Colectiv (Collective, 2019)

Last week I started a themed week around new(ish) releases I saw in the cinema, but then halfway through the week I got distracted by a new job, and you know, where does all the time go? So I forgot to post for the last few days, meaning I’m going to pick up again this week, starting with a recent Oscar-nominated best documentary film from Romania.


There are a few stories swirling around in this Romanian documentary, like the one it takes its name from, and where it effectively starts: the tragedy that saw the Colectiv nightclub burn down in Bucharest to great loss of life. However, this is probably of least interest to the film (we don’t learn why it happened, nor who was responsible, largely because I imagine the details are fairly banal, and there have been a number of cases of this kind of fire even in recent decades). That the fire led to the fall of the government is also covered in the opening text scrawl. No, this documentary swiftly becomes about why so many died in the aftermath of the fire, even with relatively minor burns compared to some who survived. It’s a story of government corruption around the building, management and supply of hospitals, and while a few individuals lose their jobs, it’s also fairly clear by the end that wider accountability is still to be delivered. After all, the party which was in power during the time of the fire, and whose corruption is at the heart of the allegations, was voted back into power within a year.

Where the early part of the film focuses on the journalistic investigations (by a sports daily, no less, such is the state of the country’s journalism), it later moves to focusing on the youthful new Minister of Health, whose behind-the-scenes efforts to deal with widespread corruption are quickly spun by the state media, and who you feel surprised is even trying to do good by the end, such are the forces arrayed against him. This is all captured by the filmmaker, who focuses on little details to draw out some of the ironies of the situations, contrasting it with a background story about one of the survivors of the fire trying to rebuild her life. It’s hard to respond to the film without a sigh of cynicism about politicians and corruption (it’s hardly the only country to have failed to levy accountability after a disastrous fire caused by lax health or building standards), but it’s heartening (a little bit) to see a few people who do still care about trying to change things, and that’s what I am trying to carry away from this film.

Colectiv (Collective, 2019)CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Alexander Nanau; Writers Nanau and Antoaneta Opriș; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 28 March 2021.

First Cow (2019)

I have been holding out for this particular film since I first heard about it after it screened at the 2019 New York Film Festival. That was even before there was a pandemic, and needless to say I’m extremely glad it’s finally been screened in NZ, because it’s clearly not the most commercial of pictures. Perhaps some of the director’s previous excellent works got it that slot, or maybe it’s because there was less of a glut of Hollywood nonsense clogging up the screens, but either way I’m glad! It’s great! I saw it twice.


Director Kelly Reichardt’s style by now is pretty evolved, and there’s a gentleness to the pacing that belies some of the emotional stakes. Because at core this is a film about capitalism and exploitation even in the supposed freedom of the frontier, out west in early-19th century Oregon. It couldn’t be more different tonally (and in Academy-ratio colour rather than black-and-white) but I kept thinking of the similar backdrop to Dead Man and how differently the two films handle this land and the characters who are out here forging a life (the kind of loud-mouthed military man played by Ewen Bremner is far more cut from that generic cloth than the two leads, the kinds of people you just don’t usually see in Westerns, being quiet and humble and self-effacing). However, having the comparison in mind already meant it didn’t feel like much of a surprise when Gary Farmer showed up in a small role towards the end. At a narrative level, though, what surprised me is that this is essentially the story of the first hipster food stall in Oregon (of course I jest, it’s so much more than that) but also that suggests an underlying comedy that might easily be missed by focusing on the harsh frontier lives or the pathos of this single cow out there on a rich man’s land.

First Cow (2019)CREDITS
Director Kelly Reichardt; Writers Jonathan Raymond and Reichardt (based on Raymond’s novel The Half Life); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 30 April 2021 and Wednesday 5 May 2021.

Salir del ropero (So My Grandma’s a Lesbian!, 2019)

If you watch enough Netflix you will of course plumb some fairly murky depths when it comes to mediocre filmmaking. And because I’m trying to fill out this themed week, here’s one of them. It’s not one I chose myself, it was watched with a group of friends (well, online not in the same room), but there you go, I did watch it. I cannot in all honesty recommend it to you.


