The closing night for the Melbourne Women in Film Festival was actually a film from New Zealand, but focusing strongly on diasporan peoples making their home in that country and the challenges that await. It’s as much about creating a future that doesn’t exist, I suppose, as in reflecting some kind of existing multicultural society (as I think NZ is a fair way away from that), but it’s great to see the work on show. I hope some of these filmmakers go on to make their own feature films; I’d love to see them.
I’m not sure this quite hits as hard as the same producers’ earlier portmanteau collections, Waru and Vai, but that’s not to say it’s not great. Indeed, it’s a wonderful tribute to the diversity of filmmaking culture in Aotearoa — or at least, potential filmmaking culture, as I don’t think the small number of films that the country makes each year really fully embraces that yet, but I certainly wish it would. Whereas the previous film Vai went to locations around the Pacific Islands to find stories that were united through the focus on the water, on the connective threads between them, Kāinga is grounded (literally) in the soil of a single home in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland, specifically the southern suburb of Māngere.
The film is split into eight segments moving through the years, taking in each decade from the 1970s onwards, before moving forward in shorter increments, as families from different ethnicities move in, the changes in the families and the changes in the home tracking the changes in society, in aspirations and expectations, and the way that things come full circle. It’s about an idea of New Zealand that I still don’t think is fully part of society there, but is something I think it is working towards a bit better than some other countries (albeit haltingly, as we perceive a little in a later segment of the film, where the home is owned by a racist pākehā couple), of embracing cultural difference as a generative source, and a positive one, but it’s comforting to see it in film.
Not all the individual segments fully work on their own (as is natural for any film of this nature), but the vision is consistent, the work of the set designers and actors and all the filmmakers is impressive in just getting it done (all these 10-minute unbroken takes is a flex, carried over from Waru), and most of all it’s a model and an inspiration, I hope, for future indigenous and pan-Asian filmmaking.
Directors Michelle Ang, Ghazaleh Golbakhsh غزاله گلبخش, Nahyeon Lee, Angeline Loo, Hash Perambalan [as “HASH”], Asuka Sylvie, Yamin Tun and Julie Zhu 朱常榛; Writers Shreya Gejji, Golbakhsh, Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen, HASH, Lee, Loo, Mia Maramara and Sylvie; Cinematographer Drew Sturge; Starring Mya Williamson, Izumi Sugihara, Patricia Senocbit, Eliana Hwang, Sneha Shetty, Masoumeh Hesam Mahmoudinezhad, Dharshi Ponnampalam, Katlyn Wong; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at ACMI, Melbourne, Monday 27 February 2022.
Another film festival I attended in February, my first month in Melbourne, was one with a thematic focus a little closer to home than the Europa! Europa Film Festival, namely the Melbourne Women in Film Festival. It was, I gather, the seventh edition, and it’s not a big festival — there were only a handful of films, along with the screening of an old Clara Law film (itself hived off from a larger celebration of Law’s work that’s been screening over the last few weeks), and a couple of programmes of shorts as well as workshops and discussions. I only attended the opening and closing night films, but both came with unexpected (to me, because I hadn’t read the website closely) free drinks, and a generally celebratory atmosphere which is always welcome! Long may the festival continue.
Focusing on a young First Nations woman, Murra (Shantae Barnes-Cowan), who has been let down by her family — most immediately her drug-using and wildly erratic mother — Sweet As blossoms into a really wholesome film that I certainly hope connects with the right audiences. Murra finds herself pushed into going on a group trip with other troubled kids, where they are encouraged to discover their voices via old-fashioned film cameras that one of the guides, an enthusiastic Nicaraguan guy (Carlos Sanson Jr), is particularly keen on. Naturally this idea of photography as a way into taking control of one’s own story means the pressure is on the film’s cinematographer to capture something beautiful, and there’s definitely a sense of some tourist board-approved visuals here, though I suppose you don’t have to work hard in this bit of Western Australia to find something stunning to photograph. The core of the story, though, remains focused on Murra and the way she first resists and ultimately bonds with the others on the trip, as a sort of coming of age road trip. Perhaps it does all feel a little bit soft pedalled (and it fits rather neatly into a familiar generic framework), but this is ultimately a very hopeful film about restoring connections with other people and with the natural world.
Director Jub Clerc; Writers Clerc and Steve Rodgers; Cinematographer Katie Milwright; Starring Shantae Barnes-Cowan, Pedrea Jackson, Mikayla Levy, Carlos Sanson Jr, Ngaire Pigram; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at ACMI, Melbourne, Thursday 23 February 2022.
The fourth film I saw at the Europa! Europa Film Festival was the one I had heard a little about (and is from the German-French-Iranian director of 3 Days in Quiberon), but it turned out to be the one I liked the least. However! It is very much a film for Vicky Krieps to further blossom into the grand actress of European cinema that she has threatened to become the last few years. She really is one of the best.
