As far as the international reach of New Zealand cinema goes, I would guess that Taika Waititi is probably the most successful export of this decade. He made his directing debut with the quirky Eagle vs Shark (2007), starring Jemaine Clement from the Flight of the Conchords, which I somewhat liked if not quite as much as some people did. His next film was Boy, which took its time to find international audiences (it didn’t get a release in the UK until many years later) but is generally regarded as one of his finest works, and he followed it up with the low-budget Wellington vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site. After the success of Hunt for the Wilderpeople his following films have had a far more international flavour, without entirely losing his distinctive voice (given he does like to cast himself in his projects). The film I’ve omitted below is Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which as Marvel superhero movie, can’t quite be fit into the same category, though it retains plenty of his humour and is one of the better titles in that seemingly endless run of superhero films.
The end of this week sees the release of another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, at the prospect of which I am distinctly underwhelmed, but it gives me an opportunity to round up some reviews I’ve done of British costume dramas and period films, which continues to make up perhaps the bulk of British filmmaking (or so, at least, it sometimes seems). I’m starting with Amma Asante, a veteran of the genre with Belle (2013). I’m covering her last two films here, and while I don’t think them both entirely successful (some have been far harsher online about the most recent), I think they still come from an earnest place of wanting to tell more stories about the past than we usually see on screen (certainly in the British costume drama). I think that much is worth celebrating.
With some of the same actors as in Paweł Pawlikowski’s recent films Ida and Cold War is this Franco-Polish coproduction, with a more polished costume drama sheen from journeywoman Anne Fontaine, who has made some solid films (I’ve reviewed both Gemma Bovery and Adore on this site, and it’s fair to say I liked one more than the other).
Photographed by Caroline Champetier, there’s an austere beauty to this Poland-set World War II film about nuns in a convent dealing with the outcome of an earlier Russian occupation, with the help of a French Red Cross nurse, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge). It’s a terrifying prospect, even in wartime, and there are no easy answers with this kind of material. Perhaps, then, the truth and the intersection with faith overwhelmed the filmmakers, or perhaps they felt it better to set up the conflicts rather than guide the audience. I found it strangely distanced but I must concede this may be more a matter of my response.
Director Anne Fontaine; Writers Sabrina B. Karine, Pascal Bonitzer, Fontaine and Alice Vial; Cinematographer Caroline Champetier; Starring Lou de Laâge, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 14 November 2016.
Even in my small themed week around Filipino cinema, the southern island of Mindanao have come up a few times. It’s the region where the majority of the nation’s Muslim inhabitants can be found, and it has also been the site of a number of separatist movements, as well as, in John Gianvito’s documentaries, a site of historical genocide against indigenous populations. That means there’s a lot of history and conflict that makes for a strong drama, which is perhaps why so many of the country’s hard-hitting dramatic films have been based around there.
A drama set in the southern islands of the Philippines, just off the coast of Mindanao, where there’s a greater Muslim population but also a lot of internecine conflict that has gone on for generations. Without glamorising or simplifying the sources of resentment, this film covers two families who have been taking lives back and forth. In terms of the dramatic construction, though, it’s not straightforward but almost sidles into the conflict through the eyes of Satra in particular (Laila Ulao, just one of many first-time and non-professional actors, and certainly the stand-out in this film). The filmmaker isn’t interested in delivering speeches or wordy context, so instead we slowly get a sense of the stakes, at what each person has lost and that gives a sense of weighty sadness that perhaps accounts for how quiet Satra so often can be. As you might expect for a film in such a remote island setting, there’s a real feeling for the scenery, the lush vegetation and especially the river, that seems to divide the two families at war; plenty of the images have a beautiful pictorial quality, although the underlying misery of the conflict is never far from the surface.
Director/Writer Sheron Dayoc; Cinematographer Rommel Sales; Starring Laila Ulao; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 2 November 2019.
A different kind of Filipino history is claimed in this sort-of-documentary, which reconstructs an old, lost Filipino film, as an experimental conversation with lost film history. It’s difficult to describe, and can be difficult at times to watch, just because of the way the images have been comprehensively destroyed by time. There’s a hint of what Bill Morrison does in his film works too, a tactility to the decay that affects not just film history, but history itself.
Not precisely a documentary, not exactly a fiction either, this film presents itself as a reconstruction of long-lost, heavily-decayed footage from a 1986 Filipino film which was never completed. Evidently the soundtrack has been re-recorded, but so too has additional footage been shot, and all are matched to the barely-there haze of the original reels. What was clearly a fairly rote, exploitative drama about a young Vietnamese woman becomes in the retelling a meta-narrative about the making of a film (this film, ostensibly), and about its unmaking too, wherein the physical decay of the film itself becomes the looming tragedy that the film’s characters — and the actors portraying those characters — seem to fear.
