Criterion Sunday 301: An Angel at My Table (1990)

Janet Frame is one of those iconic New Zealanders (not least because of her bright corona of red hair) who probably isn’t much known outside the country — or wasn’t until this biopic by Jane Campion. It’s a remarkable work that tracks her life via a tripartite structure (taken from the three memoirs Frame wrote): we see her as a young schoolgirl, then as a teenager, and finally played by Kerry Fox as an uncertain adult venturing out into the world after a period of difficulty. By which I mean that she was sectioned into a mental hospital for eight years of her life, for absolutely no medically-sound reason as it later turned out (just that everyone thought she was a bit odd). Campion does her best to find a balance between the darker elements and a sense of poetic license and even joy, and ultimately the film is about Frame finding her place in the world and her poetic voice. It’s all gorgeously shot and mounted, set in rural Otago before Frame later moves to London and Spain. Fox does well to convey Frame’s withdrawn character in an engaging way, and this is one of Campion’s best films.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the 10 minute The Making of An Angel at My Table (2002) documentary by one of the producers of the feature which gives some behind the scenes context for the making of the film, mostly told by Campion herself, as well as Campion on her festival and press tour, promoting the finished film.
  • There are six short deleted scenes which add a few more little details to the characterisations.
  • There’s a fine stills gallery with some production photos, including the actual Janet Frame with her three actors.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writer Laura Jones (based on the autobiographies To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Kevin J. Wilson; Length 158 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 12 December 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 17 March 2020).

The Breaker Upperers (2018)

The New Zealand film industry isn’t exactly prolific (it’s not a huge market after all) so they generally only put out a small handful of films each year, very few of which see any kind of international distribution. However, there’s a bit of a market for NZ comedies given the success of the Flight of the Conchords and the films of Taika Waititi, so some of these titles have made it as far as Netflix, like the film today. I admit I watched it at home late at night, and possible a little tipsy, which may be the best way to experience a comedy. I apologise if my review lacks some nuance as a result.


A broadly likeable New Zealand comedy about two women running a service to help couples break up. It focuses on their friendship, as one falls in love and develops a conscience about the effect she’s having on people. It’s fairly gentle as far as the humour goes, mining more of that quirky deadpan so beloved of NZ comedians, and the lead actors (also the co-directors and writers) are good company for the film’s concise running time.

The Breaker Upperers film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek; Cinematographer Ginny Loane; Starring Madeleine Sami, Jackie van Beek, James Rolleston, Celia Pacquola, Rima Te Wiata; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 15 February 2019.

Some Aro Valley Digital Films of the 2000s

I grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, and during university I lived in a flat perched just above the Aro Valley, which at that time in the early-2000s was an area of economic desuetude, as the threat of a motorway bypass that might cut through the area depressed property prices and generally caused a certain level of stagnation — ideal for a thriving community of students and bohemians. In fact, since this is just a personal blog and I’m hardly a professional film writer or noted expert, I might as well say that for those first few years after I finished university I was sharing a flat with the filmmaker in the title of the 2010 documentary reviewed below, which would probably disqualify me from ‘reviewing’ any of these films, but let’s look at this as sort of a personal journey shall we? More of a nostalgic trip down memory lane perhaps.

Campbell Walker, a filmmaker who also at that time worked in the Aro Street Video Shop, was somewhat the epicentre of a filmmaking scene that grew up in the Aro Valley in the late-1990s, though he was by no means the only practitioner. After all, the two feature films I’ve reviewed below are co-directed by Alexander Greenhough and Elric Kane, both expatriate Americans who grew up and studied in Wellington, and who had made one previous film, I Think I’m Going (2003), which was at least partially filmed in that very flat. One of Walker’s actors in his debut feature Uncomfortable Comfortable (1999), Colin Hodson, went on to make a few of his own films (Shifter and OFF. are the two I remember seeing, both mining some of the same emotional terrain, though in a different style), and I’d tangentially include Gregory King’s Christmas (2003) as at least adjacent filmically, if not geographically. What all of them shared was a commitment to the aesthetics of digital filmmaking, being the available source of affordable technology, and a complete lack of any kind of budget whatsoever. This means these were made with friends and favours, and while Walker’s style tended towards the improvisational — as if channelling the Jacques Rivette of Out 1 via the leafy suburbs of Wellington — other filmmakers within the scene (like Greenhough and Kane below) preferred a tightly-controlled and well-scripted approach to their drama.

