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 Green Knight (2021)

I listed my favourite films of 2022 here but I’m trying to post fuller reviews of them as well. One that was again a 2021 favourite was one that showed up on streaming probably some time early in 2022 (maybe the year before, I don’t know; streaming seems so vague in terms of release dates), so I only caught up belatedly though in truth I was hoping for some cinema screenings. Fat chance I guess. Maybe one day in a retrospective, or if some enterprising soul does a season of mediaeval-set movies.


I think it’s fair to say that this film has divided opinion — although we are now fairly far from its release, and therefore hopefully people are able to come to it without preconceptions now. Presumably, though, that’s partly due to the way it endeavours to film a 14th century chivalric romance. After all, the way that such texts were written doesn’t much fit with the modern conception of psychological motivations and naturalism, and I think trying to find a way to visualise a story told in a different mode has guided many of the choices here. As one example, text frequently shows up on screen, giving the whole an episodic feel, as our hero Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) tries to make sense of, well frankly, his whole life.

There is throughout an undertow of inevitable death which probably fits pretty well with the period, especially for a (wannabe) knight such as him, who must face all kinds of dangers, and in the final reckoning his quest is as much a question of morality, of doing good and being virtuous and finding where that line lies. It’s also very interesting the way that the finality of death is not presented as the end of life; beheaded characters walk away with their heads, a vision of a skeleton gains flesh and vice versa, those who are dead also converse with the living — and presumably that is led by the storytelling tradition.

In all, I think the film effectively preserves the mystery of life and death and puts across a compelling alternative vision of storytelling itself. However, I would one day love the chance to see this on the big screen, as I do not think that our TV was able to cope with the various shades of darkness that are employed throughout the film, and the film seems designed to look better the bigger the screen.

The Green Knight (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer David Lowery (based on the anonymously authored poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo; Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Saturday 12 February 2022.

One Night in Miami… (2020)

It turns out I quite like a stagy talky film (like Fences), but that’s probably just because it’s good when a film project starts from having a good script with words that have already been proven. The fact that this one still feels like a play is almost beside the point, because this is an imaginative act of putting four iconic Black figures from the 1960s together in a room and having them riff off one another. The film opens with a bit of contextualisation for their respective situations in early 1964, and then spins its drama off from that. There’s a lot of fluid and carefully thought-out use of the camera in the largely confined space of the small motel room in Miami, but the bulk of the film rests on the shoulders of the actors, and they all deliver with conviction to the point I can’t really single out any one of the ensemble cast, but each of these characters gets their own fully realised arc and is never reduced to a mouthpiece for the familiar cliché about each.

One Night in Miami... film posterCREDITS
Director Regina King; Writer Kemp Powers (based on his play); Cinematographer Tami Reiker; Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Lance Reddick; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.

Sylvie’s Love (2020)

This didn’t make my favourites list last year, but it was recently released on Amazon Prime streaming, and it’s a gorgeously-mounted period piece about Black people in New York, which makes a change from the usual 1950s NYC milieu.


There’s a lot I really like about this romance film, most of which boils down to the sumptuous setting. It’s late-1950s to early-1960s New York City, and Tessa Thompson is our lead actor, as she falls for the rather earnest (and a little bit wooden) saxophone player Robert Holloway (Nnamdi Asomugha). It’s not ironic or winking at us in any way, nor is it a romcom. I don’t know why I associate this genre primarily with African-American themes, but maybe it’s because some of the greatest recent examples of romance films have been from filmmakers like Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball is practically a template) or have been films like Love Jones. This is hardly as well-written or developed as either of those classics, but is played entirely straight, a period drama that doesn’t pivot around virulent violent racism, but instead is a story about two people in a place learning to navigate their feelings for one another. It’s very sweet, and entirely lovely.

Sylvie's Love film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eugene Ashe; Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Aja Naomi King, Lance Reddick; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Monday 28 December 2020.

I’m Your Woman (2020)

Continuing my posts catching up with my favourite films of last year, this is the last film I saw in 2020, and a rather good one too.


