James & Isey (2021)

Continuing with recent films, here’s another documentary, this time set in New Zealand and about a family relationship. Through charting the life of a centenarian, it also sheds some light onto historical traumas around the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand and the way they have been treated, but this is a wide-ranging film, perhaps too much so at times.


There’s something very sweet, very earnest and also rather unfocused about this film, but I think the sense of randomness (tied loosely together with the countdown format to Isey’s 100th birthday) ties in well with the charm of the couple at the film’s centre, Isey and her son James, who lives with her but hesitates to call himself her carer. It’s a portrait of familial relations which has a serious underpinning, which is the way that Māori culture and language had been eroded so much by the time of Isey’s birth in 1919 that she was never taught the language and forced to conform to pākehā beliefs, a situation that has only seen some correction in the past few decades. In that respect it’s worth mentioning that the title isn’t misleading: this is a film as much about James as it is about the 100-year-old Isey (she’s 102 now), and James has a collaborative co-creator role within the project. The film endeavours to show how he has taken on, later in life, a spiritual role within his community as a tohunga (which he translates, presumably loosely, as “shaman” at one point). However, there’s relatively little context for understanding this and so although I think the film is respectful to his practices, it’s still participating in a filmic lineage, elsewhere using still-life images that are set against the soundtrack or the on-screen text, that evoke a sort of deadpan humour. This then makes James’s genuine spiritual earnestness — the rituals, the use of language (a form of ‘speaking in tongues’ as I take it from the film, but I suspect there’s more to it than that), the dress and demeanour of James and other participants in it — come across as potentially absurdist, which I don’t think they are intended to be at all. But that’s a small point in a film that has a whole lot of feeling for its subjects, including Isey, very much pushing against the trend for films about older people to be films about dementia or other such conditions, when she is clearly still living her best life.

James & Isey (2021)CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Florian Habicht; Writers James Cross and Habicht; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Wednesday 12 May 2021.

First Cow (2019)

I have been holding out for this particular film since I first heard about it after it screened at the 2019 New York Film Festival. That was even before there was a pandemic, and needless to say I’m extremely glad it’s finally been screened in NZ, because it’s clearly not the most commercial of pictures. Perhaps some of the director’s previous excellent works got it that slot, or maybe it’s because there was less of a glut of Hollywood nonsense clogging up the screens, but either way I’m glad! It’s great! I saw it twice.


Director Kelly Reichardt’s style by now is pretty evolved, and there’s a gentleness to the pacing that belies some of the emotional stakes. Because at core this is a film about capitalism and exploitation even in the supposed freedom of the frontier, out west in early-19th century Oregon. It couldn’t be more different tonally (and in Academy-ratio colour rather than black-and-white) but I kept thinking of the similar backdrop to Dead Man and how differently the two films handle this land and the characters who are out here forging a life (the kind of loud-mouthed military man played by Ewen Bremner is far more cut from that generic cloth than the two leads, the kinds of people you just don’t usually see in Westerns, being quiet and humble and self-effacing). However, having the comparison in mind already meant it didn’t feel like much of a surprise when Gary Farmer showed up in a small role towards the end. At a narrative level, though, what surprised me is that this is essentially the story of the first hipster food stall in Oregon (of course I jest, it’s so much more than that) but also that suggests an underlying comedy that might easily be missed by focusing on the harsh frontier lives or the pathos of this single cow out there on a rich man’s land.

First Cow (2019)CREDITS
Director Kelly Reichardt; Writers Jonathan Raymond and Reichardt (based on Raymond’s novel The Half Life); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 30 April 2021 and Wednesday 5 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 419: La Pointe-Courte (1955)

Varda’s debut is this strikingly prescient film suggesting a lot of threads of European art cinema throughout the middle of the 20th century, the alienation of the central couple, the almost documentary-like depiction of this poor fishing community, the constant counterpoint provided by the melancholy musical score, and plenty else besides. There is a sense in which, being her first feature, there’s a slightly mannered mise en scène, with shots of the couple rigorously symmetrical, or strikingly framed against the landscape in ways that suggest the eye of a photographer, which would make way to the more lyrical feeling of her masterpiece, Cléo from 5 to 7. Still, this is a gorgeous film for its low-budget origins, and gains hugely from the location footage of the locals, not to mention the plentiful roaming cats.

