Dune: Part One (2021)

Whenever I see him in a magazine, or on a poster, or even on talkshows or wherever, I just don’t understand the appeal of Timothée Chalamet. And yet, in just about every film performance I’ve actually seen of his, he has a charisma and screen stature that is out of proportion to his own gangly frame: I have to admit he can act and he is a star. But this is a big lumbering sci-fi prestige production, and so I really didn’t expect to like it. I went out of a feeling of obligation to, you know, to Cinema, the Seventh Art, the big-screen blockbuster spectacle of the thing, and… it didn’t disappoint. In fact, I really liked it.


I’m not naturally cut out to be a big fan of this. It’s a film by Denis Villeneuve, whose previous works I’ve admired if not loved (I found Blade Runner 2049 a little chilly, although obviously it shares a lot of the same vastness as this film, though the much smaller-scale Enemy was intriguing in an off-beat way). It’s also an adaptation of an epic novel which has previously been made into a decent film by David Lynch which has striking imagery, even if it doesn’t always hit the mark narratively. But I like an epic science-fiction film, especially one more focused on tone than story, and that’s just as well because this adaptation, while it does fit in a lot of detail almost as an aside, is mainly about the world-building.

The young scion of a grand dynasty, it’s the troubling visions of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) which structure this film, as he sees his (possible) future on the planet of Arrakis, and a mysterious woman (Zendaya), that could be the start of… well, it’s unclear of course. However, there are hints throughout of the need for revolutionary change in this empire, even suggestions that Atreides may be a foretold Christ-like figure (the Kwisatz Haderach, if I made that name out correctly). Unlike the mythology-by-numbers of certain other space-set operatic epics, this layers on a bit more enigmatic obfuscation and a lot more of Hans Zimmer’s bass-heavy score. And while I’d certainly recommend seeing this on a big screen, in many ways it’s that music and sound design that are the best reason for the big screen experience, even above the imagery. It’s a film that feels particularly led by its sound, and it goes down pathways that I certainly hope will reap rewards in the (rather necessary) second part.

Dune (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Denis Villeneuve; Writers Jon Spaihts, Villeneuve and Eric Roth (based on the novel Dune by Frank Herbert); Cinematographer Greig Fraser; Starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Zendaya; Length 155 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 11 December 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Gagarine (2020)

Continuing with my reviews of films at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is this dreamy, almost magical realist French film about a housing estate. Now generally I dislike magical realist films, but this one — for all its spacy themes and title — is very much grounded in lived reality. It’s set in a French housing project and while it eschews the gritty realism of, say, La Haine, it still captures a lot of the same anger and despair while hitting a very much dreamier and hopeful tone. And one of its central protagonists is played by Lyna Khoudri, so excellent in Papicha and surely destined to be a big star (I believe she has a small role in Wes Anderson’s latest The French Despatch).


It’s interesting to read the blurb at the top of the festival programme’s entry for this film — which speaks of Yuri (the central character, played by Alséni Bathily) and his dreams of becoming an astronaut and how he and his two buddies band together to save their estate (or banlieue if you will) — and realise how much it both describes and yet does not capture this film. Because it could describe this film (or at least the first 20 minutes or so), but yet it is so much more than this suggests, not just in complexity but in the wonderment and expressivity of its atmospherics. This is a film about social housing and displacement, about the institutionalised classism and racism of the state, about lives unmoored and threatened by almost unseen forces, and yet it’s really about dreaming, about imagination, about being with others and helping one another to be better but without losing sight of all the ever-present threats of the real world. It’s all quite beautiful and reminiscent a bit of Rocks (in its cast and setting) but without feeling constrained by the niceties of social realism. It cuts loose and just floats serenely, knowing it can take that ride with the central character, because crushing reality is always just around the corner. A very persuasive blend of melancholy and mystery that won me over.