I think this crime film works more in thinking back on it than it does while it plays out, in some respects, given the way that it reframes a familiar story from the viewpoint of the gangster’s wife. And not just in presenting a clueless moll character, for Rachel Brosnahan’s Jean is hardly an idiot, but more the way it really throws us as the audience into her perspective as someone who is perpetually in the dark, flailing around trying to understand why the bad things are happening to her with just this nagging sense at the back of her brain of why things might have gone wrong. Her inability to function without her gangster husband’s help becomes what drives the story and provides the arc for her character, as she is helped along by some of her husband’s associates. I suppose part of the worry is that this might become a story in which her self-actualisation is facilitated by the Black characters (Teri, Cal and his father), but the film gives them their own believable arcs, avoiding certain magical cliches, and becoming a film about a lot of people struggling with the pain caused by these (largely unseen) violent white men in their lives. The perspective can make it a little hard to get into, but it’s effective and the denouement is I think fairly won by the screenplay.

I'm Your Woman film posterCREDITS
Director Julia Hart; Writers Hart and Jordan Horowitz; Cinematographer Bryce Fortner; Starring Rachel Brosnahan, Arinzé Kene, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Frankie Faison; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Thursday 31 December 2020.

Global Cinema 21: Bolivia – When the Bull Cried (2017)

It should be clear by now that I don’t choose what I consider the most representative or famous titles from their country. Partly, it’s about what is easily available for me to watch, but I also seek out films directed by women and people of colour. There isn’t a huge amount of Bolivian cinema, but almost certainly there are better known titles than this Belgian-Bolivian co-production documentary, though I feel it certainly captures something specific about Bolivian life, at least in the mountainous mining communities.


Bolivian flagPlurinational State of Bolivia
population 11,428,000 | capital Sucre (259k) [constitutional/judicial], La Paz (765k) [executive/legislative] | largest cities Santa Cruz de la Sierra (1.5m), El Alto (849k), La Paz, Cochabamba (631k), Oruro (265k) | area 1,098,581 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism (70%), Protestantism (17%) | official language Spanish (Español boliviano), Aymara, Quechua (Runasimi), Guarani and many others | major ethnicity Mestizo (68%), native Bolivian (20%) | currency Boliviano (Bs) [BOB] | internet .bo

A landlocked South American country, with two capital cities (though the seat of government is located in La Paz), neither of which is the largest. It ranges from peaks in the west to eastern lowlands within the Amazon Basin. The name comes from Simón Bolívar and the country originally called the Republic of Bolívar; the modern name was adopted in 1825. The country was first occupied several millennia BCE, before the Aymara arrived. It wasn’t until the first millennium CE that the population cohered into cities, and it became a regional power as the Tiwanaku (or Tiahuanaco) empire. This empire crumbled due to a lack of food production, and by the mid-2nd millennium the Incan empire moved in. Spanish conquest began in 1524 and didn’t take long to complete, after which point the colonial power exploited silver via mining (tin took greater importance by the 20th century), though the brutal slave conditions led to an indigenous uprising, which coalesced into a struggle for independence in the early 19th century. Marshal Sucre led a military campaign that resulted in the Republic being declared in 1825. A number of wars took place between neighbouring powers on the continent for the ensuing few decades, and the country successively lost a lot of territory, including access to the sea. Periods of military dictatorship ceded to democracy in the 1990s, though there has been further instability since then. There is an elected President.

Bolivia has produced feature films since the 1920s, many of which have been documentaries. There was a New Bolivian Cinema in the 1960s, in parallel to Brazil and Argentina’s movements the same decade, and social realism continues to be a feature of modern, digital filmmaking practice.


Cuando el toro lloró (When the Bull Cried, 2017)

The title suggests something a little bit poetic about life in the Bolivian mountains amongst a small mining village. The film is dominated by images of rocks being cracked open by elderly women looking for tin, and of men going down into the miasma of the mountain, some of whom don’t return, as the women regretfully note. The traditions and customs are seen, protection sought for the dangerous work many in the community do, and the film ends with a gory animal sacrifice, the pulsating heart seen burning on a flame being despatched to El Tio, the deity worshipped around these parts. It’s an evocative film, albeit a slight one, running at just over an hour.

