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.

Criterion Sunday 597: Tiny Furniture (2010)

There’s probably a lot of reasons that people (in 2014) feel a bit conflicted towards Lena Dunham and her work. She grew up in New York City, the daughter of an artist (Laurie Simmons, who appears here as her mother Siri, a photographer of miniature furniture — hence the film’s title). She went to a liberal arts college in Ohio, as indeed does her character in this film, Aura. She first found prominence making videos which she posted on YouTube, and we see that Aura has done something similar here (while deriving a small amount of giddy validation in that a guy she’s met at a party is also internet-famous in this niche way). Indeed, strands of fiction and autobiography weave through her work, both here and in her HBO television series Girls. So it’s no wonder that some people have it in for her. For myself, I really enjoy her deadpan comic style, which eases over all too imperceptibly into a bleak commentary on growing up in such a mediated world. If at times her characters exhibit unhealthy levels of neuroses (albeit not far removed from the kind exhibited by certain other famous New York filmmakers), there’s also a pretty self-aware and critical assessment of herself and her life, as Aura throws tantrums and bemoans her ennui, even as her entitled British friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke) drags her along to any number of parties and social gatherings. In the way of early-20-something existence, nothing really seems to resolve itself, but the way it’s depicted has the ring of truthfulness to it, even if filtered through a rather rarefied lifestyle and background.

(Written on 16 December 2014; I wonder how much of the media landscape will have changed by the time this gets posted.)

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is her debut feature Creative Nonfiction (2009), and although it runs at just under an hour in length, this definitely sets up a lot of what would become classic Lena Dunham content: introspective, messy, open to exposing herself both emotionally and physically. It’s clearly made under the influence of the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movement, which by the late 2000s was fairly well developed as a community of filmmakers, though it’s also evidently made under the influence of no money at all, and just shooting on the fly for a student project, so that it’s watchable at all is to its credit. Still, as you might expect, it feels fairly half-formed and amateurish, albeit to my mind in a good, enjoyable way (though clearly not to everyone).
  • There are four of her short films included, starting with her very first, 2006’s Pressure, which has, as you might expect, a sort of sketch comedy set-up as well as a fairly lowkey presentation: three young women sitting on the floor of their college library, doing some study and talking. It manages to link academic pressure to orgasm, and ends with a bit of a punchline, but for the most part it’s observational.
  • Another short film in which Dunham explores the limits of her own need for attention is The Fountain (2007), in a sort of tripartite structure of exhibitionism in a campus fountain: first she strips off and takes a dip, then she confronts a security guard, then she reflects on the experience and what it says about her. I think you can sort of see the seeds of where she would go with Girls in later years.
  • A third short film is Hooker on Campus (2007), and I suppose it would be foolish to assume some deep understanding of sex work, as this basically comes across like a skit about her pretending to be offering sex to students at her very homogeneous middle-class campus. Again Dunham is playing with a sense of her own desperation to please, and get attention.
  • Finally there’s Open the Door (2007). I think there are interesting ways in which this very minimalist short film — a single shot of the camera entryphone to Dunham’s building — could be construed as a self-criticism of her own entitlement and petulant childishness, but you also have to witness Dunham being petulant and childish, and that can be difficult.
  • These early student works are accompanied by an interview in which Dunham talks about her inspirations and her creative process, and some of the scepticism greeting her from her teachers (looks like very low-budget porn, suggested one). She still has the habit of saying things that take you aback, but that’s her way I suppose.
  • There’s also a short interview with Paul Schrader, who talks about enjoying Tiny Furniture, and touches on some comparisons which in retrospect don’t perhaps hold up so well (James Franco, anyone?).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lena Dunham; Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Jemima Kirke; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 15 December 2014.

Criterion Sunday 595: Il momento della verità (The Moment of Truth, 1965)

This mid-60s film from the Italian director of such politically-engaged Italian classics as Salvatore Giuliano and Hands Over the City went to Spain for his next film, although his characters continue to speak in Italian because this is, still, an Italian film. Despite that, I think it does capture something of what makes bullfighting appealing alongside plenty of what makes it utterly objectionable. It’s fair to say it’s a film that really immures you in the blood and corporeality of this sport, and there’s no shortage of shots featuring bleeding, dying bulls, bulls being killed, all for the name of the elegance and machismo of this contest. Yet at its heart, it’s a story of a poor young man with very few opportunities in life, seizing on something that he is good at, as a means of dragging himself out of poverty. The drama in the ring, as he starts to master his vocation, adds to the texture of the film, which I think captures well this kind of existence, a transient life on the road chasing the money from bullfights in small towns, fights for money but not the glory of the huge arenas in Barcelona and especially Madrid. The bulls aren’t the only ones brutalised by this life, and theirs is not the only blood you see, but the film doesn’t look away from the horrifying reality of this sport and that’s probably enough to put off some viewers (as it should).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This is one of the thinnest packages of extras for any modern Criterion film released on Blu-ray, with just a single 13-minute interview with Rosi, conducted many decades later, as he reflects on the making of the film. His recollections aren’t uninteresting, but you expect more from Criterion.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Francesco Rosi; Writers Pedro Beltrán, Ricardo Muñoz Suay, Pere Portabella and Rosi; Cinematographers Pasqualino De Santis, Gianni Di Venanzo and Aiace Parolin; Starring Miguel Mateo “Miguelín”; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 2 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 593: Belle de Jour (1967)

