S-21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge (S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, 2003)

I haven’t seen much Cambodian cinema, but most of what makes it to the West has a tendency to deal with one very limited period in the country’s history, which is the Khmer Rouge regime of the mid-20th century and its leader Pol Pot. Undoubtedly it was a dramatic and turbulent time, a defining era for the modern age and a legacy with which the country and its people are still contending. It’s certainly made up a number of prominent films from director Rithy Panh, of which this is perhaps the most straightforward.


Some subjects demand a documentary style that’s not based in audacious formalism but in quiet documentation of atrocity. Here, survivors and torturers come together at the site of one of the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prisons (and now site of a Genocide Museum) and discuss their experiences, as well as reading documents and handing around photos from the camp. In bearing witness and recounting experiences — and those who worked at the camp excuse themselves due to their teenage youth and victimisation by those higher up — there’s a clear sense of how easy it is for a people to slip into genocidal complicity. There are a lot of details of horrors, but it’s all couched in a calm reminiscence that almost heightens it all the more.

S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rithy Panh ប៉ាន់ រិទ្ធី; Cinematographers Prum Mesa and Panh; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 19 December 2016.

Die Tomorrow (2017)

There are the first hints around the world that cinemas are starting to reopen in some places, but it will surely be a long time before people are comfortable going back in any great numbers, so I suspect online releases will be the norm for a while yet, and will have renewed importance in the release calendar. At the moment, though, it’s mostly the disposable comedies (on Netflix, say) and the weird arthouse fare (mostly Mubi and BFI Player) that are getting releases, one of which is the Thai-UK co-production Krabi, 2562 this coming Friday, which I saw premiered at London Film Festival last year. Therefore my theme this week will be mainland Southeast Asian films, mostly from Thailand but with a few others from Vietnam and Cambodia too. Looking at this part of the world (also known as the Indochinese Peninsula), I’m missing Laos — the only Lao film I’ve seen was Dearest Sister, which again I’ve reviewed at the LFF already — and regrettably I’ve not yet seen a Burmese film (but I’ll have to rectify that soon).


Nobody actually dies in this film, but the framing device means its presence is constant: the suggestion being that the people we’re seeing will die the next day. It seems to have been inspired by stories in local Thai newspapers, which are recounted in intertitles, leaving us to imagine which of the headlines applies to which of the people we see, each in their own short film. Some are fairly clear (an old man sleeping uneasily, a woman hooked up to a machine) but others are more oblique. The tone throughout the six pieces varies somewhat, but underpinning it is a meditative register, and the film embraces stillness and contemplation, as in one young woman apparently thinking on the death of a colleague while heavily made up for the filming of a commercial. It’s a nice conceit, which could be a lot more morbid than it is, but instead feels like a reckoning with life.

Die Tomorrow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit นวพล ธำรงรัตนฤทธิ์; Cinematographer Niramon Ross นิรมล รอสส์; Starring Jarinporn Joonkiat จรินทร์พร จุนเกียรติ, Patcha Poonpiriya พัชชา พูนพิริยะ, Sunny Suwanmethanon ซันนี่ สุวรรณเมธานนท์; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 12 July 2019.

Criterion Sunday 318: Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952)

Nowadays this seems to rather divide the critics I follow, though this was hugely lauded on its release (at least internationally), and so I wonder if this plays differently with parents. It certainly fits into the sort of faux-rustic and hazily sentimentalised vision of traditional values that’s always played well to a certain strain of middlebrow filmgoers, at least when it’s in French (and not everything derided by the New Wave as cinéma du papa was bad, but there hasn’t been any shortage of these kinds of titles in all the years since then). Perhaps I’m just betraying some kind of inner cynicism, but this feels too calculated to be effective. The rough, rude peasantry — whether the poor couple seen right at the start who barely give a thought to the bereaved kid, the farmer family who take in Paulette (quite against their instincts), their bitter rivals in the village — all seem to exist solely to contrast with the innocence of the two children. There are also the bookended titles, further pulling this away into the realm of the cozily fabulistic, though the film’s opening minutes have a simple, vicious intensity that is never quite matched for the rest of the running time. Together the two kids make a little graveyard in a derelict mill to all the dead animals they find, starting with Paulette’s beloved dog, getting themselves into trouble with the local priest as the boy starts grabbing all the crosses he can find. I don’t mean to be too down on it, though, because there’s still plenty to commend it, particularly in terms of the expressive acting of these kids. Let’s just say this isn’t to my taste and leave it at that, because it’s certainly brought plenty of others joy.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The disc presents the alternative opening and ending for the film (all that remains in the finished film is the credits written on the pages of a book), but it explicitly has the two kids living happily, hardly peasants any more, and playing by a big pond, where the boy tells the little girl a story about children very much like them. It’s a framing that puts the horrifying context of the film safely in the past, and it’s surely to the film’s credit that they didn’t end up using these sequences.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director René Clément; Writers Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (based on the novel by François Boyer); Cinematographer Robert Juillard; Starring Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 May 2020.

