Criterion Sunday 566: Insignificance (1985)

I’m not honestly sure where the comedy is in this, except that it’s a fantasy scenario. Not unlike the more recent One Night in Miami…, it’s a theatrical production which imagines four historical figures gathering together in a single hotel room to talk over various ideas of interest to the playwright/screenwriter. None of these figures is identified by name but it’s clear who they’re supposed to represent (Marilyn, Joe DiMaggio, Einstein and Senator Joseph McCarthy), and over the course of the night various ideas are discussed. There’s some exploration of Marilyn’s inner life, of sex and hypocrisy, of the American state’s interest in foreign individuals like Einstein (even if it does see McCarthy acting more like an FBI agent), and some kind of fantasy nuclear apocalypse scenario in which Marilyn dances through the fire, the hotel room exploding like the end of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. It’s a lot to take in, and given its origin, it’s rather talky, but there’s plenty to like, plus watching Tony Curtis play McCarthy here makes me wonder how many other actors have starred in films with both the real person and someone doing an impersonation of them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicolas Roeg; Writer Terry Johnson (based on his play); Cinematographer Peter Hannan; Starring Theresa Russell, Michael Emil, Tony Curtis, Gary Busey; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 28 August 2022.

Whina (2022)

As usual, my film blog has become largely just the Criterion Sunday entries this year, so I’m going to try and post more reviews of other films, maybe some that actually make it to cinemas in this country. This one is a local production, and it’s good to see one of the co-directors/co-writers is a wāhine, one of the crop of fine women directors who gained greater exposure via Waru (2017). It’s based on the life of Dame Whina Cooper, who is probably not as well known even in Aotearoa as she used to be, but retains a fearsome reputation for her land rights activism and Māori leadership up to her death at the age of 98.


I can’t really deny that I found this affecting, so any flaws were very much ones that are inherent to any generation-spanning biopic treatment. Given the time constraints, events from Dame Whina’s life are distilled down into short scenes, often between people representing different ideas, in order to keep things moving. There’s a constant back and forth between the 1975 hīkoi (march) that she led down the length of the North Island as an 80-year-old (though she lived another 18 years after that) and events from earlier in her life, and it’s very much that younger self, played by Miriama McDowell, who makes the most impact in the narrative. I was left wanting more to flesh out her life but that would probably have needed a wider canvas (like a miniseries). What’s here though is strong, and is focused around the community in its own spaces (we see nothing of the government and the only real pākehā representative is the Catholic priest), and that’s probably the film’s greatest strength, in depicting the power of community organising and action. It’s a suitable stage for Whina too, and the best place to gauge her contribution to society (there’s one brief scene of her in a Wellington boardroom and it doesn’t go too well). The only regret I was left with is that, if this had been a very different film with a different attitude to history, she would have flicked one of her late husband’s cigarettes over her shoulder as she turned to leave the Bishop’s Auckland church, as, in slow-motion and under a thudding rock soundtrack, she burnt down his church like he did her meeting house. The line the filmmakers went with is almost as damning, but…

Whina (2022)CREDITS
Directors James Napier Robertson and Paula Whetu Jones; Writers James Lucas, Napier Robertson and Jones; Cinematographer Leon Narbey; Starring Miriama McDowell, Rena Owen, Vinnie Bennett, James Rolleston; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 9 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 549: The Last Picture Show (1971)

A classic, if not the defining, film of the sad people in a sad small town feeling sad at the fleetingness of all things and at their sad, uneventful futures in the dead end of the American Dream genre, which to be fair is a reasonably well-worn one. But I’d not seen this film before, and director Peter Bogdanovich is sensible to keep his focus on the actors and on Larry McMurtry’s script (based on his own youthful experiences I gather, and shot in the small Texas town he grew up in). All these different actors, whether new youthful faces like Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd and Timothy Bottoms (and even Randy Quaid) all hit their marks perfectly, but in a sense this is even more a film for Eileen Brennan and Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson, as the older generation who have clearly already lived the lives these teenage kids are going through and who convey an immense amount of pathos. The script is certainly on point with its metaphors, but it wouldn’t matter much were it not for the tightly controlled performances of the leads, underscored by the monochrome cinematography and crumbling small town set design.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Bogdanovich; Writers Larry McMurtry and Bogdanovich (based on McMurtry’s novel); Cinematographer Robert Surtees; Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson, Eileen Brennan; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 2 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 496: Che (2008)