This is likely a film that grows over repeated viewings, but on first viewing for me, it has a (presumably quite deliberate) quality of being very carefully controlled at a rather lugubrious pace. Nobody really emotes strongly, nobody moves quickly, there’s an unrushed quality that’s at odds with the lewdness of the setup, as if Buñuel, having drawn people into a sex film about bondage and control, wants to keep that as far away from the screen as possible. Instead, what we have are hints at the interior life of Sévérine (Catherine Deneuve), little flashes from growing up that hint at some trauma (without, crucially, making anything so plain as to give words to it), her fantasies of sexual domination, and then her move into working for a brothel during the days her husband is away at work (hence the name the brothel’s madam, played by Geneviève Page, gives her, also the film’s title). But the pacing allows the film’s hints to seep into her character, played by Deneuve as a sort of unemotional tabula rasa, and suggest, perhaps slyly, some idea possibly of liberation (or equally a chauvinist desire to see women subjugated; it’s never really clear whose point of view we’re truly seeing). However, it shares all the visual hallmarks of late Buñuel, an almost matter of fact depiction of surreal and subversive ideas by characters who seem rather dull and conformist.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (based on the novel by Joseph Kessel); Cinematographer Sacha Vierny; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Geneviève Page, Pierre Clémenti; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 26 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 589: Trois coleurs : Blanc (Three Colours: White aka Three Colors: White aka Trzy kolory. Biały, 1994)

Revisiting again the site of my early exposure to world cinema, I think I liked White more than Blue on first exposure, but partly that was me responding to the comedy inherent in the setup (a man is left by his wife and feels compelled to reinvent himself in order to win her back). However upon rewatching there’s a certain rather nasty edge to this humour (which is dealing with the “egalité” of the French flag and national motto), and Julie Delpy is placed in a rather thankless position by the story. This is, after all, her ex-husband’s story, and Zbigniew Zamachowski has a clownish sense to his despondency. The colour palette isn’t as suffused in the film as the other two episodes so perhaps that also means it doesn’t stand out visually, though it has its moments. Primarily, what I love is Preisner’s score, which has a jauntiness while also incorporated some of the more traditional Polish motifs of his work. It’s a solid film, but Blue has the edge, while Red is the one that endures I think.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Once again the disc includes two earlier, short works, both of these by Kieślowski. The first is Siedem kobiet w róznym wieku (Seven Women of Different Ages, 1979). The loose seven day structure allows Kieślowski to focus on different participants in a ballet class and performance, who as the title suggests are of different ages. We get the young girls and women doing their practice, then another performing on stage, an older ballerina hanging around looking disappointed at not getting much work, and then a ballet instructor teaching the young girls we saw on the first day. It really emphasises, through these little glimpses of them at work, just how much of an effort it is to be a ballet dancer, the constant rehearsal, the pointed comments from the teachers, and the physical exertion (one of the days is soundtracked almost entirely by the ballerina’s heavy and belaboured breathing).
  • The other short film is Gadające głowy (Talking Heads, 1980). There’s a fairly simple concept at work here, as Kieślowski interviews people about what they want from life, moving from younger to older respondents (with their birth year listed in the lower left hand corner). You can track a certain greater reflectiveness as the ages tick up of course, but there’s a core of hopefulness and wisdom that the film is tapping into, even if you could hardly call these brief snippets of interviews particularly enlightening on an individual level. This is about people across society, from all ages, reflecting on what they want from the world.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Edward Kłosiński; Starring Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delpy, Janusz Gajos, Jerzy Stuhr; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 13 November 2022 (and first on VHS at home, Wellington, in the mid-1990s).

Criterion Sunday 588: Trois coleurs : Bleu (Three Colours: Blue aka Three Colors: Blue, 1993)