When the Bull Cried film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Karen Vazquez Guadarrama and Bart Goossens; Cinematographer Guadarrama; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Thursday 1 October 2020.

Global Cinema 20: Bhutan – Milarepa (2006)

There aren’t a huge number of Bhutanese films, but one of the most well-known is 1999’s The Cup, which starred the director of this film, himself a Buddhist monk. Given the prominence of the religion in the country, it seems fitting that it should be the choice for my representative film for Bhutan, though it’s set in Tibet (now part of China), and filmed in India near the border.


Bhutanese flagKingdom of Bhutan (འབྲུག་ཡུལ་ Druk Gyal Khap)
population 754,000 | capital Thimphu (ཐིམ་ཕུ) (115k) | largest cities Thimphu, Phuntsholing (28k), Paro (11k), Gelephu (10k), Samdrup Jongkhar (9k) | area 38,394 km2 | religion Buddhism (75%), Hinduism (23%) | official language Dzongkha (རྫོང་ཁ) | major ethnicity not recorded | currency Ngultrum (Nu.) [BTN] | internet .bt

A small landlocked South Asian country surrounded by India on three sides, and bordering Tibet (China) to the north. It is situated on the historic Silk Road, and has avoided colonisation, with its identity largely formed by Buddhism. Geographically, it moves from subtropical in the south to alpine in the north. The name probably derives from the Tibetan name for Tibet (“Böd”), though traditionally it is said to come from the Sanskrit “Bhota-anta” for “end of Tibet”, and since the 17th century its own official name (Druk Yul, “Land of the Thunder Dragon”) refers to the country’s dominant Buddhist sect. Settlement dates back to 2000 BCE, and the aboriginal peoples were called the Monpa. Buddhism was introduced in the 7th century CE, and promulgated widely the following century, although historical records are scarce about early Bhutan. However, it seems that it is warlords and fiefdoms, each subscribing to a different sect of Buddhism, that defined the political divisions within the country, united in the 17th century. Bhutan attempted a bit of expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries, but were beaten back by wars with the British. A monarchy was instituted (the House of Wangchuck) in 1907, and a legislature created in 1953. Much of the monarchy’s power was transferred to an elected parliament in recent years, and the first elections took place in 2007. It is governed by a Prime Minister, though much power still remains with the monarch.

The cinematic industry emerged in the 1990s (television was banned until 1999), influenced by neighbouring India’s Bollywood. Some films blend this tradition with Buddhism, and the country produces around 30 features a year, with six cinemas in the capital.


མི་ལ་རས་པའི་རྣམ་ཐར།། Mi-la-ras-pa’i rnam-thar (Milarepa, 2006)

This tale is about the famous 11th/12th century Buddhist yogi of the title, and was originally intended to be the first of two parts about his life (though sadly the latter was never made). It covers his birth and journey towards becoming a Buddhist, specifically the period when he learned arcane powers to kill his family’s enemies, something that jarred him to the extent of wanting to turn his back on a violent life and pursue a higher ideal. Dramatically, it’s not always satisfying, though there’s plenty still to recommend it in the scenery and the setting, which is unusual enough to be of interest, even if Milarepa’s moral quandaries often seem a little bit buried in overly dark interior scenes and a lack of urgency. Still, it’s a very handsome work.

Milarepa film posterCREDITS
Director Neten Chokling གནས་བརྟན་མཆོག་གླིང་རིན་པོ་ཆེ; Writers Chokling and Tenzing Choyang Gyari; Cinematographer Paul Warren; Starring Gimyan Lodro, Jamyang Lodro; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (Gaia via Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 22 September 2020.