Anyway, I moved away in 2003 and lost track of some of these guys, as well as the films they were making. In time, that bypass got built and Aro Valley has gentrified, meaning that most of them relocated, anyway, and now live in Australia or the United States, and while I know all of them still work in various tangents of the film world, none are actively directing films, which is a shame. Still, this little moment stands in time, supported by the New Zealand International Film Festival (which screened a few of the films), the Victoria University film department, and a certain spirit of resistance. You can track down a few of these films (and others by related directors) on various Vimeo accounts, and I think there was a link to Uncomfortable Comfortable at the NZ Film Archives, so some may require dedication to find (the two features below had a tiny release on a NZ DVD label, hence how I saw them), but all are worth seeking out I think, if you like slow, observational films about students and twenty-somethings falling apart.

Continue reading “Some Aro Valley Digital Films of the 2000s”

Black Christmas (2019)

So although I’m following a New Zealand theme this week, this horror remake of a 1970s classic isn’t strictly-speaking a NZ film. It was, however, shot there — and in that sense reminds me of 1996’s The Frighteners, another ostensibly American-set film shot in NZ (and coming across rather oddly for that reason) — and it gets a NZ co-production credit depending where you look, so I consider it NZ enough to include it. Though it’s not perhaps a perfect film by any means, it was written and directed by women, and probably for that reason attracted a lot of online derision. That said, the horror community is a passionate and cinephile one, so in not having a background in viewing that genre’s films, perhaps I went rather easy on it — then again, there’s a good case to be made that it was specifically aimed at non-horror afficionados.


I haven’t seen the original 1974 Black Christmas, but as a non-connoisseur of horror cinema, I can say this film is not really as horrific or gory as some of the advertising might lead you to expect. Though it has a few effective jump scares, the vibe at times feels very much closer to something like Dear White People (2014) or other cutting (sorry) campus-based satirical films about (rich, white, male) entitlement culture, or an episode of a 90s TV show like “Buffy” (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Sure, a lot of the targets are fairly obvious, but those things do need to continue being targeted and it’s good to see a film explicitly calling out campus rape culture without being cringingly performative in its ideas about social justice — though there are a few scenes early on in which Kris (Aleyse Shannon), the Black woman in the ensemble cast, waves around a clipboard outside a class trying to get signatures for her petition, which feel a little bit phony (though I’d definitely sign it, if only to get the reliably wooden Cary Elwes off screen). On the whole, though, this is a solid and topical horror film that is fairly enjoyable.

Black Christmas film posterCREDITS
Director Sophia Takal; Writers Takal and April Wolfe (based on the 1974 film written by A. Roy Moore); Cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard; Starring Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Cary Elwes; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Surrey Quays, London, Thursday 19 December 2019.

Waru (2017)

It’s interesting to see some of the directions NZ film has taken, and as a showcase for a disparate range of indigenous Māori women directors, Waru is a fantastic project. It’s more cohesive than a simple anthology or portmanteau film, given it takes place over a single day and all the films deal with a single (tragic) event, but like any collection of shorts, some are better than others. Naturally, though, I hope for more from all of these directors, though it may be hard to find funding in such a small country, so I imagine many of them will see more work on TV.


I’ve seen a number of films that stitch together short films under a vague theme (the Australian film The Turning comes to mind in the last few years), but Waru has clearly considered how these separate films should come together most effectively, and all of them contribute towards a central narrative about a young boy’s death and how that affects a (largely) Māori community, and what actions need to be taken. If there are hints of a heavy-handed moral judgement guiding the story, then the filmmakers (all of them Māori women) largely manage to integrate it into the narrative very well — though for me the sequence dealing with the pākehā (white) media commentators, while understandable, didn’t quite spark as well as the other segments. Visually, the film is held together by a single cinematographer (Drew Sturge), who leans heavily on sinuous, unbroken handheld takes in some of the shorts, but elsewhere has an almost classical rhythm. There’s power to this tale which goes beyond a single-issue televisual film to speak more directly to the kind of society we want to live in.

