Global Cinema 36: China – Embrace Again (2021)

Well, I’ve reached the largest country in the world (by population), and it’s hardly a slouch cinematically either. The idea of trying distill a country’s history and geography into a paragraph is ridiculous enough under usual circumstances, but China merits more than most in this respect so this will be very selective. For the film choice, though — eschewing famous names from over a century of cinematic artistry — I’ve gone with a popular film from late last year (released here in January) which deals with perhaps the most significant global event of this decade, and one inextricably linked with China.


Flag - ChinaPeople’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó)
population 1,412,600,000 | capital Beijing (北京市) (19.2m) | largest cities Shanghai (24.3m), Beijing, Guangzhou (13.9m), Shenzhen (13.4m), Tianjin (11.8m) | area 9,596,961 km2 | religion none/folk (75%), Buddhism (18%), Christianity (5%) | official language Standard Chinese aka Mandarin (现代标准汉语) | major ethnicity Han Chinese (91%) | currency Renminbi (元) [RMB] | internet .cn

Aside from being the world’s most populous country, it also shares the second most land borders (14, after Russia), has five time zones (and a huge variation in climate and topography) and in Shanghai has the largest city in the world (though Tokyo and Delhi come out larger when you include wider metropolitan areas); it’s also one the world’s earliest civilisations so there’s plenty of history to cover too. The name used in the west can be traced back to Persian and ultimately a Sanskrit word used in ancient India and appears in English by the 16th century; the shortened Chinese word Zhongguo means “central state”. Archaeological evidence for hominids stretched back 2.25 million years, with early Homo erectus “Peking Man” dating to ~700,000 years ago. Writing began around the seventh millennium BCE and the earliest historical dynasty (the Xia) to around 2100 BCE, though the Shang (following in the 17th century) are the first attested in contemporary records. The imperial system began with the Qin in 221 BCE followed by the Han, whose dominance is reflected in the ethnic name for native Chinese. The territory was expanded in this period, but further fragmentation occurred after their fall, reunited somewhat by the Sui in the 6th century, followed by a cultural renaissance under the Tang and Song dynasties. Military weakness was exploited by the Mongol empire, who established the Yuan dynasty, overthrown by the Ming in the 14th century, another golden age of culture and economy. The final dynasty was the Manchu-led (northern Chinese) Qing, which fell to the Xinhai Revolution of 1911-12 that established the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen of the Kuomintang (KMT), and was stabilised somewhat by Chiang Kai-shek. The Communist People’s Liberation Army fought a Civil War in the 1920s and again in the 1940s, gaining power in 1949 under Mao Zedong and pushing the KMT to Taiwan. Social reform programmes like The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution created upheaval and internal strife, blamed on the Maoist Gang of Four. The country was stabilised again under Deng Xiaoping, moving the country towards a mixed economy with an increasingly open market. The current one-party state has a President (with no term limit) elected by the National People’s Congress.

Introduced to the country in 1896, the first native cinematic production was in 1905, at a time when the industry was centred in Shanghai. This industry was severely curtailed by the Japanese invasion in 1937, with many filmmakers moving to Hong Kong and Chungking amongst other places. A new golden age was inaugurated by films like Spring in a Small Town (1948), though the Cultural Revolution severely restricted the industry and it wasn’t until the 1980s that a new generation of filmmakers emerged, notably the “Fifth Generation” of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, who were succeeded in the 1990s by filmmakers working outside the mainstream, though there’s still a large popular state-sanctioned cinema including films like Mermaid (2016).


穿过寒冬拥抱你 Chuanguo Handong Yongbao Nillende (Embrace Again, 2021)

It’s interesting that there hasn’t really been any kind of big budget film from Hollywood that reckons with the current pandemic. I don’t doubt it will happen in time, but so far we’ve just been told audiences wouldn’t want to see that. Well, here’s one from China, set almost exactly two years ago in Wuhan, and it’s a multi-strand narrative of various people on the frontlines, whether doctors and nurses or delivery drivers and restaurant owners, though let’s be clear: this stops some way short of any kind of documentary purpose. It’s sweetly sentimental to a fault, but it’s a film that’s as much about some of the strange kinships and communities that developed out of the pandemic and lockdown, as people who wouldn’t ordinarily meet come into contact. One the leads is Jia Ling, the director/star of last year’s big hit Hi, Mom, and she again radiates warmth, as indeed do many of the actors, having to convey a lot even while wearing face masks for half of the film (as indeed they should). Still, I’ve never before been so attentive as to when characters in a film aren’t wearing their masks or are handling or fitting them incorrectly, so I’m surprised some of them make it through. Along the way there is love and, of course, there is loss — an extended stretch of the movie towards the end is basically just an old-fashioned tearjerker, though at least not everyone you think might die actually dies (and that’s all I’ll say of that) — but mostly this is a film about the resilience of a city (and by extension a country, but don’t tell me Hollywood doesn’t also do propaganda).