Rewatching this a few years after my first viewing reinforces what a striking film debut this is, and formally rather interesting even if it somehow feels a little bit stilted. Set against the documentary depiction of the fishing village there is a mannered and very French story of lovers (the only real actors in the film, Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort) who speak in a poetic philosophical register as they grapple with their fading romance. The two strands are almost separate and seem set against each other, but there’s a beautiful sense of place to the film in its depiction of this village and the sturdy people who live there, who seem to find the lovers’ struggles almost absurd.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are two interviews with the director about the film, one in which she invites over Mathieu Amalric to talk about his debut film, although obviously the bulk of the discussion is about hers (she whips out some nice framed photos of her on set), while the other is direct to camera talking about the making of the film. She mentions The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner as a touchstone for the narrative style, in the sense of interleaving two unrelated storylines. She also mentions the copious help she received and the sheer luck that was required to make the film, her being so young and inexperienced, as well as the help given her by the editor, Alain Resnais.
  • Another extra is an eight-minute excerpt from a 1964 episode of Cinéastes de notre temps, in which a young and very serious Varda (quite different from the playful persona she would come to cultivate) talks about her work up to that point (just before Le Bonheur).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Paul Soulignac and Louis Stein; Starring Silvia Monfort, Philippe Noiret; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, 13 August 2018 (and on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 25 April 2021).

Global Cinema 28: Burundi – Nothing’s the Same (2008)

I’ve put this entry off for quite a while now, but then again there aren’t, to be fair, a huge range of Burundian films to choose from when one’s looking for something from this country. If you speak French there are one or two features online, but there are also a handful of short films from the Burundi Film Center, of which this is one.


Burundian flagRepublic of Burundi (Republika y’Uburundi)
population 11,866,000 | capital Gitega (42k) | largest cities Bujumbura (497k), Gitega, Ngozi (40k), Rumonge (36k), Cibitoke (24k) | area 27,834 km2 | religion Christianity (92%) | official language Kirundi, French (français) | major ethnicity Hutu (85%), Tutsi (14%) | currency Burundian franc (FBu) [BIF] | internet .bi

A landlocked country in the Great Rift Valley, part of the African Great Lakes region (with Lake Tanganyika along its southwestern border), its former capital is Bujumbura, now the economic capital to Gitega’s political capital. The name derives from the Kingdom of Burundi and possibly ultimately from the Ha people. This kingdom is also the earliest evidence of a state with these borders, dating to the late-16th century, with a distinction between Hutu and Tutsi not just on ethnic but also socio-cultural lines (with the Tutsi being the ruling class). The area was annexed by Germany in 1881 as part of German East Africa, and ceded to Belgium as Ruanda-Urundi after World War I. It gained its independence on 1 July 1962, instituting elections still under a constitutional monarchy. A 1966 coup deposing the king in favour of his teenage son then led to another coup later that year deposing the monarchy itself and declaring the country a republic (albeit essentially a dictatorship by Michel Micombero). A civil war and genocide in 1972 of Hutus led to another coup in 1976, then again in 1987, followed by another civil war and genocide in 1993 (this time of Tutsis). The first democratic election was in 1993 leading to a 12-year civil war, though sporadic unrest continues. The government is led by a President, also head of state.

Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and given the ongoing civil unrest and human rights abuses, does not have a well-developed media infrastructure, and needless to say very few films are made there.


Le Tournant d’une vie (Nothing’s the Same, 2008)

This short film deals with a pretty heavy subject — the pre-marital rape of a devoutly Christian young woman (Ginette Mahoro), who has to deal with the fallout from this and how it affects her relationship — and there’s really no way to do that in a satisfying way within 10 minutes, it turns out. The actors are called on to go through such a huge journey in this time that even the finest and most well-trained would be hard-pushed to pull it off. Still, it’s all played with earnest emotions and even if it feels all too easily wrapped up, it’s certainly a good sign of some film talent in the country.

