Spencer (2021)

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.

Spencer (2021) posterCREDITS
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.

Benediction (2021)

Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here). Maybe I missed the gathering of the Terence Davies fans last year, but I don’t recall many people listing this on any year-end best-of lists for some reason, and that perplexes me. He’s never exactly been fashionable, but this was a really strong film, an evocation of the past and the movement from youthful impetuousness into a conservative older age, set against the backdrop of WW1 and the ensuing interwar period.


Nobody is out here making films like Terence Davies. As it opens, this comes across like a combination of archival museum video that you watch in hushed silence in a media centre before entering a memorial to a horrifying past, along with the kind of TV drama which feels boldly experimental sheerly out of budgetary necessity (such enterprises usually restricting themselves to a handful of sets in old buildings sparsely populated by actors in costumes). And yet, for all that this seems like exactly the kind of thing cinema should not be doing, I really do mean it not in a bad way — for example, Raul Ruiz’s magisterial Mysteries of Lisbon very much had that latter kind of quality, and it doesn’t even feel like cost cutting but about cutting away the pointless aggrandisements of the costume/period genres to get to something essential.

In this film, Jack Lowden is fantastic as Siegfried Sassoon, who has a tender impish charm alongside a bitter seriousness (though it’s really only the latter quality that Peter Capaldi as his older version gets to show, his youthful esprit having been thoroughly dissipated). Not being familiar with Sassoon’s story, I was somewhat surprised he lived past the First World War (I think in my head I had conflated him rather too much with Wilfred Owen), but this film captures something of the turmoil of the early-20th century, while cataloguing popular/gay culture of the period (Ivor Novello, Edith Sitwell, and quite a parade of handsome slightly bland looking chiselled youths that flit through Siegried’s life).

It’s a fascinating way to tell this story, which gives as much time for him to read a poem to himself as it does to rather more melodramatic goings on, but it’s an effective story that neither panders to its period nor to us as modern viewers, and is all the better for that.

Benediction (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terence Davies; Cinematographer Nicola Daley; Starring Jack Lowden, Simon Russell Beale, Peter Capaldi, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Sunday 24 July 2022.

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here) and this post falls into two themes already identified: (1) unexpected pleasures; (2) Colin Farrell as a fine actor. I would not have imagined the latter 20 years ago when he was starting out as a fairly generic pretty dude in big budget films, and the former is the case for a lot of films on my list this year. Most years, they’re unexpected because they are directors or projects unknown to me. However, this one, just about the last film I went to see in 2022, is by a director I know and have not liked the films of, plus with the general Oirishness of the enterprise (deedly-dee music, whimsical religious irreverance, and cute animal friends), I was primed to dislike it intensely. But I didn’t.


This makes for an odd note to end a year of film watching at the cinema, but it’s not a bad film by any means. I’ve often been a bit suspicious of McDonagh’s cinema, and haven’t liked most of the stuff that people have been big fans of, but this hits a very honest note in dealing with some pretty deplorable behaviour in a way that makes it clear what’s gone wrong. Colm (Brendan Gleeson) just wants to be left alone to work on his fiddle music in silence without the tiresome chatter of his buddy Padraic (Colin Farrell), a nice yet dull local cow herder; the film throws us straight into Colm’s decision, but it’s easy to take on trust how this longstanding friendship went by in a haze of stout down the local pub. The film captures their interactions, and those of the local characters, by focusing on the simmering tensions of rural life, and though it does ratchet things up a bit towards the end, it’s a commentary on people getting far too mired in their ideals to notice what it’s doing to them as people. Thus, there’s a sort of bleakness built in there — the confrontation with a person’s life and the worth they derive from it at the end — but the film works hard to ensure that it keeps us just teetering on this side of that particular abyss very ably. There’s a bleakness of course, that goes with the 1920s civil war setting, and the craggy glowering landscape, but it’s a bleakness primarily expressed by the way the characters end up, making this a sort of parable about paying attention to what matters when the world is falling apart (a parable for our times).