I think a more accurate title would be “So My Granddaughter’s a Homophobe” given how relatively little time is spent on the grandmas (who are obviously the most interesting characters). This has its moments, most of which appear to be a sort of anodyne Almodóvar, but it hardly does itself any favours with the terrible young people and the bad Scottish accents. It is clearly aiming to keep things light and fluffy, and I do think its heart is in the right place, but it is a bit wayward at times.

So My Grandma's a Lesbian! film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ángeles Reiné; Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine; Starring Rosa Maria Sardà, Verónica Forqué, Ingrid García-Jonsson; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Friday 5 February 2021.

Talking About Trees (2019)

One of my favourite films of last year was a documentary about filmmaking, and about film culture, in a place where it’s been allowed to die. Four elderly men try to revive cinemagoing in Sudan, and it’s a film about life and the difficulty of living in certain political conditions, but the drive to keep on going anyway.


Although it’s a documentary, fairly straightforward as these things go, there’s something of a deeper resonance to it. Partly that’s the style, the way it unfolds at a leisurely pace. After all, it’s about four elderly filmmakers trying to bring back the cinema to their country of Sudan, trying to find a suitable space, getting the screen and cameras and sound sorted, looking for the right title, and getting the official permissions in order. And so if it feels unhurried, that’s partly because these are all men who don’t have anywhere else to be going, or so it seems. The passion, though, is real and very evident as they try to get their project going. As it moves along, the documentary also hints at some of the promise of Sudanese cinema, which died back when these men were young, and about the political state of their country. In one memorable scene, one of the men counts off all the times they lived through: “colonialism, the first democracy, the first dictatorship, the second democracy, the second dictatorship…” So in fact the film is not really talking about trees or insubstantial subjects, but dealing with something that feels more tragic in its hue. You hope for their success, but it seems to recede further the more the film plays.

Talking About Trees film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Suhaib Gasmelbari صهيب الباري; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 February 2020.

The Lighthouse (2019)

While I was compiling my favourite films of 2020 list, I realised that there were still some titles I hadn’t posted full reviews of, so I’m going to try and knock the rest of those out this week. I’m going to start with a distinctive 2019 film that took its time getting to the UK, which is probably why I forgot to post a review of it. Still, it remains strikingly vivid in my mind.


I’ve not seen a Robert Eggers film before, but he’s certainly a stylist. It’s a film that hints strongly at a certain period without ever being specific, but then it moves between heavyweight historical grime, supernatural horror and something even rather mythic — and without giving away anything in my review, this becomes fairly explicit by the last shot. I came to this via Robert Pattinson (a very fine actor), whose accent also hints strongly at geography without ever quite landing on any one place (which may well be a conscious decision) but the one thing you can’t say about either of the leads (Pattinson or Willem Defoe) is that they’re afraid to commit. This in many ways is most reminiscent — in that commitment, in its blend of history and fantasy, but perhaps above all in the sheer unrelenting grimy muddy mulch of the film — of Hard to Be a God, and both pretty far out in performances. I’m not sure what it all adds up to, but I did rather admire it nonetheless (and discovering it was at least partly shot and funded by Canada, makes a lot more tonal sense to me).

The Lighthouse film posterCREDITS
Director Robert Eggers; Writers Robert Eggers and Max Eggers; Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke; Starring Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 26 January 2020.

Vai (2019)

This film was released in this country last year, but I’ve only just arrived and needless to say it hasn’t been out many other places — not that I think it wouldn’t do well, just that I suppose an eight-part portmanteau about versions of the titular character, seen at various stages of life on various Pacific Islands, isn’t the most marketable. It’s great though, in my opinion, the best kind of thing you can do with the format.


As a progression from 2017’s Waru (which was by the same production company), this Polynesian portmanteau film makes a lot of sense. In a way it’s less narratively tight because it’s not following a single storyline through all its short films, but in many ways it’s more interesting, because there are themes reflected in each of the separate pieces which broaden the story. It still ties everything together neatly by having the same cinematographer work on all of them (Drew Sturge), who shoots almost all as a single unbroken take. That’s not to say there aren’t any specifics, because each of the sections has its own sense of space, and the title cards make it clear that these are set on different islands, so we can’t take all of the rituals and customs we see as part of a single continuity. That said, they do very much work together, and I imagine there are some common roots across the region in, say, the prominence of fishing as a rite of passage (the “Solomon Islands” section is set entirely in a canoe as our 16-year-old Vai desperately tries to get her bait on the line) or the importance of ancestors (seen most clearly in “Samoa”, where Fiona Collins’s Vai leads what appears to be a funerary procession and literally witnesses her ancestors join in from beside their graves, one of the more moving moments in the whole film).