The first time I saw Steven Soderbergh’s magnum opus, his enormous two-part biopic/investigation of Argentine doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s revolutionary life, I think I must have been a bit underwhelmed. In retrospect it’s probably significantly to the film’s benefit that it avoids the preachiness of most Hollywood biopics, and certainly avoids some of the moralising traps of other Soderbergh films. It’s hardly a revolutionary picture itself, though, and feels overly interested in pastiching period news footage in the scenes from NYC in 1964, with grainy black-and-white, off-centre close-up framings, nervous handheld camerawork and on-screen captions that mimic exactly the font of those old burned-in subtitles you used to see in footage. In other words, you wonder at times if it was more about the technical challenge than capturing the man, and certainly contemporaneous accounts invested a lot in the digital technology Soderbergh was using. But yet at its heart I feel as if this is quite an earnest project. Guevara isn’t the hero of the kind you see on the famous poster images, but just a man amongst many others (and women, too, as we see in the guerrilla armies he forms and leads) trying to make a positive change to a country mired in corruption, no thanks to US involvement. Soderbergh is hardly interested in digging deep into the politics, but just by focusing on Guevara, Castro and the others there’s a gentle sense of solidarity with those holding these revolutionary ideals and the dream of a future forged in training camps in the jungles and skirmishes on the streets.

Moving on a few years for the second half of this epic, it’s clearly possible to see how it works in tandem with the first part. That film presented revolutionary ideology and practice with the stylistic flash of, say, the contemporary New Wave cinemas of the era, as Guevara worked alongside his fellows in Cuba in the late-1950s, intercut with interviews and speeches at the UN in 1964. This part takes a quite different tack, going for more of a handheld observational style, using a muted colour palette that really downplays the lushness of the highland setting, as Guevara faces up to the reality of the struggle in Bolivia in 1967. If the first was a film about glory, this is a film mostly about disappointment and failure. Its episodic march of time, numbered by the days Guevara has spent in country, sees his people slowly picked off, their deaths really just captured in passing or off-screen, as the action follows increasingly bearded men messing around in the hills, trying to win over the local people and with a mounting sense of desperation. There’s nothing glorious here, but there’s a certain fascination to Che’s resolve, even as he’s battered by asthma and poor discipline from the forces he’s trying to lead. Perhaps by design, but it feels almost underwhelming after the first part, a corrective perhaps but a sad one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Che: Part One (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen (based on the non-fiction work Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria cubana [Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War] by Ernesto Guevara); Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Demián Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Julia Ormond; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 13 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).

Che: Part Two (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen; Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Franka Potente, Gastón Pauls, Lou Diamond Phillips; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 17 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).

West Side Story (2021)

The big budget Hollywood musical seems to be back in this year. Maybe the film financiers thought the world was due a bit of levity, but as far as I can tell from the box office stats, that’s not necessarily what’s been shifting the tickets. That said, I’m not a Hollywood financial analyst, nor do I care to be. We’ve already had one big bright spectacular set in New York City during the summer, which was In the Heights, and now here’s another, albeit with a slightly longer stage pedigree. Neither is perfect, but both are entirely competent at what they do, and both showcase a bright and wide talent pool drawn from Latinx musical performers (and Ansel Elgort, who is none of these things). Actually one of the standouts here is Mike Faist as Riff, a character who’s never really been the most interesting, but against the slightly damp central pairing, he and David Alvarez as Bernardo — the rival gang leaders — really do shine out.


This is a long film but it’s one that’s not short of high production values or visual inventiveness, as you’d expect from Spielberg and his team. It opens with some gliding and vertiginous camera movements around what feels like a bombsite but instead turns out to be a slum clearance to make way for the Lincoln Center, as the central groups of young men are introduced, finger-clicking their way down the street in classic style. They look foolishly young, but that’s the point of course: they are kids, somewhere on the cusp between playground fights and becoming proper hoodlums. So the baby face of Ansel Elgort isn’t really the problem, not even the absurd idea that he’s spent any time in prison. After all, this is a musical and there’s a certain expectation of stylisation and non-naturalism. A bigger problem is that he just isn’t very good, either as a singer or as an actor; he has a certain presence I suppose (he’s very tall), but against a cast of largely musical theatre kids, the lack of experience really shows. Newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria is much better, but it’s the supporting characters like Mike Faist’s Riff, David Alvarez’s Bernardo and Ariana DeBose’s Anita who really steal the limelight, not least in the big showstopper “America”, which remains the highlight of this film as of any production. Just that strength and depth of minor roles is enough to carry the film, along with the polished set design and — another nice touch — the use of extended stretches of (untranslated) Spanish for the Puerto Rican characters. It’s a different beast from the 1961 film adaptation, and it makes some excellent changes too, but that’s also such an iconic juggernaut of 20th century American culture that maybe nothing could ever be fully satisfying. Still, this does a great job all the same.