Gagarine (2020)CREDITS
Directors Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh; Writers Liatard, Trouilh and Benjamin Charbit; Cinematographer Victor Seguin; Starring Alséni Bathily, Lyna Khoudri, Jamil McCraven, Finnegan Oldfield; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 6 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Night Raiders (2021)

Just over a year ago, I posted reviews from the 2020 London Film Festival, of which I attended a few online sessions (and which has since returned fully to cinemas this year). However, since 2020 I’ve moved to New Zealand and in November it was the New Zealand International Film Festival, now bilingually rebranded as Whānau Mārama (which loosely translates as “family of light”). Although a COVID-19 outbreak meant that there were restrictions in place (every other seat left empty and very few filmmakers present), it was still great to see these films in person, even if some of the sold out houses seemed eerily quiet.

Anyway, as it’s now December and I’ve only been posting my Criterion Collection films for the last few months, I’ll take some time over the next few weeks to post reviews of the NZIFF films I saw, which will also help us get up to speed before we get to the inevitable ‘best of the year’ lists. I’m going to start with a New Zealand co-production which focuses on issues of indigenous rights and history embedded in a story that by its nature (science-fiction) looks to the future.


This is pitched as a dystopian post-war science-fiction set in a fascist state where kids are taken from poor non-citizens and brainwashed to prepare them for… well, the usual. You know the deal, big Starship Troopers crossed with The Handmaid’s Tale vibes. Many of these tropes are pretty familiar, but this film puts an extra spin on them by using a First Nations perspective, wrapping up race and class with its dystopian oppression and imagining an indigenous resistance movement. In fact it puts plenty of spins on its subject matter and is all the richer for all the ideas it pops out. Some plotlines feel as if they could be more developed but then it wouldn’t be such a fine, tightly structured picture. Plus it’s lovely to see the star and director of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) back on screen again as a fiercely-protective mother who has a heartbreaking choice to make near the film’s outset that resonates strongly enough that it pulls the whole film together even more effectively.

Night Raiders (2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Danis Goulet; Cinematographer Daniel Grant; Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Brooklyn Letexier-Hart, Alex Tarrant, Violet Nelson, Amanda Plummer; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 5 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 404: Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Those of us who follow the Criterion Collection know that their hearts are truly only with Japanese samurai movies and cheap American sci-fi/horror B movies. For the first hour of this I was willing to write off its ropy (though probably pretty good by contemporary standards) special effects, low budget stripped-back chamber drama aesthetic and ridiculous stranded-on-Mars survival scenario (rocks that emit oxygen when they burn! vegan sausages that grow in underwater pods! water!) as being simply bad. But the film grew on me, and ultimately it’s pretty good fun, ridiculous though it continues to be. How can I really take against any film with elements like those, and in some ways the evident budgetary constraints of some Californian desertscapes (Zabriskie Point, I believe) combined with artificial studio sets result in an almost elegant widescreen spectacle.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the actors, Victor Lundin (who plays the space slave “Friday”), recorded a little song for his appearances at sci-fi conventions and that is here backed by images from the film.
  • There’s a nice little collection of still images too, from the production, from drawings in the original script and its later adaptation by Haskin, and from the advertising materials.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Byron Haskin; Writers Ib Melchior and John C. Higgins (based on the novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe); Cinematographer Winton C. Hoch; Starring Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Adam West; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 6 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 395: 他人の顔 Tanin no Kao (The Face of Another, 1966)

This black-and-white science-fiction fits into that genre of masked men exploring the depths of their morality that we got from both Hollywood (in for example 1933’s The Invisible Man), and from arthouse films like Eyes Without a Face at the start of the decade. This Japanese work certainly seems aware of those, along with an unexpected hommage to La Jetée with a series of evocative still images, and indeed I think it’s Marker’s science-fiction which looms the largest in some of the bleak atmospherics of this film. A man has had some horrible facial disfiguration as a result of an unspecific industrial accident and continues to work for his company with a full face wrapping, until a doctor suggests a face transplant (shades of Face/Off there). Needless to say, along with losing his sense of identity, our protagonist (played by Tatsuya Nakadai) seems to be slowly shedding any sense of groundedness in human morality, which makes for increasingly awkward interactions and threat. The director uses a full panoply of techniques, including some fantastic framing and staging of scenes with multiple characters, a lot of set design involving mirrors and glass walls, and at a formal level, structuring repeated scenes that play out both before and after his face transplant. It all burns away at a constant chilly intensity and makes for an unsettling experience.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara 勅使河原宏; Writer Kobo Abe 安部公房 (based on his novel); Cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa 瀬川浩; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Mikijiro Hira 平幹二朗, Eiji Okada 岡田英次, Kyoko Kishida 岸田今日子; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 21 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 387: La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962) and Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)

