The Power of the Dog (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.

The Power of the Dog (2021) posterCREDITS
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.

Criterion Sunday 473: にっぽん昆虫記 Nippon Konchuki (The Insect Woman, 1963)

I do feel like there was a lot going on in this film that I wasn’t taking in. Partly that’s just the way it tells its story, in little chunks dispersed through time, constantly shifting forward a year or so, constantly moving location, never really settling, like its central character. She is buffeted and moved around as much as Japan is over the course of the time period (from her birth in 1918 to roughly the film’s present), as Japan moves into and out of war, its economy changes, there are changes to social structures, but still this woman (and by extension women generally within society) seemed to receive fairly short shrift. I suppose another key factor is that she’s born poor and must seize whatever opportunity she can, whether prostitution or other unfulfilling labour. It’s far from a rosy picture, but it’s a Japanese one, a story of adversity and struggle for little reward.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writers Keiji Hasebe 長谷部慶次 and Imamura; Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Sachiko Hidari 左幸子, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 442: 二十四の瞳 Niju-shi no Hitomi (Twenty-Four Eyes, 1954)

It’s over two-and-a-half hours long, and it feels like a great Japanese epic of wartime defeat, humbling itself on the world stage, but yet it humanises the conflict effectively by focusing on a strongly anti-war teacher and her 12 young students, who grow up from little rascals in 1928 to fighting in the war by the end of the film. We never see any war action, but it’s all filtered through the teacher (Miss “Pebble” is her nickname for much of the film, played by Mikio Naruse’s favourite Hideko Takamine), with a strong heft of sentimentality in the musical cues — not one of those twenty-four eyes is dry at any point in the film, it sometimes seems. Still, it’s a lovely film, with wide vistas of the island they all live on, contrasted with close-ups of the children’s faces for maximum pathos. Despite it all being thickly laid on, it never feels overly manipulative: this is a story about loss and sadness, but also of people whose lives continue regardless, and about the value of life itself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Keisuke Kinoshita 木下惠介; Cinematographer Hiroshi Kusuda 楠田浩之; Starring Hideko Takamine 高峰秀子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 156 minutes.

Seen at Courthouse Cinema, London, Sunday 22 April 2018.

Criterion Sunday 422: The Last Emperor (1987)

It’s odd now to think of that era (which I suppose has never really ended, though I hope is a little more circumspect these days) when a grand multinational epic of another country could be mounted by a largely Western creative team, in English, and win all the awards. It’s certainly very strange to me watching again now, though I can’t deny the artistry that director Bernardo Bertolucci and director of photography Vittorio Storaro manage to bring together to tell the story of Puyi, the titular character.

Puyi was deposed (or forced to abdicate, somewhat in his absence, and seemingly unknown to him) in 1912, the last of the Qing dynasty, but whose story hardly ends there and Bertolucci does honour the sweep of it, cutting between scenes in 1950 China, when Puyi is being held in an internment camp after an abortive attempt to start a new empire in Manchuria, with his childhood ascending to the throne and then the strange events that followed. We see much of it from his eyes, so the real power in the court is only passingly glimpsed (we barely see his mother, or his father, the rest of his family fade into the background, and the most prominent character seems to be his English tutor, played by Peter O’Toole). This also means that key historical events in Chinese 20th century history have to be relayed by people telling him what’s going on, or helpfully rehearsing the events for the benefit of the viewer, because the little Chinese we hear (and see) isn’t translated on-screen. It would also be impossible to capture the intricacies of this period (or indeed extended Chinese history) so it necessarily takes a fairly clipped view of events, but it does give at least some time to the more contested ones, the events that one imagines various regimes would wish to forget.

Ultimately, however, if this film is about the last emperor, it also feels like the last vestige of an older style of film, sumptuous and grand but rather exoticised, an exemplar of a taste that’s been largely superseded. For all its evident weaknesses or rather old-fashioned ways, there’s still something grand that comes through clearly in the imagery and the staging, a lost art perhaps, a vanishing history like the one being depicted.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bernardo Bertolucci; Writers Mark Peploe and Bertolucci (based on the autobiography 我的前半生 From Emperor to Citizen by Puyi 溥儀); Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro; Starring John Lone 尊龙, Joan Chen 陳沖, Peter O’Toole; Length 160 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 1 May 2021 (and several decades before on VHS at home, Wellington, probably).

Criterion Sunday 411: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)

Not really sure where to start with this one, but of course it must be understood that it’s a TV series, not a movie; it’s not designed to be watched as a single unit, and indeed I watched it in five sittings over the past week and a half. That said, it feels like a full expression of director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s vision, with the carnivalesque, the nasty and bitter, the rank misogyny of desperate men, and the endless forbearance of easily discarded women.

