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 485: The Last Days of Disco (1998)

This film was released just as I was starting to properly get into film so I imagine I may have turned my nose up at it. Apparently I did see it on a visit to London in 1998, the day before watching Velvet Goldmine, the memory of which has stuck with me far more vividly (perhaps because it embodies the qualities that this film seems designed to erase, but more on that later). I imagine at the time it just seemed a bit odd and stilted but with the benefit of hindsight, I think it’s lovely.

Of course, it has a specific point of view: that of a straight white man with an acerbic New York aloofness surveying the landscape of his youth and you could say it suffers for that, but I prefer to think of it as a self-critique. It’s a film set during the disco era, absolutely packed from start to finish with classic tunes, but it’s a film about the gentrification of a scene, of that slightly hollow sadness when looking around at what was once about parties and drugs and, most importantly, its acceptance of, if not predication on, queerness and diversity (the things that made so many people unironically want to express their hatred for disco music at the time).

It’s not called The Last Days of Disco for no reason: the club here is half populated by bankers in suits with the kind of floppy hair that says 90s to me more than 80s but perhaps that’s apt. There’s nothing transgressive, though even among the dad-dancing on the disco floor there is still a bit of joy, and it’s largely within the relationship between its two leads played by Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, the latter of whom has some of the films best lines, shady comments delivered almost as asides to Sevigny. It’s a curious balance this movie achieves between fun, snarky and eminently quotable bitchiness and the hollow empty nostalgia of 20-something aimlessness.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Four deleted scenes are shown, in unfinished rough cuts, for those that want more of these characters hanging out in their slightly depressing railroad apartment.
  • A behind-the-scenes featurette is very much in the mould of five-minute bonus features made by studios that have a sort of blandness to them (the blandness of advertising, which is apt given the broadsides at one such character in the film itself) but you do get to hear a few little soundbites from the actors at the time.
  • The stills gallery includes plenty of contextualisation of what we see, making it something of a production diary or a reflection on the film by its director.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Whit Stillman; Cinematographer John Thomas; Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, Robert Sean Leonard; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at a cinema, London, Saturday 28 November 1998 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 2 December 2021).

Aline (2020)

I was uncertain about whether to even go to this film in our local French film festival (I’ve barely engaged with Céline Dion’s music, though I greatly enjoyed Carl Wilson’s 33 1/3 book Let’s Talk about Love), but it turned out to be a highlight. It’s bonkers, let’s be clear, it is a gonzo piece of filmmaking, largely due to the writer/director’s casting of herself, starting with playing Dion in childhood (no younger stand-ins for this biopic). It’s also fictionalised, as I can’t imagine Dion ever giving her blessing to a film about her, certainly not this one, but it feels consistent with Dion’s own persona to be this far out. It’s good fun, though I can easily imagine someone hating it as much as I enjoyed it.


There is something self-indulgent about directing and writing a film about a Canadian pop culture icon and then casting yourself as the lead, but I have to applaud it. The move of then having you, a fully middle-aged woman, playing her as a child as well is the stuff of nightmares, but luckily that section only lasts a short while. Given the (lightly fictionalised) biopic nature of this — Aline Dieu is actually a stand-in for Céline Dion, as is clear from the very opening credits — it has a slightly episodic feel to it, as her life and career is rushed through. Nonetheless, it manages to hit all the requisite emotional crescendos, particularly around her large but supportive family (particularly her doting mother and father), her relationship with her much older manager, and her rather quirky looks — a sort of unkempt gawkiness that the actor/director/writer Valérie Lemercier captures well, without quite looking like the original (but that’s fine; it’s fictionalised after all). I’ve come across Dion in a number of pop cultural contexts, and she always comes across as an appealing personality to me, including in this film, so I really should actually engage with her music at some point in my life. In the meantime, for those of you who don’t really know her songs at all (like me), I can say that the film affected me despite that.

Aline (2020)CREDITS
Director Valérie Lemercier; Writers Brigitte Buc and Lemercier; Cinematographer Laurent Dailland; Starring Valérie Lemercier, Sylvain Marcel, Danielle Fichaud; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 20 June 2021.

Two 80s-Set Films by Pablo Trapero: El Bonaerense (2002) and The Clan (2015)

Both of these reviews, written back in 2016, are fairly short, but they deal with a filmmaker who’s considered one of the major forces in contemporary Argentinian cinema, crafting small dramas as easily as big family stories. The only other film of his I’ve seen was 2006’s Born and Bred, but his films have all been worth watching.


There’s a wash of grainy texture to El Bonaerense, a film set in the 1980s as far as I can tell (unless they really are as backwards as their morals), as a small town locksmith finds himself framed for a robbery. He’s swiftly swept up into the metropolitan police force (El Bonaerense, for Buenos Aires) by an uncle who’s owed a favour. That’s generally how the story proceeds, with even the ‘nice’ guys prone to taking bribes and administering a corrupt sense of justice. No one but the director comes out of this situation well.

