The Power of the Dog (2021)

Jane Campion’s latest directorial effort, her first feature film since 2009’s Bright Star, was the opening film of the New Zealand International Film Festival but it gained a cinematic release while the festival was underway so I went to see it just afterwards. It’s a film that doesn’t reveal its hand until fairly late in the piece, a classic slow burn story, and even by the end there’s still plenty of mystery to the characters, but that makes it all the more compelling in my opinion.


I am aware that this film isn’t for everyone, and honestly I approach this as someone who is not a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as an actor or of Campion’s work this past decade (chiefly on Top of the Lake, though I adore all of her feature films). That said I feel there’s enough here that’s resonant and special, especially within the context of modern film production and certainly among films commissioned by Netflix. This is mostly a film of atmosphere and setting — narratively Montana, but it’s filmed in New Zealand, and I think that’s going to be fairly clear to anyone who’s from either of those places. It’s essentially a two-hander between Cumberbatch’s grizzled older rancher Phil and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, the son of Kirsten’s Dunst’s Rose (who marries Phil’s brother George, played by a doughy-cheeked Jesse Plemons).

There’s a subtle but unavoidable underlying homoerotic tension throughout the film — which mostly comes out within the screenplay as talk about Phil’s now-departed mentor Bronco Harry, but is also clear in some of the loving close-ups that really I can’t explain here but are evident when you see the film — and I think it starts to become clear that Phil has a lot of the same background as Peter. Indeed, he is in a sense a version of the latter, albeit one who has actively remoulded himself to meet the expectations of his era, of his surroundings and of his peers into a more ‘manly’ man. Some of the dramatic moves don’t quite work to my mind — especially the way in which Phil and Peter at one point start to become friendly — but there’s an underlying power to their scenes that has almost a classical tragic resonance as the power balance between the two starts to shift throughout the film. And while nothing much outwardly seems to happen, it’s clear that this subtly sketched yet evident mental struggle between the older and younger men starts to consume both their lives.

The Power of the Dog (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jane Campion (based on the novel by Thomas Savage); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Thomasin McKenzie; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 25 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Friday 24 December 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You with Me, 2020)

I’ve reviewed documentaries of every type seen so far during Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, but this one breaks the mould a little bit by incorporating fictional restaged elements. It’s all very cannily done by a seasoned documentarian, but it’s a beautiful film that deserves a wider audience.


This film starts out with the feel of a documentary about a chef in NYC but then slips between various time periods in the childhood and early-20s of the same man growing up in small town Mexico. The struggles he has with same-sex attraction and holding down a relationship under the judgemental eyes of his family and those in the community around him have a certain familiarity, but are handled very beautifully here. Part of that is from the way the film surprisingly blends fictional narrative and documentary, becoming evident later in the film, and which deepens the richness of the 80s and 90s-set sections. It all makes sense as a move on the part of a long-time documentary filmmaker, and it certainly makes me intrigued to see more of what she produces, as this film has a very polished, gracious and beautifully shot sense of atmospherics with a slight touch of Malick at times.

Te llevo conmigo (I Carry You with Me, 2020)CREDITS
Director Heidi Ewing; Writers Ewing and Alan Page Arriaga; Cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez; Starring Armando Espitia, Christian Vázquez; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Monday 8 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 407: Mala Noche (aka Bad Night, 1986)

Gus Van Sant’s feature debut, and I suppose it fits loosely into the era’s “New Queer Cinema”, though it stands apart but not having quite the same counter-cultural self-consciousness perhaps, by which I mean this is loose and poetic and less political in nature. It’s about this one guy, Walt (Tim Streeter), a real person upon whose autobiography it’s based, who happens to be chasing a young man (Johnny, played by Doug Cooeyate). For a low-budget film it uses its lack of resources well, creating a monochrome aesthetic heavy on the pools of light and shadow, with an evocative sense of style in these little moments snatched from something of a Nouvelle Vague feeling. That said, its protagonist is this struggling young guy running a shop who seems to have a big opinion about himself and his pursuit of younger Mexican guys, whom he isn’t even sure are 18, is callously objectifying. A lot of the film is in Spanish, but Walt doesn’t much seem to care about his enamorado Johnny, so much as about the chase. It makes for a film that’s about race and class and power in ways that aren’t always comfortable, and don’t always feel fully examined, because they’re the politics of young men looking for sex.