The original actors provide the voices, which narrate in a weird sense their experiences of making the original film, but in a present tense which suggests they are still doing that, and what we’re seeing is them telling the story while it’s happening. As we start, images of people loom out of the warp, mould and noise of the decay, the penumbra of film history, barely there, ghostly vestiges of what could have been. The film never relinquishes this oneiric tone, continuing its strange pursuit of these hidden meanings within this lost footage, perhaps the potential stories that all images contain. It’s odd and avant garde, but it’s quite affecting.
Director John Torres; Cinematographers Malay Javier and Jippy Pascua; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Monday 24 September 2018.
Not all films that deal with period go the route of tasteful and sombre recreations of a historical past. Many of them just use the setting as a backdrop for generic thrills, such as the melodramatic camp murder-mystery thriller of The Limehouse Golem, which uses real historical figures and events as the backdrop for a very much fictional story.
This film seems to have received rather mixed reviews, but I suppose it invites that at a certain level: it has the feel of a camp bodice-ripper, or a lusty period detective drama, or a slasher film. It most closely reminds me of Se7en in its interplay between the grizzled veteran (Bill Nighy) and younger police officer (Daniel Mays), in its thrill at the gore and violence of the serial killer they’re hunting, and in the comfort it takes in the baroque cosiness of Victorian libraries (in this case, the British Library Reading Room). Indeed, being based on psychogeographer Peter Ackroyd’s novel, it revels in its literary and (above all) theatrical artifice, whether having characters like Karl Marx and the novelist George Gissing as suspects, or making its flamboyant music hall star Dan Leno open the film with a prologue delivered from a literal stage. It never feels like it goes deep — it plays with the Jewish origins of the Golem legend, tying it in directly to Jewish immigration to London’s East End (which is where Limehouse can be found), and is largely sensitive in its depiction of gay characters — but never lets that distract from the central whodunnit mystery. What I liked too is the way most of the (straight male) characters are depicted as never being too far from dangerous and exploitative when it suits them. There’s a beautifully recreated sense of danger and intrigue in this 1880s London, and even if it’s all rather breathless, it’s good fun.
Director Juan Carlos Medina; Writer Jane Goldman (based on the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd); Cinematographer Simon Dennis; Starring Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Monday 11 September 2017.
One of the more successful biopics in recent years has also been one that has dealt rather more frankly with issues of racism and sexism in the workplace, hardly avoidable given that in Hidden Figures the workplace is NASA in the 1960s. Some have criticised it for its blandly mainstream qualities and some of the liberties it takes with the truth, but the acting is more than equal to the subject, and it’s a rousing film which presents a different view of a cinematically familiar era.
I thought that I might have a problem with clunky movie clichés about smart people, or period films dealing with racism, or against-the-odds stories, or big Hollywood dramas — you know the ones, like standing in front of a blackboard filled with mathematic equations, or racist white cops and loaded glances from rooms filled with white guys in suits, or that bit where our protagonist proves their essential worth to aforesaid rooms, or music cues that guide how you’re supposed to react — but it turns out I don’t, if those protagonists are played by Janelle, Taraji and Octavia. I would happily watch more of any of them running intellectual (not to mention sartorial) circles around hissable baddies like Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, who in this movie are the very embodiment of white privilege. We need more heroes like these three, and if anything Hidden Figures makes me retroactively disappointed for all those other space race movies about the 1960s, which only had the rooms filled with suited buzzcut white men.
Director Theodore Melfi; Writers Allison Schroeder and Melfi (based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly); Cinematographer Mandy Walker; Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Friday 17 February 2017.
Sticking with non-American comedy-drama films, one of the masters of this particular blend is the Korean director Hong Sang-soo, who seems to put out several films every year each telling a complicated story of fraught relationships often (though not always) with a comic undertone. He made three films in 2017 for example, at least one of which (Claire’s Camera) is definitely in the same vein and picks up more closely on the Éric Rohmer influences given its French seaside setting (a director well worth checking out for his comic relationship dramas). You could also look back to 2013’s Our Sunhi as another excellent example of his particular touch.