Trapero remains a fine stylist for his more recent film The Clan, which is a true crime story also set in the heady Argentinean 1980s, and there are solid performances throughout. I gather that all crime films after Scorsese have to juxtapose their stories with cranked-up pop music, but if you’re going to do that, this film does it pretty well in following one Argentine family, who are up to all kinds of no good. Trapero seems interested in interrogating his country’s past via stories of low-lifers, and he keeps the films moving along a swift clip, with no little style to the way he frames and edits his work.

El Bonaerense film posterEl Bonaerense (2002) [Argentina/Chile/France/Netherlands]
Director Pablo Trapero; Writers Nicolás Gueilburt, Ricardo Ragendorfer, Dodi Shoeuer, Trapero and Daniel Valenzuela; Cinematographer Guillermo Nieto; Starring Jorge Román, Victor Hugo Carrizo; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 28 August 2016.

The Clan film posterEl clan (The Clan, 2015) [Argentina/Spain]
Director/Writer Pablo Trapero; Cinematographer Julián Apezteguia; Starring Guillermo Francella, Peter Lanzani; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Sunday 11 September 2016.

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps (2019)

Casting my eye over the new releases in Britain this week I can’t see much that thrills me particularly. However, I will not be in the UK this Friday, but instead will be winging my way to New Zealand. Therefore, in honour of that, I am doing a week themed around New Zealand films (or films made there, depending on how I go for titles). I’m going to start with this engaging documentary about a seminal NZ indie band of the 1980s and on, The Chills, and its charismatic frontman.


As far as music from NZ’s jangly indie 1980s underground goes, The Chills were probably the biggest name, though they were never my favourites. Still, they gained the greatest success through a handful of major label records by the end of that decade, and their leader, Martin Phillipps, had an undeniable sense of pop hooks and sweet harmonies reminiscent of Brian Wilson, all imbued with a thematic darkness — which probably explains why Neil Finn pops up early on as a talking head commenting on Phillipp’s artistry. However, for the most part this documentary eschews celebrity commentators in favour of Martin himself and his former bandmates and managers speaking about the chronological development of the music, for The Chills were probably second only to The Fall in having a huge rotating cast of musicians all unified under Phillipps as lead singer and songwriter. What gives it that lift beyond the familiar topics of the rise-and-fall of egos and ambitions, of a man almost destroyed by drug and alcohol-related excess of the pop star lifestyle, is Phillipps himself and his self-deprecating humour as he reflects back on some bad decisions in his past, or sorts through his toy collections, or gets excited about some mummified animal-based art he’s working on (those are some of the biggest laughs but laughter with an unmistakable tinge of sadness and maybe even horror). That’s the tone of the film ultimately, and it’s rather beautiful too, though you feel there’s so much more they could have covered (so I’m hoping for DVD extras).

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps film posterCREDITS
Directors Julia Parnell and Rob Curry; Cinematographer Tim Flower; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

Blank City (2010)

As part of the my ‘documentaries about women image makers’ themed week, this documentary isn’t exclusively about that subject, but covers lo-fi no-wave indie filmmaking in New York from the late-1970s onwards, many of whose key creators were women.


An interesting enough documentary that marshals a number of clips, as well as rounding up interviews with the key participants in the so-called “no wave” film/musical movement in NYC in the late-70s and early-80s, as it morphs into an anarchic and nihilist cinema of transgression. It’s interesting to see how the early filmmakers were responding to the city they lived in, with all its chronic underinvestment, poverty, drugs and the resulting bohemian artistic scene. They were all largely based in the downtown area near the Bowery, where clubs like CBGB’s could be found, just after the first breaking of punk music and into the post-punk scene. Some of them went on to mainstream success, while others moved far more into the art world, with varying degrees of success. The film is also keen to stress the central role that women played, not just as stars but as creative participants and directors of films within the movement, and we hear quite a bit from them also, like Vivienne Dick, Sara Driver, Beth B, Susan Seidelman and others. In all, it’s an interesting introduction to a fecund era of artistic creation, which could be every bit as obnoxious and off-putting as it could be cool and inspiring.

Blank City film posterCREDITS
Director Celine Danhier; Cinematographers Ryo Murakami 村上涼 and Peter Szollosi; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 27 December 2018.

Nervous Translation (2017)

I’ve covered Filipino mainstream romcom films directed by women, and also a personal essay film, but this is a tender indie festival drama about a young girl growing up in the 1980s, an impressive film from a new director who has made a couple of period dramas so far this decade.


In many ways this is quite a wonderful film, in the way it focuses on a child’s point-of-view without being cute or sentimental, and sets it in a period (the 1980s) without overreliance on reducing that era to a series of easy cliches. Yael (Jana Cassandra Agoncillo) is a quiet, slightly lonely child who listens to tapes sent by her father from Riyadh, and there’s a growing sense throughout of why he’s there and what’s going on with the family, but it’s never fully developed because the point-of-view remains rooted in the young girl. This means that while it can be frustrating not always knowing quite what’s going on, there’s a really consistent and beautifully evocative sense of atmosphere, with a precise use of camera and a sure visual sense suffusing the whole piece.

