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.

Criterion Sunday 469: The Hit (1984)

Stephen Frears directed his first movie at the start of the 70s and then spent most of the next decade working in TV, though this is the era when Ken Loach and Alan Clarke were creating distinctive visions on the small screen, so by the time Frears returns with The Hit, you can’t really accuse him of not having some style. It’s set in Spain, so it doesn’t lack for beautiful light and arresting backdrops; at times Frears seems to be going maybe even a little bit too hard on the quiet, empty shots of these locales, though he matches it with striking framings (such as an unexpected overhead shot during one tense encounter). Still, there’s a lot that feels very 80s here, and it’s not just Tim Roth being a young hard man (not as fascist as in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain, perhaps, but still a thug) but also some of the patronising attitudes (towards women, for example, or the Spaniards they encounter). Of course, that’s as much to do with the characters, who are after all small time criminals. Terence Stamp isn’t a million miles from Ray Winstone’s retired criminal in Sexy Beast, a man who may be retired but is aware he’s never going to be fully out of the racket, and when John Hurt pops up to carry out the titular action, he puts across a weary indefatigability. Ultimately this is a strange blend of genres, with black comedic elements and a strong road movie vibe (a saturated Spanish version of what Chris Petit or Wim Wenders were doing in monochrome, perhaps). I admire it more than I love it, but it has its moments.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stephen Frears; Writer Peter Prince; Cinematographer Mike Molloy; Starring Terence Stamp, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Laura del Sol; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 11 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 427: Muerte de un ciclista (Death of a Cyclist, 1955)

It’s natural to want to try and read films made under fairly repressive governments as being veiled criticism of that regime, but I’m not the person to try and do that with this film made during Franco’s Spain. It’s about collective guilt, about mistrust, and about the things that shame and the fear of being found out do to desperate people. Perhaps when you’ve killed once, even accidentally, and especially when it seems you’ve gotten away with it, it becomes easier to do it again, is at least one of the questions which is raised here. But there’s a lot going on in this tale of two lovers who, as the film begins, knock down a cyclist on a darkened street, apparently unseen, and quickly flee the site when it becomes clear to them that there’s nothing to be done, and the fact that they’re in an adulterous affair means they don’t want to be found out. Things spiral out from there, as the film has the feel of a film noir but filtered through the melodramatic framing of a film from the golden age of Mexican cinema. It has a certain European froideur to it, as these two navigate their own complicated feelings towards the accident as well as their behaviour, but it’s never less than stylish and beautifully composed in stringent monochrome.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Juan Antonio Bardem; Cinematographer Alfredo Fraile; Starring Lucia Bosè, Alberto Closas, Otello Toso, Carlos Casaravilla; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 14 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 425: アントニー・ガウディー Antonio Gaudí (1984)

This documentary about the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí approaches his work in a reflective way, without voiceover (aside from a brief snatch of it near the end), talking heads or even any contextualising on-screen text. It just presents images of his work, carefully framed and edited to elicit not just the details of his work, but the way it ties in with, for example, natural rock formations or the building style of small farming villages, finding its place not just within the urban sprawl of Barcelona but in the region and in the nature. Thus there are close-up and wide shots, shots from around the city giving an idea of the cultural life and the typical local architecture, amongst which Gaudí’s designs seem particularly alien, which is exacerbated by the occasionally dissonant 70s electronic score, his designs at times seemingly beamed in from another plane of existence. Finding this balance between the oddness of the architect’s work, but also the way it fits in within the environment, is part of the project of the documentary, and if it seems a little abstract at times, it has a lot of visual beauty to it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara 勅使河原宏; Cinematographers Junichi Segawa 瀬川順一, Ryu Segawa 瀬川龍 and Yoshikazu Yanagida 柳田義和; Length 72 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 423: Walker (1987)