Knives Out (2019)

This is very obviously neither an indie film nor exactly is it much related to “mumblecore” in any way, but rather it’s a knowing genre film that uses these familiar murder-mystery whodunit tropes to tell a somewhat sub rosa story of class and race in modern America. At some level I guess I still think of Rian Johnson as indie, perhaps because of his first film Brick (2005), though he very quickly took to rather bigger productions, which this of course is. Still, my blog my rules, so I’m putting it in this themed week.


A very polished and fun whodunit murder-mystery thriller set amongst a rich family at their stately old New England pile, which revolves ultimately around capitalism, class and immigration, though without ever really overtly digging into these topics. In fact, nothing ever feels more important than when it’s prefiguring another twist or leading to some well-crafted satirical repartee, but that’s all part of the film’s easy charm. The old man who has died mysteriously (Christopher Plummer) is a renowned author, and we discover in flashbacks — because the film starts with his dead body being discovered — that most of his extended family basically live off him, much to his increasing chagrin. Saying more about it would be to trade in spoilers, which I do not care to do, but there’s a wealth of delightful little character details, as well as some big chewy roles for the assembled hams to have a crack at (none moreso than Daniel Craig’s Sherlock-like drawling Lousianian private investigator), and some fine casting does a lot of the work, but Ana de Armas as the old man’s nursemaid turns out to be the stand-out role in the starry ensemble. It’s all intricately plotted as you might expect, and its charms are fairly surface-level, but see it in a big audience and there’s plenty to delight.

Knives Out film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rian Johnson; Cinematographer Steve Yedlin; Starring Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Lakeith Stanfield; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 1 December 2019 (and again at the Genesis, London, Sunday 8 December 2019).

Criterion Sunday 316: 乱 Ran (1985)

Twenty years on from first watching this film on (pan-and-scanned, no doubt) VHS at home, my chief memory of the film is a lot of horses rushing back and forth with primary-coloured flags — and yes there’s quite a bit of that in the film — but seeing it on the big screen seems to make a lot more sense of its human machinations. Those battle scenes do get a little repetitive by the film’s close, but the use of the coloured flags makes the engagements easier to follow, and there’s a real sense of physicality that you don’t get with massed CGI encounters of more recent films. Ran also feels like Kurosawa’s swansong (he’d do a few more, smaller-scale, films before his death a decade later), and at the very least it’s his farewell to the samurai period epic he’d become most well-known for after the break-out success of Seven Samurai (1954). The story, as is well known, follows the contours of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with an elderly warlord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) ceding control of his kingdom to his eldest child — the three here are sons — and in so doing, banishing his youngest, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). When the elder two turn on him, he’s left almost alone, except for his fool, wandering in the wilderness of the Azusa Plain, driven almost to madness by the treachery. The staging is exemplary, with some spectacular and memorable imagery, such as a scene of Hidetora staggering out of a bloodied rampart as it burns to the ground, or an opening hilltop meeting amongst all the local warlords. As the film progresses, the second son’s wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) unexpectedly comes to the fore, quickly becoming the most notable obstacle to peace in the kingdom and pushing the film to its chaotic ending (the Japanese title means “chaos”). And all along the way, Kurosawa presents images of Buddha, implacably and serenely unconcerned with what is going on in the muddy, windswept plains beneath, as they increasingly run with blood.

(Written on 18 April 2016.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 and Masato Ide 井手雅人 (based on the play King Lear by William Shakespeare); Cinematographers Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄, Masaharu Ueda 上田正治 and Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Daisuke Ryu 隆大介, Mieko Harada 原田美枝子; Length 162 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 17 April 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1997).

Global Cinema, Afghanistan: Stray Dogs (2004)

I like watching films from around the world but I thought I might start a regular feature of working rather more methodically through all the world’s countries. Perhaps in time I shall make it to smaller subdivisions, but let’s start big. I had thought I might work through them from largest to smallest, but I don’t want to put all the challenge of finding films from obscure nations at the end of this project, so I’m going more or less alphabetically, starting with Afghanistan. I’ll provide a small potted summary of (let’s face it) the Wikipedia page in each entry.