Waru film posterCREDITS
Directors Ainsley Gardiner, Casey Kaa, Renae Maihi, Awanui Simich-Pene, Briar Grace Smith, Paula Whetu Jones, Chelsea Winstanley [as “Chelsea Cohen”] and Katie Wolfe; Writers Gardiner, Kaa, Maihi, Smith, Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu, Whetu Jones and Wolfe; Cinematographer Drew Sturge; Starring Tanea Heke, Roimata Fox, Ngapaki Moetara; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 14 May 2018.

Three Films by Taika Waititi: Boy (2010), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and Jojo Rabbit (2019)

As far as the international reach of New Zealand cinema goes, I would guess that Taika Waititi is probably the most successful export of this decade. He made his directing debut with the quirky Eagle vs Shark (2007), starring Jemaine Clement from the Flight of the Conchords, which I somewhat liked if not quite as much as some people did. His next film was Boy, which took its time to find international audiences (it didn’t get a release in the UK until many years later) but is generally regarded as one of his finest works, and he followed it up with the low-budget Wellington vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site. After the success of Hunt for the Wilderpeople his following films have had a far more international flavour, without entirely losing his distinctive voice (given he does like to cast himself in his projects). The film I’ve omitted below is Thor: Ragnarok (2017), which as Marvel superhero movie, can’t quite be fit into the same category, though it retains plenty of his humour and is one of the better titles in that seemingly endless run of superhero films.

Continue reading “Three Films by Taika Waititi: Boy (2010), Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and Jojo Rabbit (2019)”

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps (2019)

Casting my eye over the new releases in Britain this week I can’t see much that thrills me particularly. However, I will not be in the UK this Friday, but instead will be winging my way to New Zealand. Therefore, in honour of that, I am doing a week themed around New Zealand films (or films made there, depending on how I go for titles). I’m going to start with this engaging documentary about a seminal NZ indie band of the 1980s and on, The Chills, and its charismatic frontman.


As far as music from NZ’s jangly indie 1980s underground goes, The Chills were probably the biggest name, though they were never my favourites. Still, they gained the greatest success through a handful of major label records by the end of that decade, and their leader, Martin Phillipps, had an undeniable sense of pop hooks and sweet harmonies reminiscent of Brian Wilson, all imbued with a thematic darkness — which probably explains why Neil Finn pops up early on as a talking head commenting on Phillipp’s artistry. However, for the most part this documentary eschews celebrity commentators in favour of Martin himself and his former bandmates and managers speaking about the chronological development of the music, for The Chills were probably second only to The Fall in having a huge rotating cast of musicians all unified under Phillipps as lead singer and songwriter. What gives it that lift beyond the familiar topics of the rise-and-fall of egos and ambitions, of a man almost destroyed by drug and alcohol-related excess of the pop star lifestyle, is Phillipps himself and his self-deprecating humour as he reflects back on some bad decisions in his past, or sorts through his toy collections, or gets excited about some mummified animal-based art he’s working on (those are some of the biggest laughs but laughter with an unmistakable tinge of sadness and maybe even horror). That’s the tone of the film ultimately, and it’s rather beautiful too, though you feel there’s so much more they could have covered (so I’m hoping for DVD extras).

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps film posterCREDITS
Directors Julia Parnell and Rob Curry; Cinematographer Tim Flower; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen (2018)

There have been women making films since even the start of cinema, as evidenced by the new documentary about French pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, and this documentary takes a personal look at an important indigenous New Zealand woman filmmaker who isn’t perhaps as well known as she should be.