Unquestionably a classic of the French New Wave, though it somewhat stands apart from the other familiar films of that period what with it being un photo-roman, driven by still photographs. It’s a canny technique for a low-budget science-fiction film, and director Chris Marker exploits it fully, with a range of photographic effects matched by the familiar poetic narrational style from his documentaries. The plot hinges on its central time-travelling dichotomy, which I think is well-known enough that it’s not exactly a spoiler any more (especially after its reimagining as 12 Monkeys, but look away if so): the man who remembers witnessing his own death. Having seen this sub-30 minute film several times, it’s still enormously affecting the way the film loops around to this, hopping back and forth through time, evoking an apocalyptic Paris through simple effects: dungeon-like settings, a bleak high-contrast photography and the simple foam pads over the eyes that hint at the only technological resources the future still possesses, whereas the present is in a softer monochrome, flickering briefly to life in the eyes of the woman our protagonist is fixated on. I think it’s Godard who is often quoted as saying his films have a beginning, a middle and an end though not necessarily in that order, but La Jetée exemplifies that in practice.

I think Chris Marker’s poetic documentary style of film essay has been incredibly influential, and Sans soleil (1983) is one of his key works, the title also translated on screen as Sunless (and, strangely, in Russian if I recall correctly). It’s a documentary after a fashion, but really it’s a reflective personal essay about memory and understanding, put into the words of a fictional Hungarian cameraman in letters to the narrator, who may be understood to be an alter ego for Marker himself I suppose, as this film was made after a period in which Marker and his New Wave compatriots had been in various leftist collectivist political groups that eschewed authorial credit. In any case, you can see a lot of what has been inspiring about the film though it remains something of a product of its times. It’s mostly concerned with a travelogue around Japan, from the point of view of someone who grew up during World War II, and so turns back every so often to the remnants of the war, probably more in the narrator’s mind than those he films, but it makes for slightly uncomfortably viewing. This kind of othering, or exoticising of foreign people (and the film also flits occasionally to Africa and Cape Verde), sits oddly but really it’s a film about memory that loops in travelogue and even a bit of film criticism (of one of Marker’s favourites, Vertigo, a film which had a strong formative role in La Jetée also) and as such occupies a sort of poetic imaginary. Certainly, it’s not a film that will necessarily help you understand Japan except as it figures in western consciousness of the mid-20th century perhaps.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962)
Director/Writer Chris Marker; Cinematographers Jean Chiabaut and Marker; Starring Jean Négroni; Length 27 minutes.
Seen at the Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 30 July 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 7 January 2021).

Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chris Marker; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tuesday 10 June 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021).

Criterion Sunday 366: The Atomic Submarine (1959)

I appreciate that Criterion really committed to honouring the 1950s B-movie with the box set this film is part of, and this submarine/alien flick is very much in keeping with the ropey special effects and wooden acting that exemplifies the genre. That said, there’s also a keen amateurishness to the enterprise, with the script positing a confluence of submarining and aliens from outer space that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense except perhaps in the feverish mindset of 1950s America. The character interactions are pretty stock — two men who are dead set against one another have to reluctantly come together to fight the alien/marine menace — but it moves along fairly swiftly and is over in well under 90 minutes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Spencer Gordon Bennet; Writers Orville H. Hampton, Irving Block and Jack Rabin; Cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton; Starring Arthur Franz, Dick Foran, Brett Halsey; Length 72 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Auckland, Sunday 25 October 2020.