Chuanguo Handong Yongbao Nillende (Embrace Again, 2021)CREDITS
Director Xiaolu Xue 薛晓路; Writers Xue, Liu Qing 柳青, Zhang Bolei 张铂雷, Hao Zhe 郝哲 and Yue Wang 王越; Starring Huang Bo 黄渤, Jia Ling 贾玲, Zhu Yilong 朱一龙, Xu Fan 徐帆; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 8 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 536: The Thin Red Line (1998)

I have seen this film many times on the big screen, but have never tried to put into words what I love about it. And while it’s fair to say it’s one of my favourite films, and I’m happy to rate it five stars (or 10/10 or whatever metric you want, although apparently two green ticks is what I currently use here), I don’t particularly hold that it is perfect in every detail. Perhaps what I love about it is more some of the effects that Terrence Malick achieves as a filmmaker, poetic and empathetic achievements, the deployment of actors, the development of its narrative, and the way it stands in relation to other war movies. Because if we want to get into criticism, then I think some of the tropes are still a little bit underdeveloped — particularly Ben Chaplin’s Pvt Bell and his relationship with his wife back home (Miranda Otto), conveyed in largely voiceless flashbacks of them holding each other in pre-war times and followed up with an almost literal “Dear John” letter (his name is actually Jack in the film) and his anguished responses in the twilight and rain of the R&R following a major battle, all of which feels a little bit convenient and familiar.

What’s not so familiar is the elegiac tone, which differed wildly from the other major World War II-era film released that same year of 1998 (Saving Private Ryan). Where Spielberg’s film, or at least its opening, was forceful in its evocation of the brutality of combat, Malick’s film instead subsumes everything into a sort of continuum with nature. The voiceovers — which come from many different characters and create almost a shared voice of humanity joined in pain and confusion — cue this up almost from the outset, the very first words we hear asking “What is this war in the heart of nature, why does nature vie with itself?” while we look on gnarled old swampland trees, overgrown with vines and tendrils. Even when we see our first combat casualty, it’s part of a sequence of the new troops making their way quietly through the jungle, and so the brutality of the vision of a mangled body becomes just part of the evocation of the darkness within nature. The extended battle scenes too alternate Nick Nolte’s Lt Tall shouting down the phone at Cpt Staros (Elias Koteas) with long languorous shots of the Guadalcanal hills, long grass flecked with sun, winds blowing them aside as the troops advance towards the Japanese positions.

So when I say that the film’s imperfections don’t matter to me so much, it’s because this to me is a film about humanity (specifically men, of course) within nature, about death as part of a continuum of life, about the search for the light. This central metaphor of the light is clearly a religious one, and Jim Caviezel’s subsequent film work playing the Christ in Mel Gibson’s self-flagellating film of the Passion (and others) finds its origins here in what is undoubtedly supposed to be a Christ-like figure, rebelling against authority and trying to find the light and goodness in his fellow men. I’m not convinced about the way Malick uses the indigenous Melanesian people in the opening ‘paradise’ sections as well as the subsequent commentary on their fall due to the war which has been unwillingly brought to them, but for me it’s nevertheless a beautiful sequence that combines John Toll’s cinematography with Fauré’s Requiem and Melanesian choirs orchestrated by composer Hans Zimmer, to convey in musical and visual terms this search for the light that ends the film too. Again and again, the restless camera cranes away towards the sky and the sun, and either we see it through the roofs of the homes in the flashback sequences, or it’s obscured by the jungle trees, perceived only as light filtering through the crevices between the leaves, or in holes that nature has made through them.

So yes, while I cannot say that do not see flaws in The Thin Red Line, they are the flaws perhaps of overreaching, of Malick and his fellow collaborators on this film, trying to get at something essential in humanity or how they see humanity as part of the world. It’s a poetic evocation of a world that owes as much to the Bible as it does to James Jones’s novel or to (what I imagine is) the experience of war itself, and so it’s a film I love and happily continue to watch over and over again.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick (based on the novel by James Jones); Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Tuesday 2 March 1999, at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 June 1999, at Riverside Studios, London, Thursday 18 March 2004, and at the Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 15 November 2020 (and on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray at home, in Wellington and London, on several occasions in between).

