The centrepiece film of my Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month — both halfway through the festival and halfway through the total number of films I saw — was this festival favourite of last year, finally making its way to NZ’s shores. It’s a tough watch certainly, but brilliantly made (seemingly a co-production between half of Europe from all the countries and production companies attached).
It’s fair to say this isn’t a cheerful watch and if I’d paid much attention to the write-up I’d probably have known that going in. I have seen Grbavica, an earlier film by the same director, so I get the sense she makes films that engage with the modern history of her country — or at least that’s what gets international attention (since I see she also has a film called Love Island which I now want to watch, but that’s an aside) — but this one tackles the Srbrenica massacre head-on. That said, you don’t really need any historical context to become aware of just where this drama is heading, because much of it is carried in the intense, cold, hard stare of its title character, a Bosnian translator working for the UN (and played brilliantly by Jasna Đuričić). When the Serbs under Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković) march into Srebrenica, displacing the Bosniak Muslim population, the UN take shelter of them and promise airstrikes in retaliation, but as seen here through the eyes of Aida, there is an increasing sense of desperation and futility amongst the (Dutch) UN officers in charge on the ground.
The film tracks all this without resorting to any sentimental metaphors or grandstanding, because it’s carried through the demeanour of Đuričić, as she scurries back and forth around the UN compound trying to secure the safety of her family and being pulled into making increasingly hollow and craven announcements on behalf of her bosses. Nobody ever really states what’s happening, but everyone knows it, and that’s really where the film is operating, on a sense of shared desperation and complicity in genocide, because there’s no political will to do anything else. Yet when the inevitable happens — and thankfully it’s never seen explicitly — it’s still a kick in the guts, whether or not it was ever really preventable. The film leaves us back in Bosnia years later, where everyone still knows everyone else, knows what they did, what side they were on. The film has a repeated motif of just looking into people’s eyes, and in every set we see here reflected back at us, the inevitability is etched.
Director/Writer Jasmila Žbanić; Cinematographer Christine A. Maier; Starring Jasna Đuričić Јасна Ђуричић, Izudin Bajrović, Boris Isaković Борис Исаковић, Johan Heldenbergh; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Earlier I covered Fan Girl, a recent Filipino film that’s on Netflix, a dark tale of dangerous desire if you will. However, these two films below are far more the usual range of regional cinema you’ll find (from the Philippines and Indonesia), both being fairly silly, fairly forgettable, ultimately mediocre but still quite fun comedies with some broad acting.
My Stupid Boss (2016) [Indonesia, certificate PG]
It’s nice to see that popular Indonesian cinema (although this particular film is set in Malaysia) has the same stupid comedies as are made in English, ones usually starring say Jennifer Aniston (and not just because this film’s title reminds me of Horrible Bosses). Well here we get Bunga Citra Lestari (popular enough in Indonesia to be known by the acronym BCL) as Diana, who has recently moved with her husband to Kuala Lumpur and takes on a temp job for her husband’s best friend, the title character (played by Reza Bahadian, who judging from photos on the internet is ordinarily far more attractive, and younger, than he appears here). I can only presume the entire film is based around getting to see BCL contorting her face to humorous effect at the enduring stupidity of her boss, which as a high concept almost works, and she certain is a very likeable lead. That said, “Bossman” is incredibly, monstrously stupid, even more so than The Office‘s David Brent or other similar characters, though the film takes a sentimental swerve towards the end to try and redeem him, meaning that it might be Diana’s husband (Alex Abbad) who is the worst character in this film. In any case, it never really goes much further than the précis above suggests, making it like an extended sitcom episode, but it passes pleasantly enough.
Director/Writer Upi Avianto; Cinematographer Muhammad Firdaus; Starring Reza Rahadian رضا رهادیان, Bunga Citra Lestari, Alex Abbad; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 8 June 2021.
She’s Dating the Gangster (2014) [Philippines, certificate 12]
I see the word “cheesy” used in reviews of this quite a bit, and it’s an apt adjective. This is a very silly film, with a ridiculous plot that revolves around a mistaken identity, strung out into a love story, with some sentimentalised tragedy wrung out from terminal illnesses, plus plane-related subplots that don’t exactly make a great case for domestic Filipino air travel. At the heart of the film is the relationship between the two leads, seen in 90s flashback, a time of hairbands, grunge t-shirts and brightly-coloured clothing, in which Daniel Padilla is supposed to be playing the titular “gangster” Kenji, but perhaps that’s Filipino slang for a goofy long-haired dork because there’s very little of the gangster about him, and oddly he scrubs up into a contemporary teen heartthrob pretty well. Much better is Kathryn Bernardo as Athena, his (sort-of) love interest, who is watchably bubbly and likeable and does the apparently requisite tearful scenes of melodrama pretty well too, though there’s far too much of that in general. It’s interesting to track the influences in popular Philippine romantic comedy cinema, having the kind of wild take on genre that you’d expect in Bollywood, but with a treacly sentimentality that is more reminiscent of Japanese films, but perhaps they are entirely their own thing. Certainly I find it hard to really dislike, even if I never exactly got caught up in the emotion, but I have to admit I’m not the audience for this after all.
