Turning Red (2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. There aren’t too many animated films in there, because I don’t go to so many of those anymore, which it turns out is fine because Disney is barely making an effort to get them into cinemas, so most need to be watched via their streaming service. Hence this one, which I gave a shot to because it seemed to come from a more interesting perspective than fairytale princesses, and it is indeed very lovely.


It’s somewhat sad to me that Pixar films are so rarely nowadays shown in cinemas, because the attention to detail in the design and the animation that shows in films like this, or the previous year’s Soul, deserve the big screen but instead we have to subscribe to Disney+, which somehow lessens them. It also leads to factoids like it being the biggest money loser for a cinematic release (even though I’m fairly certain it was barely placed in any cinemas worldwide).

However, Turning Red still strikes me as one of the better recent crop of animated films, which both tells a discernable story from a specific perspective (a young girl from a Chinese background growing up in Toronto, voiced by Rosalie Chiang), but makes it both metaphorically rich and also cartoonishly cute at the same time. A lot of elements feel familiar from any coming of age/high school American movie, with its cliques of friends and confected schoolyard drama, but there’s a real strength to its focus on the setting, the details of the family temple such that even the supernatural plot twist (and I think the posters and marketing make it fairly clear that a large anthropomorphic red panda is involved) feels grounded in an authentic expression of familial ties and Chinese-Canadian culture.

Turning Red (2022) posterCREDITS
Director Domee Shi 石之予; Writers Julia Cho, Shi and Sarah Streicher; Cinematographers Mahyar Abousaeedi and Jonathan Pytko; Starring Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh 오미주, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Ava Morse, James Hong 吳漢章; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Disney+ streaming), Wellington, 2 July 2022.

The Woman King (2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. This big historical action epic comes from the very dependable Gina Prince-Bythewood, one of the better directors working in Hollywood, and it’s a powerful evocation of an era not much seen on screen.


Just to kick things off: I really enjoyed this movie, especially as a big screen cinematic experience. It has an old-fashioned sense of an historical epic, albeit about a little corner of African history that isn’t often represented on-screen (primarily because it doesn’t revolve around white heroes or saviours, and surely the time for patriotic stories of European conquests over tribal peoples has long since passed). But it’s curious that this African story is written by two white women; given the other talent involved I don’t think that meaningfully invalidates any positive representation the film can provide, but it might give a hint as to the way in which the film tends towards a platitudinous Hollywood liberal sense of injustice being righted, as Viola Davis leads her Agojie (the so-called “Dahomey Amazons”) as a righteous force dedicated to eradicating slavery.

Clearly there are experts in this history — of which I am not one, nor are many of the online commentators peddling the criticisms to be fair — who acknowledge that the situation was more complicated than it’s portrayed here. Just my cursory awareness of our modern online world leads me to the understanding that it’s perfectly possible for groups of women to come together to actively promote and defend patriarchal systems of oppression, fascism and hate speech. The film doesn’t deny that the Dahomeys were just as involved in slavery as their enemies, the Oyo Empire. So the feel-good roles of Davis as Nanisca, her second-in-command Izogie (the brilliant Lashana Lynch) and young recruit Nawi (an impressive Thuso Mbedu) may not quite reflect real history, but that’s fine by me because this is primarily a film and an entertainment that hopefully leads people to learn more about this historical time and context.

However, whatever your caveats, it’s undeniably a well put-together epic with the appropriate levels of heart-tugging sentiment and brutal warfare action scenes. Gina Prince-Bythewood has come a long way from Love & Basketball and that sweetly saccharine film The Secret Life of Bees with one of the Fannings in it. She made the fantastic Beyond the Lights and her recent foray into action with The Old Guard was the rare superhero film I actively enjoyed, and so she is not short of directing skill, nor is her team lacking in their ability to both capture the location and people (cinematographer Polly Morgan), or the nuances of the acting — and this in particular seems like quite a departure in the type of role Viola Davis is usually seen in, and she surely deserves some awards love for it. There may be all kinds of ways to criticise it, but I admire any film that tries to tell a bit of history we’ve not seen played out before.

