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.

NZIFF 2021: Ailey (2021)

I’ve seen a range of different documentaries at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, and if this one fits into the rather more didactic end (which makes sense as a film best intended for public television), it’s no less interesting for that. Any documentary is going to succeed on the interest generated by its subject, and the Black American dance pioneer Alvin Ailey certainly is one such figure.


Not every film I go to see is moving or memorable because of its formal sophistication. This is a fairly straightforward documentary in that respect, blending people talking with archival footage, but the story it tells remains fascinating, being that of African-American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, who founded his own school of dance (which is still going as we see them rehearse a piece for its 60th anniversary) and toured the world. Part of what I like, though, especially watching the old footage — part of what moves me — is just the form: there is nothing like dance and ballet that seems quite as much like magic to me. How the dancers can put their bodies into the form that they do for such a long time, so gracefully and seemingly without effort (though clearly it is a punishing endeavour), it’s remarkable when it’s done well and clearly here it’s done very well. So just to learn about Ailey’s life and work is moving enough, just to see extended footage of him and his company at work, and makes the film (which seems to have been made for TV and would fit that format perfectly well) a worthwhile one for anyone keen to learn about 20th century art.

Ailey (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Jamila Wignot; Cinematographer Naiti Gámez; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Pleasure (2021)

Somehow even amongst the more solidly film festival fare at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, Sweden’s Pleasure manages to stick out, not least because it is very much set in the USA and is about a subject that feels somehow inextricably linked to LA, which is the adult film industry. And yet it’s still a festival film, an arthouse drama, a film that is about people working within that industry without (at least I don’t think) being exploitative or shaming, which most films dealing with the topic tend to do. It’s hardly uplifting, of course, but I admire what it does, though I daresay it will be controversial.


Isn’t it odd the way that films titled for an abstract noun with largely positive connotations often entirely lack that quality (my mind goes to films with titles like HappinessJoy and so forth). Well, it’s much the same here, although to my mind this film at least avoids the pitfalls of being preachy and moralistic. This is a film about Linnéa (Sofia Kappel), a young Swedish woman who travels to LA to get involved in the p0rn industry under the soubriquet Bella Cherry, but the film is not really interested in why she made that choice or about wagging its finger at her for having made it. As far as we see in the film, Bella just wants to do something she enjoys, and while her experiences aren’t uniformly positive, there’s a camaraderie that grows between her and others in the same industry that develops over the film. And though it could be said to sour towards the end, it’s not played for high melodrama or camp (as in, say, Showgirls) but instead is allowed to have a complex emotional range, chiefly expressed in the relationship between Bella, her imperious arch-rival (at least in Bella’s head) Ava, and her housemate Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), who falls lower down the pecking order it seems.

All of the cast seem to be taken from the adult film industry, and in most cases give pretty believable naturalistic performances, even the sleazier agents and directors. And while it is clearly going to be a divisive film, to my mind it doesn’t play as exploitative, but instead has a certain kinship to, say, Sean Baker’s films. There’s a beauty to all this mess, but primarily this a drama charting the messy but often healthy relationships that develop, as well as the pitfalls too. These latter are not exclusively amongst male-dominated sets, but are certainly exacerbated by certain male egos, and there’s a striking contrast made between the carefully delineated consent and constant attention she’s given in a bondage video directed and staffed by women, and a rather more naturalistic depiction of rough sex in a video made by men. Plenty of this is at times quite disturbing, but the film is judicious and balanced in its depiction of a sordid world.

Pleasure (2021)CREDITS
Director Ninja Thyberg; Writers Thyberg and Peter Modestij (based on Thyberg’s short film); Cinematographer Sophie Winqvist Loggins; Starring Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Roxy, Wellington, Wednesday 17 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Ninjababy and El Planeta (both 2021)

My reviews of films I saw last month at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival has been getting a bit grim. That is somewhat the nature of festivals, to focus on the darker works that maybe aren’t so commercial, but here’s a Norwegian and a Spanish film that are both a bit more fun. Sure both deal with young women who are sort of sad and listless. The first one gets pregnant and tries to get an abortion and then spends the rest of the film getting anxious about this baby inside her, while the other she is just living beyond her means. But for the most part these are pretty enjoyable and funny even.


