Whina (2022)

As usual, my film blog has become largely just the Criterion Sunday entries this year, so I’m going to try and post more reviews of other films, maybe some that actually make it to cinemas in this country. This one is a local production, and it’s good to see one of the co-directors/co-writers is a wāhine, one of the crop of fine women directors who gained greater exposure via Waru (2017). It’s based on the life of Dame Whina Cooper, who is probably not as well known even in Aotearoa as she used to be, but retains a fearsome reputation for her land rights activism and Māori leadership up to her death at the age of 98.


I can’t really deny that I found this affecting, so any flaws were very much ones that are inherent to any generation-spanning biopic treatment. Given the time constraints, events from Dame Whina’s life are distilled down into short scenes, often between people representing different ideas, in order to keep things moving. There’s a constant back and forth between the 1975 hīkoi (march) that she led down the length of the North Island as an 80-year-old (though she lived another 18 years after that) and events from earlier in her life, and it’s very much that younger self, played by Miriama McDowell, who makes the most impact in the narrative. I was left wanting more to flesh out her life but that would probably have needed a wider canvas (like a miniseries). What’s here though is strong, and is focused around the community in its own spaces (we see nothing of the government and the only real pākehā representative is the Catholic priest), and that’s probably the film’s greatest strength, in depicting the power of community organising and action. It’s a suitable stage for Whina too, and the best place to gauge her contribution to society (there’s one brief scene of her in a Wellington boardroom and it doesn’t go too well). The only regret I was left with is that, if this had been a very different film with a different attitude to history, she would have flicked one of her late husband’s cigarettes over her shoulder as she turned to leave the Bishop’s Auckland church, as, in slow-motion and under a thudding rock soundtrack, she burnt down his church like he did her meeting house. The line the filmmakers went with is almost as damning, but…

Whina (2022)CREDITS
Directors James Napier Robertson and Paula Whetu Jones; Writers James Lucas, Napier Robertson and Jones; Cinematographer Leon Narbey; Starring Miriama McDowell, Rena Owen, Vinnie Bennett, James Rolleston; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 9 July 2021.

Minari (2020)

A film from earlier this year that I liked and need to try and recall at this great distance, it was released in NZ just before the Oscars ceremony it qualified for (being a 2020 film), where it won the Best Supporting Actress prize for Youn Yuh-jung. I’d seen the director’s debut, which is a Rwandan-set film called Munyurangabo, so his career (and presumably life) has been a fairly peripatetic one. And while this deals with a Korean family, it is set in and also very much is an American film at its heart.


A gentle and sweet film about assimilating into a new culture which will surely ring bells with anyone who’s done that — even if my own experience is merely moving from one anglophone country to another, hardly placing me in the same situation as this Korean family looking for better lives in the early-80s. Having been living in LA, the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), tempts the family out to a small corner of the middle of nowhere (Arkansas), where he can start a farm and live the life he wants; his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is hardly convinced, and brings her mother over from Korea to help her (this is Youn Yuh-jung). However, surprisingly for me, the highlight of the film is the kids (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho), who manage to hit the right note and not be too precocious or annoying (as they too often are in films). The plot takes a few rather big turns (such as a fire at one point) that I’m not sure the story needed, but the ensemble acting pulls it through for what is a sensitively told tale.

Minari (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lee Isaac Chung 정이삭; Cinematographer Lachlan Milne; Starring Steven Yeun 연상엽, Han Ye-ri 한예리, Youn Yuh-jung 윤여정, Alan Kim 김선, Noel Kate Cho 노엘 케이트 조; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 11 February 2021.

Antoinette dans les Cévennes (Antoinette in the Cévennes aka My Donkey, My Lover & I, 2020)

Finishing off my week of films I saw at Wellington’s recent French Film Festival is this recent release, which went swiftly into the cinemas and I think has probably done quite well, presumably based on the lead actor’s profile in Call My Agent! (which is certainly where I know her from). I hadn’t realised Robert Louis Stevenson had been a pioneer of hiking, or had links with this area of France, but that was one of the things I learned from this otherwise rather silly (but fun) movie.


Did Balthazar truly die so that Patrick could take a walk with Laure Calamy in the Cévennes? I was all ready to be snarky and dismissive along those lines, but actually this is quite a sweet and even rather funny film in which Calamy basically reprises her role as Noémie in the TV show Call My Agent! but as the titular Antoinette, lovestruck over a married man and barely holding herself together at times, but finding through her journey an inner resilience (nurtured by a growing bond with Patrick the donkey, etc. etc.). I mean, it should all be unwatchable really, but Calamy (a bit like Jane Krakowski on US TV shows like 30 Rock) has a gift at imbuing what seem like shallow caricatures with an inner humanity. She’s introduced as a teacher changing at the back of her classroom into a spangly dress to lead her kids in a rendition of a thematically very inappropriate and slightly gothy song to a group of parents, while winking at what we all assume is her boyfriend, but turns out to be the (married) parent of one of her children, and when he heads off for a holiday with his family, foolishly decides to secretly stalk him. It’s the pure sociopathic stuff of romcoms, but as ever is negotiated largely through having such a likeable lead. Basically, it shouldn’t really work, but it does.