So it tells a generational story, from the young kid in “Fiji” through to Hinetu Dell reflecting on mortality as the film closes, but it’s also based around themes of the sea and water, which makes sense given its pan-Pacific Islands perspective. If Waru was land-based (and land rights have by necessity been a key theme in Māori history), then Vai is about the power of the ocean. This means that the “NZ Born Samoan” section is probably the weakest thematically, but in a sense the political point it’s making about the academy and about the colonising influence of (white, European) priorities suggests that the drama of the character there is her very lack of connection to the sustenance of the ocean. Conversely in “Tonga”, though our young characters are surrounded by water, they have trouble sourcing any which they can safely drink, and its sustenance is threatened by industrial fishing in “Kuki ‘Airani”. All these stories around a similarly-named titular character become in a sense stories of the same person but as they might be shaped in each of these spaces, but for all this, there’s an underlying hopefulness that comes through clearly, the hope provided by continuity with one’s roots, and which I think marks an advance on Waru.

Vai film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Nicole Whippy, Sharon Whippy, ‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Matasila Freshwater, Amberley Jo Aumua, Mīria George, Marina Alofagia McCartney, Dianna Fuemana and Becs Arahanga; Cinematographer Drew Sturge; Starring Ro Mereani Adi Tuimatanisiga, Ar-Ramadi Longopoa, Betsy Luitolo, Agnes Pele, Evotia-Rose Araiti, Fiona Collins, Maliaga Erick, Hinetu Dell; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 23 December 2020.

Vitalina Varela (2019)

This film was at the 2019 London Film Festival, where a lot of people I know and like had already seen it and fallen in love. At festivals I try to prioritise films I don’t expect to come back to cinemas, but that also sometimes means a bit of a wait, and 2020 in general will probably mean I don’t see some classics for a year or two yet. Pedro Costa’s got its cinema release while I was on holiday, and by the time I got back, we were into lockdown, so I belatedly caught up with on Mubi. Home viewng doesn’t really seem the ideal way to experience Costa’s frequently very darkly-lit pieces, but it turns out the power was still very evident, making this easily one of my favourites.


For whatever reason, I found it difficult to get into Horse Money, Pedro Costa’s last film in 2014, but I think part of it is just down to how tired you are when you watch them (and I was very tired), because they have a curiously oneiric/soporific quality, falling somewhere in between wakefulness and lucid dreaming (I’m reminded a little of the tone of Lucrecia Martel’s films also, although stylistically they are quite different). The frame in any given shot within a Costa movie is frequently dominated by heavy shadows, with the encroaching darkness that looms from the edges of the frame suggesting both a lingering mood and the difficulty characters have in moving forward. This film starts with a death, telegraphed through glimpsed items, characters posed in mourning, a bloodied pillow and sheets suggestive of trauma, and it’s into this that the title character arrives, the wife of the recently deceased (picking up on a story told in the earlier film). The darkness of the frames is matched to the decrepitude of the dwelling places, mud and dirt, a broken roof, a sense of society in collapse — this is Portugal, though the characters all come from Cape Verde off the coast of Africa, and colonialism seems to be an unspoken backdrop to the drama. It’s slow cinema, of course, reminding me of similar imagery (albeit more waterlogged) in Tsai Ming-liang’s films, but if you’re attuned to it — and I felt more so here than the last time I watched a Costa film — it feels rewarding too.

Vitalina Varela film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Pedro Costa; Cinematographer Leonardo Simões; Starring Vitalina Varela, Ventura; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi), London, Wednesday 17 June 2020.

Lucky Grandma (aka 幸運的奶奶, 2019)

I was expecting a very slowburn arthouse indie film from this, as it was at last year’s London Film Festival, and I guess I never did read the reviews, but had a sense that people liked it. I wasn’t fully expecting its turn into genre fights, but the film holds it together rather well. It has recently been released to cinemas in NZ, and I don’t doubt it’ll be on home streaming elsewhere.