West Side Story (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Steven Spielberg; Writer Tony Kushner (based on the musical by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents); Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński; Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno; Length 156 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 19 December 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Earwig (2021)

I don’t like to focus on disappointing films when I’m doing my round-ups, but Lucile Hadžihalilović is one of the more interesting directors of the last few decades (even if her similarly controversialist husband Gaspar Noé tends to be the better known). She’s only made a handful of features, so it’s with sadness that I report I didn’t much like her newest (English-language) feature film. Still, it has all the elements of her style, so undoubtedly there will be big fans of it out there; after all, if Wes Anderson can have people hanging on his every twee set design detail, then there’s no reason why the same can’t be said for Lucile Hadžihalilović (though one suspects part of the problem is the darkness of her vision).


I’ll give it to the Lucile Hadžihalilović cinematic universe that it is at least thematically consistent. There’s a vision at work which seems to link it to her two other feature films, Evolution (2015) and Innocence (2004), filled as it is with early- to mid-20th century fustiness, chiaroscuro tonality, throbbing soundtracks and corporeal strangeness that hints at something Cronenbergian. The atmosphere, in other words, is on point and deeply evocative. There’s not even any dialogue for the first 15 minutes, and when it does enter it has the whispered resonance of thickly Belgian-accented ASMR. A girl (Romane Hemelaers) is cared for by her… father… I think, Albert (Paul Hilton). Her dentures melt and need to be refrozen and refitted each day. A strange man on the other end of the telephone wants something. And then there’s a waitress at a local bar (Romola Garai) injured in a fight with another mysterious stranger. There are elements of a story here, but they never seem to cohere in any way that feels satisfying. Perhaps that’s the point, perhaps one just needs to give into the feeling of it all, and some may well enjoy it at that level, but the whole thing just felt too opaque to really enjoy.

Earwig (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Lucile Hadžihalilović; Writers Hadžihalilović, Geoff Cox and Brian Catling; Cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg; Starring Paul Hilton, Romane Hemelaers, Romola Garai; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 476: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

I guess that at a certain level this is one of those stories of a lifetime lived over much of the 20th century meaning it gets to reflect on these different eras of American life as it goes on, but it never dwells on them like in, say, Forrest Gump. This is a film that lives in period details and its fanciful imagination, and undoubtedly David Fincher (a legendarily exacting director) brings something rigorous to the way its filmed, such that I can’t entirely take against it (a bit like Todd Haynes changing gears with Wonderstruck a few years back). But it’s very strange and not entirely successful in its whimsy and wonderment. Brad Pitt does his beautiful moping thing (eventually; it’s a long wait until we see him as the Redford-like Hollywood golden boy we know he will eventually turn into), and the fine Black actors feel somewhat relegated in a by-the-numbers southern plot, which is a shame as Taraji P. Henson and Mahershala Ali are, as we all know, capable of so much more. It’s a long work (especially for a film based on a short story) and the reverse-ageing Pitt’s love story with the normally-ageing Cate Blanchett makes for some discomfort, but there are also some genuinely emotional moments that mean this film isn’t entirely wasted. Also, it looks great of course. It’s just… odd.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Fincher; Writers Eric Roth and Robin Swicord (based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald); Cinematographer Claudio Miranda; Starring Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Maheshala Ali, Tilda Swinton; Length 165 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 6 November 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 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).

Cousins (2021)

Finishing the week of New Zealand-themed films with one that’s just been released in cinemas here, a multi-generational story written and directed by two women filmmakers, which grapples with some of NZ’s colonialist history and how it has affected several indigenous Maori women.


These kinds of generational stories of trauma, especially ones anchored in memory, feel like the kind of thing that New Zealand filmmakers have been adept at making for some time now. This example is a fine one, with each of the three title characters played by three different actors at various ages (childhood, young adulthood and then, around half a century later I would guess, as old people). The film obliquely blends stories from these three different eras, tying them together with flashbacks but also with visual cues and colours in the set and costume design, which have a poetic feeling to them, and makes up for some of the more sentimental stretches in the narrative. That said, I felt wrapped up in the emotion of the journey, which neatly ties together these strands, evoking a sense of ancestry, of the presence of death and the continuation of life that is presumably drawn from mythology as well as a shared understanding of the meaning of the land and of nature. There’s also, rather more directly, a reckoning with the racist policies of previous generations, especially with regards to orphaned children, keeping them from families deemed insufficiently civilised and placed in foster care (and the foster mother here is a bit of a monster). There’s a lot in the characters here, and in the grand sweep of the melodrama, and for the most part it held my attention well.

Cousins film posterCREDITS
Directors Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith; Writer Smith (based on the novel by Patricia Grace); Cinematographer Raymond Edwards; Starring Tanea Heke, Rachel House, Briar Grace Smith; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 5 March 2021.