Antoinette dans les Cévennes (Antoinette in the Cévennes aka My Donkey, My Lover & I, 2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Caroline Vignal (based on the book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes by Robert Louis Stevenson); Cinematographer Simon Beaufils; Starring Laure Calamy, Benjamin Lavernhe, Olivia Côte; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Tuesday 15 June 2021.

Land (2021)

Part of getting films into cinemas after a period of closure is that there are still a number of titles that probably would have gone straight to streaming which are still getting a shot, and this feels like one of those. Still, it looks good on the big screen, whatever other shortcomings it may have.


There’s stuff in this film that feels a bit programmatic and well-trodden, and when the script does get to the emotional sharing (right at the very end) it suddenly starts to feel like too much, but that’s because the rest of the film is an exercise in restraint that is made more precise and affecting by the quality of Robin Wright, the star and director, in this role. She has retreated to the wilds of Wyoming after some unnamed tragedy, but it quickly becomes clear it has to do with a death close in her family, and pursues a solitary life to varying success, eventually settling in. This process forms the bulk of the film as time slips away unnoticed until she becomes reacquainted, in a small way, with the comfort of fellow humans (in the form of Mexican actor Demián Bichir). The way that her isolated life and his incursion is played out is very nicely done, and it feels almost like a step too far that the script feels the need to wrap it up with a little moral lesson but even that feels earned by the slow, but never boring, pacing.

Land (2021)CREDITS
Director Robin Wright; Writers Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam; Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski; Starring Robin Wright, Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Friday 21 May 2021.

A Quiet Place Part II (2020)

Okay, last week I did Netflix, which I could do several more weeks of content about (but I won’t), so this week I’m turning to recently released films that I have seen in an actual cinema. Maybe you can too where you are living, or maybe you can’t, or maybe you can and just don’t want to. These are all valid options. But I still love the cinema experience. Anyway, I haven’t reviewed the original A Quiet Place (2018) on this site (because I just watched it a few hours before I went into the cinema for the sequel), but it is better, so keep that in mind, if you haven’t seen either.


This sequel had its early-2020 release delayed for reasons that only make more prescient its central theme about the survival of a family after a deadly year of living under constant threat of death. However, compared to the first film, by opening out the narrative into a larger world featuring other people and communities also surviving the threat, it loses some of the qualities that made the first so taut a thriller. For a start, and for a film with the premise it has and the title it has, it’s a lot more talky, to the extent where you wonder if the screenwriters renegotiated a contract where they were paid by the word, because while the first was largely signed and had maybe a few terse sentences tops, this one has long stretches of chatting. And while Emily Blunt is still the matriarch of this family unit, Millicent Simmonds as her deaf daughter Regan becomes a more central character overall to the film, which is probably the right decision. However, opening the world out leads to even more moments of wondering why characters are acting the way they do, in ways that don’t seem to make a lot of sense. Overall, it feels like a lesser film compared to the original, though not without some fine set-pieces.

A Quiet Place Part II (2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer John Krasinski; Cinematographer Polly Morgan; Starring Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Cillian Murphy, Noah Jupe; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 5 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 438: Mon oncle Antoine (1971)

It’s difficult now to approach this film without at least some awareness of the posthumous allegations that have so tarnished the name of the film’s director, but a film isn’t a work by a single person, and this remains a poignant and affecting story of growing up in the cold, icy middle of nowhere (well, near the Québec town of Asbestos, so I gather). You don’t need to know the history of the place or the strike of 1949 that would become so important to Québécois history (and again, I am rather reliant on Wikipedia for this, as obviously none of this was known to me, not being Canadian), in order to get a sense of the feeling of post-war 40s provincial Canada. If it does nothing else it provides a distinct sense of how little there is to do for young kids growing up, where the unveiling of the local shop’s nativity display is a major event (the shop being run by the titular character, who looks after his nephew Benoît like a son). This is largely how the film proceeds, with little vignettes of life, moments of liveliness and humour amongst the snow drifts and the evident tedium. There’s a distinctly 1970s vibe to filmmaking (all those zoom shots) but this isn’t the slick New Hollywood, but a more indigenous vibe that feels homegrown and a little bit amateur, but in an engrossing way that pulls you in. And while Benoît (Jacques Gagnon) is a bit of a blank slate as a character (which is more realistic to these kind of teenage protagonists), the lives of those around him become the focus, as well as the landscape of this remote place.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Jutra; Writers Jutra and Clément Perron; Cinematographer Michel Brault; Starring Jacques Gagnon, Lyne Champagne, Jean Duceppe, Olivette Thibault; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 11 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 436: Пред дождот Pred doždot (Before the Rain, 1994)