NOTE: The Criterion edition lists this as 1985, though it appears from IMDb that its earliest public appearance at festivals was in 1986 but those dates may not be exhaustive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Gus Van Sant (based on the novel by Walt Curtis); Cinematographer John J. Campbell; Starring Tim Streeter, Doug Cooeyate, Ray Monge; Length 78 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 13 March 2021.

Salir del ropero (So My Grandma’s a Lesbian!, 2019)

If you watch enough Netflix you will of course plumb some fairly murky depths when it comes to mediocre filmmaking. And because I’m trying to fill out this themed week, here’s one of them. It’s not one I chose myself, it was watched with a group of friends (well, online not in the same room), but there you go, I did watch it. I cannot in all honesty recommend it to you.


I think a more accurate title would be “So My Granddaughter’s a Homophobe” given how relatively little time is spent on the grandmas (who are obviously the most interesting characters). This has its moments, most of which appear to be a sort of anodyne Almodóvar, but it hardly does itself any favours with the terrible young people and the bad Scottish accents. It is clearly aiming to keep things light and fluffy, and I do think its heart is in the right place, but it is a bit wayward at times.

So My Grandma's a Lesbian! film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ángeles Reiné; Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine; Starring Rosa Maria Sardà, Verónica Forqué, Ingrid García-Jonsson; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Friday 5 February 2021.

Happiest Season (2020)

What with moving country and not have any internet access at home (yet), I’ve been a little bit lax in posting film reviews on here, though I’ve still been venturing to the cinema occasionally and trying to keep up with films at home as much as I can, though the aforementioned lack of internet means I’ve not seen many recent films. However, there’s a special holiday on at the moment so I thought I best post a review of a related film that I did get a chance to see, along with apparently everybody else on the internet.


You may have read about this film on the internet already, and goodness knows enough people have already seen it. Before I’d seen it, then, I was all ready to chalk this up as a bit of kitschy normcore — a Christmas-themed romcom! seasonal jumpers! — for its starry cast to be involved in, because doing Hallmark-style movies seems to have become a Thing for A-listers recently. And it’s not that it doesn’t have plenty of elements of that, but it’s also fairly self-knowing about the way it’s deploying the tropes of the genre alongside a critique of unfair expectations of gay people in repressed small-town contexts, and the very real spectre of being in the closet that this seems to entail. So there are a lot more tears by the end than I had expected going in, and while the denouement seems a little bit forced, it’s also earned I think and deserved too.

Among the cast, Kristen Stewart is of course excellent, but the highlight is Dan Levy as the gay best friend. Alison Brie also does a fine job at finding some pathos in a very difficult and unapproachable character; the young actors playing her kids also have a great range in deadpan stares. Oh and the co-writer Mary Holland has given herself a great role as Jane, the other sister largely forgotten and sidelined by this imperious New England family. It’s just a pity that a brief appearance by Timothy Simons and Lauren Lapkus didn’t go anywhere, as I feel they could have been better served. Still, this is a film that’s focused on the traumas of its central character Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and though it’s somewhat a thankless role, the film does follow through her story in a satisfying way, and it’s all I could want from a lesbian Christmas-themed romcom, I suppose.

CREDITS
Director Clea DuVall; Writers DuVall and Mary Holland; Cinematographer John Guleserian; Starring Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Alison Brie, Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 3 December 2020.

LFF 2020: 日子 Rizi (Days, 2020)

This was my second film at the London Film Festival this year, and while I do not generally post reviews of films I have not fully seen, sadly I was thwarted a little by this new world of online film festivals. I cannot speak of the ending because my session “expired” 20 minutes from the end, for reasons that elude me (I think there was only a limited time to watch once you click play, but I couldn’t find it anywhere on the site). Still, I think enough was clear from the first 105 minutes, and I will certainly be seeking out future opportunities to see it (hopefully on a big screen some day given its typically Tsai qualities of beautiful stillness).