Criterion Sunday 535: 戦場のメリークリスマス Senjo no Meri Kurisumasu (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, 1983)

Imagine my surprise getting halfway through this film only to find out that David Bowie’s character is actually a New Zealander… Well, I believe he’s intended to be English, but you can’t edit out those thick NZ accents that the schoolkids boast and the school’s Auckland setting. Those however, are just brief flashback scenes; the rest of the film deals with prisoners of war during World War II on the island of Java, but shot on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands (meaning there’s actually a pretty strong NZ underpinning to this production). Director Nagisa Oshima has a fine way with the camera, composing artful long takes that reflect the intensely internal emotions each of these characters is dealing with — shame, guilt, remorse, fear and longing. There’s certainly no shortage of scenes depicting ritual seppuku, though the anglo cast also go through their fair share of self-lacerating shame and humiliation, and there’s a balance to the way its constructed. Neither side likes the other, but there’s a grudging respect accorded (whether the Japanese officers speaking English, or Tom Conti’s titular Lawrence speaking Japanese to his friend/captor played by Takeshi Kitano in his first feature film role). Negotiating these wartime relationships is a buried psychosexual charge that is mostly only ever in the background, but is clearly there in the ritualistic forms of embrace and punishment that take place. Basically, there’s a lot to unpack, but Oshima does a fantastic job in making a 1980s film that isn’t hideously dated.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a number of bonus interviews, including a lengthy piece in which producer Jeremy Thomas, actor Tom Conti and actor/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto reflect on the making of the film. Its labelled on the disc as “On the location” and while each of them does talk about the Cook Islands setting, the discussion widens out into memories of the process, of Oshima’s style as a director, and of each one’s feelings of being an amateur.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Writers Oshima and Paul Mayersberg (based on the novel The Seed and the Sower by Laurens van der Post); Cinematographer Toichiro Narushima 成島東一郎; Starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto 坂本龍一, Takeshi Kitano 北野武, Jack Thompson; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 14 May 2022.

Global Cinema 32: Cape Verde – Djon África (2018)

Getting back into my Global Cinema strand, which involves me paraphrasing the Wikipedia entries for the country and cinema, along with a review of a film so apologies if that seems lazy. I am hoping it helps me learn about the world. Anyway, the country I’m covering today has always been known in English as Cape Verde, but they prefer Cabo Verde (even in English) so that’s the name I’ll use for the rest of this article. Pedro Costa has dealt with Cabo Verdeans in a number of his films, but there are also some good local films like this one (a co-production with Portugal and Brazil). I’m very worried now about my next visit, which is to the Central African Republic, but I’ll cross that bridge soon.


Flag - Cape VerdeRepublic of Cabo Verde (República de Cabo Verde aka Cape Verde)
population 484,000 | capital Praia (128k, on Santiago island) | largest cities Praia, Mindelo (70k), Santa Maria (24k), Assomada (12k), Porto Novo (9k) | area 4,033 km2 | religion Christianity (85%, mostly Catholic), none (11%) | official language Portuguese (português) with Cape Verdean Creole (kriol) also recognised | major ethnicity not officially recorded but mostly mixed ethnicity | currency Cape Verdean escudo ($) [CVE] | internet .cv

An archipelago and island country in the Atlantic Ocean, comprising 10 islands starting from 600km west of the Cap-Vert peninsula in Senegal, part of the Macaronesia ecoregion. The name comes from the peninsula which itself takes its name from the Portuguese for “green cape”, a name given to it by explorers in the mid-15th century. There was no indigenous population but first became populated by the Portuguese in the 15th century, who used it as a convenient location as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade from the 16th century onwards. The earliest settlement Ribeira Grande (now called Cidade Velha) was sacked by Francis Drake amongst others, and Praia became capital in 1770. The decline in the slave trade led to an economic crisis, though ship resupplying continued to be important. Growing nationalism in the mid-20th century led to Amílcar Cabral organising the secret PAIGC for the liberation of Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde, which was followed by armed rebellion and then war in Guinea, which culminated in independence there and then in 1975 for Cabo Verde. A one-party state ceded to multi-party elections in 1991, and the country is now a stable democracy.