I saw this back in the 90s, when it was still the darling of the festival scene, trading in all the tropes that were so much in vogue at that time: cyclical narratives, weighted down with metaphorical meaning, and a quasi-mystical sense of Balkan violence. There were plenty of films about that part of the world and blending it with the multi-strand interlocking narrative — albeit in an elegant way which intentionally resists cyclical readings by implanting inconsistencies like characters still being alive in one segment when they should be dead in another, that kind of thing. Which is all a way of saying it hasn’t necessarily dated all that well, and strikes me as trying a little too hard to find poetic depths, but it’s still a fine film for a fledgling country like [North] Macedonia, and one that broadly-speaking deserved its contemporary accolades. Rade Šerbedžija is the stand-out in the cast, although it’s always lovely to see Katrin Cartlidge on screen (who had far too short a career), and brings a certain grizzled authenticity to scenes set amongst internecine religious-based conflict that never fully reveals its causes, perhaps because they are lost, in an area that certainly at that point had seen a lot of pain.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Milcho Manchevski Милчо Манчевски; Cinematographer Manuel Teran; Starring Rade Šerbedžija Раде Шербеџија, Katrin Cartlidge, Grégoire Colin, Labina Mitevska Лабина Митевска; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 5 June 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997).

Global Cinema 29: Cambodia – First They Killed My Father (2017)

My trek around the globe now takes me to Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea), where a lot of the films which have made it to Western audiences focus on the turbulent era under Pol Pot in the 1970s. Prestige Hollywood dramas of the 1980s like The Killing Fields still define the Western understanding of the country, deepened somewhat by the films of newer auteurs like Rithy Panh. Angelina Jolie follows in this tradition with her 2017 Netflix feature film, though it certainly does showcase the country beautifully, despite the harrowing content.


Cambodian flagKingdom of Cambodia (កម្ពុជា Kămpŭchéa)
population 15,552,000 | capital Phnom Penh (2.3m) | largest cities Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (245k), Battambang (119k), Sisophon (99k), Poipet (99k) | area 181,035 km2 | religion Buddhism (97%) | official language Khmer (ភាសាខ្មែរ) | major ethnicity Khmer (97%) | currency Riel (៛) [KHR] | internet .kh

A country in the south of the Indochinese peninsula, whose name comes via French, though the Khmer name comes from Sanskrit for “country of Kamboja”, alluding to the country’s foundation myths. Evidence suggests settlement as far back as 6000 BCE, with Iron Age cultures by the 6th century BCE. The Khmer Empire grew from Indian influenced states of Funan and Chenla, established by the 9th century CE and the largest in SE Asia by the 12th century, with its capital at Angkor, the largest pre-industrial city in the world. It remained a force until the 15th century, but power in the region became divided between Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam. In the 19th century it became a protectorate of France, part of French Indochina (and briefly controlled by Japan during WW2), but the French failed to control the monarchy and it gained independence on 9 November 1953. Tension with Vietnam over control of the Mekong Delta led to Vietnam’s invasion and subsequent conflict and a coup hastened a civil war, in which the Cambodian communists (known as the Khmer Rouge) gained the upper edge, despite aggressive US bombing. Under Pol Pot, the KR modelled itself on Maoist China and led to the death of several million people, eventually toppled by a Vietnamese invasion, though formal peace didn’t come until 1991, and the monarchy was restored in 1993. There is now a constitutional monarchy, with a PM appointed by the king on the advice of an elected assembly.

Cinema didn’t begin until the 1950s, encouraged by King Sihanouk, with many films made and screened during the 1960s, until the rise of the Khmer Rouge when it virtually ceased (aside from a few propaganda films). The industry has only slowly recovered, with notable figures including the French-trained Rithy Panh, whose films focus on the KR era (and who produced the film below). Recent years have seen a rise in horror cinema, though overall the industry has stagnated and only 11 cinemas remained by 2011.