CREDITS
Director Linda Kamuntu; Writer Lyse Elsie Hakizimana; Cinematographer Emmanuel Heri; Starring Ginette Mahoro; Length 11 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), Wellington, Tuesday 23 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 396: Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, 1951)

I’m sitting here, late at night, trying to figure out what to write because I have a bit of a blind spot for classic era Hollywood films of the past (even the slight failures, as this one was, at least commercially, though I gather contemporary critics didn’t much like it either). Billy Wilder is very much a great Hollywood director, particularly known for his comedies, and while this does function somewhat as satire, it can also be nasty and manipulative when it needs to be, because it’s about cynical people gaming a system that is, sadly, very much still in place. In fact the idea of reporters twisting the truth to make newspapers (or the media in general) more saleable to the public is pretty much the dominant paradigm now, and though this film would have us believe there were honourable men (they’re always men) in positions of power, I’m not quite sure that’s ever been the case, which probably makes me even more cynical than the film. Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum, who is very clearly a Bad Guy, but he’s charismatic and, though not likeable particularly, gets results because he’s pushy and persistent. Generally I think the film hits a lot of targets, and does so very capably, but it can be hard going perhaps precisely because of how well it captures a media circus, even a hard-boiled film noir 1950s one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Billy Wilder; Writers Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels and Wilder; Cinematographer Charles Lang; Starring Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 7 February 2021).

Criterion Sunday 393: おとし穴 Otoshiana (Pitfall, 1962)

You get the sense of what director Hiroshi Teshigahara is about from this film, his debut feature, which has the bleak monochrome landscapes and the sense of alienation from the rest of society that marks his most famous work The Woman in the Dunes. This is partly a supernatural ghost story, but that comes from its mining village setting, where lives are hard, faces caked in sweat, and murder and corruption abounds (embodied by a lethally white-suited manager type). It’s not always clear what exactly is happening, but you know enough that what’s happening is bad and it’s the lowest in society who are being screwed over. It makes for a fascinating study.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara 勅使河原宏; Writer Kobo Abe 安部公房 (based on his television play 煉獄 Rengoku); Cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa 瀬川浩; Starring Hisashi Igawa 井川比佐志, Sumie Sasaki 佐々木すみ江, Kunie Tanaka 田中邦衛; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 5 October 2020.

Nomadland (2020)

I’ve been doing a week rounding up some of my year’s favourite films that I haven’t yet posted on here, and I know it’s already the new year, but here’s one I saw just this past week that I forgot to post, so I’m doing it now, ahead of my full list of favourites.


By this point director/writer (and editor) Chloé Zhao has built up a pretty solid body of work dealing with the dispossessed in American society. Her previous two features (Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider) have been sensitive stories of First Nations people, and while this one focuses far more on Frances McDormand, it has the same interest in marginal lives eked out in the kinds of spaces not often seen on the American screen, as she bounces between itinerant work in Idaho, South Dakota, Arizona, Nevada and other such places with vast horizons and empty space aplenty.

Everyone in the film goes by their own name, even our star (as seen on an ID card she uses in an early shot, though her character uses the nickname Fern), which suggests a strong documentary quality to this tale, and I would believe that everyone we see lives these very lives. There are sad stories and plenty of tears, but these aren’t placed within a framework of anger or misery (though it could easily be spun that way, given that most of the lives we see are largely due to inadequate social welfare protections, and even working for an Amazon warehouse is fairly soft-pedalled given a lot of the journalism that has been built up around that). Instead the film grounds itself in a shared feeling of hope that everyone forges together in these RV parks and desert encampments, that could look like cults but are just communities of like-minded people looking out for themselves. This could easily be the dystopian apocalyptic world of other films, but it’s a disarmingly generous and empathetic take on what such communities might feel like, set amongst people who have embraced their choices and have become determined to find something positive in what others might see as a massive failure of government and society. These lifestyles are hardly going away, but it’s heartening somehow to see people trying to make them work.

Nomadland film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Chloé Zhao 趙婷 (based on the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder); Cinematographer Joshua James Richards; Starring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 26 December 2020.