Director Tsai, especially in recent years (such as in the remarkable 2013 film Stray Dogs), has been slowly stripping back his cinema more and more, and this film, although a narrative feature, is almost abstract in its rhythms, like his ‘Walker’ series of short films or documentaries like Your Face (2018). It’s “intentionally unsubtitled”, though the only words we hear are mixed very much in the background (and aren’t heard until half an hour into the film). The film shows two men going about their days (one of whom is of course Tsai’s partner and regular collaborator Lee Kang-sheng), a slow accretion of details of two different lives. These two come together (literally) about two-thirds of the way in, and then drift apart again. The images are beautiful, dark, sometimes completely empty and still, and often water-laden (of course, because it’s Tsai), but it’s captivating and shows his continued mastery of the ‘slow cinema’ form.

Days film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tsai Ming-liang 蔡明亮; Cinematographer Chang Jhong-yuan 張鍾元; Starring Lee Kang-sheng 李康生, Anong Houngheuangsy 亞儂弘尚希; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Friday 9 October 2020.

Summerland (2020)

I’ve now seen five films in an actual cinema, which isn’t going to threaten the amount I’ve been watching at home, but it makes a nice change after the past six months. However slightly uncomfortable it may be returning to the cinema (and I think we all have to make our own decisions about such things, regardless of what the official guidance may allow — for my part, I leave my mask on at all times, unlike most people it seems), it was difficult for me not to take up this opportunity. Therefore this week’s theme is going to be the films I’ve now seen at the cinema since they were allowed to reopen.


Director Jessica Swale has made her name in the theatre, and I can see that her talents haven’t quite been matched to film form here. A lot of the way that the themes and characters are developed, while not inherently unsatisfying, just seem overdetermined. Combining the (1940s) past and (1970s) present is done elegantly enough — albeit every time I see Gugu I wish for more of her — but the points in the script where the revelations land just feel so thudding, as we come to understand that the curmudgeonly Alice (Gemma Arterton) has her heart warmed by the love of a child (Lucas Bond), and then later on as multiple different strands are brought together. I probably wouldn’t have minded so much if the setting weren’t so overly familiar from other British period films (include ones starring Arterton), and if the score hadn’t swelled at the expected appropriate moments. For all the ways that the casting and themes tried to expand the range of references for ‘World War II romantic drama’ the drama as a whole didn’t work, and things devolved rather too far into unsubtle melodrama. Still, there are things I like about it, whether the cinematography (by Laurie Rose) or the fine performances, and indeed some of the character details, particularly the early characterisation of Alice, are amusing and I still always enjoy seeing Gemma Arterton on screen.

Summerland film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jessica Swale; Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Gemma Arterton, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Sunday 9 August 2020.

Global Cinema 12: The Bahamas – Children of God (2009)

Though the island locations of The Bahamas have been seen in any number of 60s and 70s James Bond films, in Jaws: The Revenge and Splash, amongst many others, there isn’t much of an indigenous film industry to speak of. A local director who has made something of a name for himself, particular of the LGBT festival circuit, is Kareem Mortimer, whose 2009 film Children of God is my chosen film to represent The Bahamas. It represents a noble attempt to confront LGBT struggles and prejudices on the islands.


Bahamian flagCommonwealth of The Bahamas
population 385,600 | capital Nassau (274k) | largest cities Nassau, Freeport (47k), West End (13k), Coopers Town (9k), Marsh Harbour (6k) | area 13,878 km2 | religion Protestant Christianity (80%), Roman Catholicism (15%) | official language English | major ethnicity Afro-Bahamian (91%) | currency Bahamian Dollar ($) [BSD] | internet .bs

A country taking up much of the almost 700 islands of the Lucayan Archipelago, between Cuba and Florida, with the capital located on the island of New Providence (where more than 70% of the country’s population is based). The name comes from the Taíno phrase ba ha ma for “big upper middle land” or else from the Spanish baja mar for “shallow water”, but either way the definite article is formally part of the country’s name. The Taíno were the earliest inhabitants, coming from South America around the 9th century CE, and came to be known as the Lucayan people. Christopher Columbus may have made landfall in The Bahamas (it is disputed which island precisely); thereafter the Spanish were in control but their main involvement was to enslave many of the native people. The British arrived in the mid-17th century and settled first on the island of Eleuthera, and later New Providence, before granting proprietory control to the English Province of Carolina under whose rule the islands became a pirate’s haven, before the British wrested back direct control. Liberated slaves were resettled on the Bahamas after the British ended their own direct involvement in the slave trade. After World War II, a strong movement for independence formed, and this was achieved on 10 July 1973. The British monarch is retained as head of state, with rule by a Prime Minister, head of the party with the most seats in the House of Assembly.