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Martin McDonagh; Cinematographer Ben Davis; Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Saturday 31 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 596: 三匹の侍 Sanbiki no Samurai (Three Outlaw Samurai, 1964)

There are no shortage of samurai films (chanbara or sword-fighting films, if you will) in the Criterion Collection, and the more one watches of them, the more you start to perceive certain critiques of contemporary Japanese society within them (perhaps analogous to the US and its Westerns). Samurai can be seen as fiercely loyal, they can follow their own strict codes of morality, or they can be guns for hire, freelance agents recruited by landowners to do their bidding, often oppressing dissent or basically committing assassinations to bolster their retainers’ power. Variations of all these ideas are seen in this film, as plenty of the samurai we see seem motivated by little more than money; the titular three are outlaws, perhaps, in the sense to which they rebel against the interests of landed money in siding with the peasantry (from whom some of these samurai were originally drawn). And so this is a steely black-and-white swordfighting film with a sense of justice in those being oppressed, with some excellent central performances (Isamu Nagato is my favourite of the three), though ultimately it can still function well as a fun fight film (with perhaps over-expressive swordplay sound effects).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This really is a bare bones package, with only a trailer included (aside from some liner notes). It’s an interesting trailer, given that it introduces the three actors in contemporary clothes before we see them in clips from the film itself. But that’s really it.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hideo Gosha 五社英雄; Writers Keiichi Abe 阿部桂一, Eizaburo Shiba 柴英三郎 and Gosha; Cinematographer Tadashi Sakai 酒井忠; Starring Tetsuro Tamba 丹波哲郎, Isamu Nagato 長門勇, Mikijiro Hira 平幹二朗; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 11 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 566: Insignificance (1985)

I’m not honestly sure where the comedy is in this, except that it’s a fantasy scenario. Not unlike the more recent One Night in Miami…, it’s a theatrical production which imagines four historical figures gathering together in a single hotel room to talk over various ideas of interest to the playwright/screenwriter. None of these figures is identified by name but it’s clear who they’re supposed to represent (Marilyn, Joe DiMaggio, Einstein and Senator Joseph McCarthy), and over the course of the night various ideas are discussed. There’s some exploration of Marilyn’s inner life, of sex and hypocrisy, of the American state’s interest in foreign individuals like Einstein (even if it does see McCarthy acting more like an FBI agent), and some kind of fantasy nuclear apocalypse scenario in which Marilyn dances through the fire, the hotel room exploding like the end of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. It’s a lot to take in, and given its origin, it’s rather talky, but there’s plenty to like, plus watching Tony Curtis play McCarthy here makes me wonder how many other actors have starred in films with both the real person and someone doing an impersonation of them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicolas Roeg; Writer Terry Johnson (based on his play); Cinematographer Peter Hannan; Starring Theresa Russell, Michael Emil, Tony Curtis, Gary Busey; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 28 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 516: Stagecoach (1939)

It’s pretty difficult to watch any classic movie with fresh eyes and I can’t pretend that I did that here. It’s a film I’ve seen before screened in a film class, and it has that patina of ‘classic’ that is pretty difficult to move past at times, especially as it’s been emulated so often in succeeding years, such that it’s difficult in my mind for me to think about old Westerns without thinking about a bunch of characters sharing a coach across dangerous frontier territory controlled by Native American raiding parties. That last part is of course the bit that has aged the least well, and the most I can say for it is that at least the Native Americans aren’t played by white guys in heavy makeup, a small consolation for what is still a pretty thankless part of old Westerns. However, that central chamber drama between the various passengers is played out remarkably well, and John Wayne still looks young and fresh-faced as a ne’er-do-well looking to reform himself and settle down. John Ford was a veteran director even by 1939, and he controls it all beautifully well, without flashiness but with plenty of clear vision as to what’s most effective on the screen. Well worth watching again, and perhaps I’ll try and see this on a big screen before another 20 years passes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Ford; Writer Dudley Nichols (based on the short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Claire Trevor, John Wayne, George Bancroft, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 13 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, May 2000).