Alex Cox certainly makes distinctive films. I’m not sure that they always gel with me, as I have a sort of in-built resistance to the carnivalesque and maximalist spirit he has (along with, say, Terry Gilliam). But I can’t fault Cox’s determination to bitterly present a satirical view of American involvement in central America, spurred by the contemporary exploits of such hucksters as Oliver North, and the film does everything it can to collapse one into the other. The mid-19th century setting increasingly becomes indistinguishable from the modern day as cars and helicopters, US tabloid news magazines and other anachronistic features start to become impossible to ignore. In the midst of all the pyrotechnics and madness is a very undemonstrative performance from Ed Harris, a tall blue-eyed blond man in a tailored black suit whose very stillness and composure in the midst of everything helps him stand out and grounds all the madness that swirls around him.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alex Cox; Writer Rudy Wurlitzer; Cinematographer David Bridges; Starring Ed Harris, René Auberjonois, Richard Masur, Peter Boyle, Marlee Matlin; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 7 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 403: Cría cuervos… (1976)

A film that opens with the death of a military father made when Spain’s leader Generalissimo Franco was dying invites an allegorical reading, and clearly from reading review many have done so. This is a film that is suffused with a feeling of melancholy and loss, as a young girl, Ana (played by Ana Torrent, so memorable in The Spirit of the Beehive), first witnesses her dad’s death and then sees a vision of her mother (Geraldine Chaplin) that seems so real but turns out to be a haunting of sorts. Questions then as to Ana’s own culpability in these deaths and her desire for others makes it a film complicated by all kinds of ways of dealing with and processing grief and loss. The director deftly manages to keep these moods and ideas in play right to the end.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are interviews from 2007 with two of the main actors in the film, Ana Torrent (now obviously grown up and with little in the way of specific memory from that time in her life, though it’s good to see her looking healthy and happy), and a longer one with Geraldine Chaplin, who was the director’s partner and mother of one of his children, who worked with him for much of the preceding decade. Her interview is particularly interesting, in contextualising how it was made, how they did not intend the political reading in any way, and how she had to work almost against Ana in order to get her to react properly. She also mentions that she hated the pop song by Jeanette which is played multiple times in the film, and whose refrain of “because you’re leaving” seems particularly laden with meaning given the film’s theme; she admits she was wrong to think it would fail (the song became a break-out hit), but also she’s wrong because the song is great.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carlos Saura; Cinematographer Teo Escamilla; Starring Ana Torrent, Geraldine Chaplin, Conchi Pérez, Maite Sánchez, Florinda Chico; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 26 February 2021.

Salir del ropero (So My Grandma’s a Lesbian!, 2019)

If you watch enough Netflix you will of course plumb some fairly murky depths when it comes to mediocre filmmaking. And because I’m trying to fill out this themed week, here’s one of them. It’s not one I chose myself, it was watched with a group of friends (well, online not in the same room), but there you go, I did watch it. I cannot in all honesty recommend it to you.


I think a more accurate title would be “So My Granddaughter’s a Homophobe” given how relatively little time is spent on the grandmas (who are obviously the most interesting characters). This has its moments, most of which appear to be a sort of anodyne Almodóvar, but it hardly does itself any favours with the terrible young people and the bad Scottish accents. It is clearly aiming to keep things light and fluffy, and I do think its heart is in the right place, but it is a bit wayward at times.

So My Grandma's a Lesbian! film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ángeles Reiné; Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine; Starring Rosa Maria Sardà, Verónica Forqué, Ingrid García-Jonsson; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Friday 5 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 351: El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive, 1973)

