Spencer (2021)

Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here). This isn’t the only film on my list to have been comprehensively talked out already. You don’t need another review of it, you got everything you needed about a year ago. But it wasn’t released in NZ until into 2022, and despite all my many reservations, I really enjoyed it. Not because of any fondness for its subject, but because of the way it was done, the atmosphere it evoked. So here we go, another review.


This film is a whole vibe, and either you get with it or you don’t, I somewhat suspect. I did, but I can understand people who go the other way. In terms of its felicity to ‘real life’, well I think that’s a fraught question at least; I’ve seen some people marvel at the accuracy of Kristen Stewart’s performance. I’m not enough of a devoted royal watcher to really know how much she captured Diana, but I don’t really see her specifically in Stewart’s portrayal. But this is as much a story about a woman in a particular situation, imagining how it might go down; it’s a fable and a fantasy, it’s shot in a hazy, gauzy, pastel-hued way yet somehow also manages to channel gothic horror. But Stewart’s Diana is trapped from the start, a doomed woman, even if around her the royal family seem nothing so much as zombies, not least Charles (Jack Farthing) and Her Majesty, who have the deadest of eyes. So she only has her head to delve further into; she gets visions of Anne Boleyn and increasingly dissociative fragments of an alternate reality, which we know is not her own because she’s giddy and happy, moving down endless corridors like Kubrick’s The Shining, cautiously at first perhaps, but with an increasing abandon as the film progresses. Against my best instincts — because I really do not like or want to hear about the British royal family — it manages to be a beautiful film, and an excellent performance as ever by Stewart who goes in fully and bodily to the whole thing. Whether it captures Diana per se, I can’t say, but it captures something fleeting, somehow both archly camp and deeply felt, about an impossible life.

Spencer (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Pablo Larraín; Writer Steven Knight; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 6 February 2022.

Benediction (2021)

Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here). Maybe I missed the gathering of the Terence Davies fans last year, but I don’t recall many people listing this on any year-end best-of lists for some reason, and that perplexes me. He’s never exactly been fashionable, but this was a really strong film, an evocation of the past and the movement from youthful impetuousness into a conservative older age, set against the backdrop of WW1 and the ensuing interwar period.


Nobody is out here making films like Terence Davies. As it opens, this comes across like a combination of archival museum video that you watch in hushed silence in a media centre before entering a memorial to a horrifying past, along with the kind of TV drama which feels boldly experimental sheerly out of budgetary necessity (such enterprises usually restricting themselves to a handful of sets in old buildings sparsely populated by actors in costumes). And yet, for all that this seems like exactly the kind of thing cinema should not be doing, I really do mean it not in a bad way — for example, Raul Ruiz’s magisterial Mysteries of Lisbon very much had that latter kind of quality, and it doesn’t even feel like cost cutting but about cutting away the pointless aggrandisements of the costume/period genres to get to something essential.

In this film, Jack Lowden is fantastic as Siegfried Sassoon, who has a tender impish charm alongside a bitter seriousness (though it’s really only the latter quality that Peter Capaldi as his older version gets to show, his youthful esprit having been thoroughly dissipated). Not being familiar with Sassoon’s story, I was somewhat surprised he lived past the First World War (I think in my head I had conflated him rather too much with Wilfred Owen), but this film captures something of the turmoil of the early-20th century, while cataloguing popular/gay culture of the period (Ivor Novello, Edith Sitwell, and quite a parade of handsome slightly bland looking chiselled youths that flit through Siegried’s life).

It’s a fascinating way to tell this story, which gives as much time for him to read a poem to himself as it does to rather more melodramatic goings on, but it’s an effective story that neither panders to its period nor to us as modern viewers, and is all the better for that.