Cinema on the archipelago dates back to the early-20th century and naturally still has a lot of ties with Portugal. The first cinema was established in 1922 and there are now two film festivals. A number of films by Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa have been set on the island (such as Casa de lava) or amongst expatriate communities of Cabo Verdeans in Portugal, but a handful of native filmmaking efforts have been made over the years, fiction features as well as documentaries.


Djon África (2018)

This is a very thoughtful film about displacement and belonging, about the lingering effects of a colonial past on a present population, left disconnected from culture and family in profound ways. At the same time it’s a rather likeable film about a young man (Miguel Moreira) who has grown up in Portugal, who’s grifting and getting by, doing some petty thievery and with a girlfriend, but who finds himself drawn to find out something about his father. And so he travels to Cabo Verde, where his dad is from, in the hope of finding him and somehow forging some meaningful connection. His journey takes him around the islands, from the capital Praia to some small towns, and like a lot of road movies, it’s actually a voyage of self-discovery and so there are very few words I could choose to describe this that don’t make it sound like nauseating sentimental nonsense (“he finds out the real meaning of family” or “by facing up to what it means to not be from any place, he discovers where he’s actually from” or something), but actually it’s perfectly judged. It limns the divide between documentary — presenting this man in a world he’s only just discovering, which to a certain extent was the actual lived reality of the actor playing this role, and really conveying the textures of this country — alongside a fictional narrative. The scenes are scripted, and there’s also a febrile sense of the magical or the nightmarish that crops up every so often, blurring distinctions between lived reality and hallucination, and yet it still feels natural and at times improvised. For all that it’s very conscious and thoughtful about its process, though, it never sacrifices naturalism to formal rigours, and retains throughout a loping forward momentum.

Djon Africa (2018) posterCREDITS
Directors João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis; Writers Miller Guerra and Pedro Pinho; Cinematographer Vasco Viana; Starring Miguel Moreira, Isabel Cardoso; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 16 August 2019.

Minari (2020)

A film from earlier this year that I liked and need to try and recall at this great distance, it was released in NZ just before the Oscars ceremony it qualified for (being a 2020 film), where it won the Best Supporting Actress prize for Youn Yuh-jung. I’d seen the director’s debut, which is a Rwandan-set film called Munyurangabo, so his career (and presumably life) has been a fairly peripatetic one. And while this deals with a Korean family, it is set in and also very much is an American film at its heart.


A gentle and sweet film about assimilating into a new culture which will surely ring bells with anyone who’s done that — even if my own experience is merely moving from one anglophone country to another, hardly placing me in the same situation as this Korean family looking for better lives in the early-80s. Having been living in LA, the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), tempts the family out to a small corner of the middle of nowhere (Arkansas), where he can start a farm and live the life he wants; his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is hardly convinced, and brings her mother over from Korea to help her (this is Youn Yuh-jung). However, surprisingly for me, the highlight of the film is the kids (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho), who manage to hit the right note and not be too precocious or annoying (as they too often are in films). The plot takes a few rather big turns (such as a fire at one point) that I’m not sure the story needed, but the ensemble acting pulls it through for what is a sensitively told tale.

Minari (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lee Isaac Chung 정이삭; Cinematographer Lachlan Milne; Starring Steven Yeun 연상엽, Han Ye-ri 한예리, Youn Yuh-jung 윤여정, Alan Kim 김선, Noel Kate Cho 노엘 케이트 조; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 11 February 2021.

你好,李焕英 Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)

Earlier on this year, I took a punt on a random Chinese film which now has turned out to be the second-highest grossing film of the year (probably because China was one of the most unaffected film markets given everything that happened in 2021). It’s also pretty good fun and sweet, so I can recommend it, not that it likely says anything too controversial about the country’s recent past.


So apparently this is (currently) the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman, which is pretty cool, and it’s a shame that more Western audiences won’t see it, if the audience at the screening I saw is anything to go by, but then I guess it doesn’t fit the model that most distributors go by when it comes to the kinds of Asian films that get seen widely in the West. Sure, this doesn’t offer any deep messages about alienation or bitterly-observed insights into Communist China, but it is deeply likeable. Its director (Jia Ling) is also the lead star (as Jia Xiaoling), and while she doesn’t exactly pass for a teenager, she almost makes up for it with her dimpled smile and direct, engaging energy, and the story is apparently drawn from her own life.

