NZIFF 2021: Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021)

In looking at the documentaries featured at the New Zealand International Film Festival, this is formally one of the less interesting ones. It’s a TV documentary originally, and though it has a sweet framing story whereby her daughter learns something about her mother’s past, the real interest is in the subject, who is endlessly fascinating, a mass of contradictions and relentless energy.


In learning about and listening to punk music when I was younger, I somehow contrived never to really engage with X-Ray Spex, although I certainly was passingly aware of its singer and frontwoman/band leader Poly Styrene. This film is as much about her daughter (the co-director Celeste Bell) learning about her mother and retracing her footsteps, as it is about Poly Styrene herself, and so some of it feels a little bit meandering. However, it presents enough interesting archival footage and testimony to fully justify its feature length, as Poly Styrene makes for a riveting central character. Watching those early performances, you can see just how young she was, writing from a very specific place of identity and anger, but whose ideas were clearly still under construction, being in her late-teens when she first took the stage. We discover her real name was Marianne Elliott and that there was a certain amount of pull between these two identities that she was never fully comfortable with, but clearly there was also a lot in her life that was uncomfortable, and it made relations with her daughter and family difficult at times. It’s lovely to see her and to hear from those who knew her and were influenced by her (we never see any of the voices on screen except for Poly and her daughter — this film is about a moment for each of its two protagonists, not about ageing, or speculating on how those we see in 40-year-old images might look now) and as a result she is now my favourite punk persona and I urgently need to listen to those albums.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (2021)

CREDITS
Directors Paul Sng and Celeste Bell; Writers Sng, Bell and Zoë Howe; Cinematographer Nick Ward; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 449: Missing (1982)

In a way this film by Costa-Gavras is exemplary of a certain strand of political filmmaking that flourished in the 1980s, finding a way into an epochal event through a human rights case involving (white) Americans, to make it more relatable. Interestingly, of course, the Chilean coup in 1973 that led to the death of the young American journalist Charles Horman (played here by John Shea) is so far in the background that Allende and Pinochet are barely even named, and the Chileans we see are just shady military characters with little to distinguish them. Costa-Gavras is very much more interested in focusing on the Americans involved, which makes sense given the help they gave to what was an explicitly anti-leftist and militaristic coup, aligning so well with their destabilising influence across Central and South America in this Cold War era. So we are led to see all these events, the disappearance and death of American journalists, as part of an essentially American story of silencing their own citizens as part of enacting geopolitical change that would favour their own national interests. That said, what I find frustrating about the film is just having to watch Jack Lemmon (playing Charles’s dad Ed) trying to throw his weight around and not understanding his own son’s situation, though it’s all presented as part of a learning curve for him — as someone of a certain age who implicitly trusted his own government finally understanding that he could never trust them again. His character is difficult and has trouble understanding the context, and that can just make him a little bit difficult to watch at times when it’s just variations of him going into rooms and being dismissive of his son’s wife (Sissy Spacek) and friends whenever they speak. Still, it’s a well-intentioned film that did attempt to grapple with some of this geopolitical reality at a time when Reagan had recently been elected.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Costa-Gavras Κώστας Γαβράς; Writers Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart (based on the non-fiction book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice by Thomas Hauser); Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Mayron; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 2000).

Sous le ciel d’Alice (Skies of Lebanon, 2020)

Moving on in my week of French Film Festival picks from this year is this quirky and odd drama with more than a hint of slapstick comedy about a relationship set against the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war in the mid-1970s. It’s as much about the characters as it is about Beirut, I feel, and about the relationship we have to history as those who have been scarred by it.


I feel like a see a lot of very middling dramas in various film festivals, that are competent and about people dealing with stuff but don’t really bring anything particularly new to the screen either formally or in content. This film deals with the past, and it’s really focused on a relationship between two characters — Alba Rohrwacher’s Alice, a Swiss au pair who goes to help out a Lebanese family and for whom the film is named in the original French, and a Lebanese scientist Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), and the life they have in Beirut together. But it’s also sub rosa about the relationship we have to Beirut’s past, largely lost in a destructive Civil War that started in the mid-70s and against the backdrop of which this plays out. The film is inventive in its formal strategies to depict this sense of displacement, but mounting scenes against a green screen with old photos of Beirut used as the backdrop, or just by occluding certain sights that characters are looking at, or by staging factional fighting using a few characters in masks on what looks like a soundstage, all of which imparts a heightened sense of loss of the past and adds a certain extra melancholy element to the film, which is otherwise rather brightly and quirkily set designed. It doesn’t work in every detail, but its distinctively different from most films set in the past, and Rohrwacher is herself always such an interesting screen presence, that I really liked this film.

Sous le ciel d'Alice (Skies of Lebanon, 2020)CREDITS
Director Chloé Mazlo; Writers Yacine Badday and Mazlo; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Alba Rohrwacher, Wajdi Mouawad وجدي معوض; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Saturday 19 June 2021.

