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).
In my round-up of favourite films of the year I’ve not yet posted reviews of, I touched on Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground yesterday, but probably the best music documentary of the year — also dealing with music in NYC in the late-60s — was this one made by Questlove (or ?uestlove if you will), the drummer for The Roots and multi-hyphenate artist and creator. It mostly presents (grainy, video-shot) footage of a series of concerts from 1969 in Harlem, following the classic documentary formula of ‘never before seen… until now!’ Thankfully the footage has enough quality to capture the vibrant performances but also the incredible level of music, and is interspersed with interviews with those surviving participants and organisers.
This documentary clearly needs a deluxe edition box set to include all the concert footage, but what it does is still pretty great. It takes the footage unearthed of this 1969 series of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a themed summer of gigs with gospel shows, jazz shows, soul, funk and R&B, from slick Motown pop to the fuzzed-out psychedelia of Sly & the Family Stone, straight up gospel from Mahalia Jackson and the Staples Singers, blues, African rhythms, Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican sounds, Hugh Masekela on the trumpet, and finishes up with the peerless Nina Simone, all orchestrated to tell a story of a community and a people in a state of change. It links its story to recent history and civil rights of course, but also to wider cultural currents in fashion and hairstyle, revolution and self-actualisation, the celebration of African and Afro-Latinx heritage, and the powerful role of Christ and the church within all of these struggles, and does so in an accessible, glorious way using as the basis the colourful footage of the concerts themselves and interviews with surviving participants and audience members. It’s all pretty great, even when ambushed by Lin-Manuel Miranda at one point, and it needs that deluxe edition, or maybe a series of further films. It deserves it own cultural festival just to celebrate everything in here.
Director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson; Cinematographer Shawn Peters; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Saturday 11 September 2021.
Among my favourite films of the year is this music documentary contender, which is almost teasingly pitched between a conventional talking head sort of style (John Cale still has plenty of style to spare in his interviews) and something a bit more experimental, in keeping with much of the direction of the music. There are split-screen effects, an interesting narrative structure and plenty of messing around at the edges of this film. Both informative even for those fairly au fait with the Velvets’ music, but also a good primer.
If there’s something I can say about Todd Haynes it’s that he’s not likely to do something that has no visual interest, even if he’s making what is ostensibly a fairly down-the-line documentary. Indeed, one does get the standard tropes — archival footage, talking heads (though not, let’s be clear, the band Talking Heads), and a largely chronological order. But nothing’s is quite so straightforward, so we often get these things intertwined or superimposed. Artfully shot interviews match the Warhol screen test footage of each of the band members, audio snippets, contextualisation from other artists, and of course a densely rich soundtrack all add up to a pretty great portrait of not just the band but also the culture ferment that produced them — and Cale, being the most alive and most eloquent of the band, leads a lot of that early material (and seems like one of the most interesting characters, both personally and musically, in much of this artistic scene anyway). I was surprised to discover that La Monte Young is still around, as an aside, but it’s nice to see Moe Tucker and hear from other collaborators of them, as well as those strongly influenced by their sound as well (of which there is hardly any shortage).
Director Todd Haynes; Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Apple TV+ streaming), Wellington, Saturday 30 October 2021.
I don’t know that I can say that this new film from Wes Anderson in any way grapples with the contemporary position of journalism, but I’m not sure that many would expect it to. In a year in which the Nobel Peace Prize went to a pair of journalists doing work in the most difficult circumstances, this film instead looks back fondly to a time (well, various times during the mid-20th century it seems) of what can best be described as gentleman journalism. There are outsiders, criminals and revolutionaries, but no real sense of peril or expectation of change. I can easily imagine a way to damn the film for this, but I chose in this case to go with it, making this a pleasant divertissement.
Everyone now must have a pretty good idea about whether they’re a Wes Anderson person or not. If you find his style in any way irritating, or his subjects just a little bit too affectedly pretentious, then you’ll probably run screaming from this. I thought I was done with him — as with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (albeit for different reasons) — but I ventured along and… it was quite likeable. Of course it has all his hallmarks. Right from the start you can see that it’s a love letter to The New Yorker as well as to Europe. I’d say to France, but I do wonder how the French would take it, as it’s just so doggedly adherent to so many stereotypes of French people that I imagine it would seem vaguely absurd and perhaps offensive. You can also tell it was written by a bunch of guys the moment Léa Seydoux arrives on screen. But for the most part this portmanteau film, essentially a number of shorter films tied together with a loose framing structure, is quite delightful. I especially loved Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri as student revolutionaries, with plenty of cribbing from 60s Godard movies (Khoudri being styled to look like Anna Karina) with plenty of other visual references throughout, but there was a sort of emotional core at the heart of that particular story which seems a bit hit or miss elsewhere. It blends black-and-white and saturated colour pretty liberally, and it never bored me. I wonder at the end what deeper meaning I’m supposed to take other than, ah yes a golden age of journalism and engagement with the life of the mind. But maybe that’s enough.
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness and Jason Schwartzman; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 18 December2021.
In New Zealand, plenty of the films that make it to the film festival NZIFF are ones that elsewhere in the world would go straight to cinemas and get all kinds of rave reviews, but foreign language films generally have to be quite middlebrow and forgettable to get distribution, so I can only hope that Happening manages to do so, because it’s an excellent period drama.