Quite what’s going on with the characters at the heart of this film isn’t ever clear — the leading lady may or may not have a doppelgänger, or an identical twin, or maybe it’s just a game, or some kind of memory issue, or maybe it’s just cinema — but it does that familiar Hong thing of following young people in and out of various bars, where they are seen eating and drinking. There’s even a character who’s a film director. The leading man is working through his feelings about his girlfriend going out drinking heavily with other men, as reported second-hand and then constantly commented on by a variety of friends and barflies. But really, that’s what the film is all about — fragile male insecurity — and it does so very nimbly, with a typical (for this era of Hong’s style) Rohmeresque lightness of touch. His individual films may feel slight at times, but I believe Hong’s body of work is likely to compare with many of film’s greats.
Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo 홍상수; Cinematographer Park Hong-yeol 박홍열; Starring Kim Joo-hyuk 김주혁, Lee Yoo-young 이유영; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 7 February 2019.
Kevin Jerome Everson has been working for fewer than two decades but has already amassed a prodigious body of work, including a huge number of short films. A number of his features and a few short films were presented online as part of a retrospective on Mubi in 2018, which introduced this filmmaker to my attention. Clearly he has his themes and his interests, but with so many films it’s difficult to give more than a hint at his distinctive style.
There are, of course, many ways for a film to be musical. As a genre, the musical is a narrative form with singing (and often dancing), but then there are films that deal at a more basic level with the performance of music itself. Some of these (such as concert films) are easy to separate, but the music video can be a form of narrative expression, and several artists have in recent years extended this form to feature length, not least Beyoncé in her solo work. In many ways, her ‘visual album’ Lemonade is a narrative, and certainly the film that accompanied its release has a structure that uses poetic voiceover to link what might be considered discrete music videos into something approaching a cohesive whole. She followed this with a tour that Homecoming ostensibly documents, although it also presents the performances in extensive chunks.
I feel like I could do that thing of saying what this hour-long visual poem/musical album reminds me of — because there are clearly visual and cinematic cues here — but I don’t really feel equal to that at all. Instead, I’ll observe that to me Lemonade feels both intensely personal (it has two key credited directors in Beyoncé and Kahlil Joseph, alongside many co-directors, but this is an auteur work by Beyoncé more than anyone else) as well as being something of a catalogue of Black visual representations in many styles, from many eras and in many places. In the sense of it being personal, I mean not that it’s a capital-S Statement by Beyoncé about her own life (it may be, but that’s not really what makes it interesting to me), so much as an engagement with a history and dynamic of representation, racism, misogyny, artistic heritage, motherhood, feminism, et al., as refracted through her own personality and shared experiences. I’m probably not really putting this very well, so maybe I should say instead that I think it’s thrilling and wonderful, poetic in style (and interspersed with literal poetry), densely elliptical in its thematics (but maybe that’s just because it’s not aimed at me). It’s not a collection of music videos; it’s a film. And it’s wonderful.
Directors Beyoncé [as “Beyoncé Knowles-Carter”], Kahlil Joseph, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Mark Romanek, Todd Tourso and Jonas Åkerlund; Writers Beyoncé and Warsan Shire; Cinematographers Khalik Allah, Pär Ekberg, Santiago Gonzalez, Chayse Irvin, Reed Morano, Dikayl Rimmasch and Malik Sayeed; Starring Beyoncé; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at home (download), London, Wednesday 27 April 2016 and Sunday 8 May 2016.
Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019)
A record of Beyoncé’s two headline Coachella performances in 2018, interwoven with voices and quotes from prominent Black intellectuals and artists, and backstage snippets of the huge amount of preparation and training that went into this event. Clearly Beyoncé is drawing on a huge range of influences, not least the energetic dancers and musicians of historically black colleges and universities of the American South, hence the Greek letters in the title, and the design of the logo prominently displayed on the performers’ clothing — as, after all, Beyoncé here seems to be creating her own sorority (Beta Delta Kappa) for this ‘homecoming’ to the stage of an historically white-dominated music festival.
Her huge phalanx of talented performers are largely seen on the pyramidal stage which forms the foundation of the whole spectacle — and I’d say it looks cool, which it undoubtedly is, but it’s likely there’s some deeper significance there as well, perhaps a hint at the masonic origins of the (historically white, and usually fairly exclusionary) Greek-lettered fraternities and sororities, or a nod towards her Egyptian forebears as a gesture towards an almost imperial dominion. After all, she also has huge lit-up letters forming the word DIVA, which are illuminated only for a very short period while she’s singing that song, and suggest a playful self-critique while also very clearly being a loud signal that no one should be messing with her.
There are all these kinds of things, a dense network of allusions and references, running through her performance, and it would be beyond me to try and understand (or even list) them all, but needless to say, it’s a glorious and sustaining piece of work.
Director/Writer Beyoncé [as “Beyoncé Knowles-Carter”]; Cinematographers Mark Ritchie; Starring Beyoncé; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 18 April 2019.