NZIFF 2021: Gagarine (2020)

Continuing with my reviews of films at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is this dreamy, almost magical realist French film about a housing estate. Now generally I dislike magical realist films, but this one — for all its spacy themes and title — is very much grounded in lived reality. It’s set in a French housing project and while it eschews the gritty realism of, say, La Haine, it still captures a lot of the same anger and despair while hitting a very much dreamier and hopeful tone. And one of its central protagonists is played by Lyna Khoudri, so excellent in Papicha and surely destined to be a big star (I believe she has a small role in Wes Anderson’s latest The French Despatch).


It’s interesting to read the blurb at the top of the festival programme’s entry for this film — which speaks of Yuri (the central character, played by Alséni Bathily) and his dreams of becoming an astronaut and how he and his two buddies band together to save their estate (or banlieue if you will) — and realise how much it both describes and yet does not capture this film. Because it could describe this film (or at least the first 20 minutes or so), but yet it is so much more than this suggests, not just in complexity but in the wonderment and expressivity of its atmospherics. This is a film about social housing and displacement, about the institutionalised classism and racism of the state, about lives unmoored and threatened by almost unseen forces, and yet it’s really about dreaming, about imagination, about being with others and helping one another to be better but without losing sight of all the ever-present threats of the real world. It’s all quite beautiful and reminiscent a bit of Rocks (in its cast and setting) but without feeling constrained by the niceties of social realism. It cuts loose and just floats serenely, knowing it can take that ride with the central character, because crushing reality is always just around the corner. A very persuasive blend of melancholy and mystery that won me over.

Gagarine (2020)CREDITS
Directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh; Writers Liatard, Trouilh and Benjamin Charbit; Cinematographer Victor Seguin; Starring Alséni Bathily, Lyna Khoudri, Jamil McCraven, Finnegan Oldfield; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 474: 赤い殺意 Akai Satsui (Intentions of Murder aka Unholy Desire, 1964)

I do think that Shohei Imamura’s films are rather an acquired taste, given the way they pack in incident at a high pace, while also dealing with bleak and unsavoury storylines and characters, and it’s no different here. For much of its overextended running time of two-and-a-half hours, this film deals with underprivileged characters constantly being dumped on, as their choices and lives are ever more constrained by violence and immiseration. The lead character is Sadako (Masumi Harukawa), who comes from a poor family, judged for being the granddaughter of a prostitute but also for not conforming to the body shape expected of a Japanese woman (being rather plump). She’s married as a second wife to a man (Ko Nishimura) who hasn’t even officially recognised her as his partner and who has been cheating on her for over a decade with a librarian colleague of his, and when a burglar breaks in to steal some money for his medication, further punishment is doled out to her. It’s all rather bleak, but somehow Imamura manages to kindle a small flame of hope that carries throughout the film, that things might get better, and that’s where the title comes in — as part of Sadako becoming more of an agent within her own life, she hatches a plan to do away with the man (or men) besetting her, but knowing that things could yet improve for her is what pulled me through what is otherwise a pretty bleak story, filmed with big ominous pools of inky black shadow everywhere, a Japanese post-war noir palette replete with portentous metaphors for lower class life.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writers Keiji Hasebe 長谷部慶次 and Imamura (based on the novel by Shinji Fujiwara 藤原審爾); Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Masumi Harukawa 春川ますみ, Ko Nishimura 西村晃, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi 露口茂, Yuko Kusunoki 楠侑子; Length 150 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 25 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 472: 豚と軍艦 Buta to Gunkan (Pigs and Battleships, 1961)

I watched this a few days ago and already I’m struggling to piece together the plot; reading up on it on Wikipedia, I realise there’s a lot, possibly more than I took in while watching it. But that’s in the nature of Shohei Imamura’s budding style — it’s both possible to see how it might have stood out in Japanese post-war cinema, but also it can be quite tiring watching the action flick here and there incessantly. At the heart of the story though is the young, somewhat foolish wannabe gangster Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato). He gets swept up into the game, much to the disgust of his dad, while meanwhile his girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) has few enough choices of her own either. So it’s a film not just about Japan in the aftermath of WW2, but it also wraps up an unequal class system too, affected by the colonising Americans, whose capitalism this whole gangster lifestyle seems to be cribbing from. There’s a lot going on, and maybe a rewatch is in order to keep it all straight, though I imagine I’d still find myself a bit lost, not unlike Kinta.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writer Hisashi Yamanouchi 山内久; Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Hiroyuki Nagato 長門裕之, Jitsuko Yoshimura 吉村実子; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 4 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 465: どですかでん Dodes’ka-den (1970)

