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 Woman King (2022)

The full list of my favourite films of 2022 is here but I’m posting fuller reviews of my favourites. This big historical action epic comes from the very dependable Gina Prince-Bythewood, one of the better directors working in Hollywood, and it’s a powerful evocation of an era not much seen on screen.


Just to kick things off: I really enjoyed this movie, especially as a big screen cinematic experience. It has an old-fashioned sense of an historical epic, albeit about a little corner of African history that isn’t often represented on-screen (primarily because it doesn’t revolve around white heroes or saviours, and surely the time for patriotic stories of European conquests over tribal peoples has long since passed). But it’s curious that this African story is written by two white women; given the other talent involved I don’t think that meaningfully invalidates any positive representation the film can provide, but it might give a hint as to the way in which the film tends towards a platitudinous Hollywood liberal sense of injustice being righted, as Viola Davis leads her Agojie (the so-called “Dahomey Amazons”) as a righteous force dedicated to eradicating slavery.

Clearly there are experts in this history — of which I am not one, nor are many of the online commentators peddling the criticisms to be fair — who acknowledge that the situation was more complicated than it’s portrayed here. Just my cursory awareness of our modern online world leads me to the understanding that it’s perfectly possible for groups of women to come together to actively promote and defend patriarchal systems of oppression, fascism and hate speech. The film doesn’t deny that the Dahomeys were just as involved in slavery as their enemies, the Oyo Empire. So the feel-good roles of Davis as Nanisca, her second-in-command Izogie (the brilliant Lashana Lynch) and young recruit Nawi (an impressive Thuso Mbedu) may not quite reflect real history, but that’s fine by me because this is primarily a film and an entertainment that hopefully leads people to learn more about this historical time and context.

However, whatever your caveats, it’s undeniably a well put-together epic with the appropriate levels of heart-tugging sentiment and brutal warfare action scenes. Gina Prince-Bythewood has come a long way from Love & Basketball and that sweetly saccharine film The Secret Life of Bees with one of the Fannings in it. She made the fantastic Beyond the Lights and her recent foray into action with The Old Guard was the rare superhero film I actively enjoyed, and so she is not short of directing skill, nor is her team lacking in their ability to both capture the location and people (cinematographer Polly Morgan), or the nuances of the acting — and this in particular seems like quite a departure in the type of role Viola Davis is usually seen in, and she surely deserves some awards love for it. There may be all kinds of ways to criticise it, but I admire any film that tries to tell a bit of history we’ve not seen played out before.

The Woman King (2022) posterCREDITS
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood; Writers Dana Stevens and Maria Bello; Cinematographer Polly Morgan; Starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, John Boyega; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 3 November 2022.

تحت الشجرة Taht el Karmouss (aka Sous les figues) (Under the Fig Trees, 2022)

I’m working through fuller reviews from my list of favourite films of 2022 (here) but among them are a few that I wasn’t expecting, like this gentle, lilting Kiarostami riff in the fig orchards (rather than olives), structured as a series of two-handers between various characters over the course of a couple of working days (or maybe it’s just one, I can’t quite recall). In any case, a fine film with a predominantly woman-centric cast and crew.


This is a rather gentle film with some darker undertones as a group of (primarily) young women come together picking figs in an orchard, or at least I’d say that was the focus of the film, whose single setting means this functions as a sort of chamber drama. Indeed, the group of pickers includes some older women and men, who have a choral role to play, singing and commenting on the kids’ actions, and some young men of various types, including a rather sleazy and opportunistic boss. Throughout the day various pairings of these characters get together and hash things out, and while there is no big reveal or drama to speak of, a number of smaller stories play out in a naturalistic way. It’s all very lovely, though you’ll need to take a moment to get into its rhythms, in a setting — and with a title — suggestive of some Kiarostami films, though this is Tunisian (not Iranian).