Cruella (2021)

My week of newish cinema releases continues with this film, directed by the dude who did I, Tonya (2017). Again, I didn’t review that on here, but I quite liked it? It had some good performances. This film is equally stylised, and very silly, and probably not Good. I expect there are people out there who hate it, but I try to be positive and, well, it looks good. Jenny Beaven did the costume design, who I laud below as the auteur at work here.


This is not, I suppose a ‘good’ film in the traditional sense, but it is in the sense that most films that seem to get made these days are: big and showy and well-designed and just so, with big performances. It’s fun, is what it is, but it has no depth. They clearly spent an enormous amount on the music, but I don’t think it’s used very inventively — it’s largely all 60s music for a film set on the cusp of punk with a lead character who has a sort of Vivienne Westwood chic but even her central fashion show is soundtracked by Iggy and the Stooges (though perhaps that’s a commentary in itself on the reliance of British punk on American archetypes). Anyway, too many of the cues seem too obvious, and then the plot in general is also really quite stultifyingly straightforward. (Quite aside from having us believe that an actress as distinctive as Emma Stone playing a character as singular as this could play an alter ego without detection, though I assume there’s a Shakespearean level of suspension of disbelief happening here.) But Stone and Thompson camp it up, Paul Walter Hauser is excellent as a villainous Cockney sidekick (with a wandering accent) and the real auteur here is the costume designer, clearly. This is a film about frocks: great gowns, beautiful gowns.

Cruella (2021)CREDITS
Director Craig Gillespie; Writers Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis (based on the novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith); Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis; Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Strong; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Monday 7 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 432: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

I think there are a lot of opinions one could hold about the films of Paul Schrader as about the art of Yukio Mishima, and though I’ve read a novel of his and enjoyed it at the level of writing, you don’t have to dig very deep into his life to get profoundly concerned. He’s the kind of man who would probably in our modern age have connected far more readily with the army he was looking for, and perhaps we can be glad of the times he lived in that this didn’t happen. He wanted to roll back post-war changes in Japanese society that he detested and restore Japan to its rightful place of honour, or something along those lines. And Schrader’s own work has been so boldly sadomasochistic and masculinist at times that it feels that matching the two might make for discomfort, and yes it’s certainly not easy to watch this story, either as a character study of a man fixated on honour and death, but also at a formal level it can be challenging to follow. After all, as the title suggests, it’s split into four chapters but is further fractured by various re-enactments of his works (shot in luridly saturated colours) as well as flashbacks in black-and-white to foundational moments in Mishima’s development, as played by Ken Ogata. Still, it remains a beautiful work, with gorgeous lighting and framing and a transcendent Philip Glass score which for a change doesn’t overwhelm the film (mainly because the filmmaking has a strong enough visual look and narrative structure to withstand Glass’s hammering and repetitive musical cadences). I will surely never feel any kinship with Mishima’s ideas but the film does give a visceral sense of his strange relationship to his society, and the fact that this is made by an American creates a strange thematic connection to some other contemporary titles in the Criterion Collection, like The Ice Storm (a quintessential suburban white American story as told by a Taiwanese filmmaker) or The Last Emperor (in which Chinese political history is interpreted by an Italian).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Paul Schrader; Writers Leonard Schrader and Paul Schrader; Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Ken Ogata 緒形明伸; Length 120 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 25 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 426: The Ice Storm (1997)

I remember loving this as a 20-year-old back in 1998 when it was on its first release. After all, I’ve always responded positively to elegantly filmed adaptations of contemporary literature, with all those underlying themes of suburban ennui and disaffection, couched in a stylised and ironic register, and in truth I still like it a lot. However, I find it more difficult to watch it without groaning at the immediacy of the “ice storm” metaphor, given these peoples’ lives in 1973 Connecticut, the suburbs of New York, the playground of the middle-classes as they struggle to adjust to… well, to the same things to which people in books and movies (and life) have always failed to adjust: them losing the spontaneity in their relationships; their tedious friends they’re stuck with; their kids growing up and becoming more sexual; the mindless tedium of the working life; you know, the usual. And with Kevin Kline in there you wonder if this isn’t just an updated The Big Chill (I haven’t seen it yet, mind, but the titles do seem superficially similar). Anyway, in short I think what happened to Elijah Wood’s character was a bit overdetermined, and things just seem so oppressively miserable for everyone (even though materially they’re all pretty well-off), but even so the look of the film is gorgeous, and the acting is all excellent, not least of all Joan Allen, who is I think the emotional core of the film, increasingly so as I get older.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ang Lee 李安; Writer James Schamus (based on the novel by Rick Moody); Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 11 April 1998 (and again on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021).