By all accounts, once the funding got approved this film was made pretty speedily, but it never looks anything less than stylish and polished. Tonally it seems to owe a lot to recent southeast Asian cinema, with a very steely and quiet gaze and an almost glacially deadpan comedy, but it all works really well even in the context of New York’s Chinatown where it’s set. Of course, it helps that Tsai Chin really anchors the film as the title character, introduced smoking a cigarette in the looming darkness of a fortune teller’s shop, as she learns she’s coming into some extraordinary luck. Of course things don’t quite go the way she (and we the audience) imagine, but there’s still plenty of great setpieces. Even when it took a turn into some decidedly genre territory — mafia thugs and shootouts and all that — the film didn’t manage to lose me, which I think is testament to the good will it builds up over the course of its running time, and that fantastic lead performance.

Lucky Grandma film posterCREDITS
Director Sasie Sealy; Writers Angela Cheng and Sealy; Cinematographer Eduardo Enrique Mayén; Starring Tsai Chin 周采芹, Hisao-Yuan Ha, Michael Tow, Yan Xi; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Monday 2 November 2020.

Maasai Remix (2019)

There was a small African Film Festival which took place here in Wellington this past weekend, and which will have a (slightly expanded) programme in Auckland at the end of the month. It was a chance to catch up a few recent films, both documentaries and fiction. This one is the former, and while it has a somewhat academic feel to it, it’s still interesting and enlightening about ongoing social justice issues.


I can’t really fault this documentary, made under the auspices of the University of Michigan (if I deduce correctly from the end credits) and directed by members of the faculty there, in the way that it earnestly tells the story of a few members of the Maasai people, who live in lands in Tanzania and Kenya. Their story, which is a familiar colonial story of dispossession from areas of the greatest natural resources, pushing them into less productive lands and leading to protracted and ongoing fights for their rights to their ancestral lands. Access to education is the film’s particular interest, showing how this has helped a number of Maasai to leadership positions on a global stage (specifically, the United Nations), which has in turn allowed them to promote the importance of education amongst their communities, and how those who have been educated (such as Evelyne, whom we see studying in Northern Arizona) have made a material difference to their own lives and that of their families. There are a number of interviews with each of them over a course of years, with some fairly dry footage of them at the UN, but also in their villages (which in the case of these Maasai are in Tanzania), and it’s certainly interesting to see. I suppose it has a certain didactic feeling, as you might expect from a university-sponsored public education documentary, but it provides some interesting context to indigenous rights in this part of the continent.

Maasai Remix film posterCREDITS
Directors Ron Mulvihill and Kelly Askew; Cinematographer Mulvihill; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Sunday 8 November 2020.

It Must Be Heaven (2019)

Well it’s been a few weeks since my last themed week, and now that I’m settled in Wellington (albeit in a temporary rented accommodation in Lower Hutt), I’ve been able to return to seeing films. Therefore this week will be loosely themed as ‘films I’ve seen in the cinema since arriving in New Zealand’. I can’t therefore promise any consistency, but it will be a fairly loose collection of random films that have been on release here recently, along with some one-off screenings (there has been an African Film Festival this past weekend, and there’s an Italian one ongoing, though it tempts me less).


Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman has written, directed and starred in a number of deadpan comedy films over the years, of which I’ve only previously caught up with one (2002’s Divine Intervention, which I appear to have liked only somewhat). However, if this film is typical, there’s a strong connection with the tradition of Jacques Tati, if not the mordant satire of late Buñuel (via a filmmaker like Otar Iosseliani, who is brought to my mind during the Parisian section particularly).

Suleiman silently observes those around him in three sections, in his home of Nazareth, in Paris and then in New York, in a series of setpieces that suggest a certain critical view of Palestinian life, and which become retrospectively clearer in a film producer’s office during the Parisian section, as the producer tells Suleiman that his work isn’t specific enough, being about the Palestinian experience but in a way that could be set anywhere — which indeed he has done with this very film. Paris is eerily quiet, but with an undertone of militaristic threat (police officers chasing a lone suspect on segways is particularly amusing, or the tanks rolling along a boulevard in the background). There’s this constant play with his themes that is often rather hilarious, if in a muted way, and the precise framing and fine acting from Suleiman in just reacting to the absurdist events around him lends his film a real piquancy.

It Must Be Heaven film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Elia Suleiman إيليا سليمان; Cinematographer Sofian El Fani سفيان الفاني; Starring Elia Suleiman إيليا سليمان; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 3 November 2020.