Finishing off my week of films I saw at Wellington’s recent French Film Festival is this recent release, which went swiftly into the cinemas and I think has probably done quite well, presumably based on the lead actor’s profile in Call My Agent! (which is certainly where I know her from). I hadn’t realised Robert Louis Stevenson had been a pioneer of hiking, or had links with this area of France, but that was one of the things I learned from this otherwise rather silly (but fun) movie.
Did Balthazar truly die so that Patrick could take a walk with Laure Calamy in the Cévennes? I was all ready to be snarky and dismissive along those lines, but actually this is quite a sweet and even rather funny film in which Calamy basically reprises her role as Noémie in the TV show Call My Agent! but as the titular Antoinette, lovestruck over a married man and barely holding herself together at times, but finding through her journey an inner resilience (nurtured by a growing bond with Patrick the donkey, etc. etc.). I mean, it should all be unwatchable really, but Calamy (a bit like Jane Krakowski on US TV shows like 30 Rock) has a gift at imbuing what seem like shallow caricatures with an inner humanity. She’s introduced as a teacher changing at the back of her classroom into a spangly dress to lead her kids in a rendition of a thematically very inappropriate and slightly gothy song to a group of parents, while winking at what we all assume is her boyfriend, but turns out to be the (married) parent of one of her children, and when he heads off for a holiday with his family, foolishly decides to secretly stalk him. It’s the pure sociopathic stuff of romcoms, but as ever is negotiated largely through having such a likeable lead. Basically, it shouldn’t really work, but it does.
Director/Writer Caroline Vignal (based on the book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson); Cinematographer Simon Beaufils; Starring Laure Calamy, Benjamin Lavernhe, Olivia Côte; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Tuesday 15 June 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.
Moving on in my week of French Film Festival picks from this year is this quirky and odd drama with more than a hint of slapstick comedy about a relationship set against the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war in the mid-1970s. It’s as much about the characters as it is about Beirut, I feel, and about the relationship we have to history as those who have been scarred by it.
I feel like a see a lot of very middling dramas in various film festivals, that are competent and about people dealing with stuff but don’t really bring anything particularly new to the screen either formally or in content. This film deals with the past, and it’s really focused on a relationship between two characters — Alba Rohrwacher’s Alice, a Swiss au pair who goes to help out a Lebanese family and for whom the film is named in the original French, and a Lebanese scientist Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), and the life they have in Beirut together. But it’s also sub rosa about the relationship we have to Beirut’s past, largely lost in a destructive Civil War that started in the mid-70s and against the backdrop of which this plays out. The film is inventive in its formal strategies to depict this sense of displacement, but mounting scenes against a green screen with old photos of Beirut used as the backdrop, or just by occluding certain sights that characters are looking at, or by staging factional fighting using a few characters in masks on what looks like a soundstage, all of which imparts a heightened sense of loss of the past and adds a certain extra melancholy element to the film, which is otherwise rather brightly and quirkily set designed. It doesn’t work in every detail, but its distinctively different from most films set in the past, and Rohrwacher is herself always such an interesting screen presence, that I really liked this film.
Director Chloé Mazlo; Writers Yacine Badday and Mazlo; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Alba Rohrwacher, Wajdi Mouawad وجدي معوض; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Saturday 19 June 2021.
Like any town with more than a handful of cinemas (though barely more than a handful), there are a range of smaller film festivals being organised to show films that otherwise wouldn’t make it to a big screen, and such is the way in Wellington, where recently there was a French Film Festival. It showed a handful of classics (like Breathless) but most of the programme was dedicated to recent films, and I saw a few so that’s what I’ll be focusing on this week. I’ll start with the latest film de Anne Fontaine, the Luxembourger who’s not my favourite filmmaker but who does solid work.
This film is called Police in the original, but the title is shown reflected from right to left, and that very much cues you up to what to expect: it’s about the police, sure, but… are they the good guys? The title is a bold move, though, given there’s a Pialat film of the same name, and, look, I’ve been guilty in the past of seeing that Anne Fontaine directorial credit and being a bit dismissive, but I’ve never really hated any of her films I’ve seen (even Adore aka Perfect Mothers), and I appreciate her spin on fairly well-worn tropes, even if ultimately it all ends up feeling just a little… off somehow. Still, she’s assembled a fine cast of big names. Efira! Sy! Another couple of guys, who feel pretty honest to their characters, and she’s telling a story of morality intersecting with one’s work. It goes where it goes, and it doesn’t explain everything for the viewer; certain outcomes are hinted at, but there’s no expectation of change and I’m not sure Fontaine is even trying to redeem these guys, just give some perspective. I’m not suddenly, as a result, going to start loving cops as film subjects, but this feels like solid character work.
Director Anne Fontaine; Writers Claire Barré and Fontaine (based on the novel by Hugo Boris); Cinematographer Yves Angelo; Starring Virginie Efira, Omar Sy, Gregory Gadebois; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Wednesday 16 June 2021.