For a film that could easily be a disease-of-the-week mawkish tearfest made for TV, this drama about a woman dying of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis steers clear of a lot of the particular pitfalls of that genre, though it can never entirely escape it. However, it’s about the way that Hélène (Vicky Krieps) come to terms with her future, such as it is, and the way she has to hurt the ones she loves in order to protect both herself and them. Of course, it comes inbuilt with its own terrible additional layer of heartwrenching irony, in that it’s the film’s co-star Gaspard Ulliel (playing Hélène’s husband Matthieu) who died in real life shortly after this film was made. If Krieps reminds me a bit of Julianne Moore, it’s only because she’s every bit as fine an actor as Moore (who hasn’t shied away from similar roles), and indeed has become one of the more dependable European actors in recent years (whether in films like Bergman Island, Corsage or of course the fine-toned comedy Phantom Thread).
Director Emily Atef; Writers Atef and Lars Hubrich; Cinematographer Yves Cape; Starring Vicky Krieps, Gaspard Ulliel, Bjørn Floberg; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at the Classic, Melbourne, Sunday 26 February 2022.
Another excellent film I saw at the Europa! Europa Film Festival was this film about a young woman who doesn’t care to take part in society (which is a good and convenient characteristic to have when you’re presumably filming during a pandemic, but I think says a bit more generationally and as a response to the world).
The thing I’ve found in tending to go only to films by women directors in any given selection of film festival films (for want of any other way of narrowing down a list of films I’ve never heard of and may never see again), is that you get to see a range of responses to familiar genres. The subgenre of films about young women who just don’t give a f*ck, often deploying deadpan humour and absurdist premises, is thankfully expanding, and this film reminded me a little of the Spanish film El Planeta or the Korean film Heart, both with “unlikeable” protagonists who are actually compelling in their resistance to narrative expectations. Perhaps there’s also a slight hint of Wes Anderson too in the frontal shooting style and shot-reverse shot dialogue sequences that are so striking and can’t help but imbue a certain humour just in their style, even if the characters are undemonstrative. It makes a nice change, too, from a lot of Italian cinema that I’ve seen that tends towards operatic melodrama, and while there’s certainly a fair bit of shouting and bad behaviour here, I’m left with the sense of disconnectedness from society, a sadness or depression even that its title character is trying to resist. It’s an ongoing process for her, so the film just sort of stops mid-shot, which makes some sense; I hope Amanda is doing well, though it probably doesn’t hurt that she looks a bit like Alison Brie (everyone is rich and glamorous here, and her friend’s home is a terrifying palace to brutalist modernity).
Director/Writer Carolina Cavalli; Cinematographer Lorenzo Levrini; Starring Benedetta Porcaroli, Galatéa Bellugi; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at the Lido, Melbourne, Friday 17 February 2022.
When looking at a catalogue of films such as that for the Europa! Europa Film Festival, where almost every title is entirely unknown to me, and even most of the directors and stars aren’t ringing any bells, you may wonder, how do you select what films to go see? I’d like to say it was because they won awards (like this one, which won the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year), but no, it’s not usually that. Obviously if they have had any critical response I do take that into account but for the most part, I don’t know the films, I look them up, and then I go to the ones directed by women or indigenous filmmakers because it’s a way to narrow down a long list of films I know nothing about. And for the most part, you get good results; this one is no exception.
Films about filmmaking are a really pretty familiar topic to any festivalgoer or even casual watcher of movies, because there’s no story filmmakers like to tell more than their own one (I mean, write about what you know is a cliché for a reason). The focus here is on the kids who have been roped into the director’s vision, which appears to be some kind of Kes-like vision of a working class life, particularly Lily and the younger boy Ryan, who play siblings in the film-within-the-film. It takes a little time to get going, but ultimately there’s quite a nuanced take on what’s going on: the film’s director alternately feels like a tyrant, having childish fits of anger on set at his (child) actors’ lack of commitment to the emotion, then a slightly creepy guy setting up a sex scene involving the teenage Lily, and ultimately as a man with quite a complex layered emotional emptiness at his heart who is fairly open about it when talking to Ryan. The young actors have their own struggles with their colleagues, schoolkids and the townspeople, and as it goes on there’s plenty of lowkey angst, but it’s relatable and understandable, and never overwhelms the story. This film won the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes in 2022, and I think it’s a strong choice.
Directors Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret; Writers Akoka, Gueret and Elénore Gurrey; Cinematographer Eric Dumont; Starring Mallory Wanecque, Timéo Mahaut, Johan Heldenbergh; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at the Classic, Melbourne, Sunday 26 February 2022.
Since moving to Melbourne at the start of February, I’ve already been to films at a couple of small film festivals, so I thought I might cover those this week. One of the festivals was the Europa! Europa Film Festival, which runs in a couple of related (but I believe independent) cinemas in the Melbourne suburbs, the Lido and the Classic. It was a good excuse to visit both these areas and their fine cinemas, which are both very pleasant multi-screen environments, and if I lived closer to either Hawthorn or Elsternwick I’d definitely visit again. The festival itself presents a number of titles from the past few years that haven’t had much of a media profile, the kind of thing that you see at these festivals and then more or less disappear completely, which is a shame because all the films I saw had plenty to recommend them, not least this Catalan film by a woman filmmaker about some men on the job.