Director Cathy Garcia-Molina; Writers Carmi Raymundo and Charlene Grace Bernardo (based on the novel by Bianca Bernardino); Cinematographer Dan Villegas; Starring Daniel Padilla, Kathryn Bernardo, Richard Gomez, Dawn Zulueta, Sofia Andres; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 8 June 2021.
A fiction feature debut film for its Algerian French director, and a fine one at that, is Papicha, whose title is taken from an Algerian French phrase used about a young woman, and its star Lyna Khoudri is clearly destined for great things (I believe she already has a role in the latest Wes Anderson film The French Dispatch, though who knows when that’s going to get a release). This is a fine film, though it rather takes aim at Islamic fundamentalism in a fairly direct way.
There are a number of recent French co-productions that deal with religious intolerance in traditionally patriarchal societies; I think of the Turkish-French film Mustang as perhaps the most notable example, and perhaps closest to this one. In each case, the filmmaking is strong and the performances the director gets from her (in this case) French-Algerian cast, constantly switching between Arabic and French in their scenes, are really believable. The setting is the Algerian Civil War of the late-1990s, and a creeping Islamic fundamentalism that expresses itself particularly (as these things seem to do) in restricting the liberties afforded to women. And so we have aspiring fashion student Nedjma (the riveting Lyna Khoudri), who really wants to put on a fashion show and really doesn’t want to put on the hijab, negotiating the way these social standards seem to be evolving at a breakneck pace around her and her friends, all of whom are students at the university at a time when learning itself is under threat. I do wonder a little at a French-funded film dealing with hijab as such a central issue, given that country’s own views on the practice, but the drama as presented here is galvanising and, very swiftly, rather traumatic in the way that it unfolds. Nedjma has no desire to leave Algeria, but at the same time the conflicts taking place at this period (which were already apparently winding down by the late-1990s) put her and her friends’ lives in danger just for the freedoms that they take for granted. Like Mustang it harnesses a lot of the same female ensemble energy, though the camera here often stays far closer in to its protagonists, who move about in a blur at times. It’s a fine film, and one that suggests promise for her feature directing career, and especially for its standout star.
Director/Writer Mounia Meddour مونيا مدور; Cinematographer Léo Lefèvre; Starring Lyna Khoudri لينا خودري, Shirine Boutella شرين بوتيلا, Amira Hilda Douaouda, Marwan Zeghbib مروان زغبيب; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 8 August 2020.
As I hope is evident in my week focusing on films about history, the engagement with historical events is not one that is just about a discreet set of events separated away in the past. The forces that have shaped history continue into the present, as their legacies are manifested in behaviour and actions, but sometimes too filmic engagement with history is a prod to current events. For example the events portrayed in this film, which stretch back decades into the mid-20th century, are ongoing; even the legal case it documents hasn’t been concluded. These are urgent issues that will have an effect on our future, and so the film is used as a way to make those decisions more relevant and personable. (And as usual in such cases, the filmmakers have got Mark Ruffalo in for that.)
Todd Haynes has made some of my favourite films in the last few decades but I can’t claim this one is up there with them, largely because it cleaves so heavily to a very specific genre formula, and it’s not a genre I hugely love (the legal procedural thriller). It’s one of those issues-driven movies — the ones that Mark Ruffalo certainly seems to have done a few of recently (such as Spotlight) — and it’s all very efficiently despatched. Ruffalo plays a lawyer taking a huge American chemical company (DuPont) to task for the untold damage they’ve done not just to thousands of people they employed making the chemicals for Teflon, but also those who lived near the plant in West Virgnia, not to mention possibly every single human and living creature on the planet who has been just a little bit poisoned by the actions of them and other massive chemical conglomerates whose only interest — literally, their only apparent interest — has been in protecting the billions of dollars of profits they have been making. The fact that this fight is ongoing even at the time of the film’s making is just part of the reason for it to exist, and though it may not wow anyone as a film, it’s a story that’s worth telling and is gripping in its details all the same.
Director Todd Haynes; Writers Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (based on the article “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” by Nathaniel Rich); Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Camp, Victor Garber; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, Thursday 5 March 2020.
The Israeli director who made Bombay Beach and LoveTrue — both of which I admired and both of which lurk uncomfortably somewhere between documentary and staged drama — gets an ostensibly fiction feature with this one written by its star Shia LeBeouf. However, it turns out to occupy a similar territory adjacent to Shia’s own lived experience, and tells a fairly traumatic story in an engaging and visually inventive way.
