Criterion Sunday 609: ¡Alambrista! (aka The Ilegal, 1977)

For all that this is from a different era of filmmaking — when earnest, socially engaged white men made films about the immigrant and Black experience (the director of this film was also writer and cinematographer for the excellent 1964 Nothing But a Man) — this also feels like a prescient film, and a contemporary one too. It’s about a young Mexican man who goes to America to get work to help feed his family, and there becomes entangled with forces intent on preventing him from working, cops and traffickers (including a memorable small role for Ned Beatty) and such. It’s a film that without making any grand speeches, eloquently lays bare the way that migrant workers (who may have illegally entered but are so clearly necessary for many industries) are treated and the lack of rights afforded to them. At some point, these kinds of stories became less trendy to depict, perhaps, and nowadays the creative talent behind the cameras would likely have the personal experiences of those on screen, but this is a fantastic bit of engaged 1970s filmmaking that deserves a wider audience. It must surely be one of the more overlooked standalone Criterion titles.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert M. Young; Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz and Young; Starring Domingo Ambriz, Trinidad Silva, Linda Gillen, Ned Beatty; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 21 January 2023.

Spencer (2021)

Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here). This isn’t the only film on my list to have been comprehensively talked out already. You don’t need another review of it, you got everything you needed about a year ago. But it wasn’t released in NZ until into 2022, and despite all my many reservations, I really enjoyed it. Not because of any fondness for its subject, but because of the way it was done, the atmosphere it evoked. So here we go, another review.


This film is a whole vibe, and either you get with it or you don’t, I somewhat suspect. I did, but I can understand people who go the other way. In terms of its felicity to ‘real life’, well I think that’s a fraught question at least; I’ve seen some people marvel at the accuracy of Kristen Stewart’s performance. I’m not enough of a devoted royal watcher to really know how much she captured Diana, but I don’t really see her specifically in Stewart’s portrayal. But this is as much a story about a woman in a particular situation, imagining how it might go down; it’s a fable and a fantasy, it’s shot in a hazy, gauzy, pastel-hued way yet somehow also manages to channel gothic horror. But Stewart’s Diana is trapped from the start, a doomed woman, even if around her the royal family seem nothing so much as zombies, not least Charles (Jack Farthing) and Her Majesty, who have the deadest of eyes. So she only has her head to delve further into; she gets visions of Anne Boleyn and increasingly dissociative fragments of an alternate reality, which we know is not her own because she’s giddy and happy, moving down endless corridors like Kubrick’s The Shining, cautiously at first perhaps, but with an increasing abandon as the film progresses. Against my best instincts — because I really do not like or want to hear about the British royal family — it manages to be a beautiful film, and an excellent performance as ever by Stewart who goes in fully and bodily to the whole thing. Whether it captures Diana per se, I can’t say, but it captures something fleeting, somehow both archly camp and deeply felt, about an impossible life.

Spencer (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Pablo Larraín; Writer Steven Knight; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 6 February 2022.

Benediction (2021)

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.

Benediction (2021) posterCREDITS
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.

Catherine Called Birdy (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).

Catherine Called Birdy (2022) posterCREDITS
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.

Aftersun (2022)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a non-Criterion Collection review, but as 2022 is done and dusted (well, the year, not my viewing of films from that year, which will undoubtedly stretch out for years to come), it seems like a fitting theme for my first few posts of this year would be to cover some of my favourites from last year. This small British indie film was my favourite, until I eventually catch up with everything else. You can see my full list here though.


After a year of watching fairly unchallenging films at the cinema (sadly I missed my city’s annual film festival), it’s nice to see one that properly challenges audiences. Which is, I suppose, one way of saying it’s slow and sad — and thus probably not for everyone — but I think it has depths to it, and I miss a film with depths. Texturally, it reminds me of the early work of, say, Lynne Ramsay and that’s not just because its period setting reminds me a little of Ratcatcher in its lugubrious mood (though where that film went back a few decades to the 70s, this one takes us back to the 90s). Partly too that’s the way that the evocation of the era doesn’t rely on period hairstyles and music, but rather on some far more oblique signifiers of the era like the grain of the camcorder films (though, okay, there’s also the “Macarena”).

However, the more resonant aspect of the film is that sadness that haunts its tale throughout, though is never explicitly reckoned with. There’s the feeling evoked by the dark, heavily strobing club dancefloor sequences that punctuate the narrative, the emptiness of the video framings being watched by someone looking back on this period of life, and the quiet moments in the story of a young dad and his 11-year-old daughter on holiday in Turkey that are punctured by the dad’s attempt to be upbeat and positive. (It should be said up front that the darkness isn’t anything to do with sexual abuse, so don’t go in worried about that. The relationship between these two is clearly loving and strong, in both directions.) But there are strong hints throughout of the elegiac nature of this 90s holiday, and the way it resonates in the present, such that in a sense this is a coming of age film that goes beyond the innocuous flirtations on the beach or the innocent kisses by the poolside with teenage boys, into more delicately shifting psychological territory.

I imagine it will hit a long more strongly for those who are parents, but it feels beautifully cathartic in a way that relies on the audience to make the connections and draw out the emotional threads, and that’s just a nice change of pace.