Afghanistan flagIslamic Republic of Afghanistan افغانستان
population 32.2 million | capital Kabul (4.3m) (کابل) | largest cities Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif | area 652,000 km2 | religion Islam (99.7%) | official languages Dari (دری) and Pashto (پښتو) | major ethnicities Pashtun (47%) and Tajik (27%) | currency Afghani (Af/Afs) [AFN] | internet .af

A mountainous country located on the historic Silk Road, connecting it to major trade routes. Its name historically means “land of the Pashtuns” although it has a wider modern application, and though populated since prehistoric times, politically it was established in the 18th century by the Hotak dynasty and the Durrani Empire. The British, of course, made their influence felt in the following century and fought three Anglo-Afghan Wars, with independence officially declared on 19 August 1919. It was a kingdom until a coup in 1978 installed a President as the head of a democracy. In recent times, fundamentalist Taliban forces took control in the late-1990s, but were pulled into regional conflict following the September 11 attacks, which led to the toppling of this regime and the reinstalment of democracy.

Cinema first came only to the royal court in Afghanistan and it wasn’t until 1923 that the first film was publicly screened. The first Afghan film production was in 1946, and regular production didn’t start until the late-1960s, with training from the Soviets. The Taliban cracked down on cinema upon coming to power in 1996, and film production didn’t begin again until 2002. The NZ documentary A Flickering Truth (2015) was made about the Afghan film archives, while Motley’s Law (2015) is about an American lawyer working in the country. An interesting recent film set in the 1980s is the drama/musical The Orphanage (2019).


سگ‌های ولگرد Sag-haye velgard (Stray Dogs, 2004)

In the 2000s, the Makhmalbaf family really seemed to have a stranglehold on portrayals of post-Taliban Afghanistan, and this film by Marzieh (Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s wife) joins those of her daughters Samira and Hana in depicting some of the turmoil and poverty of the country in this era. It uses neorealist tropes in a very knowing way, even using footage from Bicycle Thieves (1948) as a set-up for the denouement, as well as hooking into a venerable Iranian tradition of films using child protagonists (the girl Gol-Ghotai and the boy Zahed) as a window into a harsh and difficult world. Even a cute dog only sharpens the sense of desperation, and the two kids first try to get the girl’s mother out of jail and then try to get themselves thrown into jail with her. If it sounds tearjerking, it’s never quite played that way, as everyone is just making an effort to get on with living.

Stray Dogs film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marzieh Meshkini مرضیه مشکینی; Cinematographers Ebrahim Ghafori ابراهیم غفوری and Maysam Makhmalbaf میثم مخملباف; Starring Gol-Ghotai گل غتی, Zahed زاهد; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 24 April 2018.

The Fits (2015)

This isn’t a new film (and it took a couple of years to make it to London), but I wanted to fit it into my week of American films directed by women, as I really liked it. You can rent it on BFI Player or YouTube, and it’s well worthwhile, a really strong atmosphere piece.


At a superficial level there are similarities with the previous year’s The Falling, but this film is very much its own thing, and a striking debut at that. It deals with young women, part of their high school’s dance team, having fits, but actually that’s only one element, sort of an allegorical rendering of what we already see in lead character Toni’s story (played by the incredibly named Royalty Hightower). It’s really a film about fitting in, though initially I had yet another reading of the title, as I assumed it was about people who were just particularly into fitness (the pre-credits sequence is Toni doing sit-ups, and there’s a lot of repetition of exercise throughout). Indeed I’d say that one of the strong threads in the film is the idea that you can become good at something through repetitive practice (Toni starts out as not very good at dancing), and if sport and dance are the only things we see these kids doing at school, there’s an implication there too about their life options perhaps. What hooks me most though, the acting aside, is the filmmaking vision. The framing is very precise and there’s a minimum of shot-reverse shot sequences (several scenes have characters showing Toni something while the camera just look at her watching). I think this director has great promise, but most of all this is a compelling film about school, in an already crowded field.

The Fits film posterCREDITS
Director Anna Rose Holmer; Writers Holmer, Saela Davis and Lisa Kjerulff; Cinematographer Paul Yee; Starring Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 24 February 2017.

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

Look, nobody’s claiming this is a masterpiece. Indeed, the superspy action genre is pretty threadbare as it goes, but it generally provides fun thrills, and those are here too. It got a critical kicking, and for some reason loads of people really disliked it, but maybe I’m just a big fan of Kristen Stewart? I don’t know, but I liked this. I watched it a second time on a plane, which seems like its more natural home, so maybe it’ll do better on TV.