Global Cinema 29: Cambodia – First They Killed My Father (2017)

My trek around the globe now takes me to Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea), where a lot of the films which have made it to Western audiences focus on the turbulent era under Pol Pot in the 1970s. Prestige Hollywood dramas of the 1980s like The Killing Fields still define the Western understanding of the country, deepened somewhat by the films of newer auteurs like Rithy Panh. Angelina Jolie follows in this tradition with her 2017 Netflix feature film, though it certainly does showcase the country beautifully, despite the harrowing content.


Cambodian flagKingdom of Cambodia (កម្ពុជា Kămpŭchéa)
population 15,552,000 | capital Phnom Penh (2.3m) | largest cities Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (245k), Battambang (119k), Sisophon (99k), Poipet (99k) | area 181,035 km2 | religion Buddhism (97%) | official language Khmer (ភាសាខ្មែរ) | major ethnicity Khmer (97%) | currency Riel (៛) [KHR] | internet .kh

A country in the south of the Indochinese peninsula, whose name comes via French, though the Khmer name comes from Sanskrit for “country of Kamboja”, alluding to the country’s foundation myths. Evidence suggests settlement as far back as 6000 BCE, with Iron Age cultures by the 6th century BCE. The Khmer Empire grew from Indian influenced states of Funan and Chenla, established by the 9th century CE and the largest in SE Asia by the 12th century, with its capital at Angkor, the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It remained a force until the 15th century, but power in the region became divided between Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam. In the 19th century it became a protectorate of France, part of French Indochina (and briefly controlled by Japan during WW2), but the French failed to control the monarchy and it gained independence on 9 November 1953. Tension with Vietnam over control of the Mekong Delta led to Vietnam’s invasion and subsequent conflict and a coup hastened a civil war, in which the Cambodian communists (known as the Khmer Rouge) gained the upper edge, despite aggressive US bombing. Under Pol Pot, the KR modelled itself on Maoist China and led to the death of several million people, eventually toppled by a Vietnamese invasion, though formal peace didn’t come until 1991, and the monarchy was restored in 1993. There is now a constitutional monarchy, with a PM appointed by the king on the advice of an elected assembly.

Cinema didn’t begin until the 1950s, encouraged by King Sihanouk, with many films made and screened during the 1960s, until the rise of the Khmer Rouge when it virtually ceased (aside from a few propaganda films). The industry has only slowly recovered, with notable figures including the French-trained Rithy Panh, whose films focus on the KR era (and who produced the film below). Recent years have seen a rise in horror cinema, though overall the industry has stagnated and only 11 cinemas remained by 2011.


មុនដំបូងខ្មែរក្រហមសម្លាប់ប៉ារបស់ខ្ញុំ Moun dambaung Khmer Krahm samleab ba robsa khnhom (First They Killed My Father, 2017)

This is undoubtedly a very polished and well-made film. Angelina Jolie has made a number of films over the past decade or so, and has made a habit of telling less commercial stories, which I very much respect (though her masterpiece so far is By the Sea, a weird French riviera-set twisted love story starring her and Brad Pitt). This film about a young girl during the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia cleaves very closely to the girl’s point of view, including a lot of the camerawork being distinctly low angle and close to the ground. This has the benefit of avoiding the need to contextualise everything, because she herself has an imperfect understanding of the situation, but that’s also to the viewer’s detriment, because it’s unclear what exactly the issues are. Still, the young girl is a very fine actor, called on to walk through all this horrendous suffering, a witness to her country pulling itself apart — albeit somewhat prompted by the extensive covert US bombing during the Vietnam War. It manages to give a lush sense of Cambodia’s countryside at the same time as hinting at the horrors which its people endured. It may not quite reach the same heights as its producer Rithy Panh’s own films, but it’s a commendable effort all the same.

First They Killed My Father film posterCREDITS
Director Angelina Jolie; Writers Loung Ung អ៊ឹង លឿង and Jolie (based on Ung’s non-fiction book); Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheta Sveng; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 4 March 2021.

I’m Your Woman (2020)

Continuing my posts catching up with my favourite films of last year, this is the last film I saw in 2020, and a rather good one too.


I think this crime film works more in thinking back on it than it does while it plays out, in some respects, given the way that it reframes a familiar story from the viewpoint of the gangster’s wife. And not just in presenting a clueless moll character, for Rachel Brosnahan’s Jean is hardly an idiot, but more the way it really throws us as the audience into her perspective as someone who is perpetually in the dark, flailing around trying to understand why the bad things are happening to her with just this nagging sense at the back of her brain of why things might have gone wrong. Her inability to function without her gangster husband’s help becomes what drives the story and provides the arc for her character, as she is helped along by some of her husband’s associates. I suppose part of the worry is that this might become a story in which her self-actualisation is facilitated by the Black characters (Teri, Cal and his father), but the film gives them their own believable arcs, avoiding certain magical cliches, and becoming a film about a lot of people struggling with the pain caused by these (largely unseen) violent white men in their lives. The perspective can make it a little hard to get into, but it’s effective and the denouement is I think fairly won by the screenplay.

