Nope (2022)

Continuing my round-up of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here) and there was no shortage of opinions in either direction about Jordan Peele’s third feature, after Get Out and Us. In a sense, that’s what it was made for, so it succeeded brilliantly well, in conjuring up all kinds of conversations, not all of them particularly positive, but in the end it worked for me.


I’ve seen some fairly underwhelmed reviews of this film, but I do wonder if that’s not just from elevated expectations. The pace is somewhat lugubrious, although I do think it consistently builds tension throughout, and there’s a subplot involving Steven Yeun as a child star in a sitcom which doesn’t quite sit very comfortably with the rest of the film to my mind. However, its central premise — of a family of Black horse trainers whose history is deeply tied into filmmaking, trying to figure out a mystery happening around their homestead high out above Hollywood. There are evidently (maybe) aliens involved, possibly hiding behind a cloud, and the way this unfolds is nicely grounded in comedy, as one might expect. Its central conceit is grounded in the idea of looking, about the terrors and dangers of the image, and thus is tied pretty strongly into filmmaking, but while it never truly horrifies, it looks gorgeous and holds together nicely.

Nope (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jordan Peele; Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun 연상엽, Michael Wincott, Brandon Perea; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema New Mission, San Francisco, Wednesday 10 August 2022.

After Yang (2021)

I listed my favourite films of 2022 here but I’m trying to post fuller reviews of them as well. One that was again a 2021 favourite was one that showed up on streaming probably some time early in 2022 (maybe the year before, I don’t know; streaming seems so vague in terms of release dates), so I only caught up belatedly though in truth I was hoping for some cinema screenings. Fat chance I guess. Maybe one day in a retrospective, or if some enterprising soul does a season of mediaeval-set movies.


Kogonada’s follow up to the well-reviewed (and well-liked by me) Columbus is a strange futuristic tale, albeit one that doesn’t overwhelm with its technological aspects (there are human-like cyborg robots, but we don’t get too much into how they’re engineered or even how widespread they are, beyond a sense that their existence is more or less a commonplace). It’s a future largely connoted by modernist architecture and a sense of calm (although partly that’s Colin Farrell’s father and his obsession with tea), and the film rarely attains the same sense of ecstatic joy that comes during the dance-based credits sequence near the beginning.

Although she’s not a major part within the whole film, in a sense it’s Sarita Choudhury’s museum curator who is the key to this film, as it feels at times like a film about museum curation as much as Columbus was about architects: a story that locates the human, lived experience that those professions are only abstractly about. And like many films that feature robots, it’s actually a way of talking about what it means to be human, what it means to love and to remember, and the strength of memories across a family and across generations, linking together people who don’t even know one another, which is in a sense what curating a museum exhibit or a gallery is about.

After Yang (2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Kogonada 코고나다 (based on the short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang” by Alexander Weinstein); Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb; Starring Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Justin H. Min, Sarita Choudhury, Haley Lu Richardson; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, Thursday 28 April 2022.

Criterion Sunday 598: Welt am Draht (World on a Wire, 1973)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder made this as a two-part mini-series of German television, hence the inordinate length. As a filmmaker, he was always reliable for turning in tightly edited works, but he made a few longer form television works that have their own rhythms and intensity. This is science-fiction, but it’s the kind that uses modernist buildings to signify a vaguely futuristic world like Alphaville (and both have roles for Eddie Constantine; a surprise to see him because the Godard film seems like an eternity away, but was actually only eight years before this film). The themes are to do with artificial intelligence, alternative realities, people who are programmed creations living without free will, and about the madness that it induces — and it’s very much more the madness that Fassbinder is interested in than in the set design of his world or in CGI effects or whatever later films might want to focus on. It meanders a bit towards the end, but it’s fascinating, a twisting, turning journey which really lands some of those twists.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Writers Fritz Müller-Scherz and Fassbinder (based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye); Cinematographers Michael Ballhaus and Ulrich Prinz; Starring Klaus Löwitsch, Mascha Rabben, Karl-Heinz Vosgerau, Barbara Valentin, Adrian Hoven; Length 212 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 23 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 594: ゴジラ Gojira (Godzilla, 1954)

You could probably argue that this monster movie is a bit too straightforward in its message — the dangers of a nuclear world can unleash terrifying consequences! — but given the context for the film, it’s pretty understandable. There’s a sub-plot about the moral qualms attendant on technological progress in the field of mass destruction, and at no point is it ever unclear what the reasons for all this hand-wringing are, so you can understand why it was heavily recut on original release for the non-Japanese market, given it hits perhaps a little close to home. Still plenty of other movies of the 50s were trading on the fears of an atomic age, including a number of the most prominent American sci-fi and horror features (along with noir gems like Kiss Me Deadly), so it’s not such a big gap to this Japanese film. Of course, the effects now look pretty dated, but the human drama is clear (this isn’t the only film of 1954 from the Criterion Collection that allegorises Japan’s place in the world and stars Takashi Shimura in a leading role, and it may be my favourite of those) and the sense of night-time Tokyo is strong.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ishiro Honda 本多猪四郎; Writers Takeo Murata 村田武雄 and Honda; Cinematographer Masao Tamai 玉井正夫; Starring Akira Takarada 宝田明, Momoko Kochi 河内桃子, Takashi Shimura 志村喬; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 3 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 586: Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Given when this was made, this remains a fairly terrifying film, but one that nevertheless retains a certain empathy (like the contemporaneous Freaks to a certain extent). That’s not to say it’s entirely unproblematic to modern audiences, but there’s a consistent theme within the film that actually the monsters of the film (its “lost souls”, if you will) are worth protecting and fighting for, as our hero does at several points, much to the annoyance of Charles Laughton’s gentleman scientist who is actually — perhaps itself a commentary on the myth of the enlightened colonial project — quite clearly a monster. Anyone who knows The Island of Dr Moreau knows how this plays out, and it suffers a little from its early sound era origins at times (seeming almost too quiet and slow for our modern tastes), but it’s a great and fascinating early horror movie.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Erle C. Kenton; Writers Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young (based on the novel The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells); Cinematographer Karl Struss; Starring Richard Arlen, Charles Laughton, Kathleen Burke, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi; Length 70 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 4 November 2022.

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.