The Woman King (2022) posterCREDITS
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood; Writers Dana Stevens and Maria Bello; Cinematographer Polly Morgan; Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 3 November 2022.

تحت الشجرة Taht el Karmouss (aka Sous les figues) (Under the Fig Trees, 2022)

I’m working through fuller reviews from my list of favourite films of 2022 (here) but among them are a few that I wasn’t expecting, like this gentle, lilting Kiarostami riff in the fig orchards (rather than olives), structured as a series of two-handers between various characters over the course of a couple of working days (or maybe it’s just one, I can’t quite recall). In any case, a fine film with a predominantly woman-centric cast and crew.


This is a rather gentle film with some darker undertones as a group of (primarily) young women come together picking figs in an orchard, or at least I’d say that was the focus of the film, whose single setting means this functions as a sort of chamber drama. Indeed, the group of pickers includes some older women and men, who have a choral role to play, singing and commenting on the kids’ actions, and some young men of various types, including a rather sleazy and opportunistic boss. Throughout the day various pairings of these characters get together and hash things out, and while there is no big reveal or drama to speak of, a number of smaller stories play out in a naturalistic way. It’s all very lovely, though you’ll need to take a moment to get into its rhythms, in a setting — and with a title — suggestive of some Kiarostami films, though this is Tunisian (not Iranian).

Taht el Karmouss (2022) posterCREDITS
Director Erige Sehiri أريج السحيري; Writers Sehiri, Ghalya Lacroix غالية لاكروا and Peggy Hamann بيجي هامان; Cinematographer Frida Marzouk فريدا مرزوق; Starring Fidé Fdhili فداء الفضيلي, Feten Fdhili فاتن الفضيلي, Ameni Fdhili أماني الفضيلي; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 30 October 2022.

Catherine Called Birdy (2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. I recently covered Lena Dunham’s breakthrough feature film Tiny Furniture in my Criterion Sunday supplement (which led to her getting the Girls TV show), and in some ways she still struggles as an artist with growing up. Hence we get this feature in which she really throws herself into childhood, but with a middle ages twist, and it’s rather sweet really: almost brutal when it needs to be, but never really getting bogged down in the filth, at least not too much.


Lena Dunham directed (and wrote and produced) this adaptation of a young adult novel, but she isn’t in it at all, which is something worth pointing out to the sadly numerous anti-fans of hers. And though it may seem quite different from artsy studenty metropolitan lives, perhaps its mediæval setting isn’t so far removed from that spirit of creative jouissance she usually tries to cultivate. It’s certainly not far from the darker and more depressive concerns because for all its lightness of touch, quirky colour and spirited performances, there’s an underlying grimness to life itself which haunts the film. Of course the key is that for the most part the characters don’t dwell on this (perhaps because it’s something they can never escape), but it adds something grounding to what could otherwise come across as altogether too twee. There are memorable turns from all kinds of supporting actors, not least Andrew Scott (unsurprisingly) as Birdy’s father, or Paul Kaye as “Shaggy Beard” (some kind of Yorkshire nouveau riche), as well as from Bella Ramsey in the lead role who gets across her childish energy as she is thrust into an altogether more adult world (or rather, perhaps there is no such distinction; certainly there was no concept of being a teenager, and that’s part of what the film gets across well: you’re a child until you’re not).

Catherine Called Birdy (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lena Dunham (based on the novel by Karen Cushman); Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Lesley Sharp, Joe Alwyn, Sophie Okonedo; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Thursday 20 October 2022.

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson (2021)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. This Australian revisionist western film by an Aboriginal woman director, writer and star came out at festivals in 2021, but I caught up with it on a flight (it would fill a big screen though, and for some reason in my mind that’s where I saw it). Not a perfect movie, but it had a lot that I really liked.