Global Cinema 27: Burkina Faso – Samba Traoré (1992)

It may be a rather poor and (relatively) small West African country, but Burkina Faso has a really strong cinematic history, not least thanks to the FESPACO film festival, celebrating pan-African cinema. I’ve reviewed a number of films from the country, and here I cover one of the lesser-known works by its greatest director, Idrissa Ouedraogo.


Burkinabé flagBurkina Faso
population 21,510,000 | capital Ouagadougou (1.5m) | largest cities Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso (490k), Koudougou (88k), Banfora (76k), Ouahigouya (73k) | area 274,200 km2 | religion Islam (61%), Christianity (23%) | official language French (français) | major ethnicity Mossi (52%), Fula (8%) | currency West African CFA franc (CFA) [XOF] | internet .bf

A landlocked West African country, formerly known as Upper Volta, and whose official language is only spoken by around 10-15% of the people (Mòoré, the language of the Mossi people, is far more widely spoken). The name comes from the Mossi for “upright” and the Dioula for “fatherland” (the old colonial name comes from its position on the River Volta). Habitation in the country stretches back to 14000 BC in the north-west, with more permanent settlements from the 4th millennium BCE. An Iron Age Bura culture existed until around the 13th century CE, while the modern day ethnic groups arrived just prior to this. Several separate Mossi kingdoms were set up, and these various tribal groupings existed side-by-side until the arrival of European colonialists, who started to claim territory from the 1890s onwards, and the French protectorate taking in the present country was formed in 1896 and by 1898 took in all the present-day lands, although as part of an Upper Senegal and Niger territory. It wasn’t until 1919 that the present country was separated as Upper Volta (Haute Volta), before being dismantled in 1932, then revived again in 1947. Autonomy was achieved in 1958 and full independence on 5 August 1960, under its first president Maurice Yaméogo, who swiftly suspended democracy and was ousted in 1966. A series of military and military/civil governments marked by coups governed until the coup which installed Capt Thomas Sankara in 1983; he pushed through the country’s change of name the following year and an ambitious programme of anti-imperialist reforms, though another reactionary coup replaced him with Blaise Compaoré in 1987. A semblance of democracy was introduced in 1991, though power still resides largely with the President, who appoints the Prime Minister and has the power to dissolve government.

Though the country is underdeveloped in many ways, Burkina Faso is one of the chief countries in African cinema, not least due to the establishment of the pan-African FESPACO film festival in Ouagadougou in 1969, which continues to take place every two years. A number of internationally renowned directors have come from the country, including Idrissa Ouedraogo (one of whose films I review below) and Gaston Kaboré, amongst others.


Samba Traoré (1992)

The great Burkinabé filmmaker Idrissa Ouédraogo died on 18 February 2018, so in the weeks following that I had wanted to check out one of his lesser-known films, and this is the one I alighted on. There is no hint in Samba Traoré (which takes its name from that of the lead character, played by Bakary Sangaré) of any deficiency of production or craft: it’s a handsomely shot and beautifully acted film about a man returning from the city to his home village, to settle down and find a new life. He’s running from a life of crime, or at least, one specific crime (the film starts with him staging an armed robbery of a petrol station), and of course the narrative demands that this eventually catches up with him. In the meantime, this is an easy, fluid portrait of small village life, as Samba reconnects with old friends and meets a woman he wants to marry (Mariam Kaba). It’s never condescending to its characters or to its audience: the film is simply constructed, but the camera moves expressively and there are layers to the characters that go beyond any simple didactic drama of wrongdoing, punishment and redemption. This really is a fine film.

Samba Traoré film posterCREDITS
Director Idrissa Ouedraogo; Writers Ouedraogo, Santiago Amigorena and Jacques Arhex; Cinematographers Pierre-Laurent Chénieux and Mathieu Vadepied; Starring Bakary Sangaré, Mariam Kaba, Abdoulaye Komboudri; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 1 March 2018.

Happiest Season (2020)

What with moving country and not have any internet access at home (yet), I’ve been a little bit lax in posting film reviews on here, though I’ve still been venturing to the cinema occasionally and trying to keep up with films at home as much as I can, though the aforementioned lack of internet means I’ve not seen many recent films. However, there’s a special holiday on at the moment so I thought I best post a review of a related film that I did get a chance to see, along with apparently everybody else on the internet.