Nervous Translation film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Shireen Seno; Cinematographers Albert Banzon, Jippy Pascua and Dennese Victoria; Length Jana Cassandra Agoncillo, Angge Santos, Sid Lucero; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 31 May 2019.

The Irishman (2019)

Today sees the UK release of Harriet, but only two weeks ago we got a brand new biopic from Martin Scorsese. For that I did a themed week around very long films, but this week’s theme means I can revisit that film and post a review. I liked it. I gather some didn’t or felt it somehow less consequential in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but a lot of people have been gunning for him for some throwaway but no less deeply felt comments about superhero movies. Still, there’s a place for everything in modern cinema, and even if three-and-a-half hour gangster epics are mostly being made for streaming services now, it was still a solid box office draw given the very large packed cinema I saw this one in on a Saturday afternoon.


Look, I mean yes Scorsese has some good films (even some great ones) in all genres, but the stuff he’s always been best at capturing is the world of gangsters — a shady world of men closed away behind dark glasses in subterranean lairs — but those worlds have changed as he’s got older. Now the gangsters are old too, they’re old men who have lost things in life, maybe lost everything, lost their friends, alienated their families and are just these old men, dying off and being forgotten. No matter how powerful you were, how much influence you had, eventually people forget your name, your legacy and everything that made you important when you were in your prime, and that’s eventually what it feels like he’s getting at by the end of this film. The de-aging technology has been much discussed, but even when these men are presumably playing 20 or 30-year-olds, back in the 1950s, they still look like old men, move in a hulking slow way — I don’t think that’s wrong for the characters, but in practice they always seem old no matter what the time period is. The timelines are all mixed up, though, as events from one era rush into those from another, because this is a story being told from the perspective of that old, forgotten gangster, as snippets of events seem to hit him and pull him along, and for all of its length, the film is never slow or boring, provided you like this slow-burning vibe that Scorsese is going for. Pacino does his usual big thing, though increasingly looking like Steve Van Zandt as he gets older in the film (and Little Steven is in the film too, in a small part, playing some old school crooner on stage I believe), but the rest of the cast are all about intensity, not least Joe Pesci, who feels like the real standout in this ensemble. It’s a good film, is what I’m saying.

The Irishman film posterCREDITS
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Steven Zaillian (based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham; Length 209 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

3 Tage in Quiberon (3 Days in Quiberon, 2018)

Biopics are often about famous men (and made by men too), but increasingly women’s stories have been brought to the screen, whether in big budget biopic dramas like Hidden Figures or in little indie chamber pieces like this one, which is about a film star towards the end of her career.


This is on the whole a pretty solid chamber drama (more-or-less) set at an upscale resort hotel in France in c1980, as Romy Schneider (Marie Bäumer) is rather unsuccessfully in detox, while a German journalist and photographer (Charly Hübner) comes to interview her, and her friend Hilde (Birgit Minichmayr) stops by to offer emotional support. Shot in crisp black-and-white, the performances are all very good, even if it does run a little long — there’s a lot of the interview in there, and we get a sense of the fragile state of Schneider’s psyche as she breaks down over the course of the drama. Hilde’s character is the least ostentatious, but Minichmayr has worked with Jessica Hausner and Maren Ade, so she knows how to hold the camera’s attention for even a repressed, very interior person. You can tell it’s set in the early-1980s because everyone smokes constantly, everywhere, in restaurants, bars, hotel rooms… just always lighting up. It’s not always obvious why this was made, but as a portrait of depression, and the bleak insularity of stardom, it feels compelling at times. Also, the (all too brief) Denis Lavant appearance is most welcome.

3 Days in Quiberon film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Emily Atef; Cinematographer Thomas W. Kiennast; Starring Marie Bäumer, Birgit Minichmayr, Charly Hübner; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 19 November 2018.

1985 (2018)

Not every Christmas film is about Christmas, some of them are just set at that time of year. That shouldn’t stop people claiming them as “Christmas films” as even if they don’t star Santa Claus as a character, that doesn’t mean they don’t have something meaningful to say about that time of year. In this American indie film from last year, it’s about being with family, and what that means if you’re somewhat alienated from them in various ways.


A film about Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), a young gay man returning from NYC for the Christmas holidays to visit his Texan parents, this low-key small scale indie drama, shot on black-and-white film and largely confined to the few days he’s in Texas for the holidays. It has an elegiac feel greatly aided by an orchestral soundtrack, which, given the film’s lead actor, reminds me of Todd Haynes’s Carol — and indeed one gets the sense of Haynes’ work lingering over this rendering of the period when he was starting to make his own first films. There are a lot of pointed touches to hint at Adrian’s situation (which is all fairly clear from the title and from the film’s outset) — touches which at times feel just a little too heavy-handed — but the film does its best to move these into genuinely moving situations without getting too buried in sentiment. Mostly it’s just really nicely acted by its small ensemble, and a good example of what a proper little American indie should look like.

1985 film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Yen Tan; Cinematographer Hutch; Starring Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 27 December 2018.