Criterion Sunday 365: First Man into Space (1959)

Remarkable in a sense that this film made it into the Criterion Collection, but I do appreciate their attempts to contextualise certain strands of filmic history (in latter days this probably would’ve made their Eclipse series or just gone to their home streaming channel). Like Fiend Without a Face the previous year, it’s a low-budget British film made to feel like an American production and it helps that it has American actors (however much British people like to think they can do American accents, they rarely can). That said, it’s hardly a bravura film though it has its elegant moments of filmmaking, and some nicely horrific monster costume design, because however much this feels like a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of the new frontier of space exploration (the first man into space wouldn’t be until a couple of years later in 1961), it quickly becomes a morality tale about the dangers that await in exploring these unknown voids.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writers Wyott Ordung, John Croydon and Charles F. Vetter; Cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull; Starring Marshall Thompson, Bill Edwards, Marla Landi; Length 77 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Auckland, Tuesday 20 October 2020.

Little Joe (2019)

I’ve been doing a themed week focused on ‘foreign’ science-fiction, due to the recent release of French film Proxima in cinemas, but once again today’s film is one I’m rather squashing into that remit, being a British film (albeit a co-production with Austria and Germany) in English with British stars. However it’s directed by the wonderful Austrian director Jessica Hausner, one of my favourites, especially for her recent films like this one and Amour Fou. She creates a very controlled and threatening atmosphere in this dystopian sci-fi about genetically modified plants.


I see that this film has been pulling in fairly mixed reviews, probably on account of blending Jessica Hausner’s very particular style, honed over the course of a number of inscrutable dramas about alienation and resentment, to a generic form (broadly speaking, a sort of sci-fi horror thriller). Of course, Hausner’s 2004 film Hotel has a not dissimilar general feel, but she has developed quite a bit as a director since that film, and Little Joe has a supremely polished style. The camera glides around, quite often moving in to focus on the intangible space between characters as much as the people themselves. The threat here, then, is an unseen one in the air, particularly apropos for this particular historical moment one might say (mid-2020), and feels reminiscent of Safe (along with a dissonant score and subtly alienating sound effects), though this film is more directly about the dangers of messing with Nature.

Emily Beecham (sporting a shock of ginger hair reminiscent of earlier iconic roles by her co-star Kerry Fox) is Alice, a scientist working with Ben Whishaw’s Chris on a new houseplant which they hope will promote happiness via some genetic modifications, but… things start to go awry, and eventually it just seems to be Alice who questions the potential dangers of this new plant. Unlike in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the way that others become infected are subtle and deniable, such that Alice finds herself questioning her own experiences; the allegorical danger the film raises is not simply that of interfering with nature, but implicates the recognisable contours of our own current workplace culture. It’s stylish and atmospheric, building tension impressively without resorting to hysteria.

Little Joe film posterCREDITS
Director Jessica Hausner; Writers Hausner and Géraldine Bajard; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player via Amazon streaming), London, Monday 22 June 2020.

Okja (2017)

Okay for my science-fiction week I’m going to have concede the ‘foreign-language’ aspect is really that most of them are from non-English-speaking directors or produced in other countries, because this is largely an American production, albeit by the noted Korean director Bong Joon-ho (whose rather more famous recent film Parasite will eventually come up in my Criterion Sunday series).


Tonally, this film is very odd. There’s an almost childlike sentimentality around animals and farming, which is altogether too clean (the genetically mutated pig-like creature at the film’s heart never seems to be caked in sh!t like real pigs usually are). And then there’s the corporate satire, all gurning faces and ridiculous over-the-top performances by Jake Gyllenhaal as a TV scientist and Tilda Swinton as the evil company CEO, going several steps beyond Gilliam to full comic book. Indeed, I’d say this is the closest film has got to capturing the feeling of one of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, although by virtue of visually depicting the nasty stuff adults get up to, its 15 classification puts it rather beyond children. It heartens me to see this much mainstream attention paid to the way animals are treated by the meat industry, though this is hardly vegetarian propaganda. And if ultimately it’s an emotional story about a country girl and her animal best friend, it’s an affecting and effective one with some excellent CGI.

Okja film posterCREDITS
Director Bong Joon-ho 봉준호; Writers Bong and Jon Ronson; Cinematographer Darius Khondji داریوش خنجی‎; Starring Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 10 July 2017.