps there is no such distinction; certainly there was no concept of being a teenager, and that’s part of what the film gets across well: you’re a child until you’re not).
Director/Writer Lena Dunham (based on the novel by Karen Cushman); Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Lesley Sharp, Joe Alwyn, Sophie Okonedo; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Thursday 20 October 2022.
The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. This Australian revisionist western film by an Aboriginal woman director, writer and star came out at festivals in 2021, but I caught up with it on a flight (it would fill a big screen though, and for some reason in my mind that’s where I saw it). Not a perfect movie, but it had a lot that I really liked.
I suppose that, strictly speaking, this isn’t a Western (because it’s not set in the American West, or even the West of Australia) but it shares a lot of characteristics with those kinds of frontier dramas, where (white) settlers are put in precarious situations due to their low socioeconomic status and lack of protections afforded by ‘opening up’ a country not previously inhabited by them. But as this film knows all too well, that kind of work doesn’t lead to great outcomes for indigenous populations, and while it’s based on a classic 19th century Australian short story, it’s also very keen (being written and directed by an Aboriginal woman director) to strike out in a new direction that can acknowledge the complicated history and stories being interwoven here. Which is all by way of making it sound pretty dull and well-meaning, when actually this has a lot of the striking widescreen compositions and tense drama that the best of the Western genre brings, plus some excellent lead performances from the director herself in the title role, plus Sam Reid as a well-educated indigenous man who come across her cabin and who she tries to help. By the end I felt invested in the story, even if not every element worked so well for me (the music had a tendency to push a little hard at times).
Director/Writer Leah Purcell; Cinematographer Mark Wareham; Starring Leah Purcell, Rob Collins, Sam Reid; Length 104 minutes.
Seen in flight from Auckland to Nouméa, Saturday 8 October 2022.
I listed my favourite films of 2022 here but I’m trying to post fuller reviews of them as well. One that was again a 2021 favourite was one that showed up on streaming probably some time early in 2022 (maybe the year before, I don’t know; streaming seems so vague in terms of release dates), so I only caught up belatedly though in truth I was hoping for some cinema screenings. Fat chance I guess. Maybe one day in a retrospective, or if some enterprising soul does a season of mediaeval-set movies.
I think it’s fair to say that this film has divided opinion — although we are now fairly far from its release, and therefore hopefully people are able to come to it without preconceptions now. Presumably, though, that’s partly due to the way it endeavours to film a 14th century chivalric romance. After all, the way that such texts were written doesn’t much fit with the modern conception of psychological motivations and naturalism, and I think trying to find a way to visualise a story told in a different mode has guided many of the choices here. As one example, text frequently shows up on screen, giving the whole an episodic feel, as our hero Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) tries to make sense of, well frankly, his whole life.
There is throughout an undertow of inevitable death which probably fits pretty well with the period, especially for a (wannabe) knight such as him, who must face all kinds of dangers, and in the final reckoning his quest is as much a question of morality, of doing good and being virtuous and finding where that line lies. It’s also very interesting the way that the finality of death is not presented as the end of life; beheaded characters walk away with their heads, a vision of a skeleton gains flesh and vice versa, those who are dead also converse with the living — and presumably that is led by the storytelling tradition.
In all, I think the film effectively preserves the mystery of life and death and puts across a compelling alternative vision of storytelling itself. However, I would one day love the chance to see this on the big screen, as I do not think that our TV was able to cope with the various shades of darkness that are employed throughout the film, and the film seems designed to look better the bigger the screen.
Director/Writer David Lowery (based on the anonymously authored poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo; Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Saturday 12 February 2022.