As with all of Kurosawa’s films, there’s a lot of love for this one now, unlike upon release, presumably because a newly economically resurgent Japan didn’t want to reflect on its treatment of the poorest in society. That’s where this film sets its scene and though it’s Kurosawa’s first colour film, it’s used expressively, not naturalistically, in tandem with the very stagy sets. This is a story set on the edges of a public tip, a sort of shanty town of Japanese dwellings that bear only scant relationship to the grander structures seen usually. Characters are caked in dirt and work long hours for little reward, while others of them seem to be losing their minds (not least the kid who utters the titles onomatopoeic words, pretending to be driving a tram). There’s something a bit picturesque about this setting, which is reminiscent of say his earlier film The Lower Depths, but which uses the colour to make it both visually quite palatable, though nevertheless quite grim. This film’s reception may have driven Kurosawa to despair but it clearly has a devoted following and it’s one I wanted to like a lot more than I did.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 and Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel 季節のない街 Kisetsu no Nai Machi “The Town Without Seasons” by Shugoro Yamamoto 山本周五郎); Cinematographers Yasumichi Fukuzawa 福沢康道 and Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄; Starring Yoshitaka Zushi 頭師佳孝, Kin Sugai 菅井きん; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 461: Hobson’s Choice (1954)

Not sure why I should be suspicious every time I start a David Lean film, but he knew how to craft a movie and most that I’ve seen have been exceptionally well crafted, and not all of them have attained the renown of, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Brief Encounter. The cannily observed The Passionate Friends is a personal highlight, for example, and while this particular film looks to be a rather knockabout comedy — it casts Charles Laughton as a drunken bootmaker in late-19th century Salford (just outside Manchester), and that’s a recipe for comic disaster — it turns out to be, if not social realism, still a fairly incisive work about the English working classes. The title comes from a phrase referring to having no effective control over a situation, and his daughter Maggie (Brenda De Banzie) is the one offering Henry Hobson that particular ‘choice’, as she takes control of her own future within the (fairly mean) terms that society is offering her. I wouldn’t call it a progressive film, but it feels moreso than some of what would come out of English society in the decades after this, and at its heart is a delightful romantic fantasy about getting one up on the small-minded mean-spirited small town forces of conformity.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Wynyard Browne, Lean and Norman Spencer (based on the play by Harold Brighouse); Cinematographer Jack Hildyard; Starring Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie, John Mills, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 10 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 459: El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962)

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).

Criterion Sunday 458: El Norte (1983)

I didn’t really expect much going into this, perhaps something a bit well-meaning and earnest, like contemporary Costa-Gavras films or those of John Sayles — which to be fair, is really quite deeply unfair to the latter’s work, but I’m trying to convey that sense of slightly po-faced political dramas about ordinary people in challenging times. In a sense, cinema since then hasn’t really grappled with those topics so much, but in relation specifically to the Anglophone cinema of Latin-American politics that I’m most familiar with, Gregory Nava’s feature has a more poetic register. This isn’t magical realism, though, it’s a poetic realism more akin to the Italian Neorealists, I think, but imbued with a lived sense of how America treats its Latin-American citizens. The central characters are indigenous people, from a small Guatemalan village, who journey to the North because of conditions back home, and who have to endure a lot to get to the very bottom of the ladder in the US. It’s not straightforwardly for or against anything though — their lives in the US do have some benefits compared to the past, but oppression comes in many guises and for all that they do see some material changes to their position, in other ways they are made to feel very much an underclass, not least in terms of the bureaucracy of immigration (and not much has changed there in almost 40 years one suspects). It’s a film that is as concretely about the conditions of work and life as anything else of the decade, but one imbued with a sense of almost mystical dread, that can be at times overwhelming but equally quite beautiful and resonant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory Nava; Writers Nava and Anna Thomas; Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 3 September 2021.