It starts in 2001, as an accident threatens the life of Jia Xiaoling’s mother (Li Huanying, who is named in the Chinese title and played by Zhang Xiaofei), and it catapults Xiaoling back twenty years to just before she was born, in 1981. This is where much of the film takes place and, despite the rather harrowing set-up, the tone remains pretty light and comedic throughout. There were some jokes that clearly landed with a Chinese-speaking audience, but plenty too that was genuinely funny, and the central emotional core of the film landed pretty effortlessly, as the film switches gears into slightly sentimental weepie territory. Still, the sentiments which come through feel pretty earned, and the whole thing is put together with a slick craft that makes even the hokiest elements seem integral — and crucially, they are all acted with good humour and earnest feeling that doesn’t feel forced. Look, I’ve seen some pretty bad generational family dramedies, and this one stays sweet through to the end.

Ni Hao, Li Huanying (Hi, Mom, 2021)CREDITS
Director Jia Ling 贾玲; Writers Jia, Sun Jibin 孙集斌, Wang Yu 王宇, Bu Yu 卜钰 and Liu Honglu 刘宏禄; Cinematographers Liu Yin 刘寅 and Sun Ming 孙明; Starring Jia Ling 贾玲, Shen Teng 沈腾, Zhang Xiaofei 张小斐, Chen He 陈赫; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 26 March 2021.

Petite maman (2021)

Another of my favourites of the year, I went to see this twice (the running time helped). The second viewing prompted a long discussion about when exactly it’s set, as it doesn’t appear to be the modern day but the markers of the time period are fairly oblique. The presence of a Walkman suggests to me maybe the early-90s at the latest, but I’m really not sure. Anyway, it’s a U-rated film about children that is still suffused with melancholy.


I’d just finished watching a 10-hour film when I went to see this, so was particularly appreciative of the virtues of concision. This film feels exactly as long as it needs to be. It tells a story that’s about grief and loss, sadness and familial disconnection, but from the point of a view of a child, and formally it sort of matches its narrative structure to that of a child’s game. with all the inventiveness and non sequiturs you might expect, as young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) finds a very similar looking and similarly aged playmate called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) in the forest near her recently-deceased grandmother’s home, with whom she starts to form a friendship. Sciamma has done films about childhood before (the excellent Tomboy) and I particularly appreciate her clear distinction between the two lead actors (sisters in real life, I can only assume from their names) marking them out with different clothes and a hairband for Marion. The film’s conceit becomes clear as it goes on, and yet it still preserves that mystery about really knowing someone else, even the connection one has with one’s own mother.

Petite maman (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Céline Sciamma; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 26 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Monday 20 December 2021.

Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

In my round-up of favourite films of the year I’ve not yet posted reviews of, I touched on Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground yesterday, but probably the best music documentary of the year — also dealing with music in NYC in the late-60s — was this one made by Questlove (or ?uestlove if you will), the drummer for The Roots and multi-hyphenate artist and creator. It mostly presents (grainy, video-shot) footage of a series of concerts from 1969 in Harlem, following the classic documentary formula of ‘never before seen… until now!’ Thankfully the footage has enough quality to capture the vibrant performances but also the incredible level of music, and is interspersed with interviews with those surviving participants and organisers.


This documentary clearly needs a deluxe edition box set to include all the concert footage, but what it does is still pretty great. It takes the footage unearthed of this 1969 series of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a themed summer of gigs with gospel shows, jazz shows, soul, funk and R&B, from slick Motown pop to the fuzzed-out psychedelia of Sly & the Family Stone, straight up gospel from Mahalia Jackson and the Staples Singers, blues, African rhythms, Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican sounds, Hugh Masekela on the trumpet, and finishes up with the peerless Nina Simone, all orchestrated to tell a story of a community and a people in a state of change. It links its story to recent history and civil rights of course, but also to wider cultural currents in fashion and hairstyle, revolution and self-actualisation, the celebration of African and Afro-Latinx heritage, and the powerful role of Christ and the church within all of these struggles, and does so in an accessible, glorious way using as the basis the colourful footage of the concerts themselves and interviews with surviving participants and audience members. It’s all pretty great, even when ambushed by Lin-Manuel Miranda at one point, and it needs that deluxe edition, or maybe a series of further films. It deserves it own cultural festival just to celebrate everything in here.

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)CREDITS
Director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson; Cinematographer Shawn Peters; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Saturday 11 September 2021.