There is hardly a strong film industry in The Bahamas, though it has been used as a backdrop and filming location to plenty of foreign productions. Local filmmaking starts to take off in the 1990s and there has been a slow trickle of films since that time.


Children of God (2009)

Needless to say I’ve not seen many Bahamian films (if any; though certainly I imagine I’ve seen plenty that are partially shot there), but I can buy the divisions that are at the heart of this film. It focuses on Jonny (Johnny Ferro), a scrawny white art student who is sent away by his art instructor to go put some emotion into his technically competent paintings (we don’t actually see his work, which is probably for the best), and while off on a remote island he meets Romeo (Stephen Tyrone Williams). The complications that ensue are amongst family and the local community: people are agitating against gay people and gay rights, while the local pastor is flirting with young men, and his wife is trying to put her life together around this. There are a lot of intersecting struggles, and sometimes the ways they are linked can be a little clunky, while some of the confrontation feels forced. However, this is a film with its heart in the right place, making its points about tolerance in this small island community.

Children of God film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kareem Mortimer; Cinematographer Ian Bloom; Starring Johnny Ferro, Stephen Tyrone Williams, Margaret Laurena Kemp; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 1 August 2020.

Global Cinema 10: Austria – L’animale (2018)

Austria is a well developed country with a lot of history but being German-speaking I do wonder if sometimes it’s easily mixed up with its larger neighbour. Still, plenty of excellent directors and actors have come from that country, and it remains a strong filmmaking nation.


Austrian flagRepublic of Austria (Österreich)
population 8,902,600 | capital Vienna (Wien) (1.8m) | largest cities Vienna, Graz (270k), Linz (194k), Salzburg (147k), Innsbruck (125k) | area 83,879 km2 | religion Catholicism (57%) | official language German (Deutsch) | major ethnicity Austrian (81%) | currency Euro (€) [EUR] | internet .at

A landlocked Alpine country formed of nine federated states, it is largely mountainous, albeit with some plains in the east. The name is from the Old High German for “eastern realm” and first appeared at the end of the 10th century, probably deriving from Mediæval Latin. It was settled by Celtic tribes, but conquered by the Roman Empire as the kingdom of Noricum. Charlemagne conquered the area in the late-8th century, and it was first defined as a state of its own in 976, when granted to the house of Babenberg. It later became a duchy, then eventually fell under the house of Habsburg in the Middle Ages. The Austrian Empire was founded in 1804, then Austria-Hungary in 1867; when the Archduke was assassinated in 1914 it prompted World War I, at the end of which the Empire was dissolved. German-speaking Austria became a Republic, and briefly annexed to Germany in 1938 until the end of World War II. It has a directly elected President, who selects a Chancellor to head the Federal Government.

The earliest films made in the country were newsreels, with the earliest native productions being erotic short films from 1906. Mainstream production began in 1910, kicking into high gear during the war and after. A number of filmmakers emigrated to the west during the Austria-Hungary years and as the German annexation began to be felt, including Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg early on, then later Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and others. Musical comedies became popular following WW2, but filmmaking had dried up by the 1970s aside from avant garde film production (names like Kurt Kren, Peter Kubelka, Valie Export being the most prominent). Contemporary filmmakers have started to come to international prominence, most notably Michael Haneke, but also Jessica Hausner, Barbara Albert, Michael Glawogger, Ulrich Seidl and Nikolaus Geyrhalter, amongst others.


L’animale (2018)

There’s a certain slightly forced quality to the narrative that you expect from a new filmmaker — the way it sets up parallel storylines between parents and children, the use of the title song to link their stories — but on the whole this is a really tightly-controlled film about repressed small town attitudes and people trying to break out of their learned habits. It’s about a young woman (Sophie Stockinger) who finds she’s attracted to another woman — much to her surprise, perhaps less to the audience — while her father grapples with his own sexuality. It’s all shot in a frontal style with slow movements and a clarity to the image that just sets it slightly apart from reality perhaps, while the acting taps into some of the simmering rage that lurks beneath the surface of many of the characters. I think there’s definitely a director worth watching here, and her film is not a million miles from the work of some of the (particularly excellent) recent Austrian and German language women filmmakers like Valeska Grisebach, Jessica Hausner and Angela Schanelec.