Taht el Karmouss (2022) posterCREDITS
Director Erige Sehiri أريج السحيري; Writers Sehiri, Ghalya Lacroix غالية لاكروا and Peggy Hamann بيجي هامان; Cinematographer Frida Marzouk فريدا مرزوق; Starring Fidé Fdhili فداء الفضيلي, Feten Fdhili فاتن الفضيلي, Ameni Fdhili أماني الفضيلي; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 30 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 557: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

I do wonder, watching this classic documentary once again, how many figures from history are forgotten or only dimly recalled, people who have had enormous influence in their time. As the filmmaker reflects in one of the extras, you can easily imagine Harvey Milk fading from view, for while his importance at a certain point in San Francisco’s civic history may have been undoubtable, the wider significance of his work could easily have never been properly established. What this film does then is a work of urgent engagement with a public legacy, coming from a sense of injustice — not just in the way that Milk was killed, but in the way his voice took so long to be heard at all and about the easy way in which his killer was treated. But it’s not the story of Dan White that’s of interest here — his brand of neo-conservative Bible-thumping bigotry has been every bit as influential in American politics sadly — but the effervescence and life of Harvey Milk, a man who knew early on what his fate would be (as anyone who’d grown up in American politics of the post-war period surely knew) but forged ahead anyway. He has a great skill with oratory and a belief in what was right, more than can be said for some of his political colleagues who may continue to wield influence in the state of California. It’s a great film to celebrate a life, not just mourn a death, and that’s what it taps into more than anything else.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There is a wealth of documentary material included as extras here, including the film’s premiere at the Castro (although not its first screening, but the first to the local community), introduced by Vito Russo and with speeches from its director, as well as the rather more staid affair of the Oscars where it won the best documentary that year (no mean feat, given the closed way that the Documentary Oscar was for many years selected).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rob Epstein; Writers Epstein, Carter Wilson and Judith Coburn; Cinematographer Frances Reid; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Nous (We, 2021)

I have a lot of time for Alice Diop’s films, since first seeing her documentary On Call (2016) at the London Film Festival. She seems to make films about people in French society — all people, not just those of African heritage, though as her subjects are often working people, there’s no lack of ethnic diversity. Mubi has a little season of her films, including this one, On Call and a few others she’s made over the years; well worth checking out if you subscribe to that service.


Maybe I just watch too much of what currently gets pumped into our cinemas, but I like a film (a documentary in this case) which is willing to let its scenes play out, not force-feed us information. Of course, there’s a canny directorial nous at work here, an autobiographical underlying thread that pulls us as firmly as the RER B line which links the film’s suburban subjects to the metropolitan centre of Paris. What starts as a series of portraits of the surrounds of Paris (perhaps just Drancy to Paris’s northwest; I don’t know enough about France to be sure, but I believe it’s a variety of scenes along the line) becomes intertwined with fragments of filmmaker Alice Diop’s life, her mother and father and her childhood, clips of old home movies and her voiceover. We even eventually see her on screen, suitably distanced with cameras and mics and assistants moving elements of the background, that suggest a deeper level to the practice here, a hint of the manipulations underlying observational documentary, and that the people we see — crossing all kinds of racial and class lines — aren’t quite as randomly chosen as maybe it might seem. But that never becomes the film itself, as more clever-clever filmmakers might once have done: this is still, whatever else, very much a portrait of modern Paris, about people and the lives they lead, and it has all the rich depths of life lived in the shadow of a metropolis.

Nous (2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Diop; Cinematographers Clement Alline, Sarah Blum and Sylvain Verdet; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Thursday 30 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 533: Crumb (1994)

Robert Crumb is undoubtedly a messy human, but that just makes him a more fascinating documentary subject, and it’s something that his old friend Terry Zwigoff just knows by this point. Zwigoff’s film of a decade earlier following an obscure blues man Louie Bluie, was just a warm up for this in-depth portrait which he seems to have been making for much of the decade between the two films. And in telling Crumb’s story — which necessarily involves getting into his sexual fetishes, given the themes of his comic art — what Zwigoff uncovers is really a story about more than just a single man, but about a whole family. Indeed much of the Criterion release feels as much about Charles Crumb, Robert’s younger brother who passed not long before the film was completed and after Crumb had picked up to move to France with his family. The box artwork features a reproduction of a drawing sample done by Charles as a kid, as well as his obsessive scrawls hinting at writing but never quite resolving into anything, making beautiful abstract patterns on the inner lining. Charles gives the film its heart, while Robert doodles himself around the edges, a man with a complicated relationship to his mother, to all women, to sex and violence — and the talking heads argue various interpretations of his work, but with almost thirty years hindsight and with his brothers as comparison, it seems almost sweet that it’s just art in which he expresses these feelings (or at least that’s the feeling the film gives, and I earnestly hope it’s the case, because in many ways he bounces around like an eager child looking for inspiration and diversion). In terms of documentaries about outsiders in American society whose existence somehow provides a kind of key to decoding that society, this is up there with Grey Gardens.