In the Heights (2021)

Turns out this adaptation of a stage musical (one written by Lin-Manuel Miranda from before he did Hamilton, and which I saw a production of in London) turned out not to be the big success it expected to be, and that’s a shame because there’s a lot that’s good and worth celebrating about it. I can’t comment on the lack of Afro-Latinx representation but just at a filmic level, it’s fun and watchable and everyone is giving it their all (as any musical should).


One of the best things about this big Summer blockbuster (or at least I hope it is) may be that the only community I can consider myself a part of in this film is here unquestionably the bad guys — a fairly well-meaning gentrifying ‘organic laundry’ operator, and (surely the worst of all) an estate agent. But that’s fine because we don’t always need to see ourselves in characters on-screen — though it’s difficult not to identify with some of the struggles these kids go through — but if others hear their voices and see themselves represented in this melange of Latinx identities, then I get the sense that this is librettist Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (and writer Quiara Alegría Hudes’s) point. And while it at times alludes to some negative stories (being racially profiled at Stanford is a key emotional beat for one of the lead characters; there’s a deadbeat dad, too), it instead embraces all the positivity and possibility of change in a brightly-coloured and carefully choreographed world of bodegas and heat that has some superficial similarities to, say, Do the Right Thing while imparting a specifically Bronx (rather than Brooklyn) vibe. Residents of the area will be best placed to say whether it speaks to them, and even though the ending feels a bit rushed and perfunctory (a magically inspiring fashion show of sorts leading to life changes), it’s not really about where it goes than how it gets there and even if Miranda’s shtick is getting a bit wearying, there’s enough going for this that I let myself go and went with it for two hours.

In the Heights (2021)CREDITS
Director Jon M. Chu; Writers Quiara Alegría Hudes (based on the stage musical by Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda); Cinematographer Alice Brooks; Starring Anthony Ramos, Melissa Barrera, Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda; Length 143 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 11 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 429: Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958)

This was something of a cause célèbre of its time — ridiculously, it went as far as the Supreme Court to rule on whether it was, in fact, “obscene”, not something that anyone watching today (or surely, to those responding in good faith, then) would label it. In any case, it has Jeanne Moreau as a bored upper-middle-class bourgeois wife who finds herself tempted by the charms of a number of men who pass through her charmed life of villas and polo matches. Even a man who gives her a lift when her car breaks down (Jean-Marc Bory) turns out to be related to the bored rich people, and part of what makes him interesting to her is the way he turns his back on those people. Ultimately, though, it feels a bit mean, being about a woman with little internal life who finds herself unfulfilled by affairs, and by the end isn’t even committed to her affair because you get the sense that nothing in her life would make her happy. And wonderful as Jeanne Moreau is to watch, and as well shot as the film is generally, it’s difficult to really care about her or about any of these characters in a film that lacks the lightness of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers who were getting started around the same time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writer Louise de Vilmorin (based on the novel Point de lendemain by Dominique Vivant); Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Marc Bory, Alain Cuny, José Luis de Villalonga; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 17 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 416: Fröken Julie (Miss Julie, 1951)

I’ve actually seen this Strindberg adaptation before (16 years ago), and I’ve seen others too, but I don’t really retain anything of it, perhaps because I don’t particularly get on with the text. It feels a little bit pointedly about the terrible toll that an interest in women’s rights might get you to from a tut-tutting older Swedish man, and that may be a little unfair, but at the very least it’s certainly melodramatic. That said, this film is a stylish adaptation at times, which takes the play and interleaves past and present in an almost modernist way. This is most evident when the camera sweeps around from the present to the past in a single fluid motion, as the title character recalls her unhappy childhood and her fiercely independent mother, who is seen framed by flames with a wry smile on her face at one memorable point. Then there’s Julie’s romance with the groom, Jean (Ulf Palme), a mere servant though splendidly attired, which starts out flirtatiously but eventually descends into all the metaphorical angst in the world (caged and crushed songbirds, grand paintings collapsing on our leading man, flames and madness licking around this rotten world). There’s certainly stuff to like here, and Anita Björk gives an impressively imperious performance, but it’s Strindberg’s vision of the world that probably puts me off.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Alf Sjöberg (based on the play by August Strindberg); Cinematographer Göran Strindberg; Starring Anita Björk, Ulf Palme, Märta Dorff; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 17 April 2005 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Sunday 18 April 2021).