I can’t really be considered part of the cult following of Charlie Kaufman. The tone of his work just doesn’t resonate with me so much, and there’s a lot here too, in what must surely be considered his foundational work, that leaves me a little cold (though it clearly works for a lot of people). That said, like plenty of classic comedies (albeit with an ironic 90s tone), this film throws so much at the screen that plenty of it does hit, and some of it really is quite affectingly off the wall. Specifically, the way that the film utilises Cameron Diaz is very much against type, and Catherine Keener too has never been more striking (usually those two actresses would be playing these roles the other way round, you feel), but together they create an emotional bond via the mediation of the titular figure that almost erases John Cusack’s puppeteer from the film entirely. By the final third, things have been put in motion that pull the film off in all kinds of weird directions, and the constant accrual of detail makes for a rather rich and perplexing series of thematic explosions that have a cinematic pyrotechnic value at the very least, though some even achieve emotional resonance. It remains a film I still admire more than fully love, but that’s on me; it’s a singular American achievement both coming out of the 1990s and drawing a line under it for a new decade.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Spike Jonze; Writer Charlie Kaufman; Cinematographer Lance Acord; Starring John Cusack, Catherine Keener, Cameron Diaz, John Malkovich, Orson Bean; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 27 May 2000 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 29 January 2023).
Continuing my round-up of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here) and there was no shortage of opinions in either direction about Jordan Peele’s third feature, after Get Out and Us. In a sense, that’s what it was made for, so it succeeded brilliantly well, in conjuring up all kinds of conversations, not all of them particularly positive, but in the end it worked for me.
I’ve seen some fairly underwhelmed reviews of this film, but I do wonder if that’s not just from elevated expectations. The pace is somewhat lugubrious, although I do think it consistently builds tension throughout, and there’s a subplot involving Steven Yeun as a child star in a sitcom which doesn’t quite sit very comfortably with the rest of the film to my mind. However, its central premise — of a family of Black horse trainers whose history is deeply tied into filmmaking, trying to figure out a mystery happening around their homestead high out above Hollywood. There are evidently (maybe) aliens involved, possibly hiding behind a cloud, and the way this unfolds is nicely grounded in comedy, as one might expect. Its central conceit is grounded in the idea of looking, about the terrors and dangers of the image, and thus is tied pretty strongly into filmmaking, but while it never truly horrifies, it looks gorgeous and holds together nicely.
Director/Writer Jordan Peele; Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun 연상엽, Michael Wincott, Brandon Perea; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema New Mission, San Francisco, Wednesday 10 August 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. 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.
Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here) and this post falls into two themes already identified: (1) unexpected pleasures; (2) Colin Farrell as a fine actor. I would not have imagined the latter 20 years ago when he was starting out as a fairly generic pretty dude in big budget films, and the former is the case for a lot of films on my list this year. Most years, they’re unexpected because they are directors or projects unknown to me. However, this one, just about the last film I went to see in 2022, is by a director I know and have not liked the films of, plus with the general Oirishness of the enterprise (deedly-dee music, whimsical religious irreverance, and cute animal friends), I was primed to dislike it intensely. But I didn’t.
This makes for an odd note to end a year of film watching at the cinema, but it’s not a bad film by any means. I’ve often been a bit suspicious of McDonagh’s cinema, and haven’t liked most of the stuff that people have been big fans of, but this hits a very honest note in dealing with some pretty deplorable behaviour in a way that makes it clear what’s gone wrong. Colm (Brendan Gleeson) just wants to be left alone to work on his fiddle music in silence without the tiresome chatter of his buddy Padraic (Colin Farrell), a nice yet dull local cow herder; the film throws us straight into Colm’s decision, but it’s easy to take on trust how this longstanding friendship went by in a haze of stout down the local pub. The film captures their interactions, and those of the local characters, by focusing on the simmering tensions of rural life, and though it does ratchet things up a bit towards the end, it’s a commentary on people getting far too mired in their ideals to notice what it’s doing to them as people. Thus, there’s a sort of bleakness built in there — the confrontation with a person’s life and the worth they derive from it at the end — but the film works hard to ensure that it keeps us just teetering on this side of that particular abyss very ably. There’s a bleakness of course, that goes with the 1920s civil war setting, and the craggy glowering landscape, but it’s a bleakness primarily expressed by the way the characters end up, making this a sort of parable about paying attention to what matters when the world is falling apart (a parable for our times).
Director/Writer Martin McDonagh; Cinematographer Ben Davis; Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Saturday 31 December 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.
