Criterion Sunday 560: White Material (2009)

Part of what I think is difficult to take in about this film, at least on a first viewing, is that so much of it happens off-screen when we aren’t (or the central character, Maria Vial, played by Isabelle Huppert, isn’t) looking. By which I mean the violence that drives it, that claims several central characters, that drives a wedge between Vial and her coffee plantation business, as well as her family (Christophe Lambert as estranged husband and Nicolas Duvauchelle as deranged son). Partly that’s because she’s never reliably looking the right way to witness it, so intent on downplaying and ignoring the rising tide of anti-colonial violence taking place, the efforts to push out white landowners; she’s too immured in a rapidly vanishing system of rule to even seem to notice the threats to her existence, because it is her home after a fashion, the only life she’s known. And so while I think this film is filled with bold contrasts and strong drama, a lot of it just seems to seep in around the edges, until eventually it starts to overwhelm even La Huppert, who as an actor — as much as a character — feels like an indomitable spirit. She’s hardly a hero, but she just keeps trying to make things happen and she doesn’t know how to relent.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s an interesting little short film made by Denis, filmed from her point of view on a camcorder of some sort, of her taking this film to the Écrans Noirs film festival in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and having to deal with the outdated technology and limited screening conditions available there. Indeed, the whole story builds to a bit of a punchline, almost.
  • There’s also a short deleted scene of Maria finding a certain person (no spoilers, eh) dead near the end, but presumably this was just too direct for Denis’ method.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claire Denis; Writers Denis and Marie NDiaye; Cinematographer Yves Cape; Starring Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankolé, Michel Subor; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 31 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 557: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

I do wonder, watching this classic documentary once again, how many figures from history are forgotten or only dimly recalled, people who have had enormous influence in their time. As the filmmaker reflects in one of the extras, you can easily imagine Harvey Milk fading from view, for while his importance at a certain point in San Francisco’s civic history may have been undoubtable, the wider significance of his work could easily have never been properly established. What this film does then is a work of urgent engagement with a public legacy, coming from a sense of injustice — not just in the way that Milk was killed, but in the way his voice took so long to be heard at all and about the easy way in which his killer was treated. But it’s not the story of Dan White that’s of interest here — his brand of neo-conservative Bible-thumping bigotry has been every bit as influential in American politics sadly — but the effervescence and life of Harvey Milk, a man who knew early on what his fate would be (as anyone who’d grown up in American politics of the post-war period surely knew) but forged ahead anyway. He has a great skill with oratory and a belief in what was right, more than can be said for some of his political colleagues who may continue to wield influence in the state of California. It’s a great film to celebrate a life, not just mourn a death, and that’s what it taps into more than anything else.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There is a wealth of documentary material included as extras here, including the film’s premiere at the Castro (although not its first screening, but the first to the local community), introduced by Vito Russo and with speeches from its director, as well as the rather more staid affair of the Oscars where it won the best documentary that year (no mean feat, given the closed way that the Documentary Oscar was for many years selected).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rob Epstein; Writers Epstein, Carter Wilson and Judith Coburn; Cinematographer Frances Reid; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 30 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 556: Senso (1954)

This film is, undoubtedly, full-blooded. If you have any kind of aversion to melodrama, you would be well-advised to be aware of that going in, because Visconti and his lead actor Alida Valli do not, in any way, hold back. She plays the Countess Serpieri, an Italian noblewoman in 1866 just as Italy is seeking its independence, whose cousin (Massimo Girotti) is deeply embedded in the resistance fight, but yet she dramatically, deeply, impossibly falls in love with a young Austrian officer Franz (played rather less memorably by Farley Granger, and truly the lip-synching is, as you’d expect from Italian films, very far off). The further she is sucked into passionate love for this pathetic preening jerk, the further she betrays her country and her ideals, until both are thrown explosively against one another in a final showdown that really undoes them both. The title is apt: this is a film of the senses, taking its cue (as VIsconti often does) from opera, which is where it literally begins, until the entire film is suffused with an operatic sensibility and the denouement can’t help but be bold. So if you like your films melodramatic and operatic, then this is exactly the kind of cinema you will love.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Visconti, Giorgio Bassani, Carlo Alianello, Giorgio Prosperi, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles; Cinematographers G.R. Aldo and Robert Krasker; Starring Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Massimo Girotti; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 24 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 553: Fish Tank (2009)