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

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


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

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

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

West Side Story (2021)

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


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

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

The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (2021)

I don’t know that I can say that this new film from Wes Anderson in any way grapples with the contemporary position of journalism, but I’m not sure that many would expect it to. In a year in which the Nobel Peace Prize went to a pair of journalists doing work in the most difficult circumstances, this film instead looks back fondly to a time (well, various times during the mid-20th century it seems) of what can best be described as gentleman journalism. There are outsiders, criminals and revolutionaries, but no real sense of peril or expectation of change. I can easily imagine a way to damn the film for this, but I chose in this case to go with it, making this a pleasant divertissement.


Everyone now must have a pretty good idea about whether they’re a Wes Anderson person or not. If you find his style in any way irritating, or his subjects just a little bit too affectedly pretentious, then you’ll probably run screaming from this. I thought I was done with him — as with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (albeit for different reasons) — but I ventured along and… it was quite likeable. Of course it has all his hallmarks. Right from the start you can see that it’s a love letter to The New Yorker as well as to Europe. I’d say to France, but I do wonder how the French would take it, as it’s just so doggedly adherent to so many stereotypes of French people that I imagine it would seem vaguely absurd and perhaps offensive. You can also tell it was written by a bunch of guys the moment Léa Seydoux arrives on screen. But for the most part this portmanteau film, essentially a number of shorter films tied together with a loose framing structure, is quite delightful. I especially loved Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri as student revolutionaries, with plenty of cribbing from 60s Godard movies (Khoudri being styled to look like Anna Karina) with plenty of other visual references throughout, but there was a sort of emotional core at the heart of that particular story which seems a bit hit or miss elsewhere. It blends black-and-white and saturated colour pretty liberally, and it never bored me. I wonder at the end what deeper meaning I’m supposed to take other than, ah yes a golden age of journalism and engagement with the life of the mind. But maybe that’s enough.

The French Dispatch (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness and Jason Schwartzman; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 18 December2021.

NZIFF 2021: Earwig (2021)

I don’t like to focus on disappointing films when I’m doing my round-ups, but Lucile Hadžihalilović is one of the more interesting directors of the last few decades (even if her similarly controversialist husband Gaspar Noé tends to be the better known). She’s only made a handful of features, so it’s with sadness that I report I didn’t much like her newest (English-language) feature film. Still, it has all the elements of her style, so undoubtedly there will be big fans of it out there; after all, if Wes Anderson can have people hanging on his every twee set design detail, then there’s no reason why the same can’t be said for Lucile Hadžihalilović (though one suspects part of the problem is the darkness of her vision).


I’ll give it to the Lucile Hadžihalilović cinematic universe that it is at least thematically consistent. There’s a vision at work which seems to link it to her two other feature films, Evolution (2015) and Innocence (2004), filled as it is with early- to mid-20th century fustiness, chiaroscuro tonality, throbbing soundtracks and corporeal strangeness that hints at something Cronenbergian. The atmosphere, in other words, is on point and deeply evocative. There’s not even any dialogue for the first 15 minutes, and when it does enter it has the whispered resonance of thickly Belgian-accented ASMR. A girl (Romane Hemelaers) is cared for by her… father… I think, Albert (Paul Hilton). Her dentures melt and need to be refrozen and refitted each day. A strange man on the other end of the telephone wants something. And then there’s a waitress at a local bar (Romola Garai) injured in a fight with another mysterious stranger. There are elements of a story here, but they never seem to cohere in any way that feels satisfying. Perhaps that’s the point, perhaps one just needs to give into the feeling of it all, and some may well enjoy it at that level, but the whole thing just felt too opaque to really enjoy.

Earwig (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Lucile Hadžihalilović; Writers Hadžihalilović, Geoff Cox and Brian Catling; Cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg; Starring Paul Hilton, Romane Hemelaers, Romola Garai; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.