This Catalan-language film is made entirely with non-professional actors (the characters have the same first names as the actors), making it all the easier to imagine them as actual handymen, fixing plumbing and electrical issues across the city. Focusing on men with this career is a canny way to incorporate a range of social milieu, whether an upmarket studio, a wealthy home and a flashy kitchen showroom, or the rather dowdier and more lived-in small apartments of the city, with an old man who is keen to let people know about his health regimen, or a home with a harassed father and two impish daughters. There’s no real big plot to speak of, aside from that it’s Moha (Mellali)’s first week with the group, as the older man who runs the company (Pep Sarrà) is retiring; his colleague Valero (Escolar), however, is an aggressively annoying man who is quickly and unthinkingly racist towards Moha and it takes much of the film for him to soften his attitude. Indeed, he’s such an unpleasant bully of a man that it’s difficult to watch what is otherwise a sweet, very low-key film, but the director does her best to keep things moving along with a minimum of fuss and no over-explication of the themes.
Director Neus Ballús; Writers Ballús and Margarita Melgar; Cinematographer Anna Molins; Starring Valero Escolar, Mohamed Mellali, Pep Sarrà; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at the Lido, Melbourne, Friday 17 February 2022.
For all that this is from a different era of filmmaking — when earnest, socially engaged white men made films about the immigrant and Black experience (the director of this film was also writer and cinematographer for the excellent 1964 Nothing But a Man) — this also feels like a prescient film, and a contemporary one too. It’s about a young Mexican man who goes to America to get work to help feed his family, and there becomes entangled with forces intent on preventing him from working, cops and traffickers (including a memorable small role for Ned Beatty) and such. It’s a film that without making any grand speeches, eloquently lays bare the way that migrant workers (who may have illegally entered but are so clearly necessary for many industries) are treated and the lack of rights afforded to them. At some point, these kinds of stories became less trendy to depict, perhaps, and nowadays the creative talent behind the cameras would likely have the personal experiences of those on screen, but this is a fantastic bit of engaged 1970s filmmaking that deserves a wider audience. It must surely be one of the more overlooked standalone Criterion titles.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert M. Young; Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz and Young; Starring Domingo Ambriz, Trinidad Silva, Linda Gillen, Ned Beatty; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 21 January 2023.
Having not been much of a commercial (or indeed, critical) success at the time of its release, like a lot of the New American cinema of the 1970s, this film has attained a certain cult status. It’s easy perhaps to see why, with its unconventional story of the odd, cherubic-faced, yet morbidly death-obsessed young Harold (Bud Cort) falling in love with the elderly Maude (Ruth Gordon) after meeting at funerals which they’ve been in the habit of crashing. As we see in the early part of the film, Harold has a flair for staging elaborate suicide scenes for the benefit (well, not ‘benefit’ exactly) of his status and image-obsessed mother (Vivian Pickles). Indeed their grand home is not unlike a mausoleum, with its rich mahogany surfaces and elaborate ornamentation. I can’t be entirely sure I like the resulting film, though it surely has its moments, and the romance (such as it is) is treated fairly obliquely. The two characters have contrasting, but complementary, personalities, as Maude seeks to teach Harold something about why life is worth living, and there’s a gratuitous shot of a fading tattoo on her forearm near the end just to drive that point home. But for the most part this is a pleasantly agreeable little black comedy about an odd couple, and made with assured directorial flair by Hal Ashby.
(Written on 30 December 2014.)
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hal Ashby; Writer Colin Higgins; Cinematographer John Alonzo; Starring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, Vivian Pickles; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 28 December 2014.
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.
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.
Continuing my round-up of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here) and there was no shortage of opinions in either direction about Jordan Peele’s third feature, after Get Out and Us. In a sense, that’s what it was made for, so it succeeded brilliantly well, in conjuring up all kinds of conversations, not all of them particularly positive, but in the end it worked for me.
I’ve seen some fairly underwhelmed reviews of this film, but I do wonder if that’s not just from elevated expectations. The pace is somewhat lugubrious, although I do think it consistently builds tension throughout, and there’s a subplot involving Steven Yeun as a child star in a sitcom which doesn’t quite sit very comfortably with the rest of the film to my mind. However, its central premise — of a family of Black horse trainers whose history is deeply tied into filmmaking, trying to figure out a mystery happening around their homestead high out above Hollywood. There are evidently (maybe) aliens involved, possibly hiding behind a cloud, and the way this unfolds is nicely grounded in comedy, as one might expect. Its central conceit is grounded in the idea of looking, about the terrors and dangers of the image, and thus is tied pretty strongly into filmmaking, but while it never truly horrifies, it looks gorgeous and holds together nicely.
Director/Writer Jordan Peele; Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun 연상엽, Michael Wincott, Brandon Perea; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema New Mission, San Francisco, Wednesday 10 August 2022.