មុនដំបូងខ្មែរក្រហមសម្លាប់ប៉ារបស់ខ្ញុំ Moun dambaung Khmer Krahm samleab ba robsa khnhom (First They Killed My Father, 2017)

This is undoubtedly a very polished and well-made film. Angelina Jolie has made a number of films over the past decade or so, and has made a habit of telling less commercial stories, which I very much respect (though her masterpiece so far is By the Sea, a weird French riviera-set twisted love story starring her and Brad Pitt). This film about a young girl during the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia cleaves very closely to the girl’s point of view, including a lot of the camerawork being distinctly low angle and close to the ground. This has the benefit of avoiding the need to contextualise everything, because she herself has an imperfect understanding of the situation, but that’s also to the viewer’s detriment, because it’s unclear what exactly the issues are. Still, the young girl is a very fine actor, called on to walk through all this horrendous suffering, a witness to her country pulling itself apart — albeit somewhat prompted by the extensive covert US bombing during the Vietnam War. It manages to give a lush sense of Cambodia’s countryside at the same time as hinting at the horrors which its people endured. It may not quite reach the same heights as its producer Rithy Panh’s own films, but it’s a commendable effort all the same.

First They Killed My Father film posterCREDITS
Director Angelina Jolie; Writers Loung Ung អ៊ឹង លឿង and Jolie (based on Ung’s non-fiction book); Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Sreymoch Sareum, Kompheak Phoeung, Socheta Sveng; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 4 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 388: Le Vieil homme et l’enfant (The Two of Us, 1967)

Given that the director’s birth name is Claude Langmann and he was born to Jewish immigrant parents in 1934, and this film, set in 1944, is about a 10-year-old called Claude Langmann who is sent to stay in the countryside by his Jewish parents, I think it’s fair to assume this is at least semi-autobiographical. In the opening scenes, we see the besieged spirit of Paris in the months leading up to the D-Day invasions (chronicled in 1975’s Overlord, just added to the Criterion Collection shortly before this film) and the liberation of Paris in August that year (covered in Melville’s Army of Shadows, also recently introduced to the collection). Claude’s parents worry about the fate of their kid under the Nazis and so they send him off to the (non-Jewish) family of a friend out in the countryside, where he is exhorted to use the surname Longuet and avoid anything that might give away his ethnic and religious identity, and that’s really where the film gets going. He’s introduced to his new grandfather figure (played by Michel Simon) and when he learns of grandpa’s antisemitic beliefs and Pétainiste solidarity, hilarity ensues. I’m only slightly joking though: ultimately the film isn’t about the terror of being Jewish under a Nazi puppet government (we never learn the fate of his parents back in Paris, for example, and there are no scenes of threat or violence against the boy, mercifully) but instead there are a lot of gently comedic scenes which hint at his situations, like his desperate attempts to avoid anyone looking at his penis, or the exchanges with his grandpa where Claude subtly mocks his antisemitism by using his own prejudices against him. The film largely progresses this way, and while it’s not perhaps fair to say it’s soft-pedalling the war, it definitely has a sentimental view of the past, and this much is acknowledged by the opening text: it’s a child’s-eye view of the war, spent in relative bliss in a rural setting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Berri; Writers Berri, Gérard Brach and Michel Rivelin; Cinematographer Jean Penzer; Starring Alain Cohen, Michel Simon; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021.

Maasai Remix (2019)

There was a small African Film Festival which took place here in Wellington this past weekend, and which will have a (slightly expanded) programme in Auckland at the end of the month. It was a chance to catch up a few recent films, both documentaries and fiction. This one is the former, and while it has a somewhat academic feel to it, it’s still interesting and enlightening about ongoing social justice issues.


I can’t really fault this documentary, made under the auspices of the University of Michigan (if I deduce correctly from the end credits) and directed by members of the faculty there, in the way that it earnestly tells the story of a few members of the Maasai people, who live in lands in Tanzania and Kenya. Their story, which is a familiar colonial story of dispossession from areas of the greatest natural resources, pushing them into less productive lands and leading to protracted and ongoing fights for their rights to their ancestral lands. Access to education is the film’s particular interest, showing how this has helped a number of Maasai to leadership positions on a global stage (specifically, the United Nations), which has in turn allowed them to promote the importance of education amongst their communities, and how those who have been educated (such as Evelyne, whom we see studying in Northern Arizona) have made a material difference to their own lives and that of their families. There are a number of interviews with each of them over a course of years, with some fairly dry footage of them at the UN, but also in their villages (which in the case of these Maasai are in Tanzania), and it’s certainly interesting to see. I suppose it has a certain didactic feeling, as you might expect from a university-sponsored public education documentary, but it provides some interesting context to indigenous rights in this part of the continent.

Maasai Remix film posterCREDITS
Directors Ron Mulvihill and Kelly Askew; Cinematographer Mulvihill; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Sunday 8 November 2020.