Aftersun (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Charlotte Wells; Cinematographer Gregory Oke; Starring Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 11 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 600: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama stands up even today as a pretty intense piece of work, not least because it was breaking several taboos for its time — in detailing a fairly horrific crime in scientific detail, they were making a film that wasn’t for all ages, and indeed there’s plenty of incidental details to suggest a rather troubling existence. It’s Lt Fred Manion (Ben Gazzara) who’s on trial, for the murder of his wife’s rapist, but it might as well also be Laura Manion (Lee Remick) who is too, given the extent to which she is subjected to scrutiny also (I can’t think of any movie, old or new, which has so relished repeating the word “panties” quite so many times). Of course, the focus is on James Stewart’s defence counsel, who is seen putting on a performance to try and get his client off the charge, and when put together with the rather dubious nature of the reality being deconstructed in this small Michigan courtroom (and this is one of the few films I’ve seen set on the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula of that state), it’s a compelling black-and-white drama that leaves us with no clear conclusions about who’s in the right and who is in the wrong, but it’s an essential film for fans of the courtroom drama.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Otto Preminger; Writer Wendell Mayes (based on the novel by Robert Traver); Cinematographer Sam Leavitt; Starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Arthur O’Connell; Length 161 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 24 December 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2000).

Criterion Sunday 581: Les Cousins (1959)

For his second feature film following 1958’s Le Beau Serge, Claude Chabrol takes the same leading actors and remixes them in a Parisian setting. Jean-Claude Brialy is still the affected intellectual, as Paul, this time sporting a goatee that clues us in right away that he probably listens to jazz and is pretentious, though in actuality what he listens to is Wagner, and he loves to party — plus his hobby is to collect antique guns — so he’s a whole lot more dangerous a character. And again it’s Gérard Blain who plays the provincial type, as Charles, who shows up to his cousin Paul’s swanky Parisian apartment and moves in to study law. He’s committed to the studying; Paul is, of course, not, and he tries to tempt Charles by bringing a number of women through his life; when Charles falls for Florence (Juliette Mayniel), things get competitive between them. This is a sort of twisted psychodrama in the end, a ménage à trois that none of them really seems to be aware of — or certainly not Charles — and Chabrol has a streak of nastiness running through his plotting that means none of them are going to get away with it in the end.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Chabrol; Writers Chabrol and Paul Gégauff; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Gérard Blain, Juliette Mayniel, Claude Cerval; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 20 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 580: Le Beau Serge (1958)

Claimed by some to be the first film in French nouvelle vague, I think there are enough caveats to make that debatable — Varda made her debut a few years earlier, albeit that it was barely screened at the time — and stylistically this is still only moving towards what Godard and Truffaut would do a year later with their debuts. However, in applying some of the feeling of Italian neorealism to a story of ordinary people filmed on location in a small village, there’s certainly something of that incipient film movement in Chabrol’s debut feature. It concerns François (Jean-Claude Brialy), who’s returned to the small village where he grew up after a few years of study in the metropolitan centre, to find that his titular former best friend (Gérard Blain) has become an alcoholic layabout. The film is filled with darkness in its exploration of relationships (especially with Bernadette Lafont’s teenage Marie) and homecoming, almost judgemental in the way it makes out French provincial life and with a heavy sort of cynicism in its key relationships, which can make it all a bit of a slog.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Claude Chabrol; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Gérard Blain, Michèle Méritz, Bernadette Lafont; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 18 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 570: Zazie dans le Métro (1960)

I do know that I’ve read Raymond Queneau’s 1959 novel — the man who the following year would go on to found Oulipo, a collective known for their playful experimentation with narrative form — and surely what Malle has done with this film adaptation is to translate Queneau’s inventiveness and wit, and his particular glee in coining new words (certainly something that the subtitles are keen to capture). Whether it will be to your taste is another matter, and I found the non-stop “zaniness” of the whole enterprise was a little grating to me. That’s less to do with the young girl at the heart of the film (Catherine Demongeon, who’s not nearly as abrasive as the poster image would have you believe) and more the way that Malle has put it all together, with frequent recourse to sped-up sequences playing at a manic knockabout pace, quick cuts that violate time and space and create a certain level of magic (albeit not the same kind of magic that Rivette would dabble with the following decade in Céline and Julie Go Boating), and an exhaustingly inexhaustible energy from all its leads. There’s also a underlying weirdness about the way men respond to Zazie which seems somehow inappropriate but also difficult to pin down (I suppose one could write it off as ‘of its time’, except that Malle was often of another time when it comes to young women in his films). Still, I can’t fault the energy on display, and while it may not be for me, it has its definite charms.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writers Malle and Jean-Paul Rappeneau (based on the novel by Raymond Queneau); Cinematographer Henri Raichi; Starring Catherine Demongeot, Philippe Noiret, Hubert Deschamps; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 18 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 568: Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

One of the great 1950s noir films, this fits neatly into the wave of post-atomic paranoia films that were popular at the time (many being in the science-fiction and monster movie genre), though for much of the running time you wouldn’t really suspect it was anything outside the usual kind of setup. Hard-nosed detective Mike Hammer gets caught up with a mysterious lady (Cloris Leachman in her film debut), who happens across his sporty little car late one night on the California roads. The next thing he knows, they’ve been captured, she’s tortured to death, and he’s pushed off a cliff in his beloved car and comes to in a hospital. The rest of the film is him piecing together the mystery, visiting the kinds of people and places that are largely lost now (it’s set in the Bunker Hill neighbourhood), a shady underbelly of ordinary Los Angeles and its assorted characters — like the Greek car mechanic whose catchphrase is “va va voom”, or various denizens of the city’s nightlife. Hammer’s quest is all filmed in a typical noir style, and much of the film’s denouement has been cribbed for many other famous movies over the years (it will all seem very familiar), but this is a hard-boiled detective story that still very much holds up.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Aldrich; Writer A.I. Bezzerides (based on the novel by Mickey Spillane); Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo; Starring Ralph Meeker, Wesley Addy, Maxine Cooper, Gaby Rodgers, Cloris Leachman; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wed 6 June 2001, and at a cinema, London, Wed 10 February 2010 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 8 September 2022).