Criterion Sunday 504: Hunger (2008)

The subject of this film is undeniably tough, like Steve McQueen’s later film about American slavery (12 Years a Slave), and one that I had put off viewing for some time. I remember watching Wang Bing’s epic documentary Dead Souls a few years ago (about Mao-era Chinese re-education camps) and one of the most striking and upsetting things was the extensive descriptions of what happens to the human body when it’s starved. Here instead we get a visual depiction, and though McQueen leaves much of it to the last 15-20 minutes, it’s still impossible not to reckon with the image of Fassbender’s body, not unlike that of the slaves in the later film, even if their situations are obviously different. Bodies remain a focus throughout, and wounds, like those on the knuckles of the prison guard that start the film, making us wonder how they were sustained (and pretty quickly we find out). Quite aside from his knuckles, that guard’s fate makes it clear that nobody really benefits from these struggles. That said, McQueen is fairly circumspect with the politics: the points it makes are largely visceral ones, and Bobby Sands’s place in re-energising nationalist republican politics isn’t explicitly confronted, though the centrepiece of the film is a bravura single-shot dialogue he has with a partisan priest (Liam Cunningham) shortly before starting his hunger strike, in which he sets out his philosophical basis for the action. (I didn’t learn from the film, for example, that Sands had been elected an MP in the UK Parliament while he was striking, nor about the specific demands that led to the end of the strike, after 10 men had died.) After all, you don’t need to have characters speaking about the brutality of British rule when it is enough to see the conditions of the prison and their struggles to retain some dignity. So ultimately, for all my fears about the film, it walks a line between the visceral evocation of horror and a visual artist’s eye for semi-abstraction in the compositions; this is McQueen’s debut, but it merely begins a new phase in his artistic work after many years at the forefront of gallery-based visual arts.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve McQueen; Writers Enda Walsh and McQueen; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 5 February 2022.

Minari (2020)

A film from earlier this year that I liked and need to try and recall at this great distance, it was released in NZ just before the Oscars ceremony it qualified for (being a 2020 film), where it won the Best Supporting Actress prize for Youn Yuh-jung. I’d seen the director’s debut, which is a Rwandan-set film called Munyurangabo, so his career (and presumably life) has been a fairly peripatetic one. And while this deals with a Korean family, it is set in and also very much is an American film at its heart.


A gentle and sweet film about assimilating into a new culture which will surely ring bells with anyone who’s done that — even if my own experience is merely moving from one anglophone country to another, hardly placing me in the same situation as this Korean family looking for better lives in the early-80s. Having been living in LA, the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), tempts the family out to a small corner of the middle of nowhere (Arkansas), where he can start a farm and live the life he wants; his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is hardly convinced, and brings her mother over from Korea to help her (this is Youn Yuh-jung). However, surprisingly for me, the highlight of the film is the kids (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho), who manage to hit the right note and not be too precocious or annoying (as they too often are in films). The plot takes a few rather big turns (such as a fire at one point) that I’m not sure the story needed, but the ensemble acting pulls it through for what is a sensitively told tale.

Minari (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lee Isaac Chung 정이삭; Cinematographer Lachlan Milne; Starring Steven Yeun 연상엽, Han Ye-ri 한예리, Youn Yuh-jung 윤여정, Alan Kim 김선, Noel Kate Cho 노엘 케이트 조; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 11 February 2021.

你好,李焕英 Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)

Earlier on this year, I took a punt on a random Chinese film which now has turned out to be the second-highest grossing film of the year (probably because China was one of the most unaffected film markets given everything that happened in 2021). It’s also pretty good fun and sweet, so I can recommend it, not that it likely says anything too controversial about the country’s recent past.


So apparently this is (currently) the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, which is pretty cool, and it’s a shame that more Western audiences won’t see it, if the audience at the screening I saw is anything to go by, but then I guess it doesn’t fit the model that most distributors go by when it comes to the kinds of Asian films that get seen widely in the West. Sure, this doesn’t offer any deep messages about alienation or bitterly-observed insights into Communist China, but it is deeply likeable. Its director (Jia Ling) is also the lead star (as Jia Xiaoling), and while she doesn’t exactly pass for a teenager, she almost makes up for it with her dimpled smile and direct, engaging energy, and the story is apparently drawn from her own life.

It starts in 2001, as an accident threatens the life of Jia Xiaoling’s mother (Li Huanying, who is named in the Chinese title and played by Zhang Xiaofei), and it catapults Xiaoling back twenty years to just before she was born, in 1981. This is where much of the film takes place and, despite the rather harrowing set-up, the tone remains pretty light and comedic throughout. There were some jokes that clearly landed with a Chinese-speaking audience, but plenty too that was genuinely funny, and the central emotional core of the film landed pretty effortlessly, as the film switches gears into slightly sentimental weepie territory. Still, the sentiments which come through feel pretty earned, and the whole thing is put together with a slick craft that makes even the hokiest elements seem integral — and crucially, they are all acted with good humour and earnest feeling that doesn’t feel forced. Look, I’ve seen some pretty bad generational family dramedies, and this one stays sweet through to the end.

Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)CREDITS
Director Jia Ling 贾玲; Writers Jia, Sun Jibin 孙集斌, Wang Yu 王宇, Bu Yu 卜钰 and Liu Honglu 刘宏禄; Cinematographers Liu Yin 刘寅 and Sun Ming 孙明; Starring Jia Ling 贾玲, Shen Teng 沈腾, Zhang Xiaofei 张小斐, Chen He 陈赫; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 26 March 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You with Me, 2020)

I’ve reviewed documentaries of every type seen so far during Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, but this one breaks the mould a little bit by incorporating fictional restaged elements. It’s all very cannily done by a seasoned documentarian, but it’s a beautiful film that deserves a wider audience.


This film starts out with the feel of a documentary about a chef in NYC but then slips between various time periods in the childhood and early-20s of the same man growing up in small town Mexico. The struggles he has with same-sex attraction and holding down a relationship under the judgemental eyes of his family and those in the community around him have a certain familiarity, but are handled very beautifully here. Part of that is from the way the film surprisingly blends fictional narrative and documentary, becoming evident later in the film, and which deepens the richness of the 80s and 90s-set sections. It all makes sense as a move on the part of a long-time documentary filmmaker, and it certainly makes me intrigued to see more of what she produces, as this film has a very polished, gracious and beautifully shot sense of atmospherics with a slight touch of Malick at times.

Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You with Me, 2020)CREDITS
Director Heidi Ewing; Writers Ewing and Alan Page Arriaga; Cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez; Starring Armando Espitia, Christian Vázquez; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Monday 8 November 2021.

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.