I don’t think it would be overstating the case to say that this trilogy of films largely compromised my introduction to ‘world cinema’ back in the mid-1990s. I was too young (or rather not sufficiently precocious) to have seen them in the cinema, but a year or two later on VHS at home, and they do make for a good introduction. Even now, rewatching so many years later, this film is much as I remember it: very consciously constructed, with bold use of colour (in the camera filters, in the scenery and set design, in expressive lighting choices), striking symbolism and the kind of directorial vision that makes it very clear — even to a young cinema neophyte such as myself 25 years ago — that every camera movement, every detail and every choice within the frame is very much intentional. I found this a little overbearing at the time, and I still don’t believe this is my favourite of the trilogy, but there is such an assured style that I can’t help but be impressed by it, lugubrious and mournful as the subject matter can be (a woman dealing with the death of her husband and child, in a peculiar twist on the concept of “liberté”). Moreover, there’s Juliette Binoche in the lead role, who is an undeniable force and even in the depths of her character’s grief and sadness makes her compellingly watchable.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Two of the extra features are short films from the director’s film school days. His own is Tramwaj (Tramway, 1966), with the kind of throwaway premise that a lot of short movies have — in this case, a boy sees a girl on a tram and then realises he must chase after her. Still, there’s something to how it’s made despite the complete absence of sound, not that you’d have made the link between this and the director of Three Colours: Blue right away.
  • The other short film is Twarz (The Face, 1966), included not because he directed it (it was one of his fellow students, the otherwise unknown Piotr Studzinski) but because he stars in it. Indeed, it’s a fair bit more enjoyable than Kieślowski’s own student effort, with a cutting humour to its portrayal of the self-involved artist disgusted at his own face (which he has nevertheless used obsessively in his own art).
  • There’s a short featurette of interviews with various collaborators, including Binoche and the cinematographer Idziak, as well as some film writers (Geoff Andrew, Annette Insdorf), discussing the film and its creation, and how the director put it together, which is all fairly informative.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak; Starring Juliette Binoche, Benoît Régent, Florence Pernel, Charlotte Véry, Emmanuelle Riva; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 13 November 2022 (and first on VHS at home, Wellington, in the mid-1990s).

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).

Criterion Sunday 579: Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage, 1921)

There’s a lot going on in this silent film, which is based on a novel by the first woman to become a Nobel Laureate in Literature (Selma Lagerlöf). The story is of a layabout drunkard called David Holm, who has abused his wife, left her and his children and is slowly drinking himself to death carousing with his friends. And yet a Salvation Army woman, Sister Edit (Astrid Holm), believes he can be redeemed, and she calls for him on her deathbed — apparently too late, though.

Just at the story level, via the device of the dying woman seeking to save his soul, we are drawn sympathetically to the story of David (played by the director himself, still most famously known as the lead in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries), despite his being repeatedly a compromised, abusive and unlovable man. But what’s striking is the way this is all unfolded, in a series of flashbacks nested within other flashbacks, stories within stories, as like the narrative structure itself we start to get closer to the heart of this character. And all of this is quite aside from the central titular conceit of the film, which is that one who dies at the chiming of New Year’s Day has to serve Death by riding his carriage to pick up the dead bodies.

Putting that all together — the intense melodrama, the supernatural horror — makes this an extremely evocative film, and the Criterion release has an excellent musical score by Swedish composer Matti Bye complementing the on-screen action perfectly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Victor Sjöstrom (based on the novel of the same title but usually translated as Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! by Selma Lagerlöf); Cinematographer Julius Jaenzon; Starring Victor Sjöstrom, Hilda Borgström, Astrid Holm; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 5 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 576: 밀양 Miryang (Secret Sunshine, 2007)

There are abiding mysteries in this film, as I suppose there have been in other films of Lee Chang-dong (the most recent I’ve seen is Burning from a few years back, I think). But it’s never quite possible to be clear who anyone is. There’s our leading lady who we first meet in a broken down car outside a small city near Busan that she’s relocating to in memory of her dead husband, but as to why she’s moving or how he died, those are things that take some time to come out. But it all makes more sense if you see this as a film about a woman trying to deal with trauma. More comes as the film goes on, and then she takes a turn into an evangelical religious group. Whether or not they are manipulative and hypocritical, it feels like something she needs at that point in the film, and while in some senses nothing quite resolves for her, you’re left with those abiding mysteries — which by the end seem more spiritual than merely narrative.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lee Chang-dong 이창동 (based on short story 벌레 이야기 “The Story of a Bug” by Yi Cheong-jun 이청준); Cinematographer Jo Yong-gyu 조용규; Starring Jeon Do-yeon 전도연, Song Kang-ho 송강호; Length 142 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 2 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 561: Kes (1969)

The UK seems like a pretty horrible place to be right now — reading the news, there seems to be a lot of intolerance and judgment, and it primarily seems to flow from the top down (you just have to look at the current Prime Minister and those people vying to take over from him). Turns out none of this is new and you can hear this strain of small-minded authority figures lecturing down to poor working-class kids here too, in a film made at the tail end of the 1960s, in a mining community where young Billy doesn’t want to follow his family down the pit. There’s a lot of bleakness to this quiet story of childhood desperation, and then there’s the eponymous bird (a kestrel, of course) which seems to signify so much more potential to Billy’s world. I think Loach keeps this all in nice balance — the metaphors of freedom and the bleak reality of constraint — and though the grim constant grind that Billy lives under, the abuse of the school teachers (except for the one kind soul who encourages him towards the end), and his horrible brother, loom large they never quite become the whole story. Perhaps there’s hope, perhaps there’s not, you can read the film how you want to.

NB: This is listed as 1970 by the Criterion Collection, though it was screened at the 1969 London Film Festival.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ken Loach; Writers Barry Hines, Loach and Tony Garnett (based on Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave); Cinematographer Chris Menges; Starring David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Colin Welland; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 August 2022 (and earlier, probably on VHS in the 1990s).