Shia LaBeouf is one of those actors I’ve always wanted to like — perhaps because some of the media excoriation of him has been so very ad hominem for so long — but finally this is a performance of his I can really get behind. He plays a fictionalised (only lightly, I gather) version of his own father in a screenplay he wrote and it very much puts him in the same territory that Joaquin Phoenix has been going over for years. It gets big and ugly at times, proper emotional turmoil, but it’s all underpinned by a deep vein of tenderness. That’s helped along significantly by Noah Jupe, who plays the younger version of himself, and very much holds his own in what is essentially a two-hander between the two actors (there are also some scenes with an older version of Shia, played by Lucas Hedges, but the dynamic between father and son remains similar). Director Alma Har’el has made a number of fine films in the past decade, which at least ostensibly have been documentaries, although these have always had a strong sense of performance at play — as if finding the characters at the heart of real people — so perhaps this step into fiction (but fiction based on reality) is a natural progression for her. In any case, she makes films with verve, humour and warmth, and that’s always evident.
Director Alma Har’el עלמה הראל; Writer Shia LeBeouf; Cinematographer Natasha Braier; Starring Shia LeBeouf, Noah Jupe, Lucas Hedges, FKA Twigs; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 6 December 2019.
Another film which comes on the heels of the same director’s excellent work on The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? and plunges her back into another gently middlebrow and lightly period piece about the anxieties of artists. I found it likeable, and it’s well worth checking out.
There’s something almost aggressively middlebrow about this film, indeed about a number of the season’s films, and perhaps I only say that because it fits into a certain kind of Oscar-ready category, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing here. It’s about a television personality (one I was not at all familiar with, as my upbringing did not feature Mr Rogers), and the film at times has a deeply televisual feel in the way it’s constructed — I don’t know that I can explain it, just that something about the way the shots were constructed, the musical cues, the scene transitions (both the editing and the interstitial model toy sets) felt almost uncannily like this film was intended to be a Very Special extended episode of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood (though as mentioned above, I obviously don’t know the original show except as it’s shown within this film). But rather than the TV personality, the film’s story focuses instead on Matthew Rhys’s journalist, an angry resentful man who’s trying to find an angle on Tom Hank’s Fred Rogers; the film and Hanks’s performance almost seem to play along, and he has these ways of staring intensely that suggest some deep buried secret is going to come out — certainly the legacy of 70s light entertainers on British TV led me to worry where this might lead. But no, in fact, Rogers seems like a genuinely decent guy, who cares deeply about the way that children are spoken to, and I think that all comes across really effectively in the film. It would also make an interesting double-bill with A Hidden Life (which was out in UK cinemas the week beforehand, hence was on my mind), because I think both are films deeply imbued with a very Christian faith, though in rather more subtle ways here, expressed primarily by silence (there’s one particularly striking scene in a diner) and by a sense of ritual.
Director Marielle Heller; Writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (based on the article “Can You Say… Hero?” by Tom Junod); Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 31 January 2020.
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).
Directors Julia Parnell and Rob Curry; Cinematographer Tim Flower; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.
One of the many films released today in the UK (which include the rather odd and unsettling The Lighthouse, along with new films by Marielle Heller, Clint Eastwood and Reed Morano, a woman director-cinematographer whose spy thriller The Rhythm Section has been bumped back for release a few times so it’s probably not very good but who knows)… anyway one of the new films is Queen & Slim by Melina Matsoukas. Most films with an African-American subject or director don’t get a cinematic release over here, so like the film I’m reviewing today, it’s more common to find them released fairly unceremoniously online. Netflix is at least higher profile than some other platforms, and it’s where you can find the film I’m reviewing today.
It’s unavoidable perhaps that this intimate drama is working with a low budget, but it’s great that films like this are getting at least some distribution via Netflix, because there was never going to be any cinematic screenings in the UK for this kind of film. Partially I feel that’s because it doesn’t fit into the kinds of stereotyped boxes that distributors over here have pegged for ‘Black’ films, being a story of a young woman in precarious circumstances who turns to sex work to make a living. This kind of precis could certainly lend itself to something exploitative or (worse) judgemental, but the filmmaker, who also stars in a supporting role, makes sure to focus on the title character’s engagement with the cam-girl industry, in ways that you don’t need a ‘based on real life’ title card to immediately get the sense are probably quite personal. There is, indeed, a constant sense of interloping in Tiffany’s world and her struggles that feels very close to the bone, and if the budget means nothing big and flashy happens, it’s all played admirably well, and it’s the acting and the unshowiness of the setting that distinguish it from some rather more clunky tales made in this vein.
Director/Writer Numa Perrier; Cinematographer Brent Johnson; Starring Tiffany Tenille, Numa Perrier; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 22 January 2020.