Watching this is very much an exercise in looking for the glimmers of hope and possibility in a story about people whose lives (all of them, really) have been derailed or sidelined, and who have turned to anger and sarcasm to get them through their lives (well those as well as drinking, lashing out, the usual kinds of things). It’s a film set in East London, not the trendy cool bit, but the Essex bit, out in Dagenham and Barking and beyond, stuck in a place where there doesn’t seem to be much of a way out. There’s an emaciated horse, the hope of five pounds stashed away to buy a few cans of super strength cider, dancing in parking lots with your friends, a sunny day away to a reservoir. Still, Andrea Arnold keeps it all moving along, just on the right side of hopelessness as our teenage protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis) struggles to find some way to connect; Michael Fassbender as her mum’s boyfriend Conor seems to offer some hope for their family to come together, but then it turns out he’s just another rotten one, perhaps the worst, but yet somehow catalyses some feeling of change for Mia. You don’t want to watch it at times, but it hurtles forward with the brash energy of youth.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Three of Andrea Arnold’s early short films are included. The first is her debut Milk (1998), about a woman coping with the death of her baby during childbirth, but it has one of those scenarios that only seems to happen in short films. Still it gets to an emotional core, and there are some nice shots of derelict suburban life.
  • The next is Dog (2001), which pretty convincingly does in 10 minutes what far longer films fail to do: give a sense of a life, who she is, where she’s come from, where she can expect to end up. Kinda brutal in its way (not least for the title character, a teenage girl played by Joanne Hill).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Andrea Arnold; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 17 July 2022.

Nous (We, 2021)

I have a lot of time for Alice Diop’s films, since first seeing her documentary On Call (2016) at the London Film Festival. She seems to make films about people in French society — all people, not just those of African heritage, though as her subjects are often working people, there’s no lack of ethnic diversity. Mubi has a little season of her films, including this one, On Call and a few others she’s made over the years; well worth checking out if you subscribe to that service.


Maybe I just watch too much of what currently gets pumped into our cinemas, but I like a film (a documentary in this case) which is willing to let its scenes play out, not force-feed us information. Of course, there’s a canny directorial nous at work here, an autobiographical underlying thread that pulls us as firmly as the RER B line which links the film’s suburban subjects to the metropolitan centre of Paris. What starts as a series of portraits of the surrounds of Paris (perhaps just Drancy to Paris’s northwest; I don’t know enough about France to be sure, but I believe it’s a variety of scenes along the line) becomes intertwined with fragments of filmmaker Alice Diop’s life, her mother and father and her childhood, clips of old home movies and her voiceover. We even eventually see her on screen, suitably distanced with cameras and mics and assistants moving elements of the background, that suggest a deeper level to the practice here, a hint of the manipulations underlying observational documentary, and that the people we see — crossing all kinds of racial and class lines — aren’t quite as randomly chosen as maybe it might seem. But that never becomes the film itself, as more clever-clever filmmakers might once have done: this is still, whatever else, very much a portrait of modern Paris, about people and the lives they lead, and it has all the rich depths of life lived in the shadow of a metropolis.

Nous (2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Diop; Cinematographers Clement Alline, Sarah Blum and Sylvain Verdet; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Thursday 30 June 2021.

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.