Its setting is late-20s Berlin, and though the rise of the Nazi Party is somewhere in the background and is rarely far from the viewer’s mind (not least because the entire enterprise is sort of a state of the diseased nation piece in allegorical miniature), it’s rarely explicitly mentioned in the film. The set design drips with brown sepia tones, mostly being set in a series of slummy apartments and a bar where recently-released criminal Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) consorts with odious types like Gottfried John’s Reinhold and Frank Buchrieser’s Meck. For the first half he avers the criminal life, trying on a series of ‘respectable’ professions like selling shoelaces or hawking newspapers (albeit the Völkischer Beobachtung, the Nazi paper), until eventually he is ground down enough by fate to find himself pulled back into the work of the criminals he’s surrounded by — that much is hardly a surprise. He remains, however absurdly it may seem, attractive to women and a number of them (the actors all familiar from Fassbinder’s other films) move through his life, as we learn of the reason he was in prison in the first place, and the repeated insistence on his crime (the murder of an earlier girlfriend), makes it clear that he is not only no saint, but also that part of this world is a toxic misogyny that is normalised as part of the operation of society. That doesn’t exactly make it easy to watch, though, however much it may be clear this is Fassbinder’s point (and presumably of Döblin, the original author).

Visually, though, it’s quite something. Aside from the set design, there are many bravura pieces of filmmaking, long takes choreographing actors entering and exiting the frame almost balletically, or shots through cages and tracking around subterranean settings. It sweeps you up in this bitter, nasty world very easily and pulls you through what amounts to almost 15 hours of a descent into madness, made literal in the final epilogue episode, as all the incipient drama in Franz’s life become a whirling mess of hallucinatory drama soundtracked by fragments of music from across the canon (from Leonard Cohen and Kraftwerk to snatches of opera). It’s certainly an achievement of sorts, however little it feels like something I’d want to revisit in a hurry, and it’s worth the time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder (based on the novel by Alfred Döblin); Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Franz Buchrieser, Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla, Brigitte Mira; Length 902 minutes (in 14 episodes).

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 4 March [episodes 1-2], Friday 5 March [episodes 3-6] and Thursday 11 March [episodes 7-9], and at a friend’s home (YouTube streaming), Friday 12 March [episodes 10-12] and Sunday 14 March 2021 [episodes 13-14].

None Shall Escape (1944)

Looking back at war films I’ve seen in the last few years (a genre I’m not a huge acolyte of), I find most of the ones I’ve seen cover World War II, during which conflict cinema became a powerful propaganda tool (perhaps not for the first time, but certainly more widely than ever before). This 1944 film takes the war film genre and spins it as a speculative fiction, addressing in real time the war crimes of the Nazis and how they will come to pay for them (as, indeed, they did).


A rather extraordinary speculative fiction, made in 1943 (or at least that’s the production date on the film; it was released the following year) but set in a future where the allies have won the war and put Nazi war criminals on trial. It focuses on one character, Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), and charts his descent from schoolteacher in Poland to, well, Nazi war criminal. The trial is the framing device introducing figures from his life like the priest who tells of how in 1919 he was going to marry Marja (Marsha Hunt), a Polish woman who taught alongside him, except that World War I had changed him, and now he felt as if the Germans could yet conquer the world. Then his brother Karl takes the stand and narrates how Wilhelm returned to stay with him in Munich in 1923, but was attracted by the rising star of one A. Hitler, whose ideology continued to warp his mind in successive flashbacks to 1929 and 1933, at which point Wilhelm has his brother sent to a concentration camp (which he has somehow survived to be giving testimony), at which point we move to some pretty full-on wartime scenes of Nazi atrocities (not least the burning of books, the murder of all the Jews along with the town’s rabbi, who recites the kaddish as he dies, and then the forced prostitution of the women). The final speech of the judge is directly into camera and explicitly addressed to the UN, so this is essentially a propaganda film, but it’s one that’s fairly prescient about the way that things would be for a long time to come — and which sadly makes it still fairly contemporary now. Nazis are bad.

None Shall Escape film posterCREDITS
Director Andre DeToth; Writers Lester Cole, Alfred Neumann and Joseph Than; Cinematographer Lee Garmes; Starring Marsha Hunt, Alexander Knox, Henry Travers; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Wednesday 27 June 2018.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

One of the more overlooked biopics of recent years was about the creator of the Wonder Woman character, which was released to capitalise on the DC Comics tie-in movie, but explored very different territory. It’s a lovely evocation of an era, and of unconventional sexuality which comes under misguided public scrutiny.