I suppose that, strictly speaking, this isn’t a Western (because it’s not set in the American West, or even the West of Australia) but it shares a lot of characteristics with those kinds of frontier dramas, where (white) settlers are put in precarious situations due to their low socioeconomic status and lack of protections afforded by ‘opening up’ a country not previously inhabited by them. But as this film knows all too well, that kind of work doesn’t lead to great outcomes for indigenous populations, and while it’s based on a classic 19th century Australian short story, it’s also very keen (being written and directed by an Aboriginal woman director) to strike out in a new direction that can acknowledge the complicated history and stories being interwoven here. Which is all by way of making it sound pretty dull and well-meaning, when actually this has a lot of the striking widescreen compositions and tense drama that the best of the Western genre brings, plus some excellent lead performances from the director herself in the title role, plus Sam Reid as a well-educated indigenous man who come across her cabin and who she tries to help. By the end I felt invested in the story, even if not every element worked so well for me (the music had a tendency to push a little hard at times).

The Drover's Wife - The Legend of Molly Johnson (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Leah Purcell; Cinematographer Mark Wareham; Starring Leah Purcell, Rob Collins, Sam Reid; Length 104 minutes.
Seen in flight from Auckland to Nouméa, Saturday 8 October 2022.

Aftersun (2022)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a non-Criterion Collection review, but as 2022 is done and dusted (well, the year, not my viewing of films from that year, which will undoubtedly stretch out for years to come), it seems like a fitting theme for my first few posts of this year would be to cover some of my favourites from last year. This small British indie film was my favourite, until I eventually catch up with everything else. You can see my full list here though.


After a year of watching fairly unchallenging films at the cinema (sadly I missed my city’s annual film festival), it’s nice to see one that properly challenges audiences. Which is, I suppose, one way of saying it’s slow and sad — and thus probably not for everyone — but I think it has depths to it, and I miss a film with depths. Texturally, it reminds me of the early work of, say, Lynne Ramsay and that’s not just because its period setting reminds me a little of Ratcatcher in its lugubrious mood (though where that film went back a few decades to the 70s, this one takes us back to the 90s). Partly too that’s the way that the evocation of the era doesn’t rely on period hairstyles and music, but rather on some far more oblique signifiers of the era like the grain of the camcorder films (though, okay, there’s also the “Macarena”).

However, the more resonant aspect of the film is that sadness that haunts its tale throughout, though is never explicitly reckoned with. There’s the feeling evoked by the dark, heavily strobing club dancefloor sequences that punctuate the narrative, the emptiness of the video framings being watched by someone looking back on this period of life, and the quiet moments in the story of a young dad and his 11-year-old daughter on holiday in Turkey that are punctured by the dad’s attempt to be upbeat and positive. (It should be said up front that the darkness isn’t anything to do with sexual abuse, so don’t go in worried about that. The relationship between these two is clearly loving and strong, in both directions.) But there are strong hints throughout of the elegiac nature of this 90s holiday, and the way it resonates in the present, such that in a sense this is a coming of age film that goes beyond the innocuous flirtations on the beach or the innocent kisses by the poolside with teenage boys, into more delicately shifting psychological territory.

I imagine it will hit a long more strongly for those who are parents, but it feels beautifully cathartic in a way that relies on the audience to make the connections and draw out the emotional threads, and that’s just a nice change of pace.

Aftersun (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Charlotte Wells; Cinematographer Gregory Oke; Starring Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 11 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 602: The War Room (1993)