Global Cinema 19: Benin – Gangbé (2015)

Another small filmmaking nation with only a handful of films is Benin, a neighbour to the much larger Nigeria, but poorer by comparison and certainly with an undeveloped cinematic history. As such my film today is a documentary by a Swiss filmmaker about a musical band journeying to Nigeria, and thus ticks a few boxes for, I suppose to Western eyes, a level of comfortable African cinema, though the music is great.


Beninese flagRepublic of Benin (Bénin)
population 11,733,000 | capital Porto-Novo (264k) | largest cities Cotonou (679k), Porto-Novo, Parakou (255k), Godomey (253k), Abomey-Calavi (118k) | area 114,763 km2 | religion Christianity (53%), Islam (29%) | official language French | major ethnicity Fon (38%), Adja/Mina (15%), Yoruba (12%) | currency West African CFA franc (CFA) [XOF] | internet .bj

A West African country formerly known as Dahomey, it borders the much larger Nigeria (which lies to its east), as well as sitting on the Gulf of Guinea where most of its population lives. The name possibly refers to ancient inhabitants, the Bini. The modern state combines coastal city-states and inland tribal regions. By the early-17th century, the Kingdom of Dahomey (made up of Fon people) and related to the nearby Oyo Empire, began taking over coastal areas, and had a rivalry with the area of Porto-Novo (the modern legal capital, though government is based in Cotonou). Dahomey’s war captives were killed or sold into slavery, encouraged by the Portuguese who had some settlements. As a colonial power, the French became pre-eminent by the late-19th century, ruling Dahomey as part of the “French West Africa” region, though granted it its independence on 1 August 1960, under President Hubert Maga. Ethnic strife ensued, as well as periods of military rule (including being proclaimed a Marxist state in 1974), and it was renamed as the People’s Republic of Benin in 1975. The “People’s” bit was dropped in 1990 when Marxism was officially renounced. The President is democratically elected, and is well-regarded on scales of rule of law and human rights.

Cinema in Benin can be traced back to the 1950s or 60s, with a small amount of production in the early years of independence. Most output from the country is in the form of documentaries, but there have been a handful of fiction features, though no indigenous directors are widely known beyond the country.


Gangbé (2015)

I love a low stakes movie, and this one really delivers. It’s about the Beninese band of the title, whose dream is to perform at Fela Kuti’s club The Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, and having booked the trip, the biggest drama is when the Nigerian customs officer asks to look inside the sousaphone case. (He finds a sousaphone.) But the music is good, you can’t fault that horn-driven African big band sound that owes a lot to Kuti, but also a legacy of juju and other traditional music. Naturally I don’t know very much about Benin, but we get a bit of the largest city, Cotonou, at the start, before it moves into the journey — which is as much spiritual as anything else, of course, especially when they record with Fela’s son Femi.

Gangbé film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Arnaud Robert; Cinematographer Charlie Petersmann; Length 58 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Friday 11 September 2020.

Global Cinema 16: Belarus – Enemies (2007)

It’s not a huge film-producing nation, though eventually in the Criterion Sunday series we will see its greatest film, Come and See. However, I’ve selected another film covering the same period, the rather bleak experience of Belarus during World War II, called Enemies. It’s directed by a woman and available on Amazon Prime.


Belarusian flagRepublic of Belarus (Беларусь)
population 9,408,000 | capital Minsk (Мінск) (2m) | largest cities Minsk, Homyel (537k), Mahilyow (383k), Vitsyebsk (378k), Hrodna (374k) | area 207,595 km2 | religion no official statistics (Eastern Orthodox Christianity) | official language Belarusian (беларуская мова), Russian (русский язык) | major ethnicity Belarusian (84%), Russian (8%) | currency Belarusian ruble (Br) [BYN] | internet .by