Benediction (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terence Davies; Cinematographer Nicola Daley; Starring Jack Lowden, Simon Russell Beale, Peter Capaldi, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Sunday 24 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 582: Carlos (2010)

I’ve seen this before, as a feature-length film, and found it passably enjoyable, but the almost six-hour miniseries version (perhaps unsurprisingly) has a lot more depth to it, as it pulls out this character of ‘the jackal’, a terrorist in a very self-consciously revolutionary mould, whose idealism gives way to a sort of middle-age bloat (both literally and figuratively). The strength and clarity of his cause in the early part of the film, as this Venezuelan man of the world (a fantastic central performance from fellow countryman Édgar Ramírez) affects a Che-like posture in his belief in the liberation of the oppressed, is over the course of the film chipped away. The man is shown to be fallible, a little bit pathetic, never truly as ideologically pure as he believes, and prone to all kinds of peccadilloes. The violence of his cause isn’t glamorised or downplayed, and it’s pretty clear that he is — at the very least — a pawn of more powerful global actors, who pull him first this way and then that, as what seemed like hard and fast principles are won over by competing demands, new inflammatory rhetoric, and then money, luxury, younger girlfriends, an easy life. The film (and Ramírez) still allows him a certain dented nobility, but the miniseries length ensures no facet of his facade is left entirely intact, and Assayas is as ever adept at capturing his milieu and gives plenty of time to some of his most prominent missions.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Olivier Assayas; Writers Assayas, Dan Franck and Daniel Leconte; Cinematographers Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir; Starring Édgar Ramírez, Nora von Waldstätten, Christoph Bach, Alexander Scheer, Ahmad Kaabour أحمد قعبور; Length 339 minutes (in three parts).

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 22, Sunday 23 and Tuesday 25 October 2022 (and earlier in a shorter version at home, London, in the 2010s).

Whina (2022)

As usual, my film blog has become largely just the Criterion Sunday entries this year, so I’m going to try and post more reviews of other films, maybe some that actually make it to cinemas in this country. This one is a local production, and it’s good to see one of the co-directors/co-writers is a wāhine, one of the crop of fine women directors who gained greater exposure via Waru (2017). It’s based on the life of Dame Whina Cooper, who is probably not as well known even in Aotearoa as she used to be, but retains a fearsome reputation for her land rights activism and Māori leadership up to her death at the age of 98.


I can’t really deny that I found this affecting, so any flaws were very much ones that are inherent to any generation-spanning biopic treatment. Given the time constraints, events from Dame Whina’s life are distilled down into short scenes, often between people representing different ideas, in order to keep things moving. There’s a constant back and forth between the 1975 hīkoi (march) that she led down the length of the North Island as an 80-year-old (though she lived another 18 years after that) and events from earlier in her life, and it’s very much that younger self, played by Miriama McDowell, who makes the most impact in the narrative. I was left wanting more to flesh out her life but that would probably have needed a wider canvas (like a miniseries). What’s here though is strong, and is focused around the community in its own spaces (we see nothing of the government and the only real pākehā representative is the Catholic priest), and that’s probably the film’s greatest strength, in depicting the power of community organising and action. It’s a suitable stage for Whina too, and the best place to gauge her contribution to society (there’s one brief scene of her in a Wellington boardroom and it doesn’t go too well). The only regret I was left with is that, if this had been a very different film with a different attitude to history, she would have flicked one of her late husband’s cigarettes over her shoulder as she turned to leave the Bishop’s Auckland church, as, in slow-motion and under a thudding rock soundtrack, she burnt down his church like he did her meeting house. The line the filmmakers went with is almost as damning, but…

Whina (2022)CREDITS
Directors James Napier Robertson and Paula Whetu Jones; Writers James Lucas, Napier Robertson and Jones; Cinematographer Leon Narbey; Starring Miriama McDowell, Rena Owen, Vinnie Bennett, James Rolleston; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 9 July 2021.