L'animale film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Katharina Mückstein; Cinematographer Michael Schindegger; Starring Sophie Stockinger, Julia Franz Richter, Jack Hofer; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 30 December 2018.

Global Cinema 7: Argentina – The Fish Child (2009)

Argentina is one of the largest countries in the world and so has a wealth of cinema stretching back to its very earliest roots. There was a strong political cinema in the 1960s, most notably The Hour of the Furnaces from 1968. Since then, international auteurs have cropped up, not least Lucrecia Martel (one of my favourite filmmakers), along with a host of films by women or dealing with LGBT themes, amongst many other things.


Argentine flagArgentine Republic
population 44,939,000 | capital Buenos Aires (3.1m) | largest cities Buenos Aires, Córdoba (1.5m), Rosario (1.4m), Mendoza (1.1m), San Miguel de Tucumán (868k) | area 2,780,400 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism (63%) | official language none (Spanish) | major ethnicity European/Mestizo (97%) | currency Peso ($) [ARS] | internet .ar

Mountainous to the west, and bordering the Atlantic on the east, Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world, second to Brazil in South America, and with a huge amount of biodiversity. The name comes from the Italian for “silver coloured”, as it was believed by early European explorers to have silver mountains, and it used to be called “the Argentine” in English. Human habitation can be traced back to the Paleolithic era, though relatively sparsely populated by hunter-gatherer and farming tribes. Amerigo Vespucci brought the first Europeans to the region in the early-16th century, and Spanish colonisation continued throughout that century. A revolution in 1810 signalled a war of independence, declared on 9 July 1816. Liberal economic policies promoted a huge amount of European immigration, making it one of the world’s most wealthy and well-educated countries by the late-19th century. Following WW2, during which the country was mostly neutral, Juan Perón seized power and nationalised industry, bringing in social welfare and women’s suffrage (thanks to his wife Eva), but power swung back to a military leadership who pursued a brutal policy of state terrorism against leftists as power shifted back and forth. An ill-judged war against Britain in the Falklands led to the toppling of the military leadership, and a move back to democracy. The head of government is the President, alongside a Senate and Congress, overseeing 23 provinces and one autonomous city (the capital).

Given the country’s wealth, its cinema has long been one of the most developed on the continent, with a Lumière screening as early as 1896 prompting Argentinian filmmaking soon after. A ‘golden age’ followed in the 1930s, the pinnacle of indigenous production, though it dwindled under Perön. A ‘new cinema’ arose in the late-1960s, an unequivocally political and militant cinema, though there were more commercial strands of work and these were prominent in the 1970s when censorship and repression was at its height. There has been a resurgence in cinema of all kinds since the 1990s, sometimes called the New Argentine Cinema.


El niño pez (The Fish Child, 2009)

There’s quite a bit going on in here, both in terms of the mix of genre motifs, but also the complicated structure, and the layering of realism with magically surreal touches. These latter elements, which are tied to the film’s title, are a way of rendering poetic something that is painful and troubling — as magical realism so often does — within a story that broadly skirts around the issue of class in Argentina but in a ‘lovers on the run’ framework. Lala (Inés Efron) is the teenaged daughter of a rich (ethnically white) family, who is in love with the family’s maid Ailin (Mariela Vitale), a couple of years older than her, and naturally they plot to get away and live together, free from the various things tying them down. The structure of the film is then a way to reveal these things slowly to the audience, as first we understand a crime has been committed, and then who did it and why, and some of the reasons why the characters have come to this place. I’m not sure it’s always entirely successful, but it’s a heady blend of styles and influences, which constrains its LGBTQ themes within an artfully genre-tinged framework.

The Fish Child film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lucía Puenzo; Cinematographer Rolo Pulpeiro; Starring Inés Efron, Mariela Vitale; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Monday 22 July 2019.