Criterion Sunday 546: Five Easy Pieces (1970)

As a seminal film in the ‘New American cinema’ movement, moving away from the Hollywood studio system, and a key piece in Jack Nicholson’s filmography, I must say that I like but don’t love Five Easy Pieces. It tells the story of Bobby Dupea, a man who seems pretty desperate to get away from himself, from his well-educated upper-class (for America) background, a world of conservatories and piano prodigies at a youthful age (which is what Bobby once was). Quite what he’s looking for is the drama of the film, though: some kind of pure and authentic expression of being American, perhaps, though most of the time it seems like he’s just running with no clear goal, lashing out at those who love him and constantly cheating on his girlfriend (Karen Black). It’s a great performance from Nicholson, but it’s not an easy one to love, given how rough around the edges he is, though it feels somehow quintessentially American. I can certainly understand how it hooks people in, but watching it I feel more like one of the pseuds that Bobby is so angry at all the time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writers Carole Eastman [as “Adrien Joyce”] and Rafelson; Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 29 June 2022.

Global Cinema 36: China – Embrace Again (2021)

Well, I’ve reached the largest country in the world (by population), and it’s hardly a slouch cinematically either. The idea of trying distill a country’s history and geography into a paragraph is ridiculous enough under usual circumstances, but China merits more than most in this respect so this will be very selective. For the film choice, though — eschewing famous names from over a century of cinematic artistry — I’ve gone with a popular film from late last year (released here in January) which deals with perhaps the most significant global event of this decade, and one inextricably linked with China.


Flag - ChinaPeople’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó)
population 1,412,600,000 | capital Beijing (北京市) (19.2m) | largest cities Shanghai (24.3m), Beijing, Guangzhou (13.9m), Shenzhen (13.4m), Tianjin (11.8m) | area 9,596,961 km2 | religion none/folk (75%), Buddhism (18%), Christianity (5%) | official language Standard Chinese aka Mandarin (现代标准汉语) | major ethnicity Han Chinese (91%) | currency Renminbi (元) [RMB] | internet .cn

Aside from being the world’s most populous country, it also shares the second most land borders (14, after Russia), has five time zones (and a huge variation in climate and topography) and in Shanghai has the largest city in the world (though Tokyo and Delhi come out larger when you include wider metropolitan areas); it’s also one the world’s earliest civilisations so there’s plenty of history to cover too. The name used in the west can be traced back to Persian and ultimately a Sanskrit word used in ancient India and appears in English by the 16th century; the shortened Chinese word Zhongguo means “central state”. Archaeological evidence for hominids stretched back 2.25 million years, with early Homo erectus “Peking Man” dating to ~700,000 years ago. Writing began around the seventh millennium BCE and the earliest historical dynasty (the Xia) to around 2100 BCE, though the Shang (following in the 17th century) are the first attested in contemporary records. The imperial system began with the Qin in 221 BCE followed by the Han, whose dominance is reflected in the ethnic name for native Chinese. The territory was expanded in this period, but further fragmentation occurred after their fall, reunited somewhat by the Sui in the 6th century, followed by a cultural renaissance under the Tang and Song dynasties. Military weakness was exploited by the Mongol empire, who established the Yuan dynasty, overthrown by the Ming in the 14th century, another golden age of culture and economy. The final dynasty was the Manchu-led (northern Chinese) Qing, which fell to the Xinhai Revolution of 1911-12 that established the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen of the Kuomintang (KMT), and was stabilised somewhat by Chiang Kai-shek. The Communist People’s Liberation Army fought a Civil War in the 1920s and again in the 1940s, gaining power in 1949 under Mao Zedong and pushing the KMT to Taiwan. Social reform programmes like The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution created upheaval and internal strife, blamed on the Maoist Gang of Four. The country was stabilised again under Deng Xiaoping, moving the country towards a mixed economy with an increasingly open market. The current one-party state has a President (with no term limit) elected by the National People’s Congress.

Introduced to the country in 1896, the first native cinematic production was in 1905, at a time when the industry was centred in Shanghai. This industry was severely curtailed by the Japanese invasion in 1937, with many filmmakers moving to Hong Kong and Chungking amongst other places. A new golden age was inaugurated by films like Spring in a Small Town (1948), though the Cultural Revolution severely restricted the industry and it wasn’t until the 1980s that a new generation of filmmakers emerged, notably the “Fifth Generation” of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, who were succeeded in the 1990s by filmmakers working outside the mainstream, though there’s still a large popular state-sanctioned cinema including films like Mermaid (2016).