I love a good love story, and this one may namecheck its Harvard professor (played by Luke Evans) in the title, the creator of the Wonder Woman character, but it’s really about the two women in his life, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) and Olive (Bella Heathcote). As a piece of filmmaking, it’s every bit as burnished and handsomely mounted as any other period biopic (Hidden Figures say), but where it excels (like that film) is the quality of the performances, particularly that of Rebecca Hall, who is fantastic as Elizabeth, moving convincingly through a range of emotional responses over the course of her character’s life, as I did while watching her and this film. Solid, humanist stuff capturing something about the power dynamics in relationships — however unconventional this one may have been.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Angela Robinson; Cinematographer Bryce Fortner; Starring Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square Studios, London, Sunday 12 November 2017.

Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

You can’t possible cover musicals without touching on the output of Doris Day, truly a luminous figure in the 1950s for Hollywood musicals. Today’s film marks rather an odd and startling entry into the genre, with some pretty dark themes. However, it has its share of big numbers, and Day carries it through easily.


Having gone to see this because I assumed “Doris Day” + “musical” would mean light and fluffy (thinking to her 1960s roles perhaps), I was rather taken aback by quite how dark this behind-the-scenes of the entertainment business story is. It’s a fictionalised version of a real story from the 1920s and 30s, of nightclub dancer Ruth Etting (Doris Day) whose career takes off as a singer and Hollywood actor thanks to some initial help from small-time gangster Marty Snyder (James Cagney), but then she finds herself stuck with him. Right from the off he’s aggressive and unpleasant, believing himself to be far more than he really is and taking violent umbrage to anyone who disputes his narcissistic idea of himself. There are these occasional quiet moments where you get the sense of his inner turmoil, but he’s never anything less than utterly vile, a nasty violent spirit of pure patriarchy at work, shaping Ruth’s career and pushing her to do things he wants (and to quit the things he doesn’t want as soon as the power starts to go her way).

Day is excellent in moving between this glamorous stage presence to a woman behind the scenes who is barely able to control anything she does and lacks the will to follow it through — being a big mainstream musical, there are times when you can see how much darker this could go though the film sort of swerves to avoid some of the narratives being set up: for example, we see her starting to drink heavily as her relationship gets worse; or there’s the fade to newspaper headlines about her sudden marriage to her manager Marty just after he basically initiates a rape to extract what he think’s he’s “owed”. Truly, there is some deeply bleak stuff in what is otherwise a handsomely staged period musical, which makes it both difficult to watch at times but also fascinating.

Love Me or Leave Me film posterCREDITS
Director Charles Vidor; Writers Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart; Cinematographer Arthur E. Arling; Starring Doris Day, James Cagney, Cameron Mitchell; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Wednesday 24 July 2019.

Films by Warwick Thornton

In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.

Continue reading “Films by Warwick Thornton”

사랑방 손님과 어머니 Sarangbang Sonnimgwa Eomeoni (My Mother and Her Guest aka The Houseguest and My Mother, 1961)

I may not be an expert on Korean cinema, but this seems to me to be one of the standouts of this era of filmmaking along with Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid of the year before (which I haven’t yet seen, but which will show up on the Criterion Collection). The director and his lead actress (also his wife), Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, have their own fascinating stories quite separate from this film — they were kidnapped in 1978 by North Korea on the orders of Kim Jong-il so as to bring prestige to that country’s film industry — and this story is told in the British documentary The Lovers and the Despot (2016).


A film told largely through the eyes of a young child, Ok-hee (the ubiquitous Jeon Young-son, who appears in many of these 1960s films), who at six is bright, chatty and seemingly guileless in her attachment to her widowed mother (Choi Eun-hee) and the lodger who takes a spare room in their home (Kim Jin-kyu). Soon enough we realise that in fact she has her tricks too, and there’s a lot of humour (she can be very funny) and compassion in the way she helps to match-make her mother with the guest, contrary to societal expectations around how widows should act in Korean society of this period (it’s set in the 1920s I believe). There’s a lot of play around lying and truth-telling, there’s careful etiquette about when two unattached people can be in the same space together or seen talking, lots of avoidance of eye contact, and then at length the sweep of melodrama as the home’s maid falls pregnant to an itinerant egg-seller, and has to move out for propriety’s sake. The film never becomes harsh like some of its characters though, and there’s an underlying warmth to the story that suggests a future for the characters that is only ever hinted at.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Shin Sang-ok 신상옥; Writer Lim Hee-jae 임희재 (based on the novel by Cho Yo-sup 주요섭); Cinematographer Choe Su-yeong 최수영; Starring Choi Eun-hee 최은희, Jeon Young-son 전영선, Kim Jin-kyu 김진규; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Korean Cultural Centre, London, Thursday 20 June 2019.