Formerly known as Belorussia (or Byelorussia), this landlocked country lies between Russia, Lithuania and Latvia to the north and the Ukraine to the south, with Poland to its west. The name is related to the Russian for “White Rus”, and may have any number of derivations, perhaps due to the clothing worn, or for ethno-religious reasons. People could be found in the area dating back to around 5000 BCE, with settlement by Baltic tribes from the 3rd century CE, and later Slavic tribes. It became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in around the 13th century. There was a certain amount of Polonisation following a union with Poland, but the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great acquired the area of Belarus, until occupation by the Germans in World War I. This latter didn’t last long and it declared itself a People’s Republic in 1918. It eventually came back under Soviet rule, before falling briefly to the Germans again in 1941, bearing the brunt of that conflict, as well as most of the fallout from Chernobyl in 1986. The country declared sovereignty in July 1990, and achieved independence on 25 August 1991. Subsequent presidential elections have brought the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko to power, with recent protests to his rule after a disputed election that brought him a sixth term in office. The government also has a Prime Minister appointed by the lower house of the government.

Although cinema in Belarus formally stretches back to 1924, most production has been in Russian and only sporadic production. Probably the most famous film with a Belarusian connection which, like the one below, deals with its wartime experiences is Come and See (1985).


Враги Vragi (Enemies, 2007)

It feels to me as if there are no shortage of films from former Soviet republics dealing with World War II, though I can’t be too critical since it’s a pretty key part of British self-identity in the movies too. Here it’s Belarus dealing with the Nazi occupation, specifically a small village where there’s an uneasy detente between the villagers and the occupying troops, who are to be fair a rather sad sight when lined up near the start. The way that they deal with one another — some of the Germans learning a bit of Russian and hanging out with the women, the villagers spitting insults when they’re not in earshot — all comes to a head when the young son of one of the women is captured trying to sabotage them. We never see what he’s done (and only hear his voice as the narrator) — and I imagine partly that’s budgetary, but it also centres the drama on this small group of people in a little poor muddy village. There’s some nice fluid camerawork that I think sets up the drama nicely, and even if it doesn’t feel like a mould-breaking war film, it’s still got a concise focus to it.

Enemies film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mariya Mozhar Мария Можар; Cinematographer Aleksander Smirnov Александр Смирнов; Starring Yuliya Aug Юлия Ауг, Axel Schrick, Gennadiy Garbuk Геннадий Гарбук; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Friday 14 August 2020.

Little Joe (2019)

I’ve been doing a themed week focused on ‘foreign’ science-fiction, due to the recent release of French film Proxima in cinemas, but once again today’s film is one I’m rather squashing into that remit, being a British film (albeit a co-production with Austria and Germany) in English with British stars. However it’s directed by the wonderful Austrian director Jessica Hausner, one of my favourites, especially for her recent films like this one and Amour Fou. She creates a very controlled and threatening atmosphere in this dystopian sci-fi about genetically modified plants.


I see that this film has been pulling in fairly mixed reviews, probably on account of blending Jessica Hausner’s very particular style, honed over the course of a number of inscrutable dramas about alienation and resentment, to a generic form (broadly speaking, a sort of sci-fi horror thriller). Of course, Hausner’s 2004 film Hotel has a not dissimilar general feel, but she has developed quite a bit as a director since that film, and Little Joe has a supremely polished style. The camera glides around, quite often moving in to focus on the intangible space between characters as much as the people themselves. The threat here, then, is an unseen one in the air, particularly apropos for this particular historical moment one might say (mid-2020), and feels reminiscent of Safe (along with a dissonant score and subtly alienating sound effects), though this film is more directly about the dangers of messing with Nature.

Emily Beecham (sporting a shock of ginger hair reminiscent of earlier iconic roles by her co-star Kerry Fox) is Alice, a scientist working with Ben Whishaw’s Chris on a new houseplant which they hope will promote happiness via some genetic modifications, but… things start to go awry, and eventually it just seems to be Alice who questions the potential dangers of this new plant. Unlike in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the way that others become infected are subtle and deniable, such that Alice finds herself questioning her own experiences; the allegorical danger the film raises is not simply that of interfering with nature, but implicates the recognisable contours of our own current workplace culture. It’s stylish and atmospheric, building tension impressively without resorting to hysteria.

Little Joe film posterCREDITS
Director Jessica Hausner; Writers Hausner and Géraldine Bajard; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player via Amazon streaming), London, Monday 22 June 2020.