穿过寒冬拥抱你 Chuanguo Handong Yongbao Nillende (Embrace Again, 2021)

It’s interesting that there hasn’t really been any kind of big budget film from Hollywood that reckons with the current pandemic. I don’t doubt it will happen in time, but so far we’ve just been told audiences wouldn’t want to see that. Well, here’s one from China, set almost exactly two years ago in Wuhan, and it’s a multi-strand narrative of various people on the frontlines, whether doctors and nurses or delivery drivers and restaurant owners, though let’s be clear: this stops some way short of any kind of documentary purpose. It’s sweetly sentimental to a fault, but it’s a film that’s as much about some of the strange kinships and communities that developed out of the pandemic and lockdown, as people who wouldn’t ordinarily meet come into contact. One the leads is Jia Ling, the director/star of last year’s big hit Hi, Mom, and she again radiates warmth, as indeed do many of the actors, having to convey a lot even while wearing face masks for half of the film (as indeed they should). Still, I’ve never before been so attentive as to when characters in a film aren’t wearing their masks or are handling or fitting them incorrectly, so I’m surprised some of them make it through. Along the way there is love and, of course, there is loss — an extended stretch of the movie towards the end is basically just an old-fashioned tearjerker, though at least not everyone you think might die actually dies (and that’s all I’ll say of that) — but mostly this is a film about the resilience of a city (and by extension a country, but don’t tell me Hollywood doesn’t also do propaganda).

Chuanguo Handong Yongbao Nillende (Embrace Again, 2021)CREDITS
Director Xiaolu Xue 薛晓路; Writers Xue, Liu Qing 柳青, Zhang Bolei 张铂雷, Hao Zhe 郝哲 and Yue Wang 王越; Starring Huang Bo 黄渤, Jia Ling 贾玲, Zhu Yilong 朱一龙, Xu Fan 徐帆; Length 125 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 8 January 2022.

Global Cinema 35: Chile – Beyond My Grandfather Allende (2015)

Chilean cinema has been through periods of strength over the years, and there have been some notable international talents that have flourished after early starts in Chile, like the prolific Raúl Ruiz and veteran documentarian Patricio Guzmán (who made the epic The Battle of Chile). Modern filmmaking has continued to flourish under a new vanguard of directors, both of features (like the excellent Too Late to Die Young by Dominga Sotomayor, or No by Pablo Larraín) and documentaries like the one covered below. This personal story should be viewed alongside a wider overview of the events of Allende’s overthrow (as in Guzmán’s epic three-part film mentioned above), but it gives a different perspective on such an important modern figure.


Flag - ChileRepublic of Chile (República de Chile)
population 17,574,000 | capital Santiago (5.4m) though the legislature is based in Valparaíso | largest cities Santiago, Valparaíso (804k), Concepción (666k), La Serena (296k), Antofagasta (285k) | area 756,096 km2 | religion Christianity (63%), none (36%) | official language Spanish (español chileno) | major ethnicity (estimates) white (64%), mestizos (35%), Amerindians (5%) | currency Chilean peso ($) [CLP] | internet .cl