This isn’t the first film at this film festival I’ve seen which deals with women seeking an abortion, but this one is set in 1960s France, not the most tolerant place to be looking for such a service. However, the film makes a clear case for why it should be accessible, given the struggle our central character Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) goes through. She’s young, inexperienced and clearly ill-equipped to have a child, but puts herself through all kinds of trauma in order to try to have a normal life, while naturally the deadbeat dad (well, a fellow student) has practically no worries about the situation at all. Given the subject matter though, this film strikes a rather dreamy and detached tone, unlike say the grim existential angst of say 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or Never Rarely Sometimes Always, or even the period chiaroscuro of Vera Drake, It makes some of the darker material easier to take in a way, this aesthetic care taken over the look of the piece, without dwelling on flashy period details (the era its set in is picked up from tangential clues mostly, rather than people striding around in silly wigs and fashion). Plus it has a great performance from the young actor at its heart.
Director Audrey Diwan; Writers Diwan, Marcia Romano and Anne Berest (based on the novel by Annie Ernaux); Cinematographer Laurent Tangy; Starring Anamaria Vartolomei, Kacey Mottet Klein, Sandrine Bonnaire; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 19 November 2021.
I’ve already covered some of the range of documentaries at New Zealand International Film Festival. In some respects it’s surprising that the music ones have been the less formally innovative, given that both films (this and Poly Styrene) deal with boldly experimental artists working outside the mainstream. However, while both are fairly straightforward, they at least deal with very interesting subjects. I don’t think they both work entirely, but they serve as useful primers.
This film definitely deals with a topic I have a lot of interest in: I love the work of Éliane Radigue, which shimmers with barely perceptible fluctuating textures and tonalities like a pulsing sonic organism, and own releases by Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Spiegel and others covered here. So in that respect, I was very happy to see and learn more about these women working in a strange, dusty little corner of the music world which would come in time to have more prominence. But it’s undeniably also the case that this film is very much fixated on a certain type of electronic sound artist, which unfortunately means they all seem to have a similar kind of well-educated background, a similar intensity of expression, although the sounds they conjure range along a gamut. The addition of Wendy Carlos almost feels like an after-the-fact gesture (she’s not listed as one of the main profiled women in the end credits), and her music is dismissed somewhat as populist and light — which may well be her place within this particularly austere community, but the footage we see certainly shows she had plenty of ideas and ability to conjure incredible sounds from circuitry. But on the whole, this is a solid primer on the work of pioneering sound artists, from the boffins of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Oram and Derbyshire) to the experimenters in France and America and is worth watching for those interested in sound.
Director/Writer Lisa Rovner; Cinematographer Bill Kirstein; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Wednesday 10 November 2021.
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.
A film that came out earlier this year, and got some Oscar nods (including a win for Kaluuya), is this impressive biopic. It’s hardly perfect but it’s put together well with some fine performances, and shines some light on an underappreciated aspect of revolutionary American history.
This feels in many ways like a pretty traditional biopic showing all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre, with its arc through to someone’s death, and though it’s not clunky or badly directed, it really stands or falls on the quality of its actors. Luckily Daniel Kaluuya as Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant Bill O’Neal, along with (notably) Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, the partner of Hampton, all do brilliant work. Kaluuya’s is the more up-front role, the more direct angry young man, but it’s Stanfield who particularly impresses as this fraught character (the ‘Judas’), torn in many directions who communicates that well without big speeches, but just in these quiet scenes between himself and his handler (Jesse Plemons), that means the epilogue about the real life Bill O’Neal somehow comes as no real surprise while also being quite shocking. But the greatest shock of the epilogue — and something not fully conveyed by the film and its casting (however fine the actors) — is just how young all these people were. Hampton was 21 when the film ends. It’s a film not just about his work with the BPP but also about the policing culture (at the time, though I think we all know that time hasn’t changed much in that respect), and about the way this authoritarian power was directed at those trying to make positive change and resist the racist, capitalist narratives of the mainstream. Ultimately this is still a studio product, but it allows for those voices to be heard, that protest to be enunciated, and as protest this is striking.
Director Shaka King; Writers Will Berson, King, Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 March 2021.
It turns out I quite like a stagy talky film (like Fences), but that’s probably just because it’s good when a film project starts from having a good script with words that have already been proven. The fact that this one still feels like a play is almost beside the point, because this is an imaginative act of putting four iconic Black figures from the 1960s together in a room and having them riff off one another. The film opens with a bit of contextualisation for their respective situations in early 1964, and then spins its drama off from that. There’s a lot of fluid and carefully thought-out use of the camera in the largely confined space of the small motel room in Miami, but the bulk of the film rests on the shoulders of the actors, and they all deliver with conviction to the point I can’t really single out any one of the ensemble cast, but each of these characters gets their own fully realised arc and is never reduced to a mouthpiece for the familiar cliché about each.
Director Regina King; Writer Kemp Powers (based on his play); Cinematographer Tami Reiker; Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Lance Reddick; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.
This didn’t make my favourites list last year, but it was recently released on Amazon Prime streaming, and it’s a gorgeously-mounted period piece about Black people in New York, which makes a change from the usual 1950s NYC milieu.
There’s a lot I really like about this romance film, most of which boils down to the sumptuous setting. It’s late-1950s to early-1960s New York City, and Tessa Thompson is our lead actor, as she falls for the rather earnest (and a little bit wooden) saxophone player Robert Holloway (Nnamdi Asomugha). It’s not ironic or winking at us in any way, nor is it a romcom. I don’t know why I associate this genre primarily with African-American themes, but maybe it’s because some of the greatest recent examples of romance films have been from filmmakers like Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball is practically a template) or have been films like Love Jones. This is hardly as well-written or developed as either of those classics, but is played entirely straight, a period drama that doesn’t pivot around virulent violent racism, but instead is a story about two people in a place learning to navigate their feelings for one another. It’s very sweet, and entirely lovely.
Director/Writer Eugene Ashe; Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Aja Naomi King, Lance Reddick; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Monday 28 December 2020.