I’m rather surprised this gained a release (however small) in the UK, given that it’s hardly likely many people in this country have access to have seen Merata Mita’s work. I studied film when growing up in Wellington, so I’d seen her key works: Patu! (1983), a documentary about the 1981 Springbok rugby tour in the face of anti-apartheid protestors; and Mauri (1988), an evocation of small town Maori life. We get clips of those works here, contextualised within her career, but most fascinating is the figure she cuts: from being a working mum — a teacher in a small town bringing up several kids from a couple of unpromising husbands — to getting into film almost by accident, as a byproduct of her own outspokenness on social issues (which within the context of conservative New Zealand society of the time, made her something of an activist). Her earliest screen appearance is speaking out about an abortion in the late-70s, and from there she went on to make several short films which culminated in the work on Patu! But throughout her career, in the clips marshalled here by her son Heperi (an archivist, who also narrates the film), we see the way she confronted the kind of changes she wanted to see in NZ society and the actions she took to achieve them. Later in her life, she advocated around the world on behalf of indigenous filmmakers, living in Hawaii and working extensively among First Nations peoples in the US and Canada. Hers is an inspiring story, and despite its framing as a family documentary, her voice and work on decolonisation and the representation of indigenous narratives is wonderful to see.

Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen film posterCREDITS
Director Heperi Mita; Cinematographer Mike Jonathan; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 7 May 2019.

O le tulafale (The Orator, 2011)

I was given a DVD of this years ago, but I haven’t watched it until now for whatever stupid reason. Anyway, I guess there aren’t really that many stories out there, because there are familiar contours to this one (a family split apart, further feuding after a death, a person who feels set apart from the others), but by grounding it in a culture that, I imagine, most of us are unfamiliar with, this film makes it all seem new and fresh. Set in Samoa, Saili (Fa’afiaula Sagote) is a man short in stature and husband to a woman who has been rejected by her tribe and family. He’s the son of a deceased chief, but, perhaps due to feeling shunned for his height, has never claimed the right to be chief — and therefore orator of the film’s title, because public speaking is one of the community’s chief virtues in this film (though arguments that aren’t solved this way involve rock-throwing instead). Nevertheless, the film builds a quiet power, with beautiful cinematography and just the right pitch to acting. It could easily tip over into the unbelievable or melodramatic, but by virtue of its very quiet focus, it never does.

The Orator film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tusi Tamasese; Cinematographer Leon Narbey; Starring Fa’afiaula Sagote; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 7 January 2017.

“Joanna Margaret Paul: I Am an Open Window” (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This compilation of short films was presented at the London Film Festival. It was given an introduction by Mark Williams, director of Circuit Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand, who helped curate the programme and who stayed for a Q&A afterwards that I sadly had to miss, again due to running off to another screening.


The last film I need to write about for my 2015 LFF is the one I’m probably least able to write about, as the world of artists’ film works is still largely obscure to me, experimental pieces more likely to be seen in a gallery installation than an actual cinema. Nevertheless, having grown up in Wellington NZ, I thought it only right to turn my attention towards the filmmaking of artist and poet Joanna Margaret Paul (1945-2003). Five of her short films from the late-1970s are presented here, and they are largely little snatched fragments of domestic life, further distanced by the silent black-and-white photography, grainy and indistinct, like messages from another world, which in a sense they are. Interspersed between these are recent works by New Zealand artists made in response to her films, emphasising both the mundane (“Third Revision” has a sort of provisional structure, as if hastily extemporised, though I don’t doubt there is plenty of work in putting across that impression) and the picturesque (“By Sea” is a particularly beautiful and strange film of oddly domestic seascapes). Whereas most of Paul’s original films are entirely without sound, rachel shearer — whose work has been as much with sound as image — finds poetry in the combination of these, and the other films also tend to use both aspects of their medium. It’s difficult to really write about, given the almost intangible evanescent presence of these works, but they are fascinating and even enjoyable if you’re willing to be open to this form of expression.

CREDITS
Contents: “Aberharts House” (1976); “Napkins” (1975); “Bosshard Family” (1976); “Jillian Dressing” (1976); “Thorndon” (1975, all by Joanna Margaret Paul); “I Am an Open Window (2015, Rachel Shearer); “By Sea” (2015, Sonya Lacey); “Still Light” (2015, Nova Paul); “Third Revision” (2015, Popular Productions); “Sky” (2015, Miranda Parkes); “Untitled (Epilogue)” (2015, Shannon Te Ao); Length 68 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Sunday 18 October 2015.