You may have read about this film on the internet already, and goodness knows enough people have already seen it. Before I’d seen it, then, I was all ready to chalk this up as a bit of kitschy normcore — a Christmas-themed romcom! seasonal jumpers! — for its starry cast to be involved in, because doing Hallmark-style movies seems to have become a Thing for A-listers recently. And it’s not that it doesn’t have plenty of elements of that, but it’s also fairly self-knowing about the way it’s deploying the tropes of the genre alongside a critique of unfair expectations of gay people in repressed small-town contexts, and the very real spectre of being in the closet that this seems to entail. So there are a lot more tears by the end than I had expected going in, and while the denouement seems a little bit forced, it’s also earned I think and deserved too.

Among the cast, Kristen Stewart is of course excellent, but the highlight is Dan Levy as the gay best friend. Alison Brie also does a fine job at finding some pathos in a very difficult and unapproachable character; the young actors playing her kids also have a great range in deadpan stares. Oh and the co-writer Mary Holland has given herself a great role as Jane, the other sister largely forgotten and sidelined by this imperious New England family. It’s just a pity that a brief appearance by Timothy Simons and Lauren Lapkus didn’t go anywhere, as I feel they could have been better served. Still, this is a film that’s focused on the traumas of its central character Harper (Mackenzie Davis) and though it’s somewhat a thankless role, the film does follow through her story in a satisfying way, and it’s all I could want from a lesbian Christmas-themed romcom, I suppose.

CREDITS
Director Clea DuVall; Writers DuVall and Mary Holland; Cinematographer John Guleserian; Starring Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Dan Levy, Mary Holland, Alison Brie, Mary Steenburgen, Victor Garber; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 3 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 371: Body and Soul (1925) and Borderline (1930)

Paul Robeson’s career is of course fascinating, and well worth reading up on, and while his appearance in the stage production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones predates Body and Soul (he had previously gained some success on stage, primarily in musical theatre, in the early-20s), the film of that play wasn’t to be made until the sound era. Instead our first glimpse of Robeson on screen was to be this film by pre-eminent and pioneering Black American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who five years earlier had made the fascinating (and superior) retort to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in Within Our Gates. Between Micheaux’s filmmaking — which sadly has been ravaged by the censors and survives only in this shorter cut — and Robeson’s magnetic screen presence, this is a fine film made for a Black audience, which very much implicates the role of the church through Robeson’s turn as a devious preacher Reverend Jenkins, who drinks heavily, steals money and commits rape (portrayed subtly but no less clearly) without raising concerns from his adulatory congregation. The film ends with a twist and the reveal of a dual role for Robeson, which stretches credulity somewhat, but this kind of ending is hardly unusual for the period or indeed for American cinema. The Criterion release includes a brilliant jazzy score by Wycliffe Gordon which only adds to the film’s depth, making it a highlight of the silent era.

Five years later and Borderline really feels like a one-of-a-kind film, nominally a Swiss production by a British crew, and a strange experiment in form that plays with all kinds of themes. These range from the racism and hypocrisy of a small town, a man called Thorne (Gavin Arthur) whose marriage is falling apart due to his affair with Adah, a Black woman (Eslanda Robeson) who’s married to Paul Robeson’s character Pete, not to mention what seems like a gay subtext with some of the women we see (one of whom is played by the excellently pseudonymous Helga Doom). Any of these themes individually would probably make the film interesting, but it’s the boldly experimental style that makes it so watchable, cutting across the various characters in an almost free-associative way. The score for the restoration is provided by Courtney Pine, and is jazzy and propulsive when it needs to be and I think elevates the film even further. A strange, singular late-silent period work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Body and Soul (1925) [classification PG]
Director/Writer Oscar Micheaux (based on his novel); Cinematographer [unknown]; Starring Paul Robeson, Julia Theresa Russell, Mercedes Gilbert; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Wednesday 11 November 2020.

Borderline (1930) [classification 12]
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Kenneth Macpherson; Starring Paul Robeson, Eslanda Robeson, Gavin Arthur, Hilda Doolittle [as “Helga Doom”]; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Saturday 14 November 2020.