Okay, last week I did Netflix, which I could do several more weeks of content about (but I won’t), so this week I’m turning to recently released films that I have seen in an actual cinema. Maybe you can too where you are living, or maybe you can’t, or maybe you can and just don’t want to. These are all valid options. But I still love the cinema experience. Anyway, I haven’t reviewed the original A Quiet Place (2018) on this site (because I just watched it a few hours before I went into the cinema for the sequel), but it is better, so keep that in mind, if you haven’t seen either.
This sequel had its early-2020 release delayed for reasons that only make more prescient its central theme about the survival of a family after a deadly year of living under constant threat of death. However, compared to the first film, by opening out the narrative into a larger world featuring other people and communities also surviving the threat, it loses some of the qualities that made the first so taut a thriller. For a start, and for a film with the premise it has and the title it has, it’s a lot more talky, to the extent where you wonder if the screenwriters renegotiated a contract where they were paid by the word, because while the first was largely signed and had maybe a few terse sentences tops, this one has long stretches of chatting. And while Emily Blunt is still the matriarch of this family unit, Millicent Simmonds as her deaf daughter Regan becomes a more central character overall to the film, which is probably the right decision. However, opening the world out leads to even more moments of wondering why characters are acting the way they do, in ways that don’t seem to make a lot of sense. Overall, it feels like a lesser film compared to the original, though not without some fine set-pieces.
Director/Writer John Krasinski; Cinematographer Polly Morgan; Starring Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Cillian Murphy, Noah Jupe; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 5 June 2021.
So, Netflix: we know it has a lot of content. It makes a lot of content too, but sometimes you have to really hunt down stuff, because it generally just shows you what most people like you already watch. However, there are vast tranches of strange corners of filmic production. In the UK there are loads of Scandinavian films from the silent era onwards, somewhat randomly. There is Polish and Turkish popular cinema, plenty from India, and then there are places like Indonesia and the Philippines. Every so often I watch a popular Filipino romcom and let’s just say they can be of variable quality, which is why this film by Antoinette Jadaone sticks out.
This film goes dark in ways I didn’t really expect from a Filipino movie. Its director, Antoinette Jadaone, has certainly made her share of the kind of fluffy upbeat brightly-coloured and sentimental romcoms that I’ve become used to seeing (though even among those, 2014’s That Thing Called Tadhana is, I think, one of the highlights and it’s also written and directed by Jadaone). And it’s in this candy-coloured popcorn romcom film where this one starts. It has its 16-year-old protagonist and title character Jane (Charlie Dizon) at a glossy promotional event for the latest blockbuster by Paulo Avelino, who’s playing a version of himself (I certainly hope it’s fictionalised, anyway). When she steals away in his truck, there ensues a day and evening in which her fantasising about him comes crashing to earth. It’s largely set in a dark, rather gothic home, with brooding shades of the horror film to it, as Paulo reveals himself to be a tattooed, drug-taking alcoholic with a secret child and a tormented relationship, inspiring Jane to reflect on her own difficult life and how their stories cross over. She still really wants to be with him, though, and that dangerous desire is shown to be both a positive force but also dangerous for her, and I think what’s interesting about the film is the way it negotiates all these levels of desire, and doesn’t simply craft a film that decries modern fandom or equally attempt to find something pure in it: it’s a complex relationship, dealing with the darker side of romcoms’ obsessive lover plotlines, and certainly indicates that Jadaone, amongst the popular cinema of the Philippines, is more interested in making complex films.
Director/Writer Antoinette Jadaone; Cinematographer Neil Daza; Starring Charlie Dizon, Paulo Avelino; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 29 June 2021.
Moving onto another quite different NZ film from the documentary I reviewed yesterday, there’s this. Roseanne Liang is a NZ-born and raised director who made an interesting debut (which I shall cover later in the week) and went on a few years later — presumably it took time to bring the project together — to make this utterly ridiculous B-movie action horror thriller, which I really enjoyed but certainly pulled down mixed reviews.
I saw the trailer for this and it seemed like something I’d definitely not want to watch. After all, I’m hardly the biggest fan of the lead actor (though she’s been in some good films), and it looked silly. Well, it is silly. It is beyond absurd. But the thing about starting from a place of absurdity is that you can pretty much do anything, and this film goes to places other films don’t, or at least not since that classic era of weird off-the-wall B-movies (the 50s? maybe the 70s). It takes its low-budget constrictions and spins them off into all kinds of things in its taut running time: an intense horror-inflected chamber psychodrama; a film about toxic masculinity in war; an emotional story of domestic abuse and motherhood; an alien film; a WW2 fighter film; the kind of action film where characters climb across the outside of a moving plane; and a bunch of other stuff, although I feel that this much is in the trailer if you’re attentive. And somehow, despite the involvement of screenwriter M*x L*nd*s (who I can only assume contributed the misogyny, though that’s one of the film’s themes, and it’s pretty clear that it’s very much set against it), it all seems to work somehow — or at least it does for me. I can imagine other people finding this just downright bad, but I think it might be some kind of masterpiece. It certainly deserves a release on one of those psychotronic video labels in maybe 50 years as an undiscovered classic.