I'm Your Woman film posterCREDITS
Director Julia Hart; Writers Hart and Jordan Horowitz; Cinematographer Bryce Fortner; Starring Rachel Brosnahan, Arinzé Kene, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Frankie Faison; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Thursday 31 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 361: The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006)

I suppose it was inevitable in this series — especially now that I’m doing them twice a week — that I’d eventually miss an entry, though this isn’t the first. However, as I’ve moved halfway around the world, this one slipped a little as I wasn’t able to watch it before we left. I shall try to avoid any more glaring holes.


It turns out that when the Maysles brothers were filming the Beales for Grey Gardens (1975), they had enough footage to craft this sequel of sorts, revisiting them in their weirdly cut-off little bit of derelict suburbia, as they continue to seem addled and out of time. I suppose it makes clear that any successful documentary at least comes down to the screen presence of its subjects, and the Beales (scions of the same family as Jackie Kennedy) certainly have that, as the elderly mother constantly berates her preening show-offy daughter, while the latter is constantly playing up for the camera, singing songs or swanning around showing off her seemingly homemade fashions. Indeed it becomes almost a familiar rejoinder that the younger Edie says something only for her mother’s voice to pipe in from off camera correcting her or saying that never happened. One wonders at times, as in the original, about the ethics of the thing, as the Beales hardly seem the most present in mind, but it’s fairly benign I think and there’s a lot here for fans of the original.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles and David Maysles; Cinematographer Albert Maysles; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at a hotel (Blu-ray), Auckland, Thursday 15 October 2016.

Criterion Sunday 336: Dazed and Confused (1993)

I avoided this when it was first released in cinemas, though I was about the same age as the characters in the film, because it was marketed as a stupid high school movie and it didn’t appeal to me at the time. It also had the sense of being a very indulgent nostalgic look back at the 70s, and that’s a criticism that’s more difficult to avoid because in a sense it is, in addition to which indulging his characters is very much a Linklater trademark. Watching it again many years on, though, that feels like the thing that’s aged best — this sense that almost all the characters have some redeeming quality even if they are sleazy creeps (like McConaughey’s older Wooderson, cruising the high school to pick up girlfriends) or big dumb jocks (like Sasha Jenson’s Don). There’s even a glimmer of humanity in Ben Affleck’s O’Bannion, but not much because he’s the real bad guy here, a grinning sadist who has to retake his final year at school. However, there’s no manufactured hostility between the jocks and the geeks here; sure there’s a bit of back and forth in the conversations, but nobody avoids anyone else and friendship groups seem to cut across these distinctions, plus there’s a sense of generational camaraderie even in the sadistic hazing rituals.

However, like much of Linklater’s oeuvre, it’s a hang-out film where nothing really happens. People just cruise around and ping off each other — not as literally as the tangential sidetracking of Slacker (1990) — but still with no clear sense that they’re all working towards anything except the next beer or the next party. But that sense of aimlessness going towards college and the future, which is encapsulated in the final shot on the road, that’s something that Linklater’s been doing for decades in many of his films, capturing a mood or an era, a sense of uncertainty in his characters, and it’s perfectly done here, with lots of people who would go on to have acting careers (or not), but who just seem right for the roles.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are plenty of extras, but the main one is Making Dazed (2005, dir. Kahane Corn), a pretty straight-down-the-line documentary about the making of a film, albeit one that had been in production for over a decade it seems. The director has extensive interviews with the cast both at the time of filming and a decade later, as several of them gather for an anniversary screening. Of course many of the faces are now familiar to us (or at least a bit more familiar) and they all clearly have fond memories of the film that was the first experience of filmmaking for a lot of them. It’s good to hear the stories, and see some of the making-of footage, and it’s good to think about how far some have come from these horny Texan teenagers, but it evokes a warmth of feeling at the very least.
  • A lot of the footage from the making-of documentary is also available as extras, including the full clips of most cast members in the first week of filming explaining their characters, as well as interviews conducted on set and behind-the-scenes footage of the filming. Amongst these are also a few more recent interviews — including one with Linklater, his casting director and McConaughey speaking about how the latter got involved (some of which is also in the finished documentary) — and some brief footage from the anniversary cast reunion.
  • Most of the audition tapes of the various cast members are also included as extras, which can be interesting to watch, although the quality is obviously rather poorer, being shot on video.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Richard Linklater; Cinematographer Lee Daniel; Starring Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Sasha Jenson, Parker Posey, Matthew McConaughey, Adam Goldberg, Ben Affleck; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 11 July 2020 (and earlier on TV at home, London, Saturday 19 April 2014).