The southernmost country in the world occupies a narrow stretch of land (64km at its narrowest) between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, covering a huge number variety of landscapes and climates, and controlling a number of island groups including Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and the Juan Fernández Islands. Its name is theorised to come variously from the name of a tribal chief via the Incas, or from an indigenous word meaning “ends of the earth” or the Mapuche for “where the land ends” or the Quechua for “cold”. There is evidence for some human presence in southern Chile 18,500 years ago, though more permanent settlements date back 10,000 years. The Incan empire briefly extended into the northern area of modern Chile, but the Mapuche in the south resisted successfully, ending with the Battle of the Maule in the late-15th century. Magellan was the first European to set foot in 1520, and more Spaniards (including Pizarro’s lieutenant Pedro de Valdivia, who founded Santiago) followed in the mid-16th century, annexing it for its fertile central valley. Mapuche insurrections (including one resulting in Valdivia’s death) persisted into the 17th century until the Spanish abolished slavery in 1683. Independence from Spain was proclaimed on 18 September 1810 (the date commemorated annually in its National Day); war followed, but a final victory over royalists thanks to Bernardo O’Higgins and José de San Martín came eight years later, though society remained largely unchanged. Territory expansion followed, entrenching landowner and rich financial interests, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that a reformist president was elected. Coups and instability followed for much of the rest of the century, most notably to depose Socialist Salvador Allende in 1973 with the help of the USA. The military leadership of Augusto Pinochet was not toppled until 1989 and democracy was restored, with an elected president having a term of four years.

The earliest film screening in Chile took place in 1902 and the first feature was made in 1910, though the industry struggled for much of the 20th century. A “New Chilean Cinema” developed in the late-60s under directors like Raúl Ruiz and Miguel Littín, but a slump took place during the Pinochet years. New directors like Pablo Larraín and Sebastián Lelio have emerged in recent years.


Allende, mi abuelo Allende (Beyond My Grandfather Allende, 2015)

This is a somewhat different proposition from most documentary films made by someone about their own family. It’s not that the family story is lacking in incident or drama: the filmmaker’s grandfather Salvador was the socialist president of Chile, deposed by military coup in 1973 and who committed suicide rather than be taken, and his family was an illustrious one which continues to be filled with politicians and nationally influential people. Rather, what marks it out is the way that nobody the filmmaker talks to, not her mother Isabel, nor aunt Carmen, nor grandmother (Salvador’s wife, “Tencha”, who died while the film was being made), nor even her cousins will open up about Salvador, called by his nickname “Chicho” throughout the film. Perhaps it’s his suicide (which turns out to have been how her other aunt and another family member departed), or the enormous emotional trauma his downfall had on all of them, but to have this emptiness at the heart of a story can be a difficult one to overcome, for the audience. I think the filmmaker Marcia handles it well, though, and from the documentary and filmic evidence, you get a little hint of how Chicho was in life (the film is less concerned with his political legacy), but throughout all of it there’s this sense of a story only half-told.

Allende, mi abuelo Allende (Beyond My Grandfather Allende, 2015)CREDITS
Director Marcia Tambutti Allende; Writers Allende, Paola Castillo, Bruni Burres and Valeria Vargas; Cinematographer David Bravo and Eduardo Cruz-Coke; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 19 May 2018.

Criterion Sunday 534: L’Enfance-nue (aka Naked Childhood, 1968)

This film was Maurice Pialat’s debut feature, made when he was already well into his 40s, though it’s a film about childhood. And while it’s set in the contemporary France Pialat was working in, during the late-1960s, it feels like a slightly provincial world, a little bit stuck in time. Like its famous precursor by Truffaut ten years earlier that (more or less) kicked off the Nouvelle Vague, The 400 Blows, this is about a difficult young kid — François (Michel Terrazon) — who doesn’t seem to have a place in the world. Unlike that earlier film, young François’s dislocation is literalised by having him passed around foster families. He’s not always angry, and there are moments of warmth and even familial affection of sorts, but one of the strengths of the film is not making it all about the kid, who almost seems to be in the background a lot of the time, making his outsider status part of the film’s formal strategy, which builds up in little snatched moments, almost a collage of scenes that build towards a life. There’s something confident here that you imagine might derive from Pialat coming to filmmaking relatively late in life, and there’s a tenderness too at times.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Maurice Pialat; Writers Arlette Langmann and Pialat; Cinematographer Claude Beausoleil; Starring Michel Terrazon, Marie-Louise Thierry, René Thierry; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 12 May 2022.