Well, I genuinely don’t understand what people have so taken against this film for. It’s forgettable of course, following as it does a sort of by-numbers genre playbook involving wealthy guys, fabulously complicated technology with the proviso that [whatever it is or does] can be subverted for the gain of bad guys who want to destroy the world, fast cars, jokes about fast cars driven furiously, chase sequences, stuff being blown up, and espionage intrigue involving gadgets. So far, so boilerplate. The action sequences are also all perfectly competently put together; I’ve certainly seen worse fight choreography in Marvel movies. But you’ve also got Kristen Stewart flirting with everyone and being generally brilliant fun (and funny!), sporting a great haircut, and such an array of fantastic outfits that just for that you’ve redeemed your price of admission. The other two women in the team are largely unknown (to me anyway), but I liked them, especially the dorky (but obviously still glamorous) scientist type played by Ella Balinska, and I even suspended my disbelief during the fight sequences against heavily tattooed Eurotrash heavies. What the film has, though, is a sense of fun and a cutting sense of self-deprecation about what it’s doing — plus it has sub-plots which show a basic care for other people in need, and it tips its head (very lightly) towards a more inclusive, diverse feminism — but for all that it’s still really just about Kristen Stewart looking hot and being great, and I am always here for that. This film should have been a big hit.

Charlie's Angels film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Elizabeth Banks; Cinematographer Bill Pope; Starring Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Patrick Stewart; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Tottenham Court Road, London, Tuesday 3 December 2019 (and again in-flight from Singapore to London, Friday 13 March 2020).

Two Documentaries about Progressive Politicians: Time for Ilhan (2018) and Knock Down the House (2019)

Politics is a mess these days. Quite aside from the challenges of global pandemics, it feels like there has been wave after wave of populist demagogues taking control of parliaments around the world, not least in the United States. In such fractious times, it’s good to be reminded that politics isn’t just for the scions of wealthy families to dabble in social engineering and disaster capitalism, and that at its best it’s about those with a vision and passion for the people they live with to represent those people, and to try and make positive changes to people’s lives. It’s difficult to remember a time before American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dominated the media and was a household name, but that time was two years ago in 2018; it’s fair to say by the time I watched Knock Down the House I was aware of her. However, I certainly didn’t know who Ilhan Omar was before Time for Ilhan — though she had a small amount of notoriety, at least in the state she represents now in the House of Representatives, but the film follows her before that time, when she was just competing for state congressional representation. Both of them now have international profiles, and it’s good to see women of colour in such positions, though Knock Down the House makes the point that representation should come from across gender, racial and class divides, and even if three of the four women in that documentary didn’t get elected, it’s good to see some tiny seeds of change that might move power away from the richest families.

Continue reading “Two Documentaries about Progressive Politicians: Time for Ilhan (2018) and Knock Down the House (2019)”

Down in the Delta (1998)

Last week I focused on female-directed new releases, and this week sees the (online) release of Never Rarely Sometimes Always by Eliza Hittman, a well-reviewed abortion drama from the woman who directed Beach Rats (I’ll get to that later this week). Anyway, this week I’ve decided to focus on a week of American films directed by women. I’ve done films directed by African-American women already, but I’ll kick off with the only film directed by the legendary poet and autobiographer Maya Angelou. In terms of availability, I had to order a DVD (a German one, as it happens) off eBay, but it was pretty cheap.


There’s a lot that’s odd and clunky about this film: it tells a story of a Chicago woman with drug problems who is barely fit to raise a family, rediscovering her roots in Mississippi, finding herself again and uncovering her potential to both change herself and move her own narrative towards redemption and positive change for her community. And if that sounds a little programmatic in its development then it certainly comes across that way watching the film. It’s directed (if not, crucially, written) by the author and poet Maya Angelou, though, so whatever it loses in technical efficiency, it gains a lot in feeling. This is a film, ultimately, that succeeds on the basis of its acting. However simplistic her character arc may be in some respects, Alfre Woodard is a real force and imbues it with a feeling that suggests something far deeper. There’s in general a range of acting talent all of which adds to this drama, and eventually it does get to me. However much I may try to resist, this does have its power and its own peculiar beauty.

Down in the Delta film posterCREDITS
Director Maya Angelou; Writer Myron Goble; Cinematographer William Wages; Starring Alfre Woodard, Al Freeman Jr., Esther Rolle, Mary Alice, Wesley Snipes; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 10 April 2020.