Onwards with reviews of my films of 2022 (see my full list here). I feel like a theme for this past year has been the stuff I didn’t expect to like. Paul Thomas Anderson (whose Licorice Pizza I’ve just covered) has only recently become a filmmaker I’ve started to like, but Park Chan-wook was never really high on that list either. I’ve admired his films, including 2013’s Stoker (probably the last of his I reviewed here) and The Handmaiden a few years later, but this most recent film was a surprise to me: a sinuous murder mystery, but far more taut than many of the rather shaggier and comedic efforts we’ve had recently.
At this point in the filmic world of murder mysteries, detective films, and neo-noirs with femmes fatales, there’s not a whole lot that’s new you can do, but you sure can imbue it with a masterfully orchestrated sense of enfolding narratives, a structure so intricate (but expressively evoked) that it threatens to fold in on itself, which turns out to be somehow apt but I won’t get to that here. Instead, Park Chan-wook (a filmmaker I’ve never perhaps fully appreciated) has a bag full of cinematic tricks for pulling different time strands into one another, making flashbacks one with the present and advancing a sort of woozy romance of sorts between its detective lead Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) and the mysterious Chinese woman Seo-rae (Tang Wei) who either has bad luck with her husbands or is murderously deceitful. Quite which is the case is what Hae-joon is trying to figure out, but instead he’s just falling for her it seems. I’m not sure there’s anything new to this, but it is made with a lovely sense both of place (whether foggy, snowy or beachy) and of these interlocking characters circling around one another for the film’s length.
Director Park Chan-wook 박찬욱; Writers Jeong Seo-kyeong 정서경 and Park; Cinematographer Kim Ji-yong 김지용; Starring Tang Wei 汤唯, Park Hae-il 박해일, Lee Jung-hyun 이정현; Length 139 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 4 November 2022.
Just kicking off some reviews of my films of 2022 (see my full list here) with a film that was released in January here in NZ but which made a lot of 2021 best-ofs, as well as getting quite a few brickbats thrown at it (I think for good reason). I know my mum hated it, for a start. But not me, I wanted it to keep going.
As a hangout movie with a bunch of likeable characters, a bunch of slightly odd ones, and a general vibe of positivity, I like this film a lot. Still, it’s up there with, say, Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! as a very dude-centric movie, or at least one that seems to be putting across that particular point of view, of a young man in the 1970s already starting to imagine his life as an adult. Not all the scenes are focused on him — and indeed Alana Haim probably ends up being the strongest and most interesting character in the film, and that’s certainly to the film’s credit — but you feel as if Cooper Hoffman (Philip Seymour’s son) as teen actor/grifter Gary Valentine is the perspective the film is written from, so perhaps some of what happens may be construed as a teenage fantasy. Because whatever its defenders say, it certainly is problematic in the way that the relationship plays out (specifically the age difference). It feels hard to defend, although you can see that his being still young enough to be childish in certain ways and her not quite old enough to be entirely unable to tap into the same feeling, is part of what the film is about. It just sits oddly that there is this convincing, palpable and undeniably at times sexual chemistry between the two of them. That aside (along with John Michael Higgin’s restaurateur character’s weird — pathetic and obviously offensive — racism, which doesn’t even really match much of the rest of the film’s tone), this film is still one my favourites I’ve seen this year. It conjures, in so seemingly simple a way, such a very specific vibe, of the early-70s, the hazy, grainy look of LA in the movies, the slightly grungy (and even verging on ugly) prettiness of its leads, and a picaresque narrative that is happy to take novelistic detours but never strays far from the feeling between Alana and Gary. For all its faults, which are ingrained deeply and may even be necessary to the film’s appeal, I loved it.
Director/Writer Paul Thomas Anderson; Cinematographers Michael Bauman and Anderson; Starring Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim, Bradley Cooper, Sean Penn, Benny Safdie, Tom Waits; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 27 January 2022.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder made this as a two-part mini-series of German television, hence the inordinate length. As a filmmaker, he was always reliable for turning in tightly edited works, but he made a few longer form television works that have their own rhythms and intensity. This is science-fiction, but it’s the kind that uses modernist buildings to signify a vaguely futuristic world like Alphaville (and both have roles for Eddie Constantine; a surprise to see him because the Godard film seems like an eternity away, but was actually only eight years before this film). The themes are to do with artificial intelligence, alternative realities, people who are programmed creations living without free will, and about the madness that it induces — and it’s very much more the madness that Fassbinder is interested in than in the set design of his world or in CGI effects or whatever later films might want to focus on. It meanders a bit towards the end, but it’s fascinating, a twisting, turning journey which really lands some of those twists.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Writers Fritz Müller-Scherz and Fassbinder (based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye); Cinematographers Michael Ballhaus and Ulrich Prinz; Starring Klaus Löwitsch, Mascha Rabben, Karl-Heinz Vosgerau, Barbara Valentin, Adrian Hoven; Length 212 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 23 December 2022.