Every successive behind-the-scenes politics documentary I’ve seen, I’m prompted to new questions about ‘what did the filmmakers get access to and what did they not?’ Partially that’s just an increasing awareness of the media landscape and the possibility of spin that every new generation has about politics, but I think you can start to see things shift with this documentary. Not in the sense that they are baring all — there is plenty of very interesting stuff here — but in the sense that they are very aware of how stories are made and how much access to give to camera crews. Given that it was never going to be released at the time of the actual election, they were probably more comfortable letting them into the so-called ‘war room’ but, even so, certain key figures don’t appear (like the campaign manager, or indeed very much of one William Jefferson Clinton). In a sense that’s what our leading figures (James Carville and George Stephanopoulos) were there for, to react to stories and spin them mercilessly in order to favour Governor Clinton, and that’s what a lot of the discussion is about. I’m not sure there was ever a ‘golden’ period of guileless political campaigning, but if there ever were it certainly wasn’t 1992. So there’s a fascination to watching this all unfold, but even with that wariness about what might not be being shown, you still get a lot of those key conversations around the major events, along with hints of behind-the-scenes dramas like that between Carville and Bush’s deputy campaign manager (whom he married the following year), or even with the other candidates, whether in the primaries or in the main election (Ross Perot, anyone?). It all makes for an interesting insight into modern politicking, which even now feels a bit quaint.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker; Cinematographers Pennebaker and Nick Doob; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 30 December 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, May 1998).

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 560: White Material (2009)

Part of what I think is difficult to take in about this film, at least on a first viewing, is that so much of it happens off-screen when we aren’t (or the central character, Maria Vial, played by Isabelle Huppert, isn’t) looking. By which I mean the violence that drives it, that claims several central characters, that drives a wedge between Vial and her coffee plantation business, as well as her family (Christophe Lambert as estranged husband and Nicolas Duvauchelle as deranged son). Partly that’s because she’s never reliably looking the right way to witness it, so intent on downplaying and ignoring the rising tide of anti-colonial violence taking place, the efforts to push out white landowners; she’s too immured in a rapidly vanishing system of rule to even seem to notice the threats to her existence, because it is her home after a fashion, the only life she’s known. And so while I think this film is filled with bold contrasts and strong drama, a lot of it just seems to seep in around the edges, until eventually it starts to overwhelm even La Huppert, who as an actor — as much as a character — feels like an indomitable spirit. She’s hardly a hero, but she just keeps trying to make things happen and she doesn’t know how to relent.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s an interesting little short film made by Denis, filmed from her point of view on a camcorder of some sort, of her taking this film to the Écrans Noirs film festival in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and having to deal with the outdated technology and limited screening conditions available there. Indeed, the whole story builds to a bit of a punchline, almost.
  • There’s also a short deleted scene of Maria finding a certain person (no spoilers, eh) dead near the end, but presumably this was just too direct for Denis’ method.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claire Denis; Writers Denis and Marie NDiaye; Cinematographer Yves Cape; Starring Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankolé, Michel Subor; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 31 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 553: Fish Tank (2009)

Watching this is very much an exercise in looking for the glimmers of hope and possibility in a story about people whose lives (all of them, really) have been derailed or sidelined, and who have turned to anger and sarcasm to get them through their lives (well those as well as drinking, lashing out, the usual kinds of things). It’s a film set in East London, not the trendy cool bit, but the Essex bit, out in Dagenham and Barking and beyond, stuck in a place where there doesn’t seem to be much of a way out. There’s an emaciated horse, the hope of five pounds stashed away to buy a few cans of super strength cider, dancing in parking lots with your friends, a sunny day away to a reservoir. Still, Andrea Arnold keeps it all moving along, just on the right side of hopelessness as our teenage protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis) struggles to find some way to connect; Michael Fassbender as her mum’s boyfriend Conor seems to offer some hope for their family to come together, but then it turns out he’s just another rotten one, perhaps the worst, but yet somehow catalyses some feeling of change for Mia. You don’t want to watch it at times, but it hurtles forward with the brash energy of youth.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Three of Andrea Arnold’s early short films are included. The first is her debut Milk (1998), about a woman coping with the death of her baby during childbirth, but it has one of those scenarios that only seems to happen in short films. Still it gets to an emotional core, and there are some nice shots of derelict suburban life.
  • The next is Dog (2001), which pretty convincingly does in 10 minutes what far longer films fail to do: give a sense of a life, who she is, where she’s come from, where she can expect to end up. Kinda brutal in its way (not least for the title character, a teenage girl played by Joanne Hill).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Andrea Arnold; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 17 July 2022.