Director Roseanne Liang; Writers Max Landis and Liang; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Taylor John Smith, Nick Robinson; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at the Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 February 2021.
Another thing that’s useful about Netflix is it’s where a lot of the films that don’t get big releases in English-speaking countries can find their audience. Whether it’s Bollywood, Nollywood, or East Asian popular cinema, like this Chinese film (or maybe Hong Kong film: certainly here it was only on Netflix in Cantonese, but it looked like a dub). I’m not even sure it got much of a release in its home country, which makes sense given the events of 2020, but it’s on Netflix and if you like this kind of CGI-heavy fantasy adventure, then worth checking out.
A rather jolly monster-based romp, which I wouldn’t characterise as a kids’ movie (it has some fairly nightmare-inducing stuff at times) but has the sort of polished sheen of one. I’m not sure if the monsters are supposed to represent anything in particular for our protagonist (Jessie Li), but she doesn’t seem to show much spark in this film, perhaps because her character is supposed to be a little ground-down by life. Still, Mrs Lotus (Kara Hui) makes for a good villain and the monster CGI and fight scenes are quite fun, even if the latter takes up a lot of the last part of the film (at the expense of the monsters, who sort of disappear for a bit). I certainly liked it, even if I lost the plot a bit at times.
Director Henri Wong 黄智亨; Writers Fan Wenwen 范文文, Wong, Wang Yahe 王亚鹤, Alex Zhang 张卓鹏 and Disha Zhang 章笛沙; Cinematographers Po Wing Ho [Baorong He] 何宝荣 and Charlie Lam 林志坚; Starring Shawn Yue 余文樂, Jessie Li 李俊杰, Kara Hui 惠英紅; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Friday 19 February 2021.
If there’s one thing you can rely on Netflix for, it’s formulaic teen movies and romcoms, and then maybe the intersection between those. They have lots of examples, yes, I’ve seen plenty, but mostly they’re pretty likeable I find, and it’s a genre they seem able to do quite well. So here’s another teen film and another dance competition film, with a little bit of romcom to it but not too much.
It would be easy to write this film off as formulaic, because after all it is formulaic: it follows the ‘let’s form a team and beat our peers in the big finale’ and it cleaves tightly to all the rules as we understand them. Plus, being set in a high school, it folds in all the rules around teen high school movies too (all those cliques to introduce). And then there’s the team in question, which is a dance troupe, and already this film feels very mid-2010s because we’ve seen all those movies already, and clearly so have the filmmakers. But I can’t write it off, because dance movies still spark joy in me however formulaic they may be, and this one isn’t entirely witless. Sabrina Carpenter in the lead is pretty good (except at pretending to be bad at dancing), her band of high school misfits endearing in almost exactly the same way as, say, Pitch Perfect, and the love story is almost perfunctory, but I found it all very likeable and watchable, once you get past the initial wobbles (where the screenplay tries to throw in of-the-moment buzzwords like ‘being cancelled’ in a really clunky way).
Director Laura Terruso; Writer Alison Peck; Cinematographer Rogier Stoffers; Starring Sabrina Carpenter, Liza Koshy, Jordan Fisher, Keiynan Lonsdale; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 14 February 2021.
I think it’s time I did another themed week, as I’ve been relying a little too much on the Criterion Sunday reviews on this blog and have let it go a bit. So in time-honoured fashion, we return to Netflix, a number of whose films I’ve seen in recent weeks, and which range in quality from the ‘bad’ to the ‘pretty okay but not much better than just good’, which is to be fair essentially the range of most Netflix films (with a few exceptions). The first I’m covering is one I saw in a cinema, but came out on Netflix shortly after, where probably most everyone else saw it.
Tom Hanks often seems to pick roles that speak somehow to a facet of the American experience. Here he’s Captain Kidd, a newsreader, but a peculiarly 19th century, post-Civil War version of that, travelling around small Texas towns gathering up dimes for the villagers to hear him tell stories from the newspapers. The idea is that he’s selecting the stories of value to them, placing him somewhere between a preacher and an organiser at times, as when he foments rebellion in a particularly hellish county town, but to British viewers at least the film’s title places him in a lineage of tabloid journos, sometimes greatly elaborating these stories to make them play better, perhaps making them up wholesale. It certainly seems to widen the scope of the Spielberg film The Post about modern news journalism. Still, the heart of the film is Kidd’s relationship with a young girl he finds on the road (Helena Zengel), German by birth but raised by Kiowa people, and now orphaned from both. The story of them getting to know one another, learning bits of each others’ language, is perhaps too familiar and the film can seem quite lumpy at times. Still, it’s nice to the see the girl at the heart of System Crasher extend her range, while still exhibiting the feral quality that came over so strongly there, and Hanks is always dependable as a weathered but genial surrogate, plus it has a beautiful, sweeping quality that seems inbred into the Western genre and comes across well here.
Director Paul Greengrass; Writers Greengrass and Luke Davies (based on the novel by Paulette Jiles); Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Wednesday 3 February 2021.