Criterion Sunday 503: Lola Montès (1955)

This is one of those grand European follies (like Les Amants du Pont-Neuf in more recent times, perhaps) which burned up money in its production and then failed spectacularly at the box office, but it’s the last film by the great director Max Ophüls and if it’s a failure, it’s a spectacular and beautiful one, immaculately staged and choreographed. Of course, as a film, it’s not a failure at all, but perhaps it just didn’t suit the tastes of the mid-1950s audience. It’s set a hundred years earlier, around the time of the revolutions of 1848, and tells a story of a courtesan and (apparently fairly indifferent) dancer known primarily for her liaisons with rich and powerful men, such is the way of that era’s stardom. Martine Carol in the title role is a glamorous presence but, when seen from the vantage point of her later years performing in a circus, a curiously voiceless one, as the ringmaster Peter Ustinov puts most of her words into her mouth. I don’t think that’s a failure of acting, though: if she feels underwhelming, it’s because her life has pushed her to this, and the flashbacks in which her story is told find her with more agency and a more vibrant presence. But acting aside this is a film peculiarly constructed in the staging and shooting, as beautifully framed widescreen images are composed, and the emotional movement of the story is as evident from the camerawork as from the screenplay or acting. Undoubtedly a film to lose oneself in on the big screen, it’s one of cinema’s great films by one of the medium’s finest directors.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel La Vie extraordinaire de Lola Montès by Cécil Saint-Laurent); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Will Quadflieg, Oskar Werner; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 30 July 2000 (as well as earlier on laserdisc at the university, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022).

Criterion Sunday 496: Che (2008)

The first time I saw Steven Soderbergh’s magnum opus, his enormous two-part biopic/investigation of Argentine doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s revolutionary life, I think I must have been a bit underwhelmed. In retrospect it’s probably significantly to the film’s benefit that it avoids the preachiness of most Hollywood biopics, and certainly avoids some of the moralising traps of other Soderbergh films. It’s hardly a revolutionary picture itself, though, and feels overly interested in pastiching period news footage in the scenes from NYC in 1964, with grainy black-and-white, off-centre close-up framings, nervous handheld camerawork and on-screen captions that mimic exactly the font of those old burned-in subtitles you used to see in footage. In other words, you wonder at times if it was more about the technical challenge than capturing the man, and certainly contemporaneous accounts invested a lot in the digital technology Soderbergh was using. But yet at its heart I feel as if this is quite an earnest project. Guevara isn’t the hero of the kind you see on the famous poster images, but just a man amongst many others (and women, too, as we see in the guerrilla armies he forms and leads) trying to make a positive change to a country mired in corruption, no thanks to US involvement. Soderbergh is hardly interested in digging deep into the politics, but just by focusing on Guevara, Castro and the others there’s a gentle sense of solidarity with those holding these revolutionary ideals and the dream of a future forged in training camps in the jungles and skirmishes on the streets.

Moving on a few years for the second half of this epic, it’s clearly possible to see how it works in tandem with the first part. That film presented revolutionary ideology and practice with the stylistic flash of, say, the contemporary New Wave cinemas of the era, as Guevara worked alongside his fellows in Cuba in the late-1950s, intercut with interviews and speeches at the UN in 1964. This part takes a quite different tack, going for more of a handheld observational style, using a muted colour palette that really downplays the lushness of the highland setting, as Guevara faces up to the reality of the struggle in Bolivia in 1967. If the first was a film about glory, this is a film mostly about disappointment and failure. Its episodic march of time, numbered by the days Guevara has spent in country, sees his people slowly picked off, their deaths really just captured in passing or off-screen, as the action follows increasingly bearded men messing around in the hills, trying to win over the local people and with a mounting sense of desperation. There’s nothing glorious here, but there’s a certain fascination to Che’s resolve, even as he’s battered by asthma and poor discipline from the forces he’s trying to lead. Perhaps by design, but it feels almost underwhelming after the first part, a corrective perhaps but a sad one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Che: Part One (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen (based on the non-fiction work Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria cubana [Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War] by Ernesto Guevara); Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Demián Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Julia Ormond; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 13 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).

