Moving into the second week of Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month, I went to another fairly commercial film that I hope will be back here on big screens, though it’s already been released in most of the rest of the world. It’s a jolly American indie film with a single setting and that makes the most of its expressive actors.
The lead character Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is a mess, as a lot of people still at university in their early-20s tend to be, but this is exacerbated by the pressure and anxieties of being at a shiva (a mourning gathering) with her extended family and some strained former friends and lovers. In certain ways — the intense anxiety the film captures, by sticking to a lot of close-ups, moving through tight spaces with the threat of elderly relatives jumping out at any moment like a horror film, but most of all from the scraping dissonant score — this reminded me of Uncut Gems, but unlike that film, the cushion of family and the setting means there’s no real sense of physical danger as there is there. Still, there’s very much a sense of things unravelling at every turn, so the fact that it wrings plenty of laughs and humour from this situation is testament to the writing and the performances, from familiar stalwarts like Fred Melamed or the younger newcomers (I definitely want to see more of the actor who plays Maya, Molly Gordon). The characters might be confused and messy, but the film feels carefully controlled.
Director/Writer Emma Seligman (based on her own 2018 short film); Cinematographer Maria Rusche; Starring Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed, Polly Draper; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 11 November 2021.
The first film I saw at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is probably the most ‘commercial’ of the lot, though it still fits in a lot of darkness to its otherwise gaudily-toned story of… well, of Florida. It’s a setting that’s been done many times before (think Magic Mike for a start), but I can’t deny that there’s an energy to this setting that energises plenty of films, this one no less than any other.
Nobody’s really out there adapting Twitter threads and I can only applaud the ways the filmmakers here find to transfer some of that era-specific energy (Twitter, Facebook and… Tumblr all get a mention, because of course). There are bravura touches (a lot of toilet-focused exposition that’s revealing without being gross), a lot of humour (Cousin Greg!! sorry I mean Nicholas Braun, best known for his role in Succession) and the constant presence of Taylour Paige as Zola, being cool under pressure and rolling her eyes back into her head at Riley Keough’s character Stefani. Keough has played this type before but yet I didn’t recognise her; Stefani feels like a different character and a very specific one. It’s not all jolly laughs — there’s some very credible terror and some nasty men (okay those things are somewhat related) — but it is pulled through by the narrative voice and a sense of self-mythologising that’s ongoing and inherent to the narrative itself.
Director Janicza Bravo; Writers Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris (based on the Rolling Stone article “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga Ever Tweeted” by David Kushner and the original tweets by Aziah King); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Taylour Paige, Riley Keough, Nicholas Braun, Colman Domingo; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.
Stephen Frears directed his first movie at the start of the 70s and then spent most of the next decade working in TV, though this is the era when Ken Loach and Alan Clarke were creating distinctive visions on the small screen, so by the time Frears returns with The Hit, you can’t really accuse him of not having some style. It’s set in Spain, so it doesn’t lack for beautiful light and arresting backdrops; at times Frears seems to be going maybe even a little bit too hard on the quiet, empty shots of these locales, though he matches it with striking framings (such as an unexpected overhead shot during one tense encounter). Still, there’s a lot that feels very 80s here, and it’s not just Tim Roth being a young hard man (not as fascist as in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain, perhaps, but still a thug) but also some of the patronising attitudes (towards women, for example, or the Spaniards they encounter). Of course, that’s as much to do with the characters, who are after all small time criminals. Terence Stamp isn’t a million miles from Ray Winstone’s retired criminal in Sexy Beast, a man who may be retired but is aware he’s never going to be fully out of the racket, and when John Hurt pops up to carry out the titular action, he puts across a weary indefatigability. Ultimately this is a strange blend of genres, with black comedic elements and a strong road movie vibe (a saturated Spanish version of what Chris Petit or Wim Wenders were doing in monochrome, perhaps). I admire it more than I love it, but it has its moments.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stephen Frears; Writer Peter Prince; Cinematographer Mike Molloy; Starring Terence Stamp, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Laura del Sol; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 11 October 2021.
It’s difficult to imagine from the plot summary how this is going to play out, given the set-up is fairly thin: a bourgeois group of high society socialities go for a slap-up dinner after the opera and find themselves unable to leave the home they’re in. But Buñuel, of course, knows what he’s doing, and mixes jabs at the aristocrats, at complacent bourgeois values, and at the church itself (the ending is bitterly directed and something he developed further in Simon of the Desert and Viridiana, amongst other works). It’s a psychological horror of sorts, at least in the way its structured: there’s an invisible force seeming to prevent them from leaving, but this seems to be a deeply-ingrained sense of decorum. At the end it feels like they are able to leave when the correct formula of words is uttered: the entrapment is very much a social one, as everyone is constrained by their own sense of what’s allowed, what’s considered polite, and it’s that in the end which is their tragedy, the pathetic sadness of this entire class of people. It’s all beautifully acted and staged, and ends up — in a low-key way — being perhaps Buñuel’s strongest film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Luis Buñuel; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 18 August 1999 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1999, and most recently on YouTube streaming at home, Wellington, Sunday 12 September 2021).