NB The Criterion release lists this as 1995, but the IMDb page suggests that it premiered at the Toronto film festival in 1994.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Zwigoff; Cinematographer Maryse Alberti; Length 120 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 15 May 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1997).

Petite maman (2021)

Another of my favourites of the year, I went to see this twice (the running time helped). The second viewing prompted a long discussion about when exactly it’s set, as it doesn’t appear to be the modern day but the markers of the time period are fairly oblique. The presence of a Walkman suggests to me maybe the early-90s at the latest, but I’m really not sure. Anyway, it’s a U-rated film about children that is still suffused with melancholy.


I’d just finished watching a 10-hour film when I went to see this, so was particularly appreciative of the virtues of concision. This film feels exactly as long as it needs to be. It tells a story that’s about grief and loss, sadness and familial disconnection, but from the point of a view of a child, and formally it sort of matches its narrative structure to that of a child’s game. with all the inventiveness and non sequiturs you might expect, as young Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) finds a very similar looking and similarly aged playmate called Marion (Gabrielle Sanz) in the forest near her recently-deceased grandmother’s home, with whom she starts to form a friendship. Sciamma has done films about childhood before (the excellent Tomboy) and I particularly appreciate her clear distinction between the two lead actors (sisters in real life, I can only assume from their names) marking them out with different clothes and a hairband for Marion. The film’s conceit becomes clear as it goes on, and yet it still preserves that mystery about really knowing someone else, even the connection one has with one’s own mother.

Petite maman (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Céline Sciamma; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Joséphine Sanz, Gabrielle Sanz, Stéphane Varupenne, Nina Meurisse; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 26 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Monday 20 December 2021.

Annette (2021)

It’s that period between Christmas and New Year so it’s time for me to post up reviews of my other favourite films of the year, as most of them will be making it into my best of the year list. One recent release is the latest film from Leos Carax, which has plenty of people hating it, and other passionate fans. I’ve never really been into Sparks, though Edgar Wright’s documentary earlier in the year helped me to get my bearings, but I enjoy their arch orchestral pop music and it fits very nicely into this grand folly of a film. That’s exactly the kind of film Carax makes, though, when he does turn his hand to it (his last was 2012’s equally absurd, equally grand, equally green Holy Motors), so I’m not complaining. There are long stretches where it doesn’t work, even is a little bit dull (I find myself unable to warm to Adam Driver’s character for example), but right from that bravura coup de cinéma opening sequence, when the film does spark, it really has no equal in the rest of cinema.


This certainly reads from the reviews as if it’s a love it or hate it sort of film, and I can see why, but that’s always been the case with Leos Carax’s films I feel. That said, its curious blend of self-awareness and anti-naturalism starts right from the opening number (“So May We Start?”), so you should get a good sense pretty quickly if it’s not for you, but it feels to me a bit like La La Land if that film had properly committed to the emotions. Both films have a sort of emptiness to them at their core, too, but this feels like a stylistic choice, about two people who want some meaning in life but can’t ever get beyond the surface level, never doing much more than saying what they think they should feel rather than actually feeling it. And so having a child who’s a puppet feels like a perfect expression of this abyss (“A-B-Y-S-S”, Henry even spells it out). It’s a film filled with affect, beautiful shots that seem bravura (early on we get Henry’s hands coming in from the side of the frame threateningly towards Ann’s neck before veering into an embrace almost imperceptibly) that turn out to be cleverly foreshadowing, a bold use of colour (green, usually), and those Sparks songs which just grind the themes down until they feel a little bit fresh. Look, I can’t pretend it all worked, but (Adam Driver aside) it’s exactly the kind of thing I love to see on the screen, an ideal showcase for a grand folly of self-indulgence.

Annette (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Leos Carax; Writers Ron Mael and Russell Mael; Cinematographer Caroline Champetier; Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.

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.