West Side Story (2021)

The big budget Hollywood musical seems to be back in this year. Maybe the film financiers thought the world was due a bit of levity, but as far as I can tell from the box office stats, that’s not necessarily what’s been shifting the tickets. That said, I’m not a Hollywood financial analyst, nor do I care to be. We’ve already had one big bright spectacular set in New York City during the summer, which was In the Heights, and now here’s another, albeit with a slightly longer stage pedigree. Neither is perfect, but both are entirely competent at what they do, and both showcase a bright and wide talent pool drawn from Latinx musical performers (and Ansel Elgort, who is none of these things). Actually one of the standouts here is Mike Faist as Riff, a character who’s never really been the most interesting, but against the slightly damp central pairing, he and David Alvarez as Bernardo — the rival gang leaders — really do shine out.


This is a long film but it’s one that’s not short of high production values or visual inventiveness, as you’d expect from Spielberg and his team. It opens with some gliding and vertiginous camera movements around what feels like a bombsite but instead turns out to be a slum clearance to make way for the Lincoln Center, as the central groups of young men are introduced, finger-clicking their way down the street in classic style. They look foolishly young, but that’s the point of course: they are kids, somewhere on the cusp between playground fights and becoming proper hoodlums. So the baby face of Ansel Elgort isn’t really the problem, not even the absurd idea that he’s spent any time in prison. After all, this is a musical and there’s a certain expectation of stylisation and non-naturalism. A bigger problem is that he just isn’t very good, either as a singer or as an actor; he has a certain presence I suppose (he’s very tall), but against a cast of largely musical theatre kids, the lack of experience really shows. Newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria is much better, but it’s the supporting characters like Mike Faist’s Riff, David Alvarez’s Bernardo and Ariana DeBose’s Anita who really steal the limelight, not least in the big showstopper “America”, which remains the highlight of this film as of any production. Just that strength and depth of minor roles is enough to carry the film, along with the polished set design and — another nice touch — the use of extended stretches of (untranslated) Spanish for the Puerto Rican characters. It’s a different beast from the 1961 film adaptation, and it makes some excellent changes too, but that’s also such an iconic juggernaut of 20th century American culture that maybe nothing could ever be fully satisfying. Still, this does a great job all the same.

West Side Story (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Steven Spielberg; Writer Tony Kushner (based on the musical by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents); Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński; Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno; Length 156 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 19 December 2021.

Dune: Part One (2021)

Whenever I see him in a magazine, or on a poster, or even on talkshows or wherever, I just don’t understand the appeal of Timothée Chalamet. And yet, in just about every film performance I’ve actually seen of his, he has a charisma and screen stature that is out of proportion to his own gangly frame: I have to admit he can act and he is a star. But this is a big lumbering sci-fi prestige production, and so I really didn’t expect to like it. I went out of a feeling of obligation to, you know, to Cinema, the Seventh Art, the big-screen blockbuster spectacle of the thing, and… it didn’t disappoint. In fact, I really liked it.


I’m not naturally cut out to be a big fan of this. It’s a film by Denis Villeneuve, whose previous works I’ve admired if not loved (I found Blade Runner 2049 a little chilly, although obviously it shares a lot of the same vastness as this film, though the much smaller-scale Enemy was intriguing in an off-beat way). It’s also an adaptation of an epic novel which has previously been made into a decent film by David Lynch which has striking imagery, even if it doesn’t always hit the mark narratively. But I like an epic science-fiction film, especially one more focused on tone than story, and that’s just as well because this adaptation, while it does fit in a lot of detail almost as an aside, is mainly about the world-building.

The young scion of a grand dynasty, it’s the troubling visions of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) which structure this film, as he sees his (possible) future on the planet of Arrakis, and a mysterious woman (Zendaya), that could be the start of… well, it’s unclear of course. However, there are hints throughout of the need for revolutionary change in this empire, even suggestions that Atreides may be a foretold Christ-like figure (the Kwisatz Haderach, if I made that name out correctly). Unlike the mythology-by-numbers of certain other space-set operatic epics, this layers on a bit more enigmatic obfuscation and a lot more of Hans Zimmer’s bass-heavy score. And while I’d certainly recommend seeing this on a big screen, in many ways it’s that music and sound design that are the best reason for the big screen experience, even above the imagery. It’s a film that feels particularly led by its sound, and it goes down pathways that I certainly hope will reap rewards in the (rather necessary) second part.

Dune (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Denis Villeneuve; Writers Jon Spaihts, Villeneuve and Eric Roth (based on the novel Dune by Frank Herbert); Cinematographer Greig Fraser; Starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Zendaya; Length 155 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 11 December 2021.