Che: Part Two (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen; Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Franka Potente, Gastón Pauls, Lou Diamond Phillips; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 17 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).

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.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

A film that came out earlier this year, and got some Oscar nods (including a win for Kaluuya), is this impressive biopic. It’s hardly perfect but it’s put together well with some fine performances, and shines some light on an underappreciated aspect of revolutionary American history.


This feels in many ways like a pretty traditional biopic showing all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre, with its arc through to someone’s death, and though it’s not clunky or badly directed, it really stands or falls on the quality of its actors. Luckily Daniel Kaluuya as Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant Bill O’Neal, along with (notably) Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, the partner of Hampton, all do brilliant work. Kaluuya’s is the more up-front role, the more direct angry young man, but it’s Stanfield who particularly impresses as this fraught character (the ‘Judas’), torn in many directions who communicates that well without big speeches, but just in these quiet scenes between himself and his handler (Jesse Plemons), that means the epilogue about the real life Bill O’Neal somehow comes as no real surprise while also being quite shocking. But the greatest shock of the epilogue — and something not fully conveyed by the film and its casting (however fine the actors) — is just how young all these people were. Hampton was 21 when the film ends. It’s a film not just about his work with the BPP but also about the policing culture (at the time, though I think we all know that time hasn’t changed much in that respect), and about the way this authoritarian power was directed at those trying to make positive change and resist the racist, capitalist narratives of the mainstream. Ultimately this is still a studio product, but it allows for those voices to be heard, that protest to be enunciated, and as protest this is striking.

Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)CREDITS
Director Shaka King; Writers Will Berson, King, Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 422: The Last Emperor (1987)

It’s odd now to think of that era (which I suppose has never really ended, though I hope is a little more circumspect these days) when a grand multinational epic of another country could be mounted by a largely Western creative team, in English, and win all the awards. It’s certainly very strange to me watching again now, though I can’t deny the artistry that director Bernardo Bertolucci and director of photography Vittorio Storaro manage to bring together to tell the story of Puyi, the titular character.

Puyi was deposed (or forced to abdicate, somewhat in his absence, and seemingly unknown to him) in 1912, the last of the Qing dynasty, but whose story hardly ends there and Bertolucci does honour the sweep of it, cutting between scenes in 1950 China, when Puyi is being held in an internment camp after an abortive attempt to start a new empire in Manchuria, with his childhood ascending to the throne and then the strange events that followed. We see much of it from his eyes, so the real power in the court is only passingly glimpsed (we barely see his mother, or his father, the rest of his family fade into the background, and the most prominent character seems to be his English tutor, played by Peter O’Toole). This also means that key historical events in Chinese 20th century history have to be relayed by people telling him what’s going on, or helpfully rehearsing the events for the benefit of the viewer, because the little Chinese we hear (and see) isn’t translated on-screen. It would also be impossible to capture the intricacies of this period (or indeed extended Chinese history) so it necessarily takes a fairly clipped view of events, but it does give at least some time to the more contested ones, the events that one imagines various regimes would wish to forget.

Ultimately, however, if this film is about the last emperor, it also feels like the last vestige of an older style of film, sumptuous and grand but rather exoticised, an exemplar of a taste that’s been largely superseded. For all its evident weaknesses or rather old-fashioned ways, there’s still something grand that comes through clearly in the imagery and the staging, a lost art perhaps, a vanishing history like the one being depicted.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bernardo Bertolucci; Writers Mark Peploe and Bertolucci (based on the autobiography 我的前半生 From Emperor to Citizen by Puyi 溥儀); Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro; Starring John Lone 尊龙, Joan Chen 陳沖, Peter O’Toole; Length 160 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 1 May 2021 (and several decades before on VHS at home, Wellington, probably).

Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)

One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.

Continue reading “Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)”