I’ve seen this before, as a feature-length film, and found it passably enjoyable, but the almost six-hour miniseries version (perhaps unsurprisingly) has a lot more depth to it, as it pulls out this character of ‘the jackal’, a terrorist in a very self-consciously revolutionary mould, whose idealism gives way to a sort of middle-age bloat (both literally and figuratively). The strength and clarity of his cause in the early part of the film, as this Venezuelan man of the world (a fantastic central performance from fellow countryman Édgar Ramírez) affects a Che-like posture in his belief in the liberation of the oppressed, is over the course of the film chipped away. The man is shown to be fallible, a little bit pathetic, never truly as ideologically pure as he believes, and prone to all kinds of peccadilloes. The violence of his cause isn’t glamorised or downplayed, and it’s pretty clear that he is — at the very least — a pawn of more powerful global actors, who pull him first this way and then that, as what seemed like hard and fast principles are won over by competing demands, new inflammatory rhetoric, and then money, luxury, younger girlfriends, an easy life. The film (and Ramírez) still allows him a certain dented nobility, but the miniseries length ensures no facet of his facade is left entirely intact, and Assayas is as ever adept at capturing his milieu and gives plenty of time to some of his most prominent missions.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Olivier Assayas; Writers Assayas, Dan Franck and Daniel Leconte; Cinematographers Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir; Starring Édgar Ramírez, Nora von Waldstätten, Christoph Bach, Alexander Scheer, Ahmad Kaabour أحمد قعبور; Length 339 minutes (in three parts).
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 22, Sunday 23 and Tuesday 25 October 2022 (and earlier in a shorter version at home, London, in the 2010s).
I’m not sure if this is his first period drama, but it’s certainly now a strand of filmmaking that Mike Leigh fairly regularly pursues, and he has a meticulous approach. I daresay some may construe it as boring — and I certainly did with Peterloo (2018) — though here his approach draws out a drama of artistic creation, which has a self-reflective aspect, especially as W.S. Gilbert (Willie, or “Schwenk” to his family) ruminates on how he will conceive his next project, while steadfastly refusing to engage with his audience. Jim Broadbent’s Gilbert is the highlight, bringing a finely tuned comic quality to a man who didn’t seem to find anything funny and certainly seems like an unpleasant person to have been around. Allan Corduner as the rather more boisterous and pleasant Arthur Sullivan, along with the rest of the cast, does sterling work, and there’s a lot of joy to be had in each of these performances. It’s the backstage work, the rehearsals and performances, the bickering and pettiness of the actors as they apply makeup and run their lines, which provides the heart of this endeavour, and I found the time flew by for much of these scenes.
I found too that Leigh was fairly successful in avoiding the rather large elephant in the room, which is to say the latent racism of the entire premise and execution of The Mikado, by focusing on the extremely shortsighted nature of the Englishmen and women who put it all together, along with a subtle critique of colonialist exoticism on the part of a cohort of people who never had any personal engagement with any of the places brought back to them in the imperial capitals (lauding questionable military heroes like Gordon of Khartoum in one scene, as well as the patriotic puffery of a young Winston Churchill in another passing reference). It also feels important that Leigh included a scene where a group of Japanese women could barely contain their confusion when presented with the ‘three little girls’ of The Mikado in person, as Gilbert tried to mine them for some expressive tips. For all that I don’t personally find a great deal to enjoy in the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, I can still appreciate some of its appeal, but this is a story of putting on a show and it really lives in the details of that shared endeavour, a shared madness and folly at too many points.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Lesley Manville, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall, Martin Savage; Length 160 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 20 August 2000 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022).
This film is, undoubtedly, full-blooded. If you have any kind of aversion to melodrama, you would be well-advised to be aware of that going in, because Visconti and his lead actor Alida Valli do not, in any way, hold back. She plays the Countess Serpieri, an Italian noblewoman in 1866 just as Italy is seeking its independence, whose cousin (Massimo Girotti) is deeply embedded in the resistance fight, but yet she dramatically, deeply, impossibly falls in love with a young Austrian officer Franz (played rather less memorably by Farley Granger, and truly the lip-synching is, as you’d expect from Italian films, very far off). The further she is sucked into passionate love for this pathetic preening jerk, the further she betrays her country and her ideals, until both are thrown explosively against one another in a final showdown that really undoes them both. The title is apt: this is a film of the senses, taking its cue (as VIsconti often does) from opera, which is where it literally begins, until the entire film is suffused with an operatic sensibility and the denouement can’t help but be bold. So if you like your films melodramatic and operatic, then this is exactly the kind of cinema you will love.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Visconti, Giorgio Bassani, Carlo Alianello, Giorgio Prosperi, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles; Cinematographers G.R. Aldo and Robert Krasker; Starring Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Massimo Girotti; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 24 July 2022.
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).