Ninjababy (2021) [Norway, certificate 15]

It’s interesting, and a positive corrective, that the more women who come into filmmaking, the more stories we see not about awkward indie dudes trying to pursue their art, but instead about depressed, creative young women beset by annoying indie dudes who believe they have something to say. The day before I saw the Spanish-set El Planeta (see below) and now here’s this Norwegian film, also about a young woman who fits a similar bill (Rakel here is a comics artist), but the twist is that she’s become pregnant despite her best efforts to the contrary. Having created this dilemma, it’s both acutely sensitive to the emotional terrain she experiences as a result, but also a bit anarchic (not unlike, say, Alice Lowe in Prevenge, which also gave voice to an unborn baby, albeit that film was a horror where this is sort of a… romcom?). In any case, it never quite slows down and it’s even a bit touching at times, as Rakel has to deal with her own body and feelings about children in a way that tends to resist the usual paradigms in movies like this one. And, being a comedy, there’s a broadly positive outcome to her story, but it’s not necessarily the one you expect.

Ninjababy (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Yngvild Sve Flikke; Writers Flikke and Johan Fasting (based on the graphic novel Fallteknikk by Inga H. Sætre); Cinematographer Marianne Bakke; Starring Kristine Thorp, Arthur Berning, Nader Khademi; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.


El planeta (2021)
El Planeta (2021) [Spain/USA, black-and-white]

Although this is a film that deals with some pretty heavy sadness, there’s also a lightness to it and a certain idiosyncrasy that both points back to the French New Wave (shooting on location in black-and-white with a loosely improvised feel to the whole thing and an Anna Karina-like look from the writer/director/star Amalia Ulman) but also to the talkier elements of say contemporary Korean cinema (I was thinking of Heart if only because it’s another film by a writer-actor-director which has a slightly brittle sense of absurdism that I saw recently). Here the Argentinean/Spanish Ulman casts herself as Leo(nor), and right from the start — where we get a brief cameo by fellow director Nacho Vigalondo — you know that things are going to get weird. Mostly it’s in rather delightful ways albeit ones that highlight the precarity of this Spanish family, the wide-eyed desperation of Leo who has skills but no ability to really find work given her economic situation and her scamming grifter of a mother, both of whom are equally trying to make ends meet. It’s a film about the connectedness yet distance in the modern world that doesn’t manufacture hope for any of its characters, but still leaves you having enjoyed their brief chaotic presence in your life. And then it ends.

El planeta (2021)CREDITS
Director Amalia Ulman; Cinematographer Carlos Rigo Beliver; Starring Amalia Ulman, Ale Ulman; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)

The centrepiece film of my Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month — both halfway through the festival and halfway through the total number of films I saw — was this festival favourite of last year, finally making its way to NZ’s shores. It’s a tough watch certainly, but brilliantly made (seemingly a co-production between half of Europe from all the countries and production companies attached).


It’s fair to say this isn’t a cheerful watch and if I’d paid much attention to the write-up I’d probably have known that going in. I have seen Grbavica, an earlier film by the same director, so I get the sense she makes films that engage with the modern history of her country — or at least that’s what gets international attention (since I see she also has a film called Love Island which I now want to watch, but that’s an aside) — but this one tackles the Srbrenica massacre head-on. That said, you don’t really need any historical context to become aware of just where this drama is heading, because much of it is carried in the intense, cold, hard stare of its title character, a Bosnian translator working for the UN (and played brilliantly by Jasna Đuričić). When the Serbs under Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković) march into Srebrenica, displacing the Bosniak Muslim population, the UN take shelter of them and promise airstrikes in retaliation, but as seen here through the eyes of Aida, there is an increasing sense of desperation and futility amongst the (Dutch) UN officers in charge on the ground.

The film tracks all this without resorting to any sentimental metaphors or grandstanding, because it’s carried through the demeanour of Đuričić, as she scurries back and forth around the UN compound trying to secure the safety of her family and being pulled into making increasingly hollow and craven announcements on behalf of her bosses. Nobody ever really states what’s happening, but everyone knows it, and that’s really where the film is operating, on a sense of shared desperation and complicity in genocide, because there’s no political will to do anything else. Yet when the inevitable happens — and thankfully it’s never seen explicitly — it’s still a kick in the guts, whether or not it was ever really preventable. The film leaves us back in Bosnia years later, where everyone still knows everyone else, knows what they did, what side they were on. The film has a repeated motif of just looking into people’s eyes, and in every set we see here reflected back at us, the inevitability is etched.

Quo vadis, Aida (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jasmila Žbanić; Cinematographer Christine A. Maier; Starring Jasna Đuričić Јасна Ђуричић, Izudin Bajrović, Boris Isaković Борис Исаковић, Johan Heldenbergh; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.