I think a lot of people look to Terrence Malick when they think about what a period film could achieve in the 1970s, but the same year as his debut was this Spanish film, and it achieves a similar beauty to its stark images of World War II-era Spain, just following the Civil War and the rise of Franco and his fascists. The sociopolitical context is important, but the film doesn’t really give you any of that aside from hints — the glimpse of the wounded young soldier who has deserted Franco’s side is the main one, though I warrant there are more clues for attentive Spanish eyes. Then again, maybe they are all too subsumed in the allegory because, after all, the film wasn’t banned, so those threads remain pretty buried in the thematics, which revolve around a mobile screening of Frankenstein in a small rural town where two sisters play games with one another and tell stories. It’s all really about the atmosphere and the performance of the youngster Ana Torrent, all wide-eyed and innocent yet trusting, like the little girl Maria we see in the clip of James Whale’s famous film. It’s a gorgeous evocation of a past still informing the film’s present, and the visual look clearly influenced Guillermo del Toro when he made The Devil’s Backbone, set in a similar era.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Víctor Erice; Writers Erice, Ángel Fernández Santos and Francisco J. Querejeta; Cinematographer Luis Cuadrado; Starring Ana Torrent, Teresa Gimpera, Fernando Fernán Gómez; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 3 September 2020 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).

The Sisters Brothers (2018)

I took a break last week because I was on holiday (although didn’t end up leaving home), but this week I’ll be building up to my Global Cinema entry on Belgium (on Saturday). As a loose theme, then, I’m covering films with a Belgian production credit, though it turns out a lot of films with some Belgian financing aren’t particularly ‘Belgian’, whatever that might amount to. This one, for example, is an American film by a French director, also co-produced by partners from Belgium, Romania and Spain, so it spans plenty of countries, without really representing any of them exactly — except of course America, where it’s set. Still, it’s a way of looping in a lot of not very Belgian films into consideration this week.


This Western crime comedy drama is directed by a French man with an enormous number of production deals (the first title card of the film, as it builds up all its production and co-production credits, is itself somewhat hilarious) and surely has a lot of money on-screen in what I assume is a faithful rendering of Oregon and California in the mid-19th century. However, it does strike rather an odd tone, a sort of laidback melancholia with bursts of violence and goriness that leads up to a dream-like ending, a story of two brothers (Reilly and Phoenix) who have a quest, even if that quest largely loops back to a consideration of their own family and the way they have been brought up. The acting is, as you might expect, very solid, with no notable let-downs, and Phoenix is a particular good fit to his character. Some of the digital photography seemed just a little on the ‘uncanny’ side, but maybe that was just me or the screening I was at. In any case, there’s plenty to like here, but it is at the very least meandering.

The Sisters Brothers film posterCREDITS
Director Jacques Audiard; Writers Audiard and Thomas Bidegain (based on the novel by Patrick deWitt); Cinematographer Benoît Debie; Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 20 April 2019.

Paradise Hills (2019)

I had promised a week of foreign-language science-fiction films, but though today’s film is Spanish, it’s in the English language. This creates a strange tonal dissonance, which doesn’t exactly distract from the film — being a bit weird and distanced is sort of what it’s all about — but does create a peculiar frisson.


This is a deeply odd film in many ways, one of those strange English-language hybrid foreign films (it’s a Spanish production) which is toying with big ideas in sometimes inspired ways, and sometimes rather more clunky ones (I’m reminded of the Kirsten Dunst sci-fi Upside Down which has a similar tonal oddness while also being a film largely buried by distributors, or in terms of plot the French weirdness of Innocence). The plot itself is fairly silly, and holds together only in the vaguest of ways, while the big reveals are well telegraphed up-front so most people will probably see what’s coming. However, clearly all the budget went into set and costume design, and it all looks fantastic, putting a queer sci-fi twist on fairytale aesthetics. It lands on a sort of dreamy romantic dystopian vision and sustains this atmosphere throughout, even when the plot itself is getting a little trying. A director to watch.

Paradise Hills film posterCREDITS
Director Alice Waddington; Writers Brian DeLeeuw, Nacho Vigalondo and Waddington; Cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui; Starring Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald, Jeremy Irvine, Eiza González, Milla Jovovich; Length 95 minutes.
Seen on a flight from Singapore to London, Friday 13 March 2020.