The tropes of the mafia film may have been largely set out a decade later for American viewers, but clearly by 1962 they were already familiar enough in Italy for this broadly comic take. Alberto Sordi plays Nino, a Sicilian man doing a dull factory job in Milan, in the north of Italy, who returns to his home village with his wife and finds himself sucked into nefarious activities on behalf of Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio). Much of the film is interested in the set-up to this apparent inevitability, as his gregarious character (exemplified by his jaunty moustache) and his desperate need to be liked and respected makes him the natural mark for the Don; it hardly hurts either that he seems to be a really good shot at fairground attractions, and so eventually he finds himself unable to refuse a favour for the Don, which turns out to be in New York. In truth there’s not really a whole lot of plot, just this small town family drama along with a bit of local tension over his northern wife (Norma Bengeli), who’s perceived to be snobby, but Sordi’s deft character work makes the film zip by pretty quickly.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alberto Lattuada; Writers Rafael Azcona, Bruno Caruso, Marco Ferreri, Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli; Cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi; Starring Alberto Sordi, Norma Bengeli, Ugo Attanasio; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 8 May 2021.
After recently watching Spice World and 1933’s The Invisible Man, I feel I already have a sense of how small, insular and close-minded an island Britain can be. Perhaps those weren’t the lessons to be learned from those particular films, but an assessment of the British (or English) character is somewhat in the background, and it’s the same here in a portrayal of the kind of education our ruling classes get in the UK. It’s a satire of course, but even when it’s going over-the-top (there’s a priest in a drawer! there’s an entire stash of weaponry!) it’s never particularly untethered from the reality — or at least how I imagine it to be (though the writers of this film were certainly drawing on lived experience). Even the very removed microcosm of school life I endured showed some of the hallmarks of the society depicted here, though obviously never nearly as brutal. It’s also rather awkward watching this in the era of incels and domestic terrorism, as you get the feeling that what Mick (Malcolm McDowell) and his compatriots are doing isn’t so far removed from that paradigm either. Still, given the system they’re rebelling against here, there is still an underlying level of sympathy for Mick, and the satire remains pointed. It’s no wonder it caused such a stir at the time, given the nature of politicised student violence and the incipient revolution in the air back in 1968, but there’s still a revolutionary zeal to it watching even now, alongside that black comedy.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lindsay Anderson; Writer David Sherwin; Cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček; Starring Malcolm McDowell, Richard Warwick, David Wood, Robert Swann, Christine Noonan; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 22 January 2021 (and on VHS at home at some point in the distant past).
This may well be a masterpiece of piercing bourgeois complacency and for some people it clearly is, but I think I just have trouble connecting with the carnivalesque sense of polymorphous perversity. It almost feels more coherent than his 1971 W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, though it’s still a blend of elements (including some very unsettling footage of WW2 atrocities being uncovered, although ones committed by the Soviet forces being brought to light by Nazis). The rest of the film involves a lot of people debasing themselves for various causes, and surely that’s the point of the film — starting with the valorisation of virginity presented as an American style talent contest, and moving through both women and men debasing themselves, being humiliated, acting out and generally being pariahs, and all in the name of the film’s satirical targets. I find it wearying where others revel in its warped sensibilities, though I imagine that making the likes of me feel a bit worn out is probably an achievement the film should be perfectly happy with.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Dušan Makavejev; Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme; Starring Carole Laure, Anna Prucnal, Pierre Clémenti; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.
After many months of not really doing cinema for obvious reasons, it’s interesting to see the films trickle back in here in New Zealand. This one is slated for proper release next year but was getting some preview screenings, and it certainly is a striking film, though I can imagine it being quite divisive. I’m never really sure if I’m supposed to be rooting for or aghast at its anti-heroine, and I suppose that discomfort is part of what the filmmaker is going for.
I probably need to let this sit with me for a while, but my immediate impression — after just returning from seeing it at the cinema — is that the film is very impressive in the way it ratchets up tension and dripfeeds information about our title character. Carey Mulligan’s Cassie is introduced right from the start, a drunken single woman in a club, as being a little over the hill, therefore suggesting the title is somewhat, perhaps darkly, ironic (although like everything in the film, this observation is as much about the predatory sleaze making the comment to his douchey friends). However, by the time Cassie is having what seems to be a healthy loving relationship with Bo Burnham’s Ryan, there’s no way as a viewer to just feel it in a pure way (in so far as anyone could listen to a scene soundtracked by Paris Hilton in such a way — although, while I’m on this tangent, I am a big fan of her self-titled album, the Rod Stewart cover at the end excepted). No, it’s very much a rollercoaster that seems to be taking from the Fatal Attraction playbook, but twisting it just slightly. I feel very little sympathy for any of the men (many of whom seem to have been cast from their appearances as very likeable, goofy and unthreatening characters in other things), but Cassie evokes the gamut of emotions from compassion to revulsion, and that seems to be part of the film’s text. It’s certainly very careful, I think (as far as I can judge these things), with the way it deploys but doesn’t exploit (at least not visually) sexual trauma. And while everything wraps up neatly, the emotional jaggedness remains, and I can’t be sure whether to embrace this character or to feel manipulated, but it’s probably a little of both.
Director/Writer Emerald Fennell; Cinematographer Benjamin Kračun; Starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Chris Lowell; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 13 December 2020.
Having started a Czech-themed week of films on the blog, I expect this won’t be the only review I’ll be posting of a Věra Chytilová film, given that her work looms large, certainly in my own appreciation of Czech cinema, though she is also one of the key filmmakers of the post-war period in that country. Today I’m covering one of her later works, a strange and darkly satirical film confronting rape culture, shot on video.
Well, this is an intriguing film, made some decades after Chytilová gained fame for Daisies (1966). Shot on video, it goes for a sort of slapstick style comedy, with two foolish men in the lead who are largely objects of abject amusement for their idiocy, but who — like many men — are, despite this, capable of inflicting great harm. The set-up of the film is that the two men (one a government minister, the other an advertising man) pick up Lenka (Zuzana Stívínová), whose car has broken down, and then rape her (and even talk about killing her), an unsettling and violent act and not played as a joke, but which is somehow integrated into the film’s aesthetic — the film after all starts with graphic footage of pigs being castrated before cutting straight into a sex scene. Taking us back to those opening shots, the woman is a vet and so she drugs and castrates the men, which cues up the remainder of the film, as these two fools return to their ordinary lives, which end up intersecting with Lenka’s life in various ways. Of course, their threatening nature doesn’t abate following the castration, and part of the film’s satirical viewpoint is just how little power women have in this situation when confronted with ingrained patriarchy and deeply-running societal reserves of misogyny. Rape is not, therefore, a joke in this film, but the idea of being able to get justice for it (however it may be administered) sort of is.
Director Věra Chytilová; Writers Chytilová, Tomáš Hanák, Eva Kacírková, Michal Lázňovský and David Vávra; Cinematographer Štěpán Kučera; Starring Tomáš Hanák, Miroslav Donutil, Zuzana Stívínová; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Thursday 21 February 2019.
I took a break last week because I was on holiday (although didn’t end up leaving home), but this week I’ll be building up to my Global Cinema entry on Belgium (on Saturday). As a loose theme, then, I’m covering films with a Belgian production credit, though it turns out a lot of films with some Belgian financing aren’t particularly ‘Belgian’, whatever that might amount to. This one, for example, is an American film by a French director, also co-produced by partners from Belgium, Romania and Spain, so it spans plenty of countries, without really representing any of them exactly — except of course America, where it’s set. Still, it’s a way of looping in a lot of not very Belgian films into consideration this week.
This Western crime comedy drama is directed by a French man with an enormous number of production deals (the first title card of the film, as it builds up all its production and co-production credits, is itself somewhat hilarious) and surely has a lot of money on-screen in what I assume is a faithful rendering of Oregon and California in the mid-19th century. However, it does strike rather an odd tone, a sort of laidback melancholia with bursts of violence and goriness that leads up to a dream-like ending, a story of two brothers (Reilly and Phoenix) who have a quest, even if that quest largely loops back to a consideration of their own family and the way they have been brought up. The acting is, as you might expect, very solid, with no notable let-downs, and Phoenix is a particular good fit to his character. Some of the digital photography seemed just a little on the ‘uncanny’ side, but maybe that was just me or the screening I was at. In any case, there’s plenty to like here, but it is at the very least meandering.
Director Jacques Audiard; Writers Audiard and Thomas Bidegain (based on the novel by Patrick deWitt); Cinematographer Benoît Debie; Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 20 April 2019.